Sufficient Grace

my_cup_runneth_over_by_c_pi
My Cup Runneth Over**

[The following is an excerpt from a commencement address I was asked to give last week for Trinity Preparatory Academy in at Christ Community Church in Lindenwold, NJ. While there was only one graduating senior,  they have a big vision and I was proud to be part of the ceremony. The young graduate, Miss Ana Hernandez, is a regular attender at Mercy Hill]

As you begin your life after high school, you need to recognize that while some things will change, many things will remain the same. You’re still going to have homework—in college, of course, there will be homework assignments. But more generally speaking “tests” and “tasks” and “trials” are not things that are limited to school.

In fact, in some ways, the homework assignments of high school are some of the easiest “tests” you’ll ever have. As of today, you’ll begin to discover the truth of this observation yourself. How can you prepare for the changing-yet-similar circumstances of your next chapter of life? How can you start this new chapter well?

God’s Word will help us here, because it is filled with instruction on how to manage life’s tests. It may not have the answers to your school assignments, but it definitely does have the answer to life’s “homework” assignments.

But the answers may surprise you. Continue reading

Jesus’ New Commandment

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 1.34.33 PM
Springtime flowers (photo credit below).

The “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” is a word from the Latin Bible where Jesus’ new command is translated as a “new mandate“–and since he traditionally gave that mandate or command on Thursday night before he was betrayed, the Church’s celebration of the Last Supper and its related events has come to be called Maundy Thursday.

But is Jesus’ command really new? After all, the command to “love your neighbor” is mentioned in Leviticus 19–hardly new–and Jesus indirectly refers to that statement in Leviticus elsewhere when, in the Gospels, he asked to state what the greatest commandment is; he replies that we are to love God with our whole heart, and “the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

So it isn’t new in the sense that it has never been said before. Nor is it new in that Jesus hasn’t said it before. How is it then new? Continue reading

Growth in Jersey-some Christian reflections

hilly suburbs by ducksofrubber d4d7ckpWhile ministry is primarily the work of caring for souls, and preaching and speaking the truth to people who God places in our path, there is a hard infrastructure unique to the work of church planting which includes things like demographic research.

When I moved to New Jersey in 2009 to start the process of organizing a new congregation in my denomination, the PCA, Gloucester County was the fastest growing county in New Jersey as of the 2000 census. While not of the essence for starting new church plants, such statistics, measuring population and social trends, are helpful. The thinking goes, “People who are moving or who are in transition may be more open to trying a new church.”

But the housing bubble (bust) of 2007-2008 hit our area pretty hard and affected that our area significantly and what new growth had been taking place slowed markedly. In fact, a number of subdivisions which were newly begun in farm fields had literally stopped in their tracks and sat stagnant for years.

Our own experience with new people in South Jersey has been that most of the people I have met are people that are from here–and have lived here for a while, if not all their lives. There’s an unwritten “twenty minute rule” for some families: no more than twenty minutes away from important relatives (parents, grandparents). Sometimes the rule is enforced, and other times it simply happens to work out that way. But it is pretty common.

At some point I came across a group called New Jersey Future, which is an organization that:

brings together concerned citizens and leaders to promote responsible land-use policies. The organization employs original research, analysis and advocacy to build coalitions and drive land-use policies that help revitalize cities and towns, protect natural lands and farms, provide more transportation choices beyond cars, expand access to safe and affordable neighborhoods and fuel a prosperous economy.

Now I’m not particularly interested (at least not in my capacity as a minister of the Gospel) in land use policies. But among the things that “revitalize cities and towns…” and “fuels a prosperous economy…” I’d put vibrant, healthy Christian churches at the top of the list. And while I wouldn’t have a lot of people joining me in hearty agreement, I think I’m right in my assessment. Continue reading

Reading the Bible as a Coherent Story, but Not Too Much

The Story of OVOGrowing up as a new Christian, I learned a lot in a short period of time. Most of which I learned from reading the Bible. Seriously. Just reading it.

But, Bible reading alone is not enough to make a Christian. On the contrary, the proverb is true: most heresies arise from someone “reading the Bible alone in his closet.” Reflecting on that period, I realize that I too developed some theological wrinkles that would later need to be worked out in the context of the leadership of Christ’s church. In short, I had a lot to learn.

Like me, far too many Christians, generally, and American Christians, in particular, assume that wisdom begins with them, here, now, in the 21st century; and that we alone have inherited the key to knowledge when it comes to the sacred truths of Scripture. Continue reading

Church S/Hopping in 2017

old_books_by_jakethesnake999-small
Old Books

I recently came across the Reformed Reader, a WordPress site dedicated to encourage people who have an interest in solid Christian theology. I’d like to commend it to my readers here.

It is stewarded by a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary (Andrew Compton), and a minister in the United Reformed Church (Shane Lems) and has a good sampling of texts and quotes which are both old and still applicable to our modern situation as Christians in a quickly changing world.

For instance, I was struck by how much Continue reading

Five Truths about the Incarnation that Will Blow Your Mind

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 5.41.51 PM.png
The wisemen bring gifts to the Christ, a moment traditionally remembered on Epiphany.*

Today is the church’s traditional celebration of Epiphany. The church I serve recognizes the “five evangelical feast days” during the Christian year. While Epiphany is not one of them, by gathering for a meal as a congregation, for what we call our “Epiphany Feast,” this event helps us continue to enjoy Christmas into January, as well as marks the beginning of our new year together as yoked-together believers in one local body. I’m posting the essay below (delivered previously this past Advent as a sermon on Christmas) as a reminder that Christmas, and its underlying doctrine of Incarnation, is more than just a day for shopping, that we can toss out to the curb like a dried up, has-been pine tree once the new year hits.

Zap! Like a loop of wires in your house, your mind is only suited to carry a certain level of “current” when it comes to theological truth. The following five truths–more like riddles–will trip the circuit in your brain if you think too hard about them. Yet, contemplating such truths is the perfect antidote for Christmas consumer ‘excess’ and a great way to prepare your heart to receive the Christ this Christmas season. Continue reading

Why I Love Acts 29 & Why I’m Leaving

Iscreen-shot-2016-11-22-at-10-22-20-amn March of 2017 I will have been a part of the Acts 29 Network for ten years. By “part of,” I mean that back in March, 2007, I was first assessed by a group of pastors in A29 while attending an Acts 29 Boot Camp at Mars Hill Church, Seattle. The assessment was used by God to help me focus on two things: first, a reminder that church planting required that I place a high priority on close fellowship with my wife; and second, an exhortation to have a clear plan of where I was going and what I was called to do.

Because of the work which God was leading me to do–plant a church in southern New Jersey, as part of the New Jersey Presbytery of the PCA–this input proved to be critical, and so I pursued a relationship with Acts 29 for a few different reasons. Continue reading

Speaking of Preaching…

john-knox-pulpit
John Knox’s pulpit**

I discussed preaching in my last post. But what is preaching? Luther is supposed to have said:

“When the preacher speaks, God speaks. And whoever cannot say that about his preaching should leave preaching alone.”*

If he’s right, that God speaks when the preacher speaks, then it would make sense that preaching is an important element of worship. From an historical point of view, preaching is also a way the Christian church expresses continuity with the first century synagogue (where teaching and preaching were prominent) as well as with the Old Testament Church (where prophets spoke for God to the people).

Preaching is essentially proclamation–that’s partly why there are at least two overlapping words for preaching in the Bible, one of which focuses on “teaching” and the other on the work of a “herald.” Therefore,  while I believe that preaching with powerpoints, videos, and charts/graphs/diagrams is not forbidden, it can tend to draw some of the power away from the proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel.

But this takes work; especially in a media-saturated society, it is hard work preparing a proclamation from the Bible every week. Because of this, here are five guidelines which I’ve given in different forms to the people of this congregation about what I expect from them in terms of engagement with my preaching. Continue reading

Sermons from the Last 18 Months

acts-gnt-photo
Acts chapter one from the Greek NT

Preaching is a big part of what I do; of the titles that I go by as “pastor,” one of my favorites is “minister of the Word and Sacrament.” Minister means “servant.” I’m literally, by that title, a “servant of the Word.”

To prepare for this task, I generally I aim to spend between 12-20 hours per week in sermon preparation and study. Not all of that is in book work or writing. Some of it, and more besides, is spent in meditation, prayer, and personal reflection as I try to apply and feel the weight of the word I intend to preach to others in my own soul. The following two proverbs are helpful in this regard:

Physician, heal thyself.

and

Watch your life and doctrine closely for in so doing you’ll save both yourself and your hearers.

With this as background, I am posting below a ten-point review of what I’ve preached over the past eighteen months or so, and some explanation as to why I’ve chosen what I’ve chosen. Continue reading

Herod, a Great Builder of Antiquity, and the City of Caesarea

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 12.38.25 PM
Image credit: National Geographic

Herod, around the time of Jesus’ birth, was building the mighty city of Caesarea, and with it, a man-made harbor called Sebastos (Greek for Augustus), ,which were both dedicated to Caesar Augustus. A devoted follower of Rome and all things Roman, some have called this city Herod’s “Rome.” To furnish his Rome with fresh water, and run the many fountains he had constructed, a roman aqueduct was constructed that, at one point, runs for four miles through rock. It is a marvel of the ancient world and is pictured on the left.

Who was Herod? Like a “Kennedy,” a “Bush” or a “Clinton,” Herod was a member of a dynastic “ruling class” in first century Jewish society; “Herod” was more like a title than a personal name. As such, his affections and affinities were less for his religion (Judaism) and more for his position of power and prestige. This meant that while “personally” he may have been Jewish, politically, he was a pawn and a sycophant to his pagan overlord, Caesar Augustus, and blended his faith (such as it was) with that of the polytheistic, and idolatrous, regime of the Roman empire. For proof of this spiritual compromise, we need look no farther than his building and dedicating an entire city, and this massive aqueduct to support it, to Caesar himself.

You might say that Herod had no choice; after all, the Roman Empire was truly an impressive (frightening) marvel of the ancient world. (Check out this beautiful and detailed clickable map, here.) But surely Herod went beyond merely “going along to get along” when he built Caesarea, its harbor, and the aqueduct. Here’s how one scholarly article puts it:

In 21 BC King Herod commissioned the construction of a large, all-weather harbour at Caesarea Maritima, which he named Sebastos in honour of Augustus Caesar (Fig. 1A). The harbour took more than five years to construct and when completed was the largest artificial harbour of its time in the Mediterranean (Raban, 1992).

Besides being a treasure trove for science-history geeks (I am not, but aspire to be one), the construction of this massive structure was not only an act of religious devotion (which I’ve already argued), but nothing short of an expression of sheer genius by ancient engineers. This Wikipedia-like essay (but not Wikipedia) on the history and construction of the city and the structure, though not fancy, is actually quite a good source of information; notice the visual diagram provided on how much ash would have to have been imported to this area. (Note also that it cites forty-five different sources for the basis of its conclusions.)

History, in short, is important for those who would read and benefit from their reading of the Bible. Take, for example, this essay on the historical significance of ancient Caesarea. Filled with highly detailed information and clear, annotated pictures, we learn about a city of which it is likely, truth be told, most evangelical Christians are largely ignorant. Which should be surprising considering how important it is in the Bible and in the Early Church–the list of Bible references for this city is not short! For example, Jesus, Philip, Peter, Paul, Origen, Eusebius all have significant events that are centered in, or related to, this city.

For example, the author of this article, Stephen Languor, argues because of the conversion of the famous Cornelius in Caesarea,

[in] Acts 10, the first breakthrough [for the spread of Christianity] occurred in Caesarea. From here, we can say, the faith in Jesus went out to the ancestors of present-day Christians.

and

[t]he irony is that the great harbor city which Herod built as his chief point of contact with Rome (those breakwaters in the form of arms reaching out) became the initial point of contact between the faith in Jesus and the world.

Speaking of history, this great structure, and Herod’s involvement in it, along with the importance that Caesarea plays in the biblical record, reminds me of the importance for Christians generally to be aware of the history of our religion. Especially in a post-modern, individualistic, naîve, and skeptical day and age, one in which “if it is true for you doesn’t mean it needs to be true for me,” history can afford Christians a point of common ground. Not that everyone agrees on historical approaches or conclusions–far from it. But at least we can use history as a starting point for talking about ultimate issues.

For example, Caesarea and its significance for Christianity would seem to be a great starting point to discuss this skeptic’s view that “Jesus never existed.” While the article proves that he’s done some fundamentally sound research, and has raised some important questions, he certainly hasn’t proven his point; and even an elementary reading of the essay shows that he’s moved more by his own bias than a true examination of the historical record.

In conclusion, let’s not give up reading the Bible. But let’s also remember that the Bible was written in an historical context which deserves to be known, understood, and celebrated. Our faith will be richer, and more compelling to share with others who have not yet professed their faith in the Savior who, in history, on the third day, actually rose from the dead.

Appendix: Other resources for those interested in learning more:

  1. a bibliography (very extensive) from the archives of Brown University’s The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, on Herod
  2. An article in the Chicago Tribune:  (which cites the NYT as the original source)
  3. Sebastos’ meaning
  4. a short and succinct article from 1997 Grollier Encyclopedia