I have a picture from 1917 or ’18 of my grandfather’s army company. It’s a panoramic photo that, because of the limits of the technology of the time, was taken in numerous exposures then seamlessly joined together in the darkroom at a later time. Because of the way these pictures were taken, it was possible for a man on one end of that long row of soldiers to sprint to the other end and have his picture taken a second time. So, in some of these old photos, you will find the same soldier on both ends of a row at what looks to be the same time. I suppose it would be possible to find the same soldier in one of these panoramic pictures on both ends and in the middle.

It’s like that when we take a panoramic look at the Scriptures. We look to the beginning, to creation, and then turn our gaze to the end, to the judgment and beyond, and at both the beginning and the end, we find the same figure. In the middle, we find him again. In fact, he’s everywhere we look! Throughout the great story that runs through the Scriptures, we find Jesus Christ. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” And he is there in the middle, too.

God’s story is as seamless as one of those old panoramic pictures, and everywhere we look we find His Son. Sometimes, when we’re reading the Scriptures, we get the idea that God’s story has been interrupted, started, and stopped, or that the theme has changed. It’s not so. It is one story from beginning to end. It is the story of what God has done and is doing, how he rights what has been wronged in his creation. It is the story of his love and faithfulness or, as the Scripture often puts it, his righteousness.

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Love a Spouse Can Trust

Love is from God (1 John 4:7)

The radio and television host Larry King was asked in an interview about his marriages. He has been married eight times to seven different women. So he must be an expert, right?

King answered, “Questions about my marriages and divorces always take me to the same place. I once asked Stephen Hawking, the smartest guy in the world, what he didn’t understand. He said, ‘Women.’ If the smartest guy in the world couldn’t understand them, what do you expect from me?”

Then King said, “The three greatest words in the English language are not: ‘I love you.’ That’s second. The first are: ‘Leave me alone.’”

No wonder he’s been married eight times. Larry King didn’t need wives. He needed tropical fish. He needed something pretty that didn’t talk back, didn’t demand his attention.

One doesn’t need to be the smartest guy in the world to understand that a wife needs to trust her husband’s love. She needs to know that he would give his life for her. That makes us think of giving up one’s seat on the lifeboat or giving away the last sip of water in the canteen while lost in the desert. But instead of sharks and deserts, we’d do better to think of giving up one’s preferred way of doing things, or even of giving up the remote control. People rarely go from giving up nothing to giving up everything. They start by giving up their time, their attention, their diversions. A husband who won’t sacrifice a diversion for his wife certainly won’t sacrifice himself.

The kind of love a wife needs looks remarkably like the kind Jesus gave, as St. Paul described it. There’s good reason for that: Jesus knew how to help people learn to love. This is what so many people don’t understand. The kind of marriage the Bible suggests is possible – rich, extravagantly loving, daringly vulnerable – is not just the result of two compatible personalities finding one another; it is a religious experience.

The beautiful marriage the Bible describes is never just between two people; it always involves three. A braid of hair provides an analogy. To look at it, one would think there are only two strands wrapped around each other, but two strands won’t hold together; there must be at least three.

In the beautiful marriage the Bible pictures, one first sees a husband and a wife wrapped around each other. But between them there is always a third person present, tying them together. He lives within the marriage, and the marriage is about him, which is why, near the heart of the Bible’s longest passage on spiritual life in marriage, the apostle unexpectedly says, “but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”

St. Paul urges husbands to be like Christ and give up their lives for their wives. He understood that there is no love without sacrifice. Many husbands are like the guy who says he would die for his wife and means it: he’d wrestle a shark for her, give his life in one great sacrifice. He’s ready to die for her but not to live for her. He would give her everything, he just won’t give her anything that requires day by day sacrifices.

But that is precisely what sacrifice looks like in marriage. It looks like going to the family reunion rather than having the guys over to watch the hockey finals. It looks like doing dishes rather than sitting in front of the TV. It looks like listening rather than tuning out. These are not gigantic sacrifices. They are little things; daily things. But that is what real love looks like in daily life.

Jesus was up front about all this: he told his followers they would lose their lives but, in that loss, would find their true selves. What is lost, usually slowly and incrementally, is selfishness, which must be lost to make possible the experience of joy. Marriage provides an extended opportunity to practice being, in St. Paul’s vivid expression, “a living sacrifice.” Marriage is a school – one of many, but surely one of the best – in which people can learn to live and love the Jesus way.

First published by Gatehouse Media, 2/16/2019

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Slow to Anger (James 1:19-21)

Is anger negatively impacting your life? This 26-minute sermon may help. Just click and listen.

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Wide Angle

On the plains of Peru there is a network of strange lines made by an ancient people known as the Nazea. Some of these lines cover as many as ten square miles. For years archeologists assumed that the lines were what remained of ancient irrigation ditches.

Then in 1939, Dr. Paul Kosok of Long Island University, discovered what they really were. He flew over those plains and, from an aerial view he could see that the ancient lines that seemed so random at ground level were in fact enormous drawings – like pictographs – of birds and animals and insects.

Just so, from one perspective, the stories of the Bible seem detached and unrelated. But as we survey them from a wider angle, we suddenly see how one line leads to another to form one great picture of God’s redemptive purpose – from Genesis to the Revelation. And while there are many great men and women in the Bible, we discover that there really is only one protagonist, the lead actor throughout, and that is the Lord God himself.  

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A Horror Story

If we could see what God sees, we could follow the lineage of each sin back to the first sin in its line. We would see how it branched out into a family tree of sin that quickly became a forest. We could see how a sin committed in Philadelphia yesterday was already the fifth generation of a sin committed in L.A. the week before. Saint Paul put it this way (1Timothy 5:24): “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” What a nightmare it would be to see the sins you have done and the sins that were birthed because of it, waiting for you at the judgment, or following in a long line behind you! If we could see that, we wouldn’t sleep at night.

But sin not only follows us; it follows us with a hatchet. Sin commits patricide and matricide: it kills the people who brought it into existence. So James writes (ominously) that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” It is a horror story, and the horror is the greater because it is our story: the story of the monsters we engender and the destruction they cause.

But Jesus is the monster-slayer. God, the Bible teaches, sent his son Jesus Christ to save us “from our sins.” When we begin to see what that means, we will be awestruck. Jesus saves us. He makes things right, will make things new, and has already made it possible for us to get out of this horror story and into a “happily ever after” story.

In the “happily ever after” story, our good deeds give birth to good deeds, and they follow us to the judgment, not to kill us but to testify that we belong to Jesus. So, St. Paul says: “In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden” (1 Timothy 5:25). The humble, obedient Christian will one day be as astounded as anyone – more astounded – to see the good that God accomplished through him, and it will redound to his unbounded joy and God’s unending glory.

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Is it Wrong for Christians to Evangelize?

A friend and I were sitting across the table from two Muslim men, talking about faith. The conversation was amicable, the atmosphere friendly. At one point, one of the Muslim men interrupted himself to reassure us, “We’re not trying to convert you.”

I responded candidly: “Well, we’d love to see you become Christ-followers,” then went on to say that such a decision was theirs alone. Coercion can never produce real faith.

I really do not understand how someone who believes he has been let in on the truth – truth that would benefit others and improve their lives – would not want others to believe it too. Jesus’s people are to be ready to share the reason for their hope. St. Peter wrote, “…always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.”

Yet, this week the Barna Group reported that nearly half of practicing Christian Millennials agree that it is at least somewhat “wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” Paradoxically, those same Millennial Christians are more likely to consider themselves capable of answering questions about the faith than any other generational group. Yet they remain silent.

This may reflect, in part, an unthinking acceptance of a worldview that holds religion to be a principal cause of conflict. But I suspect there is more to it than that. Millennials are articulating a concern that Christians of all generations share but are too embarrassed to discuss: a concern about the appropriateness of the way evangelism is routinely practiced.

The word “evangelism” is derived from a biblical term for telling the good news. But evangelism as it is often practiced looks a whole lot more like selling the good news. Non-Christians are viewed as “sales leads,” and sales tactics are routinely employed. One of my mentors – a good and loving man, who was also a salesman by profession – taught me to ask people, “Is there any reason why you should not accept Christ today?” because, he said. it is always easier for people in a sales encounter to answer no than yes.

“Evangelism Explosion,” an influential evangelism training program that was developed in the 1970s, taught evangelists the same kind of techniques that door-to-door vacuum sweeper salespeople employ. The goal was to get the “contact” – the church would furnish a list of prospects – to “sign on the dotted line” by praying to receive Christ. Following the evening campaign, the evangelists met together to debrief and to celebrate successes.

The denomination in which I was ordained expected pastors to practice this kind of evangelism, which left me feeling uncomfortable. I believed I had a calling to serve Christ but knew I lacked the ability to succeed in sales, which was regarded as a prerequisite of the calling.

I have come to think of this approach to evangelism as misguided. Christ’s spokesmen are not salespeople, trying to talk folks into doing something they would rather not do. They are not door-to-door salesmen, “peddling the gospel,” as St. Paul scornfully put it. A salesman may be able to manipulate people into buying a product against their will, but no one ever came to Christ against their will.

As “witnesses to Christ,” which Jesus clearly expected his followers to be, a person brings knowledge, gained by experience, to others. He or she shares the good news, not because it’s expected but because it is exciting. This is quite different from making a gospel sale.

Dallas Willard, lamenting what “witnessing” has become, wrote: “Witnessing is not thought of as bringing knowledge, but as attempts to convince people to do things … Witnessing has turned into a kind of process of bothering people, and very few people witness because of this.”

Who wants to bother people?

The best thing church leaders can do to encourage people to share the good news of Christ is to help them experience the life Jesus envisioned for, and makes available to, them. As people live the Jesus-way and experience its superiority, evangelism is the natural outcome. Instead of pushing people to share the good news, church leaders must help them live the good life.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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Something’s Missing

When I was growing up, people frequently used insensitive language when referring to someone who was intellectually impaired or mentally ill. They said – we said – “He’s not all there.”

As insensitive as it was, it was not inaccurate; but it was too narrow. We could have said that about any and all of us. I’m not all there. You’re not all there. It is the human condition. Do you ever feel like something’s missing? There is a reason for that. Something is missing: you!

If we don’t understand this, we will look for what’s missing in all the wrong places. The entertainment media will convince us that what is missing is romance, or a different sexual orientation, or the freedom to follow our desires. Advertisers will convince us that what is missing is a new car, a new look, a new house, or a new medicine. If we don’t know better, we’ll believe them.

But you won’t find what you need in any of those places because what you need is you fulfilled – filled full. It’s what your whole being craves. What we need, as St. James’s once put it, is to “be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

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New Feature: Broken Pieces

The Way Home will now feature short pieces I’m calling Broken Pieces. (Read Mark 6:34-43 and John 6:12 to find the background for the title.) I hope these brief, Bible-based readings will encourage your faith and inspire your thinking. Check in often, or follow The Way Home (the Follow button is at the bottom right of this page) and receive emails alerting you to each new post.

The Giving God
You return a purchase to the store for a refund and, a half-hour, three clerks, and one manager later, get your refund, but are informed they were under no obligation to give it to you because you didn’t have a receipt and are warned that next time you’d better bring one.

Some people think God is like the management at that store. He doesn’t really want to give us anything. He has to be coaxed into it and, even then, will only help after he lets us know how disappointed he is in us. That is not the God James knew, the God to whom Jesus introduced him. He is – this is a very literal translation of James 1:5 – “the giving God.”

This is the God Jesus knew. He is a giver. He loves to give and he gives because he loves. This is the God who so loved he gave. He knows what you need before you ask, and he is ready to give when you asks. If you know how to give good gifts, Jesus once said to people, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). He is the God who “graciously” – not grudgingly – will “give us all things” (Romans 8:32). He is the Father who is “pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32). This is good news about God!

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Do We Need a Religionless Christianity?

The young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, just weeks before the United States Infantry liberated the camp. The Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer, yet one might say his fate was sealed by a decision he made in the U.S. in 1939.

He had previously spent a year in New York at Union Seminary, and had received an invitation to return, which he accepted. But after two months, he realized he had made a mistake. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote, “that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…” He returned to Germany and was eventually imprisoned and executed.

People who know of Bonhoeffer’s criticism of German politics might be unaware of his criticism of American theology—or the lack thereof. While at Union Seminary in 1930, he complained: “There is no theology here.” During his abbreviated visit in 1939, he wrote in his diary that the worship service at a prestigious New York church was “Simply unbearable… the whole thing a discreet, opulent, self-satisfied celebration of religion…Do the people really not know that one can do as well or better without “religion”—if only it weren’t for God himself and his word?”

Bonhoeffer was distressed to find that God was optional in American churches. On his first visit, religionists in America were optimistic, buoyant even, in their hope of bringing the justice of the kingdom of God—even if they were not expecting God to come along with it. But when he returned in 1939, things had changed. He found a religion that was still without God, but was also, to a significant degree, without hope. A darker theological mood in Europe, the Great Depression in America, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s pessimistic Moral Man and Immoral Society had taken the wind out of its sails.

In 1939, Bonhoeffer prophetically wrote about the American church: “For me there is no doubt that someday a storm will blow forcefully into this religious ‘hand-out,’ if God himself is still in the plan at all…” A storm has certainly blown across American religion and its landscape has been altered.

Religion has been in decline – some might say free-fall – for decades. Many people who still believe in God have completely rejected organized religion. A recent study out of Georgetown University found that formerly churched young adults “perceive organized religion as having corrupted Jesus’s fundamental teachings” and “believe they can live more moral lives without the baggage of religion.”

Perhaps Bonhoeffer would see this as a positive development. After all, toward the end of his life, he wrote, “We are approaching a completely religionless age.” He raised “the question of whether religion is a condition for salvation.” He seemed to posit the need for a “religionless Christianity.”

But for Bonhoeffer, a religionless Christianity was not a church-less Christianity, as it is for many moderns. The religion he hoped to jettison was the “anthropocentric … liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology” that finds its origin in human aspiration and its goal in human fulfillment.

If Bonhoeffer were still alive, his keen eye would detect the same condition present in today’s churchless, individualistic spirituality that he found in the churchy Protestantism of 1930. It doesn’t really matter whether God is employed to enhance the life of an unfulfilled individual or to restructure the life of an unjust society: God is not an employee and humans are certainly not his employer.

These cases of mistaken identity stem from an underlying disorder: the absence of – or perhaps the unwillingness to hear – the word of God. On his first trip to New York, Bonhoeffer reported with dismay that he had not heard the gospel preached in a white American church. He would certainly not hear it preached in today’s therapeutic, individualistic spirituality either. But he would say once again that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what people, whether religious or religionless, needed then and still need today.

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Pray by Listening – Guest Post

by Kevin Looper

There once was a man who hated his job.  Every day as he pulled into the parking lot of his work, he would pray, “God, I hate my job! My boss is a jerk.  My coworkers are foul-mouthed, lazy, and selfish.  The work is pointless and I wish I could do something important.  This job barely gives me enough money to pay my bills and every time I am here, I wish I were anywhere else!  I would rather be at the dentist office getting my teeth pulled.  Please, give me a better job!” Each day after work, the man would go home and look at the want-ads, apply for other jobs and go for interviews.  The next day he would start it all again, but he never got another job. 

Why didn’t God answer his prayers?  Perhaps the man’s prayer did not get answered is because he was not really praying—or at least, he was only partly praying.  Real prayer is a conversation.  It is talking with God about what the two of you are doing together. When you order food at fast food drive-through, you can hardly call that “talking.” In the same way, when you simply tell God what you want and do not listen to what he has to say to you, you can hardly call that “praying.”  This man was not trying to hear what God said about his situation, he just wanted his order taken. 

Imagine what a difference it would make if the man would simply listen to what God had already said to him in the Scriptures.  What if he listened and obeyed what God said about how to deal with difficult employers and jobs: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3:23).

What if he took this word from the Sermon on the Mount to heart, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).  He might realize that his coworkers are more than an annoyance to put up with and that his purpose at work is bigger than his job title.

His fears about money could turn into joyful reliance and trust if he would only listen and believe the voice of Jesus, who says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and everything else you need will be given to you as well”  (Mt. 6:33).  And even if the struggle continued and his situation did not change, he could be filled with peace and anticipation when he read verses like Romans 5:3-5; “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character hope.”

It is true that asking is an essential part of prayer and there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for a new job. But the real effects of prayer do not come from what you say to God, but from what he says to you. Richard Foster said, “to pray is to change.” Prayer can change our minds, our hearts, our feelings, and our situation—it can even change other people.  But it is God’s words that create the change, not oursGod spoke a word and the universe was created.  God still speaks today and his words hold the same power to bring about change in us and in the world.  Any spiritual growth we have, we owe to God speaking to us.

God still speaks to people in many ways, but if we are to grow in our ability to listen to him speak, we first need to learn how to hear him in the Scriptures.   Here are five ways to be sure that we are listening to God through the Scriptures:

  1. Begin your reading by asking God to speak to you through his Word.  It is easy to depend on your own understanding to guide you toward insight, but we read the Bible to hear God, not to have deep insights.  What you hear from him may be quite simple—something you have thought about many times.   On the other hand, you do not need to “force” God to speak to you.  If your daily reading does not lead to some life altering revelation, do not be concerned. Your job is only to have ears that hear and a heart that obeys.
  2. Be careful not to come to the Bible with your own agenda.  Motives matter when it comes to hearing God speak.  If we read only so that we can teach others or impress them with our knowledge, it shows that we are not actually listening with humility.  If we read in order to confirm our opinions or combat the opinions of others, we are not likely to listen well either. Your only aim must be to nourish your soul on God’s Word to you.
  3. When you first start learning to listen to God speak in the Bible, begin with passages that are already very familiar to you.  Come to your chosen passage as a place where you will have a holy meeting with God.  Don’t approach the passage as something to know, but as a place to be together with God. 
  4. Talk to God as you read! It is more beneficial to read through one verse of Scripture prayerfully than to read a whole book of the Bible without prayer.  The Bible is meant to be prayed through, not just read through.  By “pray through,” I simply mean, talk to God about what you are reading.  Ask him questions about the text.  Stop on certain words and phrases and talk to him about what you are thinking.  Turn the commands, rebukes, and encouragements into prayer requests for yourself and for others.  Turn the stories and the Psalms into praise and thanksgiving.  There is no other activity that can so increase your wisdom and your love for God as praying through the Scriptures. 
  5. Memorize Scripture.  How are you supposed to learn to listen to God speak to you in the Bible when you only have five distracted minutes a day to devote to Bible reading?  By memorizing parts of it! Committing portions of Scripture to memory helps us listen to God’s voice throughout the day, even when we do not have a Bible with us.  To the person who is willing to listen, God can speak through the same verse again and again in many ways and situations.

Kevin Looper is the youth pastor at Lockwood Community Church. He holds a BA from Taylor University and an MA from Wheaton College.

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