About arbooye

Rick is the senior and founding pastor of the Trail Christian Fellowship in Eagle Point, Oregon where he has been the main teaching pastor for over 40 years. He is married to Barbara and they have two grown daughters and seven grandchildren. Rick is a graduate of Biola University (BA in Bible) and Western Seminary in Portland Oregon (M.A. Exegetical Theology; D.Min.)

On the Wicked Life (Part 2)

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1 (ESV)

This wonderful psalm outlines the path to a blessed life. In our last article on this passage (which see), I emphasized the importance of meditating on God’s word, the nourishing, refreshing, life-giving, soul-building dynamic that God’s voice brings into the hearts of people who know him. But there is a dark backdrop in this psalm as well, and it is important. The theme of wickedness and judgment runs through the psalm from the first verse to the last.

A brief review of the previous article reminds us that the psalmist tells us what not to do if we want a life of blessing in God. He says not to put our minds or actions at the service of wicked, sinning, scoffing people. “Wicked” means evil, guilty, morally wrong-headed. “Sinners” refers to those who deliberately disregard what God says about things, especially moral and ethical things, and who therefore “miss the mark” of real goodness. They do this on purpose. Our culture hates the term sin because it smacks of religious self-righteousness (which is a bad thing of course, but not worse than the currently rampant secular self-righteousness). Yet, it is a serious category, whatever vocabulary one uses to describe it. A “sinner” is one who rejects God’s will and ways in favor of their own, and who therefore exists outside God’s covenant blessing. “Scoffer” (ESV), also translated “Mocker” (NIV), refers to people who take pride in rebelling against God. They use disdain, slander, ridicule, and cultural arrogance to put down obedience to the Lord. They make fun of God’s word and moral goodness. Why does this psalm open a meditation on the blessed life with a warning like this? Well, because deep in the fallen human soul (all of our souls) there festers a nature bent away from God and toward evil (John 3:18-19). We all must face this fact squarely or we will not grasp the meaning of the blessed life as a contrast to it.

It is quite politically incorrect these days to seriously consider and discuss the fact that humans by nature may be (indeed are) truly wicked, evil (sinners), and contemptuous of genuine virtue (scoffers). There is an underlying presupposition in the modern west, rooted in the seedbed of the 18th century “Enlightenment,” nourished by old liberal theology and evolutionary philosophy, and promoted heavily today under the heading of “secular society,” that humans are not really all that bad. The innate goodness of human nature is a dogma pumped regularly into the moral education of our youth through the main systems of public education, entertainment (some), and politics. The assumption is that what causes injustice, violence, crime, and chaos in our world is lack of education, shortage of money, and the presence of unjust social structures. People are not the problem, society is. People are noble and good; social institutions are oppressive and corrupting. This notion traces to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), an Enlightenment philosopher who profoundly influenced western thought. A man deeply committed to himself, he persuaded his girlfriend (whom he finally married a few years before his death) to abandon their five children to the hell-holes that passed for orphanages in 18th century Europe.

Scripture sheds a bright light on these assumptions, revealing deep and fatal cracks in them (Read Romans chapters 1-3 for a synopsis). From Genesis through Revelation, from the time of humanity’s rebellion against God to the time of God’s final destruction of all evil, the evidence shows that humans left to themselves degenerate into murder and mayhem. An honest look at recorded history, both in the Bible and outside it, agrees completely with this sobering assessment. Our massive penal and legal system, with all its laws and police departments bears constant witness to the clear reality that we need forceful protection from each other. Why would that be the case if humans were noble and good by nature (Rousseau’s idea)? War rages regularly and with increasing severity from ancient times to the present day. The previous century (the 20th) was the most violent in a long and deepening historical blood bath. Man’s attempts at utopia (perfect society without God) in that one era alone cost millions of lives. Think of Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, Emperor worship in Japan, Marxism in Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia (all atheist regimes by the way) and more. David Berlinski (not a Christian), in his controversial 2009 book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, records almost 200 million deaths from at least 63 wars and genocides in the previous 100 years. And that’s just the big ones (casualties in excess of 100,000). The crimson river of torture, mass murder, violence, and an almost endless variety of injustices finds its headwaters in the distant and misty highlands of antiquity. One observer pointed out that the brief eras of peace in world history are represented by the few blank pages between chapters in the history books.

Note, too, that Psalm 1 refers to a final judgment, a permanent decision in the court of God against all humans who do unrepentant evil. It is not just “evil” as an abstract concept, but “evil, wicked people” that receive this condemnation (Matt.7:21-23). This is another subject conspicuous by its absence in education, entertainment, politics, and public discourse. Can you imagine the Nightly News outlining the traumas of the day and ending the broadcast with, “…and so, folks, that’s our world today. God sees it all and will certainly and permanently judge it, so we should repent and pursue righteousness, goodness and justice before that sobering day.” Don’t hold your breath.

Nobody today wants to think about hell. But the blessed life of Psalm 1 wisely takes it into account. One reason for this in the New Covenant is that the Lord Jesus warned about final judgment regularly and taught his apostles to do the same (see Matt.10:26-28; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 13:1-5; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; Rev.20:11-15). The whole idea of “being saved” refers to a supernatural rescue from the judgment of God against humanity’s sin (see Romans 1:16-32; 3:23; 6:23). A central tenet of the mythology of atheism/secularism is that when we die, we simply cease to exist. This is good news indeed for those who have rejected God and lived the “chaff life” described in Psalm 1. It means that no matter what we do here and now, when we die we simply disappear. Poof! Gone! I wonder if the thinkers who affirm this notion and yet insist that we all should live morally good lives have thought through the fact that if their view is true (that we are here by accident, coming from nothing and disappearing into nothing) then people like Hitler (and there are many) essentially get away with all their evil. No judgment in the next life means that after killing millions and plunging the western world into the inferno that was WWII, he could simply marry (!?) his long-time girlfriend Eva in their honeymoon/suicide bunker deep under Berlin, share a cyanide snack with his bride, shoot himself and slip painlessly into nothingness. Where’s the justice in that? Even Immanuel Kant, the massively important Enlightenment philosopher who taught (mistakenly) that we can’t know anything certain about God or the noumenal realm, nevertheless insisted that there must be a God who judges in the next life. He realized that some sort of eternal accounting is crucial to maintaining justice in this world. However one wishes to define or describe hell, it must be there, or justice in this age loses all backbone. People need to consider this.

So…is there any good news? Of course! Once we realize that we are all chaff to begin with, dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph.2:1-3; Rom.3:23), we can reach out to the Lord to bring us to life (Eph.2:4-10; Rom.6:23), turning us into healthy trees with roots, leaves and fruit. Chaff is botanical, like a tree, but it is not alive. Chaff is the husk. It blows away in the winnowing process because it has no life in itself. The gospel is the good news that any of us “chaff people” can be brought to life, miraculously given God’s own DNA in Christ, re-birthed as it were by the eternal seed of the gospel of grace (1 Pet.1:22-25).

Just a thought,

PR

Part 1

 

On The Blessed Life (Part 1)

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1 (ESV)

In the Bible, to be “blessed” is to be happy, under God’s grace, fulfilled and/or intrinsically good and right. It is a broad concept that speaks of a life worth living, what we might call “the good life” in the best sense of that phrase. This life is meaningful, purposeful, hopeful, grounded in excellent moral quality, and therefore fruitful and stable, a benefit to itself and to others. Wow! Who doesn’t want a life like that? (Sadly, it seems there are many who do not want a life like that, which is why the psalm refers to chaff-people).

Blessedness is the experience we crave. But how do we come into it? This psalm tells us forthrightly. It is the opening chapter in the inspired prayer and praise book of the Old Testament, the very book that our Lord Jesus had practically memorized. So, a meditation on the blessed life and how to enter it is apparently foundational to the life of prayer reflected in the rest of the psalter. A decision to desire the blessed life is essential to effective and authentic prayer and worship. We must be pointed in the right direction.

So, how does one begin? Well, somewhat oddly, we start not with what we should do, but with what we should not do. There is apparently a tendency in the human mind to submit itself to malign influences, to pernicious voices. We do not start our pursuit of the blessed life with a clean slate, an innocent desire, a morally un-cluttered conscience. We start with a fallen Self, one easily drawn into an un-blessed condition. The psalmist starts by warning us of who not to listen to in this world.

This is so counterintuitive to our western minds, marinated as we are in the pickling brine of enlightenment rationalism, where our own unaided thoughts are the ultimate arbiter, the autonomous and trustworthy guide for goodness and knowledge. To be told right up front that we are easily deceived, gullible to the point of danger, is insulting to us. We think we should be able to take in any sort of “education” or “wisdom” or “information” no matter the source, and unerringly navigate it for our own benefit. This is not true, and the thought that it is true is evidence of God’s rightness in warning us about it. We think we are a lot smarter than we are. What does the warning look like?

He tells us not to put our minds or actions at the service of wicked, sinning, scoffing people. Are there such people in the world? Uh…yes…And we will be one of them if we do not vet the value and sources of our thoughts. “Wicked” means evil, guilty, morally wrong-headed. “Sinners” refers to those who deliberately disregard what God says about things, especially moral and ethical things, and who therefore “miss the mark” of real goodness. They do this on purpose. Our culture hates this term with a passion because it smacks of religious self-righteousness (which is a bad thing of course, but not worse than the current rampant secular self-righteousness). Yet, it is a serious category, whatever vocabulary one uses to describe it. A “sinner” is one who rejects God’s will and ways in favor of their own, and who therefore exists outside God’s covenant blessing. “Scoffer” (ESV), also translated “Mocker” (NIV), refers to people who take pride in rebelling against God. They use disdain, slander, ridicule, and cultural arrogance to put down obedience to the Lord. They make fun of moral goodness.

When we put these poetic thoughts together, we see that a blessed person is one who ruthlessly vets all knowledge sources, all moral influences, religious or secular (many bad people are religious). The “walk, stand, sit” ideas are about being influenced by Worldthink. This happens by virtue of being voluntarily immersed in the cognitive, intuitive, and volitional ethos of a world that has rejected God’s Word as the foundational source of moral knowledge. These are people who have exchanged God’s Word for their own words, which is to say they have traded fruit for chaff.

By contrast, the psalm tells us that a blessed life, having rejected Worldthink outright, meditates on God’s instruction to the point of delight. The Law of the Lord, in this context means instruction within and regarding the covenant relationship we have with God as revealed in His written word. The psalmist is thinking of what we refer to as the Old Covenant, but the principle holds for the New Covenant as well.

“Meditation” means to mull, to think deeply and repeatedly, to mumble to one’s self and recite. It may involve memorization and regular repetition, but not mindless repetition. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking process.

“Delight” means to take great pleasure in something. We understand the feeling (it is a feeling) of delight when we think of beauty, be it human beauty, art, music or nature. The same is true in many human relationships. Think of the delight of a first-time mother and father in their newborn, the delight of young lovers in each other, the intense pleasure of a rich and long friendship, a shared joy (or a shared grief), a deep fraternal bond between family members, brothers and sisters, a good marriage. These are delightful in the best sense and we know it.

So, is God’s word a delight as well? Yes, and delighting in it nourishes the blessed soul profoundly, in ways that the world cannot understand, through subterranean spiritual streams refreshing deep roots in God, bearing fruit even when outward conditions are desert-arid. The blessed life craves the fellowship with God that his word offers. It may come in various ways, not always by reading specific passages. Sometimes it emerges through someone else’s exposition of a biblical text that deepens the understanding or application of its truths. Sometimes it arrives through music grounded in the Scriptures and glorifying the Lord. Perhaps the Spirit uses a sermon or devotional, or even a gentle reminder from a friend about something from God’s word that then draws our mind into the “great pleasure” of his voice.

Meditation on God’s word takes many forms, but it is always covenant-grounded, word-driven, Spirit enlivened, and personally motivated. That is, it is delighting in the New Covenant in Christ, by reason of letting the words of that covenant deeply enrich our souls through his Spirit who has penned them, so that we become more intimately acquainted with God himself as our one and only heavenly Father. He is delighted with this as well. He insists that we meditate regularly on the cross of Christ, the victory and promise of the New Covenant, and the union that we have with him through Christ. This is why we come regularly to the Lord’s table (See Romans 8, John 10:27-30, 15:1-7; 1 Cor.11:23-26).

We have not plumbed the depths of this amazing psalm, but let me stop here and ask a couple of questions. In light of the stresses in our culture today, the Covid crisis, the national angst, the political polarization, what do you meditate on? Is it the tsunami of blogs, tweets, posts, podcasts, and video clips, many of which originate in Worldthink? I have an app on my smartphone that tells me how much time I have spent this week looking at this little screen. I’m going to delete that app. It’s disturbing. When I contrast that with the time I have been able to spend letting God’s word calm me and “restore my soul” (Ps.23:1-3), I immediately see why my leaves over the last few days may have withered. The heat of summer is certainly there, and the surface water of cultural blessing has dried up like a Kalahari watering hole in August.

But beneath the baked and cracked earth, far below the bleached bones of human efforts and expectations, there flows, steady and eternal, a stream…

Just a thought,

PR

Part 2

Please Open a Window

Somebody open a window please…

I received the following question from a sincere believer (I have edited it). It is a request for pastoral guidance and spiritual direction regarding one of the most common of all human relational breakdowns.

When people come to you and vent about other people and say negative things about others and I don’t want to know the bad stuff…How do I answer someone without offending them and turning them off. I really have a hard time telling people what I really want to say…Because when I hear the negative stuff, then when I see that person, I see them in a different light because of what someone else has said. I really want to be a child of the KING, not a gossip or always looking for the bad stuff in someone else’s life. I have enough bad stuff in my life. I don’t need anyone else’s.

I would really appreciate some advice…

What this Christian is dealing with is gossip. The basic definition of gossip is discussing/revealing other people’s faults and failures when you really don’t need to (yes, there are times when responsible family members must discuss each other’s problems for good reasons). The online definition of gossip is: “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others; the act is also known as dishing or tattling.” It is a broad category of damaging verbal communication that may range from the almost harmless discussion of public knowledge (something you heard on the news) to malicious, slanderous or libelous accusations against other people you actually know. Malicious gossip usually is an impugning of another person’s motives, character, or actions with insufficient grounds and to no redemptive purpose. It’s stuff that just flat doesn’t need to be said or heard. Paul says that gossip and slander are characteristics of paganism generally (Rom.1:29) and indicators if carnality among Christians (2 Cor.12:20). In Proverbs 6:16-19 God reveals seven things he hates. The last two are a lying tongue and one who sows discord among brothers. Many Christians think that because the Lord loves them and has forgiven them, that he therefore never hates their talk (or their blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, or snapchats). This is presumption. Our Father does hate a lot of what we communicate. He will discipline us for it, too (Hebrews chapter 12).

What should you do when somebody starts speaking ill of another person (a mutual acquaintance) in your presence? Here are four suggestions: 1) Stop talking. Just don’t respond. It may create a moment of awkwardness, but it will also, usually, stop the gossip. Conversation is like tennis. If you don’t hit the ball back over the net, there is no game. 2) Ask the gossiper how they know the thing they are saying. “Where did you hear that?” or “Can I quote you on that?” 3) Say something nice about the victim of the gossip. This usually makes the gossiper re-consider how their comments sound to others. It also counteracts the poison absorbed by those overhearing the gossip. 4) Leave the room. This is the last resort, when all the other ideas fail. It does make a statement.

Please pardon the earthy metaphor, but gossip is the flatulence of human culture. Trying to stop it completely is a painful waste of time. The fallen world is filled with it, breathing it constantly, heedless and accustomed to the foul odor. And now, thanks to the blessing of social media, gossip’s stench can spread throughout the world in a matter of seconds. Viral flatulence. Christians, of all people, should be sensitive to this, but many are not. They often contribute to it. It would be much better to open a window and let some grace in.

So, as we teach our children, when you feel the need to gossip, please go outside until it passes.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

 

 

 

Preaching the Resurrection

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Preaching the resurrection is the thing we do every Sunday more or less, is it not? The entire Christian life is a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. All of our work as pastors focuses on teaching people to live in the resurrection reality. All grief management, discipleship encouragement, judgment warning and instruction in righteousness grows directly from the fact that Jesus Christ has inaugurated the New Age in the midst of the Old Age.

One of the entailments of the resurrection of Christ is that if it is true (and it is) then Reality is profoundly different than we have been led to believe. For one thing, philosophical pluralism, the mantra, the dogma, the unquestioned canon of contemporary western intuition is simply not true. And thinking that it is true turns out to be a stupefying mental error, one from which grows an enormous epistemological labyrinth that keeps smart people walking in moral circles indefinitely. There simply are not multiple Ultimate Truths. Nor are there multiple paths to the same Ultimate Truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Nobody comes to God except through Me.”  Ultimate Truth is a Person, not an abstract concept. He is God. This means that the universe is the Personal expression of the Personal Creator, the result of His Word (Heb.11:3).

Secondly, the resurrection of Christ means that evil or sin is a deeper reality than energy or physics in the universe. Our world preaches the dogma that the universe is essentially “Matter, Motion, Time, and Chance” as Francis Schaeffer famously said. But if Jesus Christ is resurrected, that means that his excruciating and inhumane death accomplished what He said it was supposed to accomplish—the defeat of sin and death. That means that sin is a deeper reality and a more powerful thing than inanimate energy in the same way that cancer is more central to a human than clothing.

If you’re going to live the Christian life you have to live it on Jesus’ terms. That means you have to think about everything like Jesus, like God in the flesh does. And you have to decide to do this. There’s no other way. You can’t serve God and the Enlightenment, God and World Religions, God and Naturalism, God and Pluralism, God and Nationalism, God and Spiritism, God and Sex, God and Power, God and Money. It’s The Lord Christ or nothing. This is not an arbitrary decree from an insecure and co-dependent Deity. It is a fact. The universe only runs one way because it is the product of only One God, the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

“But there are many ways of understanding reality, many truths” says the urbane and fashionably skeptical pluralist. “Who’s to say which is right?”  The answer is: “How do you know that there are many truths?” The fact is that we only retreat to the “there are many truths” defense when there’s something we want to do that we’re pretty sure God would disapprove of, like wholesale sex, killing unborn people, or unbridled greed.

The famous Duck-Rabbit illustration pops up in all of these discussions. The picture looks like a duck, but then when you look at it with different “eyes” it looks like a rabbit. If you tell people ahead of time that you’re going to show them a picture of a duck, that’s what they “see.” And everybody knows that “seeing is believing,” which means “seeing is knowing” right? So then, you “know” it’s a duck. Yet, if somebody tells you that “many scholars believe” it’s a rabbit, you begin to wonder of you should change your mind about it being a duck. Endless “conversations” (the polite pluralistic euphemism for arguments) ensue.

But what if the Artist of the Duck/Rabbit picture steps on the scene and says, “It’s a duck.” Now we have a decision to make about reality. It is a decision of what to know, meaning what to believe is factually true about this issue. Our decision is not whether to believe/know that the picture is a duck or a rabbit, it is a decision to base our knowing on something other than our autonomous seeing and thinking. In other words, we face not simply a decision about ontology (whether the thing is a duck or a rabbit), but epistemology (how we know what the thing is). Do we “take the Artist’s word for it”?  Or do we insist that our “seeing” is “knowing” and that therefore we are for all intents and purposes the ultimate interpreters and thus the creators in a certain sense of the picture? If we assume that we may decide whether it is a duck or a rabbit regardless of what the Artist says about it, then does that mean that the thing really is both a duck and a rabbit? Really? The Law of Non-Contradiction is non-existent? Do we really live that way in daily life? If we try to live this way, it is the beginning of insanity.

When Jesus of Nazareth rode into Jerusalem on that donkey colt at Passover in AD 30, he was presenting Himself as the Messiah, the center of reality, God in the flesh. The people wanted to believe He was their idea of Messiah, but He isn’t. He was purposely letting them think what they wanted to think, to interpret Him as they wished, according to their idea of Messiah. In a way, He was letting them think one thing about him when in fact there was a deeper and more profound reality. Only after the resurrection and only to a relative minority of the population (though a large group over a few weeks of time) did he reveal the Truth.  But once that Truth was revealed it changed the view of everybody about everything.

Preaching the resurrection is preaching the gospel. It is the most stunning, astounding, life-transforming reality imaginable.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Preaching

Preaching and other crucial things

Sunday morning is game day for me. Opening the scriptures and nourishing the flock of God in their faith in Christ is by far the most important responsibility I have. So, I’m nervous (more or less) every Sunday, anxious to do a good job of it, concerned that God’s voice be heard in the hearts of everyone he brings that day. This is, I think, as it should be for me. Imagine if a teaching pastor took lightly the opening of God’s Word.

But, though the sermon is the most important thing I’m doing, it is not necessarily the most important thing happening in each life there. The Spirit is doing many other crucial works on Sunday mornings that are only tangentially connected to the pulpit, all of them aimed at the growth of the gospel in people’s lives. In any healthy church there are many invisible (to us) ministries going on that are not reliant on or even very affected by the sermon. Prayer groups, connections between people, worship and praise, new friendships forming, old ones re-grouping, personal spiritual direction through casual conversations—all of this is dynamic and health-giving. And it happens spontaneously around the main service without programing or supervision. These are tiny powerful deeds done quietly by the Spirit in unobtrusive and apparently random ways. (I have discovered there are no “random” events in ministry, no real “accidents.”). Bottom line: it seems that most of what the Lord is doing on Sunday morning He’s not telling me about.

Why do I need to remember this? Because if my only metric for ministry is preaching I will be too elated with a good sermon and conversely too dejected if I think I blew it. I’ll take too much on my own spiritual shoulders. This happens to us pastors all the time. It can produce anger, pride, depression and a myopic or overly critical view of the health of the church. In my attempts to oversee ministry (from the pulpit point of view), I may overlook a ton of excellent spiritual work that God is doing.

I have found it a relief to step back, practice what I preach (that God is at work among us), and relax a bit about the impact of my preaching. It has helped me do a better job in the long run.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Invisibility, God’s Word, and Prayer

God creates and sustains by his word, which is essentially invisible. A word, any word, is the expression of a mind. Minds are invisible to us. Brains we can see and dissect, but by the time we get around to doing such a thing, the mind is usually gone. If you want to know my mind, the last thing you would do is crack open my skull and poke around in my gray matter. You would need to either hear words from my mouth or read them in print. Either way, the invisible is foundational to the visible. The communication relies on an essentially invisible (but not always inaudible) word.

We cannot see words, except in print, but that is not quite the same as seeing the words in action. The Bible is God’s word made text, and the text is naturally visible. We can read it silently and receive the Spirit-inspired, life-giving truth of it, or we can read it aloud, as Ezra did in Nehemiah 8:1-8, with profound effect. But we do not actually see the words traveling from the speaker’s mouth to the hearer’s ears. And we surely do not see the words enter the human heart like Hebrews 4:12 says. We don’t see sound waves. Nor do we see the thoughts that occur as a result of the words we hear, read or speak. If we were present at the moment of creation and were able to hear the expression of God’s mind as he said, “Let there be …,” we would see the effect of God’s words. Things would appear before us as the Lord spoke. But we would not see the words themselves. God’s word may be heard. When it is, and is believed, amazing things happen in the material world. But the active word of God remains invisible to our physical sight.[1]

The Scripture is certainly God’s written speech, his authoritative word (2 Tim 3:16-17). But the arguments about the Bible between liberals and conservatives, which have dominated discussions over the last two centuries, have not highlighted what I am talking about here. I am a conservative in these debates and glad for the scholarship that retains and defends a high view of Scripture. But out on the edges of these theological battles, where pastors were trying to help the Lord’s sheep hear his voice, only the mystics were tapping into the sort of insight I am addressing here. I am deliberately highlighting the invisible, powerful effect of God’s mind expressed in his word, on the minds of human beings who come under the sound and sway of it. Words come from minds, and bring about effects in minds.[2] The whole thing is invisible. And since God’s word actually creates, the whole thing is also metaphysical.

Jesus is the word of God made flesh, the tangible, human expression of YHWH (John 1:1-5, 14-18; 8:48-59; 14: 7-11; Col. 1:15-17; 2:9; Heb. 1:1-3). When God makes his word (logos) actively visible it is a being, a human being.[3] Let that soak in for a moment. Seeing Christ is the closest we will get to seeing the word of God. Therefore, when Jesus spoke, his words were the very speech of God and so had the same effect as at the original creation. He spoke to the wind and the waves and they recognized the voice of creation, and obeyed (Mark 4:38-41). He spoke to the sick and dead, and their material bodies heard the voice of creation, God’s word, and rose up in life (Mark 5:41-42; John 11:43-44). He spoke forgiveness to a crippled man and it happened, but people couldn’t see it. So to prove that he had the authority to utter the word of forgiveness (a word God alone could speak) he healed the man with a word (Mark 2:1-12). By using words and deeds Jesus brought God’s invisible word to bear on the fallen age. In doing so, he brought the kingdom of God, the light of life, into the kingdom of darkness (Mark 1:14-15; John 12:44-50). Furthermore, his words were the source of spirit nourishment and transformation for his disciples. When they balked at his claim to be the manna from heaven, the divine nourishment for eternal life in this desert age, he said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63). When he told them about bearing fruit for him, he tied the life/power to bear that fruit to prayer and letting his words abide in them (John 15:7). When he said he is the Vine and the Father is the farmer, he added that his present disciples were “clean” because of the word he had spoken to them (John 15:3). This is all invisible to our material eyes.

Since a word is the expression of a mind, any word automatically carries the authority of the mind that speaks it. When my grandson utters the words of his three-year-old mind, we smile and hug him. But nobody obeys. His words have no real authority. On the other hand, when the judge in court utters a word, the place goes silent and people’s earthly destinies change. God’s word is the expression of the mind of the Creator for the purpose of accomplishing what he intends in the material world. If the Lord created the entire universe by expressing his mind (speaking), then the power of his mind must be infinitely beyond anything we can possibly imagine. It is. His mind is so powerful, his thoughts so transcendently dynamic, that all life and matter literally hang on his every word. (Deut. 8:3; Isa. 55:8-11; Heb. 1:3)

The idea that words by themselves can alter material reality, rearrange molecules, create life even in dead flesh, is simply beyond our plausibility structure. We can do things with words, but only by influencing other people to move their muscles, or by using voice recognition software. The ability to create with a word is stunning, astounding, metaphysically mysterious to us. Yet, that is precisely what the Bible claims about God’s invisible voice (Deut. 8:3; Ps. 33:6-9).[4]

What this means is that, contrary to our Western naturalistic worldview, the universe does not primarily function on inanimate, invisible “laws of physics,” but on personal, invisible authority, expressed in the word of the One who created everything (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). This is why it is true that for eternal life, the life of the next age and the New Creation, it’s not what you know, but Who (John 5:37-40; 14:6). It seems to me that we pastors should think thoughts like this and say them in some understandable way from the pulpit.

Prayer

What we have just discussed has implications for our prayer life. Prayer is not mystical manipulation of inanimate cosmic forces for our own ends, as New Age spirituality would have it. Neither is it simply meditating on, or talking to, various numinous entities, or communing with nature, as self-styled spirituality implies. Nor is it self-referential, meaningless, mental exercise that calms our nerves “if we believe in that sort of thing,” as naturalism thinks. But it is a metaphysical action based on God’s authority through Christ and our union with him by faith. Real prayer, along with ingesting God’s word (John 15:7; Rev. 10:9; Ezek. 3:1), is the main way that the regenerate, Spiritual person interacts with God, who is the Source of creation and matter, in Spirit and in Truth. It must be exercised in personal relationship with Christ, that is—in his name. This is because in the immaterial realm it is the authority of the mind expressing the word (speaking) that is the dynamic, the power that “gets things done.” So, we find that Jesus received a name above every name, which puts his authority above all authority (Phil. 2:9; Eph. 1:21), which brings about real changes in the material realm. We ask God with our words to express his mind in certain ways, to do what we believe would be in the kingdom’s best interest (John 15:7). He answers even our faulty prayers in His wisdom according to what he knows is best (Rom.8:26).

In Matthew 8:5-10 a centurion whose servant was paralyzed came to Capernaum to beg the Lord to heal him. The Lord offered to come to his home (the Pharisees gasp). But the centurion said, “Just speak the word, Lord. I understand about authority, about how giving a verbal command will accomplish things.” Jesus was rarely impressed with people, but at this utterance from a Roman centurion he marveled and said that he hadn’t encountered this sort of faith among any Jews. Amazing. Invisible authority, expressed by a mind with the requisite gravitas, makes things happen in the material realm. This highlights the fact that practical knowledge of reality is not just about things, but about the Lord’s Ultimate Personal Authority over the heavens and the earth (Matt 28:18; Eph.1:15-23).

The ability to pray effectively comes when our words to God (John 14:12-14) are shaped by his words in us (John 15:7) and conveyed by his Spirit in and among us (John 14:25-26; Rom. 8:26-27) in order to accomplish his ordained will in this age—bringing his kingdom into the material realm through proclaiming and living out the gospel (Matt. 6:10, 33; Eph. 6:18-20). Prayer is invisible, dynamic, Spiritual work. The effect of prayer appears in the material world. But the work is done in the immaterial, invisible realm.

What does this mean on a practical level? At least two things. First, we Christians should see ourselves as actively involved in God’s redemptive, gospel-centered work in the world, through our prayers. Prayer in Christ’s name is powerful, not because we have authority, but because we have the Lord’s ear and he has all authority. Intercessory prayer is the foundational spiritual action in all missional and evangelical effort. It is supremely spiritual, the primary Holy Spirit experience.

Second, we should persist in confident prayer, not because we feel worthy in ourselves, but because Christ is worthy and it is his name, not ours, in which we come to the Father. Many Christians falter in prayer because of a sense of unworthiness, acute awareness of their failures. They think the Father hears them based on their obedience alone, rather than based on Christ’s obedience. But the purchase price of all the answers to all our prayers was paid at the Cross. We do not “earn” the right to be heard by the Father. It is a gift, part of the package that is eternal Spiritual life in Christ (John 16:26-27). Of course, our walk with the Lord is crucial, and the Spirit convicts of our sins and disciplines us in his love, but prayer “in the Name of Christ” means prayer based on his person and work, not ours.

 

[1] Note how often Jesus said, “Him who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mtt.11:15; Mark 4:9; 4:23; 7:16; Luke 8:8; 14:35.

[2] In 2 Corinthians 4:3 Paul says that Satan has “blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel…” Note that the blindness is mental, in the mind. The sight (insight) is not material, but mental. So is the blindness, caused by sin. God’s word penetrates at this level, below the material sight we concentrate on. Cf. Heb. 4:12.

[3] One of the crucial differences between Islam and Christianity is that in Islam the Koran is the expression of God and in Christianity Christ is. One expression is words on a page, commands to obey; the other is a living Savior, God the rescuer who saves us by his own action and sacrifice. Therefore, Islam can only ever be a form of elaborate legalism. And the gospel of Christ can only be a gracious, personal salvation by adoption. Contrary to common assumption in the West, the real comparison of spiritual authority between Islam and Christianity is not between the Koran and the Bible, but between the Koran and Christ—between a book and a Person.

[4] The “Word Faith” movement in hyper-Pentecostalism (Benny Hinn, and others) is a tragic misappropriation of this biblical mystery. Their mistake is that they try to alter reality with their own words, taking God’s authority, “commanding God” etc. This is radically unbiblical and has caused untold harm to the gospel and the body of Christ. See D.R.A. McConnell, A Different Gospel: A Historical and Biblical Analysis of the Modern Faith Movement. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995. Also, Costi W. Hinn and Anthony G. Wood, Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical Miracle Movement. El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2018.

Revival

One does not pastor for long before one hears of the need for Revival. “Pastor,” announces the concerned and stalwart church member with a suitable squint of the eyes, “What we need is Revival.” The implication is that the pastor is in charge of such things and if he’s worth his salt he’ll see that this event comes about. And many pastors try. A church not far from ours plans an annual Holy Spirit Revival right on the highway complete with big top tent and sawdust floors. I have always wondered how far ahead we need to book the Spirit’s appearance when we schedule Him for such events. I saw at least a dozen cars in the three-acre parking lot last year.

By “revival” many Christians mean a highly visible increase of spiritual (Christian?) enthusiasm in a group setting. “Revival” in that sense has a history that is both colorful and cautionary. The problem with the concept is that it focuses (usually) on how a large gathering of people experiences a particular sense of God’s presence. The dynamic of that “large-group” encounter is then abstracted, analyzed, and marketed as the elixir to cure the ailments of spiritual boredom and worldliness that threaten churches. Don’t misunderstand please. God can and does do what He sees fit for the health of his Church. He certainly has revived churches and whole districts marvelously at various times. No argument there. But in the Bible, when a work of God resulted in a massive, localized expression of repentance (like in Acts 2 for instance) it was the result of the Spirit communicating the gospel, never the result of the Christians focusing on their own perceived need for such an experience. There is a subtle but crucial difference between seeking the Lord himself and seeking the experience. Simon Magus is our standard warning against efforts to acquire the Spirit’s life under any other auspices than the lordship of Christ. Yet, that is often (and inadvertently) what motivates the earnest exhortations that pastors receive from worried members of the flock. They’re not asking how they themselves might be more effective or missional in their own representation of Christ. They are bothered by their perception of other people’s “lack of commitment.” They want to see a dramatic thing in their group.

So, I have a word of caution before we get on the “revival” bandwagon, or feel guilty for not being on the wagon in the first place. A pastor’s job in the church according to Paul is not to create “revival” so much as to obviate the need for it (Eph.4:11-14). If a whole church needs reviving that means it has lost its life. A pastor’s job is to keep that from happening! Pastors are to nourish the flock in such a way that the individual sheep have opportunity to stay healthy and reproductive. Good shepherds do this not by seeking to get groups of people excited but by explaining the gospel and teaching the word of God day in and day out in various venues and ways such that people begin to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he has done (2 Tim.4:1-2). The Spirit uses the gospel to save and transform (Rom.1:16-17). Pastoral work is decidedly mundane in this regard, that is worldly in the sense of being at work in the world without a great deal of hype. When we do this people get converted to the saving lordship of Christ under the ministry of the Spirit. If a large number of these conversions happen over a short period of time a group dynamic surfaces. That group dynamic can be impressive—but the group dynamic itself is not the main point! It’s not a new movie that you want your friends to come to. “Hey, they’re throwing a Revival over there! Let’s go see.” The individual conversions under the sovereign work of God are the main point. The “revival” is simply the outward evidence of several conversions. So, revival is good when the Spirit brings it about through the gospel by converting non-Christians and re-invigorating Christians. But it is not something we “market” or “produce” by any other means than those the Lord gave the Church on the day of Pentecost: The apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer (Acts 2:42). All truly spiritual pastoral work grows from these simple realities.

It is true that some churches are dead and need to be revived. But the cure is not an event called a “revival.” Rather it is the slow and steady work of spiritual servant/leadership coming in prayer with the gospel through the scriptures, proclaiming Christ, especially in the pulpit. Church rigor mortis is usually caused by gospel starvation over a long period of time. When the church gets more interested in its own spirituality, its own reputation, its own Self, than it is with the Lord Jesus and His gospel the glory departs. This is how the concept of “revival” can mislead Christians. People want it for what it will do for the church. The emphasis is on the church rather than the Lord or the gospel. And this is why (counterintuitively) pastors must usually ignore requests for “revival” when they surface. Just nod, agree (because it may be true of course) and continue praying, preaching and teaching Christ regularly.

Just a thought,

Pastor Rick

Behavior Modification

One of the hardest aspects of pastoring is riding with the Lord’s people (including ourselves) through our tumultuous struggle toward spiritual maturity. Any experienced minister knows the frustration of seeking to direct a disciple or a group toward loyalty to the Lord, only to watch helplessly as they flame out and crash. I think this is why so many of us subtly (or not) shift the foundation of our preaching from who Christ is and what he did, to who we are and what we must do. We change our emphasis from the gospel to character development out of frustration with the “slow growth” we seem to see. To do this we apply “less grace” in an attempt to elicit more obvious compliance. But bare compliance is not discipleship. Pastoral work degenerates into behavior modification. This is a huge mistake. Grace is what actually transforms character in a real Christian. And the real Christians are, after all, the ones the Lord charged us to nourish (Jn.21:15-18; Acts 20:28). Forcing goats to obey rules does not turn them into sheep. This is not to say that pastors should never be direct and forthright to the Lord’s people on moral issues. But the pastor’s theology must be clear on how spiritual formation actually takes place.

The fact is that simple character development (learning how to act better) is not necessarily the same thing as Christian Spiritual transformation. Oddly, it may be the opposite of growth of faith in Christ, the very antithesis of Spiritual development. It may be growth of faith in the Self animated by religious zeal and personal discipline. This is Pharisaism. The key element in this sort of change is human rather than divine, sourced in our effort rather than God’s lordship and grace. But the transformative dynamic in the kingdom of God is grace, supplied and applied by God in Christ through the Spirit—not the un-aided natural energy and will of the practitioner. (Phil.2:12-13; 1 Cor.15:10)

Saul of Tarsus was an outstandingly good man before Christ converted him on the Damascus Road. Many a pastor would love to have had a guy like this on our staff or board. It’s hard to imagine a more passionate, upright, moral, theologically straight (biblical?) “spiritual leader” than Saul. He was by his own admission growing past his contemporaries in religious zeal, traditional achievement, and theological enthusiasm (Gal.1:14). Yet, when Christ converted him his life took on an entirely new sort of goodness (Phil.3:2-11). He did not lose any of his moral integrity, but he changed dramatically in ways that sheer moral rectitude cannot produce. The source of his goodness (righteousness) shifted from his own strength to the grace of Christ. The upshot was that he became kind and loving.

Christian (Spiritual) transformation is a change that God the Spirit produces from the inside out by bringing about radical and repentant faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. He transforms people not through simple self-discipline, but through a change of relationship with God by grace. The moral characteristics of integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and so forth may be quite evident. But the formation of the spirit of the disciple will be because they actually believe they are sinners that are forgiven by the Lord of the universe, to whom they have given their lives and loyalty. Christian Spiritual Formation has a root system in Christ’s personal grace, radical forgiveness conferred upon a true sinner. It grows out of relief, not threat. Reconciliation and regeneration have been achieved, but not by us (2 Cor.5:11-21; Eph.2:1-10; Col.1:21-23).

So, how can we pastors help our flocks grow in grace and faith in Christ rather than just succumbing to behavior modification? Two suggestions: First we can be careful to preach the miracle of who Christ is and not morality alone as our primary message. Bryan Chapell, for many years the president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, warns against what he calls the “Deadly Be’s”: By this he means sermons that are aimed at moral transformation by telling people to “be like” this Bible character, “be good” according to this passage, or “be disciplined” so that blessing will come to you. Without meaning to, these messages all put the emphasis primarily on human behavior, sometimes completely ignoring the actual gospel—that Christ’s righteousness (not ours) is the basis of our relationship with the Father. Our sermons must begin and end with Christ, inserting the true biblical mandates for our life of faith between the lines of grace that the Lord has laid down.

Second, we can remember that a very common way to experience spiritual growth in grace (perhaps the most common way) is through brokenness and failure followed by healing and forgiveness. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle by utterly failing and being restored. Peter had a similar experience (Jn.21). True Christians usually “fail forward” so to speak. Reach always exceeds grasp in the spirit-filled life. Most believers live with a painful consciousness of their own unworthiness (Rom.7). Our joyful job as proclaimers of the gospel is to apply the truth of radical grace like antibiotic to the wounds of life in this age. A Christian’s peace of mind is not due to denial or the perception that they have become perfect, but rather to the deep conviction that they are always forgiven, reconciled, loved, declared righteous and embraced by God Himself in Christ, even when the Lord disciplines them (Heb.12).

We pastors have our work cut out for us and it is the most important work on earth. The Lord uses the gospel to save people (Rom.1:16-17), but He continues to use the gospel, from our pulpits, as the nourishment for continued growth in grace.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Be All There

Church growth is a big deal for pastors. We sometimes pretend it isn’t so, but inside most of us want our churches to flourish numerically and are worried when they do not. Partly this is for our own validation of course. We, like almost every other person in the western world, want others to see us as valid and successful in some way. But much of our angst is also for the kingdom of God. We want people to come to Christ and grow in Christ. The motives are mixed and we must admit that up front. Part of the way the Spirit sifts our motives and helps us mature personally is by adjusting the size of the church, even from week to week. It makes us check our priorities and bring our thoughts back to him.

I received a simple and practical piece of advice from an older pastor that has helped me tons through the years. He told me that on Sunday he would only think about, pray for, and teach to the people that are there, not the ones who aren’t. I once overheard a member comment during a slim summer service (lots of folks were on vacation), “Hey, where is everybody?” It stunned me and tempted me to obsess on the empty rows instead of praying for the full ones. That fellow was focusing on the church instead of the Lord and I needed to avoid slipping into the same Slough of Despond. We should trust the providence of God, the work of the Spirit that brings precisely those on this morning that He wants here. It’s an exercise of faith for us as pastors! But isn’t that what we’re telling our folks, to trust the Lord? The habit of focusing on the people I am with at the time, of being “all there” when I’m in ministry situations, has strengthened and stretched me much over 35 years of pastoral work.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

 

A Good Elders’ Meeting

All churches have boards that in some way work with the lead or senior pastor. Different churches use different titles in their constitutions, calling these leaders elders or trustees or whatever. They also have different official ways in which authority flows between the board and the pastors in the church. Frankly, it’s pretty well known that not all board meetings are pleasant or useful. Many are contentious or unproductive or both. Things can get pretty unspiritual the moment after we’ve “opened in prayer.” I read years ago about a church in which the deacons’ meeting got so heated that one of them pulled a gun and shot another board member, wounding him gravely! The guy didn’t die, but one would hope that the results of a Christian board meeting might have a higher standard of success than simply that nobody got killed. Fortunately, this was an isolated and rare incident (I hope).

So, assuming that your leaders are mature Christians (1 Tim.3; Titus 1) who actually want to do the right thing in discerning the Spirit’s guidance for the church, what are some practical pointers on a good meeting? I’ll offer just four of the many things I have learned in 34 years. We do have a unified, loving and very effective elder board in my opinion. But it’s not because I figured it all out as the senior pastor. It’s because through the years the Lord has brought mature guys who often added large pieces of wisdom to our way of doing things so that now we have a pretty smooth-running and Christ-centered model.

First, prioritize specific and personalized prayer over everything else in your meetings. Prayer meetings degenerate quickly into planning sessions and in doing so leave the Spirit out of most of their thinking. Take a long time of prayer at the beginning (not the end) of each elder meeting. Use a list of all the various ministries in the church, the missions, the departments, the key personnel. Work your way around the room until every ministry has been prayed for by the name of the director. We take at least 45 minutes, sometimes an hour or more, to pray for the church this way. Then and only then begin to look at the decisions and reports that will require board input or decisions.

Second, don’t let board meetings become staff meetings. Distinguish between what the board does and what the pastoral staff does. The staff implements the theological vision adopted by the board. When board members try to micro-manage staffing decisions it gets weird. The board should do large-scale and directional decisions, shaping a budget, discerning new overall ministry outreaches and directions, making sure that the church is “on mission.” If there are other pastors on the board than the senior pastor, these brothers need to know which hat they’re wearing when they come into the meeting. We have on many occasions had to redirect discussions back to policy and philosophy issues. It’s very helpful if the entire board knows that this is a point of organizational clarity. And it is increasingly important as a church grows numerically.

Third, use a real written agenda and stay on task with it. It’s amazing how many church meetings don’t use a serious agenda, so they have no way to know if they’re making progress. It helps to elect a moderator to keep the meeting on track, too. It’s his job to go through the agenda point by point until everything has been covered. We used to have an “open forum” time when anybody could bring up anything at the end of the meeting, but it was not helpful. Discussions arose with no actual shape, no real proposals, no research and no homework. We don’t do that anymore. If an elder wants to get something on the next agenda, he talks to the senior or executive pastor (who writes the agenda) and it gets added if there’s room. Many of these concerns are handled at the staff level before they even come to the board. It has streamlined our meetings wonderfully.

Fourth, be more patient than you think you need to be. Create enough emotional and temporal space to hear from each elder about any and all serious issues on the agenda. Here the lead pastor often needs to bite his lip, frankly. We pastors are accustomed to making intuitive spiritual discernments quickly in our daily work. That’s a good thing. If we were really unsure of spiritual things we shouldn’t be pastors in the first place. But a board meeting is a place to seek communal discernment from the Spirit. That means we need to take time for all the hearts to understand and bear witness to any new proposal. If a member is impatient (especially the senior pastor) he rushes the decisions. There is a saying, “Decide in haste and repent at leisure.” Take the time to get consensus. There must be no manipulation, just clear proposals that are presented well and defended practically, followed by enough discussion to reach true communal discernment. If members feel pressured into a decision they don’t have spiritual peace about, it comes back to bite the board later if anything goes wrong with the implementation.

There’s more to good leadership meetings than what we see here, of course, as any experienced pastor will attest. But we have found these four practical points foundational in creating an atmosphere of unity and spiritual decisiveness.

Just a Thought

Pastor Rick