Month: October 2008

Sermon: Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace

Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace

Philippians 4:1-9 NIV

1Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

2I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church from 1932-1984, is best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was so convinced of the connection between the mind and the spirit that he established a program of Christian psychology in the basement of the church. Peale sold over 20-million copies of The Power of Positive Thinking, and his life is summarized this way —

Peale applied Christianity to everyday problems and is the person who is most responsible for bringing psychology into the professing Church, blending its principles into a message of “positive thinking.” Peale said, “through prayer you … make use of the great factor within yourself, the deep subconscious mind … [which Jesus called] the kingdom of God within you … Positive thinking is just another term for faith.” He also wrote, “Your unconscious mind … [has a] power that turns wishes into realities when the wishes are strong enough.”


The world-famous Mayo Clinic encourages its patients to practice positive thinking. Research indicates, according to the Mayo Clinic, that the results of positive thinking can include:

  • Decreased negative stress
  • Greater resistance to catching the common cold
  • A sense of well-being and improved health
  • Reduced risk of coronary artery disease
  • Easier breathing if you have certain lung diseases, such as emphysema
  • Improved coping ability for women with high-risk pregnancies
  • Better coping skills during hardships
So, if nothing else, as we move into cold season, positive thinking can prove helpful. USA Today reported on the research of Dr. Carol Ryff, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Ryff noted —

“There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn’t just a state of mind,” she says. “It also has linkages to what’s going on in the brain and in the body.” Ryff has shown that individuals with higher levels of well-being have lower cardiovascular risk, lower levels of stress hormones and lower levels of inflammation, which serves as a marker of the immune system.” USA Today, Oct 12, 2004

 

So, there is something to thinking positively. The question is — Should we as Christians practice positive thinking? And, is positive thinking all we need to live a full and peaceful life?

Paul’s Encouragement
Paul writes to his friends in the church in Philippi and tells them — “8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Sounds like positive thinking to me — true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable — all positive attributes that we as Christians are to think about. But why is Paul saying this? What brings him to give the Christians in Philippi this advice? After all, things are bad there.

It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were thrown in jail. The population of Philippi consisted of few Jews, so few that Lydia and a handful of God-fearers were meeting down by the river at “the place of prayer.” Philippi was actually named for Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It was a military and agricultural center located on the Egnatian Way, the main east-west road in the Roman empire.

According to Jona Lendering, the city was home to “two bathhouses, a forum, a temple dedicated to the emperor, an aqueduct, and inscriptions in Latin. There’s also a temple for the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates.”

Why then, was Paul telling them to think about good things? Well, the key to understanding that is found in the verses that conclude Philippians chapter 3. Here’s how Paul winds up that chapter —

17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Paul couldn’t have given a more apt description of life in Philippi. With the temple for emperor worship looming over them, the Philippian Christians well understood that there were those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” It was as Roman cross, a Roman governor, and a Roman system that tried to do away with Jesus.

Paul says of those who live in the culture of the empire —
  • their destiny is destruction: The purpose of the empire was power and conquest. It’s destiny was both to destroy and to ultimately be destroyed. The founding of Philippi itself was testament to that destructive power. The conflict that brought the end to the Roman republic, and saw the rise of the Roman emperor was marked by the founding of the city of Philippi as a colony for retired Roman centurions and commanders.
  • their god is their stomach: Appetites for the Roman life is what Paul is referring to here. The Philippians live to consume; to eat more than they need; to satiate, not just satisfy, their passions and longings; and, to do so with the approval and encouragement of the Roman empire.
  • their glory is their shame: The glory of Rome, a familiar phrase, was based on power, wealth, excess, and corruption. Living by the Roman system made them partakers of the glory that was Rome’s — the pax Romana — which brought death, destruction, cruelty, and inhumanity to the cultures Rome conquered and ultimately it’s own citizens.
  • their mind is on earthly things: Everything Rome stood for, and by extension Philippi, was fleeting, earthbound, and tenuous. They worshipped gods they make fun of, jockeyed for power and position, and sought their own good at the expense of those who were most in need.
Wait a minute! Does any of this sound familiar? A culture that values military power? A culture that celebrates wealth and status? A culture that gives lip-service to a religious system that has little influence on its ethical and moral choices? A culture that has been the envy of everyone else in the world, and has basked in the glory of its place in history?

Well, if you’ve followed the financial crisis or the presidential election, you’ve heard all of these things before. This is the culture that the followers of Christ found themselves in 2000 years ago, and it is the culture that we find ourselves in today. Same song, second verse.

A Contrast Society
But, Paul says to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Now, when Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven” that is a direct challenge to the Roman empire. The residents of Philippi held citizenship in the Roman empire. They, like Paul, were citizens of Rome. With all the rights and privileges that included.

But Paul challenges that notion. By saying, “our citizenship is in heaven” Paul doesn’t mean “wait until you die to get out of this place.” No, Paul means, we’re citizens of a different community, a community that lives in contrast to the Roman empire. We are citizens of the kingdom of God, not of Caesar.

And to further assure them that he does not mean “heaven-when-you-die” citizenship, Paul says, “We eagerly await a Savior from there (heaven) who will come here (earth) and bring everything under his control, and transform us into his image, his glory. In other words, we live as citizens of heaven here, and while we’re doing that we’re waiting for Jesus to come back. When he does he’ll change the world, and he’ll change us. Not a bad thing to hope for.

Then, chapter 3 ends and chapter 4 begins with these words —

“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”


So, the idea is this — the way you are to stand firm in the Lord is to realize that 1) there are those who live as enemies of the cross, and 2) you are to live as a citizen of heaven.


How Do We Then Live?

Alright, took us awhile to get here, but what does that mean? How are we to live if we are citizens of heaven? That’s exactly what Paul tells us and the Philippians in Chapter 4.


First, Paul encourages them to agree with one another — to be united in their community of faith.


Secondly, Paul encourages them to rejoice in the Lord, be gentle to others, don’t be anxious, but pray.


Finally, think good thoughts —


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


One of my favorite writers, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace prize nominee and Buddhist monk, says that the things we take in to our lives are important. Nhat Hanh says that those things include parts of our culture like TV, movies, books, media, and other intellectual things we consume that affect our lives. There are times, he says, when we need to turn off those programs or songs or movies that do not help us to live lives of peace and well-being.


Paul’s version of the power of positive thinking isn’t wishful thinking. In Paul’s mind we are not building castles in the sky, but are living our lives by an alternative vision — the vision that God has sent Jesus and that through Jesus, God is making all things new.


Followers of Christ are hopeful, positive, and good, not because thinking like that will make us rich and powerful, but because those are the attributes of the kingdom of God. We think about beautiful things because the Creator of the Universe is the author of beauty. We think about good, true, noble, pure, praiseworthy, and admirable things because these are part of the image of God in us. An image that Christ is coming back to complete in resurrection power.


We think this way because we serve a living Christ, a risen Lord, who has defeated the most negative, destructive force in our world — Death. And if death is dead, then life abounds.


But, Paul also reminds us that we think positive, good thoughts because we have seen others do think that way. Paul makes the bold assertion —


“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”


Wow. Would you say that to someone else? Anything that you have heard me say, or seen me do, or learned from me, put it into practice? We learn from others whose faith has enabled them to think differently. To embrace a hopeful vision of God and his plan for all mankind. A positive message of good news for all people. A counterpoint to all that the empires of this world present as a competing vision.


Christian Thinking Is Centered in Christ and Learned from Others

So, that’s it. Paul’s take on the power of positive thinking. And the amazing part is that all humanity seems to be hardwired to think positively. When we do we are healthier, happier, more faithful, and more hopeful. Our reason to think good thoughts is in Jesus, our example comes from others.


Let me tell you a story that will help you understand how all this works together.


In south Florida, a pretty typical American family composed of mom, dad, and four kids was living a pretty typical American life. Until their oldest son, CJ, started complaining with stomach and back pain. CJ’s parents took him from one doctor to another. Tests were ordered — x-rays, blood work, examinations — but the pain would return and the cycle would start all over again. Did I tell you that CJ is 9 years old? And that he plays flag football, loves his dog Diamond, and is a pretty typical 9-year old boy.


One doctor ordered an MRI for CJ, but in its infinite wisdom, their insurance company denied the doctor’s request. So,two more months’ of pain and doctors’ visits continued. Finally, an orthopedic specialist ordered the MRI, and this time the insurance company okayed it.


The results were bad. CJ was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a very serious, but treatable form of cancer. We heard about CJ from Debbie’s sister, Christy, who sent us the link to the family’s website. The website has morphed from being about typical family stuff, into a journal of their walk through CJ’s battle with cancer.


As in any case where a child is sick, their story is heart-wrenching. But, CJ is amazing. This little 9-year old boy has become the encourager of the family. And he’s a poet, too. CJ’s mom has posted several of his poems, and the grace and courage of this little boy is astounding. I want you to listen to this poem by CJ. It’s titled “There Was God.”


There was God….

God created the Universe.
Inside that universe was a solar system;
inside that solar system was a planet,
inside that planet was a continent,
inside that continent was a country;
inside that country was a state;
inside that state was a city;
inside that city was a county;
inside that county was house;
inside that house was a boy;
inside that boy was a heart;
inside that heart………

There was God. by CJ George


CJ understands what Paul meant —


whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things —


Because CJ knows that God has a plan, and that plan includes him.



Bread lines and tent cities

 I’ve been writing about the coming, and now present, economic crisis since last year (here, here, and here).  Popular financial advisor, Suze Orman, speaking on Anderson Cooper’s show tonight, said that the economy is in “intensive care” right now and will be for a year to 18-months.  Then, she continued, we’ll be in the “hospital” for another year or two, and then we’ll move to “rehab” for a couple of years.  Bottom line:  we’re looking at 5-years of decline, struggle, rebuilding, and finally recovery.  Five years.  

When asked if this means “bread lines” or something else, Orman said, “It could mean bread lines.”  Wow.  She went on to add that some who are calling in to her show are already living in their cars.  In America.  In 2008.  And, it will get worse. 

My question is:  Are church leaders paying attention?  I read a lot of blogs, both on my feed and browsing.  Several have made comments about the presidential election, the debates, or hot-button cultural issues.  Very few — I found only one today — are addressing the current economic meltdown.  Shouldn’t somebody be giving churches advice, guidance, and help through these rough economic times?  Shouldn’t we in churches be thinking about how our churches will help our communities during the next 5 years?  

Of course, this stuff isn’t attractive.  It isn’t about growing our churches.  It distracts us from parsing arcane theological positions or running off to the next conference.  But, this crisis is unprecedented, pervasive, and pernicious.  This is not “the-sky-is-falling” alarm.  The sky has fallen, and now we have to figure out how we will function in this new global economic mess we find ourselves in.  What are you doing?  What conversations are you having at your church?  I’d be interested to know.

Water into wine again, almost

 In the little Italian town of Marino, south of Rome, they celebrate a famous victory with a wine festival — Sagra dell’Uva — each year.  During the festival, plumbers rechannel the town’s fountain so that white wine flows from it at the height of the celebration.  This year, however, a slight plumbing miscalculation sent water to the fountain and wine into the homes of local residents.  While not exactly a miracle, local residents were still extremely thankful!

The Upside of the Economic Downturn

Today the stock market fell another 500 points.  Iceland may go bankrupt, NPR reported today.  Euro-countries are aligning their financial strategies so they speak with one economic voice.  Government leaders are already talking about more federal dollars, in addition to the $700-billion just voted by Congress.  And the bad news keeps coming.  Churches, I pointed out yesterday, will feel the fallout from this economic meltdown.  But, is there an upside?  Not to trivialize the situation, but yes, I think there is an upside for churches in this economic turndown.

  1. Churches will be forced to focus.  We’re cutting our church budget this year by about 10%.  To do that, we have to look carefully at what is really important to our mission and message.  That kind of attention and discipline will make us more effective in ministry.
  2. People will turn to churches for help.  Plan now for ways to help those who need money for utilities, food to feed their families, and warm coats for the cold winter.  This preparation must go beyond the typical food pantry, clothes closet that most churches have, although those can be a good starting point.  
  3. Communities will pull together.  When Katrina hit, our church called together the entire community to discuss ways we might help.  People want to help others, and churches can unite the community in that effort.
  4. Church can demonstrate an alternative to the consumer society.  If church is an alternative community living out the message of Christ, what better example is there than living out an alternative to the current consumerist approach that drives the global economy.  Generosity, hospitality, sharing, sacrificing, giving, saving, stewardship of resources are all attributes of a Christian lifestyle.  
Is this economic downturn good?  Not in my opinion because lots of real people will lose savings, retirement accounts, their homes, and their jobs.  But, churches can become a powerful force in the months, and possibly years, it will take to recover from the current turmoil.  This will not go away quickly according to most experts.  Churches can make a difference.  What about yours?

Economic fallout hits churches

If you understand the current economic meltdown, your are lightyears ahead of most of us.  Basically, we have a serious, global economic collapse underway.  News from financial markets from Brazil to Shanghai to London to New York was all bad today.  All the indicators are pointing in the wrong direction — job losses, unemployment, credit crisis, bank insolvency, unregulated securities, and the list goes on.  People who understand this are worried and furious that this house of cards has collapsed of its own greed and manipulation.  

Churches are not exempt from the economic fallout.  Here are some of the impacts that await us:

 

  1. Retirement accounts lose value.  The stock market has fallen 30% in the past year.  In real terms, if you had $30,000 in your retirement account, you now have about $21,000.  And, you might have lost more if you had stock in Wachovia, accounts guaranteed by Lehman Brothers, or Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac you lost even more.  Loss of investment principal will delay retirement for some, or make life in retirement more difficult. 
  2. Unemployment increases.  760,000 jobs have been lost in 2008.  More job losses are on the way with bank mergers, financial institution failures, and the ripple effect that tight credit has on business capital.  
  3. Increase in cost of necessities, decrease in discretionary spending.  Consumer spending is already declining as people wisely start to hold on to what they have.  More will do the same, and because our economy runs on ‘borrowing and spending’ versus saving, fewer sales will be made, stores will close, factories will shut down, and we might actually approach deflation, or a shrinkage in the money supply in the market.  
  4. More people in need of basic services.   The social services director for our county told me that they have more requests for help now than their staff can keep up with.  Watch for this to increase as more people need help with food, medical care, transportation, housing, clothing, and jobs.  This presents an opportunity for churches to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and do the very things Jesus instructed us to do.
  5. Decline in charitable giving.  Charities (substitute “churches” here) are already reporting decreases in contributions.  Churches are not exempt from the crunch many will find themselves in.  
  6. Limited financing/refinancing options.  If your church needs financing or refinancing you might run into difficulty due to tight credit conditions.  Think about delaying  your plans for building or remodeling.  As a local businessman told me today, “This is not a good time to have debt.”  
The economic turmoil we are in does have some positives, however.  Tomorrow, “The Upside of the Economic Downturn.”  See you tomorrow. 

“Summer” for churches is over

Debbie and I have learned a lot about growing vegetables this year.  We learned that mulch under your raised beds acts like a big sponge and makes the beds too wet.  But, we also learned when you remove the mulch and create drainage that the beds return to a productive, healthy state.  We learned not to fertilize beans because you get more vine than beans.
 
We also learned that plants start to play out as the season progresses.  Tomatoes get smaller, insect attacks increase, and the general quality of the veggies is not as good as the first harvests.  I think we picked the last of the tomatoes last week.  We pulled up some plants a couple of weeks ago, and the rest will go this week.  We also learned that voles like potatoes, especially russets, and that they will chew on as many potatoes as possible, without actually eating a whole one.  We lost most of the russets that way.  But apparently voles don’t like red potatoes because they didn’t eat the Cranberry potatoes.  Or maybe the voles had so many russets to eat they didn’t make it to the red potatoes.  But, either way, we harvested some late red potatoes that are delicious.
 
The garden looks pretty sad right now.  All the lush cucumber, watermelon, and cantaloupe vines are gone. The sugar snap peas gave out long ago.  The remaining tomato plants are stalky and almost leaf-bare.  The bean vines are drying up, and the compost heap has grown dramatically.  To look at it, you might think that the garden was dead.
 
But it’s just the end of a season.  We have already received our lettuce and celery seeds, plus we’ll plant more spinach, too.  As you know, these cool weather crops don’t like the July and August heat.  But, this fall, if all goes well, we’ll have fresh salads again.  Plus, the freezer we bought this year is over half full of frozen tomatoes waiting to be made into soup and sauces; frozen apples that we bought locally; frozen blueberries picked in July; some beans from the garden; and, frozen peaches.
 
My point in all this is that seasons bring changes to gardens and churches.  What works in the garden in the summer doesn’t work in the fall and winter.  Experienced gardeners know that and adapt.  Experienced church leaders do the same.  Our culture is changing, and so must our churches.  Church attendance nationwide has fallen from about 40% of the population to only 17.5% on any Sunday.  “Regular church attendance” is now considered to be 3-out-of-8 Sundays. Older adults are more likely to attend church than younger adults.  And the list of changes goes on.
 
We can bemoan the fact that it isn’t “summer” for churches anymore.  But, like the garden, that won’t do us much good.  Instead we can figure out what will “grow” in this new environment we find ourselves in.  Like our experience in the garden this summer, we’re still learning.  Some things will work and others will not.  But churches, like gardeners, are optimists.  We believe that next year will be better.

Sermon: Pressing on Toward the Prize

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 5, 2008. I hope your day is a good one.

Pressing On Toward The Prize

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Choosing A Story
This has been an interesting presidential campaign. Long, but interesting. If you have followed the campaigns since each party convention, you know that both the Republicans and Democrats have chosen a presidential candidate, and they each have chosen running mates. At each of their conventions, both the Republicans and Democrats adopted a party platform. But, that’s not what we’re voting on in this election.

Each party has their own favorite hot-button issues. But those issues are not what we’re voting on in this election. What we’re really voting on are stories — the stories of the candidates. And, they are all interesting stories.

John McCain. Former Navy pilot. Son and grandson of admirals. Known as a maverick both in the Navy and since. War hero. Prisoner of war. Torture survivor. A compelling story of honor and service to country.

Barack Obama. His father came to the US from Kenya during the Kennedy administration in the days in which our country sought to educate, train, and inspire hope in the world. A mother from Kansas, grandparents who raised him. College, law school, state legislature, and US Senate. A real story of the American dream and hope for even the most disadvantaged.
Sarah Palin. Hockey mom. Moose hunter. Mayor of Wasilla. Governor of Alaska. Highly competitive in high school sports, earning the name Sarah Baracuda. Maverick, reformer. One of the regular people who cooks for her family, drives to work, and juggles the demanding responsibilities of a family of five and running the state of Alaska.

Joe Biden. Three decades in the US Senate. Survivor of family tragedy when his wife and daughter were killed and his sons severely injured in a car accident between the time of his election and swearing in to the US Senate for the first time. Biden took the oath of office standing in his son’s hospital room. Survivor of a brain aneurysm. Commutes to Washington DC by train each day, like thousands of others who work in the Capitol. A story of persistence in the face of tragic loss, competence, and achievement.

Those are the stories we’re voting on. And, guess what? That’s what we’ve always done in selecting our leaders. For example, if I say George Washington, what story comes to mind? Might be the winter at Valley Forge, or crossing the Delaware, but probably the first story is the legend of the cherry tree. Historians have pretty well proven that the cherry tree story is not factual, but it still seems to represent the “Father of our Country” doesn’t it?

If I say Thomas Jefferson, what stories come to mind? Monticello, and Jefferson’s talent in the fields of architecture, farming, and gardening. Or, maybe you think of the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights, or freedom of religion. All of those define Thomas Jefferson for us.

Abraham Lincoln? Log cabin, humble birth, dry wit, a common man with uncommon wisdom. Of course, we think of Lincoln also as the Great Emancipator, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And, tragically, part of the story of Lincoln is his death at the hands of an assassin.

Personal stories capture our imagination and play a great role in who we choose to lead this country. And, that brings us to this passage today, in case you’re wondering what in the world the presidential election, the stories of past presidents, and Paul have in common. And the answer is — stories.

Paul’s Story
In this passage from Philippians 3, we get Paul’s version of his own story. It’s one thing to have someone else tell your story, but no one knows your story better than you do. Or at least, no one will emphasize the parts of your story you want to emphasize more than you will. What was important to Paul in his story? Well, just listen –

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:

  • circumcised on the eighth day,
  • of the people of Israel,
  • of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew of Hebrews;
  • in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as for zeal, persecuting the church;
  • as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
So, that’s it. Paul is telling us the parts of his story he wants us to know, the parts that are important to him. Or were important, but we’ll get to what happened in a moment. Here Paul takes us through his life from birth to adulthood, highlighting the parts that are important to him.

His life begins in the home of observant Jews, because when he is eight days old, he is circumcised according to Jewish law and custom. Then, he reiterates that he is a Jew, but not just any Jew. A Benjamite, a Jew with special heritage. A Hebrew of the Hebrews — outstanding, in other words. Perhaps Paul is referring to his time spent learning in the school of Gamaliel, one of the outstanding rabbis and teachers of Paul’s day.

Perhaps Paul meant that his family was a devout practicing Jewish family, and that as he grew up he learned and incorporated those values into his life as well. Paul does tell us that as an adult, he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap today, and the very word ‘Pharisee’ has come to mean hypocrite, legalistic, and hard-hearted. But, in Paul’s day the Pharisees interpreted the Law. They helped all of the Jews observe the myriad laws, and rules, and regulations with great precision. The Pharisees were the conservatives, the group who promoted a literal application of scripture, and the group that made sure the Law was being properly kept.
To be a devout Jew meant you observed the Law, the rituals, the feast days, the dietary regimen, and all the other strictures on Jewish life. The Pharisees, however, were also overbearing, pompous, self-righteous, and arrogant. But, hey, their job was to make everybody fall in line behind them.

Part of Pharisaic precision demanded that splinter groups, those who would dilute the faith, be dealt with. Christians were first viewed as a break-off from Judaism. All the followers of Jesus were Jews. They gathered in the Temple when in Jerusalem, they kept the Jewish dietary laws, and were basically observant Jews. Except, they kept teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah — the Anointed One. Of course, that was ridiculous because Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, and buried. And, despite reports that he had been seen alive, Paul saw Christians as a nuisance and threat to the Jewish way of life.

Rome allowed conquered territories to keep their local religions, as long as it was not a threat to the empire. Jesus was clearly a threat, because the Romans killed him. Paul was very interested, as a Roman citizen, of making sure that the Christians did not get all Jews in trouble by talking about and promoting the memory of the rebel Jesus. The best way to handle that was to stamp out this renegade sect before they caused more trouble.

So, Paul gathered letters from the Chief Priest, letters of introduction, allowing him to travel into Jewish communities in cities outside of Jerusalem, to look for and actively persecute Christians. That’s what Paul means when he says, “As for zeal, persecuting the church.”

Then, Paul adds — “As for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” In other words, Paul kept all the rules. All of them. Faultlessly. And, gave himself great credit for doing so.
The Center of Paul’s Story
Paul’s story revolved around Paul. The story Paul told about his own life was about his privileged birth, his national heritage, his superior education, his rise to power among the Pharisees, his relentless zeal in pursuing Christians, and his faultless observance of the Law. Paul was Paul’s best advocate. Nobody knew Paul’s story better than he did, and nobody could tell it better.

And, that is the story he would have lived out, except for one thing. Jesus. Paul is traveling, about his business of seeking out and killing Christians. He has already had a hand in stoning Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church. Now, Paul is on a mission to wipe out all the Christians. He is on his way to Damascus with credentials in hand, to continue his mission.

But a blinding light and a booming voice stop him cold. Paul cries out, “Who are you?” And Jesus answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And all at once, everything about Paul’s story changes.

Paul is no longer the center of Paul’s story. Paul is no longer the best of the best, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Paul has come face-to-face with this rebel, this Jesus, whom he now knows to be the risen, living Messiah of God. And, everything changes.

Paul’s story, which to him was a volume by itself, quickly becomes just a footnote in the story of God. For Paul did not realize that his story, the story of which he was so proud, was contained in a much bigger story, the story of God.

Remember when your kids or grandkids were little. They thought the world revolved around them. When they cried, someone grabbed a bottle or a diaper, or both. When they laughed, everyone smiled and laughed with them. When they said something cute, it got repeated until everybody they knew had heard it. But, then they went to school. And there they found out that they were one of 25 or 30 other kids, and that the teacher only had so much time, and everybody had to take turns, and you couldn’t always be first. And, then they went to high school, where you had to compete for a place on the football team, or cheerleading squad, or debate club because there were lots of kids who were talented and capable.
And, so the story goes. As we grow, we adjust our story to find our place in society.

Well, Paul had to adjust his story, too. Where Paul had once been the center, now Jesus was. Where Paul’s thoughts and desires were once the purpose on which he acted, now the words and life of Jesus gave Paul’s story new purpose. Paul’s understanding of his story changed when he found himself inside the story of God.
New Stories Bring New Hopes
Paul says he counts everything as loss, worthless, rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ. The story of Jesus changed everything for Paul. Now, Paul has a new purpose. Paul has new friends. Paul has a new agenda each day. Paul has a new vision — to be like Christ in his life, in his suffering, and in his death.

But, the story of Jesus isn’t just about living and dying, it’s about resurrection. And for Paul, this is the best part.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection of the dead — the promise of life with God. The resurrection of the dead — the evidence that death does not have the last word, but that the story of God is the biggest story ever because it encompasses not just life and death, but life, death, and the defeat of death, ushering in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Paul knows that is not yet a reality, but he also knows that God’s Kingdom is closer than it’s ever been, and Paul wants to be part of it.

This is the same Paul who thought he had it all figured out. The same Paul who knew the rules, and knew them so well that he could enforce them and preserve the true faith. Until he met Jesus. Now Paul has a new story, because he has found his place in the story of God. Listen to what Paul says now:
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul could find himself within the story of God. The prize of which Paul speaks is not heaven — it is the heavenly call of God to faithfulness to Christ, to finding your place in the story of God, to expressing the image of God in which you are made.

In the ancient games of the Greco-Roman world, runners strained for the finish line to win the laurel wreath. It was not that the wreath itself was of value — it would soon fade and wilt. But the winner’s wreath was placed on his head by the emperor himself. That was the tribute of a race well run.

For Paul, the victor’s wreath was not the culmination of his life’s story; it was the confirmation from the King whom he served that Paul had found his place in the story of God and had played his part faithfully.

The Story Before Us
We have today a story before us on this table. A story in bread and wine, symbols of a broken body and of shed blood. Symbols of self-giving and love. Symbols of sacrificial death. But, these symbols are also symbols of life — Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And, for his first miracle he turned water into wine.
So, the story before us in these simple elements is both a story of sacrifice and of life. Of death and of hope. Of sorrow and of joy. For we do not enter the story of communion today alone. The risen Christ is here, standing at this table, inviting us into the story of his life, death, and resurrection. Reminding us that he is with us now, until he comes again later. That he has set both a memorial meal and a festival before us. Our sorrow must give way to joy, and our mourning to hope. For we have found ourselves in the story of God, and we are pressing on toward the prize.

Let us pray.

Is Wikipedia the source for The Great Emergence?

 In my review of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, I questioned the accuracy of Tickle’s information about John Wimber and her conclusions that credit Wimber as a “proto-emergent” who influenced the current emerging church conversation.  After I posted that review, I searched “John Wimber” on Wikipedia.  I was astounded at the almost word-for-word similarity between the Wikipedia article on Wimber and Tickle’s book.  Here are some excerpts:

Wikipedia:  In 1974 he became the Founding Director of the Department of Church Growth at the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, which was founded by the Fuller Theological Seminary and the Fuller Evangelistic Association. He directed the department until 1978. 

The Great Emergence, p 157:  By 1974, he had become founding director of the Department of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, a position he would hold for almost five years.

My comment:  Very similar sentences, but the book truncates this section and wrongly identifies Wimber as affiliated with Fuller Seminary.  In fact Fuller’s School of World Mission (now Intercultural Studies) was headed up by Dr. Donald McGavran who is credited as the father of the church growth movement.  Peter Wagner was a faculty member at Fuller.  Wimber was an adjunct for the “Signs and Wonders” course at Fuller Seminary, which was a highly controversial course offering.  

Wikipedia:  In this time a House Church began to form in his home. This group began to embrace some of the beliefs of the Charismatic movement. This resulted in a split with the Quaker church that this group belonged to.

TGE, p157: During the Fuller years, a house church began in Wimber’s home.  Affiliated originally with his Quaker meeting, the group in time became first charismatic, and then so charismatic as to cause rupture with the Quakersim from which it had sprung.  

My comment:  Again, very similar and all the same elements appear in Tickle’s sentences that are contained in the Wikipedia entry.  

Wikipedia:  Wimber pastored this new church, which would later become known as the Anaheim Vineyard Christian Fellowship, from 1977 to 1994. Eventually, it outgrew his home and began to meet elsewhere. After initially joining Calvary Chapel, the church had some differences with the Calvary Chapel leadership, relating mainly to the practice of spiritual gifts. As a result, they left Calvary Chapel to join a small group of churches started by Kenn Gulliksen, known as Vineyard Christian Fellowships.

TGE, p157:  The Wimber congregation, predictably enough and shortly thereafter, outgrew the Wimber house and briefly joined itself to a Calvary Chapel.  The differences between the two groups, especially over the gifts of the Spirit, became too great, however: and the Wimberites left to join what was, at that time, a very small group of churches known as the Vineyard Christian Fellowships.

My comments:  Again, same thoughts as the Wiki article in the same paragraph.  

There are other examples, but you get my point, which is:  

If this is “one of the most important books of the year,” according to Brian McLaren, is Wikipedia the best research source Tickle could find?  

Tickle could have fact-checked with Fuller Seminary, interviewed people who knew Wimber, or read “Power Evangelism” by John Wimber.  Tickle also incorrectly credits Wimber with the “bounded-set, centered-set” concept for understanding church structure.  In fact, Paul Hiebert, missiologist and anthropologist, originated this discussion in his book, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues.  And, Hiebert’s concept was far more complex than Tickle represents.  Plus, Tickle identifies “centered set” as “center set,” a small but sloppy error.  (According to Hiebert, “centered-set” churches have Christ as the center around which persons gather.  Hiebert, p. 125).  

Am I being incredibly picky?  Perhaps, but this lack of precision when dealing with contemporary concepts is inexcusable in a book that purports to give us a “sweeping overview of church history.”  More importantly, it leads Tickle to the incorrect positioning of Wimber as a more significant figure in the emerging church than he is.  Wimber was a thorough-going church growth advocate, but he used “power evangelism” — modern-day signs and wonders — as the attractional element in the original Vineyard movement.  I heard Wimber himself say that the Vineyard movement might not last 50-years, so he did not conceive of Vineyard as a game-changer, but a contextual form of church reflecting his own personal spiritual journey to “do the stuff” — perform charismatic gifts of the Spirit such as healing the sick and raising the dead.  

I recognize that Tickle is giving the reader broad brush strokes of church history in her sweeping overview.  And, the book is certainly not an academic account of church history, or the great transformations in the life of the church.  But, even though it is brief and general in nature, Tickle could have been more precise, more accurate, and in Wimber’s case, more original.