Month: July 2023

Dancing with Jesus

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The Trinity and Spiritual Formation

My work as a hospice chaplain often leads me to be with a person in their last moments of life. There was a family I was with recently who asked me to pray for their loved one. He had become unconscious and was near death. He had told them the day before that his last wish was to have a Christian version of the last rites. It seems he had drifted from the Lord for a few years before getting sick and ending up in a skilled nursing facility. He was repentant and had prayed for forgiveness, but was not physically able to go to church. I spent a few minutes offering spiritual counsel to the family. We sang Amazing Grace at the bedside. I prayed over the gentleman, asking God to forgive any sins that he had committed (John 20:23), and asked the Lord to prepare him for Heaven anointing the gentleman with oil. Then we prayed the Lord’s prayer together. It was a simple ritual, but it brought peace to the family, and I saw a noticeable calm come over the gentleman as if a big weight had been removed from his shoulders. No sooner had I said, “Amen” at the end of the Lord’s prayer, as I watched him, than the man released his last breath and passed into eternity.

There is an old Chris Rice song called “Come to Jesus.” The first part of the song goes like this:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
Oh, raise your head for Love is passing by

Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live

This elderly man had come to Jesus to make peace with him at the very end of his life. The rest of the story was that the man and his wife, (who was present at his death), had been married for 71 years. Within days, his wife also passed from this life. They had spent nearly their whole lives together, and now they were together in death. They were both Christians and passed into Heaven.

One of the tenets of the Christian faith is the theology of the Trinity. Spiritual transformation emerges from the Trinitarian nature of the God we serve.  The Trinity teaches us how God is relational, loving, and gracious. There is unity in the will of God, as we also see they are submissive to each other. The Trinity is a difficult concept for our human finite minds to comprehend. There is only one God. At the same time, God is three divine persons existing in one infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being.

Christians have always struggled to describe the Trinity. But the very nature of the Trinity teaches us the nature of spiritual formation and the relationship of Christians with God and each other. The ancient Christian writers used the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe the relationship between the triune Godhead. This word literally can be translated “dance around.” This term paints a picture for us of how each member of the Trinity indwells each other and flows between each member.  The late Eugene Peterson, the writer of the Message version of the Bible, describes perichoresis as exchanging partners on a dance floor. There is beauty and rhythm to the dance. As the dance continues, one finds themselves dancing with the Father, then a moment later with the Son followed by the Holy Spirit, twirling and dancing around and around.

The Chris Rice song, “Come to Jesus” goes on to say the following:

Oh and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can’t contain your joy inside

Then dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live

I’m reminded of how the Bible describes a couple united in marriage. Ephesians 5:31(ESV) says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is not a perfect example since a married couple is not three, but two. The love flowing between a husband and wife; the mutual affirmation; promoting the welfare of the other and protecting each other is a great, though simple example of what happens with the Trinity. A unity candle is often lit during a wedding ceremony. In this ceremony, two candles are lit, one for the husband and one for the wife. Each takes their candle and lights a single candle symbolizing the uniting of the two flames into one. They then snuff their individual candles showing they were no longer an individual but a unified couple. So they begin a partnership, moving as one, in the dance of life.

The rhythmic, harmonious relationship, the dance of the Trinity, gives a wonderful example to us of the process of spiritual formation. Each member of the Trinity has a specific function or job. God the Father gave the plan of salvation, the Son provided the means of redemption for us. The Holy Spirit is the sanctifier that fills Christians. God is three, but the three are not divided but united. We are to follow the leading of Christ. Jesus said, in John 21:22, “Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” Jesus is our dance partner, and we are to follow his lead. Peter encourages that as well. He wrote in 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Peter is saying we should imitate Christ as we follow him. When we mimic Jesus, our life will affirm, encourage, and bless others. God is a God of love, and as we follow Him we demonstrate the love of God to community. In John 13:34-35 Jesus laid out for us what this looks like. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The unity demonstrated in the Trinity demonstrates how we should be loving and seeking Christian fellowship and community. It shows how we should desire to be close to other believers, and be connected to them in community. At the same time, it shows how we need to be acknowledged as an individual and have our own space. If we have too much union, we lose our sense of self and we feel suffocated. If we have too much space away from others we will begin to feel lonely. We need a combination of both unity and space.

God does not only want us to have community with other believers and fellowship with Him. He is also a missional God and wants to bring others into fellowship with Him. He sends us as his representative to reach others through evangelism. In the great commission, Jesus told us to go. In Matthew 28:19-20 he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Salvation is not just about going to Heaven when we die. There is so much more! There is a new life and a relationship now. God seeks to restore fellowship with us here and now. Having this intimate relationship with God in the present, makes our going home that much sweeter. The last part of Chris Rice’s song, “Come to Jesus” puts it this way:

With your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side

And fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live

So to summarize, spiritual transformation, the community of believers, and the Great Commission come together for Christians. We are to take these three actions, in emulating the Trinity. First, believers are to be united in community with other followers of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with other Christians is not optional. We are told to not forsake coming together with other Christians (Hebrews 10:25). Secondly, we are to be actively involved in leading other sinners to Jesus Christ. We introduce a new dance partner to those who are lonely, broken, and hurting, without the loving Savior. Sharing the good news of the Gospel should become a way of life for us. Finally, third, as we strive to imitate Christ, partnering with the Holy Spirit, spiritual transformation begins to take place. We are transformed day by day into the image of Christ. That should be the goal of every Christian, to become more and more like Jesus.

Is There a New Testament Tithe?

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Have you ever found a scary bug in your bedroom? The other day, there was a huge spider on my bedroom wall. This thing was the size of a silver dollar. This kind of spider is fast and can move into hiding places very quickly. They can also jump. I don’t have a spider phobia, but one this big staring at me makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Spiders are great in the garden and in the yard. They eat many harmful insects and spiders. There are several articles online about the density of spiders. Many of them are so tiny they are hard to see, and according to many of these articles, we are probably always within three feet of a spider. Spiders can be very beneficial and have a part in the ecosystem. But not in my bedroom, and especially not when I am barefoot and in my bathrobe! There are a couple of options when you come across a scary-looking spider in your home. You can try to catch a big spider like this and safely release it outside, or you can find a shoe or a rolled-up newspaper and kill it. I found a third option, I used a vacuum cleaner and sucked it up, and then put it out in the garbage (so it couldn’t make its way back out of my vacuum cleaner). It may have been a little dizzy, but otherwise, it seemed no worse for the experience.

So what does this story have to do with tithing? Well, there are many churches that dispute whether tithing is just an Old Testament command or if it is still viable in the New Testament church. It depends on whom you ask. If you are the one paying the church bills, you are more likely to sing the praises of paying tithes.

If you are a pastor you have probably preached at least 100 homilies on tithing. You probably have many examples of a person giving when they couldn’t afford it who experienced an unexpected windfall that covered all their bills. These stories are common and easy to find.

There was a Pastor from New York who spoke at a church I was part of when I was a young man. It was one of those sermonettes I will never forget. This man was a friend of our pastor, and he bragged about how he could take up the best offering he ever took. He told the congregation he was not taking up a regular offering, but rather this was a “Protection Offering.” He explained that this offering would be one that God was requiring everyone needed to participate in because it would ensure the Lord would watch over us and not remove his hand of protection. He then told the story of a family who ignored his words, did not give in the protection offering, and died the same night. The guest pastor told us if we didn’t have any money to borrow something from our neighbor to put in. That kind of charlatan money collection left a bad taste in my mouth.

This blog entry is not to determine whether it is scriptural to require a tithe in the New Testament, Church Age. Rather, it is about the spiritual discipline of giving. The Apostle Paul talked a lot about Christian discipline. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV) he wrote: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” In this passage, Paul talks about how a runner must discipline himself to win the prize at the end. It’s not talking about working harder to win salvation, but rather to finish strong. Just as an athlete has to practice discipline in exercise, how they eat, and sleep so a Christian disciple needs to have spiritual disciplines.

Paul wrote to the young pastor Timothy encouraging him to practice discipline. He wrote in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Paul knew that if you want to develop into being more Christ-like, you must follow spiritual disciplines. There is an old saying, I’m not sure where it comes from, but it rings true. “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Spiritual disciplines when practiced regularly become good habits that lend themselves to spiritual formation in our lives.

There are many different spiritual disciplines. I have talked about several of these in different blogs. One that is often overlooked is the spiritual discipline of giving. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving, just like exercise, can be difficult at first. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and you will begin to look forward to it. With practice, you will become better at it, whether exercise or giving, and it will bring joy to your life.

At New Hope Church where I pastor in Redding, CA, we take up an offering every week. We believe in giving as a spiritual discipline. The Old Testament talks about giving your first fruits to God, which is described as a tithe. A tithe is literally ten percent. In other words, if you made $100, you were expected to give $10 back to the Lord. If you made $1000, you were expected to give $100 back to the Lord, and so on. We teach at New Hope to give cheerfully to the work of the Lord. We also suggest 10% as a good target. For some people this is very hard, so I encourage them to start with a set amount each month. Perhaps give 1% to start. But don’t stay there. Over time, as the Lord blesses them, they can try giving 2%, then 3%, and so on. This involves discipline, but as you give you will find yourself wanting to give more to the work of the Lord. This is part of your offering of praise to the Lord.

Just like that scary spider on the wall in my bedroom, in the right place it can do a whole lot of good. Paying a tithe should not be a matter of pride or a requirement of righteousness, but it is a spiritual discipline that can be given with cheerfulness and joy as we serve the Lord.

Book Review of “Foundational Issues in Christian Education” by Robert W. Pazmino

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This is an interesting book on Christian education.  Early in the book, the author says, “In the ultimate sense, God is the teacher in Biblical Education.  God is the author and discloser of all truth and both teachers and students alike stand under this truth” (Pg. 22. Baker Academic. 2008.).  He goes on to say, “Teachers are responsible as stewards and proclaimers of God’s truth” (Ibid).  As disciple-makers, we are in fact teachers, so it is very important for us to understand the role of God as the ultimate teacher in our discipleship plan.  Earlier in this chapter, the author writes:

“Scripture is the essential source for understanding distinctively Christian elements in education.  Therefore it is crucial that the Christian educator’s thoughts and practices be guided by God’s revealed truths as he or she seeks to be obedient to Christ in the task of education” (19).

 The author makes an interesting note about Augustine in relation to bringing hope through teaching.  He says, “In response to the lack of faithful living, the prophets in their teaching bring a message of hope, anger and courage that the great North African teacher Augustine described: ‘Hope has two lovely daughters anger and courage.  Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they need not remain as they are” (33-34) It seems teachers and disciple makers have a very important role and have a lot of influence with people.  A little later, the author says, “The purpose of making disciples is totally dependent on sharing the content of Jesus’s own teachings, those truths revealed by God with direct implications for life” (35).

One of the foundations.  Pazmino writes:

“Philosophy can be literally defined as, ‘the love of wisdom.’ Christians are reminded in scripture that it is the Lord who gives wisdom and that from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov. 2:6), and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom (Prov. 1:7, 9:10)” (86).  

After setting up the foundation of philosophy, and how it leads to knowledge, the author talks about the importance of getting a good education.  Experience is important, but we can’t ignore a good education and simply rely on experience.  He talks about a proverb, “Experience is the best teacher but is the school of a fool.” And “Experience is a dear school but fools will learn in no other.” And finally, “Experience is not sufficient for education” (88).  I really like this.  It’s a great reminder to us that we should never try to go it alone when it comes to teaching.  A disciple maker needs the local church, and should never try to be a “lone ranger” without the backing of the local church.  We may have a lot of experience, but a solid Biblical education is so important, and if we don’t have that (or even if we do) we don’t just go it all alone.

 Another great point I really like has to do with learning from history.  I have always been interested in church history, and especially early church history.  We can learn a great deal from looking at how the early church handled discipleship.  The author wrote, “Christians can learn from the past to gain insights for current and future needs” (129).

The author has a lot to say about several other great topics when considering education and discipleship.  At one time I was the Sunday School superintendent for a large church.  Some of our teachers insisted they didn’t need to use the curriculum the church was providing, because they felt more comfortable teaching their own material, i.e. they would study and put together something for themselves each Sunday.  Unfortunately, we started getting complaints that a particular teacher was not very good.  He was a great guy, friendly, and had a heart for kids, but the kids were not getting anything out of his class.  We had a sit-down and asked him to reconsider using the curriculum.  We told him to try using the Sunday school curriculum for one quarter, and if he still thought he would rather do his own thing, we could readdress it then.  Well, this teacher went from having one of the worst reviews to one of the best. Using the material the church provided made him a better teacher. This example doesn’t mean that there are no exceptions, but generally speaking good curriculum will make all the difference.  The author writes on this subject, “Curriculum is the vehicle or the medium through which educational vision takes root” (234).

I would recommend this book to pastors, teachers, and anyone looking to be a disciple-maker.  It has a lot of good insight and food for thought.  In seeking knowledge, this is a good book to open ministry to bring an understanding of some of the principles of education. In practical terms, spiritual formation is something better taught using the wisdom and knowledge of experts in the field.