Month: July 2008

Priority drift and how to fix it

“Priority drift.” I made that phrase up to describe the state I found myself in a couple of weeks ago.  Simply put:  my priorities had drifted.  I found myself spread too thin, doing too many good things, and not doing the things I felt called — even compelled — to do.

What did I do?  I resigned from two boards of non-profits which I dearly liked serving on.  Both hold regular monthly board meetings, both expect help with fundraising, both have missions I support, but both were taking time and energy from my church and my life.   In two emails that took about 2-minutes each to compose, I resigned with regret from each.

Here are some other decisions I made previously to keep me free to do the things I want to do:

  1. I don’t watch TV. I got that idea from David Wilkerson (The Cross and The Switchblade) over 20 years ago.  Just last year I got the “courage” to buck culture, disconnect from cable, and quit watching TV.  I have since discovered that one of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin,  does not watch TV.  Seth doesn’t go to meetings either, which is privilege I do not have…yet.
  2. I don’t preach revivals. Actually, I don’t preach revivals because 1) most revivals are not worth going to; 2) I don’t want to be gone for 3-5 days at a time.  Now, of course, nobody asks me to preach revivals since I’m off the “revival” circuit, but that’s okay.  Same thing goes for most conferences.
  3. I don’t try to be the leader of everything. I can’t be a good pastor, and the busiest guy in our Baptist association, state convention, national denomination, etc.  So, I’m very happy pastoring a small church in a small town with time to work in my garden, visit my neighbors, and let others take some leadership responsibility.  Am I shirking?  I’m sure some think so, but it works for me.
  4. I do try to live in a rhythm of prayer and work. I like the old monastic model, orare et laborare — to pray and to work.  Of course, the words pray and work get defined broadly, sometimes too broadly.  But I do try to do some physical work each day, which gives me a new appreciation for how hard others work.  Lately, I confess, our morning prayer time has gotten chewed up a bit by other “urgent” things, but I’m trying to get that back under control as well.

It is amazing how many good things can creep into our lives, distracting us from the best things that are our lives.  How do you stay focused on the things that are important to you and your ministry?

How churches might face the coming crises

(A couple of days ago I wrote about several converging crises — energy, economy, and environment. Since then the price of gas has gone down! Proof that I was wrong. Not! As a nation we are so shell-shocked by the energy crisis that we think a 10-cent reduction in the price of gas is a big break, forgetting that less than a year ago we were paying under $3 a gallon. Anyway, back to our original program.)

I see churches adapting to these three interrelated crises — energy, economy, and environment — in several ways:

  1. Redefinition of “church.” Church will no longer be the place we go, church will be the people we share faith with. Churches will still meet together for worship at a central time and location, but that will become secondary to the ministry performed during the week. Church buildings will become the resource hub in community ministry, like the old Celtic Christian abbeys. Church impact will replace church attendance as the new metric.
  2. Restructuring of church operations. Due to the high cost of fuel and a struggling economy, churches will become smaller, more agile, and less expensive to operate than in the past. Churches will need to provide direct relief to individuals and families with meal programs, shelters, clothing, job training, and more. In the not-distant-future, we will live in a world where government is increasingly unable to fund and provide those services. Church buildings will become increasingly more expensive to maintain, and churches with unused weekday space will consider partnerships with businesses, other ministries, and helping agencies. Or churches will sell their conventional buildings and reestablish in storefronts that operate as retail businesses 6 days a week, and gathering places on Sunday (or Thursday or whenever). Churches will focus outwardly on their “parish” more than inwardly on their members. Church staff will become more community-focused rather than church-program focused, and become team leaders in new missional ventures.
  3. Repackaging of “sermons” and Christian education. With fewer people “attending” church, fewer will also attend Christian education classes. Churches will deliver Christian education content via mobile devices. Short video clips accessible from iPhones (and other smart devices) will be the primary content carriers for church and culture. Church “members” (if that quaint term actually survives) will still gather, but more for monthly celebrations, fellowship, and sharing than weekly meetings, worship, or learning. Of course, there may be several monthly celebrations geared to different lifestyles (tribes), schedules, and preferences. Again, the abbey concept of the church as hub with many smaller groups revolving around the resource center.
  4. Refocus from institution to inspiration. Okay, so I went for the easy alliteration there. Restated, less emphasis on the “church” and more on how the church enables its adherents to live their faith. Declining church attendance is not a crisis of faith, it’s a crisis of delivery. We can bemoan the fact that fewer people come to church, but ballgames are not suffering from declining attendance. People go to what they want to go to. Church ministry has to focus on engaging people in meaningful ways that enable their spiritual journeys. In a world in crisis, people are looking for something to believe in as institution after institution crumbles. If banks, businesses, and whole countries fail, where can we put our trust? Church should have the answer 24/7, delivered like everything else is delivered now — when people want it, at their convenience, and in a way that resonates with them.

None of the things I have suggested here are new. But, the thing that makes them more viable now is the convergence of all three crises at one time. But, let’s hope for the best and assume that gas goes back to no more than $2 per gallon, the planet cools off, energy is abundant, and the economy flourishes. All the possibilities I suggest above are still viable strategies that may be more in keeping with New Testament values than our 20th century consumerist approach. What do you think?

Church at the end of oil and other crises

Last November, I posed the question, “If gas hits $4/gal, what will your church do?” We are beyond $4/gallon gas now, and the future looks different than we ever thought it would just a couple of years back. But, there are other crises which will affect churches in the next few years:

  1. The gap in moving from oil to other fuels. The buzz is already out there about electric cars. T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore have both challenged America with their visions of an alternative energy future. Talk about $12-$15/gallon gas is getting serious airtime, and no one is predicting a drop in oil prices. In the transition from oil to other fuels, transportation will change from private cars to public conveyance. The entire automobile culture that we have known in America will slowly and painfully be reformed to meet new energy challenges. How will congregants get to church in the future?
  2. Increasing electricity costs. Google “rising electricity costs” and you find articles like this one predicting that electricity costs will double in 5 years. Why? Increasing demand as we move away from oil. Electric cars will only add to the demand, straining an already over-burdened power grid that is in serious need of upgrading. Imagine that the electric bill for your church, and each family in your church, doubles in 5 years. How do you cope?
  3. Rising food costs. Accompanying rising gas prices — and increasing scarcity — and rising electricity costs are rising food prices. Riots have broken out in developing countries this year over the price of staples such as rice. According to Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, the entire food industry is facing a crisis of quality, nutrition, and cost. Roberts might be easy to ignore as “Chicken Little” alarmist, but he’s also the author of the 2004 book The End of Oil which predicted the current oil crisis. We might want to pay attention to what he says about food.
  4. Scarcity of water. If you think it’s not possible for America to run out of water, talk to the residents of Atlanta where last year Lake Lanier dried up to record lows.
  5. Economic/financial institutional uncertainty. The federal government’s “bail outs” of investment banks, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, plus the falling dollar, the increasing national debt, the war in Iraq, low consumer confidence, and the continuing subprime mortgage crisis have converged to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. The next couple of years will not be business as usual for any institution, churches included.

The implications for the future of churches are great if only one of these crises matures. But, if all continue to move toward more critical levels, then churches will have to rethink standard operating procedures. Implications include:

  1. More family income spent on basics. Food, housing, utilities, and transportation costs are all basics. If families have to spend more on these items, they will have less to spend on other things, church and charitable gifts included.
  2. Increased building operating costs. If electricity doubles, and natural gas and heating oil prices double, the costs to maintain and operate church buildings will displace staff, program, and missions expenditures.
  3. Rising unemployment or underemployment. Churches will be faced with more families needing help than ever before.

Experts are predicting these scenarios in the next few years. More tomorrow on what churches can do to transition to effective ministry as these crises unfold.

Do some things for fun

Last Wednesday night we had a cookout at our church. Not a new idea or big news, but it was fun. Fun, despite the fact that we had to move inside from the town park next door because rain was on the way. Fun, even though we were jammed into our old fellowship hall because we let a local camp use our “new” kitchen and fellowship hall during July. (Both were built 10-years ago, but we still have the “old” so the new one is…well…new!)  We grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, ladies brought side dishes and desserts.  Our makeshift serving line was laden with sliced tomatoes, cole slaw, potato salad, chips, relish, chili, brownies, cake, pie, and the list goes on.  Over 50 people came (our usual Wednesday supper is 25-30), and we had a church business meeting around the tables after supper.   Great spirit and lots of fun for a hot Wednesday night in July.

Then today, Sunday, we had a really great singing duo, The Church Sisters.  Sarah and Savannah Church (their real name) are the cutest 12-year old twins you’ll find anywhere, and they can sing, too!  With their “Alison Krause” sound, they sing the old country gospel songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” and some newer stuff in the same tradition like “Down To The River To Pray.” Our normally reserved folks clapped through a couple of numbers, and generally enjoyed the girls, their brother and step-dad on guitar, and a friend of theirs on bass. Oh, because they had prepared 12 songs to sing, I ditched the sermon today. No one complained, much to my dismay, but The Church Sisters were a refreshing change during the long, hot summer.

We need to take more time to have fun at church. Make sure your congregation has opportunity to laugh, sing, kid one another, and enjoy being together. This was a good week for us, and I hope it was for you, too.  Oh, and both items presented at the business meeting passed unanimously.  Maybe it was the hot dogs…

Jesus on death row

Thursday night the commonwealth of Virginia executed Christopher Scott Emmett. Emmett was convicted in the 2001 bludgeoning murder of his co-worker Mr. Langley. Apparently Mr. Emmett was guilty. It took a jury less than an hour to convict him. Mr. Emmett killed for his victim’s wallet — so he could buy crack cocaine. One of those crimes that brings the phrase “senseless violence” to mind.

In an aside that reporters use to fill out a story when the editor needs more copy, the writer noted in the last paragraph of the article:

Virginia has executed 102 people since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, second only to Texas.

My state is the runner-up in capital punishment in the US. I’m not sure that’s a distinction we want to bear with pride. Then, there is the other global comparison that ranks the US fourth after China, Iran, and Viet Nam in numbers of prisoners executed. Again, not company we aspire to keep.

While I realize there is a lot of disagreement on the issue of capital punishment, it seems to me that followers of Christ would oppose capital punishment on the grounds that Jesus himself was an innocent victim of the Roman Empire’s capital punishment system. When we think of Jesus’ death, not as a theological doctrine, but as capital punishment gone wrong, it casts a different light on the subject.

Of course, Mr. Emmett does not appear to be an innocent victim. And to make matters worse, Emmett seemed rather flippant and unrepentant before his execution. But, I can’t help thinking of Jesus’ short stay on death row. Is this the best solution we have to society’s problems? What do you think? Have you addressed the issue of capital punishment with your congregation? What responses did your church members have to this issue? I’d be interested to know.

Build it and they will come, but somebody has to run it

About 30 years ago, lots of churches bought into the myth that building a gym was the answer to all their outreach woes.  Churches thought “build it and they will come” long before Ray Kinsella made it popular in Field of Dreams.  But in real life, somebody has to be there to run the place after you build it so they can come.  And before they come, somebody has to program the use of the building.  Getting both people and programs in place as we opened the community center has taken countless hours of my time, not to mention all the other folks involved.

Buildings are not the answer to any church’s problems, outreach or otherwise.  Buildings add to the complexity of church ministry because you need people and programs to fill them.  So, before you “build it” hoping “they will come” start some programs right now.  When we dreamed of building a community center, we started the Boys and Girls Club program first in the space we had, with a staff of 2 people.  Having that program established before we built and opened the community center guaranteed us an anchor program, complete with staff.  Currently the program serves about 80 kids a day with a paid staff of 5, plus additional community center staff of 3.  We also use volunteers, but we do not rely on volunteers for critical functions.  Volunteers supplement on-going programs, and relieve staff to focus on essential responsibilities.

Next myth to be busted: “Don’t worry, the building will pay for itself.”

Confessions of a Small-Temple Buddhist Priest

Title sound familiar? Well, apparently Buddhists in Japan are facing the same challenges as small churches in the US. Listen to this from the New York Times article, “In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out:”

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

Sound familiar? Not enough priests, urban temples declining, rural temples declining due to death of older members and population shift, and many temples in rural areas expected to close.

What should we make of this? My take is that in a postmodern world religions of all sorts are taking a hit. The NYT article goes on to mention that even Buddhists funerals, preferred by many Japanese, are also declining as many in Japan have either secular funerals or none at all for loved ones. I read several months ago of the trend in England to non-religious life celebrations instead of funerals.

If the thing religions do is to give meaning to the great events of life — birth, growth, maturity, and death — then how is it that all religions seem to be losing the numbers battle in our increasingly secular world? Oh, I also read that young Buddhists monks are hanging out in bars to engage young Asians in theological discussions. Sounds like “theology on tap – Buddhist style” to me. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

Sermon: Setting Your Mind On the Spirit

Setting Your Mind on the Spirit
Romans 8:1-11 NRSV8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

8:4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot,

8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Dead Man Walking

Years ago, prisons in the South were notoriously corrupt and cruel institutions. Paul Newman’s movie’s Cool Hand Luke, showed the meanness of life in the county workcamp. Robert Redford starred in Brubaker, the story of a prison camp warden who tried to clean up the savagery, not of the prisoners, but of the guards themselves. Mississippi’s infamous prison camp, Parchman, was particularly known for its use of deadly force against prisoners. One prison’s death row delivered its charges to the electric chair by announcing the prison procession with these words — “Dead man walking, dead man walking here.”

That phrase, Dead Man Walking, became the title for Sister Helen Prejean’s book by the same name, recounting her experiences ministering on Louisiana’s death row. For the condemned who walked from death row to the electric chair, the announcement, Dead Man Walking, served only to confirm their ultimate fate.

Romans Contrasts Life and Death

We continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome this week. And, if you recall last week’s passage from Romans 7, Paul says that we’re struggling to live up to God’s law. As a matter of fact, we can’t do it. Paul said in Romans 7:24 –

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In other words, we’re dead men walking. But the good news it that Paul then answers his own question by saying –

Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

But, then Chapter 7 concludes with a less than optimistic statement –

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

So,which is it? Am I a dead man walking — trapped in a body of death brought about by sin, to which I am a slave? Or Has Jesus the Messiah — the Christ — delivered me from the death sentence that I have been under? And that brings us to Chapter 8.

No Condemnation

Paul begins this chapter by saying –

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
So what changed in the space of one verse — from the end of chapter 7 to the beginning of chapter 8? Just this, and we find it in Romans 8:2. Paul gave us the punchline in verse one, and now here’s the explanation —
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

We are not condemned to “death” — we are no longer dead men walking — because a new law, another law, a higher law, the law of the spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death. So there it is — there’s a new sheriff in town, a new law as it were, that overrides, cancels out, precludes the old law. This new law is called the Law of the Spirit of Life.

What’s Up With This New Law of the Spirit of Life?

Okay, stay with me here for we have to cover a lot of territory quickly. Here’s the overview of the situation that God is dealing with:

  1. God gave The Law to Israel to distinguish Israel from all other people, as uniquely the people of God, so that Israel might be a blessing to the nations.
  2. Israel, due to the weakness of humanity, was not able to live up to God’s calling.
  3. Israel’s failure meant that God had to fix the problem.
  4. So, God sent Jesus, God in human form, to solve the problem. God did not outsource this work to someone else. God appeared, in the form of a man, in the flesh, as the Messiah of God to the nation of Israel.
  5. The Messiah not only was the hope of the Jews, but the Messiah actually took on the character of the nation of Israel before God. That’s why Jesus spoke of his body as The Temple. He became the Temple — the dwelling place of God. Jesus spoke of his ministry to gather the lost house of Israel as a hen gathers her chicks. Jesus spoke of the sacrifice of death that he would offer — the sin sacrifice — for the sins of the nation.
  6. The sin of the nation then was collected in the Messiah.
  7. God condemned that sin in Jesus’ flesh (remember the serpent in the wilderness — that which kills you saves you) and nailed sin to the cross.
  8. But God, after condemning sin, confirmed Jesus as Messiah by raising him from the dead, thus breaking sin’s only hold on humanity — death.
  9. But not only that, but the Spirit of God then comes to live in each of God’s people. And that Spirit is the new law — the law of life, not the law of sin and death.

A Look at the Spirit

Which now brings us to the notion of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the indwelling presence of God whom Jesus said to the disciples…”is with you and shall be in you.” Meaning that Jesus as God was with them, but one day the Spirit of God would be in them. Previously, the Spirit of God had been thought to be only in The Temple, or on certain leaders or prophets. But now the mark of the new people of God is God’s indwelling Spirit.

When we think of the Holy Spirit, depending on what your tradition is, we come up with some pretty bizarre thoughts. We think of the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit — speaking in tongues, the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy, the gift of supernatural knowledge, and so forth. Paul talks about these in his letter to the Corinthians.

Or when we think about the Holy Spirit, we think of problems. The charismatic movement which divided churches into those who had the “baptism of the Spirit” and those who didn’t. Or the Pentecostal movement where worship services are more free-form that we as Baptists are used to.

But when Paul talks about the Law of the Spirit, or the Spirit dwelling in God’s people, here’s what he means. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma. It is the word from which we get our words pneumatic, pneumonia, and so on. Pneuma literally means breath or wind.

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word for Spirit is ruach — which also means breath or wind. It is God who breathes into newly created mankind, the breath of life. Without that breath, that spirit, that wind of God, there is no life. And, part of the image of God in which man is created is the life-giving breath of God given by God himself.

When we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples in a new act of creation — the beginning of Christ making all things new.

It is this Spirit, this breath, this wind of which Paul speaks when he talks about the Law of the Spirit of Life.

God’s breath is now breathed into, not just the human race as a whole, but uniquely into every follower of Jesus, the Messiah. Why? Because we are the new people of God, the new Israel, we carry the gospel — the good news — that God keeps his promises.

The Spirit is Life, Sin is Death

In Romans, Paul has drawn several contrasts:

  • sin vs. righteousness
  • the old Adam vs. the new Adam
  • death vs. life
  • flesh vs Spirit
  • Law of Sin and Death vs Law of Spirit of life
  • those not in Christ vs those in Christ

All of these contrasts are saying the same thing — living according to God’s plan leads to life, living according to “flesh” (that which is corruptible, decaying) leads to death. So, the contrasts are clear — God has made a way by fulfilling the original law, to create life again, defeating the enemy called death.

How Do We Set Our Mind on the Spirit?

The Law of the Spirit is about life, first and foremost. It is about life as God originally intended it. It is about life that if abundant and at peace with God. It is about life that leads to the new heavens and the new earth in the eternal presence of God as God had always intended it.

So, how do we get there. Well, we only get there through the one who carried sin to the cross, Jesus. We only get there through the one whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead, Jesus. We only get there by recognizing that the sin offering of Christ on our behalf fulfilled the Law of God, condemned sin, and paid our penalty. Then, the resurrection of Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed, broke the power which sin held over humanity. And, broke it decisively, once and for all time, future life guaranteed by God.

So, we choose life. Life in all its forms, life in all its expressions, life which uplifts, gives hope, helps others, is generative, life which transcends the time we have on this earth, and whose values are eternal values, not values of that which is failing and dying all around us. Life is a choice Jesus has placed before us and it’s ours for the choosing.

We have a cat. Actually, we don’t have a cat, but Jack and Jean Willis have a cat who spends lots of time visiting in the neighborhood. Debbie calls him Pretty Kitty, and he is a rather striking cat. We have taken to feeding him, and in the winter a couple of years ago, Debbie started letting Pretty Kitty come inside to get out of the cold. And, mostly he is well behaved, at least until recently.

Somehow, Pretty Kitty started scratching the furniture. You know how cats do that — put out their paws and work their claws back and forth in this little catch-and-release routine that eventually shreds the legs of your chairs and sofas. Pretty Kitty earns a trip back outside everytime he does that . Lately, he’s been spending lots of time outside.

Last night I felt sorry for him, so I brought his dish in from the back porch, put fresh water in his bowl, and let him in. As a signal to him to be on his best behavior, we put two scratching posts in the den — one in front of his favorite sofa leg, and another in front of a chair leg that he also favors.

So, in he comes, eats and drinks some in the kitchen, just like old times. Walking into the den, he paused to check out the scratching posts blocking his normal targets. He actually walked over to the sofa, sniffed around, and then walked to the other end of the den and began his grooming routine.

He sat on the rug for awhile, then went behind my chair and continued that combination of licking, biting fur, and licking some more that cats do to keep themselves tidy. But suddenly, without warning or provocation, he silently positioned himself behind the right rear leg of my chair, and began — you guessed it — to scratch on the chair. As if to say, “I see those scratching posts over there, but I’m still the Cat and I’ll do what I want to.”

Immediately, I yelled for Debbie (in the midst of making a phone call) and out the door Pretty Kitty went. Banished again. All because he made the wrong choice. He chose scratching over behaving. He can’t help it, he’s a cat.

But Paul says, we can help it. Or more accurately, God in Christ can help it for us. We can choose to live by our own whims, by our flesh, which leads to death. Or we can choose the road to life, the law of the Spirit of life. We no longer are dead men walking. There is now no condemnation, Paul says, to those who are in Christ Jesus. Sentence commuted, pardon granted, prison doors opened, prisoners set free, debt paid, life restored — all because Jesus took sin to the cross where God condemned it and not us, nailed it to that tree, and then beat Sin at its own game by defeating Death.

Could it shake your faith in the resurrection?

Time magazine and other media outlets are reporting on a tablet of stone inscribed with ink that might contain a pre-Christian resurrection story.  Or it might not, depending upon what scholar you listen to.  The tablet, called Gabriel’s Revelation by archaeologists, may contain lines that hint that a certain Jew would be killed, but raised on the third day.  Sound familiar?  Anitquities scholars think so, and think that this may be the pre-Christian basis for the resurrection story.

Of course, Christian scholars contend that if the hope of a murdered-yet-resurrected messiah existed in 1st century BC Israel, it only shows that God was preparing the way for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Either way, if the stone is authentic, it could shed new light on the pre-Christian religious environment in Israel.

If the tablet is proven to be authentic, and if it does speak of a person who will be killed and raised on the third day, would this undermine or strengthen faith in the resurrection of Jesus?  Why do you think so?  This is no Davinci Code, but a real piece of history.  Now if scholars can just agree on what it means.

Sermon: Why Did I Do That?

Why Did I Do That?
Romans 7:15-25 NIV

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Everything To Lose

On March 12, 2008, 14 months after taking the oath of office as the governor New York, Eliot Spitzer resigned the governorship citing “personal failings.” Those failings, it turned out, were reported in the New York Times two days earlier — Spitzer, the governor of New York, and former Attorney General of New York, was under federal investigation for his involvement with a prostitution ring operating out of Washington, DC.

Spitzer had been called by Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, “the future of the Democratic Party.” He had handily won election as governor, had an extraordinary reputation as a prosecutor, and had been responsible for the investigation that brought down the Gambino crime family’s influence in New York. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, married to a beautiful woman, Silda, who founded a children’s charity, father of 3 children, son of a well-known and respected New York real estate family, Spitzer had the world by the tail. Until he did what he knew was wrong, illegal at that, and got caught at it.

Now, before we get too hard on Eliot Spitzer, or Bill Clinton, or the endless line of public figures who do stupid, and sometimes criminal things, let’s take a look at this passage in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

The Frustration of Life

Paul expresses a frustration that many of us — okay, all of us — have experienced at one time or other. Have you ever had to apologize to someone for some thoughtless act or word? And you probably asked yourself, “Why did I do that?” Well, Paul understands your frustration, and expresses it this way himself –

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.

Paul was actually saying something as old as Greek and Roman culture itself, for there was an old debating question that was trotted out in the public forums of Rome, that went something like this –

Even though I know what the right thing to do is, why can’t I bring myself to do it?

This thing of knowing to do right, but not doing it is universal and timeless. Parents who tell their children, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” are living out this paradox, this frustration, right in front of their kids. Let’s break this down and see if we can understand it a little better ourselves.

Sin and The Law

Sin and The Law — sounds like a TV show, doesn’t it. But these are two words we really need to understand. And, they have special meanings when Paul uses them here. By “law” Paul means God’s law, the law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Law of God, including the Ten Commandments. The whole deal given by God to Moses for the people of God. And The Law is important because it distinguishes the people of God from everyone else. Israel was to live by God’s law so the nation could fulfill the promise God made to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations.

Sin. This is a word we do not use in casual conversation today. And, Paul doesn’t mean “sins” — lots of bad things people do. No, Paul uses the word Sin here with a capital “S” — the Sin Force, the Sin Principle, also know as Evil. But, the word “sin” has a pretty tame meaning in Greek — it means missing the mark. It’s the image of an archer who shoots his arrow, but it misses the bulls-eye. It doesn’t matter how much it misses the bulls-eye, a miss is a miss. Sin misses the mark God sets for his people. Sin shoots wide of the target. But, more than that, Sin doesn’t just miss the mark — Sin gets us to aim for another target all together.

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I got a BB gun for Christmas. I wanted a BB gun, I had asked for a BB gun, and I suppose my parents thought I was old enough, and responsible enough to have a BB gun. Mine was a Daisy, lever-action BB gun. You loaded the copper BBs — they looked like copper to me — into a hole in the barrel, turned a disk on the end of the barrel to keep the BBs from falling out of your gun, pumped the lever to put a BB into the chamber, and you fired away!

But, as I opened my BB gun on Christmas morning, it was to a chorus of my mom and dad saying things like –

Never point this at anybody.
Don’t shoot anything but the target.
Don’t shoot birds.
Don’t shoot your eye out.
And so on.

Coincidentally, my friend, Charles Norris, who lived in the house directly behind ours, also got a BB gun that year. So, we were set — two 10 year olds, armed to the teeth. Of course, the first thing I did was shoot a bird. I really didn’t mean to shoot it — actually I didn’t mean to kill it — but I did, and I had to bury it in the backyard to conceal my murderous deed from my parents. I felt a little like Cain killing Abel and trying to cover it up.

You would think I would have learned a lesson from that experience, but of course, I did not. So, Charles and I proceeded to see what other things we could shoot, and what would happen when we did. The neighbors who lived next door to us were not very friendly people, as I recall. And, they drove a Cadillac. Not that there was anything wrong with driving a Cadillac, I just didn’t know anybody except our nextdoor neighbors who did. Charles and I hung out behind our garage, which had a little workshop space that we converted into our club. We crawled in and out of this secret clubhouse through a window in the back. One day on a total whim, we both aimed our BB guns toward the next door neighbor’s house, and let a couple of BBs fly. Nothing happened, so we went about our business doing 10-year old boy stuff.

That evening, our neighbor knocked on our door. I saw her, and kind of ducked down so she couldn’t see me as my dad answered the door. I could tell from the muffled adult conversation that I was in trouble. To make a long, and ultimately painful story short, Charles and I had shot the glass out of their backdoor! Several things happened to me that night, the least painful of which was I got my BB gun confiscated.

The point of that story is that not only did I miss the target with my BB gun, I was shooting at all the wrong things purposely. That’s Sin. That urge, force, temptation — whatever you want to call it — that not only causes us to miss God’s target, but actually has us shooting at the wrong thing!

The Law comes to bear on that situation, by reminding us that we did not hit the mark — we missed the target God had for us, and oh by-the-way, you’re not even shooting in the right direction.

Why Do We Do It?

So, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Why do we do that sort of thing?” Why do we shoot at the wrong target, missing God’s mark, and actually doing the opposite of what we are supposed to do?

And, isn’t Paul writing to Christians here, and aren’t we supposed to be able to obey God?

Okay, let’s take those one at a time. Why do we do it? Paul says, evil is right there alongside of us. Evil — not just bad choices, Evil itself. Evil is that which is opposed to God. Evil is that which leads to death. God leads to life. Evil is opposed to God. Evil effects everyone, even Christians. Here’s how –

Friday and Saturday, Debbie and I worked in the garden. Our raised beds aren’t really working out too well, so we’re doing what any self-respecting gardeners would do — we’re expanding the garden! We doubled the size of our garden plot, dug up about 400-square feet of grass, fenced it in, and will plant three varieties of seed potatoes there, plus some other stuff.

Gardening is hard work. Before I became a gardener, I didn’t think gardening took much effort. I no longer think that. Both days we have worked hard, sweated, and dug and still we’re not finished. Saturday we finally got the fence up, and in the midst of that it started raining, but I had to finish, gather the tools, and then head inside. I was beyond dirty. I had changed shirts three times, used one shirt to wipe the mud and dirt off my arms and legs, and was really, really dirty. When I got in the shower, my feet were so dirty that the water running over them did not wash the caked on dirt off. I had to sit on the floor of the shower and use a brush to scrub the dirt off my feet and legs. That is dirty.

Now, how did I get that dirty? By being in the garden, by being in the dirt. The more I worked, the dirtier I got. We live in that kind of world. A world where the force of Sin, the force of Evil has so dirtied God’s creation that some of it rubs off on us. We’re affected by it, tainted by the stain of sin. We can’t help it, we can’t avoid it, we can’t outwit it. It is the nature of the environment in which we live.

Evil and God

N. T. Wright in his book, Evil and The Justice of God, says that our culture has three approaches to evil –

  1. We don’t believe it is so bad.
  2. We’re shocked when confronted with evil.
  3. We believe things will get better.

Evil, Sin, opposition to God — are all pieces of the same puzzle. All of them lead to death, a dead-end, no way out, an unfulfilled life. We believe the “lie” instead of the promise of God. Scott Peck, wrote People of the Lie, to counter the idea in his profession as a psycho-therapist that there is no such thing as evil.

Not all evil has the same consequence or effect, however. A person who cheats on a test and Adolf Hitler may both have sinned, but the horror of concentration camps outweighs a stolen test answer my orders of magnitude. But, both are expressions of evil.

We are influenced by evil, surrounded by the environment in which evil holds forth, and contaminated by its effects.

Some Biblical scholars believe that Paul is actually speaking of the nation of Israel here, when he says “I.” Much like our “royal WE” the first century used a literary device where are writer would speak in the first person — use the word “I” — to represent a larger group, without having to be so explicit.

Substitute the word “Israel” for every “I” Paul uses, and you see the same thing. Israel doesn’t do what it wants to do. Israel doesn’t obey God. Israel loves the law of God, but doesn’t keep it. Israel has failed to hit God’s mark, and indeed is also shooting at the wrong target in the first century.

So, what are we to do? Paul asks that very question — Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!

It is Jesus death that gives us life. God lets the Sin Force get so great, that it must be dealt with. He lets Sin do its worst. Then, God wraps all that up, hands it to Jesus, condemns Sin, and had Jesus bear it to the cross. Sins great penalty is death. Not only does God kill the Sin, but He breaks the hold Sin has on us through death in the resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! Jesus takes Sin to the cross, bears it in his body, dies with sin clutched tightly to himself, and kills the power of sin in the process. Then, the one-two punch culminates in Death also being defeated as God raises Jesus, brings him back to life, back through the door of death, back to a new resurrected, glorified life everlasting. Life in the age to come, but here and now. Thanks be to God, indeed!

Right now, we live in that in-between time — between the defeat of Sin and Death and God’s final victory. We now live in a shadow of the age to come, the kingdom of God. One day Sin and Evil will be fully vanquished from God’s good creation. As the new people of God, we help in hastening that day. Until then, until that day fully comes, we live in-between, on the battlefield in the war between God and Sin. God wins, we know that already. But we still live in the present reality, struggling at times, failing at other times, but always aware that our victory has been bought in Jesus death and resurrection. Who can deliver us from this struggle with Death? Thanks be to God, it is through Jesus Christ our Lord!