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Archive for November, 2018


Often Philippians is called “the Epistle of joy.” There is much there about joy. But as I preach through it, I’m discovering it is also “the Epistle of conflict.”

On Sunday I preached on Philippians 4:1-3. It was a short week of preparation, and a busy few days for the holiday. After I preached the sermon, I wish I had developed a few things more thoroughly. I needed to meditate on this text more thoroughly (more so than usual, I suppose).

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

This passage begins with a reference to the conflict without. Paul calls on them to “stand firm”, applying the realities of gospel humility and discipleship he’s been discussing since the 2nd chapter of this letter. They are to stand firm against the Gentiles who persecute them, and the Judaizers who seek to lead them astray into ritual. Both are enemies of the cross.

They were to stand together as “my beloved brothers (a better translation of the phrase), whom I long for, my joy and crown … my beloved.” Philippi was a Roman colony. Many of the people gained their Roman citizenship by their service in the military. They were familiar with fighting formations requiring them to stand firm together. Now they stand no simply as fellow soldiers but people bound in love by Jesus.

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Our conflict with them is about the claim of the gospel. It is about the contrast between living as good citizens of Rome versus living as citizens of the heavenly city (1:27; 3:20).

In this conflict we are truly enemies, citizens of two different and warring kingdoms. They may use earthly weapons against us, but we are not to use earthly weapons (material or immaterial) against them. We’ve been given the armor of God (Eph. 6).

We can find points of commonality with the surrounding culture. We won’t disagree on everything. Those points of commonality are windows of opportunity for the gospel (to borrow Rick McKinley’s terminology).

What we cannot do is compromise. Acknowledge common ground, but not compromise. There are also windows of opposition we must contend with. They must be converted, which includes changing their views that are out of accord with sound doctrine. Stand firm in the face of an intimidating enemy though outnumbered. Our God will be faithful.

But remember that at the moment, they are your enemy, not your brother, and should be treated as one.

Paul then addresses conflict within the congregation. You can’t stand firm together if you are at odds with one another. Internal conflict distracts us from mission, even if it is about how to carry for the mission.

Paul urges both women to work it out, come into accord. First this indicates that women are important and do important things. They were gospel partners with Paul. Their conflict was not incidental to church life but threatened it. No conflict between siblings in Christ is insignificant. They must be worked out, and both parties bear responsibility to do so. It was not just Euodia’s responsibility. Not just Syntche’s responsibility.

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If we think of this in terms of the slippery slope of conflict these women were likely “peace-faking” by engaging in flight. They were avoiding each other, operating on opposite sides of the room, refusing to acknowledge each other. Perhaps there had been times of peace-breaking, fighting. There may have been verbal assault. Nothing as serious as Cain deciding to kill Abel, but still attacks upon one another.

Image result for cain and abelThey weren’t living like people who were beloved brothers & sisters. Instead they were treating one another as enemies. They needed help to begin treating one another as beloved siblings. They needed help to get on the same page when it comes to worship, discipleship or evangelism. Those are things that matter, but frequently we act like our way is the only way. The need to agree with one another is even more important when we are fighting about things unrelated to the gospel (carpets, paint, loans or which property to buy).

Paul calls the “true companion” to act as a mediator to make peace, a peace rooted in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. Unity was to be restored by repentance and reconciliation, which are impossible apart from the gospel which makes us sons of God in the first place. Because of the gospel we treat the sins of our brothers differently than the sins of our enemies. This is important because of how we engage in conflict. The issues we disagree on are likely not sinful. What is sinful is our peace-faking and breaking. That sin is contrary to our status as brothers. In the conflict with the world it is in keeping with our status as enemies.

We are to once again find the common ground, the places we agree. Stand firm in your agreement. Then find a place of principled compromise among options that fit within biblical boundaries. You don’t compromise with the enemies of the cross, but you do with your beloved brother.

Sadly we often reverse this. We compromise with the world and stand our ground with our brothers as if they were our enemies.

Paul wants gospel partners to sort it out, as much as it depends on them. He knew the pain of a sharp disagreement that dissolved his partnership with Barnabas (Acts 15). We know he reconciled with Mark. We don’t know about Barnabas.

Paul recognizes that we engage in two different conflicts: within and without. How we respond is different. Don’t reverse them or you’ll really mess it all up. Get it right and you’ll see the gospel work powerfully in your community.

 

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Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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Much has changed in America since I became a Christian during Reagan’s second term in office. The church has had a variety of reactions from assimilation to abdication.

What is a Christian to do? How are pastors to guide and direct people?

In 2016 I prepared my people for a new set of circumstances by preaching through Esther and then 1 Peter. While “evangelicals” seem to have won they battle of the election, they seem to have lost the war for the culture as numerous articles blame Trump’s victory on them. The disenfranchisement many felt has only deepened with new charges of x-phobia.

Image result for faith for this momentRick McKinley’s new book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, caught my eye. McKinley is the pastor of Imago Dei church in Portland, OR. He shows up in Blue Like Jazz as Donald Miller’s pastor for a time. Like Driscoll, he seemed to fall into the Emerging (not Emergent) Church movement that held to historic Christianity applied to new circumstances.

On the surface this book seems to be The Benedict Option for millennials. I haven’t read BO, though it has been recommended to me often. It seems a bit retreatist to me. It sounds a bit too much like abdication. I could obviously wrongly judging that book by its cover. This book, I read.

I appreciated the overall tone and message of the book. I had some issues with the details and some of his analysis. It is not a long book, so it doesn’t flesh everything out as much as some may like. He’s trying to move people in a direction more than giving them detailed instructions. So, what is that direction?

He begins with the Moment in which we live, how we got here, and then how we should move forward as God’s people. That last part sounds the most like BO as he seeks to reclaim some distinctive Christian practices to help us live faithfully in a world, a culture more precisely, that has become hostile to our existence.

The Moment for him was the aftermath of the Pulse shooting. Christians, in the eyes of an unbelieving culture, we known less for Jesus and His sacrificial love than our opposition to homosexuality and defense of firearms. Though a Muslim, many show Mateen as in line with the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama disparaged.

Lost in the moment was the compassion shown by many churches, locally and in other parts of the country. Lost was Chick-Fil-A providing food to responders on a Sunday. Somehow we were at least partially to blame.

And then came the results of the 2016 election. The backlash is still a popular narrative: evangelicals voted for Trump because they are racist, misogynist, anti-immigration and homo-phobic. This is a world without nuance painting all conservative Christians with the same (wrong) brush.

“We are a society that is messy and complicated, and it appears that Christians, whose voices have been drowned out by misrepresentation and misunderstanding, have little to say about the things that matter most to the world.”

Image result for adam and eveChristians have moved from a group with relative power to being marginalized as a minority group. This happened without moving in a foreign country. We’ve lost our sense of identity and place. We’ve also lost our sense of practice: how we live or act, what we do, because we follow Jesus. Most Christians are caught between “denial and despair”. McKinley is not going to lead us in a pity party, however. Nor is he going to encourage us to go with the flow. He reminds us that for significant periods of time God’s people have lived as the marginalized, the exiled, and have flourished despite that.

He begins with the original exile. Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Life changed forever, so it seemed. There was no going back for them. The consequences would be disastrous as one son killed another as sin ran rampant. Abram and Sarai willingly went into exile in following the call of God. They had promises and a covenant but they were strangers and aliens in Canaan.

“This shows us that while exile is a place of loss, it is also a place of hope, because the God who is sovereign over the times in which we live is the one who sustains us in exile.”

He continues with Jacob, Moses (what about Joseph??) and the wilderness generation. He identifies Jesus as the True Exile who voluntarily (like Abram) left “home” to come to this far country to live among us, and suffer with and for us. He entered exile to bring us back to the Garden, but better.

McKinley then focuses on Babylon as a real exile and a picture of subsequent exiles. Babylon didn’t make all of Israel slaves. They were invited to partake of Babylon’s prosperity, similar to the materialism and consumerism of America. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel were calling them to faithfulness in exile. They were not to abandon their faith and assimilate with Babylon. They were to seek the good of the city and put down roots there. Their welfare was wrapped up with the welfare of the city.

“Exile can be a place of deep spiritual transformation and kingdom advancement if we are willing to step into it with courage and faith.”

It is easy to miss that Israel was in exile due to her sin. She lost her place because she forfeited her faith. It was time to regain her faith in exile. The church in the west, in particular in America to whom McKinley writes, has lost its place because it largely lost its faith. It fell for the American Dream instead of the Kingdom of God. It is time to regain our faith in Christ and His kingdom.

He focuses on that passage in Jeremiah in Baptize It, Burn It, or Bless It?. Here he discusses Christendom, both its rise in Rome and its fall here in America. Christendom is the blending of Christianity with the dominant culture such that you have a civil religion that largely reflects the culture. It is a largely assimilated faith. Racial pride, ethnic price, economic pride etc. are identified with Christianity.

While I agree with him, I also struggle with some of his points. For instance, on the issue of a border wall he sounds reductionistic to me. The threat is not the “other” so much as the lawless for many. He rejects just war theory as if it were the same as “manifest destiny”. For instance, he writes “When our hope becomes misplaced in these things, we begin to see other countries as a threat rather than a neighbor.” We live in a world of sinners so all our homes have doors, with locks. Every home in my neighborhood has a fence because there are boundary lines. I don’t hate my neighbor or fear my neighbor. Many politicians and celebrities who chastise us about a wall live behind walls and travel with armed security. That is wise in a world of sinners. Are nations to eschew wisdom for foolishness?

Another example, this time of overlooking details. In the context of same sex marriage he mentions that the church has done little to reduce its own divorce rate. I agree that some portions of the church have high divorce rates. But he seems to ignore the movement toward “covenant marriage” in many states in the Bush 43 years. These laws made getting a divorce more difficult for those who chose to enter that kind of marriage.

In response McKinley focuses on piety. He lays great weight on these practices to remain distinctive. He appears to lose the connection between being and doing. Theology informs our being. To be fair, he could have teased more of that (theology) out of his first practice. But he sees theological distinctives are part of the problem.

“The way forward will require us to move beyond doctrinal divides of conservative and liberal. We will need to find a set of practices, born from faith, that can make us distinct in our identity and our way of living in this moment in which we find ourselves.”

Image result for the borgHe is right that cultures make disciples. “You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” cries the Borg. Here he brings in some Lesslie Newbegin and contextualization. The gospel is a-cultural. It transcends cultures instead of being culture bound. The church is called to “navigate its relationship to the culture it finds itself in at this moment.” We embrace elements of culture in agreement with biblical norms and reject those in conflict with biblical norms. He breaks out what looks like a triperspectival triangle. The gospel is the norm, the church is the existential perspective (who we are) and we live in the circumstances of a particular culture. The gospel does not change. It is the norm that is intended to transform both church and culture- though in different ways. The church lives out the gospel in culture, and addresses that unchanging gospel to the particular culture it finds itself in a way that the culture can understand and applied to the culture’s problems.

McKinley expresses this in the terminology of “windows of redemption and opposition.” Each culture has ways we can address the culture “in its own space and through its own language and values.” But there are also “values, beliefs, and practices that are at odds with Jesus and the gospel.” If your gospel doesn’t present any offense it probably isn’t the biblical gospel. If it is only in opposition to culture, it probably isn’t either.

He then moves into the history of his congregation to show how this worked out. They needed to repent, often, of their lack of involvement with their community and culture. We often act like strongholds, at odds with those around us instead of seeking their holistic welfare.

“We must be willing to be honest with ourselves, to be broken over the state of our own hearts and the part we played in making the church the way it is.”

The book moves into the final section focusing on the spiritual practices he advocates. It seems strange to me, to compare us with Muslims (or the Amish or Hasidic Jews) as identifiable by dress and customs. I’m not sure about focusing on such externals. He does point us to practices that may standout, but not dress. The goal he notes is to turn us around (repentance) and “fully enter the story of God in our everyday lives.”

“Too many of us are exhausted from the pressure of the empire, and we find ourselves binging on its pleasures to short-circuit the anxiety we feel, even if those pleasures are only a temporary fix.”

He begins with that story in the practice of listening and obeying. Scripture is to be the story that shapes our worldview. The Story of redemption should shape how we live, eat, work etc.. He then moves into hospitality. He misses the point at times, focusing on how our government welcomes some immigrants and not others. I get that our hospitality is intended to be distinct from the governments, but the government has a different mission and goals than the church does. He doesn’t really develop the differences between the church and the state. This warps some of his statements.

In the chapter on generosity he seems to misunderstand some basic economic principles. Capitalism isn’t built on supply and demand. It certainly honors that reality in a way that other economic theories but it is built on the idea of using capital to create supply to meet demand. He also confused greed with capitalism on that same page.

The fourth practice is Sabbath. The practice of ceasing from work and engaging in rest and worship is contrary to the consumerism of America. We regain our focus and become refreshed so we can be better and more principled workers as a side benefit. He doesn’t want us to complicate it, but some of his quick encouragements seem to miss the point. Like, light a candle.

The last practice is that of vocation, seeing God’s call in our lives in work. God calls us to work and gifts us to work. It is not about money, but the gospel calls us to work out of love for God and others. We flourish, generally speaking, when we work to help others flourish.

As I mentioned earlier, this is more a big picture book than detailed book. I think that the practices are good for us. I do have some concerns with his pietistic bent that in some ways de-values theology. This can be a helpful book as long as one spits out the bones. More conservative readers will find a fair number of bones in his political references and perspectives.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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Recently I had lunch with another pastor. Among the subjects we discussed was what I called the bodies in the backyard.

No, I’m not a serial killer though there a quite a few hamsters buried in our backyard.

Image result for cemeteryI referred to the losses we experience in the course of pastoral ministry. Lately the losses have been piling up: deaths, people who moved away, people who slammed the door on their way out or just slipped quietly out the back door. They are losses we feel, particularly if we pastor smaller churches (average churches in the big scheme of things).

As pastors we feel the loss, but often can’t stop to feel or grieve the loss. We must continue to fulfill our vocation. We have to perform the funeral, find the person to fill the holes in the ministry of the church. We have to compartmentalize to some degree to fulfill our responsibilities to God and His people. We can feel like Ezekiel who was commanded not to mourn after his wife dies (Ez. 24:15ff) as a symbolic act for when judgment came upon Judah.

We intend to go back and mourn those losses. But intentions aren’t always fulfilled. Life moves on and there are new plans to make, crises to attend to and people to shepherd (including our own families).

I’ve found it becomes increasingly difficult to go back and mourn those losses. The demands of ministry seem to forever get in the way. Vacations often don’t seem the time to do this. “Sorry kids, Dad needs to go off to a corner of the house and weep for 3 days” isn’t really how to approach it. As a solo pastor it is difficult to take those days off from administration, sermon prep and visitation to do it.

For instance, when I was in FL one of the elders passed away after a battle with cancer. In some ways that retired Navy captain was a father figure. He had a steady faith thru the trials of the congregation. He was steady as a rock when fighting the cancer that took his life.

But in the moment, I had to be there for his wife. I had to be there for a congregation that loved him deeply. I felt I needed to be the rock (not the Rock) for all of them. When I did go on vacation shortly thereafter I was cranky and aloof. Some old friends noticed and thought I was mad at them or something. No, I was needing to grieve but not realizing it.

This happens. We put them “in the back yard” hoping to get to it.

I once interviewed for a pastoral position that had a manse, and a cemetery behind the church next door. Sometimes I feel like I have one. There are epitaphs on the stones: Here Lies the Elder I loved. Here lies the person who couldn’t forgive me or other people. Here lies a family/co-laborer I was close to that moved away. There they are, calling like the blood of Abel.

Image result for saving private ryanI’m reminded of Saving Private Ryan when Captain Miller confesses with his hand shaking, “Every time I kill a man I feel farther from home.” The burden grows and we seem less of ourselves if we haven’t grieved those losses.

Thankfully the blood of Jesus speaks a truer word, a better word. He knows those losses too. Because of my union with Christ my loss is a loss to Him. He wants to bind our broken hearts.

He’s not condemning or chastising. He doesn’t raise His voice, break the bruised reed or extinguish the smoldering wick. That’s the key: to remember that sometimes (more than I’d like to admit) I’m the bruised reed and smoldering wick. He seeks me out so I’ll entrust that pain to him, and receive His comfort just like I’ve encouraged others to do.

Image result for smoldering wickLately I’ve found that I’m preaching to myself quite a bit, and a roomful of people are listening in. Even if they don’t realize it.

Pastor Appreciation Month has passed. But you can still appreciate your pastor, particularly for the burdens he bears with you, and those you know nothing about. Many pastors have a bunch of bodies in the back yard. They just don’t know how to tell you that. They can feel very alone with their pain.

Ministry includes suffering. The Christian life includes suffering (Philippians 1:29). It is in those moments Jesus invites us to come to Him with those burdens because we weren’t meant to carry them alone.

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For the 60’s it was hard to choose between Led Zeppelin’s first two albums. Enter the 70’s and the choice was even more difficult. Surely there is plenty of disagreement if you were to poll your table at the pub.

On a rough wall hangs a painting of an elderly man in a field with a large bundle of sticks tied to his back.I nearly chose In Through the Out Door which boasts In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, the very different Carouselambra, All My Love and I’m Gonna Crawl. I think it is an under-rated album.

But the one I ended up choosing should have no arguments- IV. I chose it despite Stairway to Heaven, not because of it. Perhaps it has just been overplayed (the way some people feel about Smoke on the Water). This album has much better songs, as is often the case with a band’s signature song.

This album was produced by Page. The band, driven by the lukewarm response to III took a break from touring to focus on the album. The more relaxed atmosphere allowed them to try out different arrangements for the songs. The release was delayed after the mix didn’t meet Page’s standards. Between short tours he took a month to mix it, for which we are all thankful.

The album rushes out of the gate with Black Dog. A bit of reverb and Plant singing before the instruments flood. It is the blues rock that made them famous with all the expected elements. Including cow bell. Okay, just kidding on that. It comes across as ready for a single but is a tick under 5 minutes which is long for a single. This is in part thanks to the additional Page solo that closes the song as Plant “ooooohs”. It is a song all about sex, so not the most imaginative of topics or treatment. But the music rocks.

Hey, hey mama said the way you move
Gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove
Ah ah child way ya shake that thing
Gon’ make you burn, gon’ make you sting
Hey, hey baby when you walk that way
Watch your honey drip, I can’t keep away

Rock and Roll is good musically. The lyrics are so-so. It was a promotional single rife with double entendres. It could refer to their much-needed lay off, or a lack of sex. It became a popular song in concert.

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled
It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll
Oh let me get it back let me get it back
Let me get it back baby where I come from

Page wrote The Battle of Evermore on Jones’ mandolin. The instrument dominates the song, giving it a very different feel. But with Plant’s vocals it is also clearly Led Zeppelin. It fits in with the other songs that reflect Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology, though Plant’s lyrics were influenced by his reading a book on the Scottish wars for independence. It doesn’t break from the mandolin for a guitar solo (though there are sections with acoustic guitar). Oddly enough, Heart did a great version of this song live as they paid tribute to their influences.

The album continues with the slower pace for the beginning of Stairway to Heaven with more non-typical instruments for a rock band not named Jethro Tull. Acoustic guitar and recorders begin the song. People have tried to make sense of the lyrics, usually to make them promote satanism. I still don’t know what in the world the song is actually about.

Finally the song erupts with electric guitar, drums and electric piano. Of course it takes over 4 minutes for Bonzo to start playing anything of merit, and 5:56 until Page begins his legendary solo. The solo was played on a Telecaster that Jeff Beck had given him. This really is a song suited for headphones to catch the nuance. The song became one of their concert highlights. To capture the two phases of the song, from a guitar standpoint, Page would use the now iconic double neck guitar, one of which was a 12-string.

The second side begins with the airy melody and pounding drums of Misty Mountain Hop. Plant alternates between the nearly spoken lines and the nearly screeching ones. The melody is dominated by the electric piano. The seemingly dormant guitar enters for the solo. It is a song of opposites, but it works for me. The title is taken from Tolkien’s The Hobbit but it is about clashes between students and police over drugs. Well, Gandalf like the Hobbit’s weed (tobacco).

Four Sticks is dominated by the guitar riff. The percussion is more subdued. For the interlude the electric guitar drops out and the acoustic takes over. Bonham played the drums with 4 sticks, and hence the name. It is a song about needing to leave a relationship in the past and put some geographic distance between you.

‘Cause you know I gotta get away from you babe
Oh baby the river’s red, ah baby in my head
There’s a funny feelin’ goin’ on
I don’t think I can hold out long

Going to California features the acoustic guitar and a broken heart. Plant sings as a man who has lost a love who taken him for all he has. But he hopes to find new hope there.

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.

Then Bonham’s drums hit the forefront, joined by a moaning harmonica. We’ve back to the blues with When the Levee Breaks. This is one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. Impending doom is captured well by the music and lyrics. For some reason the remastered edition, the transitional guitars are muted and the guitar solo too loud. Perhaps my settings are messed up but this seems to have a very different mix than the rest of the album.

The album was well received by critics and fans. It hit number 1 in England but only peaked at No. 2 in America. But it was their best selling album and continues to sell well for the band. It would be difficult to top the success of IV, and they wouldn’t. But they were the biggest band in the world that could only be derailed by substance abuse issues after a series of smaller tragedies. Thankfully we can still enjoy their music.

 

 

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