May 24 2009

come closer

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

I have been planning for some time to return to blogging. I have missed the outlet for writing and I have a few ideas that have been building up. I had hoped to return to blogging sooner, but today’s sermon by Rodney Ross has pushed me over the edge.

He was teaching on forgiveness. It was fantastically creative (it was kid’s Sunday). The central text was the story of Joseph. He shared all the sins that fractured Joseph from his brothers. (And of course the sins of Joseph’s tactlessness that fractured them from Joseph.) He drew the sermon to a climax by drawing our attention on Genesis 45:4. In this verse, as Joseph prepares to reveal himself to his brothers, he says to them, “Come closer.” It is a beautiful moment, and as Rodney told the story I was so deeply struck. (You can listen to the same sermon from Jenny Krichton here.)

That is the heart of forgiveness. Sin breaks relationships. And when we are wronged it is so natural to let sin have its effect and pull away. But when we do this, we are giving in to the power of sin. Paul teaches that we are not slaves to sin. That means that I am not a slave to my own sin. But it also means that I am not a slave to the sins of others. If someone sins against me, their sins separates us. But by the power of Christ, I can say the same thing that Joseph says, “Come closer.”

This is of course precisely what Jesus commands in Matthew 18. “If someone sins against, go to them.” There is more to that teaching and if sin continues things get more difficult. But this does not change the first impulse. The first impulse is to resist the fundamental power of sin to separate and tear apart. This is what God has done in Christ and what we are called to do for each other.

To those who have wronged us, let us say – as God has said to us – “Come closer.”

on the walk


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Apr 15 2009

not my will but yours

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

I commend to many this strong and beautiful reflection by David Fitch.

He reminds me that however attached I am to my dreams, when I am following God, I must continually say, “not my will but yours.”

on the walk


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Apr 08 2009

work of the people

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

I am regularly challenged by the wise reflections of Dan Kimball. Here you will find a wise article on liturgy. With his normal careful and kind style he explores the implications of liturgy not just as the order of service in a Christian worship service, but most importantly as the “work of the people.” (This is the original meaning of the word.) This has such striking implications for how we worship as a church. He concludes his thoughts:

We have found that the goal shouldn’t be to maintain the past or to always be on the cutting edge. Our goal is to worship in a way that represents our community to God and God to our community. That means contextualizing worship for today, but not forgetting the family of God throughout history to which we belong.

That is a profound reminder for me as I help lead a church that has hundred+ year history and is also interested and influenced by many current trends in churches all over the country. Our worship cannot be the worship of the past or the worship of Willow Creek. For it to be our worship, it must be our worship. Worship properly offered, must be the work of the people.

As I read Dan’s thoughts I remembered a recent post in which I stole from my friend Aaron Wymer some of his fine thoughts on worship. But I also thought about the consistent them in scripture that true worship goes beyond the weekly worship service.

Scripture is pretty consistent that the public gathering for worship is just the tip of the worship iceberg. It is the public and visible reality of a deep and richer foundation. Our worship is the fullness of our service and prayer, our offering not just of a weekly gift but of our whole lives in every day. It not just the songs we sing but the justice we seek, not just the prayers we pray but the hungry that are fed. This is our liturgy, this is the work of the people. I think the next time someone asks me if I attend a liturgical church I will answer, “I hope so.”

on the walk


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Apr 07 2009

funnier than average

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

I am easily susceptible to over selling. Regardless of how good something actually is, if I encounter it after it has been oversold, I find myself almost unable to appreciate it. In that spirit I offer this video which is certainly funnier than average.


Have Fun!

on the walk

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Feb 20 2009


Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

My blog has been slow lately because I have been trying to upgrade. It has been a disaster.

I’m still trying but now all the old links are broken.


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Feb 10 2009

church events of the bible 4b:temple and homes

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

There were three big catalysts that started me wondering what church events should look like.  The first was a church change.  There was surprisingly little overlap between the kind of events hosted by one church and the kind hosted by the other.  Yet both churches were healthy and God honoring churches led by wise biblically literate people. The second two were biblical texts, one of which is today’s text.

Were are working though acts and we are still on Acts 2:42-47.  In that last post I talked about the general practices that were embodied in this new community.  To these four practices the church was devoted and in light of this devotion, God grew the church.  In the midst of this description two very different kinds of events are described.  The details we get are so few.  Just enough for us to wonder, to ponder, what were those early Christians doing.  The context for these two events is so different, the clearly served vastly different functions in the light of the church.

The two events were daily events.  I wonder how often did an individual attend.  How long did they last, were they scheduled or continuous?  Were they planned in advance or did it happen organically.  So much of what is described in these few verses occurs organically that one might suggest that these events represent a similar phenomena.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that all this was happening with no forethought or planning.  Two event locations are identified: the temple and homes. Let’s tackle the homes first.

Here is the sentences in which homes show up, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”  The double listing of “break bread” and “eat together” makes it pretty clear that breaking of bread is more than just sharing meals but must refer to some sort of symbolic meal.  Presumably this is a commemoration of the last supper.  I wonder what was happening in these hoem meetings. Are they “house churches” or “small groups.”  Did they have a program or just share a meal?  Was this a consistent group of people meeting various homes or do they simply mean that hospitality was so rampant that people just continually found themselves eating together.

What we can know however is still pretty significant.   One of the events of the early church was a consistent, home-based, cross centered meal.  Those are three pretty big elements.  This is one of the key events of the early church, and I am not sure if my church has any event like this.  Sunday morning isn’t this, most small group programs are not this.  Now of course that may not be a problem.  The NT is not a blueprint.  Precedence is not the same as command.  On the other hand, I am in a group right now in which we share a supper each week, and there is something powerful about the experience.  And not only is it powerful, but it is cumulative.  For few weeks they are guests, soon thought they are friends, and not long after that, our lives are becoming intertwined.  We have only been sharing meals once a week for a few months.  I wonder where this could lead.  Could it be that the kind of community described by this text is not some kind of bizarre social experiment, but it is instead the natural off-shoot of eating together weekly with the same people.

The other event is even more mysterious.  What were they doing off in the temple each week.  But I will leave such speculation till the next post, because as we read on in Acts we get one example of what a day at th temple was like.  (I will admit that this does not seem to be a typical day but perhaps there will be clues for the regular events as well as the  exceptional ones.)

on the walk,


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Feb 01 2009

church events of the bible 4a: daily life – an excursus

This isn’t an event per se and so it breaks the rule for this series, but before I comment on the next events, we have to notice a bit about the kind of life that pervades the early church.  (I will talk about the two events that are mentioned in the next post.)

 You can check the story out here: Acts 2:42-47.

The first truth with which we must contend is a truth about content.  This text lists four devotions: apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers.  Do these represent four event types or four things that happened at every event or neither of those options?  I grew up in a church culture that looked to these four things as the defining markers not only of a church but more particularly of a church event.  If nothing else happened on Sunday morning, it was expected that these four things did happen.  Other things like singing and announcements may happen, but it was these four elements that were required and if they happened, then it was by definition a church service regardless of anything else that may or may not have happened.  I have a lot of sympathy for this view, and if nothing else it creates a balance on Sunday mornings between four vital practices.

While that view has served a lot of churches very well, I am no longer sure that this interpretation is required of the text.  Perhaps these four realities are essential not for each event but for the rhythm of the life of the church overall.  If the other reading insists that all these practices be mixed together like a casserole, the alternative view would suggest that a four course meal was equally healthy.  In this model we might have some events that are focused on teaching and others on prayer and fellowship.  Some might focus on the community meal with little teaching and a lot of prayer.  Other community meals might bubble over in fellowship with only a bit of prayer.

This difference matters for at least two reasons.  The first is that we want to honestly respond to the meaning of the text.  If this text (as I now read it) is giving us examples of the kind of life led by these early Christians rather than giving us a list of the four things every church event must have, then we should admit that so that we are able to read the text honestly for what it says rather than assume a patternism that isn’t there.

The second is that at some point we must begin to actually plan an event.  When we do so, there are fundamental decisions to be made.  Can we plan an event focused just on fellowship?  Can we call an event a Christian event that is not centered on the meal?  If these elements are examples and not blueprints, then we are freed to plan a comprehensive and complementary collection of events that in different ways address these values.

I am convinced that these devotions are exemplary of a wide variety of events and should not be interpreted as essential to all events.  The key reason for this conviction is the examples that are given.  There is no indication of a single central event that attempted to cover all of these bases.  On the contrary, the implication is that in a multitude of overlapping ways, these four values are expressed.

Fellowship is expressed in the sharing of possessions and mutual support.  Surely some of that happened at organized events.  Maybe even a first century potluck supper. (Paul has to deal with some problem potlucks in his letters to the Corinthian churches.)  But clearly what is most directly described here is not a program or an event but a lifestyle embodied by a community so intimately connected that needs could be known and shared.

These four are the marks of the church not because they can be checked off a programming list, but because they are the natural life expression of the church.


It does seem that these core values did find expression in at least two regular events, and having indulged in this excursus I will turn to those two events in the next post.

on the walk


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Jan 29 2009

surprising book recommendation

It is rare that I find myself so completely and thoroughly recommending a book as I am today.  I suppose that with diligence I could find things to disagree with.  In fact I am sure that in the fifth chapter there was a sentence that ended with a preposition.  (That was irony, see the previous sentence.)
But seriously, this book is readable, profound, clear and wonderful.  It seeker friendly. In fact I think that those far from the church and from God would love this book.  (It has plenty of critical things to say about the church and the people who populate it.)  At the same time it is deeply challenging to those that have walked long in the faith.  This challenge is so compelling that as I read I was moved almost to tears and had to stop to confess to God and to thank God for this book.

It is relevant.  It is clearly designed to connect with people that are rarely tempted to open a bible or visit a Bible study class.  At the same time this book is not much more than an extended exegesis of a single parable.

The book is short.  It could easily be read in a quite afternoon. At the same time it is rich.  You could spend a week discussing each chapter.

Now that I have written all this I realize that I ought to be setting you up for some trick like recommending the Gospel of Mark (which does meet all of the criteria I listed above).  But I am not.  I am recommending a regular book.

It is called The Prodigal God.

It is fantastic.

on the walk

-Ethan Magness

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Jan 25 2009

anything and nothing

I was able to preach today.  I am always grateful when I have that opportunity.  You can catch the audio here.  As always happens when I get to preach, I always have a few leftover thoughts that I wish I could have shared but ran out of time.  I won’t bore you with all of those, but I will share just one choice quote that had to leave on the cutting room floor.

(Actually in the spirit of honesty, this is really more of a paraphrase, I am working from memory.  You can find the original somewhere in the middle of The Great Divorce.)
C.S. Lewis once said something like this:

Anything no matter how good, if it is not given to Jesus, can drag you down into hell.  Likewise, nothing, no matter how evil, if it is given over to Christ can keep you out of heaven.

The truth of that quote sustains me in my darkest times and challenges me in my brightest.

Today in the sermon we all had a rock.  The rock represented those things that are obstacles to our following after Jesus.  Things that we will nto release into his control but instead cling to on our own.

When I  went to church I was pretty sure that I knew what my rock was going to be.  It was as if I was pre-scripting the encounter I was going to have with God based upon the script I have used so many times before.

But as I stood in line holding my rock, I was startled.  I got off script.  I asked God, “What is holding me back from following you?”  And with surprising clarity, I knew.  It wasn’t a sin issue.  That was what I planned to do with my rock.  But that wasn’t it.  I have long ago surrendered the evil in my life over to Jesus and I trust he can handle it.  Instead I was confronted with something good.  Good plans that I have for my life.  Plans that are admirable and important.  But nevertheless they were plan that I had not surrendered to God.  They were my big plans.   How many half-deals I have struck with God offering him most of my life as long as I still get to pursue these big important plans of mine.

And suddenly to my great greif, that was my rock.  Those good plans, those plans so precious to me were my rock.  I was glad that the line moved slow.  It took me a while get up the nerve to set my rock on the stage.

I’m still not exactly happy about it, but I feel a great peace.  I don’t pretend that the temptation to those plans won’t return, but for the moment, I feel a great release of conflict.  I feel like I am following.

on the walk


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Jan 16 2009

church events of the bible 3: street corner preaching

Published by Ethan Magness under Uncategorized

The spirit of God causes a disturbance.  God creates an opportunity and the church responds.

You can read it all in the second chapter of Acts.

There are a lot of wonderful details in this text that I will ignore.  For this exercise I want to simply consider what this event is as an event. Here are a few things that I notice.

  1. They did not plan for this event but they did prepare for it.  They were together and in prayer. This resonates with so much of my experience.  Most of my most effective evangelism has been in situations that I did not plan but I did prepare for.  We prepare not because we can anticipate the specific event but by immersing our selves in prayer and study, in worship and service.
  2. God initiates the event and they jump on board.  There is a much quoted line from Bono, that we ought to see where God is working and go there.  I think that is good advice and certainly that is what is followed here. God begins the event.  God empowers the gathered church and draws
  3. God has seriously good timing.
  4. Peter lets the event that has attracted them draw their attention to Jesus.  He does not ignore the moment and in fact seeks to explain it but he does not dwell there.  This is in contrast to much street preaching today (and even most beach evangelism, etc.)  We just start preaching even though nothing has gathered a crowd and created an atmosphere of interest.  In this case, the work of the spirit has created a setting in which people are interested to hear what Peter will say.  This still happens today.  The work of the spirit may not happen in the same way, but I have seen the church led by God’s spirit work in ways that cause crowds to wonder, “What is going on?”  and as the church answers they get to draw people to Jesus.
  5. Peters lets the people respond.  I find it so remarkable, that Peter let’s them ask what they should do.  He presents the truth and lets this truth lead them to the crisis of decision.  And then in that crisis he responds to their questions.

Because this event flows from the work of the spirit, it isn’t exactly repeatable.  Nevertheless we can be a people who are together, and are praying and are prepared so that when God’s spirit creates an opportunity, and those who witness wonder what is happening we can proclaim the gospel in that moment.

on the walk


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