The Waltz of the Reformation

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My daughter will waltz away from me as she marries her good man in two months.

As we practiced our daddy-daughter-dance last night, I noticed that waltzing-that triple-time dance step- emphasizes the first beat.

STEP-two three, TURN-two-three, ONE-two-three…

As God’s story waltzes across history, have you ever noticed that the triple-step has been deformation-reformation-transformation?

·        Deformation was the distorting, warping, change for the worse that Adam and Eve brought, not only on themselves when they turned from the gracious God, but into all mankind born after them.

Created with open arms and open hearts, the disease of the deformation of sin slithered into the human race and bends us all away from God and others and into our own selfish cul-de-sacs.

Sin and self-sufficiency are initially arousing and spicy.  But all self-love eventually sours.

Formed to fixate love on God and neighbor, we redirect our love into our own selfish drives as we drive away God and others.

I appreciate author Heather Choate Davis’s summary of our universal deformation in her short book Man Turned in on Himself.  She reminds us that salvation hinges on the emphasis of the deformation of original sin. 

Sin is not primarily a little act that one does that can be trivialized or rationalized.  Sin, according to the story of God (see the book of Romans) is a spiritually congenital condition or state.

We must rewind church history to the time of Augustine around 400-420 AD to find a grotesque picture of sin’s deforming effects.  To explain Psalm one (where a person turning from God retrogresses from walking to standing to sitting) he painted a five-step curling and curving in process that went like this:

Step One:  We were created standing upright, heart lifted, arms outstretched and facing God.

Step Two:  We turn away with our backs to God in distrust and disloyalty.

Step Three:  We stand in settled opposition with arms crossed.

Step Four:  We settle into our selfish state so completely that we take our seat.

Step Five:  As the body has moved physically lower and further from God, the last submission to sin is to slump over and curve down to the earth like an animal.

Have you ever read the sickening story of Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 4:33)?  This glorious king created to bring God glory experiences de-creation and his curved fingernails and curved body bear the effects of sin’s curse and weight.

Said simply, we sin because we are sinners, just like we dance because we are dancers or sing because we are singers.  Sin is not localized outside of us but inside of us and actually embedded in our very being.

One thousand years after Augustine described the universal incurvation of humanity, Luther would coin the Latin phrase:

“homo incurvatus in se.”   He reminded the world that man is hopelessly turned in on himself and unable to uncoil and save himself.

Picture a beautiful portrait painted on paper.  Imagine the portrait selfishly crumpling itself up into a wrinkled ball for no one to see and helplessly unable to un-wrinkle and spread itself out again.

When we try to live in a spiritual fetal position, the addictions we incubate inside the curve fester while the help, hope and love of God we need, outside of the curve, remain shielded by our self-sufficiency.

·        In 1517 the second step of the triple-step dance of God’s story burst on the scene in an era called the reformation.

Since every self-fueled effort to reverse the curve of sin back-fired, the church searched the story of God in Scripture and rediscovered grace.

Grace, the unearned, undeserved favor of God, shared freely in the face of Christ, was preached with abandon.

The masses became drunk on grace and began to dance without inhibitions as they gathered to worship and spread grace everywhere without cost.

Christ came to save us not just from the wrong in what we do but in the wrong in what we are.  He did not come to save friends or even strangers, but enemies.

Like a threatened cat, our arched back, raised hair and extended, curled claws met God’s forgives and free favor.

And like never before, those that trusted in this message of grace began to uncoil and uncurl.  They experienced transformation.  Wedded to Christ, a “truster” in His death for them and life in them experiences the transformation of who he or she is.

·        Transformation, the third step in the waltz of God, is not an insignificant alteration at the edge of one’s life.

Transformation describes how the hands of Christ, through the power of the Spirit, remold man in a movement from a tight, fetal, selfish clay-ball of sin into a pliable, yielding, entirely outward giver of love to God and others.

The defaced masterpiece shifts and stretches outward in sacrificial love.

Transformation, described best by author Matt Jenson, is dancing away from incurvatus in se to excurvatus ex se.

As Christ dances with you he turns you entirely outward extending his love.

We now curve out conveying a life-giving convexity free from addiction, fear and greed.

When any of us dance with Christ we experience daily transformation where we lift up our hearts to God in worship and love others, sourced with his self-giving love.

Deformation-Reformation-Transformation.  The triple-step dance.

Imagine your anxiety, narcissism, and addictions turned inside out.

Anxiety-that feeling of failure in advance-transformed from “fear without faith” (as Robert Kelleman puts it) into peace, fixated on the present care of God.

Narcissism-falling in love with your own warped reflection- transformed into falling in love with God as you reflect His love towards others.

Addiction-an over-attachment that enslaves us and constricts us like a boa constrictor-transformed into an addiction to share and smile and sacrifice forever.

As I’ll practice my three-step waltz with my daughter to ready me for the wedding day, I invite you to practice the waltz of grace

               …as you emphasize deformation, stepping to reformation and ending in transformation.

Dancing with Jesus forever,

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

Car Alarm or Fire Alarm: How do you REALLY Treat Self-Awareness?

Reality, like a fire alarm, has a way of giving us rude awakenings.

Fire alarms break the calm and silence like a toddler jumping hard onto a sleeping parent. 

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They awaken our anesthetized awareness to warn us of imminent or actual danger.

That’s why when I heard that the fire alarm in my next-door neighbor’s home began to holler at the hearers, I cocked by ear to hear more.

What force could awaken the lidless, watching eye of that alarm so that it activated ear-drum booms and blare to make us more aware?

It began with a storm.

South Carolinian storms flicker and flash with lightning and then crack the whip of the wind with thunder.

I do not exaggerate when I say that when I heard the thunder that day, the blast was louder than any I’d ever heard in the past.

The fire department arrived to address the neighbor’s alarm and told him that a large lightning bolt lashed either the ground or a home nearby.

The voltage from the bolt went viral as it travelled through multiple conduits only to wreck my neighbor’s water heater.  According to the fire department, the heater’s thermostat melted and the wiring was becoming so hot that the entire home was in danger of catching fire.

Which meant my house could’ve also gone up in flames because of the proximity.

Three cheers for our local fire department for finding and ending the destructive danger!

Spiritual self-awareness is a lot like a fire alarm.

Self-awareness is when I tell myself the honest truth about my flaws, failures and faulty loves.

And if I’m honest, I treat my own self-awareness more like a car alarm than a fire alarm.

Do you remember the last time you heard your car alarm interrupt the calm and quiet of life?  

When my car alarm screams, I stop it before I get shamed by someone.  I initially care more about covering ME than I do about a potential or actual threat.  Who wants to be glared at in embarrassment?  But soon after the initial embarrassment I move on with life. 

The car alarm raises my awareness but quickly dissipates like the afterglow of a firework.

A fire alarm won’t let me get away with shushing reality’s findings of real flaws, failures and faults.

The Christian story tells of the mistrust Adam and Eve hurled at God as they chose to distrust the warning that their maker graciously shared regarding eating forbidden fruit. (Check out Genesis 3)

God promised that partaking of that killer fruit would set off a chain reaction in reality that ended in perishing.

Before the disobedient distrust, they were prospering, naked, free of shame and uninhibited.

Distrust dismantled God’s good design and the result was not only self-awareness but painful self-awareness.

They manufactured make-shift costumes out of dead leaves to hide the dirty feelings that attended the merciless fact of their faults and failure.

But that’s like you and me hearing a fire alarm and then thinking that simply covering our ears will quiet the noise alerting us to danger.

Our culture’s Godless beliefs and practices have hit the mute button on God’s living voice.  Most of us sleepwalk through life under the stupor of secularism (the philosophy that says that only material reality exists, not spiritual reality) because it plugs our ears to the sound of the gavel of guilt.

That’s why Matthew Vos, professor of sociology at Covenant College wrote “In the invisibility of our normality, there we find our idolatry.”

The “normal” de-godded routines and practices in our secular culture reveal idols like the excessive use of stuff, sex and substances to cover the cacophony of guilty shame our sin reveals.

But if we plug our ears to guilt, we will never hear the saving word of grace.

Peter, a follower of Jesus, had a “fire-alarm-moment” one day on a boat with Jesus (check out the details in Luke 5:1-9).  

Jesus told him to fish and he told Jesus that he had already worked all night and there was no use.  But just for kicks he went fishing just a little longer when he knew Jesus wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The nets puckered so full that they began to break and Peter’s eyes were as wide as saucers as he saw the power and perfection of Jesus.

His knees literally buckle as he shouts in painful self-awareness --“Leave me Lord, I am a sinful person.”

He breaks out in a spiritually allergic rash at the awareness of being in the presence of the living God.

But Jesus refused to leave Peter.  Peter’s honest confession of the self-awareness of his sinful condition cracked open his hard heart so that softening love could flow in.

Grace is the only way to remove the grime of painful self-awareness.

Peter would follow Jesus long enough to see him perform the single, unrepeatable action of the atonement where Christ experienced the deserved destruction for our sins on the cross so that all who trust in Christ really have full and final forgiveness forever.

So the next time self-awareness sits up straight and screams in your conscience will you silence it like a car alarm or respect it like a fire alarm?

If you’re honest about your sin, all you will ever hear from the Father is……FORGIVEN!”

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

Is it OK to Talk About Sin Anymore?

It almost feels like a sin to mention sin these days.

The Christian Scriptures (especially expanded in the books of Genesis and Romans) describe us all as deeply flawed from birth, and it gets worse--God is unhappy with these fundamental flaws.

Our first parents sinned and the poison of that rebellion passed to all of their progeny. The fatal flaw of sinfulness passed like a rogue gene from soul to soul, generation to generation.

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So we’re not malfunctioning machines that need a little fixing through education, economics or evolution. We’re fugitive traitors who need forgiveness and freedom from the nagging guilt that haunts us.

But this makes many of us grow skeptical and we shift in our spiritual seats.

Rather than side-stepping the existence and centrality of sin, let’s listen to what Jesus says about sin.

Luke 5:30-32 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" 31 And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." 

When modern people hear the word sin, they find it deeply off-putting. Maybe you do too.

Many of my unbelieving friends and yours reason this way: “It’s not right to judge other people who are fundamentally flawed. It’s not right to condemn others who live in a self-serving way seeking personal happiness. The right thing to do for a flawed friend is to have compassion.”

The irony is that our culture doesn’t like sin because the idea itself sounds self-righteous, immoral and sinful. 

When outsiders to the Christian story hear a Christian talk about sin, what they hear the Christian saying is “I have the right to judge people for their flaws, because I am better than other people.”

While there might be some limited truth to that conclusion, with all due respect to reality, even if you meet a sinful, misinformed Christian spouting his supposed superiority, this is not what the Christian doctrine of sin is teaching. 

According to the book of Romans, all of us are born sinners-we are born into a sinful condition- and we all sin according to that tragically bent nature.

This may strike you as viscerally unpleasant but that’s actually how the story goes.

Did you get that? We are born into a sinful condition (see Romans 5). Wait! You might object: “How can a person be judged if they are not at fault?” We reason that a person should be blamed only if they personally choose to do wrong. 

But what if sin is not just making bad choices. What if sin is more of a condition like a terminal disease? Jesus considered us all as sinners stuck in the universal condition of sin, in desperate need of his saving.

Jesus reasoned that a sin-sick person, circling the drain of death needs a doctor who will supply the sin- saving antidote. 

Psalm 51 and the book of Romans explain that Sin is a basic inborn condition like a diseased spiritual heart. Its desires are distorted and tilted toward the wrong. 

Theologians describe this original sin as a pair of glasses that we all wear with scratches on the lens. We look out at the world but our spiritual vision is flawed. We then specifically sin as we seek to order reality around our self-focused vantage point.

Sin is a condition like gravity and has heavy consequences.

And deep down, our sin-shirking culture actually believes in sin after all.

Theologian Simeon Zahl thinks that our scientific society conveniently re-labels sin as cognitive bias. Have you heard that term? Social scientists study mass culture and have found empirical evidence that proves that humans are self-centered, self-oriented, and self-seeking.

This scientific finding is about as surprising to the Christian, submitted to the story of Scripture and aware of their own sinfulness, as a study that proves that ice is cold or that the sun is hot.

One cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error, is the fact that collective humanity attributes good things that happen to us to our own efforts and bad things that happen to us to extrinsic, outside sources.

Moreover, the Fundamental Attribution error attributes bad things that happen to others to the bad attributes of another, rather than outside influences.

For instance, if I get a promotion, it is because of my own good effort. But if I don’t get the promotion, it’s due to the negative outside forces like my terrible boss or the system. But if my buddy doesn’t get promoted then it’s clearly due to his laziness. We maintain the erroneous view that we’re awesome despite the truth.

Christians would call this hypocritical, two-faced, biased thinking sin. But our scientifically baptized culture washes the category of sin out of the picture and renames sin as bias.

Here’s just one more cognitive bias, Post-purchase Rationalization: We are highly disposed to view our decisions, in retrospect, as a good ones. Even in the face of evidence that proves our decision to be poor, we refuse to see it that way.

Christians would call this the sin of pride or vainglory.

The pastor Thomas Cranmer wrote, “What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

And we are all born with sinful hearts.

Racism, murder and greed get us all listening and open us up to the possibility of sin, but we can slightly miss the point here. Those are bad things that other people do to other people.

I suggest sharing the universal findings of cognitive bias with our skeptical friends who scoff at sin.  None of us are off the hook when it comes to sin.

Sin, in the end, is a crucial puzzle piece that explains how the entire story of Christianity fits together.

If I may be so bold, the doctrine of sin is fundamental to the understanding of every other doctrine or teaching in Christianity. For instance, why did Jesus need to come as a Savior? Because sin against our good God actually leads to death. Jesus died so that our sin would be pardoned forever.

Last time I checked, death is still not a good thing but forgiveness and favor from a friend I betrayed is highly valued. 

And when a person is physically dying there are suffering symptoms that attend the dying process.

Spiritual symptoms of sin and its deadly effects have always been guilt, despair, and the abiding feeling of personal worthlessness. 

Martin Luther said that knowledge of sin is a true feeling and serious struggle of the heart. Only belief in Christ relieves our condition of sinfulness and the emotional symptoms of terrorizing guilt.

But what if you don’t feel your condition of sin or the terrors of the consequences of your specific sins?

A person poisoned from birth won’t feel things the way they were meant to.

Have you numbed your sin with substances, distraction or stuff?  Has your conscience become so calloused that sin against God and others no longer wrecks you? 

This could be the most dangerous symptom of sin yet. Like when a dying person finally goes unconscious and cannot feel the doom of his crumbling condition.

Jesus brings hope. He came to call sinners to change their mind about sin. 

He is still calling sinners to admit their sinful condition and accept his antidote of unearned approval through the death of Jesus in the face of their fundamentally flawed situation.

Remember these words and trust them:  2 Corinthians 5:21  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Thanks for the willingness to consider a taboo topic,

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

Why Death by Cross?

“There’s another cross!” shouted one of my Spain mission trip team members.

“I see one up there!” added another.

You see, our team decided to meditate all week on one short verse about Jesus:

1 Corinthians 2:2   2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Since meditation is a continuous contemplation on something profoundly meaningful, we challenged each other to share with the group whenever someone sighted a crucifix.

We too wanted to know nothing among the Spaniards except the crucified Messiah.

Now remember, we were on mission in Spain strengthening the Spanish evangelical church. Spain is speckled with churches and colossal cathedrals, and where one finds churches and cathedrals, one finds crosses.

As we spotted crosses all week long, I began to ask myself:

“God, why did Paul write “that even the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation?” (1 Cor. 1:18)

            “God, why did you choose the execution of Jesus by a cross

Have you ever asked yourself that question and felt the spiritual impact of the answer?

I mean, why not death by hanging, starvation or a stampede by Spanish bulls (incidentally, our team was in Spain during the running with the bulls)?

Moreover, why do we all refer to the death of Jesus as “THE Crucifixion?”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Marie Antoinette was guillotined. Cleopatra was poisoned. But I’ve never heard anyone refer to their deaths as “The assassination…The guillotining….The poisoning.”

Fleming Rutledge asserts in her book The Crucifixion “There is something in the strange death of the man identified as the Son of God that continues to command special attention…This death, this execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said” (pgs. 3-4).

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So why death by a cross?

Paul focuses us on the means of death in his short letter to the Philippian Christians: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

Why death by a cross? Here are three reasons for you to consider. How about meditating on them so that they aren’t just apprehensions (you have a simple understanding) but deep spiritual impressions (you taste them with your spiritual taste buds and relish the reality so that you experience pleasure and joy)?

First, Jesus died on a cross to express his solidarity with sinners stuck in the slavery of their sin.

The Roman writer Cicero referred to crucifixion as the most extreme form of torture inflicted upon slaves.  The middle and upper classes usually escaped death by crucifixion, but not a powerless slave. The nobodies and the powerless of society died by crucifixion. Jesus chose to die in this way for you. And by his death in your place, you are free from the guilt, condemnation and bondage of sin forever. Oh my!

Second, Galatians 3:13 and Deuteronomy 21:23 explain that death by crucifixion displayed God’s objective curse on a criminal. 

As a law-breaking criminal hung on a tree, everyone that looked on that criminal felt disgust, disrespect, and the reminder that breaking God’s good laws brings God’s deserved justice. Jesus hung on a tree taking the curse the sinner deserves so that the sinner receives the free blessing of approval and life with God forever. Oh my!

Lastly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Christian writer who died by hanging at the hands of Hitler) wrote:  “the meaning of the cross lies not only in physical suffering, but especially in rejection and shame.”

Have you ever considered how utterly degrading, dishonoring and disgraceful it was to die on a cross? In Deuteronomy 25:3 God says that forty lashes can be given to an offender, “but not more lest…your brother be degraded in your sight.” Jesus was dehumanized, shamed and elevated (or lowered?!) on the cross to show that the God-man on the crucifix was not fit for humanity. He was degraded and God-forsaken.

You see, if Jesus was killed by decapitation, an arrow to the heart or stoning, there would be no lengthy humiliation in the eyes of humanity. 

I’m not trying to be morbid, but other quick methods don’t create the depth of suffering and shame. Jesus was raised on a cross, and while alive, had the eyes of the onlookers squint with self-righteous disgust. God the Father finally turned away as darkness descended.

Jesus chose to suffer and experience hours and hours of shame so that you will NEVER be shameful in the eyes of our holy and beautiful God of all grace. Oh my!

I leave you with the striking words of Melito of Sardis, a pastor who understood the meaning of the cross. How about spending a week meditating on 1 Corinthians 2:2 and the words of Melito?

“And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say….He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood;  the Master is outraged;  God is murdered.”

                                                                                                Melito of Sardis (d.c. A.D. 180).

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

How to Survive the Spin Cycle of the Soul

Has suffering ever hit you so hard that you lost all sense of direction?

Maybe someone you love is getting sicker and sicker rather than better and better.

That complicated relationship you’ve poured your heart into for so many years is not just fraying at the edges but severing at the center.

Have you ever heard the term “spin cycle?”  If your mind jumped directly to a washing machine you’re headed the right direction, but if surfing didn’t enter your mind you’ll end up at the wrong destination.

Stay with me…

I grew up a block from the beach in Southern Jersey.  Surfers would swap stories at the end of their day claiming that massive waves hit them so hard that they were “caught in a spin cycle.”

I remember hearing them explain how, after being hit by a set of successive waves and pulled underwater, they couldn’t distinguish up from down or left from right.

But, what scared them the most, was when they were unable to take a breath of air before they were sucked beneath the next pounding wave.

Can you relate to the words of the Psalm writer regarding his soul’s spin cycle?

Psalm 42:7 says “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”

Psalm 42 (a lifeline when your life enters the spin cycle!) gives three ways to survive the spin cycle:  Admit, Hope and Remember.  

First, to survive the spin cycle of the soul, admit that your soul is thirsty and lost.

The Psalm opens up with the image of a hunted deer, panting with labored breathing, trying desperately to take in a breath.

Ever been there?  The circumstances of life are hitting you so hard that you can’t even inhale before the next wave slaps you under?

The writer has been crying tears of confusion, and from the vantage point of others, it appears that God is nowhere to be found (vs. 3 “where is your God?)

But he admits that even though is soul is thirsty, lost and spinning like a weather vane in a windy storm; his soul is really thirsting for the living God (vs. 2).

Second, when your soul is caught in the spin cycle, direct your heart to hope in God.

Psalm 42:5 5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.

When suffering strikes, your thoughts and emotions might be best compared to a jar full of lightening bugs beeping randomly in the dark.

Open the lid of your heart with prayers of hope to God and send him those erratic concerns.

Hope promises relief at the end of the winding road of waiting.

The heat and intensity of the pain will pass.  

A wave is a wave not an immovable wall.

Finally, when your soul is caught in the spin cycle, remember the times God has been there for you in the past.

Psalm 42:6 My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you…

Don’t look at the next wave of suffering coming your way.  It’s a wave.  Waves come and go like winter giving way to spring.  Like night giving way to day.  Like storms giving way to sunshine. Stop asking “what if?” because you’re trying to be God rather than trusting His next page in the book of your life.

Instead, look into the rear-view mirror of your life story and bring back into your mind (re-member) all the good that God has lavished on you.

Remember when he answered that prayer that only he heard through your sobs?

Remember when he gave you that undeserved grace?

Remember when he showed up that night in the dark when you were pounding your pillow with a fist, feeling pain and betrayal?

Remember when he gave you his only son to remove the guilt and shame of your sin forever?

Remember when he surprised you with his mercy after you ran away from him?

And do you remember when you laughed so hard in the joy of his supply and benefits that you forgot what was up, down, left or right- but you didn’t care- because you knew your heavenly Father was in ultimate control?

Remember, whether it’s the spin cycle on your washing machine,

or the spin cycle for the surfer,

or the spin cycle for your suffering soul,

The waves do finally come to an end, and all is quietly calm in Christ.

Howard Cole
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church