Monday, December 22, 2008

who nose how to pick a blogger?

Dear cyber-world,

“Here I am” (see below) is my final blog entry of 2008. I’ll resume blogging the week of January 11th. However, if you read this blog – I’d like to hear from you. Like I said, this is a private spiritual practice that I’ve chosen to make public. And spiritual practices should change and shift as the practitioner changes and shifts. Building spiritual muscles isn’t any different than building bodily muscles – if you don’t periodically tweak your work-out routine, your progress levels out. You may even do yourself harm in the long run.

And so I welcome ideas on how to “shift gears” in the spring. If you’ve been journeying with me, let me know about it. Throw in your two cents (checks are payable to John Newton). You can do this in one of two ways – either comment on this post, or if you don’t feel comfortable with people reading your comment (picking your bloggers publically can be embarrassing), send me an email (

I'll keep this puppy going for one more semester. I’m just not yet sure what it’ll look like, or whether or not I’ll blog with the same frequency. And so if you have comments or suggestions, I’d be grateful. Questions about any of my posts are always welcome. In the spiritual life, being “nosey” is a virtue.

Merry Christmas,


here i am

“Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart.” – Ps 40:7-8, Heb 10:7-8.

Act 1. God creates. Man sins. And when man sins, man hides. But God looks. And God asks. “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)

God is looking. Where are you? God calls out.

It starts with Abram. Abram – a child of Adam – was born into hiding. And God finds Abram first. Abram responds to God’s call, but God has been burned before. So God intends to test Abram’s faith. God wants to know just how deep Abram’s commitment to God goes. God speaks on the road to Moriah. Where are you? Abram answers. “Here I am.” (Gen 22:1)

Moses is next. God asks stuttering Moses to lead His chosen people out of slavery. Into freedom. God calls out from a burning bush. Where are you? Moses answers. “Here I am.” (Ex 3:4)

The Lord has plans for Samuel. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Samuel certainly wasn’t expecting to hear God’s voice. But God calls out to Samuel anyway. Where are you? Samuel answers. “Here I am.” (1 Sam 3:8)

The Lord grants Isaiah a vision. He’s looking for a prophet to the nations – someone to speak His word to the peoples of the earth. The Lord takes council. “Whom shall we send?” Where are you? Isaiah steps forward. “Here I am.” (Is 6:8)

This is God’s question to you. To me. Where are you?

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (2 Chron 16:9). And He’s looking for hearts that delight to answer His question. Here I am. Abram and Moses and Samuel and Isaiah. They all responded. “Here I am.”

And then one day God sent an angel to an unwed teenage virgin. And God tells her that through the Holy Spirit she will conceive and bear a son. Remember - God is looking. His eyes run to and fro. And His eyes have settled on Mary. All along, God has been looking – looking to recover and restore and heal what was lost. He’s looking to find men and women who have been born into a life of hiding. And so God asks Mary – where are you? Mary doesn’t know what to say. How could she? But her words are beautiful nonetheless. “Here I am” (Lk 1:38).

This is the correct answer to God’s question. “Here I am.” This answer has been given by nomads and exiles and young boys and prophets and unwed virgins. All in response to the question of a good God – a God with a plan.

But …

Somewhere along the line, we stopped hearing God’s question. And we started asking the question instead. God, where are you? In the violence and war and poverty and depression and fear – where are you?

From the foundation of the world, God has been at work in our world. Creating. Saving. Loving. Blessing. Chastening. Building. Destroying. Pruning. Loving. Saving. Creating. But where was it all going? Is there a Word that God had been planning to speak all along? To a stiff-necked people that turned God’s question back around on Him? To a people, who for the most part, ceased to hear the Living God call out – “where are you?”

Job. He was a questioner. And Job – God bless him – thought he had a case. But God tells Job otherwise. The defendant never gets to sit on the judge’s bench. “I have an answer Job. Wait for it.”

The season of Advent is almost over. Advent is a season of waiting. A season of waiting for God’s Answer to our question – a question that God originally asked us. To the question that we dodged and then rebelliously threw back to God. “Where are you God? What word can you speak for yourself?”

On December 25th, we celebrate the Answer of God.

The Word became flesh. God has never spoken so clearly. With one act. A King was born in a smelly manger. A new Adam. To an unwed virgin. In an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire.

For you. For me. For the world.

Jesus was born.

Where are you?

Here. I AM.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

solomon was an arms dealer

“They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. They also exported them to all the kings of the Hittites and of the Arameans.” – 1 Ki 10:29

God promised David that his son would rule forever – that through his son righteousness and peace would come to Israel. People had great expectations for the “son of David.” And so when Solomon became Israel’s king, all eyes were on him. Would he be the one? Would righteousness and peace meet together in Solomon’s rule? After all, Solomon was a son of David.

At first, things looked hopeful. Solomon asked God for wisdom to rule well. But it didn’t last – things went bad pretty quickly. You see, Solomon was the king of a people that God had brought out of slavery. And yet, Solomon used slaves to build an elaborate palace. Solomon was the king of a people whose # 1 commandment was to worship God alone. And yet, Solomon’s “heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Ki 11:4). Solomon’s people had watched their God destroy Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. And yet, Solomon collected for himself 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses (1 Ki 10:26). Was Solomon the one? Would righteousness and peace meet together in Solomon’s rule? After all, Solomon was a son of David.

No. Solomon was not the one. In fact, Solomon didn’t just exploit his power, worship other gods, and rely on his army. Solomon took it a step further. He became an international arms dealer. He imported and exported horses and chariots – the ancient equivalent of tanks, guns, and bombs. Solomon discovered that war was profitable – that his horses and chariots could bring him wealth. And what’s more, he imported them from Egypt! The land of slavery and death. And he brought them to Jerusalem – the great city of the Lord. It’s impossible to capture the tragic irony of Solomon’s waywardness.

Solomon was a son of David. But he wasn’t the Son of David.

In Advent, we prepare again for the coming of the Son of David – Jesus the Christ. In him, “righteousness and peace kiss one another” (Ps 85:10). This son of David didn’t own slaves. He became one. This son of David’s heart didn’t turn to other gods. He became obedient to the point of death on a cross. This son of David didn’t commit himself to the way of war. He beats swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Mic 4:3).

FOR TODAY: When the Son of David returns to rule this earth, there will be no more violence and war. Righteousness and peace will meet together in Jesus’ rule. Ponder what this means to you – for your individual life with God, but also for the world. Given the reality of God’s future, what sort of people ought we to be in the present?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

why god breaks the second commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” – Ex 20:4

This is commandment # dues. After “don’t have any other Gods,” this is the next commandment that God gives liberated Israel at Sinai. “Don’t make idols.” In other words, “Don’t make an image of me.”

To understand this commandment we need to understand Israel’s setting. Israel was surrounded by “other nations.” And these other nations did make idols – statues, carvings, and physical representations of the gods they believed in. The idols of the other nations gave shape and size and depth and visibility to their god. If anyone were to ask the other nations – “what is your god like?” – they’d hold up their statue and say the following: “Here’s my idol – the image of my god.” But the God of Israel isn’t like the other gods – “don’t do that Israel. Don’t make an idol for yourself.”

A lot of traditional people understand commandment # dues in terms of God’s incomprehensibility. In other words, God is so awesome, so holy, so “other” that to try and “image” God would be sinful. In other words, a lot of traditional people think that God doesn’t want to be imaged at all. I’m not feeling very traditional this morning.

That being said, God is awesome and holy and totally “other” than us. It would be easier for me to replicate Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with a blindfold and a sharpie than it would be for me to image the God of Israel with a carving. BUT, I still think God wants to be imaged. In fact, I think that God’s desire to be imaged is the story of the Bible. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were made to image God. And I know that God’s desire to be imaged is the story of Christmas. Jesus Christ was the perfect image of God – “the exact imprint of God’s very being” we’re told (Heb 1:3).

After all, people still want to know – “what is your God like?” The “other nations” still want an image of our God. And I think God wants to give them one. God wants to give them you. Me. His church. He wants us to give shape and size and depth and visibility to His character.

In other words, God doesn’t want us to make an image. He wants to make us His image.

FOR TODAY: Genesis tells us that God created us in “his image.” Another translation of the word idol is “graven image.” In other words, an idol is what happens when God’s image goes sour. It’s not that God doesn’t want to be imaged. It’s just that God wants His church to fulfill that role. And so give some thought to commandment # dues today. What does it mean to you? In other words, given your vocation to be God’s image, how do you shirk that responsibility by making graven images instead?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

the best picture you have to give

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” – Phil 4:9

Paul’s statement is amazing. To our modern, western sensibilities, it may seem a tad arrogant. Yet, this is the word Paul leaves the Philippians with. “You want to know what following Jesus is all about? Look at me! Look at my life, my example. What you’ve seen in me is the best picture I have to give.” Who among us could dare say such a thing?

And yet, Paul says it. And not just to the Philippians. He tells the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). I think it’s fair to assume Paul said something along these lines to all the churches that he visited. And yet, who among us could dare say such a thing? Who among us would dare point others to ourselves?

My hope is that all of us can. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Paul, at times, seemed rude and hot-tempered. It doesn’t mean that we’re without weaknesses. Paul, like us, had his own “thorn in the flesh” to deal with (2 Cor 12:7). It doesn’t mean we’re fearless (1 Cor 2:3) or tearless (Rom 9:2).

And yet, Paul pointed others to himself in order to point them to Jesus. In essence, Paul viewed his life as a sign – as a pointer – to the death and resurrection of Jesus. “I died to the law. I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19). I “have been raised with Christ” too (Col 3:1). Want to see what the Jesus-life is all about? Look at me.

Is Paul being arrogant? No, he isn’t. He’s not claiming to be without sin. He’s not claiming to be perfect. Paul is claiming, however, to be on a journey with the One who is without sin; on a journey with the One who is perfect. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

FOR THE WEEKEND: Consider the following question. Would you feel comfortable pointing others to yourself in order to show them Christ? Why or why not? If the answer is no, take some tangible steps to make your own life the best picture you have to give.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

epaphroditus' "high five"

“Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.” - Phil 2:25

Epaphroditus really jumped out at me this morning. And not because Epaphroditus has the oddest name in the Bible. That prize, scholars say, fluctuates from year to year between Esh-baal (1 Ch 9:39) and Bildad the Shuhite (Job 2:11). No – what struck me was Epaphroditus’ many roles – he’s a brother, a co-worker, a soldier, a messenger, and a minister.

First, he’s a brother. The Way of Jesus is about being a member of God’s new family. In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:35). And the bond in Jesus’ family is tight. If you do anything to a member of Jesus’ family, you might as well have done it to Jesus himself – whether it’s good or bad (Matt 25:40). After rising from the dead, Jesus gives this message to Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them – I am ascending to my Father and your Father” (Jn 20:17). Jesus gathered the new family of God. Paul is a member. And so is Epaphroditus. And for that reason, Paul calls him brother.

Second, he’s a co-worker. We do the work of God’s Kingdom together. And our “co-worker” status traces all the way back to the book of Genesis. It all begins when God invites Adam to share in God’s own work. The first co-worker tilled a garden. God entrusted Adam with God’s own work. In fact, part of the “fall” is our tragic move from working with God to working against Him. But Jesus, of course, changes all of this. God entrusts His Kingdom to Jesus, and Jesus shares God’s kingdom-work with his new family. And for that reason – we’re all co-workers.

Third, Epaphroditus is a soldier. The Kingdom work we’re called to share in can be likened to a battle. As co-workers, we’re also fellow soldiers. We fight anything and everything – in our world and in our hearts – that opposes our Father’s Kingdom. Of course, the only sword we carry is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17); the only breastplate we don is the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14). And so our tactics are a bit different. We turn the other cheek. We bless those who curse us. But this is all part of the battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

Fourth, Epaphroditus is a messenger. He understands that “we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel” (1 Thess 2:4). In other words, God has given us the message to make us messengers. We can even say that we are stewards of God’s message. And like all stewards, we have a choice. We can hoard the message by keeping it to ourselves. Or, we can speak the truth in love and share God’s message freely. To do the former is to bury our talent; to do the latter is to be a messenger like Epaphroditus.

Fifth, Epaphroditus is a minister. That doesn’t mean that he was ordained or that he went to seminary or that he wears a fancy robe on Sunday mornings. No. It just means that he is a servant. That’s all a minister is – one who serves another in the name of Jesus. And as brothers and co-workers and soldiers – and especially as people who want our message that God, in Christ, served us to look credible – this is perhaps our highest call and our greatest privilege.

FOR TODAY: Consider the five high roles that Epaphroditus plays in the church. Which ones resonate with you the most? The least? Assuming that these roles are universal for all disciples of Jesus, what roles would you add to this list? (Consider leaving your answer on the comments section for everyone’s edification. After all, we’re family.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

secret inward grumbling

“Do all things without murmuring.” – Phil 2:14

I was in my favorite sandwich shop this time last year to discover a new employee working the register. And being a creature of habit, I ordered the same thing that I had ordered my previous 52 trips – one turkey sandwich. “NO tomatoes. NO mayonnaise.” I annunciated every syllable of these two sentences. Not wanting to take my chances with the “new guy,” I repeated myself. I spoke so slowly and loudly that it was awkward. And I did this because I hate mayonnaise and I hate tomatoes. And so imagine how thrilled I was, after speeding home, to open a delicious turkey, mayonnaise, and tomato sandwich. Forget the lettuce, the pickles, the onion, the avocado – no traces of these “extras” were within two miles of my sandwich. Just turkey, mayonnaise, and tomato.

Here’s the sad thing – this ruined my day. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t go back. I definitely didn’t eat the tainted thing. I just murmured. I walked around for the rest of the day with a chip on my shoulder. I felt sorry for myself. I secretly grumbled in my heart.

According to Paul, we are to do “all things” without murmuring. The Greek work we translate murmuring (goggusmos) is a pretty loaded word. It’s not only about being upset or about being disappointed. Goggusmos is about harboring a secret complaint; it’s about secretly grumbling in our hearts.

You see, grumbling in any form isn’t good. And the reason grumbling isn’t good is because grumbling rules out the possibility that we properly perceive God. Consider Deut 1:27. “You grumbled and said ‘because the Lord hates us he brought us out of Egypt to destroy us.” Of course, this isn’t true. God brought Israel out of Egypt because He loves Israel, not because He hates them. He did it to save them, not to destroy them. But because the road to salvation is hard – because it involves the desert – the Israelites misunderstood God and they started to grumble. And so grumbling by itself is bad – but “secretly grumbling in our hearts” – that’s even worse. And here’s why.

Because when we grumble inwardly – when we “murmur” – we can still pretend that all is well, that we’re cool and collected. We can lie to ourselves, to others, and to God. We can put on our bright religious mask. We can scrub the outside of the cup but inside be full of ingratitude (Matt 23:25).

Ultimately, it’s not a sin for things to upset us. That’s just what happens when our will is thwarted – when we don’t get our way. And sometimes our anger is silly – people give us a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich. And sometimes our anger is much more serious – whether it is directed towards God or other people. But God gives us models for dealing with our anger in each of these cases. And in no instance is murmuring – secretly grumbling in our hearts – allowed.

FOR TODAY: Monitor your murmuring. Pay attention to what makes you mad and be honest about your emotions. Is there something about God or God’s world that angers or confuses you? It’s better for us to question God (which is called prayer FYI) than it is for us to murmur against God inwardly (Ps 13:1). Has someone else angered you? Go to them privately and speak to them kindly and humbly with the hope of being reconciled (Matt 18:15). Are you upset about something ridiculously trivial? If so, then lighten up. Take a deep breath. See the bigger picture. Jesus is at work making all things new. When this becomes the reality that frames our life, something tells me that "turkey sandwiches" will cease to ruin our day.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

reforming from within

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – Phil 2:3

The NY Times headlined the following article in yesterday’s paper: “Episcopal Split as Conservatives Form New Group.” As a soon-to-be Episcopal priest (God willing and the people consenting of course), people often ask my opinion on the current tensions that exist within the Episcopal Church. And as of late, I’ve just shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of, “I think it’s really sad.”

There’s something really sad about schism in Christ’s Church. After all, there is only one Church. And Jesus is the head of it. We may have 36,000 different Christian denominations (and the number grows every day), but that doesn’t mean that we have 36,000 churches. No. There’s only one Christian church. And any man, woman, or child whom Jesus draws to himself is a member. And I find nothing in the Bible or in our 2,000 year tradition or in the arena of human experience or reason to suggest otherwise. There is only one Body of Christ. And at present, we are a body of broken bones. And so when a group splits, another bone snaps. And I think that broken bones in Jesus’ body is really sad.

That being said, I’m glad that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the castle in Wittenberg in 1517. And yes, these “theses” did help spark the Protestant Reformation – a “split” from Rome. But Martin Luther’s original intention wasn’t to part with Rome. He wanted to be a reformer from within.

I think we need more reformers from within – more people willing to “stay put” when tensions arise. Because this issue of schism is more relevant to our lives than we’d care to admit. At the corporate level, it’s hard to maintain fellowship with churches that maintain doctrines and practices with which we disagree – whether the doctrines and practices be “conservative” or “liberal.” And at the personal level, it’s hard to “stay put” in a church when tensions arise. Leaving is the easy thing to do. In fact, many of us hop from church to church looking for the right doctrine or the right music or the right preaching. We seek not a church (in the Biblical sense of the word), but the “right religious goods" to consume.

Now, choosing a church – or choosing a denomination – isn’t an insignificant matter. I don’t advocate “letting the chips fall where they may.” But eventually we have to make a choice – and that choice should be an informed and prayerful one. But once we do, times will arise when it would be much easier to leave than to stay put. But is the “easy road” the path Jesus asks us to walk (Matt 7:14)? Why not stay put? Why not seek to be a reformer from within?

I began this entry with Phil 2:3. This verse is what “reforming from within” is all about. Reforming from within is about looking at people with whom we disagree, and then regarding them as better than ourselves. It’s about taking seriously the interest of others. It’s about having the mind of Jesus – which Paul then explains in terms of Jesus’ intentional death on behalf of others. Schism – at both the corporate and personal level – is often inevitable. But schism – in whatever form that it takes – usually comes about when people ON BOTH SIDES OF THE SPLIT arrogantly regard themselves as better than others; when they look primarily to their own interests and not to the interests of others; when they let the same mind be in them that was in Peter, who when hearing the thoughts of Jesus’ mind, said “God forbid it. This must never happen!” (Matt 16:22)

FOR THE WEEKEND: Figure out a practical way to be a “reformer from within.” Where’s the tension in your life – Your marriage? Your church? At the office? Sometimes schism is inevitable. But if you ever choose to part ways – whether it be with a church or in a relationship or at your job – make sure it’s not because you demonstrated the exact opposite of Phil 2:3.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

putting up our sails

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” – Phil 1:6

This is Paul at his most encouraging (compare w/ Gal 5:12). Paul writes words of confident assurance to the church at Philippi. He acknowledges that the “good work” of faith and baptismal participation has begun in them. He asserts that, as of now, that “good work” is incomplete. He assures them that the “good work” will be completed. And finally, Paul explains that God is the One responsible for completing this “good work.”

I’ve encountered frustrated Christians just about everywhere – in bars, in my office, in the mirror. And in some sense, being frustrated comes from a good place (or at least from a good desire) within us. We yearn to be whole and pure and holy and kind and non-anxious and fearless and tearless. We know that a “good work” has begun in us and we yearn for that good work to be brought to completion. And so we try. We jump on a never-ending treadmill of trying harder. We feel responsible for completing this “good work” of faith that’s begun in us. And so we try. We assert our will. We “make up our mind to change.” We move from a jog to a sprint, but eventually the treadmill speeds up. And so we fail. Time and time again. We discover that we can’t complete the good work that has already begun in us; the good work that makes us try so hard in the first place. And because we “can’t” accomplish the changes we seek in our life and in our character, we feel powerless. And because we feel powerless, we get frustrated.

To frustrated Christians everywhere, Paul gives a promise: what is incomplete will be completed; what has begun will be brought to an end; what is partial will be full; and God is the One who will do it. God is ultimately the One who will save us and sanctify us and make us whole. God initiated the salvation-project and God intends to finish what He started.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. There is. We should “try hard.” Grace is opposed to earning - not effort. That being said, we have to try the right things. And asserting our own will to change ourselves isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. Eventually the treadmill speeds up. And when it does, we trip and fall to the ground in exhaustion. And so “trying the right things” is ultimately about giving God room to work. It’s about not quenching the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19).

UNTIL THURSDAY: Examine whether or not you’re “trying the right things.” Only God can send the Wind – but if we don’t put up the sails, the boat won’t go anywhere. Ultimately, trying the right things is about putting up our sails – about putting ourselves in the position for God to complete the work He began. Whenever we pray or meditate on Scripture - we put up our sails. Whenever we serve the less fortunate or bless the unlovable – we put up our sails. Whenever we worship God or speak a kind word to another – we put up our sails. And so don’t be frustrated. Phil 1:6 is Paul’s way of saying that in God’s time, and in God’s way, God will send the wind. And so in the meantime, step off the treadmill and start putting up your sails.