Archive for October, 2008

THE LAND IS IN SHAMBLES

Friday, October 31st, 2008

In these times of uncertainty and disarray, Isaiah’s community is engaged in self-destructive behavior (this discussion is informed by Professor Walter Brueggemann’s and Mrs. Vera White’s study of Isaiah entitled From Despair to Hope).

From the beginning of his discussion, Isaiah makes it clear that the disarray is not God’s fault. The failure of his religious community to offer healthy alternatives to the secular society around him is, without a doubt, the result of individuals in that community. Culpability is never a doubt in Isaiah’s discussion: clearly the religious community is responsible for its own misery. Not the economic forces, not the Assyrians or the Egyptians, not Satan–Isaiah’s community is responsible for its own chaos.

Do I need to apply this verse to our world? Does anyone here disagree that the mess in which we find ourselves is not our own doing? Can there be any Skinnerian, Rogerians, Gestaltians, or Existentialists who would still argue that Auschwitz and David Koresh were momentary products of a bad environment? Is there anyone who honestly can blame anyone or anything but our bad choices for the rise of a divorce rate from one in six (1960) to one in two (1990)? No matter how you may feel about abortion, is there anyone who would still argue that having to abort–or as I believe “murder”–40,000 fetuses a year is merely a lapse of the inexorable human movement to perfection? And, is there anyone, who can honestly blame the depravity of human nature for the sad case in England where two 11-year-olds are being tried for the murder of a two-year -old? How times have changed! In 1940, public school teachers rated the top disciplinary problems to be talking out of turn and chewing gum. In 1990, public school teachers rated the top disciplinary problems to be drug abuse, rape, robbery, and suicide. Why? Are we not responsible for our own problems? Now, this pastor feels that we are–and so does Isaiah–and the dealing with this culpability is what Isa. 59 is all about.

The central theme of Isaiah 59:1-8, then, is a bill of particulars for the kinds of conduct that have gotten Isaiah and his people into the problems they are now experiencing.

FINALLY COMES THE POET

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Some people claim that Isaiah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. His career spanned the turbulent period from King Isaiah’s death, about 740 B.C. to the end of Sennaacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Judah’s kings, especially timid and shaky Ahaz, persistently wanted to rely on political deals with foreign powers, usually Assyria or Egypt, to save the country. But Isaiah would not hear of it–”Tremble, you women who are at ease . . .(32:11a).”

Isaiah’s ministry began with the famous “call” in ch. 6 to which you are no doubt familiar. The theologian/writer Fred Buechner, taking substantial liberty with Scripture, paraphrases Isaiah’s call (in ch. 6) this way:

There were banks of candles flickering in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him , as if it had always been there but was only now seen for what it was (like a face in the leaves of a tree or a bear among the stars), there was the Mystery Itself whose gown was the incense and the candles, a dusting of gold at the hem. There were winged creatures shouting back and forth . . . and Isaiah responding, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. . . I am a goner . . .” And God said, “Go give the deaf Hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks, because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.” (–from Peculiar Treasures).

“That is what a prophet does,” Buechner ends. “And Isaiah went and did it.”
Listen with me to the words of Isaiah. They ring true for his generation and for ours.

Hiding From God In Church – Part 6

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Finally, Paul sums up all he has by saying, “I have kept the faith.” Faith is a valuable deposit, a treasure that is beyond price.

Ernie Campbell, former pastor at Riverside Church, NY, NY, tells a story about a man who visited the New York Public Library. He passed the sculptured lions that keep their vigil at the gates, climbed the marble stairs that would do a palace justice, walked between those two towering renaissance pillars and through the doors. He was ill-prepared for what he saw inside: Glass covered display cases, mounted stamp collections hanging from the walls, busts of notable benefactors, a store, rest rooms, checkrooms, telephones stairs and more. Finally, in a dark mood of rising desperation, the man turned to a member of the staff and cried, “Where do they keep the books?”

To many outsiders, I suspect, Christians must appear to be an assortment of many different programs. But we are much more. People come here and they are forgiven. They find faith.

What books are to a library, faith is to a church. No books, no library! No faith, no church! Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). If we teach faith we are unstoppable!

In the little village of Blantyre, Scotland, a common laborer of no consequence, named David Hogg taught a small Sunday school class of young boys. One particularly attentive young boy in that class was deeply touched. In fact, he felt called to the mission field. He went through the jungles from village to village, witnessing to the Christian faith. In fact, he transformed the African continent. This young man was David Livingstone . . .

Hiding From God In Church – Part 5

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, himself a contemporary of Paul, writes “You are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven . . .” Wow! Now that is a church to which I would want to belong . . Do I? Do you? Do we take seriously the nature of our mission statement? The nature of our calling?

Our mission statement says: “The mission of First Presbyterian Church USA, Johnstown, PA, is to proclaim through word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This will be accomplished through the Holy Spirit by nurturing edifying, education, and equipping the whole people of God who are called, gifted, and sent to be all that God has called us to be.” This laudatory goal is more than a whimsical dream shared by a few wizened old elders. No, this is the hope of all generations. The hope of generations of First Church saints who have endured three floods, four major World Wars and one Civil War, and countless heartaches. But we still are here . . . still keeping the faith.

Hiding From God In Church – Part 4

Monday, October 27th, 2008

The Church, then, is not perfect. But it is an important–if much maligned part of modern society.

As I read H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds to my children, I was reminded of the naturalistic roots of modernity. Modernity, I confess, is used in a pejorative way in this instance. Naturalism, and modernism, are philosophical viewpoints that extol the virtues of nature while discounting the notion that there is a benevolent entity–viz., God–who is in control. And, if there is a God, He certainly does not care a hoot about humankind. Naturally (no pun intended!) one can see how a group of people–like the church–worshiping this ineffectually, mischievous deity would not fare very well.

Back to H.G. Wells–in his book, War, Wells presents an unflattering picture of a pastor–religious man–who is singularly unappetizing. Cowardly, irrational, selfish, the reader is delighted to observe the roguish pastor being consumed by the invading Martians. Wells’ pastor, I fear, is replicated throughout modern intellectual history. Who can forget Tennessee William’s unforgettable Episcopal rector in Cat on the Hot Tin Roof? Or, closer to home, I cringe every time I think of the amoral, wimpish pastor on the T.V. series M*A*S*H. Mark one up for modernity.

Not that the church is the enemy of progress. By no means. But perhaps, in defense of detractors, the church may have strayed from its central purposes. I have no doubt that this is part of Paul’s discussion with Timothy. As the hymn goes, “The church is not a building,/The church is not a steeple,/The Church is not a resting place,/The church is a people.” And, simply put, the Church–if it has any relevance at all–must impact individuals primarily and institutions secondarily.

Hiding From God In Church – Part 3

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Not that the past should be ignored–it is foolish for each generation to reinvent the wheel. But as my friend Harry Barnhart believes, and John Ruskin wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our father did for us.’” So, in our reforming spirit, let us not forget all those who have come before us.

In 2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18 Paul delivers his valedictorian address to the young pastor Timothy. As it were, Paul is leaving some final advice to this young Christian pastor and his equally young Ephesian church. “I have fought the good fight.” This is no idle boasting or resignation. Paul is affirming the struggle–not final victory. For it is in the struggle that we succeed. He is affirming the power of the Holy Spirit–not our good intentions or hard efforts.

In a reformation spirit, he continues to challenge us to keep on fighting. We must be valiant for the truth. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We must fight falsehood with our truth and fight the falsehood in our truth.” We need to pray, “Renew Your church O Lord beginning with me!”

“The church is something like Noah’s ark,” a churchman once explained. “If it weren’t for the storm outside you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.” Paul, Calvin, Luther were not out to reinvent the church–they sought to reform the church. We are, to use Paul’s words, to keep running.
The essayist Philip Yancy laments our human tendency to criticize one another.

The last few Sunday mornings I have begun the day by reading from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is thrilling, the images ethereal, the themes exalted. Then I proceed to church, a congregation that sings “praise songs” accompanied by a keyboard and guitars. Without fail, someone requests the children’s favorite, “Our God is an Awesome God,” which contains the eminently forgettable line, “When He rolls up his sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Yancy continues by confessing that he originally rejected most denominational churches and opted for a less formal, less structured worship environment.

Hiding From God In Church – Part 2

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

The early church, I fear, was not much better than we are. Granted they did not have many of the institutional battles to fight that we have–like what color the bathroom tiles should be–because they did not own any buildings and were not that large anyway.

The early church (circa 45-150 A.D.) was hardly more than a sect of Judaism. Early Christians went to temple and then retreated to a member’s home–often close to the local Synagogue–and shared a common meal, prayed, shared the Word of God. From the beginning, though, they were committed to improving relationships–not maintaining the status quo.

In the first place, as days passed, and Christ did not return in glory, believers were compelled to recognize that an unspecified time, much longer than had originally been supposed, would intervene between the first and the second coming of Christ. At the same time, their world situation was changing radically too. In 45 A.D. they were formally recognized as being separate from Judaism in the Herodian persecution. And, by the time of Emperor Constantine three hundred years later, they were accepted by the state and encouraged corporately to own property and to build magnificent cathedrals. And, most historians argue, that this latter development was a mixed blessing. From that time until now the church has spent an inordinate time maintaining an institution.

Hiding From God In Church

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I consider myself to be a Charismatic Reformed Baptist. To be “reformed” is to celebrate our Calvinistic roots. To embrace a theological viewpoint that is centered on the Word of God but welcomes its changing application to contemporary situations. As the theologian Karl Barth explains, a reformed theologian “has a Bible in one hand and the New York Times in another.”

Notice that I am saying that we are “open to change”. I did not say that we are perfect. Many of us, I am afraid, do have an unwarranted assumption that the church is, or should be, perfect, sinless, free of the intrigues and petty jealousies that have plagued her since disciples fought over who would be number one. Now be honest: haven’t there been times you have pulled out of a church because of decisions and behavior that you have deemed improper?

Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon days fame creates a fictional church–Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility–to illustrate an important point: we are so busy that we forget to be the caring place that a church should be. There is a hunger in us that simply will not be met by frenetic, religious activity.

A pastor once remarked, “Church members do not die–they are offended.” The painful fact is that we in the church are not good at dealing with conflict. Small problems fester into open sores that make us totally ineffectual. Therefore, we no longer find the love of God in Church. Karl Barth warned, “The church is often our last hiding place from God.”

Baby Jane Doe

Monday, October 20th, 2008

As I sat in Old Testament class listening to Professor Roberts discuss the Book of Job one dreary October morning in 1981, the radiators in Stuart Hall groaned and hissed. I was barely able to tease my psyche, because you see, my heart and my mind were at home with my wife.

Almost two weeks earlier, my wife Karen and I had been contacted by Goodwill Home and Missions Adoption Agency. We were told that within a month we would receive a new baby. The child’s birth mother was due any day.

To say that we were excited is a gross understatement. As any expectant parents, we were already choosing names for our child; we had collected furniture. It was as if we had to complete nine months of preparation in two weeks.

Dr. Robert’s interminably long lecture finally ended and I wandered out of Stuart 6. Written in large red letters on the back of a manila folder taped on the back door was: TO JAMES P. STOBAUGH: CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A GIRL! The message filled my heart with inexpressible joy. Our little girl had been born.

We named our new daughter Jessica Ruth. Jessica Ruth’s entrance into our lives is an apt analogy for what happens when you are born into God’s family.
As we rejoiced, so also God must rejoice when you take your rightful place in His kingdom! How He rejoices when you commit your life to Him and are reborn!

Karen and I deliberately chose to tie our lives to Jessica’s life. And so it is with God. Those of you who call yourselves Christian were chosen by God before time had any meaning. He chose you. If you think about it, because He knew and predestined you to be His son or daughter, all you could do is choose to respond to His love. The proper response to God’s love is faith. This is a faith that shows that you trust His Word.

Baby girl Jane Doe, a female infant with no name, no past or future, is suddenly, inextricably, permanently drawn into our lives. Jessica becomes our inheritance. She take our name and our lives are to be forever tied together. In the eyes of God and the state of New Jersey, Jessica is reborn as our daughter.

Hear the description of Jessica’s adoption as it is recorded in Middlesex County Courthouse. “And it is further ordered and adjudged that from and after the date of this adoption, the right, duties, privileges, and relations heretofore existing between Jessica Ruth Stobaugh and any other persons founded upon such relationships, shall in all respects be at an end.” In other words, all of Jessica’s past dissolved when she was adopted by us.

At the moment we adopted Jessica Ruth our parents became her grandparents, her children our grandchildren. Her pain is our pain; her victories, our victories. We willingly, joyfully enter this commitment.

How extraordinary, and incomprehensible it is that a white boy from the heart of Dixie is connected forever with a African-Amerian Yankee infant. But that is nothing compared to the commitment of our God to our future by His sacrifice of his Son on calvary!

What do you think? Write me jim@forsuchatimeasthis.com

History Yet Unbelieved

Friday, October 17th, 2008

I suppose the task ahead of us is to live and evoke the spirit of Psalm 8 in our community. As Walter Brueggemann explains, our task is to nurture, to nourish, and to evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. Our argument that one should rely on a faithful, historical, omnipotent God is a threatening message to this generation.

Our world does not understand, much less believe in our history. God is not to be trusted because He cannot be quantified. He is not to be controlled. This God makes self-proclaimed kings of the earth uncomfortable. And this God of ours, therefore, has been making kings like Herod, Ahab, and Nero uncomfortable for ages.

I remember a simple, powerful Gospel Song that all of us in our 1966 Southern church sang. This was the song of the redeemed. But we scarcely knew it. “Jesus loves the little children. . . red and yellow black and white, they are precious in His sight.” Since I was still too young to doubt the veracity of my parents and teachers, I actually believed that song. And, when I started living that song later it changed my world. And when enough people lived that message we changed our world. We dared to believe God. And when we did, His history became our history. Our cause became holy, our witness worthy of the Gospel. A price was to be paid, for we defied the world’s order. But our song brought hope, life, and salvation. So it was worth it.

Our song is the song of Psalm 8. But if it is simple, and oft repeated, it is still quickly forgotten. God is a loving God; so loving in fact that He sent His only begotten Son to die for us. It is in this Son, in the vortex of this simple message, that we find wholeness, life, and health. It is our past. It is our memory. This Godly heritage equips us to go boldly into the next century and to change our world!
As we journey, let us bring wholeness as we endeavor to live a life worthy of the Gospel. And let us be as bold and unequivocal as we can be that Christ alone is the source of our life. If we do, ” . . . the eyes of the blind shall be opened/and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” And, we shall be, a divine secret slowly revealed!

What do you think? Write me jim@forsuchatimeasthis.com