18 April 2014

Jesus Transforms Our Evil Into His Good

Only righteous Jesus can and did, once and for all, transform the evilest day of our making into the Good Friday of His own accomplishment; not by avoiding our evil, but by swallowing our evil so entirely and so undeservedly that God's holy wrath was completely satisfied, thus opening the one and only way for our reconciliation with God through Himself.  "For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Hallelujah, what a Savior!

For this reason the Apostle Paul, and billions since him (including me) who find in his sentence the heart of God so beautifully expressed, makes this plea: "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Ever since the Fall, when Adam and Eve "held open the door" for sin, guilt, and death to enter into the world, we have been trying to cover our shame with our own schemes and shams.  Whether it was our first primitive coverings sewn of fig leaves or our most modern tapestries woven of eclectic threads of philosophy, our own attempts to contain or control or conceal our sin by non-gospel means have accomplished neither concealment nor control nor containment.  In fact, our best efforts to erase our sin have only increased our sin by adding self-righteousness and disbelief to our failures, further accelerating our destruction and further complicating our enmity with God.  Without Christ we are utterly trapped, totally lost, and unavoidably dead in our sins.  

But Christ, who knew no sin, came to cover our sin entirely with Himself.  Foreshadowed by the animal skins that God provided our great-grandparents on the day of their spiritual death, which temporarily covered their shame, the true and perpetual covering of sin came in Christ's sacrifice.  His blood covered our sin in two important ways: it completely removed the stain of our guilt (expiation) and it completely endured the fierce judgment of our God thus yielding to grounds for friendship with the Holy (propitiation).  

Theologians rightly refer to a double imputation.  (1) Our sin was mercifully imputed to Christ, where He suffered the full and necessary wrath of God in our place.  Also, (2) His righteousness was graciously imputed to us, where God can now have full fellowship with us through His Son's resurrection victory.  Both imputations are essential or else God's justice and Christ's mercy would never meet and convert the sinner.  

The salvation-life can be summarized in terms of covering--putting off the clothes of the old man (e.g. repenting of both our sin and our "fig leaves") and putting on the righteous garment of Christ (e.g. believing in the exclusive offer of Christ's character as our final covering accessible only by faith).

08 April 2014

Pet Issues

Pets don't exist in Uganda.  Actually, it is a source of great curiosity (and disapproval) of the Western culture in the African perspective.  Pets are a luxury that take food instead of generate food; that is, unless some clever Ugandans find your pet unattended to and voilĂ  "Meat's on the menu tonight!"  (Sorry to any animal lovers--it is a different world here.)

But while there are no pets, there are nevertheless pet issues.  Lots of them, just like in America.  Here, to shorten or skip a greeting is bad form, to drink any kind of alcohol is taboo, to eat pork in some households, even to cook and eat a steak even slightly rare.  And many of our pet issues--on either side of the ocean--we use to elevate self, judge others, eclipse the truth, and divide the Body.  This is where the Apostle Paul steps into the fray.

It is both a sign of a good sermon and a sign of a poor sermon to generate tangential thoughts in the listeners; the good sermon generates productive tangents, the poor sermon generates distractions.  Sunday's sermon prompted me to compose, in outline form, an entire tangential sermon of the text 1 Corinthians 10:15-11:1.  But I was still paying attention!

I.  Partaking without Participating (10:15-22)

I never thought of this before, but there is the important distinction between partaking and participating.  Partaking is nearness, participating is oneness.  Israel partook of God's glory, blessing, miracles without participating in regenerated worship.  The church is tempted to follow in Israel's notorious footsteps in the wilderness--to partake of the Spirit without participating with the Spirit; to be in church but not be of the church.  They had physical satisfaction in the heavenly meal, but rejected true spiritual satisfaction in repentance and trust in Christ--the Living Water and the Bread of Life.  Their singular hope of finding true satisfaction was not rooted in the Lord, so it is not surprising that they eventually dabbled and fell into syncretism with other idols, which Paul demarcates as demons.  But we can only participate with one or the other--demons or the Spirit; never both.  Syncretism never works and it never satisfies.

II.  Participating without Partaking (10:23-11:1)

But, Paul masterfully moves from teaching that partaking is not equal to participating in worship (vv. 15-22) to teaching against the other extreme of the same spectrum--that participating is not necessarily equal to partaking in behavior (vv. 23-11:1).  Because behavior is not the ultimate measure of the heart--although there are connections--we cannot elevate behavior as the litmus paper test of morality.  The illustration is eating meat.  Just because he or someone eats meat doesn't mean he has consented to the worship of idols/demons.  Just because I eat at the Thai restaurant doesn't mean I rubbed the restaurant-Buddha's belly on the way out. The issue is the heart, and we are imperfect and unqualified judges of this inner region.  We are called to evaluate "fruit" of someone's life, to rebuke one another if necessary, to exhort and correct according to the truth yet always with love.  But we cannot rightly judge the heart.  

The legalist will not be happy with Paul's conclusion, but he strikes a true note: rules do not generate satisfaction or attain freedom.  In the end, legalism is just as ineffective and demonic as syncretism.  Shockingly, even while people in the church are willing to draw blood over such pet issues as meat and drink, Paul says, "Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial...everything is permissible but not everything is constructive"--even eating meat that might have been first sacrificed to an idol that morning.  Paul rightly says, it's not a big deal, don't even bother investigating, you have freedom either way in this area to express your faith as long as you seek to serve your neighbor in your freedom.  Eat what is served you, with the caveat that if someone openly tries to pull you into their idolatry, then refuse.  But don't assume that if your brother eats meat with his non-believing neighbor that such an act automatically makes your brother an idolater--that is going too far.

Instead of asking, "What am I allowed to do in x, y, or z situation?" the better question is, "How am I using my freedom in Christ to the glory of God?"  In attempting to answer that better question, I scribbled down these applications.

In light of your freedom in Christ:
Your pet issue may, in fact, be a non-issue that you have wrongly elevated from personal preference to universal truth.
Your pet issue cannot rightly be used to judge others inside or outside the church; that is God's place alone.
Your pet issue is not paramount.  Christ is paramount.  Your pet issue may be eclipsing Christ.
Your pet issue may, in fact, be idolatrous and therefore demonic.
Your pet issue may be keeping you from Christ and dividing the Body of Christ.
Your pet issue cannot satisfy, unify, or sanctify.

01 April 2014

Prayer Points -- April 2014


1 April 2014 -- Fatima (name changed for safety's sake) sat on a wooden bench at the back of the public high school class as I spoke--by invitation from one of the school's administrators--about God's gift of eternal life made possible only through Jesus Christ.  I didn't notice her when the impromptu question and answer time started; she was sort of swallowed up by other, bolder students who were asking many good questions about the gospel of Christ's grace--how many gods are there (one), is Jesus greater than Mohammed (yes, one is still in his grave), what about the teaching by some that we should pray to Mary (no, the only command Mary ever gave in Scripture was: "Whatever He says to you, do it"[John 2:5]), and how did Jesus come to earth (by the miracle of the virgin birth)?  

The session went about thirty minutes longer than I anticipated, but the offer was given to the students to profess faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.  Fatima came forward and said, in front of her classmates and teachers, that she wanted to have this forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.  I reviewed with her the bad news first--we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, which deserves the wrath of our holy God.  But the good news is far better than the bad news is bad--Jesus Christ lived a sinless life yet died on the cross in our place, coming back to life again and offering eternal life to all who cling to Him alone by faith.  She agreed.  We prayed.  I announced her as my brand new sister in Christ.  I learned that she didn't have a Bible, so I gave her mine.  Then I left, not knowing that Fatima is from a Muslim family.  "Oh, wow, then she'll definitely need a friend.  Who knows how her family will respond?"

This was God's work through and through; I was completely unprepared, thoroughly exhausted from my own classes, and entirely winging it.  But the Lord gave me not only the words to say but the verses to back up what I said, and even the final testimony I gave (that I later learned was culturally significant because this culture greatly discourages asking questions and never stands on the authority of Scripture but rather on the charisma of the leader) that I have no wisdom except that which comes from the Bible to which everyone has access, so please check my answers directly.

Rejoice in the Lord always!-- Please rejoice with us as we rejoice with Fatima.  There are several more students who seemed to be seriously considering the message of the gospel.  I encouraged them to keep asking their questions since questions are the windows to the soul; that I would, Lord willing, come back and bring answers from the Scriptures.

And again I say rejoice!-- We are, by faith, rejoicing in a new twist in our situation here in Uganda.  We say, "by faith," because it is certainly not by sight yet ... and may not be "sight" for eight more months ... but we were asked by the NHU leadership to prayerfully consider adjusting our plans for the next step after our five-month training which will be completed this May.  There is a potential opening on the staff at the Pastoral Training Institute here in the Kasana community where I would (maybe) join the disciple-making ministry to existing and future pastors.  NHU is wisely slow in "laying on of hands" regarding new leadership, so we have been asked to extend our training for pastoral ministry specifically in the Ugandan culture for six more months.  There is not a promise of a position.  If I am not invited to join the Pastoral Training Institute, then I will take my extra training back to Musana in December.  If we are invited, we will build our house here at Kasana and join the community while silently grieving a prolonged transition, the loss of a much cooler climate and much prettier landscape at Musana.  But Kasana and PTI seem like a potentially healthier place for our family as a whole--for our children in terms of other children their ages, for Shellie in terms of the already-established health clinic, and for me to use more closely my gifts and passion for training ministry leaders who will train others.  We did not seek this out, but have come to believe that it is God's will for our near future.

Together with you—Kevin, Shellie, Seth, Emma, Abby, Nate, and Jocelyn Rees
New Hope Uganda: Kasana (until May 2014)—P. O. Box 16, Luwero, Uganda, East Africa
+256 752261216 (Kevin) • +256 752261508 (Shellie) • kevin.shellie.rees (Skype)

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

23 March 2014

Walumbe, Why?

"Walumbe, why are you taking our sons and daughters?" The song lyrics which were played on the loud speaker this morning from the village could be heard in our classroom three full kilometers away.  Our teacher, only half-knowing the lyrics since he is from a different tribe and doesn't know the language fluently, asked other classmates if they could to translate.  "Walumbe, why can't you take the adults instead of the children?"  Someone died in the community and this extremely loud song had two purposes: (1) to announce to the vicinity that the funeral rituals are starting, and (2) to perpetuate the worldview and worship of Walumbe--the spirit of death.  Everyone in the community "knows" that death does not just happen; it is always caused by something, someone, some power and Walumbe is behind it all ... ever since he gained entry into the earth through trickery and plagued the first man, Kintu, and wife, Nambi, by killing their children.  Notice the lyric--why are you "taking" our sons and daughters?--death is seen as thievery by powerful spirits.  Even Walumbe's "good" spirit-brother, Kayikuzi, tried to stop him, but could not.  Walumbe escaped underground to strike again later.  Of course this is false; there is not always a cause for death and even if there is a cause it is not because a demon steals life.  God holds complete power over life and death and He has appointed a time for each person to be born and a time to die, then face the judgment (Ecclesiastes 3:2; Hebrews 9:27). But this is the belief system firmly in place here; even if the myths are dismissed the view of death is still dominated by the spiritual realm.  (Don't even ask about owls!  If an owl cries, it is believed that death is coming.)

The elaborate funeral rites, with their confusing and precise rules concerning the corpse, are an appeasement to Walumbe so that he will hopefully leave the rest of the community alone for a while.  The appeasement also goes to the dead person, who is now considered a spirit and is therefore very powerful--far more powerful than when living--to exact revenge or to favorably influence the living based upon cash and material gifts of goodwill given at the funeral to the surviving family.  

This is happening today, even when people are firmly in the "modern world" with smartphones in their pockets and framed university diplomas on the their walls.  It is a culture of fear.  But other cultures are no better.  The Western culture is a culture of guilt.  The Eastern cultures are largely cultures of shame.  But the gospel, while it respects culture in general, is above culture and will by no means submit to culture.  The gospel means to redeem culture and set people free from the fear of death, from the power of guilt, and from the bondage of shame.  "Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).

12 March 2014

The Rains


The rains are here.  As ironic as it might sound coming out of my city-slicker mouth, I magnify the Lord for sending the rain.  Hallelujah!  The cistern is filling.  The leaves are greening.  The ants are moving their nests to higher ground.  The gardens are tilled by ox and plow into impressive, long, dark furrows.  The corn has been planted by bare hands (and covered over again by bare feet).  The blanket on the bed is actually welcome instead of immediately kicked away.  The dust on the roads has been tamped down.  The street vendors have started selling umbrellas and gumboots.  While we are content to wear flip-flops and short sleeves some of our warm-blooded friends are literally wearing parkas here.  (It is about 65F tonight and "R"--who has never seen a single snowflake in her lifetime--just said during devotions, "I am so cold I am going to die.")  The rain on the sheet-metal roof serenades us at 4a instead of (or on top of) the roosters.  The prevailing breeze has shifted from out of the south to out of the east, where dark blue-gray clouds gather.  I exhale and unclench my jaw.

This seasonal shift makes me think of the Puritan prayer so often turned to in The Valley of Vision (p. 75)--"The Deeps"

Plough deep in me, great Lord, heavenly husbandman, that my being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until Thou alone art seen in me, Thy beauty golden like summer harvest, Thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty.  I have no master but Thee, no law but Thy will, no delight but Thyself, no wealth but that Thou givest, no good but that Thou blessest, no peace but that Thou bestowest.  I am nothing but that Thou makest me.  I have nothing but that I receive from Thee.  I can be nothing but that grace adorns me.  Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.

02 March 2014

Prayer Points -- March 2014

“BROTHERS, PRAY FOR US!” — 1 Thessalonians 5:25
Prayer Points for the Rees Family  •  New Hope Uganda  •  Musana
cultivating leadership … planting churches … growing disciples … harvesting glory to Christ

1 March 2014 —You know those slide-a-piece puzzles we all used to work in dentist’s offices and great-aunt’s houses when all the “real toys” in the house had been given away long ago?   With an almost tactile memory, I remember how the pieces were uncooperative, how the plastic frame would nervously rattle when only slightly shaken, and how the image of the fire truck (or clown or whatever) was so obvious even in scrambled form, but how I could hardly ever map out a course of maneuvers to get all the pieces in order.  Maybe it was a left-brain/right-brain thing but I have never enjoyed puzzles.  But this kind of puzzle, even if it were solved, always had a piece missing.  Maybe I never liked puzzles because I craved closure too much—and to have a piece missing seemed unacceptably incomplete.
            I think a piece has been “missing” in my theology; not in a heterodoxy sort of way, but in a heart of God sort of way.  It’s been hidden, perhaps even semi-consciously, because all the other parts of the puzzle kept sliding into its place, or else I think that I would have seen it earlier.  But this month it has become very clear that God’s heart is not merely sympathetic toward but actively engaged for the vulnerables of the world through the agency of His people.  (Just a simple search on widow, fatherless, and/or foreigner will yield dozens of hits!) 
            The “your good works outweighing your bad works thus earning you heaven” heresy that eclipses the true gospel for billions and frustrates the gospel of grace to the point that Paul calls such aberrant belief systems “non-gospels” (Galatians 1:6) has been a constant battle in my 20 years working in the church.  But the presence of that battle neither expunges the heart of God for the vulnerables nor dilutes the consistent teaching throughout Old and New Testaments that true faith will produce good works that reflect the heart of God in this dark world where widows are edged out, where orphans are forgotten, where persons labeled as “inconvenient” are aborted, where sojourners and refugees and exiles are systematically marked for injustice, where prisoners are written off, where children are exploited, where girls (and boys) are trafficked, where disabled humans who bear the image of God are treated as non-human, where the poor are dismissed as one-dimensionally irresponsible.  One of the good works (post-conversion!) that has always marked the people of God is bringing “the fatherhood of God to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5).  This became more than “academic” for us this month.
Truth — Please pray that we all (you too!) get the mind of Christ on this huge swath of biblical revelation on justice without slipping into the non-gospel of good works without grace.
Response — Please pray that we all (you too!) find the faith-response to this revelation of God’s heart without slipping into impulsive-driven reaction to human need.
Wisdom — Please pray that we all (you too!) map a course of maneuvers for solving this theological puzzle to the glory of God without slipping into the abyss of self-glorification or the nebulous and gospel-less spirit of volunteerism that gives merely for the sake of giving.

Together with you—Kevin, Shellie, Seth, Emma, Abby, Nate, and Jocelyn Rees
New Hope Uganda: Kasana (until May 2014)—P. O. Box 16, Luwero, Uganda, East Africa
New Hope Uganda: Musana (after May 2014)—P. O. Box 123, Lugazi, Uganda, East Africa

27 February 2014

Omniscience

Psalm 139:1  You have searched me and You know me (before, involuntarily)
Psalm 139:23  Search me, O God, and know my heart (again, voluntarily)

God's omniscience "bookends" this psalm, but with one key difference at the end from the beginning.  Before, David was not particularly aware of God's special knowledge of him, but by meditating upon it, David becomes very aware and receptive of God's intense knowledge of him.  "Such knowledge is too wonderful me; too lofty for me to attain" (vs. 6).  "How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God; how vast is the sum of them" (vs. 17).

The entire 139th psalm hinges, I believe, on the goodness of God without actually mentioning goodness at all.  But I see that it is divine goodness that makes divine omniscience a blessing instead of a horror.  If God were not good, then David's inability to escape God's presence and perception would be a terror.  But since God is good, then His omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (for all the "omnis" go together) elicit a doxology from David.  So either place David begins--whether believing or disbelieving the goodness of God--the end is the same: intimacy with God.  

But, my oh my, intimacy with God is not natural to most ... myself included.  For instance, the event we had last Friday named, "Daddy Day" betrayed my difficulty with intimacy with God.  Even the mention of such an event a few days earlier by our instructor, without any details, made me shudder.  When the event arrived, without any specific forewarning, I dreaded it all the more.  "Starting now," our teacher said, "take the next 4 hours for prayer and solitude with God the Father."  Sigh.  I am sad to admit, for it shows my hardened and therefore restless heart, but I would almost rather spend 4 hours with the 3 year-old Sunday school class than to be task-less in the inner-realm.  [Think, with theatrical allowances: Luke Skywalker going into the cave to meet his fear alone.]  

Give me a text to analyze, a letter to write, an enigma to unravel, a pot to scrub--anything, please--just don't leave me with my idle thoughts before the One who knows all, who is able to do all, and who is in and through and beyond and above all space and time--before whom it is said in Hebrews 4:13, "nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight--everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account."  Every time I am stilled ... every time, it seems ... my mind circles the drain: the worst memories, the most painful replays, the most awful words both said and heard, the most dreadful fears, and the most deafening silence.  [Note: God is nothing like Darth Vader, but fear is fear and the emotion is that for which I was aiming.]

Like with David's psalm, intimacy with God in any realm completely hinges on the belief or disbelief in the goodness of God.  How many years have I been walking with Christ?  How many times through the Scriptures?  How many complexities have come and gone?  Yet this is where I fear to tread: Faith 101--God is good.  [I am the perpetual rookie.]  

If He is good, then I will draw near to Him.  If He is not, then I will hide (or attempt to hide).  Isn't that exactly the motive, method, and madness of the Garden of Eden?  The tempter suggests that God is less than good; that He is withholding some aspect of goodness from us.  Over and over again, I believe this toxic lie and attempt to grasp a goodness of my own definition while bypassing a trusting relationship with God.  But it is never good because goodness separated from "the God who alone is good" (Matthew 19:17) is a hollow sham.  The end result was and is that I end up dead in every relationship--hiding from God (vertical) and blaming others (horizontal) and covering my guilt (internal) with anything else I can get my hands on (namely, fig leaves ... but any lesser covering will fit, pun intended, whether it be the latest fashion from Milan or Carhardt overalls or were those revived 1980s Reebok high tops with neon pink fat laces I saw the kids wearing before we left America?).  We will cling to--seek a covering from--anything; anything that is except the mercies of this God who is good, whom I have treated as evil.

But David's courage to go into the inner sphere with God is ... well ... uncommon and unnatural.  It is hard to place this psalm as pre-, mid-, or post-Bathsheba historically but truly David seemed in all his history to be "leaning into" God whether he was on the battlefield, in the pasture with the sheep, upon his royal throne, or on his knees when confronted about his murderous infidelity when he hid behind closed doors.  He resting position was with God the Father.  God has already known David, yet David "leans into" God's knowledge of him with abandon ... with invitation ... with entreaty.  How?  Because he believed that there was a covering for sin in the goodness of God--a covering, not of the temporary remedy accomplished by the endless bloody stream of bulls and goats, but the permanent remedy accomplished by the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ our true covering for sin.  He took our sin and gave us His goodness.  Only there under His gracious propitiation made accessible by faith can the omniscience of God be a delight.

1  You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4  Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. 5  You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7  Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10  even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12  even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13  For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16  Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17  How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! 18  Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you. 19  If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! 20  They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21  Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? 22  I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. 23  Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.