Archive for May, 2010


After You Believe

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“Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become ‘second nature’.” So begins N.T. Wright’s monograph titled After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. After You Believe is the third part of Bishop Wright’s trilogy, which includes Simply Christian and Surprised By Hope.

Spiritual formation is a trendy topic these days among evangelicals, and Wright’s work could easily fit into that category. But his approach is not taken from the normal course of action which centers on the classical spiritual disciplines. Rather, Wright approaches spiritual formation from the perspective of character development, primarily concerning what it takes to develop virtue in life.

Wright’s writing style is enjoyable. He’s the master of using metaphor to explain difficult concepts and principles. This volume is no different in that regard. He spends a good portion of the introductory pages explaining Aristotle’s pathway to virtue as the backdrop against which Jesus came into the world and proclaimed his message of the kingdom. This historical background gives the reader more clarity in interpreting Jesus’ message about what constitutes the good life and what it actually takes to become a good person.

Wright not only explains virtue and character development from the teachings of Christ, he expands the conversation to include helpful interactions with the Pauline materials concerning virtue, namely “faith, hope, and love,” and the “fruit of the Spirit.”

He concludes with what he calls the “Virtuous Cycle,” and demonstrates how Scripture, story, example, community and praxis all work together to help us develop and apply Christian character in the 21st century.

I am a tremendous fan of the works of N.T. Wright, and highly recommend this work. Wright has a deep comprehension of the New Testament and a perspective on American Christianity that is refreshing. His writing is thoughtful and articulate and provides clear ways to appropriately apply his suggestions.

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Psalm 128 (Part 2)

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When the fear of the Lord is at the center of our lives and the Word of the Lord is at the circumference of our lives, the Psalmist announces four blessings that become readily available to God’s children:

1. God will take care of our needs. Psalm 128:2 says, “You shall surely eat what your hands have worked for.” God will take care of our needs in between the center and the circumference.

2. God will take care of our attitudes. Verse 2 continues to say, “You will be happy!” The most elusive commodity in life today is happiness. People spend their entire lives pursuing that one goal. Whatever you center your life upon is what you look to for your source of happiness and joy.

3. God will take care of our futures. Psalm 128:2 concludes by saying, “and it will go well for you.” We are not able to make that promise with any serious degree of certainty. However, the Bible reveals that we can live our lives with the security that God is in control and that he cares for us.

4. Finally, God will take care of our families. In the next verse, the Psalmist writes, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house, and you sons, like young olive trees around your table.” David could think of no greater compliment than to make these two comparisons. Viticulture was the lifeblood of the nation. Olive trees were significant to the stability of the nation’s economy as well. Olive trees are slow to grow and require patience. They don’t produce fruit until the seventh year, and they don’t produce edible fruit until at least the tenth year. But when the olive tree is cared for, it will produce steadily for up to 20 generations.

“In this very way the man who fears the Lord will be blessed.” (Psalm 128:4, HCSB)

Categories : Blessing, Enough, Psalms
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The Barna Group – Teenagers Want Successful Careers and Global Travel, Expect to Delay Marriage & Parenting

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Psalm 128

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Since this weekend was Mother’s Day, I spoke on the family from Psalm 128. As far as I can recall, I’ve never used this text for a sermon, but was amazed at how it spoke to my life as I began poking around in it. The key to the Psalm is verse 1, which reads, “How happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways” (Psalm 128:1, HCSB).

One of the things I discovered is that the word “happy” is in the plural. Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have a system of superlative language (e.g. good, better, best), so when a Old Testament writer wanted to emphasize or strengthen a word he would simply put it in the plural, as if to say “happy, happy, happy is everyone who fears the Lord…” Some translations use the word “blessed” in verse one, which reminded me of the parallel nature of true happiness and and the blessing of the Lord.

David, who wrote this Psalm, laid down two conditions for being happy and blessed. The first condition is that the fear of the Lord must be the center of one’s life. Scientists tell us that our solar system is composed of one star, nine planets (or eight if you buy into the new supposition regarding Pluto), 32 moons, about 100,000 asteroids and comets beyond calculation. The thing that holds our solar system together is the sun. Everything revolves and orbits around that epicenter. What is the center of your life? Who is the center of your life? When the fear of the Lord is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. If the fear of the Lord is central to our lives, everything takes its appropriate place and we experience happiness and blessing.

The second condition is that our lives must have an established circumference. Verse 128:1 continues, “How happy is everyone…who walks in his ways.” At the center of life is the fear of the Lord. At the circumference of life is the Word of God. The Scripture sets forth the boundaries of our lives. We must draw the line where God draws the line. Anytime we go out of bounds, we experience fear, guilt, sorrow and pain.

At the center is the fear of the Lord. At the circumference is the Word of God. When we get the center and the circumference right, we can experience true happiness and the four fold blessing of God described in 128:2-4. More on that tomorrow.

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“Sunday’s Coming” Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

Categories : Hilarious Video
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Yesterday I posted three principles from God’s example of remembering the Sabbath. Today I want to finish with a couple of additional thoughts.

In Sabbath observance the Christian is encouraged to rest, reflect and rejoice. Those three steps lead us to a fourth principle: renewing our trust in God. In Genesis 1:29-30, Adam was reminded that God had made provision for his physical needs. Sabbath provides us an opportunity to remember that God cares for his children, the pinnacle of his creation. Sabbath is an act of trust in God’s provision. We are enabled to rest from our labor because at the end of the day we realize that it is God and not ourselves who meets our daily concerns. Our refusal to stop is a potential indicator of our distrust in God’s care for us and a confession of our dissatisfaction with his provision for our lives.

Finally, Sabbath allows us to realign our priorities with the priorities of God. Backing up even further, Genesis 1:27-28 expresses God’s purpose for Adam, summarized in two seminal statements: be fruitful and multiply and provide care for the creation. Sabbath allows us to re-establish the important priorities of life…those ultimate things of greatest importance.

Through last weekend’s message I strongly emphasized the importance of Sabbath observance. While we may not observe it in the strictest sense of the OT where we set aside an entire day of the week for these processes, I do believe we need to understand these principles and learn how to apply them to our contemporary lives in our current setting. We need to learn something about the pacing of life and the rhythm of life verses looking for means of escape. Sabbath is not escape. That’s why a day off or a vacation will not fix you or your life. It’s not about sleep or recovery. It’s about radically reorienting your life to the life God intended.

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While the command to remember to observe the Sabbath comes after the giving of the Law in Exodus 20, the concept of Sabbath is as old as creation itself. God instituted Sabbath on the seventh day following his creative work thus modeling it for all. What can we learn from the creation account that will help us understand the inner workings of Sabbath observance?

The first principle of Sabbath is rest. Genesis 2:1-3 states, “So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation” (NLT).

If you research any fitness routine or exercise regiment, you will quickly observe that they call for varying degrees of intensity. There are “heavy” days and “recovery” days. So when we read the word rest in the passage above, we naturally think of rest as recovery or recuperation after strenuous activity. The problem with that logic is that God didn’t rest on the seventh day because he was exhausted. The word for rest is menuah, which is a kind of rest that results from satisfaction, contentment, or completion. God rested because he was finished. Sabbath rest is the goal we are to move toward. But our cultural challenge to this principle is that we never finish anything. Let’s say as an example that you work hard at your job to finish a project. You are feeling satisfied and are pleased with your near success. The boss walks in and says, “Great job! You’re almost done! Here are two more projects for you to begin!” Think about the extra-curricular sports in our school systems. Before one season ends, another begins. We never finish anything. We just overlap new beginnings on top of things nearing the end. Some of this may be within our control. But ultimately, it is our insatiable appetite and unbridled desire for more that prevents us from achieving the menuah (rest from completion) of God that produces shalom (wholeness, completeness) in life.

The second principle of Sabbath observance is reflection. Genesis 1:31 reveals that “God looked over all that he had made.” When we pause to look around and reflect, we see the sanctity of God in everything. Purposeful reflection becomes the difference between the person who sees a beautiful sunset which blasts the sky with color and then reaches for a camera and the person who sees the same sunset only to report, “It’s getting dark outside.” When we reflect we are able to see God for who he is. It is not until we begin to see God for who his is that we can take steps toward discovering who we are, what we’re about, and why we’re here. When we reflect we see that what we have is not deserved or earned. Our lives and blessings alike are good and perfect gifts that come down from above (James 1:17).

Principle three of remembering the Sabbath is rejoicing. Genesis 1:31 informs that after God looked around, he “saw that it was very good!” Reflection should result in rejoicing. When we experience Sabbath, we should celebrate the provision of God with thankfulness. The Rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that on the day of judgment we will give an account for all the times we did not stop and celebrate the gifts of God.

Rest, reflection and rejoicing are the first three principles of Sabbath observance. Tomorrow I’ll finish this series by posting the final two companion principles.

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Mary and Martha

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Thinking about Sabbath and time and pressing schedules reminded me of a great story in Luke’s gospel. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is visiting in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It’s a simple thing, probably just conversation about the Old Testament Scriptures or the Kingdom of God or something like that. The scene is one of Jesus and Mary deep in conversation. In the kitchen, Martha is scurrying around to prepare a meal.

Martha was task oriented, like most of us are I suppose, but she couldn’t stand the fact that Mary had stopped all activity in favor of talking with Jesus. She was so upset she went to Jesus and demanded that he encourage Mary to get up and help. Jesus must have smiled as he lovingly rebuked Martha for being so concerned about her temporal provisions and feeble attempt to impress.

Thinking about this caused me to realize that Martha’s question is not about Mary. Neither is her concern about Jesus. It’s all about Martha.

I think it’s our self absorption that hinders us from achieving simplicity. Much of our time is spent creating an image that says we are successful, we have it together, and above all, we are not slackers. We look down on others who we don’t perceive as working hard. We hold them in contempt and label them as unmotivated and unproductive. Sabbath is designed to help us break the cycle of self importance and image projection. Choosing to apply the principles of Sabbath into the pacing of our lives allows us, like Mary, to choose the greater things.

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Living the Sabbath

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One of the benefits of my education has been the wonderful people I have met along the way who have been superb resources to me in ministry. One such person is my friend of nearly 30 years, Dr. Ken Gore, chair of the Department of Religion at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. When I outlined my present sermon series, one of the things I wanted to do was preach a sermon on creating margin in our schedules, and the basis of that thought was the Old Testament teaching on Sabbath. So when I needed a good resource on the subject, I called Ken and shared my thoughts.

Ken recommended a very fine monograph titled Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba. Wirzba serves as the chair of the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. Thanks to my friends at Amazon, I held it in my hand in four days, and must confess it was money well spent.

I had supposed that Sabbath would be an excellent foundation for teaching about God’s perspective on time, but I quickly discovered that Wirzba had much more in mind than how Sabbath influenced Hebrew thought about calendars and schedules. Wirzba takes the Sabbath principle to a fuller, more rounded expression about simplicity, inclusive of perspectives on time, family life, education, the environment, possessions, and of course, worship.

Having stated the obvious concerns at hand in our modern culture in the preface, the author deals systematically with the meaning of Sabbath from both a biblical basis as well as from Rabbinical tradition. Not only does Wirzba handle the Old Testament texts, he moves across the aisle to the New Testament and provides some helpful understanding of how to apply the principles of the Sabbath to our Christian worldview.

I have much I could say about this book, but will limit my thoughts to two excellent contributions offered by the author. First, I was impressed by Wirzba’s insistence that we understand and apply the Sabbath in principle to our present setting. Sabbath is an important aspect to achieve and maintain a sense of pacing and rhytmn to every day life. Application of the Sabbath, in the writer’s words are, “a matter of life and death.”

A second contribution of value is his explanation of rest. Sabbath rest (shabbat menuah) is not the rest of recovery from some strenuous or exhausting physical exertion. Rather, menuah is the delight and celebration that is achieved after the completion of a purposeful activity (cf. Genesis 2:1-3). That thought alone was worth the price of purchase.

I would highly recommend Living the Sabbath. It’s scholarly, yet readable. It’s theological, yet practical. Most of all, it’s simply helpful.

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The Principle of Sabbath Rest

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“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10, NLT)

My generation will probably be the last that remembers “blue laws.” Up until the 1960’s, most businesses in my hometown were required by law to close on Sundays. Department stores, supermarkets, and most service stations shut down as an attempt to impose Sabbath sanctity on the operation of businesses. At best, a few restaurants in town stayed open in order to accommodate the after-church diners, although some congregations refrained from patronizing such establishments on Sunday.

But life in general proceeded at a more peaceful pace then. Not only did we observe a day of rest, we didn’t have interstates, fast food, and non-stop organized activities for children. My family had strict rules about what behaviors were unacceptable on Sunday, such as housework, yard work, or physical activity such as sports. Such customs were a way to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. We understood, of course, that the Sabbath was a Saturday, and Sunday was “the Lord’s day.” We just observed Sunday as the New Testament application of an Old Testament standard.

But times have changed. Sunday is now just like any other day of the week. We use it as a day to catch up. If you’re sedentary during the week, you seek physical activity. If you didn’t get a chance to do the laundry, the dishes, the lawn, the shopping—you catch up on Sunday. In the 21st Century, Sunday has become a day to catch up on what we didn’t get accomplished in our over-crowded lives and to forget all of our problems from the previous week. We use Sunday to reconnect with our spouses and children because we’ve been too busy during the week to see them. And we attend worship if we don’t have a better offer. Whatever it is, it is not about remembering. Though we may not realize it, we are teaching our children to be busy. During the earliest stages of life we are molding their minds to sense that free time is wasted time.

The value of time is not lost on our culture. We value time more than money, evidenced in our willingness to spend significant dollars to be more efficient and save time. But living without margin in our schedules is having a profound impact. Research shows that 44% of Americans believe that if they continue to live life at its current pace they will face major health problems. Another 40% of Americans admit to being on the emotional edge because of their schedules, and 84% of Americans say they need to spend more time with their families.

The fourth commandment was given for a purpose. But that purpose was not legalism. The religious leaders of Bible times counted 39 words in the fourth commandment, and then took 39 times 39 and came up with 1,521 prohibitions for the Sabbath day. It was strictly enforced, and became a litmus test for piety. So what relevance does Sabbath observance have for us in the 21st century? What does God think about time? Why has he established the principle of rest for his children?

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