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My family traveled back to British Columbia this past summer to see parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins. When we arrived at the Canada border, we showed the border agent our Canadian passports. Canada and US flags graphic found with GoogleAfter satisfactorily answering his questions, he allowed us into Canada by saying, “Welcome home!”

At the conclusion of our trip, we crossed the American border to catch our flight out of Seattle. We showed the border agent there proof that we’re permanent residents (our “green cards”). After satisfactorily answers his questions, he allowed us into the United States by saying, “Welcome home!”

“Welcome home.” We heard those words both when we crossed into Canada and then again a few weeks later when we crossed back in the United States.

As a Christian, I believe that I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom – his reign that is already coming now and that will come in fullness when Jesus returns. Through his Holy Spirit, God is at work in Canada and the United States, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Sometimes his work is obvious; often it happens in small, barely noticeable ways. No matter where I am on this planet, a part of me should be able to hear “welcome home,” knowing God and his people are already there furthering his Kingdom presence and priorities.

I remember when we first moved to Rock Valley, it seemed no matter where we went – the bank, the grocery store, a restaurant – at least one person there knew us by name, whether an employee or another customer. I thought it was a little creepy. Were people following us around, seeing where we did business and analyzing what we all bought?? It felt foreign, not at all like our previous home in British Columbia. But we quickly realized that’s part of the charm of small town life and we’ve come to love the friendly, familiar faces around town.

While we were in British Columbia this summer, I stopped at the bank one afternoon and spoke with a teller. There I was just another customer, a number in the system. It has been that way nearly as long as I can remember. I do not expect any employee at any Royal Bank branch anywhere in Canada to know my name. Yet all of a sudden, despite everything being normal, standing in that Canadian bank felt foreign.

Because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, I also believe that nowhere on earth will feel completely at home on this side of Jesus’ return. I am grateful for familiar sights, smells, and sounds, but realize that they are either only temporary or faint previews of much richer things to come when God’s reign is seen and embraced in full.

Welcome home? Yes – in part today. One day there will be no more international borders and all who are in Christ will feel at home in ways we only begin to sense now.

I wrote these reflections for this week’s “Perspectives” column
in the
Rock Valley Bee. I noted we moved to Rock Valley
9 years ago this month.

Bow and arrow

Near the beginning of the Bible is the famous story of the flood. God’s response to the grievous sin in the world is to destroy everything on earth, save Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark. After the flood waters recede, Noah’s family and the floating zoo emerge on dry land. And then God makes a promise: “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God seals this promise with an everlasting sign in the sky: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Now, where we read rainbow, the original Hebrew only has bow; everywhere else in the Old Testament this word is used, it is used literally as a bow, as in a bow and arrow. The curved arc of a rainbow
is meant to remind us of a the curved arc of a bow. In Bible times, the bow was a deadly weapon of war. A bow struck fear in the hearts of Old Testament people maybe like tanks or machine guns do in people today.

But the rainbow in the sky shows us we no longer have to fear God’s weaponry. The late CRC Pastor John Timmer puts it this way: The rainbow symbolizes that “God has hung up His bow and will never again be provoked to use this weapon against His creation… Never again will there be judgments that annihilate everything.”

Picture this with me: If the rainbow in the sky reminds us of the curve of a bow and arrow, that makes the horizon the string of the bow. If you put an arrow in this bow in the sky, in what direction is the arrow pointing? The arrow is pointed away from the earth and pointed toward heaven, toward God. God is essentially saying,Rainbow and arrow graphic from FeedingOnChrist.com If this weapon ever needs to be used again, it will strike me.

And isn’t that exactly what happened? Thousands of years after Noah hammered nails into the ark, Romans hammered nails into the hands and feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, crucified on the cross. Ultimately, the arrow is aimed at the cross where God takes the curse of our sin and the brokenness of creation on Himself. Jesus is stricken; He suffers and He dies on that cross, taking upon Himself our sin.

Every rainbow reminds us of how instead of bending towards destruction, God’s heart repeatedly, over and over again bends towards grace. God does not give up on His creation. God does not give up on you or me. He comes. He rescues and saves – just like he did with Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark.

I got the idea to preach a series of messages on Noah and the flood, the ark and the Gospel from my colleague and fellow student at Regent College, Paul Donison, rector and dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Plano, Texas. You can listen to his message on the rainbow here. His entire series about the Gospel in the flood is worth listening to.

Open to God

In his Sermon the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”God of Weakness by John Timmer Reading the late John Timmer’s book God of Weakness shone some light for me on Jesus’ familiar yet hard-to-entirely-understand words. Maybe this will speak to you too.

::– –::– –::

The God of Scripture is a God who pronounces the poor blessed. The poor are people who are not self-made and are not self-sufficient. Because they are less walled in by what they possess, they are potentially more open to God. The reason Jesus warns the rich is not that he regards riches as bad per se, but rather that material prosperity easily isolates us from God. Riches of any kind represent power, and power gives us an advantage over others. It makes us independent from them. It also makes us feel independent from God. Jesus calls the poor blessed because the poor are able to listen to someone besides themselves, because they know they’ll never manage on their own.

Poverty before God makes us more receptive to God’s riches. Weakness before God makes us more receptive to his power…

Poverty in the Bible is a frame of mind, not first of all an economic condition or a question of money. Rather it’s a question of the heart.

Economic poverty, by itself, is not a virtue. After all, you can be dirt poor and yet be as greedy as the man in Jesus’ parable who tore down his barns and built bigger ones to store all his grain and his goods.

And then again, you can be a person of means and yet have the soul of a pauper.

To be poor is to be weak before God, to be open to him. God doesn’t need strong people. He prefers working through the poor in spirit; not through the poor as such, but through those whose poverty makes them receptive to him.

These poor can also be found among the rich, for there is a poverty of body as well as a poverty of soul. Each evokes God’s pity.

God loves everyone, even those who are well-off. It’s just that he has a much harder time getting through to them. (pages 17, 76)

I read God of Weakness while on vacation last month and
it inspired me to share this in today’s
Rock Valley Bee and here.
I also write about the Beatitudes at the start
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in
this blog post.

Turning the world upside down

People opposed to the apostle Paul’s ministry got a crowd riled up in Thessalonica by shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!” They weren’t lying; Your Church Is Too Safe by Mark Buchananperhaps they were even paying Paul and his associates an compliment. Author Mark Buchanan wrote an entire book inspired by this charge against Paul (a book I highly recommend, by the way).

Back in 1962, a devotional appeared in Forward Day by Day also based on the charge against Paul, that he was turning the world upside down. When I came across it recently, I felt like it could have been written today.

::– –::– –::

Many sincere church people today seem to see Christianity as a social stabilizer rather than as an insurrectionist movement. They often say things like: “In a world of constant and terrifying changes, we need some things that stay unchanged, to which we can anchor our lives; and why can’t we find that blessed security in our religion?”

There is a sense in which they are right. God stands fast and changeless, and our only refuge is in the divine changelessness.

But this world is always changing; it must. And Christians are to be revolutionaries making certain the changes conform to God’s will. This is why the great Christians are always bent upon “turning the world upside down.” And no sooner is a change made than someone finds a way to use the new order for ungodly ends. The world always needs turning upside down. We dare not accept things as they are. God commands us to go forth in his power to attack entrenched greed, cruelty, and godlessness. This means change. And Christians know how to turn the world upside down in such a way that God can set it right side up.

First and above all

This year’s 8th grade graduates at Rock Valley Christian School graciously invited me to speak at their graduation. They asked me to offer a few reflections on their grad text, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

It occurred to me that you actually hear this invitation, this call to love all over the Bible: Joshua, David, the prophets, the apostlesGreatest Commandment graphic found with Googlethey all call God’s people to ditch false gods and love the Lord their God with all they are. Jesus himself says it’s tied at first place as the most important command of all – right up there with loving the people around you. From the secrets deep within you to the very tips of your fingers, from the core of your identity to your every action, the Bible calls people to love God first and above all.

Loving God, as I told the graduates, is all about honoring him, deeply respecting him, and obeying his good will for us as described in the Bible. We can choose to love God similarly to how we can choose how we treat our parents or siblings, or how a certain pair of jeans or a video game becomes our favorite because we choose to wear it or play it over and over. Our choices are connected with what we love.

So I encouraged the graduates to make the choice to love God before and above anything or anyone else.

I was quick to add, though, that their ability to choose to love God is possible only because he first chooses to love them. If it weren’t for his creative power in making us, his redeeming power in saving us, and his ongoing power in equipping us, we’d never choose to love God. If God waited for us to sign up to honor, respect, and obey him, he’d be waiting for eternity.

Can we respond perfectly to God’s call to love him first and foremost? No. And God knows we can’t. Only one Person in history could keep all God’s commands perfectly. Many years after Moses preached Deuteronomy 6 to the people, God sent him – the Father sent Jesus “to stand in our place and be perfect for us,” to quote The Jesus Storybook Bible. Keeping commandments and rules won’t save us. Only God in Christ saves us because he love us.

I concluded with reminding the graduates that the Holy Spirit is working in each one of them, empowering them to reflect God’s great love back at him and the people he puts in their lives. Through their grad text, that’s what God was inviting them to do that very day, this summer, as they begin high school, and for the rest of their lives. I believe it’s good news and good advice for everyone regardless of when they will finish school or how long it’s been since they’ve graduated.

This is the column I wrote for today’s Rock Valley Bee
based on my grad address at RVCS.

Garden my life

Koehn Garden at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

God is a gardener. At the beginning of time He plants and walks around in the Garden of Eden. The risen Christ appears in a garden (and is mistaken for a gardener). And the end of time culminates in a beautiful garden-city called New Jerusalem.

God’s gardening work extends into my life as a prayer by Philip F. Reinders in Seeking God’s Face reminded me afresh. I invite you to make this prayer your own as I did.

Creator God, garden my life –
turn it over,
cultivate it,
and make it ready for gospel seeds to take root.
And in quiet darkness let the gospel do its work,
slow but powerful,
stirring up life in my heart,
increasing joy,
strengthening all your graces
until shoots of new life rise and good fruit
bursts forth on the branches of my life,
a life beautiful for you
and a blessing to others. Amen.

::– –::– –::

Here’s another prayer with a similar theme. It’s written by Handt Hanson and it’s one you can sing.

Concern for the corner

Among the laws God gave His people who owned land and fields is the command for farmers not to harvest every last corner and scrap:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Photo of a grain field at harvest time near the Yarkon Springs in Israel by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

I always thought this command was only for the good of the poor. But the other day I stumbled across this Forward Day by Day meditation from 1971 that points out how it is also good for God’s creation – a timely reminder for Earth Day.

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The command against reaping the corners of the field goes back to the primitive belief in spirits who had authority over the land. A place to dwell and food to eat had to be left for them or they would leave the farmer. Now Israel has given the old law a new humanitarian bent: We are not to take everything for ourselves but to leave something for the one less fortunate that we.

To plow the field up to the last furrow, to attempt to scrape the last bit of profit from one’s labor, betokens a miserly spirit which in the end works to its own disadvantage. Agricultural science [knows] this ecological truth. To drain the potholes and the marshlands, to plow up the submarginal lands, is to create floods and dust bowls.

We need this “concern for the corner” operative in the city as well as the country, and not the contractor who uses the cheapest possible material, replacing one slum with another soon-to-be, or the housing developers who crowd in as many apartments as possible in their high-rises. Without concern for the corner, we poison our streams, kill the lakes, pollute the air, and destroy the quality of human living.

Honest Thomas

In the evening of the day of his resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples, filling them with joy that he’s actually alive. All the disciples are present except for Thomas. Maybe he needed time alone to process the events of Good Friday and the women’s reports of the empty tomb from earlier that day. But by not being with his friends, Thomas misses encountering the risen Christ. (If there’s a moral to learn here, it’s got to be: “Show up with when your brothers and sisters in Christ are together!”)

When Thomas later hears his friends say they’ve seen Jesus, he is brutally honest and says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe.” And he’s been known as Doubting Thomas ever since.

The following week, Jesus shows up again when his disciples are together – and Thomas is with them this time. And Jesus’ grace towards Thomas is amazing. Jesus doesn’t kick Thomas out for his doubt or even reprimand him or demand some sort of confession or apology. Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly what Thomas demanded: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put into my side.” Jesus comes to Thomas where Thomas is at. Just as he did before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus – the Victor over death and Lord of life – continues to accommodate, honor, and serve others.

Personally, I think we should start calling him Honest Thomas and stop seeing him as a negative role model. Jesus is not afraid of Thomas’ honesty and doubt, and he is not afraid of yours or mine. (Of course it helps if we’re sincerely searching for truth and not just being negative and cynical.) In short, Jesus meets Thomas where Thomas is. And Jesus is still doing that with you and me.

Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again on the third day only for people who have their acts together and who always make the best decisions and who hold perfectly to the truth. (Are there even any people like that?) The risen Jesus desires to encounter you and me just as he met Thomas. Regardless of how faithful (or faithless) you or I have been, Jesus is faithful and gives us new opportunities to meet him and grow.

Doubt of Thomas artwork by Sadao Watanabe

The Bible says Thomas has a twin, though it never says who his twin sister or brother is. Maybe it’s an invitation to admit how I sometimes feel like I have a twin inside me: On good days, I’m filled with faith and certainty, but I have a “twin” who likes to show up with doubt and even fears. Or maybe by not saying who Thomas’ twin is, the Bible invites me to think of myself as Thomas’ twin so I can join him as one who can doubt with the best of them, and one for whom Jesus comes alongside with grace, inviting me afresh to believe and trust in him as “my Lord and my God!”

These reflections appear in today’s edition of the Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve written about
Thomas before too.

Sad but hopeful

Like Jesus predicted, a rooster crowed when Peter denied Jesus. Graphic found with Google
My message yesterday at Trinity CRC was about Peter denying Jesus while Jesus was standing trial for His claims to be the Messiah. While Jesus affirms His identity as God’s Son, Peter denies His identity as one of Jesus’ followers. When a servant girl confronts Peter, she at least says the name of Jesus, but Peter won’t even utter His best friend’s name, distancing himself from Jesus as much as he can. It’s a sad story of Peter, nicknamed The Rock, disintegrating into a pile of sand (to quote David E. Garland).

Yes, it’s indeed sad, but it’s not without hope. Read ahead in the story and you’ll find that Jesus rescues and forgives Peter completely. Even when Peter is at his worst, Jesus remains faithful. That assures me that even when I am at my worst, Jesus remains faithful.

I love how Alastair Sterne puts it:

“God’s presence isn’t contingent on my performance.”

When I, like Peter, have denied and distanced myself from Jesus, Jesus suffered, died, rose again, and now reigns so I can receive the loving Father’s grace and be forgiven. That indeed makes Good Friday good and Resurrection Sunday worth celebrating.

Confession is good for the soul (and the rest of your body too)

Confession graphic found via GoogleIn a culture that downplays sin, the concept of confession may sound like an outdated relic from the past. Yet I have found confession to be vitally important in any relationship, whether with people or with God. When I confess something, I acknowledge the mess I’ve made, admit I was wrong, and place myself in the best position to experience reconciliation with the one I wronged or hurt.

In the Bible, the psalmist writes of the pain (physical? mental? emotional?) he experienced when he tried to ignore his guilt and then of the relief he felt when he confessed:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long…
My strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3‑5

It reminds me of a story told by author Mark Buchanan about Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia in the 1700s. On one occasion he was inspecting the Berlin prison. As he walked through the rows of shackled men, they fell pleading at his feet, protesting their innocence. They claimed to be falsely accused, models of virtuous living, completely innocent of all crime.

Only one man didn’t do this. Frederick called to him, “Prisoner, why are you here?”

The prisoner replied, “I robbed a man, Your Majesty.”

“And are you guilty?” asked the king.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” came the reply.

Frederick called the guard over. Pointing at the man who confessed, he said, “Release this man immediately. I will not have this scoundrel thief kept here where he might corrupt all these other fine, virtuous, and innocent men.”

That’s the lovely irony of confession: The one who actually confesses gets out of prison and goes free.

These reflections appear in today’s edition of the Rock Valley Bee.

Identity and sexuality

Gender symbols graphic found via GoogleA few posts ago I wrote about how a baptized believer’s first and primary identity is in Jesus. I said that how believers identify themselves in connection with, as examples, their family, occupation, wealth, nationality, and political leanings all fall under the lordship of Christ. One other example I gave was how one sees oneself sexually, adding that “if you are straight person who loves Jesus, you have more in common with a gay person who professes Jesus than you do with a husband and wife who profess nothing.”

A few people asked me to clarify what I mean by that. It was also suggested to me that only straight people are part of God’s Kingdom. Based on Scripture and my particular church tradition along with knowing Christians who do not see themselves as straight, I cannot believe that. Here’s my attempt to clarify and explain.

First, it’s important to hear that I was writing about identity not behavior, though I recognize the distinction between the two is often tenuous. I was referring to the labels one might put on oneself or have put on them by others.

Every human being on the planet is created in the image of God, and every Holy Spirit-filled person has Christ at the center of their being. Yes, sin brings catastrophe to our world, to our relationships, even to our selves. Yet God saves us by His grace, equipping us to do good in his world as His ambassadors. This is critical and central to who a Christian is.

Contrary to this biblical worldview, voices in our culture – both within the church and in society more broadly – would advocate that who one is sexually is at the core of their being, as though whether you identify as straight or as part of LGBTQ+ community is the most important thing about you. Such a stance, however, puts one’s sexuality above the lordship of Christ, saying implicitly or explicitly that being straight, gay, or other is beyond the range of Christ’s redemptive work. Jesus, however, “is Lord of all.”

My tradition, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, holds that one’s sexual orientation on its own neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person to be a follower of Jesus under His lordship. It’s what people do in light of their sexual orientation that reveals whether they are in Christ and Christ is in them.

In contrast to “homosexualism” (defined as “explicit homosexual practice” that “is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture”), same-sex attraction is something many genuine followers of Jesus experience. I know some who are comfortable with the LGBTQ+ label; others are not. Regardless, these are Christians who participate in God’s Kingdom-building endeavors and who will enjoy eternity with Jesus.

Therefore it makes sense that, to continue quoting the CRC’s position statement, “persons of same-sex attraction may not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Same-sex oriented Christians, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, holy obedience, and the use of their gifts in the cause of the Kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices [i.e. deacon, elder, and pastor] and the life of the congregation [i.e. participating in ministry and fellowship] should be afforded to same-sex oriented Christians as well as to heterosexual Christians.”

This posture shows the church is different from the world in that a worldly label can never ultimately define a person. One’s identity in Christ supersedes all other identities, including sexual identity. The alternative would be confessing that Christ is not actually Lord of all. And that is a confession I am unwilling to make.

Godly joy

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah

“My brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Paul

"Joy – Abstract" by Shevon Johnson, FineArtAmerica.com

This past Sunday I spoke at Trinity CRC about joy, how it is a gift from God and a spiritual discipline God’s Spirit prompts His people to grow within themselves as individuals and in community with one another. I quoted a couple helpful resources on the subject and share them here too.

We will not understand God until we understand this about Him: God is the happiest being in the universe. Yes, God also knows sorrow. Jesus is remembered, among other things, as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” But the sorrow of God, like the anger of God, is His temporary response to a fallen world. That sorrow will be banished forever from His heart on the day the world is set right. Joy is God’s basic character. Joy is His eternal destiny. God is the happiest being in the universe. And God’s intent is that His creation mirrors His joy.
– John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted

::– –::– –::

[Experiencing joy] does not depend on perfect circumstances or happy feelings. Even in prison, Paul and Silas found something to sing about. And Jeremiah, the weeping prophet … found reason to delight and hope in God even in a lament.

The world is filled with reasons to be downcast. But deeper than sorrow thrums the unbroken pulse of God’s joy, a joy that will yet have its eternal day… Every small experience of Jesus with us is a taste of the joy that is to come. God has not left us alone – and that in itself is reason to celebrate.
– Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Remembering and living into this reality grows God’s joy within us. . Finding and imitating “joy mentors” help us practice joy in community. Identifying people or things (TV or social media, perhaps?) that tend to suck the joy out of us can help us guard our hearts and respond well even when we can’t avoid them. And thanking God daily for at least one thing teaches us to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to His presence and provision which form the perfect foundation for joy.