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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It is easy as a pastor to fall in love with particular New Testament passages. So many of them are dear to the believer’s heart that it is difficult to choose a favorite. Which is more precious? The birth narrative? The miracles? The resurrection? The entire New Testament is to the believer a love note written from God to his beloved. But what about the Old Testament? Do we dare have personal favorites concerning these books? It seems that the events of the Old Testament (creation, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah) are more the subjects of intense debates rather than personal reflection and devotion.
I must say that my all-time favorite Old Testament passage is found in a most peculiar place: Proverbs chapter 8. I was first turned on to this passage in the fall of 2005 when I began to study the book of Proverbs more closely. I have found that this passage is an excellent connection of New Testament spirituality with Old Testament style. This is no Pentecost, nor is it a resurrection account. Rather, this is a hymn to the Wisdom of God. Central to the theme of the chapter is that Wisdom is the prerequisite to God’s creation. Before mountains or rivers, people or animals, the principles of Wisdom were established.
Though this is not the first place one should turn in witnessing to others, (it probably wouldn’t make a good sermon, either!) for the mature Christian I think this passage has much to teach. Primarily, though, it is the lesson of purpose in life that we should learn. The world is indeed orderly and operates with certainty and efficiency. We contribute nothing to gravity or magnetism, and yet they work perfectly! We, as people, are the actors on this grand stage of ordered life. We are the beneficiaries of the wisest establishment ever. This is not a chance happening; we are here for a reason.
What is that reason? Well, primarily it is to glorify God through our free acts and decisions. However, on the more minute level, we are to choose wisdom to determine our part in the grand scheme of God. Since Wisdom is the language that this reality has been written in, it is crucial that we, as the crown jewel of this creation, should attain wisdom and live as wise men and women. May that be how we are described in days to come – as a people who are wise.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Contrast of Slavery and Adoption

In preparation for this week’s worship service, and in continuing reflection of the Baccalaureate and Commissioning services for our graduates, I have been confronted with a particular dichotomy in Scripture. When Jesus is sending his disciples into the world he promises them the Comforter who will be the Spirit of Truth, who will guide them in their ministries. This Spirit is contrasted in Romans by Paul as the “Spirit of Adoption” rather than the “Spirit of Slavery.” Why would such a contrast be made? And what possible implications for 21st century disciples could this argument hold?
In days long past, when slavery was still an accepted form of cultural and economic status, many new Christians found themselves as household and agricultural servants. They were completely at the mercy of the master, who could at a moment’s whim have them flogged or killed. So harsh was the punishment of some slaves at the hands of the aristocratic ancients that all slaves lived in fear of unjust and cruel treatment.
What is more, there is Biblical argument that the Law itself, both to the covenantal Jew and the ignorant Gentile, was a bane to righteousness. Paul himself claims that the Law brought judgment and death on the people under the Law. They lived in a constant bondage to the life-script that was proscribed in the Mosaic Law; they were constantly under the threat of God’s punishment for sins for which they could not atone.
But Paul offers something completely different. He contrasts the “Spirit of Slavery,” which, according to earlier arguments, can be associated with the law, and the “Spirit of Adoption” which is something new entirely. With one simple turn of phrase Paul has taught the fundamental work that Christ accomplished for God’s people: by faith in Christ we are not bound to the constant fear of punishment as those under the Law, but instead are adopted children of God. Unlike the slaves of old, who earned no retirement or inheritance, the adopted children of God work as children do – they participate in the actions of the family and are due an inheritance.
This is the model that the children of God in any generation should follow. We are not slaves to ritual or even to the Law. Such bondage would have us living in fear for our lives and our eternal salvation. Rather, we are filled with the Spirit of Adoption, the one who constantly teaches us how to act as a proper child of God. May none of us be timid, may none of us live in fear or bondage. We are children of the Great Father through Jesus Christ. And soon we will all indeed share in his great inheritance.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Baccalaureate Address Delivered to Riesel High School, 5.20.07

Good evening, graduates. I hope that word has not lost its power for you yet. I know that with senior supplies, invitations, exams, pictures, and all of the other stuff that goes with your completion of high school, the term ‘graduate’ could indeed become something reviling. But for tonight let us revel in the word. Let the scent of memory fill us, and let the lightning of possibility course through us. For that is what all of this is about – remembering the moments that have brought you to this place, as well as trying to fix your gaze on the potential and opportunity that you now hold.
But there is something more to tonight than just remembering. Yes, there will be a tear-jerking slideshow of the graduates, and there will be more congratulations than you can shake a stick at. This event, this baccalaureate, is a worship service. All the people in this community have come to support you, not as they do at a football game, but as members of a community of faith. This service is a time of commissioning and prayer – it is a symbol of what faith means to your people, so that perhaps you will take faith along with you wherever you go.
History tells us that in the first instance of Baccalaureate, held over six hundred years ago at Cambridge University, was a service of sermons delivered by all the candidates for graduation. Each sermon was graded and entirely in Latin. So, to keep with tradition, we will ask each of the graduates to come up and deliver their Latin sermon. To be fair, let’s go alphabetically: Reese Aycock, you’re up first.
Needless to say this event has indeed changed in the last six hundred years, and today it has a much more relaxed feeling to it. It is a night to give advice and prayers. So, in the interest of time, I will combine my advice and my prayers for you all into one brief message.
First, be suitably overwhelmed. You are all approximately the same age and have now met the same level of academic achievement that this nation thinks is necessary. But keep in mind some examples of just what you’re getting yourself into now: by their mid twenties Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had both already written and developed the principles of Physics. By the time he was 30 Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Mozart wrote all of his violin concertos by 22. The world that you are about to enter, whether it is college, work, or military service, is big and impressive. Great men and women have stridden this patch of land before you, and you should indeed be suitably overwhelmed. Go ahead and relax between now and graduation; because as soon as the ink is dry on your diploma the world has moved on.
Secondly, see the big picture. 4 million people just like you are graduating this year. Each of them comes from a family, has a life of their own, have issues and troubles not unlike yours. There are 17 million people already enrolled in college. There are billions in this great nation. Each person has to make a living, become educated, and have a family. That’s a lot of connections. You are entering a world of competition, of corruption, of war, and of freedom. The big picture is that you are relatively on your own to carve out what life you want to have in this country. You are responsible for the things you know and do. You are responsible for your own success or failure from here on out. The big picture is a scary place, one in which you can surely get lost.
My goal is not to frighten you or worry your parents even more. Instead, I would offer you hope as you take these uncharted steps forward. What a shame it would be if all of this life was just a random scraping for food and resources. What a depressing place this earth would be if all there was to life was retirement. What a dearth of hope there would be if all we were was accomplished by the end of high school. Instead, there is meaning to life. There is a God who created and cares for you as you go your way. In John chapter 14 Jesus is graduating his disciples to the great journey ahead of them. He has taught them as long as he could, and now it is time for them to go their own way. He could have easily written his commands down in stone and expected the church to obey, but he did something quite different. He says “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
The Lord will not leave you in this world as orphans. Wherever you will go you will be just one breath from God. How marvelous a statement is that! God resides within you! This is more than the promise of John chapter one, where the Logos comes and dwells among us, this is God, the Logos, dwelling WITHIN US. Consider the implications of God going with you into the world and guiding you in truth. The big picture cannot handle this statement. The world that you are entering does not understand that you are carrying the most potent disease ever placed in the heart of humanity. You carry with you the knowledge of the truth, the truth which sets men free.
And it is your duty, and men and women of the Gospel to preach that freedom. Your lives must be living sermons to all you encounter, testifying to the truth of God. Set them free, graduates, from the chains that bind them to misery and hopelessness. Be people who show the Way to those who cannot find it. Be ready in all your choices to say “here, look and see God, the one who is with me always.” For he hasn’t left them. And he will not leave you. You are no longer an orphan as the world would tell you that you are; you are a child with parent immortal. I am reminded of a hymn which’s third verse makes me rejoice – “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days/O may thy house be mine abode and all my work be praise/There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come/ no more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”
May your life be the bliss and peace of being a child in the house of the Lord. You are no longer a stranger nor a guest wherever you find yourself; you are with the Lord and he is with you. He will not leave you, nor forsake you. He will be but a moment from your sight.
Be impressed with the young-age accomplishments of Alexander and Newton. But I am more impressed that people such as yourselves carry a wisdom and a power greater than these with you – you carry your God. So graduate; go into all the world and do great and mighty things. Carry with you the memories of this place and these people. But rest in the calm assurance that your God is with you, and will remain with you until the end of all things.
May the blessings of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon us all in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Speech Delivered to Oglesby High School Sports Banquet

On a cold and snowy morning in 160ad a sea of Barbarians crested the top of a rise just outside of Germany’s southern border. They howled in unintelligible languages and beat their spears and clubs against the crudely fashioned shields on their arms. They wore matted fur and skins from whatever beast they could find and their beards made them look more beastlike than even these poor animals.
Across the valley to the south were formed the gleaming ranks of the 3rd and 4th legions of Rome, their gold and red armor glinting in the winter sunlight. Not a man moved nor broke his ranks; each stood like a monolith to order and discipline. Their spears were neatly tucked inside their arms, their emblazoned shields resting on the ground at the ready. Their hatred for their foe was only surpassed by their love for Rome, and by their love for their commander, Maximus Decius Meridius, but you may know him as Gladiator.
You may not have stood on a hill facing your enemy as these men did, but you have lined up beside one another and fought for just one more yard. You have huddled together before a fight and cheered one another on to score more often and with greater authority than your opponent. You have run the good race and swung clubs, rackets, and your very bodies with reckless abandon to achieve victory. You are all gladiators.
The famous words of Maximus find us at that battle field thousands of years ago – “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Surely he understood the far-reaching effects of our choices and actions in this life and how they can shape us for all time. His men were valliant and true – they fought for their beloved general and to protect their homelands. They were disciplined and smart.
What does all of this have to do with an outstanding group of men and women about to leave the happy confines of this place and the competition that it offered? Only everything. The battles that you have fought here and the achievements that you have accomplished and the awards you have earned this very evening are testimony to the truth of your character. You are willing to commit yourself to something difficult. You are willing to train your body and your mind to be faster, stronger, and sharper than before. You have become disciplined and smart. You have become a warrior.
The lessons that you have learned whilst training your body and mind are what will echo in the lives you are about to lead. You will find it certainly true that the competition for education, jobs, a family, and for success in life is the same competition that you found in the gym, or on the gridiron, or on the track. You will most certainly find that the true competition is with yourself. So I offer you three words of advice this night to carry with you. You have undoubtedly learned these lessons well, but perhaps hearing them again will remind you of their importance.
First, understand the battle. I learned through my years as a lineman that I would never be the biggest man I faced, nor would I ever be the quickest. What came as a great revelation to me was that I indeed did not have to be in order to win. Rather, I discovered that I could learn better technique, better foot movement, and better mental preparation and be the best on the line. Knowing that revealed to me that the competition was absolutely not with the man lining up opposite me; the test was already passed or failed in my preparation.
Remember that the battles you will face are all within yourself. Your preparation for life through education, discipline, and training are the battlefields worthy of your energy and time. Leave the petty competitions for prestige and fame to those who are too simple to understand this truth. Be the man or woman who seeks greatness within himself or herself. Don’t waste time fighting over things that you cannot change; instead battle to ever improve your spirit, your mind, and your contribution to the world.
Secondly, play as a team. No sport that you could participate is a solo experience. Sure, you may compete in number 1 singles at tennis, or you might be the only person responsible for where your golf shot lands, but never think that you are in this alone. Whether the sport is basketball or Macroeconomics, you absolutely must play as a team. Without a group of people working toward the same goals as you, you have no one to learn from, no one to mentor, and no one to rely on. The legionnaires were helpless away from their formation. Their armor could not protect them from attack from all angles, nor could they be sufficiently trained to always guard their own backs. Their success was determined by their ability to work together and as a unit.
You also will need to work with people when you leave this place. You will not be dressing with them, or necessarily bleeding with them, but you will be put together with other men and women who are depending on you to achieve a goal. Play along side them and contribute those things that you are uniquely good at. For we are indeed all members of a body in society; find your function and do that function as best you can.
Finally, go out and play. All the speeches in the world will not pry your bodies from the seats of youth. Instead it is only the choice that you make to get up and do something that will move you from this night. Yes, you are to all be commended for your achievements this year, but do not let those achievements sit idly on a shelf tomorrow; let them motivate you to greater things in coming days. You must go out and play the game that is life. You must have the courage to try, to succeed, and to fail. Teddy Roosevelt writes that
"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."
The critics do not count; the finger-pointers matter little; it is the warrior who dares to stand in the arena to try and try and try again that knows the joy of life! I charge each man and woman here to have the uncommon courage to transform themselves into the man and woman that would indeed dare to fight for their dreams, to challenge their own limitations, and to advance with confidence in the direction of their dreams. They will be met with a success not found in common people, but, like the victors on the field or track or court, they will prevail in all their endeavors.
You sit tonight on the eve of that great battle between the well-ordered discipline of Rome and the chaos of barbarism. You have been suitably recognized and decorated tonight. Your bodies and minds have been toned and sharpened. What will you do now? This is when next season begins. Whether you are leaving this school or reloading for another year, leave this place this evening with the knowledge that life imitates the sports you play. You can dominate in both realms if you will but strive to be more than you are. Be that gladiator in the arena with blood and dirt and sweat on your face. Be a champion at what matters in life. May the blessings of God be upon you and your families in all the days to come.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In 1992 I had the great pleasure of reading the dissertation of a good friend who was completing his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University. His research had focused on certain microchips that could interpret light patterns on the input side and sent nerve signals on the output side. The result was an implantable device that allowed partially blind animals to see enough to function. Although this research is by now quite outdated and outmoded, it represented a great step in helping the blind among us, and still offers hope today.
There is another form of blindness that unfortunately cannot be cured with microchips or corrective surgery. No, there is a blindness that doesn’t even tough the eyes, but rather affects the heart. It seems that the eyes of the people of this land are wide open and can see anything that happens to them, yet the eyes of their hearts are closed and indeed blinded to the reality of life. There is more to this world and to this thing called living than interpreting light patterns and sounds and smells into an experience; there is meaning and purpose and a most definite end to those taciturn things.
Blindness of the heart comes with several most apparent consequences. It is through this deficiency that we loose sight of our purpose as creatures of God. Instead of fulfilling the roles that God has set us aside for we pursue selfish gain and self-fulfillment. We are blind to the cause that we are called to live for, that is, for God’s glory and for the development of his Kingdom. Also, blindness of the heart causes us to be ignorant of the value of things in life. We loose sight of love, of hope, of joy when our hearts are darkened. We cannot see, hear, nor smell the happy things of a realized humanity – we are left to sink deeper and deeper in to the dark of loneliness and isolation. Finally, with the loss of our heart’s eyes we loose the sense of the riches to which Christ has saved us. We forget the glory of Christ’s righteousness and love. We can be so blinded that we forget our own God.
So what hope is there for a people of blinded hearts? Only the gift of God! Paul prays for his children in Ephesus that they would receive a spirit of wisdom and a revelation as they come to know Christ, that indeed the eyes of their hearts could be opened. It is only though faith in Christ Jesus that people can have the blinders removed from their hearts to see the meaning, joy, and blessed life of those who love him and serve him. May we be such a people who seek the Lord and serve him, having had all blindness removed from our hearts and minds.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

In the fall of 2000 I was picking up my textbooks in the Mississippi College bookstore when an interesting paperback caught my attention. Its title was “Help! I’m afraid of the Proverbs 31 Woman!” While humorous, this seems to be the general feeling of a lot of women on Mothers’ Day, which is usually when Proverbs 31 is read in church. The fear comes from the description of the “virtuous woman” who is up before dawn, makes clothing and food, conducts business, and is generally extremely busy all day. Modern-day Christians read this passage and are confounded by the relative impossibility of such a life.
We must keep in mind that this image of a woman’s life comes from a culture not our own. For example, the passage refers to the virtuous woman as managing her servants well. There are no servants in our homes these days, and haven’t been for several generations. Furthermore, not too many of our ladies make their own clothing or plant vineyards (but for those who do, you are amazing!). Instead, our culture today is one of department stores and pre-cooked food and business and baseball games and higher education. So are we then left on Mothers’ Day reading a passage that has nothing to do with our mothers? Certainly not!
Proverbs 31 is a wonderful chapter of Scripture for the modern woman to consider valuable. Notice that her work is valuable not just for the spirit of her household, but for its income as well. Her employment is as wide-ranging and important as her husband’s; she buys and sells land, she sells material and produce, and she is described as a ‘provider.’ What better passage for our mothers today? All of the language of economy, wisdom, value, and faith that are normally reserved for men in the Scriptures are here applied to the strong and beautiful mother in our household.
Let us realize that the value of a mother is indeed not just limited to the spiritual nurturing that she provides husband and children. Instead, let us understand that a mother’s work of provision, education, and income-earning work is just as valuable as her husbands. Let Mothers’ Day not be the one day a year when we think of mom as having some extra value to us – let this day be one where we celebrate the “virtuous woman” who blesses us each day.