Rebuilding Rhythm for the Spiritual Life

In April, our Church Council completed a year-long, devotional study of the book of Nehemiah. In total, we developed twenty-nine principles for leaders. The book of Nehemiah is typically a go-to book for biblical principles of leadership. While it is a treasure trove for that topic, I think it’s important not to miss the reason that Nehemiah’s leadership is necessary—to rebuild a rhythm for the spiritual lives of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Have you ever built a retaining wall? One time at a Christian camp, a team of teenagers and I accepted the challenge to construct a large retaining wall made of railroad ties for a hillside near a basketball court. It was grueling work, bringing out the best and worst in all of us. Quickly, we learned that this project wasn’t merely a physical and mental test, but also a spiritual one. Nehemiah’s wall-building project had a deeper aim than to simply build a wall. He aimed, with God’s help, to restore a regular rhythm in the spiritual lives of people. Here are five key lessons to rebuilding your spiritual rhythm.

Report of Ruin

Read:

Nehemiah 1:1–11

Reflect:

Have you ever received bad news? Such was the news that Nehemiah received, yet behind the gloomy report was the smile of God. This is called providence. One Bible dictionary describes providence this way,

The biblical concept of God’s providence . . . signals a universally confident belief in God’s loving care and protection of the world. It is grounded in the belief in God as Creator, one who continues at all times to preserve and order the world, holding chaos at bay, and leading the world and all human history toward life and full happiness. Sometimes through unpredictable turns . . . God’s providence can be written ‘straight with crooked lines’ . . . God’s provident presence can be manifest in both merciful care and righteous chastisement, but the biblical emphasis surely rests with the affirmation of God’s ultimate care (Freedman, David Noel. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

Consider God’s providential provisions surrounding Nehemiah’s news: (1) he happened to have a rare job (1:11) that made him privy to royal reports, (2) a team from Judah, involving someone Nehemiah knew, arrived in Susa with a report of Jerusalem, (3) Nehemiah’s heart was soft enough to repent and to remember God’s promise, and (4) he had an audience with the king to request that something be done.

Resolve:

Get familiar with the background and story of Nehemiah with The Bible Project. Then, write out the current, major circumstances of your life. Can you see God’s providential fingerprints? Humbly ask God to make his providence clearer to you this week. How would your own “Report of Ruin” read?

Revival Reconnaissance

Read:

Nehemiah 2:9–20

Reflect:

After receiving approval from the king and favor from God to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city, Nehemiah aimed to revive the people and the work. However, he faced radical rivals — Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men opposed Nehemiah throughout the whole story (cf., 4:1, 3, 7; 6:1–2, 5–6, 12, 14, 17, 19; 7:62; 13:4, 7, 28). They tried to destroy his plans through violence from outside the walls and through deception inside the walls. In 2:11–16, Nehemiah took a secret, night-time ride around the entirety of the city wall. Verse 13 says, “. . . and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.” The word “inspect” means to test or investigate with a hopeful attitude.

Resolve:

Look at the representation of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day. Imagine that this represents your life. Inspect the walls of your life. Is your life whole and at peace? Or are there breaches? Gates were the places where important opportunities and decisions happened. Have you had opportunities or decisions that you feel have been “destroyed by fire”? Lastly, who are your enemies? Remember, external enemies utilize violence. Internal enemies utilize deception, lies, and schemes. Personal revival starts with an honest inspection of the conditions of our lives. Notice how the temple, the place of worship, is at the center. Just as the people in Nehemiah’s day couldn’t worship while neglected walls existed, neither can we effectively worship God while we neglect our own lives. After a thorough look at the walls, gates, and enemies of your life, remember that Nehemiah’s inspection was a hopeful one. He didn’t despair. He was real about the lousy conditions, but he was also real about his hope that God could revive the walls against all odds.

Responsive Reading

Read:

Nehemiah 8:1–12

Reflect:

The people showed great resolve to complete the rebuilding of the walls of the city (cf., 4:6–23). Faithful leaders were found and appointed (cf., 7:1–2). Once the work was completed, the people gathered to hear the reading of the word of God in their own city for the first time in generations. The leaders helped the people to clearly understand the word of God. The people became emotional for two reasons: (1) the clear and accurate teaching of God’s word cut into their souls with precision, like a spiritual surgeon, and (2) the atmosphere of standing within the rebuilt walls of their once destroyed city most likely created an overwhelming feeling—mixed with sadness about the past and hope for the future. Following their emotional response to God’s word, the people made decisions to obey God’s word (cf., 8:13–18) and to remember God’s faithfulness to his past promises and present protection (cf., chap. 9).

Resolve:

Commit to the healing of the walls of your life. To do this, you must faithfully steward the areas of the wall which God has entrusted you to rebuild. You also must have faith in God with those things that are outside of your control. Discuss and measure the impact that the word of God is having in your life. Is it cutting into you (cf., Heb. 4:12)? In what ways precisely? What kind of emotional atmospheres have you experienced with the word of God (e.g., camp, retreat, conference, prayer meeting, small group, recovery)? God providentially uses events like this to stir and awaken our hearts, but what happens after these unique experiences? Do you allow the word of God to cut into your regular rhythm of life? Discuss with a close friend the ways you are or are not creating space for the word of God as a part of your regular rhythm.

Reform Remains

Read:

Nehemiah 13:6–11, 15–21, 23

Reflect:

The book of Nehemiah ends in a strange and deflating way. Nehemiah left Jerusalem and reported back to the king of Persia. While he was gone, the people returned to their old way of life—(1) they flirted with the enemies of God and Jerusalem, (2) they forsook the temple and failed to worship God, (3) they forget to keep the Sabbath day holy, and (4) the men found wives who worshiped false gods, instead of the true God. Nehemiah went on a righteous rampage! The book ends with Nehemiah offering one of his many prayers—the reader can feel how tired he is—“Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:30). So what gives? What happened? Here’s the point. Don’t miss it: All the changes or reforms that we might make in life won’t truly stick unless they land on a new heart. Nehemiah was a great leader and did great work, but even he and all his efforts were not a match for the stone-cold, hardened hearts of the people. The 70 years they had spent in exile didn’t change anything. Consider the words of Jeremiah,

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9),

and Ezekiel,

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh (36:26).

Religious movements, reforms, and retreats may create experiences that cause temporary changes, but if you want permanent, enduring faith and life change, then you need a new heart from God in order to truly take in all of his amazing grace available in Christ.

Resolve:

How’s your heart? Is it stone cold and lifeless, or is new and alive to God? It’s as Ezekiel said—your spiritual nature is stony and must be removed, and God must give you a new spiritual nature. How does God do this? By God’s grace through your faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, your old, calloused heart may die, and a new, soft heart may resurrect within you. The New Testament uses the phrases “new creation” and “new birth” to describe this spiritual phenomenon:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1:12–13).

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3–5).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

If you recognize your need for a new heart and are willing to put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to possess the hope of new and eternal life, then pray to God to receive Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord of your life. Do not remain as those Stephen addressed in Acts 7:51,

You stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.

The Bible also teaches (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:1–3; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:13) that even believers with new hearts can grieve and quench the Spirit in ways that diminish the power of the new life in Christ. If you’re a believer who has grown lukewarm, lazy, and lousy in the spiritual life, resolve today to repent and recover your faith in Christ.

Regular Rhythm

Read:

Romans 8:18–39; Galatians 5:13–26

Reflect:

Tim Keller once described revival as . . .

. . . the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit intensified.

Ordinarily, the Holy Spirit (1) convicts of sin (Jn. 16:7–11), (2) converts to faith in Christ (1 Cor. 12:3; Acts 10:44–48), and (3) gives assurance of salvation (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Have you ever experienced these activities of the Spirit in an unusually intense way? It’s important to realize that these are his regular rhythms too. In the Read portion of this section, we find two more important regular rhythms that the Spirit wants to work into your daily life. The first comes from Romans 8:29. The Holy Spirit aims to use your sufferings, weaknesses, circumstances, and hope to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. Notice that prayer (v. 26) is an important way for you to participate in his aim for your life. The second comes from Galatians 5:22–23. The fruit of the Spirit’s rhythm in your life looks like these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here, the Spirit’s regular rhythm in your life provides the essential attributes to conform you to the image of Jesus.

Resolve:

1 Thessalonians 5:19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Ephesians 4:30 teaches us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit.” In unique and rare moments, the Holy Spirit has worked in an intensified way in your life, and he aims to provide a regular rhythm that transforms you over time to look more and more like Jesus. As you participate in his regular rhythm, how will you avoid quenching the fire that the Holy Spirit started in your life? How will you avoid grieving him? Start by reading the context of the all the verses mentioned in this section. Get a handle on what God says the Holy Spirit wants to do in your life. You’ll discover things like thankfulness prevents the quenching of the Spirit, and putting off the old life and putting on the new life in specific ways prevents the grieving of the Spirit. Discuss with a believing friend the ways that you’ll participate in the Spirit’s rhythm for your life. Remember, God is providentially at work in your life. Are you up for the adventure?

Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart

Marriage & Mountain Climbing

I just finished Dr. Stephen M. Judah’s (1949–2008) book Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart. The book is full of stories of his experiences counseling couples caught in the web of an affair (or some cases multiple affairs). He describes these marriages using a very helpful illustration: mountain climbing. As Judah sees it, couples climb toward an affair. He calls it “the ascent into brokenness.”

Novice climbers approach the mountain unaware of what awaits them. In my one experience climbing, I remember watching a couple of my team members have uncontrollable emotional reactions as they acclimatized to the altitude. Similarly, nothing can truly prepare a person for all that marriage entails. Couples should avail themselves of every opportunity possible to prepare and train, just as a climber should! Preventative measures are practiced by the wise of heart. Even so, you still have to climb (i.e., get married) to have the real experience.

from Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart by Dr. Stephen M. Judah

Judah describes the active affair as the peak of the ascent into brokenness; he also calls it the “death zone.” The reason for such a description is because a person cannot linger long on the peak of a mountain and live—the body simply cannot take it. Likewise, a marriage cannot linger long in an affair. He also compares the active affair to the peak of a mountain ascent because an affair does not simply all of a sudden happen. A couple climbs into it. Judah describes the progressive ascent into brokenness as the accumulation of brokenness from sin, brokenness from the family of origin, brokenness from our peer group, brokenness from dating relationships, romantic love, civil war, the evolution of affair conditions, and finally the peak—the active affair. Rather than an affair being a spontaneous act of passion, the spiritual and social science of the act explains that the affair is the result of the unchecked accumulation of brokenness in a person’s life. We enter marriage with imbedded flaws that remain hidden until a crisis exposes them.

As a boy, I remember watching footage of the January 28, 1986 NASA space shuttle Challenger explosion. It happened 73 seconds into its flight. All crew members were lost. The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology concluded its hearings with a statement: “The fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the Solid Rocket Booster joints” (under Conclusions, pages 3–7). Years of poor decisions by experts who failed to act decisively created a death zone that exposed everything.

The Ascent into Brokenness

Civil War

In his chapter entitled “Civil War,” he writes, “The experience of civil war has universal and unmistakable characteristics: (1) Awfulization best characterizes the overall experience. The warring pair tend to primarily see the bad in the other. The good is denied or remains carefully ignored. Each becomes at risk to fall into a pattern of being at their worst. (2) Awareness of incompetence—The couple becomes mostly conscious of each other’s incompetence. (3) Negative response—The couple moves either against or away from each other, engaging in classic fight or flight. (4) Depressed sensory acuity—The couple’s senses are diminished, and they attribute the lack of clarity to a lifelessness in their relationship. (5) Separation—They may think or say, ‘I can’t stand to live with you.’ (6) Incompletion—They may think or say, ‘Something is missing.’ (7) Unfamiliarity and disbelief—They may think or say, ‘I’m in the wrong place with the wrong person. How did I ever get here?’ . . . We demand more and put up with less” (pages 65–66). The reality is that both spouses have both brokenness and wholeness within them. Dr. Judah states that “master couples” learn how to focus and practice an awareness of one another’s competencies, which eventually evolves into an unconscious trust in one another’s competencies.

Evolution of Affair Conditions

I found chapter seven, “The Evolution of Affair Conditions,” insightful. He suggests that both “difficult” and “good” marriages experience affairs, and then he seeks to answer the question “Why?” He proposes a two-fold answer: (1) the 60% push and (2) the 40% pull. A negative or difficult marriage environment is likely to “push” a spouse toward an affair. Dr. Judah describes the primary factors at play as (1) communication issues, (2) character or developmental issues (e.g., unmet needs), (3) conflict resolution issues, (4) adult life stage or landmarks (e.g., mid-life crisis), and/or (5) confused or broken choices. A combination of these factors can literally “push” someone toward an affair. However, sometimes affairs (40%) happen in marriages described by couples as “happy” or “fulfilled.” In these cases, there are factors present that “pull” a spouse into an extramarital affair: (1) proximity, (2) similarity, and (3) reward. Work relationships where men and women are working in close proximity and where conversation moves from work-related into more personal feelings, desires, dreams, etc. Unintentionally, boundaries are crossed. From proximity, similarities may begin to surface and create a dangerous intimacy. Eventually, it is possible for the offending spouse to perceive rewards associated in an affair with the third party person.

After explaining these “push” and “pull” realities of the evolution of affairs, Judah offers wrong ways to handle the evolution of an affair and right ways to handle the evolution of an affair (pages 69–75):

Wrong Ways Right Ways
Toying with the possibility of having an affair Commit to finding a way to create a strong marriage—step away from the edge and look for the safe path
Acting out (without talking about) your negative thoughts and emotions Talk about your inner struggle—find friends of the marriage, those who will strengthen your commitment to the marriage bond
Blaming yourself or your partner Replace blame with understanding and take responsibility
Getting bad advice from friends, family members, coworkers, affair partners, or even counselors Get professional guidance that specializes in marriage or relationships
Triangulation or substitute triangulation, which is focusing more on the third party or some other substitute that you do on your spouse Embrace the usefulness of suffering, and choose optimism—suffering together can be a bonding experience
Focusing on the third party rather than on your core values and commitments Focus on the primary couple, the husband and wife
Waiting for a crisis, that is, most people seek help only after an affair has happened Focus on your core values and commitments
Be proactive, preventative and preemptive.
Master essential disciplines—Dr. Judah covers these in part three of his book.

Dr. Judah brings this chapter to an interesting close by warning readers not to dismiss the role of both evil and good supernatural forces at work behind the evolution of an affair. As people of the Bible, we believe in supernatural realities. God calls us to love as he loves—with faithful, steadfast love; however, sin, Satan, and demonic activity are realities opposed to human flourishing. Beware the spiritual forces at work in the “push” and “pull” of the evolution of an affair. Cling to your God and to your spouse.

The Descent into Wholeness

The third part of the book is entitled “Descent into Wholeness.” Surprisingly, the descent down the mountain is harder than the climb up. I remember being caught off guard by this during my single mountaineering experience. There a number of factors that make it more difficult: (1) you’re not as motivated; (2) the goal destination seems boring and anticlimactic; (3) it hurts your joints and feet in an unexpected way; (4) you’re off balance because of terrain; (5) you’re exhausted; (6) you have fewer supplies and possibly damaged gear; (7) you’re far more irritable; (8) the path isn’t always as clear; and (9) well, you’re just done! While all this is true, you must make it back down the mountain—your life depends on it. You can’t survive long at the top. Reaching bottom restores normal, whole, healthy living.

In this section, Dr. Judah walks the reader through his five essential disciplines that have the potential to restore wholeness to a marriage broken by an affair: (1) SHARE—sharing the truth with your spouse, (2) RECONCILE—reconciling the crisis with your spouse, (3) REFINE—redefine and realign your character through development and commitment, (4) ENHANCE—rebuilding and cultivating the positive, (5) ENVISION—flourish by creating the possible, exploring tomorrow’s dreams, and generating today’s plan. The first three disciplines function “like powerful workhorses to transform the negative” (1) communication techniques, (2) crisis experiences, and (3) character traits; whereas, the final two disciplines (4) cultivate what is good and (5) create the possible.

The Crisis & RECONCILE

In chapter ten entitled, “The Crisis,” he borrows an experience from Andy Politz, who has reached the summit of Mount Everest multiple times. He writes, “On one occasion he helped rescue a party of five . . . They had spent the night near the peak in bad conditions. Another party had come across them but left the party for dead, giving them only a candy bar to assuage their own guilt. Andy and his party, by contrast, abandoned their climb to devote all their resources to the rescue. The party in trouble needed oxygen and water of course, but mostly they needed someone to walk them down the mountain step by step. Every two steps those being rescued would collapse. Generally competent, experienced and strong, now they were temporarily dazed, confused, weak and blind. They could not rescue themselves. They needed somebody to help. Rescue by definition usually requires others” (page 108).

He continues to develop what the essential discipline of RECONCILE looks like for the offending and the offended spouses. The offending spouse may experience a great deal of relief when the affair is either discovered or confessed; however, the offended spouse often goes through a threefold process that he describes as (1) disorganization, (2) reorganization, and (3) organization. Further, the offended spouse may experience something similar to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other severe emotional conditions. Judah writes at the close of this chapter, “Oddly enough, the descent into wholeness involves temporarily putting your partner into a crisis state. The offending spouse has been in the death zone for a while, so descending lets them breathe a little easier. By contrast, the offended spouse feels like they have been dropped into the death zone of a mountain peak without any acclimatization. The necessary disclosure hits the offended spouse hard” (page 125). While this crisis has to be a part of the journey, it is miserable.

Flourishing & ENVISION

Chapter thirteen introduces that couples who have experienced an affair can indeed flourish again. “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Here, he helps couples recover and reestablish core desires and core values together. Having “survived, stabilized, and succeeded, then pursue significance” together. Couples that reach this ENVISION stage of the descent into wholeness are invited to imagine a resurrected relationship in which they can clarify goals and adjust priorities. Couples that remain committed in the descent can have fulfilling relationships, discover anew that they are good at something together, make the world a better place together, and enjoy peace with God together.

The Spiritual and the Scientific

Descending into wholeness is possible for the couple that has encountered the “death zone” of an active affair. It will take help from others; it will take commitment to a process; and it will take a new hope and vision. Dr. Judah has a couple of appendices at the end of his book that speak to special situations that couples may face along the way of their journey. His final chapter addresses “The Spiritual and the Scientific: A Fusion of Strengths.” He is a committed Christian, who has trained and worked as a social scientist (a.k.a. a professional marriage counselor). He describes the relationship between the two by returning to his mountaineering imagery. He explains, “Mountain climbers have found one particular rope design superior to all others. The structure involves an inner core rope that provides strength and a series of woven otter strands which amplify strength and offer protection. You cannot actually see the vital inner rope. You can only see the otter strands. When spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of social science combine, a fusion of strengths occurs. They become woven together like strands of a rope. At the core lies an indescribable, invisible and vital force. We cannot see God, but we can see the strands surrounding the core” (page 172).

Don’t Lose Hope; Grab the Rope

Don’t die on the mountaintop trying to handle your crisis all alone. There is hope. Get some help. May God grant your marriage the grace to descend back into wholeness with a new hope and vision. May it be stronger having gone through such an incredible crisis.

The Complex Place of the Heart of Soldiers and Veterans

Veteran
This is a piece that I wrote for our 2016 Memorial Day Service at West Lisbon Cemetery. Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served and sacrificed for our country!

Intro

Decoration Day began in 1868 after the American Civil War to remember those solders who gave their lives in the conflict and to decorate their graves. The holiday eventually extended to the remembrance of all our fallen soldiers.

Family

 
I never served in the military. As a boy, I do remember feeling a certain awe and wonder about the life of a soldier. I took a shot at the ASVAB In high school, because of that wonder, and if I’m honest, because of the potential financial help for college, but it never went any further than that.
The wonder and awe that I felt as a boy came from the stories that my father and grandfather would tell about their experiences in the military. These men were giants to me. Both of them were in the army. My father didn’t serve in a conflict, but served in Germany during peace-time. My grandfather served as military police at the end of WWII. Most of their stories told of their experiences in a different culture, rather than battle at the front lines. Grandpa could describe the post-war scene, but he hadn’t been there for much of the fighting.
However, there was one more man in my family that had seen the reality of war. My uncle, Bill Pennington, fought in the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), which was toward the end of the war. The Germans pulled off a surprise attack on the Allied forces; however, the Allies were able to recover and organize themselves and win the battle, which depleted the German forces to such an extent that some credit it as the battle that ended the war.
My uncle Bill is a large man, tall and broad as a house. He’s a fox hunter, fox hounds and all. When he told me stories as boy, I felt that I gazed into the soul of a man who had experienced something too great for words. This man would cry when he spoke about the things he saw. At the same time, war had left him extremely gentle and tender, especially to children, and vulgar and hard when it comes to even a sniff of injustice. Uncle Bill scared me and comforted me at the same time. He scared me because he spoke of a world that was awesome and terrible. He comforted me because I knew he, and other men like him, would protect me.

The Hearts of Soldiers and Veterans

 
As I talk and listen to soldiers whom I know, I discover that the heart of a soldier is a complex place, where deep thoughts about God and the world reside. In 1 Samuel 17:38–40, we find part of a very, very familiar story. Which of us upon hearing the story of David and Goliath have not imagined ourselves, sling in hand, launching a single stone at the giant, and knocking him straight dead? Prior to the battle, remember the scene where David is trying out Saul’s armor. 
Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.
Have you ever read the story of David and Goliath and wondered, “Why wouldn’t anyone except David approach this brute?” I mean, yes, he was big, but surely out of the whole army of Israel there was someone who would go at this guy, right? In his book Manners and Customs of Bible Times, Ralph Gower tells us something going on behind the scenes, 
Saul’s helmet and armor were probably almost unique in Israel at the time, available to him because he was king. It was not at all unusual for a soldier to be armed with only a weapon such as a sling. Saul was anxious to protect David with the armor because it was a custom that champions should decide the outcome of slavery rather than a general battle in which the majority of the opposition would be maimed or killed. Saul wanted to take no chances (233).
The Israelite soldiers were not merely scared of losing a single battle to Goliath, but they carried the burden of possible failure that would lead to the subjection of their families to slavery.  No one wants to be responsible for bringing such a thing on the people, so they altogether as one man hesitated. Into this scene, steps David, the young shepherd who had looked into the eyes of lions and bears, and fought them off to protect the sheep. He knew that Goliath wasn’t going away. No doubt, he had not planned to go to battle that day when he first set out to deliver provisions to his brothers. But the giant was like a lion or bear who had his prey right where he wanted it. David trusted the Lord to accomplish his will through him, and he desired freedom for his people rather than slavery to fear or to the Philistines.
Saul tried to take every precaution to protect David, but the armor didn’t fit. Yet David in that moment had all that he needed. He had the heart of a soldier, a heart that was willing to encourage a nation, a heart that was willing to stand in the way of the oncoming enemy, and a heart that trusted God with the outcome for his own glory and purposes. The heart of a soldier plunges into deep places, where heavy costs are calculated.

Closing

 
As we remember those soldiers who are no longer with us, may we give thanks for their burden and struggle, for they carried it for our sakes. May we also consider the living soldiers among us. Both those who are here with us, our veterans, but also those who are active and on duty somewhere in our world. You may ask, “What can I do?” My pastoral counsel would be to regularly pray and give to them God’s word, because God affects and transforms the heart. Since soldiering requires so much heart, pray and give them God’s word. 

The Seven Spiritual Laws of the Harvest—Sow Peace to Harvest Peace

Harvest

These seven principles come from an article entitled “The Seven Laws of the Harvest” written by J. Hampton Keathley III. Find the full article at Bible.org.

  1. We Reap Only What We Sow.
  2. We Reap the Same in Kind As We Sow.
  3. We Reap in a Different Season Than We Sow.
  4. We Reap More Than We Sow.
  5. We Reap in Proportion to What We Sow.
  6. We Reap the Fullness of the Good Only If We Persevere, Because the Evil Comes to the Field on Its Own.
  7. We Cannot Change Last Year’s Harvest, But We Can Learn and Grow for This Year’s.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

(James 3:13–18 ESV)

Is the Church a Fasting People?

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (Mark 2:18–20 ESV).

Fasting. Just doesn’t sound all that fun does it? Not something you’re gonna invite your buddies into—“Hey guys, we’re going to do some fasting next week, want to join in?” Yeah right. I’ll take a rain check on that. Hand me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke! What is this fasting thing all about? Is it biblical? Should Christians do it? If so, how do we do it?

One of my favorite theological journals is the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). In the most recent volume, there is an article from Sigurd Grindheim, a professor of New Testament at Fjellhaug International University College in Oslo, Norway.  The article title is “Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A NT Theology of Fasting” [JETS, 58/4 (2015) 697–707]. Professor Grindheim addresses the passage above from Mark 2, and extends a challenge to traditional Christian thinking on the spiritual discipline of fasting.

His article seeks to discern whether the NT spiritual life calls for either exceptional or habitual fasting. The exceptional fasting approach is rare rather than routine, and attached to largely significant moments, decisions, or spiritual efforts in the will of God. The habitual fasting approach is routine rather than rare, and in so doing, prepares a person for those bigger moments needing discernment in the will of God. One may say that the exceptional approach is more impulsive, and the habitual approach is more preparatory. In saying this, I don’t mean anything necessary negative about one or the other. For one may say that being impulsive is negative because its reactionary, but another may say being habitual is negative because it is legalistic.

Professor Grindheim attempts to argue for a new kind of fasting, not merely for exceptional practice, but also at the level of motive. He describes Old Testament fasting as accompanying (1) prayer, (2) mourning, (3) humility, (4) repentance of sins, and (5) direction from the Lord (cf., 2 Sam. 12:16–23; Esth. 4:16; 1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:12; Ps. 35:13; 1 Kgs. 21:27–29; 1 Sam. 7:6; Jon. 3:5; Neh. 9:1; Judg. 20:26; Dan. 9:3). The only required fast of the OT accompanied the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27–32). Later on in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the Jews are practicing the discipline more regularly as indicated by the very early Christian document called The Didache,

And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day”(Didache 8:1 AFL-E).

Jesus himself references this regular practice of the Jews in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14.

Out of this regular practice flows the dismay of both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist when they approach Jesus in Mark chapter 2:18–20. In other words, they are asking Jesus why his disciples don’t fast twice a week like the rest of us? Most likely for both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, they participated in regular fasting, which was motivated by eschatological and messianic hopes. So, their question to Jesus is not merely about religious practice but also an indirect inquiry about his identity. So as to say, “Have they stopped fasting because they believe you are the Messiah? Are you the Messiah?”

Grindheim writes,

Whereas the Old Testament (OT) devout were characterized by their longing for the presence of God, New Testament (NT) believers are characterized by their joy at his presence. OT believers were yearning to experience  God’s favor; NT believers rejoice that they always enjoy his favor through Jesus Christ (698).

He goes on to explain that Jesus would fulfill the Day of Atonement on his cross. Therefore, Jesus’ presence includes the complete forgiveness and removal of sin, so that his presence is marked by joy and exultation, not mourning or grief.

We can all agree with such thinking. We can all agree that the disciples had no reason to fast because Jesus was present with them—the bridegroom was there with them—

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” But what does Jesus mean when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day?

Professor Grindheim argues that this is a matter of debate among scholars,

Scholars debate whether this refers to the relatively short period between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, or whether it refers to the long period between Jesus’ death and his second coming (699).

He spends the next several paragraphs in his article choosing and defending the former interpretation over the latter; that is, the bridegroom’s “taking away” refers to the three days in the tomb, not to the time between Jesus’ ascension and second coming. He references texts such as John 16:20 about the disciples’ grief being transformed into joy. He also appeals to the many promises of Jesus to be with his disciples (eg., Matt. 28:18–20). He claims that the mediated presence of Jesus to the church through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Eph. 2:21–22) is also reason to believe that the church age is not a time of mourning for Jesus’ presence, but rather a time of rejoicing because we are indeed experiencing Jesus’ presence. He further and finally builds one final evidence of Christ’s presence with his church—the fellowship of suffering. Grindheim doesn’t see suffering as a sign of Jesus’ absence, but rather as a sign of his presence and intimate fellowship with his people as they suffer for their identification with Jesus (Rom. 8:17; Phi. 3:10; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:13); further still, such suffering is a cause for joy, not a cause for mourning.

From Grindheim’s perspective, when Jesus calls for “new wine to be put in new wineskins,” he is saying that the old mindset (i.e., anticipating Messiah and eschatological realities) and old practices (twice weekly routine fasting) are obsolete. Now, as I believe Grindheim would say, we have a new mindset (i.e., new wine = the Messiah has come) that requires new practices (i.e., new wineskins = a new kind of fasting).

He then spreads his discussion beyond the Mark passage into the rest of the New Testament and a little bit into the early church writings and practice of fasting. Regarding the early church, he only quotes The Didache 8:1 (see above), which he dates much later than the most recent scholarship would suggest, which would place it possibly in the 40’s. Therefore, the Christian practice of regular fasting on two days a week is very early. It’s early practice doesn’t necessarily make it correct, but it can’t be dismissed because it is late, as Grindheim seems to suggest. It is also demonstrable that a period of fasting accompanied the act of baptism (Did. 7:4).

He takes on several NT texts on fasting (Matt. 4:2; 6:16–18; Col. 2:20–23; Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; 14:23). Regarding the temptation of Jesus, he argues that the 40 day fast is not example for us to follow, but rather a unique undertaking by Jesus to prepare himself to be the second Adam and faithfully endure the temptations of the devil and continue his Messianic mission. In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving instruction about the practice of spiritual disciplines and the danger of hypocrisy. Grindheim is too strong when he writes, “Jesus’ point is not to instruct his disciples to fast, but to warn them against hypocrisy” (703). No, Jesus isn’t teaching them to fast; he assumes that they will fast, so much so that he commands them how to do it regularly without being hypocrites. Paul in Colossians is not directly dismissing fasting as a practice; rather he is dismissing wrong motives behind fasting as a practice—self-imposed piety has no value in opposing self-indulgence. Paul is clear in Romans and Galatians that what the law could not accomplish through the sinful flesh, God himself has accomplished through his Son and by the Spirit. The motive of fasting must be a desire for the control of the Spirit over the flesh, a desire for the word of Christ to dwell in us richly and to become our “food.” Paul’s own practice of fasting in Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; and 14:23 finally forces Grindheim to admit that there are some, exceptional occasions when fasting is legitimate and appropriate for the Christian and the church.

However, in the very next paragraph, Professor Grindheim goes on to say,

The baseline for Christian piety must therefore be that fasting is not an appropriate expression of Christian devotion to the Lord. NT differs from OT piety in that God has now come near in his Son and through his Holy Spirit. Even though believers long for the Second Coming of Christ and the visible manifestation of his rule (Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20), NT piety is characterized by intimacy, not distance. The predominant sentiment of believers living in the age of fulfillment is joy, not grief (Phi. 3:1; 4:4–7; 1 Thess. 5:16). They therefore have no occasion for fasting (705).

My difficulty with Grindheim is that he struggles to see how joy and fasting can be in continuity and continuation into this new age—a new age to which I feel he attributes too much fulfillment, nearly eliminating some forms of Christian practice and piety. The dominant message of the NT writers is that the kingdom is both already and not yet here, which he finally does acknowledge at the end of his article,

The Christian fulfillment of fasting should therefore be to spread the joy of Christ’s presence and to demonstrate it in action by sharing with the needy (cf. Isa. 58:3–7). Nevertheless, while joy has replaced fasting as a habitual expression of Christian piety, fasting is not prohibited in the NT. Christian experience is still characterized by the tension between the already and the not yet, between the realized and future eschatology. Normal Christian experience will therefore still have room and need for other expressions than manifestations of joy (parentheses mine, 707).

It would be interesting to know whether or not Grindheim feels we should pray habitually or give offerings habitually, or only exceptionally? Proportionately, prayer is spoken of far more in the NT than fasting, and I think that guides us some in our practice of spiritual disciplines. No one disagrees that Mark 2:18–20 is transforming the way that we must think about and practice fasting. It must not become religious ritual that seeks the reward of other religious people, and it’s motive and practice must adjust to the realities of Christ’s work in death and resurrection. It must come—whether habitually or exceptionally—out of the joy and longing we have because of and for Christ. And there is no reason to be rigid in our practice of the discipline, but rather a practice rising from our love and liberty. Isaiah, the OT prophet understood these things,

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to oppress himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:3–7).

So what about you? Have you ever fasted before? What is your motivation to fast? Do your motivations sync with the NT transformation of fasting in light of Jesus’ person and work? What are the exceptional times that you feel require a season of fasting? Do you think habitual fasting is appropriate sometimes? If so when, and how do you prevent it from becoming an empty ritual? May the joy of the Lord become your utmost hunger, and may the Lord renew your minds to discover his aim for you in Christ, using every detail of your life, until the kingdom fully and finally comes.

Lent and Repentance in the Spiritual Life

A Historical Look at the Season of Lent

On Wednesday, we entered the 40-day journey toward Easter weekend. This period has historically been referred to as Lent. Earle E. Cairns in Christianity through the Centuries writes about the origin of the Lenten season,

The emergence of a cycle of feasts in the church year may be noted in this era (100–313 A.D.). Easter, originating in the application of the Jewish Passover to the resurrection of Christ, seems to have been the earliest of the festivals. Not until after 350 was Christmas adopted in the West as a Christian festival and purged of its pagan elements. Lent, a forty-day period of penitence and restraint on bodily appetites preceding Easter, had been accepted earlier as a part of the churches’ cycle of worship before the adoption of Christmas (116, parentheses mine).

In Devotions for Lent from the Mosaic Study Bible (https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/105-devotions-for-lent-from-holy-bible-mosaic), the Introduction provides us with both the aim and the fit of Lent into the rhythm of the Christian annual calendar,

Lent is the season when Christians have historically prepared their hearts for Easter with reflection, repentance, and prayer. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and proceeds for forty days, culminating in Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Since Sundays are weekly celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the forty-day season. Many Christians choose to fast throughout the season of Lent, but the focus is not so much on depriving themselves of something as it is on devoting themselves to God and his purposes in the world.

Here is a look at the Christian calendar and Lent’s place in the mix:

2015–2016 Christian Calendar

Seasons Beginning Dates Purpose
Advent November 29, 2015 Focuses on the anticipation of God’s coming into the world, both in the incarnation and at Christ’s 2nd coming
Christmas December 25th, 2015 Concentrates on the birth of Christ
Epiphany January 6th, 2016 Centers itself in the light of God’s presence shining in the world
Lent February 10, 2016 Directs our attention toward human mortality, sin, and God’s gracious solution in Christ
Easter March 27, 2016 Celebrates resurrection life in Christ
Ascension May 5th, 2016 Turns attention to the benefits toward the believer because of Christ’s ascension to the Father
Pentecost May 15th, 2016 Helps us to remember and participate in the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in the world

There are times in the history of the church, particularly during the Middle Ages, that the seasons of the Christian calendar have served to restrain or even abuse real spiritual growth. A Young Calvinist blogger named Justin Smidstra notes,

Many of us may not have paid much attention to this, since the church year and the “liturgical seasons” do not play a very large role in the Reformed churches and many other Protestant churches as well. There are some historic and sound reasons for this. During the middle ages the observance of Lent became an excessive practice, which emphasized works righteousness, and came to be associated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs. The Reformers condemned these abuses and for this reason rejected most of the Lenten practices of their day, such as the mandatory forty day fast. We do not dispute their wisdom in this.

Certainly the Puritan in us shouts, “Lent is everyday. Easter is everyday. Incarnation is everyday. We do not need a seasonal calendar; rather we preach the full gospel to ourselves and others daily.”

So, what do we do with Lent and the rest of the seasons? To practice, or not to practice? I personally think there is a balance that can be found. The benefits of the Christian calendar are its organization, its simplicity, and its strict focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dangers of the Christian calendar are those about which the early Reformers warn—developing a mindset that grace from God is somehow gained or missed depending on my faithfulness to the calendar or superstitious beliefs becoming attached to the practice. However, the former can be remedied by faithful teaching about saving grace coming to us through Christ’s faithful work alone. The latter problem of superstition has always been a problem the church has faced. As early as the days of the papyrus copies of the New Testament, we have evidence that Christians would copy for themselves a portion of the Gospels or Acts where healing, miracles, or great power was demonstrated by Jesus or the apostles. They would “roll it up” and keep it with them as an amulet, which they believed would keep them free from sickness, demons, and other dangers. The cure for superstition isn’t necessarily an avoidance of the Calendar, nor an avoidance of the Scriptures, but rather quality discipleship in the truths and doctrines of Scripture for the Christian life.

I have participated in Lent some years and not other years. There is no law or command in Scripture that demands such participation. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16–17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” That is to say, all festivals, special days, and spiritual disciplines with food and drink find their substance in Christ. He is the fulfillment of all these things, the end of them if you will. Therefore, the Puritans and Reformers have a point. However, I would say that Paul is not condemning the practice of festivals and the like, rather he is saying that we should not pass judgment on one another or from one church to another regarding these things. Brothers and sisters, we are free to gather and worship Christ in all the fullness of truth and love that we can muster by the Spirit’s help. Calendar or no calendar.

Lent Reminds Us to Practice Repentance and Repentance Is Good

Wherever you find yourself traditionally this Lenten season, I hope you will embrace a regular practice of repentance. It is good to question the appetites of the sinful flesh and to bring them under the control of the Spirit, be it through fasting, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, silence, or solitude. Romans 6:11 teaches us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” As you practice the “mortification of your sins” in Christ’s death, also remember the hope and life and power we have because Christ has risen from the dead. For we need not only confession and repentance, but resurrection power to break the chains of slavery that sin has had over us.

Allow me to point you to two places in Scripture that can guide you in the development of regular rhythms of repentance. Let me also call attention to this. It is very appropriate to seek both community repentance and personal repentance from God. For example, our nation needs the gift of repentance from God. The churches in our nation need the gift of repentance from God—both for past sins of commission and omission and for present sins. For this community-approach toward repentance, I turn to Daniel 9:1–23. I have broken down this passage on repentance into 7 parts:

  • The Provocation to Repentance (vv.1–2) — The word of God provokes repentance as it reveals truth and grace to us.
  • The Posture of Repentance (v. 3) — Genuine repentance seems to be marked by common postures: prayer, fasting, lament (sackcloth and ashes), pleas for mercy.
  • The Confession of Repentance (vv. 4–6) — The confession acknowledges God’s faithfulness and love while it also agrees with God about our sinful deeds and our unwillingness to listen to his word. Notice the community and personal aspects in Daniel’s use of the personal plural pronouns.
  • The Humility of Repentance (vv. 7–12) — Humility is honest. It lacks prideful attempts to justify. Daniel humbly admits his and the people’s need for the righteousness, mercy, and forgiveness that belong to the Lord and admits their ownership of the shame they have brought on themselves.
  • The Resistance to Repentance (vv. 13–15) — While this continues Daniel’s humility, it is specifically highlighting their resistance to “entreat the favor of the Lord.” There is a fight that must take place within repentance. We must fight against resistance and submission to it.
  • The Petition of Repentance (vv. 16–19) — Here Daniel finds what we must all find in the process of repentance—a petition based in the will of God for his own glory. Repentance happens when we truly desire God’s will above our own. In the New Testament, we call this dying to self and coming alive unto God. Notice how many times Daniel uses the pronoun “your.” In a quick look in my ESV Bible, I counted 16. He recognizes that God is both the source of the chastisement and the source of their healing.
  • The Answer to Repentance (vv. 20–23) — Remember, Daniel started praying because of a prophecy of Jeremiah that provoked him (v. 2). God answers Daniel’s repentance with further insight and revelation into his plan and will. Notice that Daniel’s prayer was heard from the very beginning (v. 23). The answer confirmed God’s love for him, and brought him further understanding.

The second place in Scripture to which I direct you is the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of fasting and facing the Tempter is typically thought to be the foundation for the 40-day period of Lent. Consider the opportunities for repentance based upon Jesus’ faithfulness:

  • Opportunity #1: Is the Word of God Sufficient to Me (Mt. 4:1–4)?
  • Opportunity #2: Do I Fear God in Such a Way That Avoids Presumptuous Testing of God in My Decision Making (Mt. 4:5–7)?
  • Opportunity #3: Do I Worship God with Submissive Service to His Plan for My Life (Mt. 4:8–11)?

I hope that this has challenged you to feel the necessity of a regular rhythm and seeking of repentance. Repentance is a treasure and a gift from God. May this treasure be yours and mine today and in the days ahead.

In Christ,

Pastor Rex

Two Ways: The Perseverance of the Blessed or the Brevity of the Wicked

Thoughts on Psalm One

Psalm 1 begins with a description of the “Blessed Man” (vv. 1–2). Notice that the man is “blessed,” which is a statement of God’s grace. Blessing only comes from heaven, not manufactured by the hands of men. The text lists negations and positive statements that make up the full description. Next, the “Blessed Man” is contrasted against the “Wicked,” specifically the endurance of each way of life is compared—wherein the “Blessed Man” produces a timelessly prospering life, but the “Wicked’s” life is soon driven away by “the wind” (vv. 3–4). Maybe it is nothing, but in my own devotional time here in Psalm 1, I found the proportion interesting—the “Blessed Man” is grammatically singular whereas the “Wicked” is plural; that is to say, the “Wicked” out number the “Blessed.” Finally, the destiny of every man is a meeting & reckoning with the Lord. The final destiny of the “Blessed Man” will find favor and protection from the Lord. The “Wicked” faces a final destiny fixed with crippling judgment, deplorable shame, and certain death (vv. 5–6).

A Prayer from Psalm One

Oh Lord, by your grace in the riches of Christ, please make me a Blessed Person! Set me free in every way from the route of the wicked and set my feet firmly on the road of the righteous. Make me blessed and a blessing to all those around me for your glory and praise. In Christ’s name and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.