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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.

All.Night.Long.

As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.

 

~

Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.

~

Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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Scripture reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

This morning we continue our summer series in Genesis: today’s reading tells the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.  We met Isaac last week, the son of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel. As our story opens today, Isaac is now 40 years old; his mother Sarah has recently passed away; and his father Abraham is old and doesn’t get around much any more.

And Isaac has not yet married – which is unusual for a man his age in that culture. And it’s becoming an issue in the family – because Abraham is a very wealthy man, with a very large household (practically the size of a small town), and God has promised his son Isaac will be the father of nations.  So Abraham needs an heir, and Isaac needs children. But first, Isaac needs a wife!

Some of us can remember a similar situation back in the 1970s, when Prince Charles of Great Britain was turning 30 and hadn’t married yet. It was a HUGE issue over in the UK! One of the Prince’s royal duties is to see to it that the dynasty continues. It’s interesting to note both Prince Charles and Abraham chose to do basically the same thing: they chose their most trusted servants and sent them out quietly to look for a bride worthy of their prince. (Charles of course dated his bride-to-be a few times – it wasn’t entirely an arranged marriage, as Isaac’s was. But in both cases servants took the lead in getting the relationships started.)

These servants would not have been typical house-servants. Think Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey: He would have been hired as a young man to be the personal servant of the man who would eventually inherit the estate. This kind of servant does far more than just manage other servants: he is a close friend and confidante… one of the few people his master can count on to be absolutely loyal and absolutely trustworthy.

In our story today, Abraham’s servant has worked for Abraham for at least 60 years. Interestingly his name – Eliezer – means “God is [my] help”.  And because he is such a remarkable servant, I’d like to tell Isaac’s story from Eliezer’s point of view, the way he might have told it. I imagine him saying something like this:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“A few days ago my master Abraham called me into his tent and gave me a very special assignment. He wants me to find a wife for his son Isaac.  My master is too old now for such a task, and I am honored that he asked me.  God has blessed my master richly: he lacks nothing, and his son Isaac is strong and handsome. But at the age of forty, Isaac needs an heir.  My master says God has promised that Isaac’s children will become nations of people… but before that happens he needs a wife!

“Of course the wife of a man like Isaac must be an exceptional woman. My master told me: ‘do not get a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. They don’t know God, and they would lead Isaac away from God. Go to my father’s house, to my family in Mesopotamia, and find a wife for Isaac there.’

“Of course I would do anything for Abraham… but what he asks is very difficult. Traditionally it is the father who arranges such a marriage, but Abraham is too old to travel, so I must take his part. The journey is around 500 miles, and once I get there I must find the family of Abraham’s father, and then find among them a worthy woman.  Assuming I am successful in this, I then need to negotiate a bride price, and give appropriate gifts to the bride and her family. And then the bride herself must agree to leave her home and her family and travel to a foreign land to marry a man she has never met.

“This mission may prove impossible. So I ask my master: what if the woman will not return with me? Shall I bring Isaac to her?  And my master answered ‘No. My son is NOT to go back. God took me from my father’s house and brought me here and promised this land to me and my descendants. Under no circumstances are you to take Isaac there. If the woman will not come with you, you are free of your oath.’  And my master made me swear, placing my hand under his thigh and swearing on God’s covenant, that I would be faithful to my task.

“And so we loaded up the camels with rich gifts for the bride, and gathered some men-servants to travel with me, and we set off. After a few weeks we arrived in the region where my master’s family was last known to live.  It was late in the day, and we stopped by a spring of water because my men and their camels are thirsty.

“And as we stopped, I prayed. I have often heard my master pray, and I know God talks to him, but God has never spoken to me. I don’t know if he will hear me, but I pray he will answer, not because of who I am, but because I am Abraham’s servant.

“So I pray: ‘O God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.’ (Genesis 24:12-14)

RebekahNServant

“Before I even finished my prayer, a beautiful young woman came up from the spring carrying a jug of water. And I ran to her and I said, ‘please let me have a sip of your water,’ and she answered, ‘drink, my lord, and I will water your camels also.’

“And I watched, astounded, as she ran with grace and strength to tend to my camels. The Lord answered my prayer so quickly – and with such a generous and kind young woman!  So I took out of my master’s treasures a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets and presented them to her. And I asked her: ‘whose daughter are you? And is there room in your father’s house for my men and camels to stay the night?’

“She answered: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor and Milcah.’ (Nahor by the way is my master Abraham’s brother!) ‘And yes,’ she says, ‘we have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to stay for the night.’ At which I bow my head and gave praise to God saying, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master […] the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.’ (Genesis 24:27)

“The girl ran home to tell her family all of this, and they all ran out to meet me. Her brother Laban took care of our camels, and he prepared a rich feast for us. But I would not eat until I had told them my mission.  I said to her family, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, […] but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ ’ (Gen 24:34-38)

“And I told them about my prayer, and about Rebekah being the answer to that prayer. And I said to them, ‘if you will deal faithfully with my master and me please say so, and if not please say so, so that I know what to do next.’

“Rebekah’s father and brother both said, ‘this comes from God! We can’t say otherwise. Let our sister be the wife of your master’s son.’

And at that word, Rebekah was legally married – so long as she approved. So I opened my master’s treasures and gave rich gifts to Rebekah and to her father and to her brother.  And then we sat down and had a feast!

“In the morning they called Rebekah in and asked her: ‘will you go with this man?’ and she said ‘yes’.  And she packed her things, and she and her maidservants came  home with us.  Rebekah rode on the camels alongside me most of the way, and I had the chance to get to know her. She is lively and good-natured and speaks with a twinkle in her eye.  I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Isaac.

“Before we even got home, Isaac and Rebekah saw each other from across a field, and Rebekah immediately got off the camel and wrapped her veils around her like a proper lady. And when they met, it was love at first sight. Isaac now had someone in his life to comfort him after the passing of his mother… someone who would be by his side for a lifetime.

“I give praise and glory to God for their happiness, and for God’s faithfulness to my master and to my master’s servant. That is my story.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Taking back the mic now from Abraham’s servant Eliezer, just three things I’d like to say about his story:

  1. In this story – as in all of Genesis – Isaac can be understood as a type of Christ.
    In other words, the pattern of the events in Isaac’s life point to Jesus and create a kind of prophecy.Isaac, like Jesus, is the one and only heir of an extremely wealthy Father. Isaac waits for his bride in his Father’s house, preparing a place for her – just as Jesus does for us. And both Isaac and Jesus love their brides with all their hearts.
    The bride can be seen to represent us, God’s people.  Like Rebekah, Jesus’ bride is remarkable for her beauty, her generosity, and her willingness to tend to the needs of others. She is willing to leave behind her home and everything she knows in order to be with her husband.
    Jesus once said ‘anyone who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ – not because it’s wrong to love father and mother! – but because the bride’s heart is set on her husband. So in this love story we see a prophecy of the love story between Jesus and us.
  2. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.
    Notice how many people were involved in bringing about this marriage!  There’s the groom, the groom’s father, the groom’s best servant, the groom’s household servants, the bride, the bride’s brother, the bride’s mother and father, the bride’s maidservants, and of course God. Love relationships involve the entire family and the entire community.
    These days it’s popular to say “relationships are just between two consenting adults”.  But the story of Isaac and Rebekah shows why this is complete nonsense. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.  And because this is true, in the words of theologian Charles Simeon: “Let a concern for God’s honor regulate our conduct.” In other words, as we have seen in this story, whatever we do in our love relationships, let it bring honor to God.
  3. Abraham’s servant sets an example for all of us as we serve God.
    Look at how he goes about doing what Abraham has asked him to do:
  • Eliezer does not put himself forward. His goal is to bring attention to the Father and to the Son.
  • He does not travel alone; he goes with others. There is no such thing as a ‘lone ranger Christian’ – we are called to work and to serve together.
  • He has taken a vow and he works to fulfill it. We also have taken vows – either in baptism or in confirmation – and we work to fulfill those vows.
  • He is 100% loyal to his master, following his directions, listening to his concerns, and asking questions where needed.
  • He knows he can act with confidence because the mission and the resources are his Master’s. And each one of us – as God’s servants – can move with confidence because the gifts and the mission are God’s.
  • Like Abraham’s servant, we pray as we serve, seeking God’s direction as God’s plans unfold.

So Abraham’s servant gives us a model to follow as we serve.  But having said that, the closest parallel for us as the body of believers really is Rebekah.  We follow in her footsteps. We are the ones who hear the words of God’s servants, the prophets – words of love and commitment from our Lord. We are the ones who are asked: “will you go with this man, this Jesus?”

If we say ‘yes’, just as the servant clothed Rebekah and gave her rich gifts,  Jesus will clothe us with a robe of righteousness and jewels of spiritual gifts – and the Holy Spirit, which is God’s pledge, like an engagement ring. The question then is: are we willing to leave what we know, and go with him?

In Psalm 45, a song written for the wedding of a king, the psalmist says:

“Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house… the king desires your beauty…” – Psalm 45:10-11

Today we stand where Rebekah stood. The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords desires our beauty, and asks if we will go with him. Will we say ‘yes’?

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh – 7/9/17

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The next three items in my “blog-about-this” pile all have to do with the same thing: the abuse of power.  I only just noticed that this morning — what are the odds?

The first item on the stack is Kingdoms in Conflict by Chuck Colson.  (Yes, I’m only now getting around to reading it!)  The other two are Days of Fire and Glory by Julia Duin, and a book review in my undergrad alumni magazine entitled The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.

On the surface the three subject matters couldn’t be more different.  Colson’s book was written in the aftermath of Watergate and examines the tensions between spiritual life and political life.  Julia Duin’s book examines the rise and fall of an international ministry brought down by sexual and financial scandals.  (Nothing new there?  Consider that the movement was led by an Episcopal priest, was characterized by Charismatic worship and communal living, was a unique bridge between right and left, conservative and liberal, and the author was a member of the movement and so writes “from the inside”.)   And the book review, which is a bit thin on the book’s content, nonetheless implies that ‘virtue’ in the Clinton vs. Starr case was lacking on both sides.

On the surface, different… but underneath, all three tell of the abuse of power.

These writings are helpful.  They help pinpoint what it is that goes wrong.  The abuse of power is not like greed (the abuse of money) in that… well, money is something we’re all familiar with.  We know how to make it, save it, spend it, hoard it, waste it, share it, give it.   But power is a bit tougher to pin down.  Where does it come from? How does one increase it, use it, waste it, share it?  On the other hand we know what it is to suffer when someone else is abusing power.  Sadly we know that all too well.

Maybe the best I can do is to allow the authors to speak for themselves.

In the case of Julia Duin’s charismatic community, power was what brought it together in the first place: the power of the Holy Spirit.

“One of the men brought to a meeting some newspaper clippings about ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’… They had just began to pray when [he] felt a sensation he had never felt before.  It was emotional and powerful.  He felt bathed and loved and cleansed…”

Shortly after that the pastor leading the group also received Holy Spirit baptism.  Healings began to happen as people came forward to receive communion.  Inspired by these miracles, people began to share their belongings, their homes, their lives… and a radical new form of Christian community life was born.  A community in which people owned only what was needed, shared most of what they had, and worked together to transform a violent neighborhood and a failing public school into a place where people wanted to live and raise children.

So what went wrong?  A psychologist might say that a number of people leading the group had not dealt with past hurts in their family backgrounds.  Or that things began to go wrong when what was once given freely to the church community began to be expected and then required — as grace morphed into law.  A visitor to the church a few years later noted that “people seemed overly preoccupied with submission, authority, and leadership… But what disturbed him was the lack of a servant mindset…”  At the same time there started to be subtle shifts away from Scriptural teaching that anyone trained in Scripture would immediately find alarming.

But I think the author finds a deeper answer than all that:

“…[the churches] had started out as charismatic.  Now their pastors were all concerned about control.  I could hardly blame some of them, because what got loosed during a spiritual outpouring was often way too powerful.  Any church that became in the least bit involved in the charismatic renewal soon found itself deep in battle against an entrenched principality that hates worship, priests, and marriages, and that delights in disobedience, deceit, and perverse sexuality.”

“It was community that made… powerful charismatic fellowships… what they were; it was community that allowed the Holy Spirit to move so quickly; it was community that birthed the music and the worship, that encouraged the spiritual gifts, that created an undefinable quality of love that drew thousands… People gave generously because they had been loved generously by God…”

Days of Fire and Glory ends on a cautiously upbeat note.  The author acknowledges the failures in the leadership, but notes that the most effective leaders were not those who kept strict rules or led with heavy-handed authority but rather those who stayed in the background, coaching and encouraging, stepping forward only when direction or instruction were needed.  Abuses of power can be avoided… and that’s good news.

Chuck Colson, in his book Kingdoms in Conflict, looks at the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity.  He writes:

“I had always read the term kingdom metaphorically. […]  But the Kingdom of God is a rule, not a realm.  It is a declaration of God’s absolute sovereignty…  That this Kingdom is not of this world, as Jesus later explained, and that it is spiritual rather than temporal makes it no less authoritative […]  Jesus was not working magic to gather crowds; nor was He showing His power to gain credibility.  He was demonstrating the reality of His rule […]  [People] missed Christ’s message because they, like many today, were conditioned to look for salvation in political solutions.”

Colson points out that talk of God’s Kingdom makes non-Christians nervous because they see it as an excuse Christians use to “cram absolute orders from their God down others’ throats.”  Although Colson does not say so directly, this is another example of abuse of power.  He goes on to say:

“When Christ commanded His followers to “seek first the kingdom of God,” He was exhorting them to seek to be ruled by God and gratefully acknowledge His power and authority over them.  That means the Christian’s goal is not to strive to rule, but to be ruled.”

(If anyone reading these words has ever been victimized by an overly zealous religious person trying to tell you how you should live your life, or if you ever overhear someone doing the same, please refer them to the above quote.)  He underlines this by going on to say:

“When Jesus announced the Kingdom, He did indeed set forth radical standards by which its citizens are to live. […] Christ was not suggesting, however, that the obedient Christian would be able to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.  Only Christ Himself would do that when He returns.”

On the other hand, Colson also warns of the State over-reaching its power when it discourages religion:

“Religions had been assaulted before but always in the name of other religions.  With the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted, “Passionate and persistent efforts were made to wean men away from the faith of their fathers… Irreligion became an all-prevailing passion, fierce, intolerant, and predatory.”  The French Revolution was a conscious effort to replace the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of man.  But the state must have some moral justification for its authority.  Thus France’s irreligion was soon replaced by a new faith — man’s worship of man.”

He continues:

“What might be considered the modern phase in church-state history has emerged in our century. […] The rise of totalitarian regimes has brought back the kind of persecution the church experienced in early Rome; like Herod, modern dictators tolerate no other kings.  [… …]  One of the most startling commentaries on this century is the fact that millions more have died at the hands of their own governments than in wars with other nations — all to preserve someone’s power.”

When human beings are seen as the only permissible objects of worship, ever-increasing abuse of power is inevitable.

Just a collection of thoughts on a problem that seems to be on the increase.  It doesn’t begin to touch on the abuses of power perpetrated daily in business and personal relationships — another post for another time, perhaps.  For now, enough to know there is an alternative.  Peace out.

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One of our regular readers keeps an eye on the Liberty University gang for me and sent a heads-up on the recent release of the latest book by popular author Tim LaHaye, The Edge of Apocalypse.  LaHaye is best known for his Left Behind series of books, fictional stories that promote a pre-tribulation-rapture interpretation of Revelation, a belief in global conspiracies, and anti-Roman-Catholicism.  His latest book continues to titillate readers and rake in more cash for Liberty U.

Popular because of their action-packed story lines, LaHaye’s books are essentially thinly disguised Bible lessons from a man who has made a fortune sensationalizing Scripture and whose religious beliefs are some of the most misguided and self-serving of our day.  (For a more level-headed look at end-times prophecy check out this thread.)

Quoting from Amazon.com describing LaHaye’s latest: “As world events begin setting the stage for the ‘end of days’ foretold in Revelation, Jordan [the hero] must weigh the personal price he must pay to save the nation he loves.  Edge of Apocalypse pulls you into an adrenaline-fueled political thriller laced with End Times prophecy.  […] With help from a group of powerfully connected Christian leaders known as The Patriots, Jordan works to save the nation from economic and moral collapse…”

This one paragraph sums up beautifully the problems with LaHaye’s writings: (1) the story is only “laced” with Biblical prophecy — a writer’s technique to add emotional weight — essentially using God’s word for the sake of one’s own thrills; (2) America is placed at the center of end-times prophecy as though it were God’s chosen nation; (3) the story has far more to do with adrenaline and politics than God; (4) the salvation of the nation is brought about not by the preaching of the Gospel but by political power grabbed by a conspiracy of “Patriots” who have all the answers to the nation’s political, economic AND moral woes; (5) with the heroes portrayed as morally upright “Patriots” anyone who disagrees with their opinions or methods must by definition be both anti-American and immoral; and (6) the hero risks his life, not for God, but for America — placing a higher value on the flag than on the cross.

Why is it so few Christians are troubled by this stuff?

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At the top of my list for this summer’s reading was John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  Subtitled The Early Years, the over-400-page volume reads like a mini-history of Evangelical Anglicanism in England during the 1900s.  (I’ll be interested in reading Volume 2 one of these days!)

John Stott, now 88, was for many years the Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, London and authored many books which have become Christian classics.  He retired from public ministry two years ago at age 86.  He is one of the great Christian thinkers of our time and has been a great influence on my thinking and on the seminary I attend (he was one of the driving forces behind its founding).

I wanted to collect here, for my benefit as well as others’, some interesting bits and pieces from the book…

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Stott speaks of the impact the life of Hudson Taylor (missionary to China) had on him.  He writes: “He taught me four important aspects of the faith.  First, faith rests in God’s faithfulness…  Secondly, faith is the trust of a child… Thirdly, faith is as necessary in the material realm as in the spiritual… One of Hudson Taylor’s best-known aphorisms was ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack supplies’… Fourthly, faith is not incompatible with the use of means.”  (The fourth item means, for example, using a life jacket on a boat is not an expression of a lack of faith in God.) (134)

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Like so many creative people, especially those who make their living in the public eye, John Stott had a difficult childhood.  “There were tragic and painful difficulties in his early family life and upbringing which left their mark on him in a certain natural shyness and self-deprecating humour… ‘his conversion was for him a deliverance from what he experienced in the home of grief and pain.. the gripping power of evil and loss of control.’  From this strong sense of deliverance and freedom sprang his love for all kinds of people…” (210)

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Answering critics of Billy Graham’s crusades (which had an enormous impact in the U.K. in the 1950s, and during which Billy and John Stott became lifelong friends) John wrote the following as part of a letter to the editor of The Times:  “All thoughtful Christians would agree with the Bishop of Durham… that God’s revelation is essentially reasonable, but would have to add that it is often in conflict with the unenlightened reason of sinful men.  The Bible itself is aware of this conflict.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My… thoughts than your thoughts’ (Is.55:9)… Our Lord himself gave thanks that the Father revealed his truth not to the ‘wise and prudent’ but ‘unto babes’ (Matt. 11:25).

“There is then in conversion not what the Bishop of Durham calls ‘the stifling of the mind’ but the humble (and intelligent) submission of the mind to a divine revelation.  The proud human intellect still needs to be abased — in England as in Corinth — and the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is still to become like a little child.” (347)

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During the 1950s (and afterward as well) Billy Graham was often attacked by religious fundamentalists.  Billy wrote home to his wife Ruth: “Some of the things they say are pure fabrications… I do not intend to get down to their mud-slinging and get into endless arguments with them… We are too busy winning souls to Christ and helping build the church… If this extreme type of fundamentalism was of God, it would have brought revival long ago.  Instead, it has brought dissension, division, strife, and has produced dead and lifeless churches.” (354)

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On the authority of Scripture, John Stott writes: “To accept the authority of the Bible is a Christian thing to do.  It is neither a religious eccentricity, nor a case of discreditable obscurantism, but the good sense of Christian faith and humility.  It is essentially ‘Christian’ because it is what Christ himself requires of us.  The traditional view of Scripture (that it is God’s word written) may be called the ‘Christian’ view precisely because it is Christ’s view.” (356)

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In the fall of 1955 Billy Graham was invited to lead a mission to Cambridge University (England).  He was somewhat daunted by the intellectual atmosphere and expressed his concerns to John Stott.  John, himself a graduate of Cambridge, wrote the following to encourage his friend:

“…I can well understand your feelings of apprehension about Cambridge, but Billy do not worry.  God has opened up the way wonderfully and has called you to it and so all will be well.  If I may be bold enough to give one suggestion, I would say ‘keep to the simplicity of  your message’.  Do not regard these men as ‘intellectuals’.  Appeal to their conscience.  They are sinners, needing a Saviour.  Conviction of sin, not intellectual persuasion, is the need.  So many preachers fail at this point when they speak to university men.  So, Billy, keep to the wonderful clear simple message God has qualified you to preach and which He honoured wonderfully in London and Glasgow.” (360)

Evangelist David Watson, then an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, remembers Graham’s mission: “In sweeping contrast to the dithering caution of most academic theologians, who were efficiently undermining the faith of some of my friends, Billy Graham led a mission to the university in November 1955.  Interestingly, when he tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be academic, his preaching lacked power.  But when he accepted the apparent foolishness of the message of ‘Christ crucified’ and preached it with simplicity and integrity, the power of God’s Spirit was manifestly at work, changing the lives of many undergraduates.  It was a lesson I have never forgotten.” (365)

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“Self-sufficiency is the diametric opposite of the prime quality needed for entrance to the kingdom of God – humble dependence on God in faith.”
— Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament

Christopher Wright precedes his quote by saying that Jesus “was no ascetic” and enjoyed good food and drink as much as anyone, but that he “saw the insidious idolatry that wealth generates and warned against its utter incompatibility with serving God.”

What is the alternative?  Wright answers that Jesus adopted “on the one hand a carefree (though not careless) attitude to material things born of confidence in God’s provision… and on the other hand a radical generosity that cut right across expected norms of behaviour.”

This is Christian counterculturalism at its best.  Jesus’ perspective is totally opposite that of the lone rugged individualist icon we see so often in American film and literature.  It is a perspective of trust in God, and an other-centered rather than a self-centered focus.  It is one that builds rather than destroys community, one that encourages unity rather than division, one that sees life as joyful rather than rugged.

Anyone dare to follow?

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Posted by a friend on Facebook this morning:  the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself has just been published this month and he recommends it highly.  The premise of the book is that much done in the name of charity can be more harmful than it is helpful.

My friend noted that according to the book “there are three kinds of help: relief (immediately after disaster strikes), rehabilitation (getting back to where you were), and development (getting to where you should–or would like to–be). People often send “relief” help when rehab or development is called for, because relief is easiest: just throw money and resources...”

The challenge is this: “Instead of “needs” based ministry–what do you need (that we can give you)? — do assets-based ministry: what do you have that we can help you build upon?”

It makes a lot of sense to me that discernment and wisdom in giving are needed in order to be effective without being insulting or condescending… and that the best way to give, rather than giving a handout, is to empower people to be good stewards of the resources and talents they already have.

For more information on the book click here.


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