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Rev 21.5When people struggle with control issues in their lives one helpful therapy technique is to talk about who is writing your story. People often struggle with letting others affect them or control them in ways that aren’t appropriate. It is as if our life is a story that is being written in a book. The words that appear on the page aren’t there by accident. There are there by intention and choice. Often when people go through hard times they get paralyzed…just like authors who get writers block…people get life block. These are the moments where you just feel like quitting.

When we check out on life, feeling like the next scene is too painful to write, people often do one of two things: they put the pen down (which is actually still writing) or they hand the pen to someone or something else (which also is still writing). The someone or something might be a friend or it might be a substance. It might be handing the pen over to alcohol or an unhealthy relationship, preferring someone else to call the shots and take control rather than have to make one more decision.

The truth is, the story never stops. The pen just gets shifted from person to person…coping mechanism to coping mechanism. There are plenty of people and substances in this world that promise you a happy ending but they all come up short. Most come up short because they weren’t really interested in a happy ending for you, they were interested in making your story about them from the get go.

Not everyone is tempted to release the pen. For others the temptation is to cling more tightly to the pen. If we can just write with more flourish or flare…with more passion or precision…then the story would finally be right and all will be well. This temptation is an attempt to control the outcome. The truth is, that doesn’t work either. The challenge isn’t so much that we have the ability to write the perfect story ourselves. The challenge is getting the pen in the right hands.

The question we all have to answer in this life is this – whose hands are the right ones to write this story to turn out as it should?

The right hands are the hands of the one who has nail scars in them and yet is alive again. Just like our lives have scars so does Jesus. Just like Jesus was able to overcome the biggest of obstacles, even death itself, so he invites us to hand him the pen of our lives and allow him to write the rest of our story for us. More accurately…he has been writing THE STORY for all of eternity and invites us onto his pages.

It is important that we find the right story for our lives because this world is full of narratives one can adopt but there is only one foundation that is solid and that is identity rooted in the story of the Gospel. This takes wisdom and patience and humility.

So who is writing your story? Are you writing it or are you allowing someone or something else to take a shot at it for you? How you answer that question will speak volumes about the things that are currently going on in your life.

May God write on your heart the message of the Gospel. May he adopt you into his family. May he give you a new name. May the Spirit of the living God write an indelible message, a resurrection message, on the broken pieces we bring to him. And may we watch him take our messed up, screwed up, confused story and shape it into something that is, as all things will one day be, new.

 

emptytombThe resurrection is a big topic, and I’ve hardly exhausted it. Hopefully, I’ve shown that it matters both theologically and practically. It affects how we think of the church and how we live as Christians.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in Bible class when someone argued against this or that good work on the theory that “It’s all going to burn!” In fact, I’ve been taught since I was a child that God destroyed the world once by flood and will destroy it a second time by fire.

But Paul says,

(Rom 1:18 ESV) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

God’s wrath will destroy God’s enemies, defined here as “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Not the creation itself, but the wrong use of the creation by mankind. Read more »

Young Woman with Her Hand on Her Belly and Man Beside Her WritingIt wasn’t until I entered therapy that I became aware of how much your story affects so much of your life.

I was in therapy for five years but I didn’t enter therapy the traditional way. I entered therapy as a therapist.

When you learn to do psycho-therapy one of the first things you have to learn are the psychological disorders. We had to buy the DSM-IV and read that thing like it was our Bible. Reading endless lists of symptoms is enough to make you think maybe you have the disorders yourself, medical student’s disease, thinking you have the diseases you study. Some disorders were outright scary while others were a bit more humorous…the one that probably got the most attention was Koro. You can look that one up for yourself. I have yet to meet someone who thought they had that.

Once you start doing therapy you realize more and more the power of story. The old image of a patient laying on a couch dredging up stories from their childhood isn’t entirely accurate but it also doesn’t entirely miss the mark either. The events of our past often influence our present. That doesn’t mean that every single thing that is going on today is due to some unstoppable force from the past. It does mean that our past shapes us in more ways than we often think about or would like to admit. The stories we learn to tell ourselves have a direct impact on the person we believe ourselves to be. These stories are called our metanarratives…the stories that shape us. They can be personal (what happened to you in life) or communal (what it means to embrace American value systems).

Identifying Metanarratives in the Prodigal Son
Just take the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. His choice of words displays his inner narrative that also explain why he has such a hard time accepting his younger brother.

“But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” (Lk 15:29).

It’s a wonder the guy had friends. But that’s not the point. All these years he hadn’t seen himself as a son but as a slave. The one who should have no place back in the family is received back without a hitch to what the older son possessed the whole time, he just didn’t see it that way…sonship. He is bitter. He is bitter because the one who didn’t lift a finger to get accepted got accepted and the one who has been slaving away feels he has been rejected not just now but for “all these years”. This is a deep hurt and as we often see, hurt people hurt people. It didn’t have to be that way. It was only that way because the older son choose to embrace the wrong story…allowing other’s stories to get in the way. Mixed up metanarratives are the root of jealousy, pride and so much else that is wrong with the world.

We usually apply the prodigal son parable to losing and finding…the rejoicing that comes from the lost that are found. That is central to this parable. We know that because Jesus says so at the end of each of the three parables we have in Luke 15.

But I also believe the parable of the prodigal son has as much to do with losing and finding as it does to helping Jesus’ intended audience (embittered teachers of the law and Pharisees) identify their meta-narrative, see it is wanting and accept a better one (see Lk 15:1-2)…the Gospel metanarrative. We do know the context of the parable and that it was directed to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law who had a hard time understanding why Jesus accepted the “tax collectors and sinners” and welcomed them at his table. Just like the older brother, in his ministry Jesus also welcomed the Pharisees at his table but still they insisted on missing out on the party, not because they hadn’t been invited but because they missed the point of what it means to be the people of God. Here they had been slaving all these years…obeying every jot and tittle…and they were every bit as bitter about it as this older brother.

Everyone has a story.

Those Pharisees have a story too and as you get to know their story you begin to make sense out of their actions and attitudes. More on that next time…

So let me ask you this, what metanarratives are behind much of what you do? What metanarratives are behind the sins that seem to entangle you or the unhealthy relationships that you just can’t seem to shake?

How might the Gospel story…the resurrection narrative…lived out in you help all of that change for the better?

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The thief on the cross

I guess the most common remaining question I get on this material is based on —

(Luk 23:42-43 NAS)  42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”  43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

There really are two closely related questions. First, if the general resurrection happens many years later, at the Second Coming, how could Jesus say he’d be with the thief “today”? And this question arises under any theory you have. The fact is that Paul and Jesus speak of a general resurrection to occur sometime in the future, whereas this passage seems to speak of going to heaven immediately upon death.

The second connected question is where are the dead between death and the general resurrection? In heaven? If so, then they’ve already been judged and so what’s the point of Judgment Day? Asleep? Then what about this passage? The Bible sure seems to teach salvation immediately after death as well as a resurrection at the end of time. How can these be the same?

There’s a popular theory, a little over a one hundred years old, that after death and before judgment, the saved go to Paradise and the damned go to a place called Tartarus. Several denominations bought into this teaching, including many within the Churches of Christ, but it doesn’t really hold up.

“Tartarus” is the Platonic version of hell. According to Plato, the wicked go to Tartarus to suffer eternal torment. The word appears in the NT only in — Read more »

emptytombWhy is it that so many song leaders insist on leading songs with bad music? You’d think that worship leaders, of all people, would understand the importance of beauty in the melody and the arrangement. But in the Churches of Christ, we’ve adopted a form of Greek dualism, treating the words of the song as holy and important to God, whereas the melody and harmony have no place in our theology at all. And so we insist on singing bad songs … but with just, oh, so wonderful lyrics that fit the theme of the sermon so very well. Here’s why.

First, the Churches of Christ are culturally Calvinist even though theologically we’re Arminian. We rejected the Calvinist teaching of predestination, election, and perseverance of the saints. But when the Restoration Movement was formed in the early 19th Century, most of our members came over from the Baptist and Presbyterian churches — and both were very Calvinistic at the time. They gave up their Calvinist theology, but they brought with them the culture of early 19th Century Calvinist Christianity — largely inherited from the Puritans. Read more »

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God speaks to us about heaven and judgment and the Second Coming in metaphors. The goal of this brief series has been to get the metaphors right — at least, closer to right than our usual readings. But of necessity, when it comes to the next age, the scriptures don’t answer every single question we wonder about. Our brains just aren’t wired to understand something so far beyond our present reality.

That’s not to say we can’t draw conclusions. We can. Just not as many as we might like.

Jesus will descend to earth along with heaven itself, in which God has prepared a new Jerusalem (the city in which God dwells), and heaven and earth will be joined as one. The separation of man and God, heaven and earth, Savior and the saved, will be ended. And the creation itself, built to be a temple for God, will become exactly that, except the Holy of Holies will be everywhere. No curtain will separate God from his people.

And everything will have been made new — again — except better. The original creation could fall into corruption and accursedness. The kainos heavens and earth will be immune from such things. Finally, unlike Satan, God’s children will not be able to fall away. Heaven will be ours forever and ever. Read more »

emptytombI have a confession to make: I didn’t know what the “Rapture” is until I was in law school. A degree from Lipscomb and a childhood of Sunday school classes and sermons, and somehow the Rapture got entirely past me.

We in the Churches of Christ don’t speak of the Rapture — either pro or con. In fact, my first rapturestickerexperience with the teaching came from a bumper sticker: “Warning: In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” I thought it was a drug-culture reference. I mean, there was no Internet yet, so how was I to know?

So I eventually came to understand the reference, and it struck me what a perfectly dreadful things these bumper stickers are. First, why would we presume that a non-Christian understands the concept? And, to me, it comes across as more than a little smug. The message is not just “I’m saved,” but also “And maybe you’re not” not to mention “and you’ll be left behind with a bunch of empty cars and dead bodies from all the wreckage.” So I began to understand why the Churches of Christ don’t preach Rapture. We make enough mistakes without adding this one to the mix. Read more »

ewf_beardIt could happen among any group of Christians when the subject of conversation turns to evangelism. One person draws back from the thought of approaching strangers to distribute evangelistic leaflets. Another feels unable to engage in door-to-door “cold campaigning” such as is done by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, but also feels guilty in this regard. A third member of the group rejects such outreach methods totally as being impersonal, and insists that evangelism requires a personal relationship to be genuinely authentic. A fourth individual suggests that not every Christian is gifted to be an evangelist, just as not all are teachers, pastors or prophets.

Do you identify with either of those four? I certainly do–or did until God changed me almost without my knowing it. I still remember the day I gathered a selection of “gospel tracts” and started down a tree-lined street in my home town, going door to door. My message was non-offensive and my manner was mild. To any who answered the door, I told my name, handed a tract, and said I would be honored to study the Bible with them should they ever be interested.

As best I recall, no one ever was–perhaps in part because I was about fourteen years old or maybe even younger. My outreach ended abruptly when a householder faced me down with the question, “Young man, are you satisfied with your religion?” Upon hearing my affirmative answer, the strangely irate lady sternly admonished, “Then keep it to yourself!” and closed the door in my face.

Clearly the “E-word” has fallen into disrepute among many Christians and even whole churches today. I suspect that this demise of evangelism results in part from fear and cowardice, in part because of a popular culture that abhors religious conviction, and in part as reaction to the distasteful antics of some would-be evangelists whose certainty surpasses their knowledge and whose zeal outweighs their good manners.

According to the Apostle Paul, not all believers are called to be evangelists (Eph. 4:11-13), but all Christians have a place in the evangelistic agenda of the church. Thankfully, Christ’s special emissary to the Gentiles (which includes most of us) does not abandon us in cliches and generalities. Instead, he provides us with a kind of evangelism that is respectful, winsome, and effective. And in Colossians 4:2-6, the apostle leaves us a handful of easy straightforward guidelines that make evangelism as natural as everyday life.

“Devote yourselves to prayer,” he says first, “keeping alert,” always “praying that God will open a door for the word.” God himself prepares lives to receive the gospel, opens hearts to hear it, and gives faith to receive it. We ask him to do all that, then we watch to see where he is working so we can join in what he is doing. “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders,” the apostle continues. Our own daily lives usually provide the connection with others whom God will touch through our efforts. Our consistent, observable conduct also lends credibility to our conversation when the time comes to speak a gospel word about Jesus and God’s love revealed in him.

“Making the most of the opportunity,” Paul concludes. “Let your speech always be with grace.” When God provides an open door, we need to be ready to open our mouth and speak–to speak clearly and courageously, but also graciously and with sincere respect for each individual we address. God then will open hearts as it pleases him.

This is evangelism without pressure, because it is God’s program accomplished in God’s strength and for God’s glory. As we regularly do these things, God uses us in his great saving purpose. We are always successful if we are simply faithful, because faithfulness is our only responsibility. This is God’s agenda and he is responsible for the results.

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2 Peter 3:10-13 is one of the most common — and understandable — objections to belief in a general bodily resurrection, as opposed to a disembodied eternal fate for the saved. This familiar passage is usually taken to mean that God is going to take the saved away from earth so that he can then destroy the earth with fire.

(2Pe 3:10-13 ESV)  10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.  11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,  12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

But what if we were to read 2 Peter in light of the Old Testament prophecies he’s referring to, as well as to Paul and Revelation? Does Peter really teach that the world will be destroyed with fire? Read more »

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So I was teaching a Wednesday Bible class of older adults not long ago, and I mentioned some of this to them, and they became upset with me. They’d always been taught they’d float off into the ether as disembodied souls. Plainly I was wrong. But I pointed out to them that they’d also always been taught that Jesus would return and there’d be the “general resurrection.” This is familiar from such passages as —

(1Co 15:51-53 ESV)  51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,  52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

We won’t all die the first death (and so seem to sleep until Jesus returns), but we Christians will “all be changed” when we “put on immortality” at the “last trumpet” when Jesus returns.

So which is it? Do we float off to heaven when we die? Or will be marvelously changed when Jesus returns? It really can’t be both. The class was not happy with me at all. Read more »