Jesus's Love & "Those People"

In October of 2018 my husband Steve started bleeding. Bleeding in a place where you don't normally like to see blood. At first it was easy to deny the signs. "Ah, a little blood. Probably just a hemorrhoid! No biggy!" people would say. It would have been easy to brush aside the evidence of something amiss, something a little "off" with his body. But, he decided to see the doctor and after a few months of tests the "little bit of bleeding" turned out to be a BIG sickness: Steve was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. If Steve would have denied and ignored the signs of cancer, the seemingly insignificant bleeding that was surely not as bad as it looked, he would have died from the tumor silently invading his lymph nodes, invisible to our eyes but wreaking havoc on his body. He looked great from the outside, but inside he was full of cancer.

In the book of Mark there is an episode where Jesus, God-come-in-the-flesh, likens himself to a physician who has come to gather up people to Himself who realize they are sick. He has diagnosed the human condition and found that people's hearts cause them to be sin-sick and separated from relationship with their Creator. But the people Jesus is talking to in this episode of Mark chapter 2 are people who think they are healthy. They are in denial of their symptoms. They are the ones who, in societies eyes, have it all together. Respectable and morally upstanding, seemingly checking all the boxes on the "good person with God's approval" list, they just don't associate with "those people." But like the best doctor's tools, Jesus's words disect the outward conventions and reveal the deeper problem under the pristine surface. Like an invisible cancer, they have a more insidious problem that from the outside is really hard to diagnose. Because of it, they are about to miss the wonder of God right in front of their eyes.

The religion scholars and other religious folk see Jesus eating with a collection of disreputable guests. They balk. "What kind of example is this? Acting cozy with the riff-raff?" (2:15,16). One of the reasons the religious folks have such a hard time believing Jesus is God-in-the-flesh is precisely because Jesus spends His time connecting with people whom the religious establishment has banished to the outer circle: the poor, prostitutes and other women, the uneducated, the sick and diseased, demon-posessed, ethnic minorities.

Fill in the blanks for today. Who do you think Jesus's love wouldn't extend to? The liberals? The Democrats? The conservatives? The Republicans? The LGBT community? The addicted and unstable? The religious? The pro-lifers? The pro-choicers? The feminists? The homeless? The wealthy? Whoever disagrees with you on Facebook? God-come in the flesh goes out of His way to connect with the outcast, the "sick." The ones who don't think they count. Even our enemies. And Jesus wants those of us who think we know God best to realize that we are sick too. That we won't be able to connect with God and experience the health and wholeness He offers as long as we believe ourselves to be well. Connecting with God, the doctor of your heart and soul, and loving others requires an ongoing honest diagnosis: admitting that you are just as sin-sick and in need of God's healing love and grace as any other human being. Without this understanding, you, like the religious scholars and teachers Jesus is talking to in Mark 2, will miss Jesus.

Jesus, as we depend on you to heal our sin-sick hearts, give us your mercy so we can be mercy-full. Give us grace so we can be grace-full. Help us to have a right diagnosis of ourselves so we won't miss you. We want to connect with you and walk with you. Teach us how to love you and others with your love, a love that came to Earth and died even for your enemies. Write your words in Mark 2:17 on our hearts.

Amen.

-Beth Plymale

Bumps In The Road

No one will argue with the idea that we are all racing through life…and usually going as fast as we can from one thing to the next.  Even if I am sitting in my garden, I am thinking about what needs weeding, harvesting, pruning, canning, drying or composting.  There is a lot to do, even in a garden when I am trying to just sit and rest.  It makes for a pretty garden, but not so much for the resting part.  I rest better in someone else’s garden.

My son is dealing with a few “bumps” in the road he is on…literal bumps, in fact.  The first was a large owl, flying into his car and taking out a headlight (the owl didn’t make it either).  The second was a pounding hailstorm, leaving indentations all over his car.  Those bumps are leading him into the fascinating and frustrating world of estimates, insurance and friendly folks from the auto body shop.  Bumps are never fun.   His mean a lot of work and expense he was not planning on.

As parents we want our kids to run their race to adulthood with a lot of fun moments, cool experiences and happy memories…but also stopping along the way to grow, mature, and learn kindness, faith and loyalty as they go.  No one wants the growing-up to be terribly painful, so we try to teach them to avoid the potholes that can knock them down along the way.  That is just good parenting. We know they will still find a few potholes, and helping them back up is one of the most important things we do for our kids.

I was thinking about some of the potholes I myself fell into as I was growing up.  I was terribly, painfully shy.  In my Senior year of high school, I decided to bravely run for Student Representative for the band in our student government.  I won…but before we were called back into the room, a friend of the losing student stood up and said “She can’t be the band rep, she is too quiet!”.  And so they re-voted, and I lost.  I had expected to lose, since the boy I ran against was very popular.  Then my friends told me about the vote and re-vote.  I was shocked to hear that the teacher was in the room, but did not say anything in my defense.

After hearing the details, I was angry with the teacher, and with the girl who demanded a re-vote.  I was also no longer the quiet girl, though even I did not know it…yet.  I did not throw a fit, or yell or demand justice.  I did open my eyes up to the possibility of not being the quiet girl any more.  Later that same week, we voted for a new French Club President…and I ran.  I also flirted, cajoled and was as outgoing and friendly as possible with every single kid in French club.  I won easily (there wasn’t exactly a queue of people fighting for the position), but I didn’t stop there.

That year, I cheered my French club to go home and do ALL THE CHORES for their families, so that their mothers would bake ALL THE FRENCH GOODIES for our bake sale.  No chocolat- chip cookies or cupcakes for us.  We sold chocolate eclairs, chocolate-dipped french lace cookies and a whole lot of other incredible French pastries.  Our teacher found the recipes, we all made them and sold them…and made far more money on a bake sale than had ever been made in the history of our tiny school.  All that money was promptly used to send us all on a field trip to a fancy French Restaurant in downtown Seattle, where it was used to the gastronomical delight of us all.

Would I have been a decent band representative in student government?  Perhaps, but the Lord allowed me to fall into a pothole, and coming up out of it, I found my voice.  Now I am just thankful.  I speak often in front of large groups of students and parents, volunteering with our Career Center, and helping families find a way to finance education beyond high school.  I love it, and feel like it meets a real need.  The quiet girl found her voice, and she uses it.

In becoming a mom, I felt like I was very well qualified.  Years of babysitting, years of working as a Registered Nurse, and genuinely wanting to be a mother seemed like all anyone would or could need.  My first little baby was all any mother could want.  Then, exactly 15 months later, my little boy was another story.  He was tiny, angelic and had colic that reduced us to frustrated tears faster than you can say “screaming baby”.  His tummy ached from 9:30am until 2-3am…he was miserable, and so were we.  My husband was lucky in that he had to go to work at 4pm, and so often arrived home just as I would finally, at long last, get the baby to sleep.

On top of terrible colic, I was dealing with post-partum depression.  Talk about a pothole knocking me down.  For anyone who has never had depression, it is like being at the bottom of a deep, muddly hole, staring at a ladder and having absolutely no idea how to climb it. Back in the “olden days” of the 1990’s, no one talked much about PPD, and it never occured to me to talk to our pediatrician about the baby and his colic.  Life was just a loud, excruciating blur of exhaustion.

On one of the few Sundays when I actually made it to church, I was soon surrounded by older ladies oogling and smiling at my tiny baby.  When asked why I had been missing church, I burst into tears, telling them about his terrible colic, barely getting sleep and being so exhausted I couldn’t see straight.  Most of the ladies quickly stepped away, but one actually patted my shoulder and said “Oh, those days are so long ago, I just don’t remember any of that!”  And with that, I stood there alone, still crying all over my newborn in the church lobby.  No offers to help, to babysit, to cook a meal, nothing.

My baby weaned himself almost completely at 5 months, taking to solid foods like a duck takes to water.  The crying stopped and I mastered the art of making my own baby food.  I returned to work, and was promoted to Cardiac Rehab, where I met with patients during the day, wearing my own lab coat and beeper.   No more life with scrubs and long 12 hour shifts in Critical Care. One day at work, when the baby was about 8 months old, I had an experience like the lights suddenly turning on (even though it was daytime, and all the lights were on already) and I realized that I  definitely HAD had post-partum depression, and that it was now, finally, miraculously,  gone.  Whatever neurotransmitter I had been lacking must have finally kicked back in.

That painful 8 month long pothole left a mark on my heart.  It didn’t turn me away from church or even old ladies, but it sure did give me a heart for young mommies.  I understand when they are dealing with PPD, and ache when their baby is torturing them with colic.  If I had only had easy babies, I might have never realized how challenging motherhood can be, and might even have thought I was pretty great at it…instead of recognizing that I wasn’t so great, but God is.  Now I volunteer with MOPS and love being able to support young mothers, because I climbed out of that big pothole wanting to help anyone else who falls into that same hole.

Hebrews 12: 1-3 says  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

We continue to run this race, keeping our eyes on Jesus…and trusting that He is going to be with us even when we hit a pothole.  Can you think of a time when you had a “pothole” experience and yet now feel that it fuels your passion to serve or help?

 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 says “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves recieve form God.”

Potholes happen, but we are not alone, and He promises we will be able to use the comfort for others that He gives us.  Our trials are never for nothing.

Honestly, I still hate potholes.  They are always a miserable place to be, even when I am convinced there will be blessings on the other side.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with admitting we hate to be stuck in the middle of a tough situation.  I do think that the more potholes we fall in, the more we realize how wonderful Jesus is, never leaving us stuck there alone.

My son just called after talking to the auto body shop, and found out they will provide him a free loaner car, so he won’t have to rent a car for the multiple weeks those repairs will take.  What an amazing and unexpected blessing.  “This whole experience is obviously for faith-building, Mom.”  Well said, son.  Well said.

I would love to hear about a “pothole” experience you have been able to use to bless others in the comments!

-Sonja

Sonja and her husband Keith attend our Redwood Campus. To read more of Sonja’s blog site called “Musings For Mom's From the Grandma Side of Life”, please visit her site here > https://holdmamashand.com.

Is Christianity a Bloody, Pagan Religion?

Ask Pastor Tyler: Often I will have people ask amazing questions via email, text, or in person. So, I will occasionally turn them into blog posts for those interested. I’ve found that so many of us are all thinking about the same things.

Today’s question is this: Christianity seems to be a very bloody religion. Is animal sacrifice (to the gods) a pagan concept that Christianity ripped off?

As Christians, we sing a lot about the “blood of Christ.” Some of these songs as famous favorites, but the imagery is still a little strange: “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. . .Oh precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow. . .”  Or:

“There is a fountain that I see//Filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s vein//The sinners, sinners plunged beneath that blood//Lose all their guilty stains.”

That last one is particularly odd; a “fountain of blood” sounds more like a horror flick than good news to modern ears. Although these songwriters probably took the image a little far, the picture and visual of blood does come from the Bible, like 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” And Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  


As my friend asked me recently, does this make Christianity a bloody, barbaric, pagan religion?

On the surface, because the ancient culture of the Bible is so different from our own, many things in it can seem primitive and pagan. But if we look closely at Christ’s death, we’ll see that it’s very different from these ancient religions. There are some clear contrasts with paganism and Judeo-Christianity.

For example, pagan gods are often hungry, needy, volatile, and demanding. They’re moody and they need constant blood. And their bloodlust is not just limited to animals, pagan gods often demanded infants, children, or adults. Human blood. And the gods need people to feed and serve them. In fact, this is paganism’s “chief end of man”: to pacify the gods and serve them forever. 

But in Christianity, God makes humans to be in relationship with them. When that relationship gets broken, and things go off the rails, God eventually comes down to us, in the person of Jesus, and serves US through a sacrifice. In Christianity, God doesn’t demand blood, he becomes human and gives of his blood (sacrifices his life).

In this, Christianity isn’t very bloody at all! Only one person dies. He gives his life voluntarily, taking all the sin, suffering, and evil onto himself.  In this way, Christ’s death is less pagan, and more like the stories we all love and remember. So many stories and books and movies demonstrate that this theme means so much to us as humans, like in Harry Potter or Stranger Things. I would argue that these myths that deeply resonate with us point to the source of these myths, a God who sacrifices himself for us. In this, it’s not so much the blood itself that forgive us. There’s nothing magical about it. But blood is a powerful piece of life, and of death.  When we say “the blood of Jesus” forgives us, we mean that Jesus’ substitute and sacrificing his life is what brings us forgiveness. 

Now, when some people think of a bloody Christianity, they might be referring back to the Old Testament. But even before Jesus, Judaism (Old Testament) is also very different from paganism. 

A) One fact that often gets missed is that animal sacrifice, in the Old Testament, sometimes function as a BBQ. A party. Simply enjoying some good meat with family and friends. Yes it's bloody, in the same way that a butcher shop is bloody. Not a bad thing if you clean up well.

B) Also, as mentioned above, God commands animal sacrifice, unlike the surrounding cultures which killed humans. God is moving his people in a different direction (eventually ending all sacrifice with Jesus).

C) Sometimes these sacrifices are meant to show the seriousness of a moral failure, highlighting the principle that our actions affect those around us. In this ancient culture, these signs and symbols were hugely important.  But Christianity put a stop to these practices.  

Christianity is definitely still strange, and as Russell Moore has argued, we should keep it that way. Our culture is desperate for the transcendent and true. We should explain Christianity in the vernacular (common language), without religious clichés, but still in a way that keeps the central message (which is a strange one). But remember, Christianity was just as strange back then as it is now. God breaks in on both paganism AND progressivism, rattling pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity.  So, #KeepChristianityWeird, but also in a way that’s historically reliable and culturally understandable.  

-Pastor Tyler

How Do You See God?

Hello, my name is Tawny and I have been at River Valley for 2 years and on staff as one of the pastoral counselors since January. As I have been meeting with people and talking to them about their relationships with God, I have started to ask them to write a description of how they see God. It has been very eye opening for me. I already knew that when I used to picture God as a frowning old man, doling out love tests to everyone, I did not have a good relationship with Him. But to realize how many beautiful Christians also picture Him as unappealing and not very approachable, is grieving me deeply. Not because anyone is doing anything wrong but because the enemy is keeping God's precious people from enjoying His presence and that is one of the greatest things we can experience in this life.

Picture walking out into the sunshine on a summer morning with a cup of coffee in your hand. There is a man sitting on your porch. He smiles at you and asks if he can join you. You do not feel afraid or invaded, you feel delighted and intrigued. You realize it is the Lord. He is the most beautiful soul you have ever seen and you can't wait to have a conversation with him and get to know him better.

That is how we should feel about our interactions with God. If we picture someone who would never visit us, or smile at us, or delight and thrill us with who He is, we have been deceived.

So please, take a quiet moment in the near future to sit quietly and ask yourself how you picture God. What does He look like, what is His countenance toward you? How do you feel when you think about being alone with Him? If you do not picture Him as the most beautiful, wonderful, amazing, delightful, joyful, happy, strong, powerful, wise and good person you know, you are missing out!

I am praying for God's glory to fall upon us at River Valley, more and more, as we seek to know the One True God better and better.

-Tawny Moore

God’s Name Is...?

Dale Carnegie once wrote: “A person's name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”  I think that’s true, and as a pastor and soccer coach, I’m constantly trying to remember people’s names. It’s in this context that the name of God is really interesting to me. In Exodus 3 (the Burning Bush), and chapter 34 (the Cleft of the Rock), God reveals his name to Moses in profound power and clarity. But while studying God’s self-descriptions in these passages, I realized that our English translations have different philosophies when it comes to sharing God’s name with us. 

There’s nothing nefarious or conspiratorial about this. Different translation teams have different philosophies of translation and tradition. Each English translation is really good (with one or two exceptions, for another time), at what the translation is trying to do. But no translation is perfect either.    

When God shares his name to Moses, especially in Exodus 3:14-17, and 34:4-7, translations typically use one of three names: 1. the LORD (most common) 2. Jehovah (older translations), and 3. Yahweh (a few newer translations, most notably the NLT and HCSB).          

Why do most (modern) English translations use the word LORD for God’s Name?

Two main reasons that most English translations have chosen the word LORD as a translation of the Hebrew word יהוה (YHWH), both of which are rooted in a deep tradition.   

1) The pre-Christian, Greek translation of Old Testament (the Septuagint) typically translates YHWH as κύριός, meaning Lord, King, Master. This seems to reflect that Greek-speaking Jews used the Greek word for LORD as a substitute for the divine name. 

2) In the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, there reflects a growing discomfort with pronouncing God’s name. Remember the third commandment: “You shall not misuse the LORD’s name?”  Jews took that one really seriously. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, even used a different script (font) for the divine name. But this discomfort grew so much, that Jews basically stopped saying it out loud (Orthodox Jews are similar today). Sometimes they would just say The Name, and sometimes they would use the term adonai, which also means Lord. In quite a few places, we have textual evidence that scribes changed YHWH to adonai.      

Because of these two textual traditions, English translators followed suit , feeling more comfortable with the word LORD instead of Yahweh.  

Why do some older translations (like the ASV) use the word Jehovah? 

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There are no vowels in ancient Hebrew, just consonants. Vowels were added in later, meaning we can’t have complete certainty on pronunciation. But here’s one thing we do know: scribes started to write the vowels sounds of Adonai (other Hebrew word for Lord), over the divine name YHWH. In other words, the name Jehovah is a combination of the vowels of Adonai, and the consonants of Yahweh. Fascinating. 

Here’s what it looks like transliterated: Y-A-H-O-W-A-H. Note that Hebrew is a guttural “back of the throat” language, so the Y sounds like a J and the W sounds like a V. In other words, Jehovah was never a real word and it certainly isn’t God’s name.  


Yahweh and Father

Like any good Protestant, I’m less impressed by these traditions that people and translations stick to, even though some of them do have merit. Even if using the term Yahweh more commonly might take away from its sacredness, and even if we don’t exactly know the right pronunciation, shouldn’t we do our best to use God’s name in whatever language we’re in? 

“Say to the Israelites: ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.” -Exodus 3:15

Yahweh is his name “forever.” I think we might be missing something in prayer and praise if we don’t take this into account. Even the familiar OT phrase Hallelujah (allelouïa), occurring 4x in Revelation 19, means Praise-Yah! Granted, most of New Testament prayer is addressed to God as “Our Father.” In personal conversation with my dad, I don’t call him “Mark,” unless I’m joking or unless he’s not paying attention to me.  But when talking to others about him, or hyping him up to others, I might indeed use his name to help people know who I’m talking about.  So in prayer, praise, and proclamation, I think we should use Yahweh in 3rd person communication (such a nerdy way to say: “when talking about God”). But, in 2nd person conversation, talking to God, I’d probably use the more intimate term that Jesus used: Father.   

For more on the name, character, and even “conflict” within God, please consider watching my most recent sermon on the topic, here:  https://youtu.be/NYRg-yPRgrQ


How do you think we should refer to God?  

Jonah As Satire

Something’s a little fishy about Jonah. 

(And the crowd groans). 

It’s a strange book, so different from the other eleven minor prophets (all 12 of the minor prophet books were on the same scroll, leaving many scholars to see them all as a single literary work). If you didn’t grow up in church or watching Veggie Tales, go read Jonah right now. It’s an awesome story that’ll take you less than ten minutes to read.  But there are a number of peculiar things about this story:

Some peculiar features to Jonah:

-A prophet (Israel’s prosecuting attorney) is sent to “prosecute” another country. Prophets are not missionaries, and yet Jonah is asked to be one.

-A prophet says “no” to God (rather uncommon).

-Jonah tries to run away from God (funny).

-Jonah heads towards “Tarshish.” Although this was a real place in Spain, it’s also a phrase that can mean “the ends of the earth,” or “the middle of nowhere,” just like we might say: “he’s going to Timbuktu.” It’s a real city in the middle Mali but it’s also idiomatic for going nowhere.  

-Pagan sailors are more noble than Jonah, and start worshipping the God of Israel.

-The Assyrian animals wear sackcloth as a sign of repentance (imagine a cow wearing a burlap sack) 

-Jonah gets mad at God for not nuking Assyria.

-And of course, the elephant (whale) in the room: Jonah gets swallowed by a large fish. 

It’s this last detail that draws so much attention, positive and negative, to the book.

Historical Nerd-Fest For One Minute: Fundamentalist vs Modernism 

One of the biggest debates about Jonah is whether or not this event actually happened in history. As rationalism and anti-supernaturalism grew, lots of people started to doubt the miraculous, like the virgin birth, healings, resurrection, and deity of Jesus, the divine inspiration of the Bible, creationism, and yes, the swallowing and survival of Jonah. The doubters were called “Modernists.”  “Fundamentalist” Christianity sought to defend itself from modernist/liberal perspectives, in some cases quite compellingly so. But the fundamentalists also made the same mistake as the modernists, that is, applying modern scientific questions and categories in ancient texts, instead of letting the biblical authors speak for themselves.  

What Hath the Onion to do with Jonah?      

I wonder if one potential resolution to the Jonah dilemma is that we’re reading the book wrongly. Both liberals and fundamentalists got the GENRE wrong.  What if Jonah is satire?  

I read the instruction manual to my tv differently than a love letter from my fiancé, differently from Harry Potter. Genre is really important to knowing how to read something.  

Everyone reading The Onion, or the brilliant The Babylon Bee, knows that it is satire (well, almost everyone). Technically speaking, sat·ire is the ridicule of vice or folly for the purpose of correction.  The genre uses humor and ridicule for the purpose of correcting people (God and the prophets and Paul use it ALL THE TIME).  

In short, I think the book of Jonah is meant to satirically critique a kind of selfish nationalism that hates its surrounding nations, an ethnocentrism displayed by some Israelites like Jonah, who want to see the outside world burn. Jonah is literature that critiques *some* forms of patriotism, the kind of patriotism that pridefully puts others down.  Jonah is a blistering attack on self-centered religious and cultural perspectives that are unconcerned about their unbelieving community (shots fired).  

I find it fascinating to think of Jonah as a Babylon Bee or as an Onion article.  Headline might look like: “Local Prophet Tries to Run From God: Gets Swallowed By Big Fish.” Or something like “Local Prophet Mad That God Loves Assyrians Too.” Set in this context, it makes Jonah that much more thought-provoking.   

Conclusion: Did Jonah historically happen? 

There’s no reason why it couldn’t have, from a Christian perspective. We believe in a God who became man and rose from the dead. So keeping the rebellious Jonah alive in a fish isn’t any big challenge for God. Also, from a satirical perspective, the closer to reality the satire is, the more effective it is, in terms of mannerisms, real people, and real words. Satire is exaggerated reality, but is still based on reality.  

But, from my perspective, the answer to the historical question really isn’t that important. Did Jesus’ stories about the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep or the Good Samaritan or the Hidden Treasure historically happen? It doesn’t matter. The stories have a teaching function, just like Jonah does. And sometimes, the more ironic and satirical and crazy and humerous the story, the more likely we’ll internalize it. 

-Tyler

Warming Up...For Church?

Preparing for God in Exodus 19

This weekend at church, we’re talking through Exodus 19. God reveals himself to Israel, no longer as a burning bush, but rather in a burning mountain. There’s smoke and fire, all kinds of pyrotechnics, but all the fanfare is for the ceremony: God is making a covenant with Israel. It’s like a marriage, but a little different. But what really caught my eye is the preparation God required of Israel before this massive event. The three main things that he asked of them follow:

1) Wash your clothes.

2) Fence off the mountain.

3) No sexual relations.

What’s the deal here with this preparation process? There is something about this outward preparation that symbolizes inward consecration. An inward readiness to meet with God. So it makes sense for the Israelites to wash their clothes, signifying that this is not a normal day. “Clean up, dress up, shave, because this is an important event.” Like a wedding, funeral, job interview or important meeting, how we dress often reflects the weightiness of the event. I don’t often where a suit, but when I do, there’s definitely a different mentality. Likewise, fencing off the mountain is another visual, tangible reminder that this place is sacred. God is no teddy bear; if you cross the boundary lines, flippantly touching the mountain, you’re dead. But what’s the deal with no sexual relations for three days? Is this because sex is sinful or gross or unholy? No, not at all. Sex is a good gift from God for the marriage covenant. But before THIS event at Mt. Sinai, God tells the people to separate from normal, everyday, good things, like sex, to reflect on what’s happening here. Again, this day is different from other days. Just like there are times to fast from food for a (short) season, or to abstain from other good things like technology, so God puts a temporary halt (three days) on marital sex for the purpose of reflecting on this covenantal ceremony. (It’s not unlike Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:5, who tells married couples: “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” There’s lots of landmines here that might be fun for another time.) To what extent should the preparations for Israel’s specific covenantal ceremony inform what we do as the church on Sunday morning? At one level, it’s apples and oranges, two totally different things. We believe God accepts us as we are, that what you wear on Sunday isn’t necessarily that important. We don’t fence off the stage (although some people “fence off the communion table). And, there’s a long history of weekend “naps” by our parents on Saturday or Sunday. I always wondered why my parents took naps in the middle of the day. These are all good things. 

But on another level, I think there is a principle here, something we might be missing when it comes to preparation. Because we too, like Israel, come to church (and life group and devotional time) to meet with God. In a sense, every church service is a covenant renewal, especially when we take communion. Every gathering is like a renewal of our “marriage” vows with God. In that sense, I think preparing ourselves for our gatherings is really important.

Four Ways to Warm Up. . .For Church.

I’ve never liked warm ups and cool downs in athletics. And stretching, ugh. It’s all so tedious and time-consuming, sometimes taking longer than the actual workout itself. And yet, we know these rituals prevent injuries and improve performance. They get us ready for the workout or contest or event. In the same way, there are ways we can and should prepare ourselves for our meetings with God and his people. (Yes, God is always with us, but there is a special sense when we gather with other believers in formal settings where God is especially active in us.)

1) Get Enough Sleep the Night Before.

If on Saturday night, I’m up late watching a movie or show or scrolling through my twitter feed, I’m going to be tired the next day. I may sleep in and miss church altogether. Or I may fall asleep during Tyler’s message (it’s happened; the worst is when someone starts snoring). But even if I don’t skip or sleep or snore, I still won’t be in the right frame of mind if I’m super tired. I’ll be grumpy and glazed over, and by the time the caffeine gets to my brain, the service is over. 

2) Have Some Margin in Your Schedule.

I know it’s super hard, especially if you have kids, to not feel like you’re rushing everywhere. So for young parents, don’t feel guilty or beat up by this; this is all an ideal. But if we do our best to schedule a little more margin in our schedules, to not pack everything so tight, we might not feel so frazzled when we get to church or life group. We’ll be able to drive a little more safely and slowly, in prayer or cranking the praise music. We might get to have better conversations before and after the event. As my friend Zach said yesterday, sometimes the best ministry happens in the non-structured times before and after. These conversations only happen when we’re not rushing to and from places.

3) Pray and Read the Scripture & LG Questions Beforehand.

This is more directed at River Valley readers of this post, but can probably apply to other churches as well. River Valley is going through a series in Exodus, and have a great team of people who create Life Group questions. We typically go chapter by chapter through the book. You can review the upcoming questions here: https://www.rivervalleycc.org/life-groups/ or at the bottom of your church program. Even if you’re not in a life group, you can go through these questions yourself or with a family member (and then you’re basically a life group!)

Also, we can pray for ourselves, for group members, church members, curious non-believers, and church leaders before we meet together. A couple at my campus, Faith and David, pray for me every Sunday morning. I so appreciate that and need it! When we pray for the gatherings and the people there, we’re more invested in the outcome of them. We’re “warmed up” for what God wants to do in us (transformation) and through us (ministry). We may be more prone to see the things that only God normally sees: a first-time visitor, wide-eyed and intimidated by church, a struggling single-mom, a quiet group member who is carrying a burden, a discouraged pastor who needs some encouragement.

4) Put Your Phone on DO NOT DISTURB, or Leave it in the Car.

I think many of us miss out on what God wants to do in our lives because of the constant buzzing happening in our pockets or in our hands. God is speaking to us and we’re not fully listening, like someone on a date constantly checking their texts. I absolutely love the iPhone DO NOT DISTURB feature. It’s like little moon icon next to the flashlight. Silence that thing, put it in your pocket or better yet, your car, and let God speak to you through the Word, worship music, and other people. Be radical, use a hard-copy of the Bible!

Critical Tyler Rebuked at a Charismatic Church

I remember walking into a huge charismatic church one time, maybe a couple thousand people in attendance. And like many Bible college students, I was there to critique: to analyze, to scrutinize, and criticize. But when the first note was played, and the band started, I think probably 75% of the hands in the room were lifted high. And my hard heart broke. I was softened, more than that, I was rebuked. I went there to critique, but instead got critiqued. Deservedly. I felt God impress on my heart: “These people come here to worship Me. To really worship.” They people showed up to meet with God. The best word for this is anticipation, people anticipate that they are going to encounter God. Now raising our hands isn’t special or magical in and of itself, the same thing could’ve happened at a Coldplay concert. But this particular worship service was an outward demonstration of inward realities. People anticipated God’s action. But let’s not let Coldplay off so quickly. Maybe one of the reasons some of these concerts are so moving and powerful, even transcendent, is because they’re so much anticipation and investment built up beforehand. You’ve gotta get there, usually a involving a long road trip. You need to buy tickets, maybe hotel rooms, eat unhealthy food, wait in long lines, and listen to annoying warm up bands. And so often, the experience is so profound because of all we have invested into it. I wonder what might happen if we prepared more and anticipated more for our gatherings together as believers. What might happen if we consecrated these places and times for God to do something amazing? 

Thanks for reading! What are some ways that you’ve been able to prepare before various church gatherings?

– Pastor Tyler

Praying The Ten

In June 2017, the Arkansas legislature installed a huge, beautiful monument of the Ten Commandments, spanning six feet tall.

Not even twenty-four hours later, a man named Michael Tate Reed gets in his car, drives to the state capitol, and rams his car into the Monument, yelling “Freedom” on the live stream video.  Not long after, Governor Huckabee tweeted: Back “Some idiot broke all the 10 commandments at the same time.”  Come to find out, these was not Reed’s first run in with the Ten Commandments. He did the same thing in 2014 in Oklahoma.      Recently, Reed posted a Gofundme page to raise the funds for a new car. I know some of you are compelled to give, but unfortunately, Gofundme took it down.  Now, as you might imagine, Reed has a history of mental health. More interesting for the purpose of this post is Reed’s Christian credentials. He’s a self-described “Jesus Freak.”   While few Christians would ever wreck our vehicles on Ten Commandment Monuments, some Christian traditions metaphorically tear them down.  Some of this is well-intentioned, as we recognize New Testament teaching highlighting some of the differences between our relationship with the law as Christians, and an ancient Israelite’s relationship to the law.   The Apostle Paul says: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” –Romans 6:14.   However, to tear down the Ten Commandments doesn’t take Jesus seriously (“I didn’t come to abolish, but fulfill the law”) or many other scripture passages like Psalm 119:97: “Oh, how I LOVE your law! I meditate on it all day long.”   One helpful category for me is the Lutheran contribution that there are three uses of (reasons for) the law.

1. To prevent/curb sin, at a general level. “You shall not murder” is pretty important for all societies everywhere.

2. The mirror our sinful condition, to point out our need for a savior. Who of us has perfectly fulfilled the Ten Commandments? None of us, except Jesus

3. To guide Christians in their new life, walking in Holy Spirit-filled love.

It’s this third category I want to focus on, again from our friend Martin Luther (the German Reformer).  

Luther Gets His Hair Cut

One day, as Luther was getting a hair cut, his barber, Peter, asked him a simple question: “Brother Martin, how do I pray?”  Luther’s responded by writing a book. Classic Luther. He called it “A Simple Way to Pray: For Peter, the Master Barber.” And it’s actually a short book, only thirty pages. I highly recommend it, and here’s a link for a free pdf version online: https://wmpl.org/filed/resources/public/Literature/ASimpleWaytoPray.pdf   Near the end of this book, there’s a section in this book about Luther’s relationship to the Ten Commandments, and how they contributed to his faith and prayer life. His four-fold approach involved 1) instruction 2) thanksgiving 3) confession and 4) prayer. He uses the Ten Commandments to structure and scaffold his prayer life.   For example: He would come to a command, like the first one:  

Commandment One: “You shall have no other gods before me.” -Exodus 20:3

  • Instruction: Luther begins here. What is this commandment teaching me about God? What does he want from me? He writes: “First I consider what God demands of me and teaches me in this commandment. He wants me to give Him my genuine attention in all things. He greatly desires to be my God. He [wants me] to trust only in him.” Luther is preaching to himself, meditating and chewing on the Word of God.

  • Thanksgiving: Luther then works on his gratitude. “He says: “Second, I thank Him for His infinite mercy, that he descended here below, without me asking him or seeking him or meriting him, and like a Father offered to be my God, to take on what’s mine. . .” Basically, “God thank you that you even offer to be my God, that you want to be first in my life, and that putting you first is best for me.”

  • Confession: Luther then makes confession before God in light of this commandment: “Third, I confess and admit my great sin and thanklessness, that I have, throughout most of my life, so terribly despised such a high gift and beautiful teaching, with innumerable idolatries. . .” He confesses his ingratitude and idolatry to God in detail.

  • Prayer: Finally, Luther turns the command into a request of God: “O my God and Lord. . .Guard my heart so that I no longer forget and become unthankful, so that I do not seek comfort in any gods on earth. . .but rather truly cling to You, alone, and purely, as my only God.”

 Let’s try another one: the Sabbath commandment. This was something I prayed through on Friday, which is the day I take a Sabbath rest.

Commandment Four: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” -Exodus 20:8  

  • Instruction: So I first meditated on the command: What is God trying to teach me? Well, humans aren’t meant to always be busy. I’m a human being, not a human-do-ing (yes, it’s cheesy, but now you’ll remember it. . .you’re welcome). So there are times to. . .just. . .be. To sit quietly with no to-do list. God desires me to take time, even an entire day per week, to rest, worship, and delight.

  • Thanksgiving: So I tried to foster gratitude: “God, thank you that you’ve commanded this of us, you want us to have abundant life, and seven-day workweeks don’t bring this about. Thank you that you care about us, that you want us to rest and enjoy things, that you’re not a cruel slave driver.”

  • Confession: Then I moved into introspection: “God, I confess that I don’t often rest in you. I often find my identity in my accomplishments or check lists. And even on days off, I find ways to distract myself from you. I confessing to the wrong-thinking that people need me, that I need to make everyone happy by always being available to them, but never available to you.”

  • Prayer: Then finally, I turned it into a request: “Father, help me to rest. Help me to worship. Help me to delight. Help me to get the right rhythm in this area of life. I don’t want to be lazy, and I don’t want to be exhausted.”

  Let’s practice one more of these.    

Commandment Seven: “You shall not commit adultery.”  

  • Instruction: God is teaching us here that marriage is the best and only place for sex. Sexual promiscuity in general and adultery in particular have devastating effects on individuals, on families, and in churches.

  • Thanksgiving: God, thank you for my fiancé. Thank you for the boundaries you’ve placed around sex and relationships, for our good. Thank you for the beauty of women, especially in our community, but thank you that I cannot have them. I trust your way of life-long monogamy more than what the culture espouses.

  • Confession: But, Father, I confess that the world has an unbelievable, imaginative power to promote sexual promiscuity in my mind and in my fantasy life. I confess to letting my mind wander, and to the ingratitude and lust that can grow like weeds so quickly in my heart. Cleanse me and make me more like Jesus in this area.

  • Prayer: “Help prepare me for the long-term, binding commitment with her, and to be prepared and protected from anything that could jeopardize that.”

What do you think? Could you pray through some or all of the Ten Commandments today, like Luther recommends? If you do, I would love to hear about your experience.  

-Tyler