Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon: Peace Be Still

Today’s sermon at the Presbyterian Church.

Passages: Mark 4:30-5:20; Isaiah 9:6; Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 4:15-19
Sermon audio MP3 (26 minutes)

The passage in Mark is a parable followed by two stories: the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus calming a storm, and Jesus driving out the unclean spirit from a man at Gerasene. I see a common thread of peace (or shalom) going through all three of the pericopes and that is what I discuss in today’s sermon.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book: Grieving a Suicide

This is a review I posted at GoodReads. The book may be purchased from Amazon.

 Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One's Search for Comfort, Answers & HopeGrieving a Suicide: A Loved One's Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope by Albert Y. Hsu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As other reviewers have noted, this book does approach the subject from a strongly Christian perspective. That said, however, it contains valuable information that can be of help to survivors and to those seeking resources for helping survivors.

I recently completed a Suicide Postvention Trainers training through NAMI and the Connect Project. This book mostly tracks what was presented as best practices in the training. I only found a few minor quibbles that raised my eyebrows. The author provides a generous list of suicide prevention and survivorship resources in an appendix to the book.

As for the theological perspective I'm sure not every Christian will agree with every position of this author. I certainly had some disagreements. However, in the big picture I believe the author builds and presents a compelling case for a compassionate and loving God that suffers with those who suffer, including those who have taken their own lives.

I can highly recommend this book to Christians interested in suicide and its survivors, to pastors, to mental health professionals seeking to understand a spiritual perspective, and to all who are struggling with the issues around suicide.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Gospel - what, who, why, when, how?

An oft-asked question is this: What is the gospel? There is even a book (What Is the Gospel? (9Marks)) by that very title.

Lately I’ve been reading a book, Winning a Generation Without the Law: Essentials of the Gospel for a Postmodern Culture, where the author writes that for far too long, Christians have confused and/or combined the “what” of the gospel with the process, or the “how”, of it. The author repeatedly emphasizes that even though the “how” is not unimportant, it is not the core of the gospel that Christians are called to communicate. The author points out that Christians should extract the “what” of the gospel and make that the center of their evangelism.

I can see his point, and it makes sense. For someone who is suffering from a physical disease, it doesn’t matter how medicine, surgery, etc. works; it just matters that something is available to reverse the ailment and return that person to health. It doesn’t even matter why the doctors and nurses want to help him: it could be that they care (hopefully), but it could be for purely their job ad nothing else. The who and when of the discovery or development of the cure isn’t terribly important to the patient, either. All that matters is that right now, someone is available to administer the medication, provide the procedure, etc. to reverse the course of disease.

In a similar vein, to someone who is dying spiritually, it really doesn’t matter who, when, why, or how the gospel, the cure to spiritual death, came about. All that matters is that something is available now to cure the disease and bring life. The rest can be helpful and informative once the cure is in place.

The disease is death. The cure is the gospel. It is found most succinctly, I think, in Hebrews 2:14-15 where it reads:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (ESV)

Death is perhaps the one universal fear. People throughout the ages and across cultures have tried to escape it and stall it, through religion, through knowledge, through producing descendants, through feats of renown, etc. Through this fear people end up in slavery to all sorts of things, some more destructive than others, but all ultimately cannot conquer death.

The gospel is that death is defeated; that death need not be feared. When the ultimate fear is vanquished, people are free to be themselves, as God intended.

John 3:16 implies what the gospel is, but it is more about its “why”:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

The accounts of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection? They answer the “who”, “when”, and “how”.

Talking to someone about Jesus, his death, and his resurrection isn’t terribly helpful without first communicating that the one foe, death, that has the potential to ultimately destroy every person, has been defeated, defanged, destroyed itself. Once the “what” of the good news, the gospel, is known, we can then go on to the why and how it was accomplished.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Plans to prosper[?] you… Jeremiah 29:11

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

The above text is frequently quoted as a promise that God has plans for each of his people, and that the plan includes some kind of “prosperity,” usually with a caveat that this prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean material riches (thought it could), but rather, a more general kind of success.

Well, this morning I listened to the text (and I must add that the speaker said nothing about “prosperity” but rather the general promise of God’s good plans) and when I looked it up in my preferred version, the English Standard Version, I saw “welfare” instead of “prosperity.”

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV)

Welfare has a rather negative connotation in the United States at the present time. Certain segments of the populace equate it with government socialism. (I suppose taken literally, using today’s context, this text could be used as “proof” that God encourages “welfare”…)

That got me wondering what the Hebrew word was. When I looked up the text, the word translated as “prosper” and “welfare” was shalom. Here is a list of various English translations of Jeremiah 29:11 at The most common word is “peace” followed by “welfare” though I see other words including well-being, success, and good.

When we see that the Hebrew is shalom, we know that “welfare” in the above text can’t mean government handouts and “prosperity” cannot mean an increase in wealth. Although shalom is most frequently translated as “peace”, even that fails to fully encompass what Jeremiah is attempting to capture.

The Holman Bible Dictionary describes shalom as a “sense of well-being and fulfillment that comes from God and is dependent on His presence… Its basic meaning is ‘wholeness’ or ‘well-being.’” Among some other explanations of shalom I have seen include: a restoration of all creation to its original, intended order; a restoration of the relationship between created and Creator; a perfect harmony.

The 21st Century King James Version seems to preserve the most literal sense of this text:

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” (KJ21)

What this translation brings out is that the “plans” implied in other translations are not as definite as it often is made to sound. Rather they are more like “hopes” that parents have for their children’s future. Parents want good things for their children, but they cannot (or should not) force their hopes as definite plans onto their children. If the child freely chooses to accept, the parents provide whatever is necessary and within their means to help their children fulfill those hopes, and at that point hopes become plans. Should a child choose some other way, it (generally) doesn’t mean the parents cut off support.

The difference between parents and God is that parents are flawed themselves, whereas God is not. So parents’ hopes may be flawed and it may turn out that a child’s own decisions could turn out better than what the parents had hoped. God is perfect, so whatever he hopes for his children is the best possible outcome. Even so, God allows his children to choose the path they take and will continue to support them.

The next three verses in Jeremiah (29:12-14) contain the conditions under which God’s hopes for his children become plans. The condition is to seek God and to pray for his will. When his people do that, God promises he will be found, his hopes will be made known to them, and he will provide the means through which his hopes become their plans.

What is God’s hope for his people – for us? To brings us back into shalom with him.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Sermon: Life Is Belonging

Text: Luke 18:9-30
Sermon Audio (45 minutes)

“Who are you?”

“What do you want?”

How can we enter the kingdom of God? How can we inherit eternal life? How are we accepted into God’s family, his community?

Luke records three ways in which Jesus responds to these questions in Luke 18: the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector; Let the Children Come to Me; and the Rich (Young) Ruler.

This sermon was given at the Lighthouse Assembly of God in Petersburg.