Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Sorry, but I have been traveling for the last few weeks and unable to update this blog. I will be back at MPChOG next weekend and will continue the commentary at that point.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Similarities and differences

The question of the day is: "What are the similarities and differences between Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, etc…???"

On Sunday, Jim's approach was more doctrinal than historic (I will cover the history briefly below). He pointed out the similarities and differences in belief systems as follows:

Jews, Christians, Muslims (Monotheists) believe in:
1. Linear time
2. God as Creator at a specific point in history (though many differ on when that occurred)
3. The Golden rule - do unto others as you would have them do to you
4. We all die, then there is a judgment

Now the key difference:

Christians believe we are saved by grace through the death and resurrection of Christ - Muslims and Jews believe in a saved by works religion.

Of course, the polytheist faith systems Hinduism and Buddhism have very different views of all of these things: Time is cyclical, not linear therefore there is no single point of creation and no real need for a creator. The golden rule applies as a means of getting to the next levels of existence - approaching Nirvana, the state of perfect nothingness.

Historically, let's look at the major religions - similarities first:

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons (we could argue about this one), and Jehovah's Witness folk are all monotheistic (One God) faiths. Hindus are altogether different - polytheistic (many gods). The first three are closely related to one another while the later two split out of the Christian tradition.

The oldest is Judaism. Founded by God through Abraham when God asked him to leave his country and travel to another land that he did not know. Abraham and Sarah were old (70+) and childless when God told Abe that he would be the father of many nations.

Not believing God, Sarah and Abe took matters into their own hands and Sarah sent her servant in to sleep with Abraham. This produced a son named Ishmael. Sarah then got jealous of Ishmael and his mother (Hagar) and tossed them out. God miraculously saved them and founded the Arab peoples.

Judaism really has it's religious roots in the exodus from Egypt that happened several hundred years later. When God delivered his people from Egypt he set up a system of governance and religious belief that still exists today. Many of the ceremonies and rites that orthodox Jews observe today began there. The Scripture for Jews is basically what we would call the Old Testament.

A couple of thousand years later, Jesus was born, lived a perfect life, and died - only to be raised again to new life. This is the foundation of the Christian belief system - later expounded by Paul, Peter, John, and others. Jesus was a Jew, so Christianity is descended from Judaism. Most Christians accept the New and Old Testaments as Scripture - though some would add the Apocrypha.

Shortly after the time of Christ, a man named Mohamed (prophet according to Muslims) was born, met with Angels, and had several prophetic visions. He transcribed these visions verbatim - this is the Koran, which along with the Old testament - is considered to be the Muslim Scripture. Since Christians and Muslims share the Old Testament and are both monotheistic - many consider them to be "cousins".

Most of the trouble that has arisen between the three groups has taken place because of various interpretors of the scriptures in the intervening centuries. The Jews early campaigns against the Christians, the Christian's retaliatory attacks against Jerusalem, and the Crusades back and forth between the Christians and Muslims have all been devastating to these three major and related religious belief systems.

Many of our Scriptures are similar, but the way we interpret them is quite different.

In the end, this Sunday was more like a lecture than a sermon. A good lecture, one full of information, but not the usual Lyon message full of hope, biblical teaching, and vision. I wonder sometimes if MPChoG would benefit from having another teaching pastor who really excelled at this kind of teaching - freeing Jim for even more vision casting. What do you think?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Can you lose your salvation?

Can you loose your salvation?

Frankly, I am a bit surprised that this one made it onto the sermon list. With a little room for semantic tweaking, I think most evangelical Christians believe that salvation is something that CAN be lost.

So, what is the semantic deal?

Well – died in the wool Calvinists would argue that God does the choosing and being God, he does not choose those who will end up turning their backs on him. They would say that someone who appears to be saved, but then turns his/her back on God at some later date was never saved to begin with. They may have thought they were saved at some point, but they never really were because they were not one of the elect.

Those of the more Wesleyan tradition would argue that while God knows who will accept him, he offers us a role in the process. He allows us the freedom to choose. If we can choose to follow Christ we can also choose to cease following Christ. More plainly stated, we can loose our salvation.

Both groups agree that those who follow Christ to the end of life will be saved. The idea that a person can be saved as a child and then live a demented and immoral life, all while still saved is not theologically sound in either camp. The difference lies in the starting point, not the finish line.

Jim also pointed out that losing one’s salvation (Wesleyan interpretation) is not an easy thing to do. For example, he does not believe that a person who’s last mortal act is driving in excess of the speed limit will, necessary, suffer in hell for breaking the law of the land. He argues that there are certain sins – so antithetical to the nature of God – that they might preclude a person from the reward of heaven and destine them for hell. In his sermon Jim stated four such sins: sexual sin, gossip, drunkenness, and greed – but did not give a scriptural reference for any of these.

There are a couple of places in scripture where “deadly” sins are listed. The first is in Proverbs 6 and the sins are as follows:
A proud look
A lying tongue
Hands that shed innocent blood
A heart that devises wicked imaginations
Feet that run to mischief
A false witness that speaks lies
And a person that sows discord among brothers

Since three of these have lying at their root I would say that telling the truth is pretty important to God.

Galatians 5 has a pretty impressive list as well:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (KJV)

A careful reading of this passage certainly does include the four Jim mentioned, but it adds several others – and a few of them ill-defined in modern day English.

Finally, the Catholic Church has traditionally defined seven deadly sins – so called mortal sins – that would destroy the life of faith. In other words, cause a person to loose their salvation.

These are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

I think it is pretty easy to see where Jim came up with the four he chose to highlight, and he never implied that it was a complete list. But we must be careful not to pick and choose. We might not struggle with drunkenness, but gluttony… I think a quick post-church survey all the buffet’s in Anderson can answer that one for us.

Let’s take a look at the three lists and see where the commonalities lie.

Pride – 2/3
Lying – 1/3
Killing the innocent – 1/3
Wicked imagination – 1/3 or 3/3 depending on how you define it
Running to mischief – 2/3
Sowing discord – 2/3
Gluttony – 2/3
Drunkenness – 1/3 (you could lump this with gluttony, but American Christians would really be uncomfortable with that)
Envy – 2/3
Wrath – 2/3
Lust/sexual sin – 2/3

Nothing directly shows up on all three lists – so it is probably best to avoid all of these sins or risk losing your relationship with God.

More recently, the Vatican has compiled a new list (not exhaustive) that is more apt for the modern age. Although these are more national than personal in nature, they are still an interesting representation of the larger issues the church must now face. The so-called seven modern social sins include:
Environmental pollution
Genetic manipulation
Obscene wealth
Infliction of poverty
Drug trafficking
Morally debatable experiments
Violation of the fundamental rights of human nature.

What do you think? Is it possible to lose your salvation? Is committing these sins the key or is it something deeper? Perhaps, the only unforgivable sin, the real deal breaker that will cause a person to lose their salvation (if they ever had it to begin with) is a continuing attitude of rebellion toward God’s offer of the free gift of salvation.

Remember - I do not claim to have the answers, I am just trying to get the discussion going.

Can we hear God speak?

Can we hear God speak?

Synopsis –

Jim started the morning out with a recap of the story of Samuel as a boy – hearing the voice of God and not immediately recognizing who it was. This story is significant for a variety of reasons – Samuel heard the audible voice of God, asked for corroboration of the veracity of that voice, and then sat quietly listening to what God had to say. Jim went on to suggest that God still speaks today – sometimes in an audible voice, but more often in a sense or impression that impacts our way of thinking.
He then presented six questions that can be used as measuring sticks to understand whether or not God is speaking. I have listed the questions below – each with a few comments intended to spark deeper thinking about the questions. In general, I agree with what Jim had to say.

1. Is the voice of God telling you to do something that is outside scripture?

This is the easy one. Very few people (if they were being honest) would believe that God was telling them to do something clearly against the central tenants of scripture. Sounds pretty easy – right? But what about all the places where scripture if vague? And, let’s face it; there are quite a large number of places where this is true. God will not tell you to deny his Son and walk away from your faith. Neither will he tell you to leave your wife of 10 years for a younger, more exciting model. That’s not God – it’s lust – there is a difference.

But what about God telling you to protect the liberty of immigrants from Central America? It would be pretty easy to defend that one scripturally. Rational, reasonable Christians read the scriptures and come to some very different conclusions about what the church should do in that context. So, Scripture is a good guide – but not quite all-inclusive.

2. Do you have a sense of peace about the experience?

This is a more difficult one. Sometimes it is easy to do what I think God is telling me to do. Other times it is very difficult. Usually, what God is telling me to do makes me downright uncomfortable. Not exactly peaceful. There have even been times that God has asked me to make very difficult decisions which I labored over in prayer and fasting. No peace there – just turmoil.

In my experience, peace is the afterglow of doing what God asks us to do. We often do not experience that sense of peace that Jim spoke of until we obey. Peace is the confirmation of doing the will of God, not necessarily in discerning the veracity of his voice in the moment.

3. Is there corroboration of what the voice of God is telling you to do from within the church (body of Christ)?

Confirmation within the body of Christ is crucial – especially for big decisions. This is why we have a board of elders at the Madison Park church. It is also the reason that we have church-wide votes on the larger decisions. We believe that God’s will can be best discerned by listening to the will of the body. Some traditions take this even further. Folks in the Quaker tradition do not vote – they talk through issues until they reach unanimity. Sometimes this takes years, but it certainly promotes peaceful (albeit, slow) movement on the will of God.

This does raise an interesting point – there are many times we are called to act on what we believe God is saying without having the luxury of confirmation of the Church. In those cases questions 4 and 5 (below) are more important that what the church has to say. Indeed, many of us may worry too much about what people in the church will think – and are hampered in out pursuit of the will of God.

Later in this sermon series I will suggest that the Church serves another important function related to the voice of God – but more on that later.

4. Is what you believe God to be saying a loving message?

Jim has this one exactly correct (in my view). Far too many of our brothers and sisters spend too much time sending out messages of condemnation and not affirmation. Gossip, rumor, innuendo, news, slander, and outright condemnation of other people have, so very unfortunately, become what the body of Christ is known for in America. God is not in the business of telling his people to write signs “God Hates … “ you fill in the blank: gays, abortionists, prostitutes, Arabs. If the object of the sign is a person – God does not hate them. To be certain, God hates sin – but he LOVES sinners. We must be very careful in how we promote our political agendas using the powerful rhetoric of “God told me…”

5. Is your conscience seared by any sin in your life?

Ouch! This is a tough one! Recognizing a seared conscience is one of the toughest things a person can do introspectively. A peaceful soul is a good indicator, however, a badly seared conscience may seem to be at peace. Here is another place that we need to place ourselves under the authority of the body of Christ. Accountability within the body is the best insurance against a seared conscience.

6. Do you believe God is telling you to do something that will be detrimental to your relationship with Him?

In this last point Jim sums up much of what the previous five points are getting at. God will never tell you to do something that will place your relationship with him at risk. The danger for us is in the flipside – God will ask us to do things for him. If we neglect them, if we choose not to respond – WE are placing our relationship with God at risk, and hampering our ability to hear his voice.

Herein lies the real danger.

So many of us, called by the name of our master, have ignored his voice for so long that we cannot hear it any longer. Let me illustrate: As I write this I am sitting in Starbucks. Around me there is a cacophony of noise. The baristas are talking, the cleaning guy is working, customers are gabbing and networking, there is music playing, coffee brewing, and papers rustling. Up until the last 30 seconds I did not listen to any of it. I was absorbed in writing this little note – my brain is very effective at filtering out the background noise of life. And yet – as I listen closely – the music is about lost love and the search for meaning, at least one of the conversations is about a relationship going bad, there is a business deal (possibly worth millions) taking place inches from my table, and somewhere, amidst the clamor, is a still small voice. Wait – I think I can almost hear it…

Monday, April 28, 2008

Go ahead ask anything - Sermon 3

Question 8: "Given it's potential for damage, why doesn't the church teach more about sex?"


This week Jim started out with a very funny story about a misunderstanding he had once with a woman on a plane - really, you need to download the podcast for this one, it is hilarious! Then he went through the following scriptures:

I Corinthians 6:9-11, Genesis 38:9, Song of Solomon 7:6-8, I Corinthians 6:13-20

Take home: To be in God's company you must stay in God's plan for sexuality.

Why is the church reluctant to talk about sex?
1. We are uncomfortable with our sexuality.
2. We are conditioned by our culture to think about sexuality in negative terms.
3. We are afraid of sexuality's power.
4. We are afraid because we might be rejected.

Jim then offered a few ideas for managing sex within a biblical framework:

1. Acknowledge that you are a sexual being. Sex is a good gift from God.
2. You must determine what your boundaries are. Set them a little further out than where you want to fight the battle.
3. Get an accountability partner.
4. Make sure that sexuality is part of the discussion in your home.
5. Protect yourself with some kind of Internet filter.

As always, Jim did a very good job setting the table for discussion... though there are always more things to say and additional comments to be made. Let's take them one by one and add a bit more commentary.

One and two can be taken together:
1. We are uncomfortable with our sexuality.
2. We are conditioned by our culture to think about sexuality in
negative terms.

Hmm... I actually think the "church" is more to blame for this than the culture. From at least the time of the puritans forward the church has been responsible for repressing any talk about sexuality in the culture. Who goes up in arms whenever there is a program on TV that talks about sex? The church! Jim is one of the very few pastors I know who is willing to hit this topic head on in church! Well done Jim!

Right now in Marion, IN there is a huge billboard with the word SEX in huge letters above a picture of two people's feet sticking out from under a blanket. It is an advertisement for a new church in town called "The River" where they are trying to actively engage the culture on issues like sex and money. Of course, they are the talk of the town - though not as positively as you might hope.

Lately, the culture has been on a quest to embrace sexual expression. To pull it out of the closet and into the public square. This is an over-reaction on the part of the culture. We (the church) must be very careful not to over-react in the opposite direction. We must maintain the discussion by balancing a healthy regard for sex with a strong desire to protect the abuse and degradation of men, women, and children.

3. We are afraid of sexuality's power.

I am not sure that "afraid" is the right term. Again, it throws the shadow of "bad" over sex. Rather, we do not know how to deal with the powerful draw of human sexuality. Sex sells! We all know that. But we are built that way - no matter how you slice it, the eyes of a heterosexual male will be drawn to the shape of the female body and vice ver se. This is neither wrong, nor is it unhealthy - it is the way GOD made us! The challenge is that God has asked us to exercise self control.

As with so many things that God made, we (the devil) have taken them and distorted what was beautiful, replacing it with something cheap and tawdry. The beauty of sex (and it's real power) lies in the way that it reinforces the spiritual link between two married people. There is some very interesting research emerging in this regard. When you look at the human brain during sex it lights up in the same way as it does when humans are meditating or praying intently. These intense spiritual experiences hit the pleasure regions of the brain with a jolt of incredibly powerful stimuli.

Equally fascinating is the observation that cocaine and pornography stimulate the same pleasure inducing synapses - trouble is, they do not link to anything real. Cocaine use leads to more cocaine use, porn addiction pulls the user away from their spouse and toward the fantasy world of porn. The power of pornography is that it pulls the user away from their spouse by linking them to an imaginary sex partner. Of course, extramarital affairs have the same effect - only with a real person at the other end.

4. We fear rejection: This is a fundamental human fear. We long to belong to a group. To be accepted for who we are and valued for what we believe. This fear of rejection plays itself out in many ways. Sex, is certainly one of them. As Jim described, we fear rejection on both ends of the sexual expression spectrum. Some of this can be drawn from out puritanical origins and some from our basic human fears.

Jim's four recommendations are sound - though it might have been helpful for him to expound on the second a bit more. Still, question #1 in the series is coming and I think he will be even more direct when he arrives there.

Do you think Jim's approach to this question was adequate?
What would you add or take away?
Are there passages in the Bible that address this subject with any more frankness than the ones Jim chose?
What do you think?

Go ahead ask anything - Sermon 2

Does God decide?


Jim began this sermon with the very real and tragic story of his friend Randy, a pastor from South Bend, whose parents were involved in a very random automobile accident and whose daughter was killed tragically in another accident. His treatment of this story, though shocking, was sensitive and appropriate as he always is in matters like these. (Well done, Jim).

Then came the question: Does God decide who will experience tragedy or who will be prosperous?

Jim then proceeded to the book of Job where Satan comes before the court of God and is asked by God whether he as considered his servant, Job. Of course Satan then challenges God by saying that Job only loves him (God) because God protects him. God then gives Satan permission to test Job.

Several minutes later, Jim moved to the passages of scripture where the relationship between God, Satan, and the people on earth is described as a spiritual war – and where Satan is described as a roving lion seeking whom he may devour.

Point number 1 – God does not decide who will be harmed, Satan does. Satan is the ruler of earth (in some sense) and has been given free reign over the plight of people (to a certain degree).

Jim then moved into James (1:2-8) and reminded us that trials only serve to make us stronger.

Point number 2 – The bad things that happen (the devil causes to happen) make us stronger. In other words, we grow most by going through trials of many kinds.

Which brings us to:

Point number 3 – We do not know what good may come of the evil things that befall us.

There are two kinds of trouble (maybe three) –
1. Creation trouble – things in the world that happen because it is fallen. Tornados, earthquakes, etc.
2. Acts of the will: (both resulting from sin)
a. Our decisions sometimes get us into trouble
b. Others decisions sometimes get us into trouble

Finally, Jim wrapped things up this way – “Nothing can separate you from the Love of God.” No matter what happens, God is always there and he still loves us.

Like you, some really intelligent people have challenged me on these arguments over the years. Let me bring up a few of their questions/issues:
1. God created the angel who would later become the devil. Wouldn’t an all knowing God know that? And in knowing, not create that being?
2. Does God’s creation of Satan hold him culpable for every evil thing that happens on earth?
3. If God is all-powerful, can’t he stop the devil? Don’t we pray for that every time we request safety?
4. If God is all-powerful can’s he stop people from making choices that harm others?

These are really tough questions that Jim did not attempt to answer on Sunday; perhaps because there are no easy answers to give, or perhaps because our understanding of God is so very limited.

But, what does the Bible say about these points?

Actually, the end of Job is instructive – though rarely preached. If you thumb to the end of the story – say about chapter 38 or so, Job asks God this same question and God responds: None of your business! You are mortal; I am immortal. I don’t answer to you. While that may not seem very satisfying in our litigious world, there is something very true in the answer. We always seek someone to blame, but the question of evil is not really a question of blame. Rather, it is a question of free will, the foundations of the universe, and choice.

Something to think about:

What if randomness is a necessary part of the universe? What if God knew at the moment of creation that the only way to bring about the universe He desired was to build into it a certain amount of randomness? If God’s ultimate desire was to create humans who would choose to love Him in return then he needed to allow them the opposite choice. Otherwise they would be automatons, robots, only capable of acting on their programming. For humans to choose love, they would need to experience things in the universe that were seemingly out of control. Yes or no, up or down, right or left, positive or negative, good or evil; all of these are dipolar choices and God for his own reasons has created a universe where that choice is possible. We need a certain amount of “randomness.” Indeed, the concept of “randomness” is borne out in the physical reality. At the subatomic level there are particles operating in a way that is fundamentally unknowable – while at the macroscopic level Newtonian physics can describe most of what we see.

Consider the opposite – a world in which God has everything planned. In that world, you and I might be predestined to accept Christ and go to heaven, but Chloe in the UK might not be. Why does she exist - to go to hell and be eternally damned? Too bad Chloe, no matter what she does, not matter how she chooses; she is damned. This approach is intellectually unpalatable to holiness, Wesleyan/Armenian people like me. In that kind of world, God would plan all of the suffering, in advance, whether on his own or indirectly by the creation of the devil. Yikes! I like that even less!

Of course God would still know what is going (from our point of view) to happen because he stands outside of time. Time is not a linear construct to God, he moves across time as easily as we move across the room. The birth of a child and the death of that same child are the same moment to God. I still believe that He cares intimately about the moments in-between birth and death – but to Him they are not separated by years only by thought.

What if randomness isn’t really random? According to chaos theory mathematics seemingly random events are part of a much larger whole that has surprisingly intelligent patterns. Who knew, science pointing toward God.

All of this leads me to a very careful choice of words – God is sovereign. I prefer this phrase to the more commonly held – God is in control. If we believe the later, then God gets credit/blame (whether direct or indirect) for both the good and the bad things that happen. If the former, then God gets praise for the good and requests for assistance in the bad. For his own reasons (he is God after all) he seems to choose the former.

One final comment – taken from Shane Claiborne’s recent book – We ask God “Why do you allow suffering in the world?” to which God responds: “You are my hands and feet. Why do you allow suffering in the world?”

Monday, April 14, 2008

Go ahead ask anything - Sermon 1

Sunday, April 13


Pastor Lyon started on Sunday with several interesting scriptures that all seemed point in the same direction - whether in the Old or New Testaments - God "has His heart fixed on the oppressed" and it is the job of God's people to represent them, care for them, and ensure that they are treated fairly. Then, he balanced this position with one scripture passage - Christians are to respect and obey the government that God has placed above them (with the caveat that we can disobey when a person like Hitler is capturing our neighbors and sending them off to death camps).

Jim then proceeded to walk a very fine line - in my view - between caring for the oppressed and obeying the government in power. While I generally agree with him, I would like to point out a slightly different view - perhaps, walking the other side of that very fine line.

But first, a few observations:

1. The preponderance of the scriptures presented on Sunday take a strong view of protecting aliens in the land.
2. The kind of government that exists today didn't exist in ancient Israel. The republics of Rome and Greece were around in Paul's time (not in Moses'), but these representative governments generally represented only the intellectual elite or the landowner. Many still had autocratic Kings with nearly unlimited power. The kind of representative government we have in the US today, where input that the average citizen can actually change laws was unheard of in ancient times.
3. History shows that "ethnic removal" has often had very dire consequences. Though I am not an advocate of "slippery slope" arguments, Hitler did start out this way.
4. The Church in America has often engaged in both civil disobedience and civil discontent when it comes to oppressed and/or under-represented groups (think fetuses, slaves, minorities, women, etc.).
5.One of the main reasons Christians in the USA go into politics is to make changes that they deem important. Indeed, they are often motivated by their faith to make a difference in the world through politics.

Therefore, I would walk a slightly different side of the line:

1. As Christians, we should do everything within the law to advocate for, protect, and serve any socially or economically oppressed group - particularly aliens (since they are specifically mentioned in scripture).

2. Further, because it is within our power to change government policy, we should do everything we can to effect that change. Protecting the person who has no legal status should be a cornerstone of our compassionate response to the world of people around us. Otherwise, why argue for women's rights in India? Doesn't their government endorse the practices of oppression and injustice for women, at least tacitly?

3. As Jim adeptly pointed out - we cannot simply remove these people from our midst. We need their participation in our economy to keep it moving. Therefore, it behooves us to facilitate their transition to legal status within our country.

In the end, it was an odd topic for the beginning of the "Go ahead" series. But one that the church must face. Will we rise in compassion and reach out to the people around us? As Jim says, will we take the time to listen and learn each story? Hear each heart cry? Understand the reasons for immigration, the desperate longing for family and home?

As we connect with these displaced and dispossessed people, we will grow in understanding of their plight. Only then, can we really serve them as God has called us to do.