Of Cities to Come

Our experiences of coming home may have something to do with coming home to a place we’ve not yet been

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 21:22–25.

I believe that God provides signs in our daily lives for the ultimate joys He has prepared for us. When he talks about things in His Word, He isn’t just speaking in vague generalities, even when what we’re learning about isn’t easilly thought of from our perspective. He is using metaphor, but metaphor isn’t a pseudonym for “not true”.

Part of our confusion stems from our inability to understand metaphor. We imagine that something being spoken of metaphorically is less real than what is seen, touched, tasted and experienced, when in many cases, what is being spoken of is a deeper truth, one so deep that we can only think of it metaphorically, because what is concrete fails us. The concrete is the language of eternal truth, but it isn’t the deepest truth.

This is especially the case when God speaks in Revelation about the glories He has prepared for eternity to come. In the above quote, we see God telling us about a strange city where its light and its temple are God Himself. In a world that imagines us secular, I suppose we think we can imagine a city without a temple, but if what we’re talking about is the central works around which a city is built, and in which its people spend most of their time, it’d be like saying a Church without shopping malls or sports stadiums, as God is that ultimate value which now we often place in sports or in purchasing power.


This week I am attending meetings at a Church I once attended in South Korea: Sarang Community Church, Seoul. They have graciously asked me to talk about my work as a lead mentor for the learning community in St. John’s, and our work planting Churches in Newfoundland and Labrador. Probably in a later blog post I’ll explain just how important the English ministry at Sarang was for my life, but for now, it means that I’m visiting a city I once knew fairly well.
Since I got to Seoul yesterday, I’ve been hit by a strange feeling of both familiarity and strangeness. I am not Korean, and my Korean is barely at survival level. I do not look like a Korean even slightly, and yet as I’ve had experiences I’ve missed for years, from using the subway, to drinking ludicously overpriced coffee in Gangnam, to eating foods that are either unavailable or crazy expensive back home in Canada. All of this teaches me something about Revelation 21. I feel both familiar and alien.

In the city to come, while everything will be new and exciting, there will also be a safety and familiarity to it, as the center of that great new city to come is God Himself, who we know now in Christ. In essence, when that great day comes, and we are in the new kingdom, we will be in a great place we can only be in because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, so in one sense, we will be alien, present not because of our own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of God imputed to us in Christ, but we will also be fully welcome, and in a very real sense that no city on earth can emulate, we will be home.

T4G Day 1, AM

So it seems I get better at blogging when I’m at these conferences, and I’m guessing this will be no different. Today I’m in Louisville, Kentucky for this year’s Together for the Gospel conference, with thousands of other pastors from around the world.

It isn’t my first time here, so I’m excited, but not in the same way as I was when I came first. I am preparing to hear good preaching, to meet pastors, and to find good books to read, but there isn’t the same kind of tensed expectation.

For a conference, that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a conference. But this morning, as I do my morning devotions, I’m also struck by how perfunctory it can be in my life to actually meet with the living God. It should be a wonderful, glorious experience as I stand before God in the righteousness of His Son through prayer and reading the very word of God.

 

Yet I can find my mind wandering from that, to the breakfast I hope to have, and to the sunrise over the river in Louisville (which is admittedly beautiful). I can often allow my affections to terminate on the intermediate blessings, and forget the blesser (even as one of those blessings is to spend time with the blesser), or imagine that it’s because of something good in me that I have these great blessings, and forget God altogether. The people of Israel seem to have been prone to this, which is why God says in Deut 9:4a:

“Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Dt 9:4.

In context, it looks a little like God is seeking to dredge up old sins, just to make people feel under his thumb, but that isn’t what I think is happening. We really are stubborn people, and often quick to forget the great blessings we’ve been given. We find it far easier to gain short term immediate joy in things that don’t last instead of in the joy we’re promised in God. Our limited immediate circumstances can make us think things are better for us than they are, and that as a result, our blessings are only to be expected.

By God’s grace, my I recognize that grace today.

Faith in God Justifies.

Faith in God is a justifying thing, and faith is not your feelings.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield. Psalm 5:11–12 ESV

Some would say that the Old Testament lacks instances of justification by faith, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and if His plan was to see the righteous live by faith, and to be justified by their trust in God, we should see the idea in writings before the time of the incarnation.

In fact, that is what we see. One such point is something I recently came across in my morning Bible reading. In Psalm 5, we see the above couplet where the psalmist prays that God wouldcause rejoicing to come to all people who take refuge in Him. For our purposes, the reasoning the psalmist uses is important. He says that it is because (for) God blesses, not just those who take refuge in God, but the righteous.

There are two implications here for the Christian life: 1) putting your trust in God is righteousness. It is the fact that we put our ultimate value and trust in God that centrally makes the believer righteous. While this will result in right action (as if we trust God, we will trust what he says, and see his commands as good), it is not primarily the action that makes one righteous, but the ground for the action, namely a trust in God. 2) by the implication that the Psalmist to give joy to those he has implicitly defined as righteous, we can learn that faith is not in itself joy. Indeed, it can and should ground joy, but the fact that you aren’t “feeling” something every moment of every day is not in itself a sign that you are lacking faith or that you are outside the will of God. Since we are sinful people, our feelings do not always function properly, and sometimes we need to face periods of feeling empty through our faith. The proper response to a lack of joy in our lives is not primarily to seek the joy itself, but instead to seek God for the joy that He gives. Even more to the point, our failure to feel joy all the time is not a point at which we should say “well, I guess this taking refuge in the Lord thing isn’t working”, but instead an opportunity to drive deeper into refuge in God, because that is where joy is to be found, even if you don’t actively find it every moment.

Keep seeking your refuge in the Lord, and I will pray with the psalmist that God would grant joy to you and all who are righteous because they take refuge in the Lord.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!

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5 benefits of hosting a congregation with a different language

It can be a benefit to your congregation to host a congregation of people who speak a different language to worship among you.

Many years ago, I cut my pastoral “teeth” by working as the English-language missionary at a large (by my standards) church in South Korea. It might seem surprising to some that I (who think that churches should ideally not be separated along ethnicity) would have worked at a minority language congregation, but Sangdang English Worship Service was, more than one of my favorite periods of life, it was (and continues to be) a positive force for the Gospel in South Korea and around the world, bringing glory to God, as it tells people the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

The local church worked to fund a full-time missionary among the English speakers in their own city, and I think they were doing a great Gospel service by doing so.

Here are 5 reasons:

1) It reaches people few others are ministering to. While I do think that a church should be as little marked by divisions as possible, there are clear reasons why a Church might want to reach out to other languagr groups in their area. For English speakers (and, at the time, Russian speakers) in South Korea, there existed very few ways in which community could be built among us, and the fact was that very few of us had any background in the Korean language beforehand. We were isolated foreigners, and for good reason, few facets of the culture were prepared to help us find and develop community, much less become disciples of Jesus Christ and be strengthened in that. The English Worship Service (and the small group ministry, and the many events) welcomed English speakers, and as far as possible, worked to integrate us into the larger Church body.

As an aside, this helped English speakers survive in Korea much more readily, and come to love Korean culture. Where the vast majority of foreign English teachers in Korea tended to remain a year (or less), many people who became part of the English worship service remained in Korea much longer. Learning to love their Korean brothers and sisters more deeply, and to continue to pray for the country long after they’ve gone on to other things. (and if anybody wants to drop a couple of thousand into my paypal, I’ll be happy to go visit Korea again… just saying :-))

2) It fights ethnocentrism. One of the issues the modern Church faces (and the church has always faced), is understanding what parts of what we do as a Church are mandated by God’s call to His children, and what parts are merely cultural. By hosting minority language congregations in the larger church, Sangdang Church placed Christians of different ethnicities in close proximity. Our service ended the same time as the large morning service on the Korean side, meaning that our congregation often ate and talked with Korean Christians. We began to learn many ways in which Korean churches (I think) have better integrated obedience to the Gospel into their weekly worship. One example is the fervent prayer styles of Koreans, but another is the simple fact that Korean churches often eat together after service (thus building much stronger community). We could not have learned that if we had had to simply create a fully English church wholly separate from the Korean congregation. I think it also helped many of our Korean brothers and sisters see how the Gospel was not merely what their pastor said on a Sunday morning, but has a clear global mandate, as sometimes if you stood in the hallway, you could hear the same song of praise to Jesus sung in Korean, English and Russian.

 

This was different than merely calling people to join in with what you are doing as a Church (which subtlely claims that we are doing the right thing, and the foreigner should just assimilate), it sees the foreign Christian as a brother or sister, who may have things to teach as well as things to learn, and encourages us all to learn from Christ, regardless of our cultural assumptions.

3) It obeys the call to welcome foreigners. Let’s face it, the Bible commands us to be good to foreigners. While many assume that this is merely another way of talking about the downtrodden in a culture, as we see by the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts, God desires to see believers reach out to befriend people who are not like us. That can be difficult given the existence of language barriers, but it is a picture of God’s call to a love that transcends difference to welcome people among us who have real difficulties being accepted in our cultures.

4) It can be a catalyst for global mission. Think for a moment of the kind of people who travel thousands of miles to live in a different culture, and when they get there, look for a Church. Oftentimes, these are at least somewhat motivated and gifted Christians. As a result, a minority language congregation accepted as part of a much larger congregation can often be full of talented Christian disciples who only need some support to grow in the faith and to help others grow in the faith. The people who came to SDEWS were often great Christians I had much to learn from, and who are in mnay different places around the world still ministering the Gospel in difficult places. Of the hundred or so regular attenders we had over the period I was there, a good dozen I can think of off the top of my head, are now functioning as strong discipling Christians in congregations all over the world (including pastoring the congregation I left).
When it comes to workers who remain monolingual in countries where they are expatriates, they are most likely to return to their home countries someday. If they have been discipled and strengthened in the faith, they can function as the most well-positioned missionaries in their home countries when they return home.
Even if they do not return to their home countries, these disciples are the kind of people who have already experienced the difficulties of living in a foreign land. They have already gone through some of the more difficult parts of being a missionary, and so can be uniquely suited to longer term missionary work.

 

One small-scale ministry of your church can help many people come to know Jesus all over the world. Even as I work here in Newfoundland, Canada, among a secularizing people, part of my ability to speak the Gospel has been strengthened by the work of English ministries of Churches in South Korea.

5) It helps the discipleship of your people – As with many of the things our Lord calls us to do in service to our neighbour, obeying Christ in welcoming the foreigner (not just tolerating foreigners among us) helps immensely in learning from Christ. More than just helping us to learn where our culture blinds us to some things the Gospel says, it is profoundly humbling to allow believers who do not speak your language to become part of you. You accept feeling the inadequacy they feel because they keep failing to communicate, you go through the stresses of misunderstanding one another as you struggle to obey Jesus, and you see the glory of God as He works through others to bring glory to His name. In all these ways, God can teach us to be better Christians by welcoming the foreigner as part of us, even when they do not speak our language.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!

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Wisdom comes from admitting you can be an idiot (but would like to be less of one)

I can be an idiot, but that doesn’t mean I *am* on every point… and I can learn.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15 ESV)

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 26:12 ESV)

If there’s one mistake that comes from binary thinking, it’s the assumption that the opposite of a particular error is the truth; if X is wrong, then anything that is not X must be right. This is the reason people imagine that because communism is bad, capitalism must be good, and because capitalism is bad, socialism must be good, instead of looking at each of these things critically and seeing that all of them have good points and bad points.

Christians are not immune to binary thinking, especially when it comes to the concept of clarity. Some Christians, in response to questions of the truth of Christianity, retreat into artificial clarity, whereby they imagine that absolutely everything that they believe must be definitionally the truth, and never be questioned. For them, the very question is the same as disbelief. 
On the other side of the equation, and often in reaction to the undoubted dogmatism of the above, some Christians seem to think that because we question things, we must never make a claim to truth. For them, to make any unambiguoius claim that something is “correct” is the same as saying that nothing can be doubted. In both cases, they are mistaking personal conviction for truth. In one case, saying that in order to have truth, you must be unambiguously convinced of it, in the other case, saying that in order to have any ability to question things, you must never make a claim to truth.

A moment’s thought undercuts the false dichotomy. My car keys are in a place whether I have forgotten where I put them or not. The acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s/s whether I know that or know it or not, and murder is wrong, even if I were a psychopath.
Even more to the point, the Bible undercuts the false dichotomies of truth rather clearly. In the two proverbs I quote above, the Word of God explains to us that we must separate our own view of ourselves from wisdom itself. Firstly, we are told that it is foolish to assume that are ways are definitionally right and will brook no dissent; we are fools to be merely right in our own eyes. Rather we should listen to advice, and that to fail to do so makes us worse than fools.
But the opposite error is also avoided. The author of these proverbs doesn’t just give us the bumper sticker “question everything”, but rather lets us know that there is are “right ways” and “hope”, but that they are not found in a lack of questioning, but in truth. We listen to advice so that our ways might be corrected.
Christians are called to have the humility to both accept that there is knowable truth, and that we are not the ultimate arbiters of that truth. That is to say. I can be an idiot, but that doesn’t mean I *am* on every point, and I can learn.

Love is more real than we think.

 

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:8–12, ESV)

Given the fact that the Bible tells me that “God is Love”, it’s surprising how long I lived under the impression that love was primarily a need or lack in me that was fulfilled by someone else. This leaves me imagining that God loves me because He needed someone to love, or because He was lonely or some such thing. Yet love is, when we get right down to it, more real than that. Love is not the result of need, but the power by which needs are fulfilled, primarily by God.

It is true that love needs an object (one of the reasons I believe in a trinitarian God…. that and the Bible tells me so). We talk about a love interest romantically as someone who “completes me”, or who I “need more than air” (or some other romantic verbiage that looks kinda silly outside of the romantic films they feature in). In the regular friendship situation, we think of friendship love as that which staves off loneliness, or gives meaning to our lives.

Love does those things, but I’m learning that the instrumental way we define things (something is like this, because this is the way we can use it) is at best a little deficient. It makes something the Bible seems to speak of in powerful and glowing terms into a mere method of fulfilling a need. It serves to make me as the object or subject of love more important than the love involved, as if love is valuable because it helps me, instead of being something that is valuable whether it meets my felt needs or not.

Even when John talks about love and how God is love, he says that God’s love is made manifest (revealed, made clear) in that He sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins. It’s not that He is loving because he sent His son, but that he is love, so as a result He sent His Son. God’s love is not a result of God’s loving actions, but is the ground for God’s actions. He is not love because he does loving things, but he does loving things because He is Love.

Seems like a minor distinction? It’s actually very profound, especially if we see God’s love (as Paul does) as the ground for our own actions. You see, we do not love because we want to be loving, but because we have God’s love in us, we should do loving things. It is a reuslt of having been love.

Love is a positive thing, a real thing,not a fulfillment of need. It is not a corruption, but real in itself. Thus love is not about how we need others, but ultimately about how God’s love overflows in us, and through us to others.

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