This is a letter to the editor of The Daily Advance published in today’s edition.  The WBC plans to protest four churches in Elizabeth City this Sunday.

The Daily Advance devoted three articles in today’s (Thursday’s) edition to the Westboro Baptist Church and its visit to Elizabeth City.  I understand the reason for the attention of the paper, but the real story is not the inconsequential protests by this perverse group.  These protesters prove the total depravity of the human heart that is “deceitful above all things.” The real story should be the hundreds more who will gather within the churches’ walls to receive the grace to renew their hearts with Christ’s love. 

The Sunday of the protests, like other Sundays, the faithful folks at Holy Family Catholic Church will worship in the same manner that Christians have worshipped Jesus for nearly 2,000 years.  Like at our Anglican church, they will partake of the Holy Communion of the Lord’s Last Supper joining with a Billion Christians around the world in shared faith.   

At each of these churches where the annoying protests will occur, the life-giving name of Jesus Christ will be exalted as salvation is once again freely offered to all who come.  Because, unlike the WBC’s protests here, our worship occurs every week, we may take it for granted; however, it is no less a miraculous phenomenon that has occurred since this one man rose from the dead. 

During the message that was part of a “Week of Renewal” for a church, he began chastising people whom he described as treating Jesus like some sort of mascot of the church rather than the Pantocrator (Lord Almighty) revealed in Scripture.   He bemoaned Christians treating Jesus like a mere art object to hang on the wall or wear around the neck.  Manning could drift in his preaching back and forth between focused rage and gentle tenderness.

Manning then points to the example of Mary Magdalene in the gospels and asks something like, “Can you imagine talking to Mary Magdalene about some of the things we discuss in the church?  If you talk to Mary Magdalene, you talk to her about Jesus.”

Now I know the importance of taking care of church business and being “real” in the world.   Few of us Christians are in danger of seeming unreal to worldly folk or of ignoring the pressures to stay up with the technological trends in the culture.  I laugh when I hear Christians say stuff like, “We have to be ‘real’ if we want to relate to the world.”  The world is not going to be saved through Christians acting like them.  The last thing I need to do is to become more worldly.  I’ve been there, and it didn’t work out so well for me.

The world will be saved through Christians demonstrating the passionate devotion of Mary Magdalene who didn’t care about the politics of Rome or the latest centurion celebrity or whether the high priest should wear traditional vestments or jeans.  She wanted to know one thing, “Where is my Lord?! Where can I find him?! Where can I go to be with my Lord?  How can I hear his voice again?  How can I experience his love more fully?  How can I serve him more truly? Mary doesn’t want applause.  She isn’t satisfied with visions of angels.  She doesn’t want to promote a book or podcast.  She doesn’t even want a multi-site church.  She wants her Lord and Savior.

Mary Magdalene had followed Jesus to the cross and watched from a distance, as he painfully died.  She then followed those who took his body and placed it in the tomb.  She “saw where he was laid.”  She didn’t want to let Jesus out of her sight.

After the resurrection, two angels appeared to Mary and spoke with her.  She doesn’t care.  Even when she thinks Jesus is dead, she just wants him.  This is her second trip to the empty tomb.  The first visit occurred when the “sun had risen.”  She was desperate to be near her Lord.  When she saw the empty tomb, John tells us that she ran and got Peter and John.  They ran back to the tomb and looked around.  Peter and John walked away wondering what had happened.  Mary stayed at the tomb in her desperation.

When Jesus appeared unrecognized by her, she, thinking he is the gardener, demands, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Mary Magdalene is telling the resurrected Jesus (unrecognized) that if somebody doesn’t tell her where the body of Jesus is laid, she is likely to become hysterical.  She has had it.  She wants Jesus.  At this point, you could tempt Mary with anything—riches, a mega-church, her own tv show, a million shades of grey, an empire, etc.  She doesn’t care.  She wants Jesus!

She gets Jesus seconds later when Jesus speaks her name.  Mary must have been looking away from Jesus.  Perhaps, she was frantically scanning the landscape searching for signs of Jesus’ body.  “Mary,” he says.  She turned to him, and she must have lunged toward him and hugged him or fell at his feet and held him.

Do you recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice when he speaks your name?  In the midst of your anxieties, fears, work, amusements, do you hear his voice and your name?  Do you hear but think it is your imagination, that it can’t be Jesus calling you?  Are you too busy or too distracted, even with appropriate activities, to hear and turn toward his voice?  It would be normal if this is the case.  It only means you are like most humans.

Rather than dismiss Mary Magdalene as extraordinary and, therefore, outside the scope of our vision or God’s expectations for us, I think it is better to accept Mary as an exemplar disciple of our Lord.  He calls us into both a similar intimacy with him and an extraordinary devotion to him.  If we are to follow Jesus, this is where he leads us.

We can think of Mary Magdalene as the former demoniac from whom Jesus exorcised a gang of evil spirits and ascribe her devotion to her new-found freedom.  I would recommend that we let this reality of her deliverance inspire our own self-examination and plea for deliverance from our own demons that oppress and harass us daily.  We may not be possessed but we are harassed and need deliverance from those who harass.  We likewise need deliverance from those worldly attachments that hinder our intimacy with the Lord.  Mary’s life was simple.  She followed Jesus.  Her attachments to the world had dissolved in the light of Jesus’ face.  May those attachments we have that are outside of Christ likewise dissolve and drift away.  Jesus has done nothing less astonishing for us than he did for Mary Magdalene; we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene and the Song of Songs

Mary M.’s singular devotion to Jesus reminds me of the beloved woman’s passion for her lover in the Song of Songs.  Song of Songs offers a poetic narrative of a lover identified as Solomon and his beloved.  Through the ages, this relationship has been interpreted as a picture of a godly marriage, a description of God’s love for Israel and an illustration of Jesus’ love for each and every person and his desire for them to requite his love with earnest devotion.

At whatever level we interpret the Song, the beloved demonstrates a passion that Christians would do well to emulate in our relationship to Jesus.  Likewise, the lover (the man) demonstrates an unconditional love and delight in his beloved that mirror’s the unconditional love God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit demonstrate for each of us.

The opening lines of the Song (1:1-4) emphasize the romantic love consummated between the two through their physical union.  Scripturally, we know that a godly marriage between a man and a woman points to the relationship between Jesus Christ, the bridegroom, and his bride the church.  (Ephesian 5:31-32; Revelation 19:7-8) The beloved says, “The king has brought me into his chambers.” The King of kings Jesus Christ has called and wooed each of us with his love to come and relate to him intimately.  He has brought us into the chamber of his throne room to reign with him.

Listen to the loving words of the lover (man) to his beloved (woman,) “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.” (1:15) She responds, “Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly delightful.” 1:16) This demonstrates a romantic love for each other, but it also represents the unconditional love of the Good Shepherd for his flock.  We often speak of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, but what about our passionate and unconditional love for Jesus—our bridegroom.  Mary Magdalene lived a passionate, robust love for Jesus that declared to him, “You are beautiful, my beloved!”  As Christians, who are saved, we must stop waiting for our love for God to spring up automatically amidst the distractions of the world and the dissipation of our lives.  We need to proactively develop and nurture a love for Jesus.  We can do this by declaring his beauty and our love for him, as he does for us. This is more than spousal love; this is the love of the saved for his or her Savior who is perfect in every way.

I think some of the most moving writing in the Bible is the woman recounting the words of her lover to her.  She says,

“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.  O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.  Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”  My beloved is mine, and I am his. (Song of Solomon 2:10-16)

Not wanting to put words in Jesus’ mouth, I think this sounds like his voice wooing his bride—each member of the church, even each person for whom he died.  This is how he calls us.  Through Jesus Christ, the winter of sin and death is passed for us, as we have passed from death to life, from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from exiled to embraced.  In the silence of his loving presence, if we are quiet and listen, we can hear Jesus saying, “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”  Is it possible that your voice is sweet and your face is lovely to Jesus?  Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus cast out demons, came to believe and know this truth—that she was lovely and beloved to Jesus, and she clung with all her spirit, soul and strength to this lover of her soul.  She would not let any “little foxes” spoil the blossom of her spiritual intimacy with Jesus.  No distractions, no temptations of sin, no returning demon would she allow to interfere with her devotion to her Lord.

Listen to the desperation of the beloved woman for her lover when he is not in her arms, “I will seek him whom my soul loves…When I found him whom my soul loves.  I held him, and would not let him go.” (3:2,4)  The beloved woman adjures her lover, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.”  The Lord’s heart is sealed with love for you and upon his arm is your name.  With a glance of your eye toward him, you have captivated his heart and bound him to you forever.  (4:9) To those who overcome the world in steadfast faith, he will seal them with his name and kingdom. (Revelation 3:12)  This sealing and binding is the new covenant in Christ’s blood and the eternal marriage between the bridegroom and his bride that will never be disjoined.  God will not divorce his bride in Christ.

 

This is a response to a book jacket blurb by Shane Claiborne recommending Mike Slaughter’s Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus

Shane writes on the cover “This isn’t your grandma’s Sunday school curriculum… this is a call to a holy uprising.” Shane Claiborne, Author/activist

I wrote the following and submitted it to Claiborne’s website and facebook page.  Whether he will ever read it, I don’t know, but since the book is out there and the above quote is on the Amazon page, I thought I would publish this response.  I hear and read too many pastors and author’s attempting to sell books or attract crowds by belittling or dismissing as quaint or worthless the faith, Christian lives and spiritual disciplines of our older generations.  These suggestions are unlike the Apostle Paul who commended the faith of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice and gave them credit for the faith residing in Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5).  It is a shame that this honoring of Christian ancestors has been replaced by attempts to bolster one’s status and image at the expense of our spiritual grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ model faith.  On this book cover, Claiborne’s blurb is published as a banner achievement. This response of mine might seem like an overreaction; however, this attitude reflected by Claiborne is a blossoming trend that I have noticed and despised among the contemporary Christian culture.
My response:

I may just be a pastor of a church on the corner of a corn field in a small town with two stoplights; however, I know Jesus and the Scriptures, too, to some extent. I also know several grandma’s who know and live the Bible better and more Christlike than anyone I know. To put it frankly, I am quite angered that Shane would disavow and belittle the faith practices of these women. It is shameful to so disrespect and repudiate faithful women who are today the models of faith, commitment to marriage and family. These grandmas in our church had and have Sunday school curriculums that are The Bible! They don’t study some man’s façade of an innovative look at Jesus. They study the revelation of God in the Scriptures and then go and live it taking care of adult parents, children, praying for others, sharing all that they have, because through their studies they have learned the kingdom of God and that all that is not of him passes away.

I’m sure that the Sunday School or small group curriculums Shane espouses are cool and edgy, but when his students know the Bible and live out their callings like these ladies, when they have been married to the same person for 50 years, when they have spent hundreds of hours on their knees in prayer for loved ones and strangers, when they have given more than the tithe through their careers and still give more to missionaries and those in need, then have Shane endorse a book by dismissing these ladies’ spiritual disciplines. Until that happens, Shane, the author and publisher ought to repent before the next Christian grandma they see and publicly apologize to the them all.

May God give the above grace to live like the Christian grandmas in my church!

Craig Stephans — Rector
Church of the Redeemer
Camden, NC

Father I come to you in the name of Jesus who by his death, resurrection and ascension defeated all of the powers of sin, death and Satan.  As I submit to you and resist Satan and all the powers of darkness I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit and your light.  I ask you to cover me with the blood of Jesus and to clothe me in the full armor of God.

I place upon my head the helmet of salvation by which I take my thoughts captive to the Lord Jesus Christ.  I submit my mind to the control and rule of the Holy Spirit that it would be full of life and peace. I reject the thoughts, accusations and lies of the enemy who comes to condemn and criticize.  I reject thoughts of self-hatred, failure, pride and other sinful attitudes.  I reject any thoughts and imaginations that contrast your loving and good thoughts.

I place upon my heart the breastplate of righteousness.  I clothe myself in the perfection of Jesus and reject any false images of myself that are contrary to the way that you see me.  I accept and declare that I am right with you, O God, in Jesus Christ.

I place about me the belt of truth and pray that your Holy Spirit would lead me into all truth.  I refuse to be led astray by the lies of the deceiver or my own sinful nature.  Help me to walk and to worship in Spirit and truth.  Help me to base my life on your word that is truth.

As shoes on my feet, I secure my footing with the readiness of the gospel of peace and of the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.  I choose to stand firm on your word against the storms and oppression of this world.  I stand on the rock of Jesus that cannot be shaken.  Help me to know your word and to base my life on your good news and not to be overcome by any bad news, anxieties of this life, fear of loss or by the temptations of this world.

I take in my hand the shield of faith by which I shall block all of the attacks of the enemy.  Grant me faith Lord to walk according to your promises and your eternal presence.  Remind me that you are an ever-present help to me and that your promises are all “Yes” to me through Jesus.

I take in my other hand the sword of Spirit, the word of God that is sharp and double-edged and shall never pass away.  Inspire me to speak your powerful, life-giving word into my circumstances, against the enemy, into my own mind and life.  Help me to speak blessings over my life and over my loved ones.

Father place upon me your garment of praise and help me to rejoice in the Lord always.  I receive the joy of the Lord that is my strength.  Lord send and empower your angels to minister to me and to be a shield around me.  Father protect me from evil and rebuke every messenger of evil from me.  Let the light of your face shine upon me and fill me with your Holy Spirit, his fruit and gifts.  Make my home a peaceful, secure, restful and godly dwelling place.  Bless and place your hand upon me and my family.

In the name of Jesus, I reject and resist Satan and every demon and command any evil spirits to leave my presence and my family.  The Lord rebuke you and send you away.  In the name of Jesus and by his blood, I break any and all curses spoken against me and my family.  I am healed by the wounds of Christ.  Father fill me with your healing presence.

Father I  am your beloved child who belongs to you.  Help me to love you, serve you, worship you and share your love with all around me, so that your name would be praised and glorified.  I pray in the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen

Attached is the December 2014 Lectionary Life App from Anglicans for Life.  The Lectionary Life App includes devotional reflections based on the Lectionary Readings for the time period.  This Life App readings are based on the Sundays in Advent and December.  I wrote these reflections to bring out the themes in the readings related to the Sanctity of Life.  You can subscribe to the Lectionary Life App here.  Fill in the contact form and request the Lectionary Life App subscription.

December 2014 Lectionary Life App

Heavenly Father, glorify your name in our lives and keep us blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, grant us alertness and sober mindedness that we will not be deceived or fall into temptation. Grant us wisdom and revelation to know Jesus and to hold onto his name and word in the midst of the trials of life. May your perfect love enfold us that we would not fall into fear. May your perfect peace guard our hearts and minds in the midst of the world’s troubles. Keep our hearts warm with your light and love even as the world turns cold. Ignite and enflame our hearts and make them all fire for love of you. Help us to remain steadfast in our faith even against persecution and oppression.

God, help us to hold out the gospel of the kingdom to the world, even to our enemies who hate us and revile us, to the apathetic and deceived. Let us be light in the darkness. Give us understanding of your will and the courage to keep it. We ask for your mercy and grace and the manifestation of your salvation in our lives.

Almighty God, may your kingdom come into our lives and establish us as ambassadors of Christ. Help us to walk in his authority to preach the gospel, to heal the sick and cast out demons. May we be vessels of peace and bring freedom wherever we go. Holy Spirit empower us, clothe us and place your words in our mouths that we might be effective witnesses to Jesus. Grant us words and wisdom that none of our adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. Lead and guide us as your children. O Creator of all things, we ask for your abundant provision for us and for all of your children.

Lord of Hosts, we pray that you send your heavenly angels with power into our lives for the sake of your Name. Commission your angels on our behalf and on behalf of your church worldwide, especially for those who suffer persecution and are in great need. Empower your angels against the spiritual forces of darkness in high and low places. We ask you to bind and rebuke the enemy of the kingdom of heaven.

Father, help us to turn our eyes heavenward and to seek Jesus who is the author and perfecter of our faith. May we seek your kingdom and righteousness first above all else. Lead us in holiness and truth and prevent us from being weighed down by anxiety, dissipation or weariness. Grant us the power and initiative to say “No” to ungodliness and sin. Help us to speak the truth in love and to rebuke sin in ourselves and others. Encourage us and strengthen us to work heartily for you and others and not to grow weary in well doing.

Help us, O Lord, to keep watch, fully awake, as faithful guardians. Help us to serve you, our Master, faithfully in love and obedience. Help us to stand firm that we might gain life everlasting. Fulfill your purpose in our lives, Lord, for your love endures forever. May we be ready at the return of the Lord. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Craig Stephans 11-27-14

jesus-the-angels-on-rapture-day

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

If there is any one word that more adequately than others can summarize the message of the New Testament, I think it is “Come.” From Jesus invited the disciples and the crowds to “Come,” to the Spirit and the Bride returning the cry to the exalted Jesus to “Come.” The message of the gospel is for all to “Come—Come and be reconciled.”

Jesus offers his invitation—indeed his command to “Come” in the context of a fallen world that makes people children of hell and misery. His immediate audience lived under the religious scrutiny of the Pharisees and Scribes who will later receive from Jesus a series of “Woes.” Jesus will rebuke these religious leaders for the burden and condemnation they lay on others.

Jesus describes the work of these religious by saying of them, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4) He rebukes them directly in the same conversation, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

So many of us live under these burdens that we accept from others, the world, the culture and that we place on ourselves. These are burdens that we are not able to bear, and in this world we find no help. We carry the burdens, fears and worries of expectations we cannot meet, standards we can never exceed, criteria that condemn, ideal lives that are unlivable and our doubts and despair. Whether it is in our schools, jobs, families, or the mirror or in our minds, we take on unbearable and ungodly burdens. These burdens make us children of are—children of misery who live according to vain pursuits and deluded imaginations or under constant despair and lopsided comparisons. This is what the world, Satan and any authority outside of Christ brings.

I’ve experienced this problem as a pastor. Like most pastors that I meet, I want to excel in serving God in my ministry, so I read and listen to experienced pastors and leadership experts offer guidance on leadership. I recently read a book by church leadership speaker and author Dave Kraft called Mistakes Leaders Make. In this book, he offered some good counsel; however, his book illustrates the worst mistake leaders make: tying up heavy burdens on people’s shoulders that are impossible to carry. On one hand, Kraft writes, “”A leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” (page 65) Then, on the other hand he writes, “The primary responsibility of a leader is to develop additional leaders.” (page 89) This is a blatant error and creates a double-bind for readers who are probably already stressed with trying to be the best they can be. Now the author has given us two “primary responsibilities.” Heaven help us. All of us are barraged with this type of “advice” of what we must be and do.   I can’t tell you how many women’s magazines I have noticed that share two emphases on the cover: losing weight and cooking great desserts or meals (not the kind conducive to losing weight either). This is the world’s pattern.

How refreshing to hear from Jesus his invitation to “Come.” Jesus promises us rest for our souls. He doesn’t set us down on a lounge chair and give us a cold drink either. He offers us himself as our Sabbath rest. We enter into him, and we are accepted and fulfilled in our Creator and Savior. This is why this verse is such a comfort and encouragement to Christians. Surely, this is one of the most well-known Scriptures, and for good reason.

Jesus promises rest, and he commands us to learn from him. He calls us to become his disciples. He commands us to take his yoke and his burden. We don’t come and sit; we come and follow; we walk in his steps. What his Jesus’ yoke? What is this burden? Is it more of the same? Is it unbearable and oppressing?

I think the simplest answer is to say that Jesus’ yoke is his grace. Grace. We are called to accept and to take his grace—his free gift of love, strength, wisdom, goodness, discernment and power. We are commanded to carry his burden. I think this is the burden of our calling and vocation—the good works that He has prepared for us to walk in by his strength and power that work in us according to his good will and purpose for us.

I think the Apostle Paul gets at this interaction with the Lord when he writes, “He said to me, ’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) We come to the Lord in our weakness to carry burdens and our weariness in the world. He gives us the yoke of his grace and strength to carry out our calling in the world by his power to his glory.

His yoke gives us the gift to hear his voice and to know his will, so that we can walk in the way he makes for us. He gives us the power and discernment to say “no” to what is not for us and to say “yes” to what is for us. He gives us the grace that takes away accusations and condemnation for being what we are and for not being what we are not.

When I was reflecting on the yoke of Jesus this week, an image came to mind. When my son Jack was 1-2 years old, I had a backpack carrier for him. We lived in Western PA near a large park full of hills and hiking paths. I could never comfortably carry Jack more than a 100 yards or so in my arms or even on my back at the time. However, with the backpack I would set him in it and strap him in and then lift the backpack and strap it onto my back with him in it. It was comfortable for both of us. With it, I could carry him for hours up and down the hills or wherever until he eventually outgrew it. I really enjoyed the bonding we shared with the backpack. I think that Jesus’ yoke is like the backpack. It is actually a resource of strength and comfort that helps us carry the gifts he has given us and fulfill the work to which he has called us. In this case, I imagine that Jack was the burden Jesus gave me and the backpack was the yoke I took upon me to help with the burden. Both were blessings and not curses; both were gifts of grace.

jack-in-backpack

Jesus does not lay the pressure on us to do everything or to be everything. I earnestly believe that what he does call us to accomplish he gives us the power and grace to do it. We must submit to him and walk in his ways with our initiative and striving, too. I believe that Paul puts it to the church this way, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

For the roles in our lives in our families, vocations, churches and communities, God gives us the gifts of grace and spiritual power to fulfill our duties and his calling for our good and the common good of those in the family of faith and among those that God is calling to himself. John the Baptizer said that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” John 3:27 As we learn of Jesus, we learn to accept what is given from heaven and to deny ourselves what is from the world, even what seems good. Learning of Jesus, taking his yoke and his burden contribute to our taking up our cross and following him and to denying ourselves, as we gain life in him. Our rest in our Sabbath includes active participation with the Lord of the Sabbath.

 jesus yoke is easy

*Picture link

 

 

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