Good questions

In our morning services at Trinity CRC, we’re asking the questions Jesus asked: Do you want to get well? How many loaves do you have? What is your name? Who was the neighbor?

Iowa author Jennifer Dukes Lee sent an email to her friends this week that includes a quote from Lore Ferguson Wilbert, author of A Curious Faith. I love how she sees questions as expressions of hope and curiosity as a spiritual discipline. It connects perfectly with our sermon series!


“So the Lord God called out to the man
and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”
Genesis 3:9 (CSB)

Asking a question is an act of faith: faith that we could be answered, or that we won’t be refused, or that we will like the answer, or, if we don’t, that it will lead to a better question.

To ask a question is to hope that what we currently know isn’t the whole story. If we don’t make space for curiosity in the Christian life, we will become content with a one-dimensional god, a god made more in our own image than the God who made us in his image.

Curiosity is a discipline of the spiritual sort, and it begins by asking some simple questions, questions like “Where are you?” “Who are you?” “Are you there?” and more.

A Curious Faith by Lore Ferguson Wilbert

I believe there’s a reason so many questions are lobbed around Scripture, from God to his people, from his people to God, from people to people, and in the New Testament from Jesus to people, people to Jesus, and Jesus to his Father.

The Bible is a permission slip for those with questions.

All these questions aren’t just pointing to answers. They’re also saying, it’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions is a part of the Christian life.

(Not) forsaken


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These words of Jesus spoken on the cross must be some of the most gut-wrenching words in the entire Bible. They are so shockingly different than most anything else we hear Jesus speak during his ministry. Spoken by a man in unimaginable, excruciating pain, they reveal the agony Jesus is experiencing.

And indeed, Jesus has been forsaken. He has been forsaken by the religious and political systems of his day. He has been forsaken by his closest friends. And, as he bears the sin of humanity, he is, for the first time ever, forsaken by his Father. Jesus has become sin on our behalf. Because sin can never come into God’s presence, the One bearing sin is forsaken by God.

When Jesus utters these words, people mistake them as a cry to the prophet Elijah. Jewish custom suggests that Elijah might return to earth in a crisis to help those who are righteous. So the people hear Jesus calling for help. The irony is that not only do the people misunderstand Jesus’ words as referring to Elijah, they do not see that they are the ones needing help. And the One dying on the cross is doing so to help, to rescue the unsuspecting people around him.

Did you notice that while all this is happening, an eerie darkness has fallen over the land for three hours? It’s as though creation itself cannot bear to watch. The literal darkness parallels the darkness of the forsakenness being experienced on the cross.

But, digging deeper, it turns out that forsakenness is not the end of the story. Yes, Easter is coming in the next chapter, but there is a glimmer of hope already in Jesus’ words on the cross. The words Jesus says do not just come off the cuff. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. It’s a psalm of lament, a psalm expressing pain over things going terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that the poet feels like he has been forsaken by God. However, like most psalms of lament, Psalm 22 moves from expressions of pain to declarations of confidence in God’s deliverance. If Jesus could have, I think he would have recited the entire psalm. By quoting its opening line, yes, he describes his pain, but he is also referencing the entire psalm which also includes these lines:

…He has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help…
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him.

In a surprising way, the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus on the cross offer us hope. They help us see beyond the unjust suffering Jesus is experiencing to hear instead an expression of faith in the God who listens to cries for help and comes to rescue. That means forsakenness is not the last word in Psalm 22 nor for Jesus.

The Gospel records that Jesus speaks these words during the third hour of darkness. That means he speaks them as the darkness is beginning to break and the sky is lighting up again. The growing light reflects how Jesus’ faith in God is not misplaced. Like the darkness, the forsakenness has an ending, and God’s glory and grace will be revealed through the death and resurrection of his Son.

In the face of brokenness in the world and brokenness in my own life, my faith in God is also not misplaced. I find hope in knowing and experiencing the deep love of the Father for us, vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son to make a wretch – you and me – his treasure.

Falling down with my enemies

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives the encouragement to keep holding on. They have little strength left from enduring rejection and persecution from the leaders of the local synagogue who deny Jesus is Lord. But they can indeed hold on knowing their current situation will not last forever. Jesus promises He is coming soon, giving the church hope that the time is coming when wrongs will be righted.

More than that, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church they can look forward to the day when those who hurt them will “come and fall down at [their] feet.” Those opposed to God and His people will one day experience the return and victory of King Jesus. At that time they will hear Him say He is on the side of His people and He loves them.

But as Lou Lotz once noted, this talk of enemies groveling at one’s feet smacks of triumphalism and vengeance, and seems to be out of character with Christ’s command to love our enemies. True, but the picture of poor souls who have always resisted Jesus and harmed the church bowing down to Jesus’ followers helps me in two ways: 1. I’m given hope: Ungodliness will not endure forever. One day, to quote Pastor Lotz, “the tables will be turned, and God’s people will be vindicated.”

2. This picture also offers inspiration: Christians desire to love their enemies, to love their enemies to Christ. The more Christ’s reconciling grace is in me, the more I want no one being punished at my feet. I’m not saying there won’t be anyone; I’m just saying Christians love their enemies and the church’s enemies with the dream that all of them will change and love Jesus today and in eternity.

I’m fascinated by the actual words used in Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia, that those who oppose Jesus and His church will one day “fall down.” This is the same language used elsewhere in the Bible (in Revelation 4, as one example) for falling down in worship! I think I’m supposed to love my enemies, praying that they’ll fall down in worship with me and all God’s people.

Graphic found with Google

Morning star

Photo found with Google
In his letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus gives that church and the church today one of the most encouraging promises you’ll ever receive. To the church that, by grace, repents and holds on, Jesus promises “the morning star.”

One of my favorite professors at Regent College was Darrell Johnson. He taught me that the morning star is the star that “appears at the darkest time of the night… It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears, there is no sign of the dawn. But when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn; it is just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.”

Even when things are the darkest, Jesus assures me He is with me – and not only with me, but also ruling over all things and caring for me until the last bit of darkness in my life has dissolved forever.

I said that in a sermon at Trinity CRC a couple weeks ago. And people said “Amen!” I’m glad they were encouraged too.

How this Easter will be a bit more like the very first Easter

The coronavirus pandemic that’s wreaking havoc around the world and disrupting our lives is forcing churches to celebrate Easter very differently this year. I appreciate these reflections suggesting how that might not be an entirely bad thing. This has been making its way around the internet and I do not who originally wrote it.

::– –::– –::

The very first Easter was not in a crowded worship space with singing and praising. On the very first Easter, the disciples were locked in a house. It was dangerous for them to come out. They were afraid. They wanted to believe the good news they heard from the women, that Jesus had risen, but it seemed too good to be true. They were living in a time of such despair and such fear. If they left their homes, their lives and the lives of their loved ones might be at risk. Could a miracle really have happened? Could life really had won out over death? Could this time of terror and fear really be coming to an end?

Alone in their homes, they dared to believe that hope was possible, that the long night was over and morning had broken, that God’s love was the most powerful of all, even though it didn’t seem quite real yet. Eventually they were able to leave their homes, when the fear and danger had subsided. They went around celebrating and spreading the good news that Jesus was risen and love was the most powerful force on the earth.

This year we might get to experience a taste of what that first Easter was like, still in our homes daring to believe that hope is on the horizon. Then, after a while, when it is safe for all people, when it is the most loving choice, we will come out, gathering together, singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say!

This year we might get the closest taste we have had yet to what that first Easter was like.

Artwork of Jesus appearing to His disciples found with Google

The disciples desperately needed to hear
Jesus’ words to them that first Easter:
“Peace be with you.”
Those are Jesus’ words to us this unusual Easter season, too.

God wins

We are currently working through Revelation in our evening services at Trinity CRC. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, penned by the apostle John as he received a remarkable vision from Jesus himself. For many people it is a “closed” book, very difficult to read and understand. That’s both sad and ironic, considering how the word revelation itself comes from the word revealGraphic found at crosswalk.comand God very much wants to reveal things to us as we read Revelation!

I admit that Revelation is not always the easiest part of the Bible to read. But it’s not as terribly complicated as you might think. The message of Revelation can be summarized in two hope-filled words: “God wins!” Knowing that God currently reigns and will reign forever, his people confidently follow him and serve others. Granted, this is not easy, and Revelation acknowledges that in its vivid descriptions of the forces that distract us from purposeful living grounded in Christ and guided by the Bible. Thankfully, Revelation also shows how God is stronger than all those bad influences combined. What’s more, he is always present with his people, even in the toughest times.

One author who’s helped me understand Revelation a bit better is theologian and preacher Fleming Rutledge. I love this part from her book The Bible and The New York Times:

The book of Revelation has taken a bad rap. Once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t all that difficult. It shouldn’t be left to the David Koresh’s of the world. Almost all reputable interpreters today recognize that Revelation is poetry and liturgy. It is not a Rand McNally map of heaven. It is not a timetable for the end of the world. It is not a “Bible Code.” It is by no means as weird as we have been led to believe. It is full of encouragement, hope, and comfort, especially for oppressed people. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was fighting the good fight against apartheid all those decades, he used to say, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book! We win!” The celestial vision arises out of the Revelation of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God who reigns in heaven and who has drawn back the curtain just for a moment to allow us a glimpse of God’s future. (page 17)

In Christ, we win in the end, no matter how bleak things might sometimes look. My mistakes, brokenness, and sin – even my death – will not have the last word. God will. Personally, that fills me with a lot of hope and gives me purpose today. The next time you have an open Bible in front of you, find some of that hope and purpose for yourself in Revelation.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve shared the quote from Fleming Rutledge
before.

Moses’ Advent song

Advent candle graphic found via GoogleFor our Advent series this year at Trinity CRC, we’re using a resource from the latest issue of Reformed Worship titled “Enter the Songs.” It’s a series shaped by the four songs found in the Gospel of Luke that surround the Christmas story. We ran into a bit of trouble, though, when we decided that we’d like to look at Simeon’s song the Sunday after Christmas (not the Sunday before as the article in RW has it). Would we start our Advent series a week later? That seemed wrong. Could we find another song from elsewhere in the Bible? Probably…

Natalie (Trinity’s Worship Co-Coordinator) and I settled on Moses’ Song of the Sea together with the song sung by Miriam in Exodus 15. While I suspected I’d be able to connect it with the start of the new church season, I was happily surprised with how well it really did fit with Advent!

Here’s the message I preached yesterday connecting Moses’ song with Advent. Please let me know if you come up with more connections!

Like a dove in the desert

Monica and I attended a Cursillo retreat at nearby Inspiration Hills over the past two weekends – a memorable experience for both of us.

One of the men in my group had a pretty rough past – broken marriage and family, trouble with the law, addictions to drinking and drugs. But just over a year ago, he surrendered his life to Christ and he’s a new man! He and his family are being reconciled; he finished serving his time; and for a year now he’s been clean from drinking, drugs, and even smoking.

He shared with our group that his favorite psalm is Psalm 55 – not one I knew right offhand. And the favorite part of his favorite psalm is this:

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”
(vss. 6-8)

While broken and addicted, he yearned for the freedom he perceived in the dove. And after giving his life to Jesus, he found that freedom. The Lord is the rest and shelter for which he was longing. Alleluia!

Dove graphic found via Google

Reflecting some more on the words of the psalm, I found myself asking “Why a dove?” Why does David – the poet of Psalm 55 – refer to a dove and not a more powerful bird like an eagle, or a more colorful bird like a parrot? Perhaps it’s because, as Robert Davidson explains, “the dove nests safe and secure on the cliff face on the inaccessible sides of a gorge.” Perhaps it has something to do with the tenacity of that dove that left Noah’s ark and survived and thrived in the difficult post-flood environment. The psalmist is searching for a refuge – the kind available to common birds but that eludes David, a king and imagebearer of the King of kings.

Then I found myself asking a second question: “Why the desert?” Why does David want to fly away to the desert and not somewhere fun like Florida or perhaps back to the comfort of his home? My guess is that it has something to do with how throughout history, God consistently and powerfully encountered and guided His people in the desert. I think, for example, of the Israelites in the desert during their Exodus from Egypt. As Moses sang, “In a desert land he found him [Israel], in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.” Yearning for the desert reveals David’s search for a sanctuary in which he’ll be in communion with God, his refuge and strength.

Thanks to my new friend from Cursillo, this psalm has become for me a beautiful expression of the freedom and communion for which I long to experience. God invites me to experience such freedom and communion in Him when He is my refuge and strength. The psalm’s promises are enduring: “The Lord saves” and “He rescues” (55:16, 18). My trust in Him is well placed for now and eternity.

10 years later

The preacher at Moose Jaw Alliance Church reminded us today how the message of the early church was not “What has this world come to?” but rather “Look at what (who!) has come to this world.”  It’s a hope-filled reminder.

The morning after the morning after

Suddenly Christmas is over.  I’m back in the office, planning this coming Sunday’s services.  I look around and wonder, “Did it all really happen?”  It almost feels like a dream from which I’m just waking.

But it did happen.  And “normal” has once again been redefined.