Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Ten Commandments

This past Sunday we took a quick introductory look at the ten commandments from Exodus. Even though these are some of the most famous rules from the Bible they have proven to be some of the most simple and yet most complex statements in scripture. For a sense of their simplicity, all you have to do is give a quick list.
  1. God is God.
  2. Don't make any idols.
  3. Don't misuse the name of God.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don't murder.
  7. Don't commit adultery.
  8. Don't steal.
  9. Don't lie.
  10. Don't covet
These are so simple that in a way there seems to be no way to meaningfully expand on them. For example. If you don't already know that it's wrong to commit adultery, I find it difficult to believe that I can convince you now that it's wrong. However, the complexities of these commandments often show a lot more about ourselves then the basic meaning that these commandments seem to have.

The commandment not to murder seems fairly straightforward. However the Hebrew word Rasah used in this commandment is not so clear. This is a word that's never used for killing in war (possibly, but not necessarily, indicating a difference between the two). The word is used for murdering a neighbor, but it is also used for killing someone by accident. So is accidentally causing the death of an individual then included in the commandment?

What we need to accept is that we do form boundaries of interpretation around these statements. We draw lines around what it actually means to remember the Sabbath, or misuse the name of God, or to make an idol, or to covet, or to lie. It's important to accept that we all draw lines through what is acceptable or not acceptable in these areas. What is truly meaningful is that these lines generally show a lot more about us than anything else. How we choose to draw the line reveals how far we're willing to go, and even our motivations and desires in these areas.


  1. Which two of the ten commandments confuse you, challenge you, or you simply disagree with?
  2. What are some of the lines you've seen drawn for these commandments? Or, how have you heard these commandments explained in the past?
  3. Are these lines or explanations helpful in following the commandment deeper, or does it simply make it more achievable? Which is more helpful for you?
The way Jesus approached the commandments was very different. While we tend to try and define and box in the meaning of the commandments Jesus tried to give them the widest possible interpretation. When it came to murder, he didn't draw any lines around what murder technically is, its relationship to war, or accidents. Jesus simply said "don't be angry." When it came to adultery he said "the real issue is lust." You can see this theme in the way Jesus lived his life in relationship to all of the commandments in general where Jesus erased the lines and gave the widest possible berth into the spirit of the commandments. In this he wasn't great at following them, he became great at fulfilling them.
  1. Can you share an experience when your heart has been changed in one of the following areas:
    • Undivided loyalty to God.
    • Honoring with our language.
    • Honoring a cycle of rest.
    • Caring for the elderly who came before us.
    • Malice towards others.
    • Lust.
    • Theft.
    • Honesty.
    • Jealousy.
  2. Did the change come because you properly defined the commandment, or because you were challenged by it?


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Fear, Watching and the Red Sea

The event at the Red Sea is one of the most important from the Biblical perspective. The event becomes almost synonymous with the idea that God saves. But what we usually loose in the big epic climax to this big epic story in Exodus is the humanity of the moment. With all these great bit miracles going on it seems like there's very little which focuses on the experience of the normal person in the story. There's one passage that captures it well.

In chapter 14 in Exodus we find that the people are terrified at the oncoming Egyptian army. Their chariots are closing in and it seems clear that they're there for death and nothing else. It makes sense that the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that they feel would take over in the moment.

Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’ (Exodus 14:13-14)

Even though these words seem at first to do little to comfort the people there is a great deal of wisdom in them that surrounds two basic ideas which are actually quite common in scripture. 1) Do not fear. 2) "Look and you will see."

1) Do not fear!

The command to not fear is actually the most common command throughout scripture. And this makes sense. Even Yoda had it figured out when he said "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." Hate is most often expressed in our world through hatred, suffering, persecution and scapegoating of others. It's no wonder with this kind of expression of fear that it becomes one of the things that God commands us to avoid most.

It seems that almost every Biblical character is told not to fear at some point in their life. And with all these commands not to fear there is a follow-up statement, usually something like "God is with you," or "God will fight for you." This gives us an important principle that fear can be replaced by other things in our lives. I think that this is best expressed in 1 John 4 when he wrote "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear."

In the same way Jesus wanted us to replace our natural feelings of revenge when someone takes from us, misuses us, or persecutes us by blessing them, giving to them, and praying for them. Jesus also wants to to defeat fear by using loving action to take away the power of that fear.

  • What has been the source of your anxiety, uncertainty, and fear in recent life?
  • How has this fear expressed itself in ways you don't like? What has those expressions revealed about yourself?
  • What kind of loving action might help you?

2) Look and you will see.

There's several ways we're told to be watchful in this passage. They're told to 'stand firm,' and to 'be still.' They are also told that they will 'see the deliverance,' and that the Egyptians they will 'never see again.'

Being watchful has never seemed to be the thing we're very good at in modern day spirituality. The phrases about standing firm and being still are helpful but often misunderstood. We usually picture someone 'standing firm' on a cliff face or a mountain, but I think it's more useful to picture standing firm on the lookout of a ship. First of all, its more meaningful to be watchful while you're on something that's moving and going somewhere. Also, it takes effort to 'stand firm' on a whip while on a rock it's more passive. I think this gives meaning to the thought that in order to 'be still' and 'stand firm' in a meaningful way we need to understand the intentionality of this, but also the fact that we're going somewhere with purpose. That purpose being God moving us towards something new and different everyday. 

  • How have you chosen to be watchful in the past?
  • Do you think you are better at listening to God, or speaking to God. Why?
  • What does being watchful have to do with conquering fear?



Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Fasting

Even though fasting is one of the most common expressions of spirituality you see in scripture, it seems so rarely practiced in the modern church in Canada. It's likely that you've participated in fasting at some point. But we're a far cry from the early church that fasted twice a week, the Israelite nation who all fasted together, or Jesus who fasted for forty days straight. For me, it wasn't until more recently that I began exploring the ancient practice of fasting and began to realize just how little I understood about the topic. So taking some time recently in my life to practice fasting in the wisest way I'm capable of, I hope that I can bring this one idea from my experience.

Our church has been serving meals in the downtown coming up on three years now. This has been a meaningful ministry for us since it began and has certainly helped us to get out of our comfort zones. There has always been gentle, genuine love in the act and service. I've seen it over and over again from the members of our church who serve. There's no judgment, and no vilification, just fellow people loved by God who don't have the means to feed themselves, and our capability as a church to do something about it.

There's nothing wrong in the motivation the execution of our ministry as I've seen it, except for the natural separation between us and them that just seems to come.

Maybe you've experienced this as well. There's the natural separation of us in the kitchen and them in the dining room, there's the physical barrier of the counter between us as we serve them food. But those have good reasons including health codes and issues of fairness of portions. These are understandable. The most significant point of separation actually comes down to something more basic. They're hungry and we're not. We have food at home and they don't. We probably ate lunch and breakfast that day. They will probably only eat this one meal all day. This is the most significant point of separation.

This is where fasting comes in. Fasting provides one of the greatest tools available to us for breaking down the barriers between the rich and the poor, the fed and the hungry. Fasting is the spiritual practice of those who have enough standing alongside those who don't. The last time we served our meal in the downtown I had spent the day up to that point fasting, for almost no other reason other than to be able to come to them understanding, just a little bit, their own personal experience. If I'm hungry with the hungry then I'm not 'with' the hungry, I'm 'one with' the hungry.

Fasting allows us to stand in solidarity with the poor and the hungry. We stand with them and tell them "You're not alone, we're here with you. We choose to be here with you."

Fasting is best experienced as a response to the sacred, a response the grievous things in this world. Sometimes we see hunger, or we experience the loss of a loved one. In those moments of sacred grievous loss it can naturally feel that going without food just seems like the right thing to do. This is the purest form of fasting, as a response to the sacred grievous things in life. If you were to look at scripture you would see that theme. Fasting always comes as a response in scripture. A response to a sickness, a loss, a defeat, a sorrow, a glorious experience of God or some other great moment always precedes fasting. The primary motivation for me has been a response to the hunger not just in the world all over, but even just in the city in which we live.

I would encourage anyone thinking about practicing fasting to find advice and support in the practice. Understand that fasting is naturally harmful to the body and can cause severe health problems if done incorrectly.

For more discussion on fasting we'll be looking at these questions:

  1. What have been your misunderstandings about fasting in the past?
  2. Have you practiced fasting before? What is your opinion of fasting based on that experience?
  3. Which is more significant to you with fasting, the Reward or the Response?
  4. Which is the most significant purpose for fasting to you?
    1. As a reminder? (What would you be trying to remember?)
    2. As creating the ability to give? (What and how?)
    3. To stand in solidarity? (With who, over what?)
  5. What is your opinion of practicing a common fast as part of our ministry feeding the hungry?

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Purity through community.

Something I like to point out rather often is the way that scripture tends to be individualized. We think of the we're given in terms like 'me' or 'you,' instead of 'us' and 'you(s).' As you can see part of the problem is simply that there's not plural 'you' in English. Even when translators try to fix this with phrases like 'all of you' we tend to think of all of us as individuals. But the reality is that scripture almost always talks about things communally rather than individually.

In fact the New Testament views the Christian life as one which must be lived with others. We're told to do mission together. Jesus sent people out in twos so they were never alone. Paul always had a partner to do ministry with. Even practices like fasting were practiced together in the early church with common fasts on certain days of the week. That means that fasting was a communal practice, rather than an individual practice. But one of the most transformation ideas in Paul's letters is the way that purity, integrity, ethics, morality or however you want to call it, is considered a communal practice rather than an individual one.

What's interesting to note is that this communal way of thinking was not the 1st century way of thinking either. At least not in the way Paul takes things to the extreme. Paul saw greed as essentially present in all sin, and greed motivated through selfishness. You might even be able to say that just about all of Paul's ethics were grounded on defeating selfishness in ourselves. That is why communal teaching was so important to Paul. The contrast to thinking selfishly is thinking communally.

Ephesians is one of my favorite letters in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4-5 Paul gives us one of his greatest manifestos on what it means to live in community together. His ideas always rest on the idea that ethics must give up the common cultural ways of thinking and grasp for something else, what he calls 'in Christ.' This stands for not a counter-cultural mindset. A transcendent mindset that views our role not as survival or self-fulfillment, but the fulfillment of a community. In Ephesians 4:17-32 Paul outlines many of these primary ethical issues. Especially this section.

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands,that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." Ephesians 4:25-28

This section outlines several different ethical issues which Paul believes are foundational for proper communal living. Each of them contrasts a new communal way of thinking about ourselves in contrast to a selfish, individual interest worldview that people are used to. These issues are around honesty, anger, stealing, and wholesome talk.

1) Honesty:

People lie or deceive for two reasons, self-reservation, or self-advancement. No matter how you put it, deceit is a selfish act. You may have heard many of the different hypothetical situation in which people may justify lies and deceit as the lesser of two evils. But lets not fool ourselves into thinking that the lesser of two evils then becomes good.

But beyond this, let's remember that it is often the common day to day things in which we're truly dishonest. Also, that this is not about living culturally appropriate lives, but rather transcendent communal lives together. I'm more concerned with the ways we 'every day' lie about and to ourselves about our accomplishments, our failures, our victories, our strengths and weaknesses. We lie about how we're feeling, but more importantly about why we're feeling that way. And this distorts the reality of each other to the community we're trying to live life with.

What are the lies that you often tell yourself?
What is the truth that you're ignoring?
Where do you need to practice honesty better?

2) Anger

Many have said that anger is a choice we make. I find it hard to be convinced that our initial feelings of anger are a choice. However I think that we can make a distinction between 'feelings' of anger that happen in a moment and 'chosen anger' which is the anger that we hold onto over time. We choose to live in anger by choosing to dwell on it, but more importantly by choosing not to act on it.

The solution to anger is not happiness, that's the trap we often find ourselves in. Trying to be happy in order to defeat anger just doesn't work. The solution to anger is forgiveness and reconciliation. In the passage above Paul says "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry," I think that this is a great line at weddings but can be used in a better way. I would paraphrase this as "It is better to try and stop the sun from setting (an impossible act), then to live your life in anger (again, an impossible act)."

Share a time when you have experienced anger in your life?
How have you dealt with your anger in the past? How could it be different?

3) Stealing

It's unlikely that this passage is speaking of young children stealing food in the marketplace, or organized crime. It is impossible, by the language, that he is speaking our crippled or disabled individuals who are unable to work. Paul is speaking to members of the church who are taking advantage of Christian generosity in order to live life easier for themselves.

This is one of the greatest problems in the North American church today. Individuals and families seem to feel that their very presence, attendance, at a church gives them the right to all the privileges and programs that church has to offer as well as anything else their minds can conjure. Most churches are run by the power of a small minority struggling to keep hold of the vast majority who, at the drop of a hat, could up and leave for another church. This attitude in the Christian reeks of selfishness, and could be considered nothing less than stealing energy, resources and time from those who keep church ministry and administration running.

Have you ever felt frustrated, or taken advantage of by your church?
Have you ever been guilty of coasting through church life at the expense of others? How do you reflect on that time now?

4) Wholesome talk

Encouragement is something which is meant to push others further towards good. It is true that this does not always mean positivity in our encouragement. However it dos mean a positive outcome as our goal, and that means truth. This means that we need to give true credit to where we've been, where we, are and where we're going to be. This means that it may take a great deal of thought and consideration before we ever open our mouths to those we hope to encourage or criticize.

Does your encouragement or criticism tend to bring you the results you are hoping for from others?
Do you tend to give a lot of thought before you speak? How can you improve this?

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Abraham's sacrifice and Jesus at the cross


In Genesis 22 we are given one of the most uncomfortable stories in scripture in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. While a reading of the story reveals that God may have never really intended Abraham to sacrifice this child (Child sacrifice is strictly forbidden throughout scripture), a careful reading should not leave anyone feeling altogether comfortable with this scene. And that is the point somewhat. Oftentimes we become far to comfortable with our walk with God and forget that what he might ask of us or call of us may lead us down a road which is quite uncomfortable. Furthermore, the saturation of the story of Jesus on the cross often numbs us to the reality that it is an incredibly uncomfortable scene as well.

The connections between Isaac and Jesus, once looked for, are numerous and meaningful. They are certainly not two stories that most people would put together, but they're connections which make for some good pondering. Also, it is a great example of how the covenant and promises God made to those in the Old Testament are consistent with those made through Jesus.

Question for group discussion: Everyone share a time in their life when your faith has forced you to do something uncomfortable? What is comfortable about your faith walk right now?

Here is only some of those connections;

1) Forced to carry the wood used for their own execution:

Jesus was famously forced to carry his cross from where he was whipped and beaten to the place where they crucified him. This was probably done by placing the cross-piece over Jesus shoulders with his arms stretched back and bound to the wood. In Genesis, Abraham placed the wood for the burnt sacrifice "on top of" his son Isaac. Isaac literally carried the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain to the place where Abraham intended to sacrifice his son. For both these scenes we see a willing sacrifice burdening itself on the way to their own death.

It's interesting to note here that Isaac would also have been bound to the wood once the altar was ready. This means that not only did they both carry the very thing they would die on, but they were also each bound to it by force.

Question for discussion: What does it mean to you for Jesus to be bound? What are you bound to in your life now? Is it negative or positive?

2) Son of miraculous birth:

Jesus was born to a virgin following the appearance of an angel to his mother, father and others. The story of Jesus' miraculous birth is one of the most famous in the world. Isaac was born to a man nearly a hundred years old and a woman about ninety. This fact, in and of itself, is proof in the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus.

But what lies behind the fact of these miraculous births is that God intervened in both of them in order to solidify a promise. Isaac was given to Abraham to show him that God intended to make Abraham the "father of many nations" and this his descendants would number "like the stars in the sky." This only reinforces the fact that for Abraham he was being asked not only to sacrifice his son, but also all his hopes and dreams for the future. Abraham was being asked to sacrifice the very promises of God. Likewise, when Jesus died on the cross many believed that this would be the end, the defeat of, the promised messiah of God. But more on this on point three.

Question for discussion: What is a promise from God that you're trusting in right now?

3) The lamb is always a substitute?

God gives Abraham a ram in place of his son Isaac. This is very meaningful to the old testament understanding of sacrifice and the temple. The new testament abounds with illustrations and allusions to Jesus as the acceptable sacrificial lamb. Jesus 'took the place' as the lamb. This was important to the temple-understanding that the Jews of the first century would have had, who believed that the sacrifice of the lamb on the day of atonement covered the sins for their nation. This is the great difference between Jesus and Isaac, that while Isaac was replaced by the lamb, Jesus became the willing sacrificial lamb himself, all the way to death.

Questions for discussion:

  • Everyone share something in your life that is precious to you. How would it make you feel to Give that up? 
  • With the stories of Abraham and Jesus in mind, what do you think these stories are trying to tell us about sacrificing what we have?



Saturday, 11 February 2017

The New Jerusalem: Anniversary service 2017



Today we're looking at the entire chapter of Revelation 21. This chapter has been used many different ways throughout history. We definitely come to this passage with preconceptions and ideas around what it means and what its purpose is. If you wish to view the passage click HERE for a link that will bring you to Revelation 21. If you weren't present for the message, feel free to take some time and read through the point summaries and answer the questions together with your house church.
The city is God's presence- The city from heaven represents God's dwelling with his people intimate, immediate presence.

The city is us- The New Jerusalem as a city wouldn't be a city without it's people. The city is adorned like a bride just as the church is described as Christ's bride in the New Testament. God's people are also described as God's bride in the Old Testament. If we are the city, and the city is God's presence, then this has immediate and real impact on who and what we are.

The city is mysterious- We must accept that the description of this city, as it stands, is impossible. It's impossible at least how we understand possibility and impossibility. The fact that it's impossible says much about how we should approach it.

The city is victorious- In contrast to the conquering eternal city of Rome which ruled the world at the time of this writing, the city of heaven is victorious in different ways. Think not of how the New Jerusalem is victorious in the ways of Rome, but think of how the New Jerusalem is victorious in the ways of Jesus' Kingdom of God.

Questions:
  1. God's new city does away with the old and brings a new creation. How has God changed you in the past? How is God changing you now? (Making you new)?
  2. What is the difference between the person you are, and the person you want to be?
  3. What are two ways this church can help you become that person?

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Peacemaking: The ways we fail every day.

Our church just recently got into another discussion on peacemaking. Specifically on some of the more radical statements Jesus made in regards to how we are to treat our enemies. Such as this one:

"If you love those who love you, what reward do you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?" (Jesus)

What this passage makes clear is that there is a calling to love that goes beyond what the world would expect of anyone. He says that the worst people to us are capable of, and usually live, the same level of love for their own families and people that we do. He riles up the crowd by asking, "Are you really any different than them."

How about this one:

"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Jesus)

Again, Jesus ups the anti on what loving others really means. the phrase "but I tell you" giving an indication that he's about to say something different than what we would expect. and the "love your enemies" definitely living up to the thought.

There are certainly many more quotes and passages that I could throw at you at this point. The problem is that the whole radical love for even our enemies thing so often gets puffed up into some sort of 'ideal' rather than a true 'calling.' And Jesus' radical teaching on peacemaking becomes just some nice thing that he said which we use to counteract the Old Testament bloodshed, rather than letting it be a challenge. We all too often shy away from actually living in any practical way.

For this article I'm going to assume that you've made up your mind on a calling to peacemaking through Christ or not. (Maybe you've never really given it any though, in which case now is a great opportunity). But in the meantime there's another problem facing us would be peacemakers which is not so often talked about. And this is the fact that we live in a society in which the question "Who is my enemy anyway?" is almost more prevalent than "who is my friend?"

We live in a peaceful society far detached from Jesus' Jerusalem filled with Roman occupation and tax collector traitors. In Jesus world who the enemy was was obvious, and he had some radical thoughts on how to treat these people. (Radical as in unexpected, not radical as in violent or revolutionary). In our world the very idea of having a personal 'enemy' seems almost unchristian unto itself. Even though Jesus assumed, even promised that we would have enemies if we followed him. So we're left with some of the greatest teachings of Jesus seeming kind of useless to our everyday lives since the 'enemy' seems so absent from our experience.

But I don't believe that 'enemy' needs to be interpreted as we think it should. But more importantly, I think that we need to realize that even though our enemies may seem scarce, the kind of radical love that Jesus wanted seems far too scarce as well. What I want to give you in this article is not a large philosophical discussion about pacifism. Instead I want to give one idea which, if we all started to live it, I believe would actually begin to bring Jesus' radical peace-creating love into this radical love starved society. Here it is:

Stop Gossiping!

Just bringing this up makes me feel old fashioned. But the truth is that gossip is one of the most destructive things that you can have in a peaceful community. If you want to check out what the Bible says about it, here's some proverbs. Prov. 16:26; 18:8; 26:20. Look them up, but you can also take my word for it, scripture is pretty universal that gossip is a pretty destructive quality.

And let's be clear. I'm not limiting this to the kind of gossip that we still imagine from middle aged, empty-nesting stay at home moms from the 70's. (Not to offend anyone, I respect you stay at home moms from the 70's). We need to realize that this is something that we're all capable and guilty of. This comes out in the griping about that weird co-worker. Or the way you all make fun of that one friend when they're not around.

Sure, it all still feels pretty innocuous. And the real problem is the fact that it can be fun, and even build commodore at the expense of only one person. Scripture even calls gossip "choice morsels." And beyond this, we cover up what we're really doing by claiming that we just have to 'get out our frustration,' or that we 'just concerned' about the person in question. There's almost no recognition of the fact that we're doing something destructive.

The calling for those of us who take Jesus' calling to peacemaking seriously need to see that our calling matters in these 'smaller' situations as well. It may oftentimes be uncomfortable, but we need to realize that if we're going to show radical love we're going to need to show some radical honesty. Only honesty with the person we're frustrated with, or those we're concerned for is going to bring any more actual peace.

Sometimes it's difficult to approach someone with this kind of honesty. Not to mention that it can be equally as uncomfortable to But I believe that our calling to stand out in love and the renewal of relationships may require some sort of conviction in this area.