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Baptism: A Matter of Life and Death

Baptism: A Matter of Life and Death

Our church family gathered recently to celebrate and witness a number of people profess their faith through baptism. It was wonderful to be together with so many congregants from our five campuses and their loved ones!

For those who have been around churches for a few years, baptisms may seem rote or routine. And for those who are less familiar with church, baptisms may seem strange – You found religion or something…and now you want to get dunked in water? What’s that all about?

Indeed, what exactly is baptism all about? Let’s find out…

What happens in baptism is a matter of life and death. I know that is a bold statement, so let me unpack it, beginning with the second part.

There is a death we must die.

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Romans 6:23, which begins “For the wages of sin is death.”

The wages of sin is death. Now sin is an especially religious word. We don’t hear it used much outside of religious contexts, and if we do, it’s something like, “It would have been a sin not to have indulged in a slice of that extra rich chocolate cake.”

But simply put, here’s what sin is in the Bible: sin is when we choose our way instead of God’s way. Sin is when God instructs us in the right way, but we decide it would be right to do something else instead.

And Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. What does this mean? Well, when you go to work and do your job, the wages your boss gives you is a paycheck. But when we work for sin, the wages it pays us is death.

The first time the word “sin” appears in the Bible, it’s likened to a vicious animal that is waiting to devour someone (Genesis 4:7). And according to the Bible, humanity has made a deal with sin. We’ve decided to work for sin. So like a vicious animal, sin has in turn devoured us. We have chosen to do things our way instead of God’s, and sin has given us our wages; death.

If we have eyes to see it, we see this death all around us—all of the brokenness we see in the world and the disconnection from ourselves, one another, and from God that we feel—this is all a kind of death. This is where we find ourselves. This is the normal human condition. We often speak about our condition as a kind of death when we say things such as, “It kills me inside to think about…” or, “When I heard the news, I died inside.”

This darkness, disconnection, and death characterize life in this world, and according to the Bible, it’s all because of sin. And this spiritual death we feel eventually culminates in literal, physical death. These are the wages we have earned. There is a death we must die.

But here’s where the good news comes in. There is a death that leads to life, and if that death becomes your death, you will live.

That death was the death of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners.

What this means is that though Jesus never sinned, by dying on the cross, He identified Himself with sinners. It means that the wages Jesus received were not the wages He deserved, but the wages we deserve. And so it means that if we are united with Jesus, when He died, we died with Him!

This means that on the cross, Jesus fully immersed himself into our darkness, our disconnection, and ultimately, into our death. In doing so He has brought sin to the death it deserves so that we can escape sin’s destruction. It means that Jesus’ death can be our death.

There is a life we must live.

Romans 6:23 begins, “For the wages of sin is death,” but as the second half of the verse explains, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So just as there is a death we must die, so there is a life we must live.

When Jesus rose again to life, His new kind of life burst into creation, and is available to all who are united to Him. Because Jesus has united Himself to us and shared in our death, we may be united with Him and share in His life.

The Bible speaks of this union in a way that is so close that it is as if we are completely immersed into who Jesus is. When a man and woman are united in marriage, they often say in their vows, “All that I am I give you, and all that I have I share with you.” As they are united, they unite their poverty and their riches. And as we are united with Jesus, we come to share in both His death and His life.

This union with Jesus, and therefore His death and life, is what we celebrated as we witnessed  people get baptized a few Sundays ago. What these baptisms proclaimed is not that being immersed into water saves them, but that these people have already been immersed into Jesus, and that’s what saves them.

Water baptism is a symbol of this real identity, union, and immersion into Jesus (Romans 6:3-4). As we are immersed in the water, we proclaim that we have been immersed into Jesus’ death, have died to our old way of life, and are choosing to die to sin in our daily experience. And as we rise from the water, we show that we were raised with Jesus, and that we share in and seek to live His new kind of life.

What about you?

There is a death we must die, and there is a life we must live, and that death and life may be ours as we are immersed into Jesus.

If you have been united to Jesus by faith but have not been baptized, keep an eye out for the next time our church celebrates baptism, and consider participating.

If you are unsure of what to make of Jesus, consider the Bible’s claims on the human condition and the matter of life and death that is before each one of us. 

If you would like to talk and learn more, please reach out to a pastor at one of our campuses.

Baptism is a symbol of this very real matter of life and death. Through baptism we celebrate and demonstrate our union with Jesus, and that:
     All Jesus is He gives to us, and all that He has He shares with us.
     Whatever the future holds, Jesus will love us and stand by us,
     As long as He shall live –- forever and ever.

Chronic Illness and the Good News

Chronic Illness and the Good News

We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.” 

“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things. 

Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable. 

How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.  

Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it. 

I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…

I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind: 

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever. 

This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early. 

I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed. 

I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it. 

I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you. 

Should We Return To Normalcy?

Should We Return To Normalcy?

After having our lives so disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing a sense of relief and joyful exhilaration in returning to a more normal life. It is great to be gathering with friends again, worshiping in person with our church family and enjoying fun vacation traveling. But should we return to pre-pandemic normalcy? While not minimizing the great pain, loss and lingering negative impacts of the pandemic, by simply returning to pre-pandemic normalcy we may miss a golden opportunity. Could the rugged pandemic terrain of testing, trials, disruption and difficulties actually be an unusual grace gift to us? 

As the Apostle James opens his inspired epistle, he frames the trials and difficulties that come into our lives as a gift. In The Message, Eugene Peterson beautifully  paraphrases James’ words. 

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4) 

Reflecting on the Apostle James’ words, I would like to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has given each of us at least three amazing gifts.

First, we have been given a grace gift of needed insight into the true state of our spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson describes our faith life being forced into the open and showing its true colors. I have often said that many people (including me) have not been their best selves during the pandemic. While I believe that is a true observation, I also believe there is more we must honestly say. The pandemic crucible has not only amplified our weaknesses, it has, like a mirror, also revealed the true colors of our lack of spiritual and virtue formation. A pastor friend of mine made the comment that the pandemic had uncomfortably revealed to him his heart idols as well as his glaring lack of Christ-like character. The pandemic pried open a revealing window into our inner worlds. What grace gift of needed insight into your life have you been given? What needs greater attention in your inner world? 

Secondly, we have been given a grace gift prodding us to make needed changes in our daily lives. Eugene Peterson reminds us not to prematurely jump back into well-worn ruts of the status quo. For many of us, the pre-pandemic frenzied pace of our overly scheduled, distracted lives was detrimental to our spiritual growth, our relationships, our workplaces, our faith community and our Sabbath rest. Rather than jump immediately back into the unhealthy lifestyles many of us were living before the pandemic, how might we rearrange our priorities and carve out new rhythms that are more God-honoring, spiritually formative, relationally deepening and integrally whole? For many of us our work dynamics have significantly changed and this gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate our workplace patterns, sustainability and effectiveness. A member of our church family whose work had led him to do too much traveling said to me, Tom, I am reevaluating the whole business travel thing. I am going to use video technology more and travel less.”  What grace gift for needed change have you been given? What lifestyle changes do you need to make? 

Third, we have been given a grace gift catalyzing needed growth in our lives. In his paraphrase Eugene Peterson encourages each one of us to let the trials, testing difficulties, and disruptions of a pandemic lead us down the path of increasing growth and maturity. The pandemic has been a time of pruning and while pruning is often painful, it is purposeful. Pruning offers new growth, renewed hope and greater flourishing. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Apostle Paul’s wise and hopeful words. 

“There is more to come. We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  (Romans 5:3-4)  

What pruning needs to take place for new growth in your life? 

In many ways, the pandemic has been a gift; a gift that brings needed insight, needed change and needed growth. Instead of returning to normalcy, let’s embrace lifestyles that lead to greater relational intimacy, deeper spiritual formation, wiser work patterns and greater human flourishing. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.  

 

 

 

Your Story (and Our Story) Needs Honor and Honesty

Your Story (and Our Story) Needs Honor and Honesty

I love the moment of insight. The moment when someone — a friend, speaker, writer, artist — gives you fresh language, a more vivid metaphor, or clearer categories which help you make sense of the world and our place in it. Often insight is not even seeing something brand new but seeing something you thought you always knew in a new way. 

This happened to me when I was reading Jay Stranger’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing. It is one of the best books I’ve read on the topic of addressing unwanted sexual behavior in your story. But some of the insights I gained can be applied much more broadly than to the specific issues Jay addresses in the book.

In the opening pages of Unwanted, Jay introduces the categories of “honor” and “honesty.” He explains that in the Bible people’s stories are always addressed with both honor and honesty. Think about Abraham or Miriam or David. Abraham is held up as the pattern of faith. He believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. But we are also told about his massive failures: lying about being married to his wife — twice, failing to trust God to provide a child through his wife and instead getting Hagar, an Egyptian slave pregnant. Miriam rescues her baby brother Moses from death at the hands of Pharaoh. She is a leader and prophetess. But she also rebels against Moses and as a result is afflicted with leprosy. David slays Goliath. He’s called a man after God’s own heart and is held up as the ideal Israelite king. We also know he is guilty of murder and adultery, and has some pretty massive parenting fails.

The Bible is honoring and honest in the way it tells these stories. Jay Stranger argues there is something here that we cannot miss. Writing in a 2018 article for Outreach Magazine, he makes this observation:

Many families and faith communities have embraced the lie that if we are honest, we could not truly honor, and if we honored someone, it would certainly come at the cost of honesty. When given the choice between honesty and honor, I find that most of my clients are naturally bent, to some degree, to be dishonest about what they have experienced in their families. They favor a type of pseudo-honor and present a rosier picture to themselves and others. 

It is only when we can hold honor and honesty together that we can see the undistorted, unfiltered picture. It’s a bit like editing a photo on your phone. If you slide the contrast way up, some elements of the picture get clearer but the photo looks darker, more sinister. If you turn the contrast way down, the picture is lighter but also washed out and distorted. 

If we are going to find healing in the gospel for our stories, we need to approach our stories and the stories of our history with both honor and honesty.

How might these categories of honor and honesty help us not only attend to what God is doing in our individual stories but also in our collective historical story as a country? 

Can we, the church, model the practice of telling the stories of our faith family and national heritage with honor and honesty? Not papering over or ignoring the ugly parts, the sinful parts, the parts that need telling no matter how painful the telling. And can we do this while also honoring the good, beautiful, lovely, inspiring, praiseworthy elements of the story too? 

It is too easy  — and frankly intellectually irresponsible — to only do one or the other. We must do both. 

In this cultural moment some of us may feel there is too much honor and not nearly enough honesty. Others of us may feel that the honor of the church and the country is being tarnished and discarded. Toward the end of his article, Jay asks us to reflect:

Who taught you that it would be better to honor someone than to tell the truth with kindness and strength? Who taught you that it would be better to tell someone a brazen truth than to bring truth with deep respect for the other?… A genuine mark of maturity is the ability to hold two simultaneous truths together at the same time.  The writers of Scripture recognized that honesty and honor should never be separated.

As gospel people, Christians have the resources — in Jesus, in the cross and resurrection, in baptism and communion — to hold together honor and honesty. We can agree fully with John Newton, writer of “Amazing Grace,” who declared: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Honor and honesty. Fully known. Fully loved. Fully exposed. Fully forgiven.

What Comes Next?

What Comes Next?

What Comes Next? This is the question I keep asking myself as we near the end of this pandemic. I’m not the only one. There are political, social, and financial implications that have many sectors scrambling to anticipate the future. Much ink has been spilled already in potential answers. 

Followers of Jesus have extra motivation for prayerful discernment about what comes next. We are always interested in where God is moving and how we can join Him. I have no doubt that God has incredible plans for our community, our nation, and our world, and that 2020 was not wasted time for Him. 

While I cannot predict the future, a few guiding principles shape my thinking.  

There is nothing new under the sun.

This is the constant refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes. While things may appear new, they are only new to us. If you pay careful attention, a prominent design pattern of the Bible is the repetition of themes and motifs, especially human sin and depravity. From the family dysfunction that follows Abraham and Sarah through their children and grandchildren, to the cycles of idolatry, rebellion, oppression, and deliverance in the book of Judges, the Bible is always echoing itself. From God’s point of view, there is really nothing new about human behavior or the brokenness of the world. What will that mean for our future? I’m not sure. Some, like Andy Crouch, are predicting a repeat of the roaring 20s with social conditions that created the depressed 30s. It makes sense, but only God knows at this point. Whatever comes next, it may feel new, but it really is not. One of our previous pastoral residents, Kristen Brown, who now teaches at Northeastern Seminary, put it well in a recent talk: “…we live in precedented times…” From a biblical point of view, I think she is spot on. There is nothing new under the sun.

There will be loss.

Even though there is nothing new under the sun, we still feel the changes from what was to what is, and that is always accompanied by loss. That is part of the nature of change. When the Jews, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, return to Israel from exile in Babylon, rebuild the Temple and begin to worship, the older generation weeps as they remember the glory of Solomon’s version (Ezra 3:12-13). That glory would never come again, at least not like that. 

We know that a better Temple was coming (Jesus!), but there was still an experience of real loss, and we should anticipate that loss. Personally, I find myself praying often about the church. What will happen to attendance and participation after a year of quarantining and more online options than we could ever dream of? How will the church heal from a year of division in our country and even among fellow believers? I don’t have these answers, but I anticipate that we will feel a sense of loss and grief, even as we begin to return to “normalcy.” That’s okay, and it is often a part of how God works. 

There will be gospel opportunities.

In the book of Acts, when the church experienced persecution in Jerusalem for the first time, believers began to scatter across the region. Without realizing it, the cataclysm of oppression launched the Gentile mission that is still happening today. If we sense some doors are closing, we can be sure God is opening others. At Christ Community, I can tell you that our online presence is bigger, faster, and stronger than ever. The internet, while containing threats to the gospel, also presents a new “Roman road” by which to share Jesus. God is working there. 

Christianity looks weirder and weirder to our surrounding western culture, and the data tells us that many who were only nominally participating in church before the pandemic will likely never return. That’s hard. But remember, God famously whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 before rescuing Israel from Midian, reminding us that He often does His best work when we feel at the end of our rope. Our faith is only going to stand out more and more, even if our numbers and influence may appear to diminish. My sense is that God sees that as a strength, not a weakness. What opportunities is He opening in our lives for greater witness and service to neighbors? 

What do you think? These are just my thoughts. What about you? I really want to know! Leave your comments here around how things might change, and what doors God may be opening. We can’t predict the future, but we can be faithful and prayerful in anticipation of what comes next. God is ready. Let’s be ready to move with Him! 

Are You Actually Good, God?

Are You Actually Good, God?

Guest Author: Ashtyn Fair

I never expected to openly talk about our story until we were on the other side. I had hoped it would never even be our story in the first place. I remember being seven months into our journey and thinking “Surely we won’t hit a year.” I remember being a year in and thinking, “Surely we won’t hit two years.” Now I sit here at two years, and Taylor and I are still longing for God to give us our first child. And still I think, “Surely God will do it this year.”

What about you? What has your path to parenthood felt like? From experience, I’d assume it’s felt isolating, that it’s full of emotional ups and downs, confusion, and even despair. Your grief feels complex and unexplainable to those around you. Your joy is complicated as you hear another friend is pregnant with her second while you’re waiting for your first — you’re happy for her and sad for you and maybe even bombarded with shame because you’re not as happy as you want to be. 

The process of pursuing a family is a physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally taxing experience. Your marriage may feel added tension as you both experience stress while also, you know, trying to make a baby — a real recipe for not a lot of fun. You may harbor anger toward your body for not doing what you think it ought to be able to do. You long for community that can meet you deeply in your darkest season, but instead feel remarkably more alone. You desire to exhaust every option no matter how extreme with the belief that if you just tried hard enough you could control the outcome. You’re asking God questions like “Why?” and “How long?” — and voiced or not, what you are really asking is “Are you actually good, God? Can I trust you?”

I’m so incredibly sorry if you’ve experienced this or are currently walking through it. My heart breaks with you. I want you to know your extreme weariness and tired eyes are seen by God as He sits next to you in the middle of this journey. Pay attention — the Spirit of God is found here in our suffering.

When suffering falls heavy on your shoulders where do you place the weight? Do you tell yourself to pull it together as you strap the heavy load more tightly onto your back? Or do you find yourself at the feet of Jesus with legs shaking underneath you as you drop the backpack of shame, anger, and despair before Him, feeling your body relax as He takes the burden. Do you actually ask for the easy yoke that Jesus offers? Or do you find yourself bearing the weight all on your own, gritting your teeth, and hanging onto as much control as possible?

I urge you to seriously reflect on which road you most readily choose, for it will be pivotal in your life and in your spiritual formation.

Scripture tells us that walking through suffering with God produces perseverance, good fruit, and hope. Meaning these very things are absent when we choose to side-eye God and keep Him at an arm’s length while we carry suffering around on our own. I’ve had plenty of those side-eye moments over the last two years. They come when the enemy tempts me to believe that God can’t actually be good. They come when I see the seventh pregnancy announcement that week and believe the lie that God has forgotten me. They come when I’m tired of feeling all the feelings and wanting to simply shut down and check out.

Maybe you’re in that place right now. You’re tired and weary, questioning His goodness, His presence with you, questioning if He sees you, if He even cares…so you’ve looked away. You probably wouldn’t say you’re “angry” at God or even “frustrated” — that’s not what “good Christians” feel, right? Maybe you’d just say you feel indifferent or distant from Him.

But I’m going to ask you in the middle of your sadness and frustration to look up at Him. Make eye contact again. Do you see Him?
This God in front of you knows every unsaid word in your heart and does not shame you.
This God you see was there when you found out you weren’t pregnant again.
This God looks at you and knows your questions and anger.
This God longs for you to talk to Him about it.
This God you see is a Miracle-worker.
This God you see renounces all shame the enemy has tried to use to tie you up.
This God, with the kindest of eyes, says “I see your pain. I weep with you. I am here with you.”

I have learned and experienced profound hope and joy throughout these trying circumstances. I do indeed know and believe that God is good, that He is near, and that Jesus is truly our only hope. I have discovered that relinquishing control of my plans (and really, every corner of my life) to a trusting and loving God produces freedom, an unexplainable joy, and peace. 

Hope, joy, and peace can only be found when we bring our complaints to God. That may seem backward and even unChristian, but a life with Jesus that is not honest will lack wholeness. It will lack transformation. Bringing our lament and pain to God with honesty is how we come to know personally that Jesus is near to us through His Holy Spirit.

The more we experience our good Father with us at our darkest, the deeper we discover who He is and what He’s like. And that will lead to a new joy, new peace, and new hope. Read through a few psalms and you’ll discover that lament often ends in praise.

There is a profound and mysterious way that Jesus meets us in the middle of our pain. Praise God!
But first we must be honest with Him about it.

Today, take a few minutes and journal or type out how you’re feeling about your situation. Ask God to help you connect with Him and with yourself. And be honest. I pray that He would meet you in a tangible way that comforts you and leaves you with peace.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31 (NIV)