Month: January 2010

The Perfect E-Reader according to me

The new Skiff Reader debuted at CES last week.

E-readers were all the rage at the Consumer Electronics Show last week. There were so many new e-readers introduced that one techno-wag actually whined about the number, scope, features, and size of so many devices. I looked at all the e-readers, glanced at most of their capabilities, but I’m not buying one yet.  Here’s my wish list for what I want an e-reader to do:

1. Do more than display digital books. Apple may (I hope) surprise everyone with an mega-iPhone device that will be a computer, video camera, media player, e-reader, gaming device, internet communicator, and perhaps even a phone, but at a hefty price. HP had some tablets on display when Steve Ballmer of Microsoft spoke, but no specs, delivery dates, or other info. Dell showed a 5″ tablet that has promise, and of course the Nexus One Google phone might fit the bill in most of the things I’m looking for. But I don’t want to buy a dedicated device.

2. Use an open reading platform. Apparently PDF and EPUB are the most ubiquitous, with Amazon’s Kindle using a completely proprietary system. Blio, a new digital publishing platform was also introduced at CES, but apparently it’s proprietary as well.  I want to be able to access my books over multiple devices, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

3.  Books available in the cloud from multiple devices. I like Kobo, the former ShortCovers mobile phone ebook reader and service.  Kobo has a very good interface for my Blackberry, plus I can login on my macbook as well.  I can download books, and access them from the cloud, and Kobo remembers where I was when I quit reading.

4.  Wireless purchase and accessibility. Kindle created this feature and others are following close behind.  It’s really so 20th century to have to download books to your computer, then sync to your mobile device.  This will be an assumed feature in the very short future.

5.  Notation, bookmarking, and other ways to personalize text. Most of the higher end e-readers already have this, and a new Samsung device lets you write with a stylus (but do we want a stylus?), just like writing a regular book.  But, is that what we really want to do, or do we want to link our notations to specific paragraphs?  Anyway, at a minimum the ability to interface with the text of the book itself.

6.  Ability to search across my entire digital library. I have about 2,000 printed books.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to search through each volume because invariably I think a reference is in one book, when really it’s in another.  Google Books is getting close with this, and if they ever settle their lawsuit with publishers, authors, and others Google Books may really be a handy reference tool.  But, back to e-readers — search is another basic feature that will have to be included in all e-readers.

7.  Cut-and-paste text from the e-reader to my writing device. I don’t see an alternative to heavy duty writing other than an ergonomic keyboard device like a desktop or laptop anytime soon.  Of course, voice recognition could turn writing into dictating, but writers will still need the ability to do research, clip a quote, footnote the source, and paste all of that into their main writing device.

8.  Video, audio, and color graphics capability. Black-and-white readers will be gone by next Christmas.  Too many color devices will be introduced in 2010 for anyone to settle for e-ink only technology.  One device manufacturer (I forget which one) demo-ed a reader that can switch between b&w e-ink and full color display.  Why not all color, all the time?  Digital books will take on a new form eventually, and will incorporate text, video, photos, graphics, and user interactive features.

9.  Designed for digital books, not print books. Currently digital books run way behind print books in sales, so ebooks are the digital versions of their printed-on-paper big brothers.  But that is changing quickly.  Within five years (maybe less) the curves will cross and digital will pass print as the media of choice.  Students will see it with textbooks and bring their new reading habits into the real world when they graduate.  One tech guru predicts that students will be using tablet computers instead of laptops in the near future.

10.  Foster communities for producing, sharing, and consuming media. Imagine a small group able to share notes, insights, video, audio, and photos around the book or periodical they are using as a study guide.  Of course, everyone would need access to a device, but prices will come down quickly.

That’s what I’m looking for in my stocking next Christmas.  What would you add to this set of specs, or how to you see the whole e-reader and other devices developing, especially as it relates to church?

Entertaining Angels: The Servants of Christ

Entertaining Angels:  The Servants of Christ

Second in the sermon series Entertaining Angels
January 10, 2010

The Angels Sing ‘Worthy is the Lamb”
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

6Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9And they sang a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

11Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.12In a loud voice they sang:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation 5:1-14 NIV

Angels and Other Wacky Beings

When I was about 10 years old, our family bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias.  I think my grandmother was selling them, actually, so we probably got a good deal.  But I remember the day those red hardbound books arrived.  We unpacked them and I began to look through them, amazed that any subject I could think of was included in the World Book.  Well, now we have the internet, which is a lot like a set of encyclopedias, except with lots of bad information.  Unlike the trustworthy World Book, the internet is full of both accurate, true, and totally ridiculous stuff.

If you google — and for those of you who don’t know the word “google,” it was named the word of the decade by the American Dialect Society — if you google, or search the internet, for the subject “angels” you get a lot of really interesting information. One entry I ran across mentioned both angels and ascended masters.  Angels I was familiar with, but I had never heard of “ascended masters.”

As I read along in the article for that website, they listed the ascended masters.  Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ wife on the earth and their two children, Buddha, and some other folks I hadn’t heard of.  The ascended masters, apparently had been angels, retired from their stints as heavenly beings, came to earth, married, and so on.  In other words, a pretty New Age sort of belief system, with no reference to Scripture, or even other ancient texts.

One entry on that same website responded to the question, “Am I a Christian?”  The answer was that the writer grew up in the Christian faith, but now with this new knowledge of angels, ascended masters, and some other sort of revelation had transcended the orthodox version of Christianity.  Love was mentioned a lot, too, I recall.

Now, my point in telling you all of this about ascended masters, none of which is either Biblical or true, is that some people want to latch onto angels in a sort of New Age spiritualism that separates angels from God the Father who created them, and Jesus Christ, in whose service they are engaged.

Let me say it more simply:  You can’t talk about angels if you don’t talk about Jesus.  Angels serve the Christ of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah.  So, any attempt to separate angels from the ministry of Christ is an erroneous effort to separate angels from their purpose.

Angels in the Life of Jesus

Last Wednesday night I handed out a partial list of the Biblical references to angels in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Let’s run down their presence in Jesus’ earthly ministry quickly:

1.  An angel announces the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Now this is my favorite angel passage because in it we get a glimpse into the sense of humor of the angels, and in this instance Gabriel the Archangel no less.  As Gabriel announces to John’s father the news that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son and they are to name him John, Zechariah, who is a priest in the Temple of God, begins to question Gabriel.  Here’s the exchange:

11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.[b] 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”  — Luke 1:11-20 NIV

Don’t you just love Gabriel’s answer — “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”

2.  Luke records Gabriel’s appearance to Mary announcing that she will bear the savior of the world, and Matthew records an angel’s appearance in a dream to Joseph assuring him that it is okay to marry Mary.

3.  Angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds.

4.  Angels send Joseph, Mary and Jesus off to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the king, who is seeking to kill this newborn King of the Jews.  When the danger is over, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream again and tells him to go back home.

5.  After Jesus’ baptism, which we celebrate on this Sunday, Jesus goes into the wilderness where Satan tempts him.  After Jesus meets that challenge, and after he is exhausted from 40-days of fasting and praying, the angels come to minister to him in the desert.

6.  Angels comfort him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Luke 22:41-43)

41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

7.  Angels open Jesus’ grave at the resurrection. (Matt 28:2)

2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.

8.  Angels witness his resurrection. (Luke 24:5-7)

4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen!

9.  Angels explain his ascension. (Acts 1:10-11)

10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

10. Angels sing his praises in heaven. (Rev 5:11-12)

11.  Angels accompany Him at his coming. (Matt 25:31)

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
And, it doesn’t end there because the Book of Revelation is full of scenes in heaven where angels sing, praise, confirm, and worship Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
When you speak of angels you have to speak about Jesus because the angels belong to him.

Jesus Talks About Angels

But angels don’t just appear to Jesus. Jesus also speaks of angels as he ministers to people. Most of what Jesus said involved angels gathering the people for the final judgment, or acting as the messenger of Christ to summon them into the presence of God, like in this passage from Matthew 16:27 —
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”

But Jesus also gives us some other clues about angels.

In speaking of little children, Jesus said ” See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” — Matthew 18:10

From that passage we get the idea of guardian angels, assigned to us, and little children in particular, to watch over and care for us.

And, in a question about marriage, Jesus says that those who have died…”At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” — Matthew 22:30

We’ll talk more about angels at death later in this series, but Jesus does give us clues as to the characteristics of angels in these and other verses.

Making Angels Happy

But the most important thing Jesus tells us about angels isn’t about how angels travel, or about what angels look like. The most important thing Jesus tells us about angels is what makes them happy. Listen to what Jesus says —

8″Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” — Luke 15:8-10

Angels are happy when people come to God. The mission of angels is to carry the message of God, and imagine how glad they are when that message is heard and received. When the message they deliver through their care, their ministry, their obedience, brings a positive response, the angels rejoice.

Angels are first of all concerned about our relationship with their Lord and ours, Jesus. Nothing else matters. Angels stand ready to do the work of God, and that work is reclaiming God’s creation.

That is why the angels in heaven are singing. But it was not always so. John the Revelator writes, in the passage we read today, that for a moment in heaven which may have lasted 10-million years, for one moment the angels are silenced. The angels have carried the message of God for uncounted millennia. But now John says there is a message, a scroll in the hand of God. The angels see the scroll, but it is sealed with seven seals.

In the first century Roman world, when the emperor sent a message, he sealed it with his ring, and if it were of special importance, he sealed it more than once. That message could only be opened by the one intended to receive it upon penalty of death. And the angels know this scroll in the hand of God is not for them. For the first time in the history of heaven, God has a message that the angels cannot deliver.

And so the Bible says, “a mighty angel” cries out “Who is worthy to open the seals?” And no on is found. And John says, “I wept and wept.” John, even as he sees this vision and lives this revelation, John understands that if no one can open the scroll that the final word of God will never be heard. But one of the elders, one of only four, says “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Finally, after searching through all of creation for one who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll, finally, at last, One is found.

The Lamb of God who stands in the middle of the throne, symbolizing his preeminence and centrality. This Lamb is worthy because he has been slain, and with his blood has purchased for God men and women, boys and girls, “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” His death, his resurrection, his victory makes him worthy to open the scroll of God, to pronounce the message of God, to finish the Word of God that the angels cannot speak.

And so the angels sing a new song. But….
This is not the song of bondage for the chains have been broken.
This is not the song of poverty for heaven is enriched with his presence.
This is not the song of sorrow for night has passed away and there is no more sorrow, no more tears, no more death.
This is not the song of longing for in Christ all the longing of mankind has been satisfied.
This is not the song of the past for the past has gone, and everything has been made new.

No, the angels sing a new song, a song that has never been sung before because there was no one to sing it to. But now they sing a new song —

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

You cannot speak of angels without speaking of Jesus.

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

The Problem with Twitter and being clever

The problem with Twitter is you only have 140-characters to make your point.  The example above has been re-tweeted about a million times in the past two days, and frankly, I find it a little annoying.

Okay, so Rick Warren is a megachurch guru, no doubt.  Warren has over 65,000 Twitter followers — I have less than 2,000.  But the problem here is I think Warren is trying to be clever (who doesn’t occasionally?), but is sending a lot of mixed signals.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Being a small church is nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, right there is the first problem.  The implication about small churches, of course, is that they are something to be ashamed of.  If not, why would we  need to be reassured that they’re not?  I’m a small-church pastor, and a small-church advocate, and frankly, we don’t need megachurch pastors as apologists for the churches we lead.
  • Being a small-minded church is disobedience to Jesus’ Great Commission.  This struck me two ways — first, small-minded gets connected to small church.  Not the same, but a clever bridge to make his point.  But in making that point apparently Warren is challenging small churches to not be small-minded.  Whatever that is.  As though small-mindedness leads to small numbers in church.  Does anyone really think that megachurches are small-minded?  Of course not because everything they do is big — buildings, parking lots, staff, programs, and so on.  They’re megachurches and by definition are de facto not small-minded.  Second, why is small-mindedness disobedience to the Great Commission?  Why isn’t it poor stewardship, or failure to love, or  bad marketing, or a host of other inadequacies?

Okay, I’ll stop before I get 50 comments telling me to lighten up.  My point is this — aphorisms can be clever, but they’re also simplistic and shallow.  I personally believe Rick Warren is a good guy, so this is nothing personal.  And, he takes his share of hits for everything from gay marriage to his recent appeal for funds.  But please, Rick, if you’re trying to pay small churches a compliment, don’t be so clever in the future.  Thanks.

What Your Church Can Learn From Google’s New Phone Launch

Okay, I’m going for the cheap search hits with the title, but bear with me because I do have a serious point. Google launched the Nexus One phone today, to no surprise and with little flash. One reviewer said the presentation was “underwhelming.” Of course, that’s exactly what Google intended. Here’s why and here’s what your church can learn:

1.  Google is not interested in a big splash. Back in the fall of 2007, Google announced the Android operating system, an open source system with an Open Handset Alliance to go with it.  Reviews were mixed, prognostications abounded, Google was questioned, etc, etc.  Same with any product launch.  But Google knew where they were headed.

2.  Google has a strategy. The strategy was, “let some other folks play around with this.”  Which is classic postmodern, collaborative thinking.  Let’s see what someone comes up with.  To much fanfare, and not a little disappointment, the first Google phone, the G1, was offered by T-Mobile.  It was widely trashed, but still it was the first.  “It’s no iPhone” was the big complaint.  But Google’s strategy isn’t to be Apple — hardware/software locked up together.  Google’s strategy is to control the entire computing “cloud” experience.  Mobile is the next piece of that.  Here’s a site that agrees with me.

3.  Google is good at iteration. They keep making it better, in other words.  Incrementally, one step at a time, no splash, just good solid improvements one-at-a-time.  No Steve Jobs, no big gathering of fanboys, just “here’s what we did to push Android to the limits.”  So, now the G1 looks really ancient, and even the Droid is looking a little outdated.  One step at a time.

4.  Google is good at disrupting models. But the big thing about the Nexus One is that Google will sell it to you directly, without the mobile phone provider involved.  Of course, you have to have some type of plan, and right now it’s just T-Mobile, but for the first time you can buy a legally unlocked phone in the US.  I bought an unlocked phone in Hong Kong in 1999.  I used three different GSM cards in it as I traveled from Hong Kong, to China, and then to the US.  Google has just poked every mobile phone carrier in the eye with a sharp stick.  But, they are apparently lining up to Google’s door anyway.

5.  Google is in this for the long haul. Google isn’t after the one big splash, or the big event.  They’re building their company on what they believe.  Remember when Google search first started?  No photos, no fancy text, no graphics.  I thought it was completely lame.  But it was fast, and it got faster, and they indexed the web better, and their algorithms delivered better results, all so that they could place ads in front of people.  Oh, they’re still in the advertising business, they said today.  Only now, they’re going to push ads out in a variety of ways to mobile phones, ebook readers, netbooks, and all the other devices that will run Android.  And we thought all the Google stuff was free.

So, the lesson for churches is obvious.  Be more like Google.  Take the long view, go for the next step, disrupt the culture a bit, but keep on plugging.  My money is (figuratively speaking, of course) on Google’s approach.  And, I like the “do no evil” thing, too.

Reveiw: Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures by David Augsburger

With the rise of multi-ethnic congregations, global mission trips, and world-wide communication, church leaders should read Dr. David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.

Augsburger guides the pastoral counselor, or church staff member, on a tour through alternative worlds by exploring the care of souls across the rich variety of social contexts found around the globe.  Augsburger carefully and in compelling detail expands the Western pastoral counselor’s worldview to include a rich panoply of cultures which approach differently the experiences of conflict, individuality, the social group, mental health, family, and other issues of concern to our common humanity.  The reader learns, in other words, that her or his own culture is not normative for all cultures, thereby opening the reader to new insights in the pastoral counseling task.

Helpful chapter themes include subtitles which both describe and guide the reader on the intercultural journey.  Subtitles include: A Theology of Presence, A Theology of Culture, A Theology of Humanness, A Theology of Grace, A Theology of Value, A Theology of the Family, A Theology of Liberation, A Theology of Moral Character, A Theology of the Demonic, A Theology of Human Frailty, and, Models of Pastoral Counseling and Theology.

Two particular insights emerge as the reader moves from chapter to chapter.  First, human beings, despite wide cultural variance, hold basic human traits in common.   In other words, we as a species are similar in our common humanity, while at the same time we are diverse in our cultural expressions.  Secondly, the existence of dominant cultures does not mean that one culture is inherently superior to another.  The intercultural pastoral counselor learns to move from his or her culture into another culture, and back again, providing help at the “borders” of cultural intersection and insight.

Taking these two insights as the guiding light for the “interpathy” of the pastoral counselor, she or he is then able to resist the temptation to make others in their own image, or the image on their own culture.  Rather the aware intercultural pastoral counselor is able to help those in need within the context of the counselee’s cultural values, groups, constructs, assumptions, and traditions.  This allows the person helped to find their way to wholeness as defined by the society in which they live.

Intercultural awareness also enables the counselor to move beyond the idea that his or her culture is superior, and by extension, that his or her culture is the norm preferred by God.  This insight expands the theological framework of the intercultural pastoral counselor, providing the opportunity to relate to the God of all creation and cultures in a new, positive, and helpful manner.

By the same token, the book opens the idea of community to the whole world of cultures encountered by the counselor.  By developing cultural awareness, bridges can be built from the counselor’s culture into the cultural milieu of others, thereby expanding the communal relationships available to the counselor, and reciprocally to the counseled.

Augsburger even tackles the world of the mystical and apparently supernatural, providing access through both reason and faith to that which seems to be beyond scientific analysis.  Augsburger’s even-handed approach to the mysteries of demon possession, shamanism, and supernatural healing grounds the counselor in a real world, while allowing for the inexplicable and transcendent.

I commented to Debbie as I read through this book, that Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures contains enough material for several books.  This is not a fluffy, insubstantial volume.  But the persistent reader will find tools for personal reflection, and cross-cultural engagement.  If you need a good book about pastoral counseling, that also expands your cultural horizons, then this is the book to read.

Augsburger, David W., Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. The Westminster Press (Philadelphia:  1986), 373.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of this book from Amazon, and received no inducement to write this review.

Don’t Confuse Authority With Power

The church growth movement helped foster the idea of the pastor as the authoritative leader of the congregation.  I know because I studied church growth at its height at Fuller Seminary.  The premise of the theory of “pastoral authority” was that churches grew faster and larger when the pastor asserted his authority as the leader of the congregation.  The numbers seemed to verify the idea of absolute pastoral authority.

Of course, the idea of pastoral authority also appealed to the egos of lots of pastors.  “I can make it happen” pastors thought, “if only the deacons, or committees will give me the authority to take charge.”  The ecclesiastical landscape is littered with the train wrecks of that kind of thinking.   What some pastors really wanted was power, not authority, and therein lies the problem.  Power is not what we as pastors are called to exercise, but too often we confuse authority with power.

“Authority in the church is never the monopoly of the ordained few — whether bishops or clergy” writes John Chryssavgis in his helpful book, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction.  Chryssavgis, an Orthodox priest and professor of theology, corrects the notion that spiritual authority belongs exclusively to the professionals.  Rather, Fr. John argues, “All too often authority is confused with power, meaning the ability to compel others to do something.”  He continues, “It is not control over others, but commitment to them, even to ‘the least of one’s brethren’.”

Although his book focuses on the ancient art of spiritual direction, much of what Chryssavgis says applies to pastors in general.  Our ministry, he says, is built upon the tradition of obedience and authority of those who have gone before us.  Only those who have submitted to the spiritual direction from others, can assume the responsibility to offer spiritual direction to others.

We also are called to mutual submission with our congregation before God.  Granted, pastors have special responsibilities, but our authority is, to paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, “on loan from God.”  It is an authority not inherent in any human being, but an authority that resides in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is similar to what Alan Roxburgh says about finding God’s direction for a congregation.  It doesn’t lie solely with the pastor, but Roxburgh believes that “the future of God is found among the people of God.”

Finally, Chryssavgis says, “Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to ‘diakonia’ and dialogue, not domination.”  Good direction from one who knows what it means to be under authority.  I recommend the book.

Entertaining Angels: Who are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

Entertaining Angels:  Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”? 6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Why Angels?

Today I am beginning an eight-week series titled Entertaining Angels.  That might seem to suggest that we’re going to look at the most entertaining angels in the Bible, but that’s not quite it.  Frankly angels have been called a lot of things, but entertaining is probably not one of them.

But I’m taking the title from the passage in Hebrews 13:2 KJV, which says —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2 KJV

My interest in the topic of angels was piqued over the Christmas holiday by the news that Anne Rice has come out with a new book titled, Angel Time.  You may remember Anne Rice as the wildly popular author who gave vampires a very hip and sexy remake in her Vampire Chronicles series.  Tom Cruise played Lestat, the very attractive yet deadly vampire, in the 1994 movie, Interview with the Vampire. Rice is generally credited with reviving, if you’ll forgive the pun, the entire vampire myth and making vampires a part of popular culture in the last decade of the 20th century.

But something happened to Anne Rice, avowed atheist, along the way:  Anne Rice returned to the faith of her childhood, the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll let you explore the details of her recommitment to Christ, but shortly after her change of heart, she began writing about Jesus.  Her first book about Jesus published in 2005 was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, was followed by a second in her announced four book series, called Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana.

Her latest book, Angel Time, is the first in her new Songs of the Seraphim series.  Rice being the successful author that she is, knows a good thing when she sees it.

I recently posed the question in my blog, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor — “Are angels the new vampires?”  By that I meant, Will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires in the last decade?  I posted the article that asked that question last Sunday.  In less than one week over 1,000 people read that article.  And, to make things even more interesting, Anne Rice (I’m sure it was someone who works for Anne, and not Anne herself) linked my article to her website under reviews of the book, Angel Time.

The response to my article got me to thinking about the interest in angels, and about what we typically know about angels.  When Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, the American Christian community was up in arms over that book which told an intriguing tale of secret societies, and the heretofore untold story of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene.  All of which, was totally made up stuff, but Dan Brown didn’t care because he sold millions of copies, and created a flurry of publicity that made even those who disagreed with Brown want to read his book.

My point in resurrecting The DaVinci Code controversy is to tell you why I’m preaching this series on angels.  Wouldn’t we be better off to know more about what the Bible and the historic church fathers say about angels than not?  So, before Anne Rice does for angels what she did for vampires, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about angels for ourselves.

But, there’s another, more important reason than Anne Rice or Dan Brown or popular culture for entertaining the idea of angels:  No other topic in scripture is so widely misunderstood, or ignored than the topic of angels.  So, we’ll be entertaining angels in this series for the next eight weeks.

According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 68% of Americans believe in angels, 15% are unsure, and only 17% do not believe in angels.  These were not church members necessarily, but a cross section of American adults.  If you add those who believe in angels and those who don’t know, that’s a total of 83% of Americans who believe, or don’t know, if angels exist.  Only slightly more than that believe in God, so angels are pretty popular with the general public.

Who Are Angels?

In the Christian Year, angels crop up on two primary occasions — the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ.  Christmas and Easter, in other words.  But, as I said earlier, there is probably no topic, no other doctrine, that is so widely featured in Scripture both Old and New that is so widely ignored.  It’s as though we see the word angel, and simply skip over it, or relegate the idea of angels to another day and time.

Of course, that is exactly correct.  Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, the world was thought to be inhabited by spirits, both evil and good.  Gargoyles perched on the sides of the great cathedrals of Europe to serve as downspouts, but also to remind worshippers that evil lurked outside the walls of the church.  Some also believe that gargoyles also were placed on church buildings to frighten away evil spirits.  Either way, most people, including Christians, believed that unseen spirits existed and affected personal and community events.

But with the Enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method, religion was relegated to the world of superstitions and improbabilities.  There was no scientific proof of angels, demons, or even God Himself, and so while it was okay to continue to believe personally and privately in the scientifically unverifiable, religion was not a suitable subject for rational people to go on about.

While the Enlightenment did give the world great advances in the sciences, religion and the belief in the unseen world became merely a source of speculation, opinion, and superstition.  That included angels and demons, of course.

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

Paul Hiebert, the late Fuller Seminary missiologist, wrote a classic paper titled, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”  In that paper, Hiebert painted the picture of the typical Western missionary beliefs, or for that matter the typical Western Christian beliefs.

Hiebert, who served as a missionary to India himself, tells this story:  One day while teaching at the Bible school Shamshabad, a local Indian pastor named Yellayya appeared at the classroom door.  He was obviously tired from the long walk from his village.  Hiebert finished the class and greeted his friend.  As they talked, Yellayya explained that many in his village had contracted smallpox.

As was the village custom, the elders, who were not Christians, had consulted the local diviner who told them that the goddess Maisamma was angry with the village.  The village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice to appease this goddess.

To conduct the sacrifice, each village family was asked to give something toward the purchase of the buffalo.  This shared offering was not just to raise enough money, but to show that all the villagers recognized Maisamma’s anger and were making this sacrifice together.

Of course, you can imagine the reaction of the Christians in the village.  Although a minority, the Christian families refused initially to participate in the offering or the sacrifice because Maisamma was a pagan goddess.  Under extreme pressure, some Christian families wanted to participate because merchants were refusing to sell to them, and they had been forbidden to draw from the village well until they gave.  But their pastor, Yellayya, would not give them permission.

To make matters worse, Yellayya said that one of the Christian girls had also contracted smallpox.  Yellayya wanted Paul Hiebert to come to the village to pray for the girl’s healing.  Hiebert went, but as he knelt in prayer in the village, he said the thoughts of total inadequacy raced through his mind.  He believed in God, he had attended seminary, and yet here he was praying a prayer for healing in a spiritual showdown between Hinduism and Christianity.

It was at the moment that Hiebert realized that his faith had answers for the future including heaven and God’s eternal reign.  He also realized that his faith had answers about the past including how sin had come into the world, and how Christ had come to provide forgiveness to humankind.  But Hiebert realized, he had very few answers for the present, like what do you do when a child is sick, or others explain life events by the presence of unseen spirits.

Hiebert returned to his teaching, and the next week Yellayya showed up again.  The girl had died.  But Yellayya was excited because the non-Christian villagers had seen the hope of resurrection and the belief that her family would see her again in heaven.  All of them realized that even if the girl had been healed, she would have died eventually as all do.  But the Christian hope for a life beyond this life had captured the imagination of those who were not Christian, and they wanted to know more.  — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, pgs. 189-201.

Even though that story turned out well, Hiebert still wrestled with the gap in Western Christianity and our ignorance of the unseen world.

And that is why we are talking about angels for the next eight weeks.  What would you have done if Yellayya had asked you to come to his village and pray for the healing of the Christian girl?  Would you have faced the same internal conflict Paul Hiebert did?  Would you have had the same uneasiness about the unseen world, and about the ability of God to heal?

The Basics About Angels

Who, then, are angels?  Although almost 7-out-of-10 Americans believe in angels, we believe mostly in the cartoon or greeting card version of angels.  Or we love the cute and cuddly cherubs that adorn our Christmas cards each year.  But who are angels, if they are not as we commonly see them portrayed?

First, angels are created beings.  In Colossians 1:16, Paul says that —

16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

The terms Paul uses — “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” — are believed by most theologians to be an incomplete list of the orders of angels.  Even Billy Graham, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, acknowledges these words as titles for part of the hierarchy of angels.

An early heresy that surfaced in the first century stated that angels “emanated” from God, as though they were part of God Himself, now separate from God, and therefore divine and worthy of worship.  Paul also refutes this idea in Colossians 2:18 —

18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

Secondly, angels were created before the world.  In Job 38:4-7, God says to Job —

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-

7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

So, the angels were present at creation, but are themselves created beings.  In addition, here are some other characteristics of angels that Christians have believed during the 2,000 years of church history —

  • All the angels were created at once, and there are no more angels now than there were at their creation.
  • The angels who rebelled against God did so prior to the creation of earth and mankind.
  • There are more good angels than there are those who rebelled.
  • Angels are individuals, yet they have no bodies unless they take an appearance to communicate with humankind.  — Pascal Parente, The Angels
Why Do We Need Angels?

We’ll explore more of the characteristics and mission of angels in the next seven weeks, but we need to answer one other question first — Why do we need angels?

After all, aren’t angels sort of Christian folklore — nice to read about, but more like fairies, leprechauns, and other fantastic creatures? Why do we need them in the 21st century?

Here is where our Baptist statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — is strangely silent. Nowhere is the word “angel” mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message. But dozens of scripture passages are cited to support the statements of belief and many of these refer to angels. Do we really need angels now, and why?

First, it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we need angels. Angels are God’s creation, and as such are good, as all of creation was pronounced by God.

But angels are in a class by themselves. In the coming weeks, we’re going to see that there are at least 9 varieties of celestial beings, but for now we’ll just call all of them angels. But even at that angels are unique in several ways.
Angels were created before mankind, and mankind is said to have been created in the image of God.
Angels are higher than mankind in the created order. In Psalms 8:6, the psalmist is praising God’s creation of man, but he does so by saying — 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Angels are God’s messengers. Angels appear in both the Old Testament and New, delivering the message of God to God’s people. Consider the life of Jesus —
angels announce his coming birth to both Joseph and Mary;
an angel announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias;
angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds;
angels minister to Jesus in the desert after his temptation by Satan;
angels announce his resurrection at the empty tomb;
angels accompany Jesus as he ascends into heaven;
angels appear to the apostles on several occasions;
and John writes of Jesus coming with all his holy angels when he returns to earth.
And those are only a few of the references to angels as God’s messengers.
Angels are more numerous than we can imagine. In scripture, as they are beheld by the writers of the Bible, the angel hosts are described as so numerous “no man can number;” in the book of Daniel, they are described in this manner — A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

Secondly, angels are God’s messengers, God’s army, God’s protectors, and God’s servants. They perform their work for the holy Trinity of God, most of which is unseen or unknown by us. Angels exist, not for our entertainment or contact, but for God’s purposes.

Third, Jesus spoke of angels, angels attended him, and he will return with the entire host of heaven under his command. It would probably do us some good to know a little about “the angel armies” before that time comes.

Finally, angels are at work in the world today. Imagine sitting next to you on the pew, right beside you, is your guardian angel. Or, imagine that as we sing each Sunday, angels “join the mighty chorus” of our praise to God. Imagine this building ringed with part of the angel army of God, swords drawn, allowing us to worship without interference of either man or demon.

The writer of Hebrews, in the passage we read today, reminds us —

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

So, the question today is not, Do angels exist, or do we have angels? The question today is what are we doing to cooperate with the messengers of God who daily do God’s bidding? If we have no idea what our answer is, then that is all the more reason we need to be aware of this part of God’s creation we call angels.

A Story of Angels

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001, Tobi Gabriel and her young son, Gage, left her mother’s home to rent a movie and see some friends. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the weather was rainy and the temperature was dropping. When Tobi and Gage had not returned home by 11 PM, her parents phoned the police and reported her missing. Most folks usually turn up okay, they were assured, and the police told them that no accidents had been reported, so everything must be okay. But it wasn’t.

Early on Christmas morning Linda Belliveau, who lived in the nearby town of Lower Cove, went out to watch for her parents who were coming for Christmas breakfast. Despite the roar of the ocean waves behind her, Linda heard what she thought was the sound of a child crying. Of course, that was impossible at that hour of the morning and in the frigid weather.

But the cry continued and Linda made her way to the beach. There she saw a car lying upside down on the beach. She thought it had probably plunged off the roadway during the night because the ocean spray often turned to ice on the seaside road.

But there was something else that caught her eye. A small figure crawling toward her on the sand. A little child, drenched and frightened. Linda ran to the boy, picked him up and took off her own coat to wrap him in.

In the waves she saw the body of his mother, floating face down in the surf.

Little Gage was taken to the hospital. An investigation determined that Tobi’s car had skidded off the road sometime between 6 and 10 PM that night. No one heard the crash, however. Tobi was killed on impact because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Little Gage somehow survived.

Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited little Gage in the hospital, asking him very gently some questions about the accident.

Little Gage looked up at Sergeant Bogle during a quiet moment.

“I saw two girls,” Gage said.

Office Bogle was amazed. “You did? Where?”

“Standing in the water, next to Mommy. Their dresses were white.”

Sergeant Bogle asked, “Did they talk to you?”

“No,” Gage replied, “They just smiled at me all night until the other lady came.”

Gage’s grandfather calls him a “gift from God.” He’s older now, of course, and hardly speaks of the accident at all. –( Joan Wester Anderson, In The Arms of Angels, pgs. 1-6.)

Were the “girls” he saw angels? No one knows, except of course, God. Angels are, after all, His messengers.

Amen.