Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Tapestry of Connections

Every once in a while I am amazed at how God weaves seemingly unconnected threads of life together, much like a tapestry. I often heard that when you view a tapestry from behind, you cannot always discern what is going on. It is only from the top view that you really see the design of the artist. This week I feel like I've gotten a glimpse at the top of a tapestry over a decade in the making. And it's exciting.

When I left California in 2005, I left behind a longstanding friendship with Mike Broyles, a pastor on the staff of another church in my city. Mike had been a constant encourager and partner in ministry in our community. After my departure, Mike's role at his church ended and he transitioned into serving in the jail ministry he had been a large part of while on the church staff. This involvement led to his becoming director of Awana Lifeline, a ministry to prisoners that uses two Bible study curricula to lead prisoners to Christ--Malachi Dads for men, and Hannah's Gift for women. Mike stayed in touch and would let us know what God was doing as these ministries expanded. 

A few years after I came here, Kevin and Tia Reilly returned from Costa Rica because Kevin's leg injury from years ago had created such pain that the solution had to be amputation. Kevin and Tia settled here in Cedarville, took on lots of ministry, helped our church's missions program, and wondered if God had another chapter in missions for them. Kevin got his M.Div., Tia got a Master's and went back to teaching as they served on our Global Outreach Team.

Meanwhile, LuAnn Ragle had heard about a nurse she knew who had wound up in prison in Dayton. She sensed God calling her to reach out to this woman, named Leah. It was out of her comfort zone, but she continued to meet with her weekly to share Scripture and teach her the truth about God through Scripture memory, Leah's faith came alive, and she became a strong testimony to her fellow prisoners as she waited to be released. Once she was released, Leah began to use her testimony to speak to women about how God's grace came to her and redeemed a horrible circumstance. My wife, Kathy met Leah and became a friend, and had her speak to her ABF class here, at "Beat the Blahs," and at Safe Harbor, where she was eventually hired.

A few years ago, Mike asked if Grace might want to help Lifeline take its prison ministry to the Dominican Republic in 2016. We decided to fund their "Returning Hearts" event (reuniting prisoners with their children) through the Harvest Offering and to send two couples to help: the Reillys and Chris and Pam Miller. Kevin and Tia decided to go because it was a Spanish-speaking opportunity. 

Mike came to Grace last July to say "thanks" for our help and our decision to support this ministry to the DR. While here, he mentioned the need to find a woman who could help lead Hannah's Gift and his desire to see Lifeline programs come to Ohio. Kathy thought of her friend Leah. She called LuAnn who called Leah, who came to Grace the next day to meet Mike. He encouraged her to start teaching a Bible study, so she began to do Hannah's Gift at Safe Harbor. 

So, guess what's happened?

Leah's ministry continued to grow, and she received permission to lead Hannah's Gift in the facility where she had been a prisoner--an unheard of development. Mike facilitated training at her church for volunteers. And as July began, Leah led a team of 16 into the prison to begin Hannah's Gift. with 30 women prisoners.

Kevin and Tia Reilly found the Malachi Dads experience in the DR to be a confirmation that they could return to overseas work. We prayed and sought God's will for them, and we determined to send them back to Costa Rica, where one of their ministries will be to begin Malachi Dads for Lifeline there--a new country for this ministry. They arrived back in that country the same week as Leah's ministry in the prison here to take up their work. 

And this fall, a second "Returning Hearts," funded by Grace, will serve Malachi Dads graduates in the Dominican Republic, but also will model the effectiveness of the program to chief law enforcement and prison officials from all over the Caribbean and Latin America. 

A friend far away stayed in touch.

A friend sensed God's call to reach out to a prisoner.

A couple sought to find ways they could serve God again in Central America.

And in God's amazing plan, these three threads were woven together in our midst, and now we celebrate the beginning of a ministry in a prison in Dayton, the renewal of a ministry in Costa Rica that will reach prisoners there, and an upcoming event that will reunite prisoners in the Dominican Republic with their kids and show a whole region of the world what the power of the gospel can do behind prison walls. 

What an amazing weaving together by God!

What an amazing God!

What a privilege to be here at Grace in Cedarville and see how God used us to be the point at which these stories intertwined!

And who knows what God may weave into the the design, or who might be a part of it, next?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When Trusted Teachers Stray

Eugene Peterson has blessed and edified more believers than I ever will. As a much younger pastor, his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, had a profoundly encouraging impact on my sanctification--even the title has been a powerful reminder of what following Christ is like. Similarly, other books--all named so creatively as to stay in my head--have blessed me and countless others: Under the Unpredictable
Plant, Eat this Book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, are just a few. Of course, many of you have enjoyed reading The Message, Peterson's paraphrase/translation of the Bible that was a bit too casual for my regular reading, but certainly an insightful and generally faithful and accurate interpretive reading. I have an autographed copy of The Pastor: A Memoir, that is valued gift from a dear friend.

So you can imagine my profound disappointment when, in an interview with Religion News Service's Jonathan Merritt, Peterson said he had come to know many more gays and lesbians than he had in the past, felt that the current societal and church "transition" on this issue was good, and that he would perform same-sex "marriages." You can read the entire interview here; it is not long, even though it is painful. Then, just as I had finished the original draft of this essay, news came that Peterson had recanted his previous change of mind--that is, he said he was wrong in his answers in the interview, and on reflection, he wanted to make clear that he held the biblical view of marriage only being between one man and one woman. The retraction is a just a little confusing, but you can read Christianity Today's report of it here. His own statement is here.

The initial interview and the position revealed were disturbing for any number of reasons. It is true that Peterson has always had some other positions and conclusions with which I (and more importantly, many solid biblical scholars) have disagreed over the years, and perhaps these later years of retirement and ministry in the larger context outside of a local church have heightened a move further from constraints he felt there. He has stayed within a large, apostatizing mainline Protestant denomination with ease, while other evangelicals have largely given up and moved elsewhere. But the hallmark of Peterson's writing, as creative as it has been, was its thorough commitment to examine and explain the Scriptures. That is what the interview lacked. He based his shift on knowing "good" gays and lesbians. While the retraction goes back to a biblical view, there isn't any explanation given as to how he wound up affirming so much that was so bad, except to say it was an interview with a lot of hypothetical situations. And his retraction lacked any interaction with Scripture, either.

But the temporary defection from truth was based on a commonly expressed way of thinking--there are such good people who believe and/or live in ways I've held were wrong. What about all these good people?
Let's set aside the fact that no one is "good"--even if we accept and acknowledge that there are LGBTQ people who are kind, humble, generous, and other "good" attributes, should that change our theology? Should "good" Buddhists cause us to abandon the idea of a personal God or future judgment? Should "good" atheists lead us to dismiss the necessity of faith in God? My relatives who are Mormons are very good--in some cases much nicer than I am. Should I let go of the necessity of believing in the co-equality and eternality of Father and Son, and the orthodox conception of the Trinity?

Our faith's content can be testified to by a person's life, but it cannot be erased or altered by it. Peterson, like others before him, found himself surrounded by the culture's shifting currents and felt the urge to move with them. At no point did he cite any scriptural warrant for his change, and almost incredibly rested his argument with "...it's not a right or wrong, as far as I'm concerned."

Unbelievable. I'm so grateful he changed his mind. Even if the change seems less than robust. [After originally writing this, I came across a number of sites saying that this had not been his first affirmation of same sex attraction as potentially good.]

But that leaves us with the question that comes when a teacher we have trusted goes wrong, "What about all I've learned from him? What about his books?" As a Christian, and as a pastor, let me offer some warnings and encouragements.

First, don't make the mistake of deciding that when Peterson, or any other teacher you know shifts on an important topic, this is immediate grounds to rethink your own position. We often grant too much authority across the board to human teachers and assume that, because they are "smarter" than us on a number of issues, they must be being "smart" when they change their minds about something. A similar problem occurs when we discover a teacher or writer who is excellent on a subject. We then tend to give him credence across the board, coming to any new things from that teacher with a pre-disposition to accept them. Yes, there are many people in this world smarter than I am, and some of them who once held views I do have abandoned them. If I've not paid attention to an issue, that may cause me to examine their arguments, but don't be easily moved from confidence in teaching that is longstanding within historic Christian thinking and preaching. In this case, the clear expression of biblical truth on human sexuality witnessed to by two millennia of faithful teaching, must win out.

Second, Peterson temporarily joined an, unfortunately, growing list of writers and teachers that I will no longer recommend without much caution. I do not want anyone to be confused by reading an author, then discovering his or her erroneous views on an important issue, and consider the source "safe" on the subject because I recommended a book written before taking this position. When a teacher goes bad, his previous good books must only be offered to more discerning readers, and then with caution.

Third, I'm so grateful he has come back to a good position, but even if he had not, I cannot forget what I have already read and learned, nor would I want to. I appreciate the multitude of insights I have received from Peterson's writings, and wherever they amplify scriptural truth, they are still helpful and worthwhile. Don't go throwing away an erring teacher's books or forgetting all the ways in which he has enabled us to understand truth if you have been blessed by his past works. On this point, I would simply remind you that a number of our old hymns and our current worship songs were or are written by people with very deficient (and sometimes heterodox) views on God, the Scriptures, the Trinity, Hell, the atonement of Christ, human sexuality, and the nature of the church (to name a few areas). The particular songs we sing are not teaching error, even if the authors believe and teach error elsewhere, and I would suggest that truth can (and has been) taught by people who were not changed by it themselves. That does not negate truth.

Fourth, Peterson's admission of what drove his wrong thinking is instructive to us. It's hard to be on the cutting edge of culture and hold tightly to biblical truth. That hold was undermined, in his case, not just by the constant drumbeat for "acceptance" generally in the culture, but by meeting "good people" who were "spiritual" and also gay or lesbian. But that shows two errors--the first being the assumption that anyone is really good. David, Isaiah, and Paul all weigh in on that question. The second is more subtle--judging gays, lesbians, and other sinners to be inherently incapable of doing things in this world that we would admire. We are all sinners, and all of us fall short of God's glory. But all of us, through the grace of God, are not as bad as we could be, and to be surprised that a gay person might be "good" or have spiritual interests is as wrong as assuming that your atheist neighbors cannot have a good marriage. There are many people who do not believe truth who are, nevertheless, admirable. We must see that, even as we acknowledge it does not change God's evaluation one bit.

 [Note: this is as it was written before the announcement of his change of mind--but I leave it because it's important to remember] Fifth (and I'll stop here), it may be a long shot from a human perspective, but I pray that Eugene Peterson will let the Scriptures that he has loved, expounded, and made clear to so many become the authoritative voice in his mind and heart on this issue once again. I'm praying he changes his mind, and does so soon.
Make no mistake--I consider him a Christian who is in error on an issue that is currently leading many people into destructive and soul-destroying sin by calling what is sinful "good." As a teacher of Scripture, James tells us in his epistle that there is a stricter standard of judgment that he (and I) will be held to. But I consider him a Christian, and one who has shown a long, consistent testimony of love and faithfulness to Jesus. As we age, we are not always careful to make sure that we finish well--holding on to the patterns, the attitudes, and the practices that have gotten us this far. I say to those my age and older--if Eugene Peterson, who has lived and served and thought and written so wisely over so many years can go off the rails on a big, important issue, then so can we if we are not careful to stay anchored to the Scriptures. Take heed.[Prayers answered! To God be the glory! But the warning still stands!]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Body, No Body, New Body

A question over dinner prompts some Scripture study

Perhaps it has been the recent passing of a number of friends and family here at Grace that prompted the question, but at last Wednesday's church dinner, I was invited into a discussion of whether we have a body after our death and before the resurrection comes. I shared my thoughts, but decided to look back at the Scriptures to confirm them. As I did so, I thought this might be something some of the rest of the family might benefit. So, here is the basic problem that was being considered::
  1. Humans are made as spirits in bodies.
  2. Sin brought physical death, which is separation of spirit and body.
  3. Jesus saves sinners, and his resurrection is proof of that, and the pattern of what is to come--we will be raised in glory like he was.
  4. When we die, we are away from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), or "with Christ" as it says in Philippians 1:23.
  5. We receive a new body when we are raised in the resurrection--the physical body that was left on the earth is raised as a glorious body when the trumpet sounds and Christ returns (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).
  6. So then, if we left one body, and don't get our new body until the resurrection, what are we between dying here and being resurrected in the future?
A simple conclusion can be drawn. We are spirits temporarily without physical bodies. But that sounds weird to our minds. Can that be?

Some say, "no," and assume that God simply gives us a body for that intermediate time. That seems logical, after all, how would we function as humans in heaven without one? Those who hold this view point to evidence in the Transfiguration account, where Moses and Elijah were seen by the disciples on the mountain (see Luke 9:28-35). They must have had bodies to be seen, since we can't see spirits.

But, I think that the Scripture supports the simple conclusion I stated--death brings about a temporary separation between our spirits and bodies. Let me give you some reasons I think this and how I would answer objections.

  1. Going to Heaven when we die is wonderful--far better, Paul says, than living in a sinful world (Phil 1:23). But it is not complete. If we had glorified bodies there, why would the resurrection matter? It would be nothing more than acting out a story, rather than an actual redemption of the body from the power of sin and death. 
  2. Paul says that being "present with the Lord" is a state of being "unclothed" for us--read 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 slowly. We are currently in our earthly (dying) "tent"--this body. We long to be clothed in our "heavenly" (eternal) dwelling which we will put on and not ultimately be found "naked"--what is that referring to? I believe that it is our longing to experience not just release from this body, but the resurrection body which is our perfect, "heavenly" dwelling, or "home" as opposed to a "tent" which is temporary. Our spirits are temporarily "unclothed" as we wait for our resurrection body. The idea is that we have more to receive after we die than just being with Jesus (which is, of course, incredible). 
  3. "But how could we recognize one another? We'd all be invisible!" That is thinking not anchored in fact. Think about a few stories in Scripture. Remember when King Saul went to a medium and asked him to call up the spirit of Samuel (it is in 1 Samuel 28, and it is a very interesting story)? God allowed that to happen, and Samuel actually appeared to him--but it was his spirit, not a resurrected Samuel. How could Saul see him? Either God made it possible, or else when a human sees another human spirit, that spirit has an appearance like the person had when in a body. That may be how Moses and Elijah appeared on the mount of Transfiguration  (Elijah's a tough case, since God took him to heaven directly without death). And when Rhoda, the servant girl in Acts 12 said she saw Peter at the door, those praying inside said she is seeing his angel--perhaps his guardian angel was their thought, or perhaps they thought it was his spirit (I doubt this option, though, since they knew angels were not dead humans). Either way, they figured that a spirit had been visible to Rhoda. And we know that angels are spirits (Hebrews 1 tells us that) but when they choose to appear, we see them. Perhaps God gives them a temporary body, but he could also give us the ability to see them, as he did Elisha's servant in Dothan (see 2 Kings 6:8-17). Finally John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar (Revelation 6). This is before the resurrection, but they are given white robes--how will they wear them? Won't they just fall off? Apparently not. I'm not sure how, but perhaps they are spiritual robes for spirit beings.
  4. Why long for the resurrection? Well, I think it's because we are made to be spirits in bodies. Our bodies have no life without a spirit. And our spirits will, likely, find life without a body incomplete and frustrating. Life after death with Jesus will be very good indeed, but it won't be complete--yet. We still have his return, our resurrection, his rule, final judgment, and life in new heavens and new earth to look forward to. So, this life is the worst it gets for us, and the next step is better, and the step after that even much better still, until we get to the fullness of the life for which we were created.

So, I would suggest that when we die, we leave this earthly body behind to take up a joyous, blessed, but temporary state of existence as spirits without bodies in the presence of Jesus. We need not think it will be uncomfortable or embarrassing or weird--but it will be different, and it will be incomplete, so that we will long for the day of resurrection to come--just as we should long for it now. But don't be afraid; Paul still says it is "far better" than here.

Perhaps you'd like to be with Jesus but escape being without a body. There is a group of people for whom that will be the case--those who are alive and remain until Jesus' coming (go back to 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff). So you should be praying the prayer at the end of Revelation--"even so, come Lord Jesus" even more fervently!