Glimmers from a Lighthouse

lighthouseYesterday evening, while discussing the reports that in our nation, ninety percent of Southern Baptist churches have plateaued, are declining, or growing at a pace slower than their community, my friend and Pastor shared these words of encouragement to us from Jesus.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29

There is something very simple, yet often overlooked in these very well known words. To “take a yoke upon” implies submission. It means there is work to be done, so his rest is not for the sluggard. Interestingly, in the days of this text, no two yokes were the same as each was custom-made to fit the ox bearing its weight. A good day’s labor required just the right yoke.

The disciple’s life is a life of servitude, but there is rest in the yoke Jesus offers because his yoke takes our eyes off of the distractions of a hurried and busy life, reminding: 1. Activity can replace authenticity. 2. Events can replace enthusiasm. 3. Our planning can replace our praying.

There is rest for our souls awaiting when we sit at his feet, “Learn from me.”

I have thought often today about my friend’s words, and especially of the words of our Lord. I have no answers for why the decline and even less of how to fix it. I’m pretty sure though that an honest assessment of my own heart leaves me knowing where I need to spend much time; listening, learning, and laboring with a fitted yoke.

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What to Do with Lazarus and a Rich Man

100_0205One of the more difficult challenges for the credo-hopeful as myself is to find a safe place in the midst of so much disagreement within the realm of biblical interpretation.

Some insist that the old way is always the best way; stick with traditional thinking. They say, “If the plain sense makes sense, quit looking for another sense.

So what of when it doesn’t make sense… at least not to everyone; at least not to a growing number who are providing resources for dabblers as myself to indulge in? Take for example the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).

The traditional stance on this parable or narrative account holds that this is a severe warning to the travesty of an eternity spent in a place called hell for some, while for others, the wonder of dining forever in the bosom of Abraham, or as they will say, heaven.

But for many, no matter how the text is construed, at the end of the day, or at death if you will, there is the contention that those who live in poverty get to go to heaven, and as for the rich, well, we best take care of our teeth, for we’ll need them for gnashing one day.

The contention is of course settled by the “proof in the pudding” argument, that those who are saved by grace are changed, and riches are no longer their gods, resulting in a life of good works and not one spent selfishly wallowing in over-abundance.

Someone may ask though, “Why does the poor man then get to dine with Abraham?” We merely hear that because he received no reward in this lifetime, a greater reward awaited him at death. There’s no indication or evidence that this man is godly or that he’s ever done a good work. He’s just helplessly sick and poor, and the poor are just as capable of living a sin-filled life as the rich. It’s not that the text can’t be manipulated to meet the traditional end, it’s just that it requires manipulating that brings questions to the table.

Through the years I have heard a couple of approaches to the meaning of this story that vacate the traditional.

One of these alternatives considers the rich man to be national Israel and Lazarus the Gentile nations. This richness it is said that Israel enjoyed was their access to God. They were robed in the purple of His revelation and providence, while the Gentiles were laid at his gates without even having a knowledge of the one true God, because Israel refused to make Him known, not even with a crumb from his table if you will. The great gulf separating the two characters is said to be the difference between old and new covenants; they are irreconcilable.

If these who hold such understandings of this text are right, it seems to run hand in hand with other accounts, such as, “They will come from far away to dine with Abraham,” and “Even the dogs sit below the table for the crumbs that fall.”

While I’m not willing to make a dogmatic stand on where I fall within these thoughts and the related just yet, I do admit it is hardly hidden that Jesus spent much of His ministry trying to convey that something was very wrong with the Jewish people’s religion, that they had went astray from the relational God of their father Abraham, and that the destruction of their nation was imminent.

My unwillingness to readily adopt interpretations as this one is fueled by fear that it is only a means of escaping the humanitarian expectations Jesus prescribes we ought have for one another, or to negate the fear of knowing we are accountable for the welfare of others, while too often looking a lot like the rich man in this story.

51XAUizpuvL__AA160_Amy-Jill Levine in her work, Short Stories By Jesus, insists the message in this parable would have been perfectly clear to the culture of the day, where the Jews confused wealth as blessing and poverty as curse. She concludes her work on this parable with these words.

The parable tells us that we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate — on the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers — then we are lost.

Covenants old and new both place stringent emphasis on the care for the poor and the helpless. James would argue that all religion is useless if it does not produce a compassionate and charitable heart.

D. A. Carson, in his lecture on this parable, dissects the essence of the rich man’s problem by demonstrating that even in death and torment, he refuses to relent from his exaggerated self-worth. He continues to ignore Lazarus even in hell, dictating Abraham to send him as servant-errand-boy.

Since we still see through the glass darkly, it may be vanity to claim we fully understand this and maybe any of the parables, but regardless of what we walk away with, it would be fool-hearted to miss the disparity between the two characters. One of them was totally dependent on the mercy and grace of others, and inevitably on God Himself. The other basked in his wealth while refusing to acknowledge where it came from and where it was meant to be used.

A-J Levine tells of Albert Schweitzer citing this parable as the reason for his becoming a doctor and moving to a foreign land.

“He recognized that although the rich man, representing Europe, had access to medical care, Lazarus, representing Africa, did not.”

Justifiably, some may retort, “It is of utmost importance to focus on the spiritual needs of others. We can’t get bogged down with the physical, for eternity is in the balance.” But as my Pastor recently reminded, Jesus began his ministry to those he loved by first meeting them in the place where they were. To those who hungered, he fed. To the outcast he offered acceptance. He defended the lowly and the helpless.

Once he was in their world with them, then he directed the conversation to the greater need.

Could this parable, among much more, be speaking volumes toward the persuasive materialistic nature of western culture, even within the church? A quick inventory of my closet leaves me without defense, not to bring about mention of attics and storage containers.

Maybe this is why Jesus identified the poor man but not the rich man? Do you think there is a logical reason for the rich man to have no name? Think about this. Lazarus, a man who few could probably name is given a name, and yet a very wealthy man who anyone in the town’s proximity could probably have given not only his name if requested, but many more significant details. Why is this?

Most who will have access to these words I write are probably much like me; well off financially by the standards of the majority of the world.

Could it be left blank for whosoever will to insert their own?

One of the wisest things ever discovered by those interrogating the parables of Jesus was the recognition that we need not get bogged down by every detail of the story, as though every word has to have some transcendent purpose. Every good story is made up of the essential and the filler. This parable has a point, and Jesus was a masterful story-teller. Remembering the glass is cloudy, the point of this parable seems to give us opportunity to recognize that we all naturally spin toward a self-centered lifestyle of accumulating and hoarding. It’s not as though it is sinful to enjoy life. But it is so when we have no burden for the less-fortunate, when we indulge in excess and refuse to meet needs.

This is basic parable reading, I admit, to find the primary point of the text and then allow the filler to only highlight and emphasize the importance of the central message. We all have a Lazarus laid at our gates. I would surmise that the parable is meant to move us to ask, “What will I do about it?” But not just ask; ask and then allow the answer to identify the condition of our rich man’s heart.

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What the Church Won’t Talk About

Imagine confiding from the pew, “I can’t win the battle over my lustful desires,” or “I’ve committed the same stinking sin fifty plus times this week, and right now, I want to go do it again” or even “I’m on every medication known to man for depression… and I’m getting worse.”

JS Park WTCWTABeing already the fan of JS Park’s writing at The Way Everlasting, I was super-excited to hear of his new book, What the Church Won’t Talk About. It did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, I found myself glued to its pages as believer after believer poured forth questions ranging anywhere from issues of lust to relational concerns, from discouragement to religious dependence.

The fascinating gift this author wields is the ability to not only answer these questions, but to answer them with amazing grace that only finds its source in Christ.

When discussing the unlovable, JS carries the reader from understanding that “True love only loves the truly unlovable,” revealing “However bad this person is, you are probably just as bad, if not worse,” to the conclusion “No one is really unlovable,” and “Love is defined as the self-sacrificial effort of pouring out your life for another.

“Love says: I’ve seen the ugly parts of you, and I’m staying.” –Matt Chandler

 When dealing with sexual sins, the author offers, “There are no magic words to turn off lust. There’s nothing I could say that would make you want purity without turning you into a self-whipping flagellator. The only way to beat this is to circumvent your desires towards a greater desire, so that you are funneling your energy into the perfect will of Christ. It’s a messy process, for sure, but it’s one you can start today.”

This is a great read! Even if you don’t struggle with some of the sins discussed in this book, how valuable is it to know you are walking side by side with many others who do? In one place I have called JS Park the Esther of our day, one raised up for just a time as this, one who is honest enough to hear the painful questions being asked, and respond with grace, in the place where our brethren are. I also encouraged, “Buy this book!” “You will thank me, but more so the author, later.”

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Nurturing Your Blog in its Infancy

blog1So you’ve started a new blog. Good for you, and welcome as you join the other 250 million plus others of us putting our thoughts onto the web. This means of course, if we keep the number rounded, there are 28 people in this world of 7 billion who are personally yours to attract as readers for your very own.

Discouraging? I hope not; it wasn’t meant to be. In reality, your blog can be very rewarding both for you and your readers, but take it from one who has struggled at attracting lots of readership, don’t judge the value of your site by the number of people who stops by to see you in the early stages. It gets better with time and a little effort. Here are a few things that keep me blogging, and in time have produced a, while meager in relation to others, nice little group of followers, and hopefully will do the same for you.

Remember why you started your blog… often. For me, mine was started when we first moved to live on a horse ranch, also moving our church membership. Because I was no longer teaching and preparing lessons, I wanted to share bits of my studies somewhere, and this became the place. Keeping this in perspective allows me to look beyond the days of slow traffic.

Write, write, and then write some more. Here is something you must know; you will not start seeing significant and recurring readership without writing. Duh! Failure to post at a minimum of at least once a week is a guaranteed recipe for failure. This runs hand in hand with the next point though.

Don’t overwhelm your site. Everyone cannot be a Dr. Jim, and no one likes their email inbox flooded by one author. One to five posts per week will do you just fine, because:

Your content needs to be interesting, meaningful, engaging, and sometimes even provocative. Trying to produce quantity rather than quality may produce sporadic bursts of traffic but hopefully your intent is to create a returning readership that interacts with what you’ve provided. Determine early on how many posts you can reasonably produce that are worthy of someone’s time.

Admit you’re not the only blog-site on the block and that other writers have something meaningful to say also. How is the best way to do this? Visit other sites and interact with the author and other commenter’s. The reward of doing this is twofold. First, you’ll be encouraging another blogger. Second, if your comments are meaningful and engaging, you are almost assured of visits to see the content on your own site.

Put as much time in creating your title as you did the content of your post. This sounds absurd, right? The evidence is in though that it is the title that is one of the greatest attractors of visits and web searches. However, the title must be directly related to the content. Putting words in your title that have nothing to do with the content is eventually picked up on by search engines and you’ll find yourself dropped from their lists, considered spam. In short, be real.

Hang in there… readers are coming! There’s a gazillion other things you’ll learn about this blogging adventure as time goes on, such as it is a neat avenue of community activity. So, if you’ve recently begun to blog, leave us a link in the comments section so we can visit. And really, hang in there!

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Grace that Sees Beyond My Angry God

At the header of our meager offering of a blog-site rests the word ‘rest,’ …a couple of times. “Resting in His Grace” and “Finding the Rest Jesus Promised” serve as both title and sub-title here, and I must admit, I am glad the sub-title leaves room for improvement, suggesting I’m still in the hunt.

This has been a fantastic year of reading for me, having partook of some titles by authors that I’ve never never yet read, like Leo Tolstoy, Tullian Tchividjian, Scot McKnight, Chip Ingram, and of most recent, Steve McVey’s Beyond an Angry God.

BAAGI am moved that this latter author takes a moment to admit he too is still in the hunt, that his growth toward maturity in Christ is an ongoing unveiling, and that the revelation process often requires he acknowledge some things he believed in the past were skewed or insufficient, especially when describing the amazing grace afforded us in Christ Jesus.

If you happen to be beyond your last read and looking for another, I highly recommend this gem. It is well worth the few dollars.

The thing that I am learning about myself is that I have to constantly keep discovering the riches of life in Christ, for my natural tendency is to keep falling back on my own efforts, as if they were of some value; they are not! I love this interrogation by the author…

“What if obedience has nothing to do with conforming to demands on your external behavior?” What if obedience, at its core, is simple faith in the complete obedience of Jesus?”

Mr. McVey goes on to respond to these questions, “We have no trump card to play on the obedience of Jesus. We have the amazing offer to simply rest in what He has done.”

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