Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Faith and Work


         

          For many of us the holidays offer a break from normal routines.  A break from work may be just the time to do some reflection on work itself.  I have had a lot of jobs in my life, from white collar to blue collar, from the exciting to the repetitive and the mundane. I wish I could say that I have always had a positive attitude about all my jobs, but the reality is that I have had jobs I hated, and have done work that left me feeling completely dehumanized.  One of the potential tragedies about church ministry is that there can easily become a secular/sacred dichotomy in which my normal work-a-day world has no relation to my faith; there can become a large spiritual gap between Sunday and Monday.  It behooves church leaders to bring some solid teaching for parishioners as to how to deal with living for God in any kind of employment.  The following are some things I have found to be helpful in not only coping with work, but in thriving as a Christian in my jobs.

          First, a Reformed perspective on work has been tremendously helpful for me. The Reformers, like John Calvin, eliminated the long held medieval distinction between sacred work and secular work. They elevated all vocations into a calling blessed by God. All work is significant because God himself engaged in the work of creation. Work also involves, for the Reformers, worship. That is, we worship God through obedience to him in our jobs; our attitude makes work meaningful. Work, furthermore, provides a context for our continual learning about God. Our job, if we let it, can cultivate godliness, moderation, perseverance, and self-control. Thus, any job has the potential to transform us.

          Second, we have opportunities to integrate our faith and work so that we don't end up having a working world and another world outside of work where the two never meet. David Miller in his book God at Work offers four ways of bringing our faith and our jobs together: connecting biblical ethics to concrete applications in the marketplace; seeing the workplace as a mission field to reach the lost; finding meaning and purpose in work through a Christian worldview; and, using my job as a means of personal change through working with others in community and fellowship.

          Yes, all work involves a certain amount of toil and difficulty. But seeing it as the possibility of sharing in the work that God wants to do on this earth can help us in those times when we feel like we are going nowhere. In a day when the level of satisfaction for so many in their jobs is low, we need to recover looking at our vocation from a more biblical point of view. If we can adopt this outlook it can be the means of transforming society for the better and bringing glory to God.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Aliens and Strangers


          It isn’t on the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  It isn’t featured on holiday book lists for Christian stores.  It is a topic that gets scant attention in church literature, and not much focus in a lot of sermons and preacher podcasts.  It isn’t much discussed in leadership team meetings, and might only get mentioned in the narthex after church in a gossip session, oops, I mean as a “prayer request.” I am talking about ministry to people who are "different". That is, the stranger, those that are not in the mainstream. It may be the depressed and withdrawn teenager, the gay individual, the one who is shunned for not being cool, or is just not "right in the head" in some way, the ones who dress differently, and, of course, the unattractive, the not very smart, the inarticulate, the social misfit, and sometimes even the handicapped. Or they might be actual persons from other cultures and nations. The list could go on. My point here is that in building a ministry, these people are usually not included. After all, we don’t perceive that they have anything to offer us.


          This is, quite simply, contrary to the gospel of grace that we preach. A persistent theme throughout Scripture is that of the alien. God told the Israelites to remember the stranger because they once were aliens in Egypt (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33). Jesus ups the ante by telling us to actively love such persons (Matthew 5:43, 22:39). Paul takes this further by exhorting believers to show hospitality, which is, literally, the love of strangers (Romans 12:13).

          Here are some questions that ought to penetrate our ministry paradigms: Am I in touch with my own strangeness and alien nature? Do I have the capacity to see the image of God in others very different from me? How can I become a voice for the voiceless? Will we struggle to be hospitable to all people?

           James said that true religion consists of caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). The reason he points these two out is that, when we minister to these type of people, they have absolutely no means of reciprocating and giving back. So, here is grace at its finest: just as God in Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, so we can mirror the very character of the Lord in extending ministry with no strings attached to those who are in need.

          Perhaps we need a different evaluative grid of our personal and corporate ministries. How about if we base our measurements in grace? Who are the strangers God has placed in your life? How may you show hospitality to them? 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Daily Office of Prayer


          
          I think that one of the things the season of Advent does for us is really expose that the trajectory of our daily schedules tend to revolve around, well, me! As believers in Jesus most of us would like to have our everyday center in Christ. But it does not often happen for a host of reasons, not the least for all the many responsibilities we have.

          Now, hang with me for a moment. I think one of the great tasks of all churches, ministries, and individual Christians is to be both indigenous and catholic. What I mean, is that we are to live our lives in such a way as to express our faith in ways that are realistic and consistent with the society and culture that we are in, but to do it in such a way that connects us with what Christians of all times and all places have done throughout history and do now all across the world. It is to this last point that we tend to woefully fail and find ourselves living a bifurcated existence with no relation between our faith and our work.

          One of the things that has been done throughout church history and can help connect us to Christ each day what is called the "daily office." This is a routine and rhythm of short prayers throughout the day that center in the life and death of Jesus. Hippolytus, a third century father of the faith, instructed Christians to pray immediately after waking up for God's presence through the day, at nine in the morning remembering that Christ was nailed on the cross, at noon because of the darkness that fell over the earth, at three in the afternoon to mark the death of Jesus, and before bed to give one's life over to God.

          The idea here is to always have Christ in your mind so that you do not succumb to temptation and live, instead, according to God's will. No matter where you are, at set times in your day, you can pray in your heart or out loud remembering Jesus and offering yourself to him, pressing the effects of Christ's redemptive events further and deeper into your heart. Why not give it a try? The only thing to lose here is a few ungodly thoughts and selfish decisions in your day. May you find peace in the coming of Christ.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gospel Is for Everyone


          One of the finest ways of sucking the joy right out of the Christmas season is to subtly refashion the gracious "good news of great joy to all people" announced by the angel to the shepherds at Christ's birth into the Scrooge-ish bad news of great judgment to all people who aren't like me and who don't think like me.

          The church of Jesus Christ has struggled through its history to uphold this basic message of the gospel of grace for everyone. From the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts that met to decide whether one ought to become a Jew first in order to be a Christian, to the with-holding of membership to African-Americans in certain churches in the 20th century, to the just plain ignoring of the poor and marginalized among us, we must be intentional and deliberate about reaching and ministering to all people. The joy of salvation is that I do not need to jump through certain spiritual hoops to enter into Christianity, nor be a certain kind of person. The church is not an exclusive club of one particular sort of people based in race, gender, ethnicity, class, spiritual pedigree, or even certain preferences on issues. Through repentance and faith in Jesus, all may come to God.

 

          All people have intrinsic worth as individuals created in the image of God, and therefore need the attention of Christians in bringing the gospel to them. It is much too easy to ignore people we do not understand and who are different from us, or to look down on those who do not agree with me on disputable matters. When it comes to the good news of Jesus, having people out of sight does not mean we keep them out of mind. Too many people are often off the radar of many churches for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because poor and needy is trumped by wealthy and powerful for attention. To intentionally reach and minister to a different class or generation or race requires much love and many resources.

          Jesus had a big enough inner space to accommodate prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors, and a whole variety of sinners. How big is your inner space? Is it big enough to allow people in your life who are not like you without you feeling threatened and insecure? The Pharisees feared being contaminated if having table fellowship with such people; the Sadducees were afraid of losing their religious power over people if the status quo was changed in ministering to such low-lives; and, the Zealots feared continued Roman domination if Jesus kept up spending his time in graciousness to all kinds of sinners. So, all the religious people killed him.

          We enter this Advent season and celebrate the incarnation of Christ; the Son of God was born in order to die for us. The gospel of Jesus is the good news of great joy for every person who will look to him. We are to work together to propagate this message by having the shared purpose of evangelism to everyone without discrimination. When we together engage in this critical endeavor, there is tremendous joy, and the giant sucking sound of the joy going out of the season is gone. May you find the joy that is yours in Christ. May your heart rejoice and be glad, for salvation has come to every person who believes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why Does the Church Exist?


          Well, it ought to be obvious, right?  The church exists to meet my needs and expectations, and not to bore me to death.  Or maybe it exists to be the guardian of truth, and to never change anything, especially the worship style!  Rarely do we say this out loud, but often this is the bottom line of why we think the church exists.  Too often it comes down to personal preferences and homogeneous thinking, sort of like joining a good book club or a zumba class.

         
          Rather than being locked into such pragmatic concerns, a classic definition of the church that has existed for most of its history is that the church is the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, called and blessed by God to be a blessing to one another and to the world. The church is not a voluntary society of like-minded individuals that have come together for their own interests and happiness. Instead, the church is a group of people who have been called by God and joined to Christ with the Spirit's direction and enabling.

Here are some important implications of this definition -

1. It is God who makes a person a member of the church, and not my individual choice.
2. People often leave a particular church because they see it as a voluntary society which is not meeting their interests and making them happy.
3. The church exists to further God's glory and interests, not mine.
4. Jesus wants his church to continue his ministry and presence outside the church walls and programs.
5. The gospel is the good news of God's hospitality (literally "love of strangers") toward us.
6. The church is made up of called and redeemed people who are to be a community of hospitality, extending grace because we have first received it from Jesus.

          The list could go on, but the point is that the church exists not for me, nor to promote itself. The church is to have an outward focus of extending forgiveness and reconciliation in the world. The questions to ask, then, are "how can we be a blessing to others?" and, "what does it mean to be the presence of Jesus?" Not, "what's in it for me?" or “how can we get more people to give more money?” as if church were some sort of Scrabble game of personal point grabbing and no holds bar winning.

          No, I’m not some crotchety spiritual curmudgeon who bemoans the lack of genuine involvement in church while totally oblivious to the needs of church members around me.  It’s just that the whole focus of church is not that I or any individual joins a church; rather, God joins me to his church.  The action is God’s.  And because it is all about God, it ceases to be about us.  When it is about Jesus, then the amazing grace of God surprisingly forgives and meets the deepest needs of our lives.  Church then becomes a place of incredible blessing as God himself shows up to offer authentic unity, real reconciliation, and spiritual cleansing.  And those are things that transcend time and immediate needs for entertainment.  Thanks be to God for his indescribable work!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prayer and Providence


          

          Prayer - the very word itself sometimes evokes feelings of guilt that we don’t do it more.  The core and essence of church leadership is prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4).  Yet, prayer is often not at the center of ministry, being pushed to the margins by the rigors and demands of administrative tasks, meetings, and people problems.  We desire to pray, but don't pray enough or as much as we want. Sometimes the issue is not that we don't pray; the problem is that we don't persevere in prayer. Instead of taking the legalistic route of exhorting you that you should stop being so lazy and get on your knees (not very inspiring, is it?), let's consider God for a moment.

          Our Triune God is the Creator of the universe. Everything is his, and he is sovereign over all. His relationship to his creatures is what we call "providence." God's providence means that he is intimately involved in the world he has made. The Lord sustains and governs all creation. We, as the apex of his creation, are totally and completely dependent upon him. All creation was pronounced "good" because it came from God, who himself is good. Events, then, that happen in God's world are neither random and by chance, nor deterministic and by fate.

          The providence of God is working to fulfill his good plans in the world. God is, therefore, concerned to use human prayers to accomplish that plan so that intercession is integral to God's design, and not in contradiction to it. God is present and active in human lives. Question and answer 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, "How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us? We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved."

          Want to pray? Think about God, and be inspired to pray because of our great dependence upon him for everything, and since everything God does is good. Please join with me in prayer that God would save a whole bunch of people, and bring them into the life of the church. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Maturity


          Maybe it goes without saying that a genuine Christian wants to follow Jesus. We all may have various ideas of how to do this, or differ on what the goal of spiritual growth is. Yet, perhaps we need to ask what God wants and what his goal is for his followers? Maturity is where it is at, man, and we all need it, without exception. It is not unusual for me to have a conversation with a student who is hot for God, and bemoans some problem in the church or world, but lacks the maturity to go with the fire. I usually say something to the effect, "yeah, well, you can post your 95 Theses once you own a door to put them on."  It’s also not unusual for many Christians today to have heard thousands of sermons, but there is no fire to go with the length of time spent in church and, furthermore, is not sure of how to avail of the great Christian resource of grace.  Physical maturity does not always equal spiritual maturity.  And maturity does not happen apart from unity.



          In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians telling them his aim: "Him (Jesus) we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (1:28). He echoes this again with the Ephesians letting them know that the process of maturity is to not be done in isolation, but together as a community of believers, so that no one is left out or behind in God's goal of seeing a well-rounded church, fully developed and equipped to follow Jesus in every circumstance of life (4:13). Our Lord himself exhorted us to be mature, just as our heavenly Father is. Since God is mature, we are to reflect him in all of our relationships by handling them in a mature manner (Matthew 5:46-48).

          The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that those who are mature have developed a keen sense of discernment in distinguishing between good and evil (5:14); and, Paul told the Phillipians that maturity brings a proper perspective from which to view hard situations and allows one to endure suffering (3:12-15).

          Here is the crux of the matter:  maturity results from spiritual growth which occurs over an extended period of time in the context of community. Maturity can neither be realized with only growth, nor with just time. Both are needed in order to reach a mature state. The process of growth over time is of vital importance to Jesus, who knows that this is the manner in which one bears fruit that will last (Luke 8:9-15).

          Are you spiritually mature? If so, how did you get to this point? If not, how will maturity be realized? Does my ministry and church have maturity as a goal? Why, or why not? May God be gracious to work in us and instill in his children his own mature nature so that we may be like Jesus in all we do and say.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Addiction - Going Back to Egypt

          With a miraculous hand and outstretched arm, God brought judgment on the ancient Egyptians for keeping the Jews in bondage and, through Moses, led the Israelites out of Egypt and on their way to the promised land.  There was just one little glitch to the plan:  Israel would have to take a rather circuitous route to get there.  Even after another miracle of walking through the parted Red Sea, Israel experienced a failure of faith.  On the first sign of hardship in travel when there was no water, they grumbled and complained.  "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children die of thirst?" (Exodus 17:3).  In fact, they complained about everything to the point that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God, the people became impatient and hatched a plan to go back to Egypt.  



          It is easy to read the narrative of the exodus and see a bunch of stupid, ungrateful people in light of all that God had done for them.  A return to slavery looks pretty foolish when we see it in other people.  Yet, this is what the addict needs to see in himself each time he goes back to repeating the addictive behavior:  it's a return to Egypt, to the bondage of self-soothing through a familiar activity.  Getting mad at himself and feeling bad about the behavior is just that; it doesn't bring him into the promised land of freedom from addiction.  To set out on a biblical course of change, people caught in vicious cycle of addiction vitally need to begin defining and identifying themselves as more than an addict.

          God has redeemed us from the slave market of addiction through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Just as he brought the ancient Israelites miraculously out of Egypt, so in Christ God has brought an exodus to us and set us on a road to the promised land.  In Christ we have been chosen to be holy and blameless; we have redemption through the blood of Jesus; we have been adopted into God's family through Christ; and, we have been given the Holy Spirit to come alongside and help us live on the holy road that God set for us (Ephesians 1).  However, there is a hitch to it:  you must believe all this.  The road to the promised land of freedom requires faith, and that faith will be tested and tried.  It won't be easy.  The Christian life is a road that must be traveled with others, and not a spiritual lightning bolt that erases all addictive desire.

          We are forgiven.  Forgiven of all those lapses into addiction.  It is grace that saves through faith.  And it is grace that we must all focus on, or we will be sorely tempted to go back to Egypt.  Here's the deal:  whatever wins our affections will control our lives.  Addicts are addicts because they are controlled by their beloved behavior, whether it is alcohol, pornography, food or smoking.  The only way out of such a destructive relationship is to be moved in the affections even more by the grace of Jesus.  And that only comes when we make the choice to swim in the gospel of grace through thinking about it, meditating on it, and talking about it more than we do our addiction.  In other words, know, really know, what God in Christ has done for you and take the narrow road of genuine faith in Jesus.

          This is where the church comes in.  It is always better and more effective to walk with someone rather than walk alone.  Pyramids of pride keep us apart from one another in a cycle of shame, but Christians were meant for community, not isolation.  Affections for Christ are more fully stoked in the furnace of similar affections in others.  So, don't go back to Egypt.  Don't spend your time and effort fashioning a golden calf.  Spend it on pursuing grace.  It may take awhile to get to the promised land, but there can be joy in the journey.  Journey well, my friend.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Problem of Isolation


          Here is what a Boston Globe article from a few years back had to say about some local neighbors:
"It can never be said that Adele Gaboury's neighbors were less than responsible.  When her front lawn grew hip-high, they had a local boy mow it down.  When her pipes froze and burst, they had the water turned off.  When the mail spilled out the front door, they called the police.  The only thing they didn't do was check to see if she was alive.  She wasn't.  On Monday, police climbed her crumbling brick stoop, broke in the side door of her little blue house, and found what they believe to be the seventy-three-year-old woman's skeletal remains sunk in a five-foot-high pile of trash, where they had apparently lain, perhaps as long as four years.  'It's not really a very friendly neighborhood,' said Eileen Dugan, seventy, once a close friend of Gaboury's, whose house sits less than twenty feet from the dead woman's home.  'I'm as much to blame as anyone.  She was alone and needed someone to talk to, but I was working two jobs and I was sick of her coming over at all hours.  Eventually I stopped answering the door.'"

          We might think this would not happen in our neighborhood or community, but the problem of isolation is a profound reality.   Do we really know the people located all around us?  Do we actually see them?   Relating electronically, for many people, far outweighs knowing the individuals that pass me by every day.  Even in an actual conversation with another, there can be multiple technological relations taking place through cell phone texting and/or tweeting.



          Although technology serves a purpose and helps connect us in ways previously unheard of, it is now possible to have five-hundred "friends" on Facebook, but have no one person to share the secrets of my life with and express the vulnerability needed for close relationships.  There may be, geographically, people all around us, but we can live in virtual anonymity and loneliness in a modern day prison of isolation of self, pretty much keeping to ourselves and only letting people see a few electronic phrases.

          As people created in the image of God we are highly relational creatures, but those relationships can easily be a mile-wide, and an inch deep.  If we are going to find fulfillment in this present technological age we must find a small band of people who spontaneously go in and out of each other's lives, are actually available to relate face to face instead of being so busy, frequently see one another and spend time together, and share meals and lives often.

          The irony of our age is that we can have hundreds of acquaintances, and not one intimate friend.  Technology is not the real culprit, but only serves to allow us pseudo-relations that protect our obsession with work and time, and guard us from the inevitable pain and hurt that can come with true relationships.  Grace and love are much harder to offer than a tweet.  We are to love one another deeply, from the heart, and experience the true community that shows the world that we are Christians (1 Peter 1:22; John 13:35).

          A dead woman may not be next door to you and me, but the spiritually dead reside all around us.  It takes courage and boldness to be real and vulnerable in relationships, but as believers in Jesus Christ we have not received a spirit of timidity but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).  May we simplify our lives and allow the grace of God to touch us so that we might, in turn, be available to offer grace to those who are isolated and cut off from the love that could be theirs in Christ and in Christian community.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Church Is My Mother


          Is church essential to your life?  Statistics continue to pour out from survey groups on how nearly two-thirds of college students and twenty-somethings simply drop out of church between ages 18-29.  In fact, statistically, all age groups are backing-off on making church an important part of their lives.  This does not necessarily mean that young adults are losing their faith; they simply do not view church as vital to their lives, and so with the pressures and deadlines of school, the need for a vigorous new work schedule, and trying to keep up with the demands of life in general, making church part of the fabric of a person's life becomes optional.  Young adult Christians, instead, may rely on intermittent personal devotions, community through existing networks of friends on campus or at work, and connecting with others through technology rather than face to face meetings and encounters.

          The issue here is not one of church attendance; it is the reality that an entire generation of young people has chosen to put themselves outside of the means of grace given by God for their own benefit and spiritual formation.  There is a profound lack of understanding concerning the nature of the church, as well as a paucity of significant relationships between many twenty-somethings and the rest of the Body of Christ.  Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her so that she might become pure and holy, and become one with Jesus in practicality, as she is in reality through the cross (Ephesians 5:26-27).    The church is God's ordained means of bringing growth in grace to any person's life; to neglect her like ignoring your mother.

          Like a mother caring for her children, the church is to be a nurturing community for the exercise and development of faith and perseverance.  Without her, the believer is at risk of being like an orphan, cut-off from the life-giving Spirit of God who uses the Word of God in preaching and sacrament to edify and feed.  John Calvin has put this in rather vivid terms:

“For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother (the Church) conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels.  Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.  Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation… it is always disastrous to leave the church.”

          

          Young adults and college students need to both experience and recover what it means to be the church.  Church leaders need to think in terms of grace and nurture with caring and sensitive ministry to those persons.  The goal is not simply to get young adults to stay or come to a church service; the purpose of ministry to such persons is to enfold and engraft them into the life of a local body of believers in relationships and ministry so that they might grow in faith and use the means of grace that is available to them.  This formative experience in the young adult years provides a foundation for a lifetime of walking with God and steels them for the years ahead in their engagement with the world.  So, how do you view "church"?  What adjustments to your life must you make in order to experience the grace God has for you through his Body?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Kingdom of God


          So, what is of first importance?  When it comes to ministry, what is to be of priority?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, in response to a lack of faith manifested through worry: "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness...." I suppose Jesus could have said a lot of things to seek first. Seek salvation, seek family, seek love, seek justice, seek the church, seek me. Yet, the kingdom really encompasses all that and more. 



          The kingdom has to do with the rule and reign of God in this world. It is distinguished from the church in that the church has to do with the people within God's rule. The church, then, might be said to be the means to the end of establishing God's kingdom rule, and is not a cul-de-sac where we just try to get people to attend church services.  The kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the church because it aims at nothing less than the complete control of all manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of humanity.

          Here is how it works (ideally!):  The church proclaims the gospel and brings people into the church. New believers then begin to enjoy all the blessings of God's kingdom rule in their lives: victory over sin and the availability of the power of the Holy Spirit. If we lose sight of the kingdom of God, we become insular and think that our particular church or Christian organization is the goal of ministry, and that issues outside our ministry have no real merit for our attention. Apart from the kingdom, the systemic problems surrounding justice, racial reconciliation, and poverty all take a backseat to personal expressions of faith in my limited sphere of doing my own thing, man.

          When it comes to any particular church, denomination, or para-church ministry, if we have a kingdom mindset, we desire to see God's reign expand across our community and we will work collaboratively to see this realized. Then it does not become “my” ministry and “your” ministry, but our ministry. It is no longer you and me, but we as kingdom minded people. This takes time and effort. But after all, our focus is to be in seeking first the kingdom as priority for ministry.

          How do you think a kingdom mentality would change the face of your life and ministry?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Simplicity


          For most churches the unofficial start of the year has begun with Fall ministries in full gear.  After a few weeks of programming it is a good thing to evaluate and reflect on how it all is going.  It seems to me that we must always come back to what is important to God and not make ministry such a complex beast that overwhelms us.

          Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God, and when we pray to ask that God's kingdom would come and be manifested on this earth. That is, since the fall of humanity, this world has been under the realm of Satan. God, however, is in the business of restoring his rule and reign. So, all church ministries must have this controlling agenda.

          The kingdom of God is established and expanded through proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. In other words, the means of God's grace to us is through communication of the Bible and its central message of the redeeming work of Christ. There is now reconciliation between God and humans through the death of Jesus. God has united us to himself in order that we would enjoy him, and he us. As Teresa of Avila has said, "the soul is God's paradise, being made by God and for God." Intimacy with the divine is the purpose of our existence. Prayer, then, is the primary means by which to commune with God and is not optional equipment for the Christian.  Prayer is vital to seeing the kingdom grow and expand not only in our own hearts but in others, as well.

          We must come back to the simplicity of this ministry. It is easy to become sidetracked and be content with erecting massive ministry structures, programs, and events that may please other people and feed our egos, but do little toward accomplishing what was important to Jesus and is necessary to seeing the kingdom of God realized in our communities.

So, then, maybe we need to ask ourselves such questions as these:
1. Is the kingdom of God a controlling goal for my ministry, and do I even understand what it is and how it works?
2. Do our ministries truly develop intimacy with God?
3. Is prayer necessary and central to everything we do?
4. Are our ministry structures simple and contribute toward the kingdom of God, or cumbersome and divert congregants away from this focus?

          Just as football teams must never forget the fundamentals of the game in order to win, so we need to come back to what is important as defined by Jesus, and let this be the evaluative grid through which we look at all of ministry. Ministry may require hard work and sacrifice, but it need not be complex. Simplicity toward doing what is essential is required. May you experience joy in ministry as you see the kingdom of God come in all its power and grace.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dealing With Depression


          

          Depression is real.  It isn’t limited to a certain personality trait, and it isn’t in itself sin.  It just is.  More than half of people in the United States with serious depression do not receive or will not get adequate help.  So, if you are reading this as a depressed person, or are wondering how to help someone you care for who is depressed, it is imperative that you get help immediately.  A blog post on such an important subject can really do nothing more than encourage you and somehow inspire you to take the brave and bold step of seeking the assistance you need.  Severe depression is profoundly crippling and is as important to deal with as prostate cancer, because both can kill you on the inside even though no one knows on the outside.

          I myself have experienced debilitating depression.  I’ve also had a kidney stone.  I’m told the pain of a kidney stone is like child-birth.  I don’t know about the child-birth thing, but I do know that I would rather experience a dozen kidney stones at once than go through another severe depression.  I got help, and it changed my life. 

          Depression is exactly what the name implies:  it is a depressing or a stuffing of feelings.  I had been so good at stuffing my feelings that one night many years ago when our neighbor had a blow-out of a party at 2 in the morning, I actually felt no anger.  Just so you know:  that’s not healthy.  I had an anger problem.  Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every negative feeling in the book.

          Recovery for me meant first recognizing that I had a lot to be angry about.  Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life, and I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty.  Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell.  But I couldn’t heal without it.  I couldn’t go around it, or avoid it; I had to go through it.  Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but to take charge of them.  I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself.  The Bible calls it speaking the truth in love.

          Waiting for the perfect time to deal with depression will only result in deeper despondency.  You are not responsible for what others may say or do, and you cannot control other people’s decisions and responses to you – trying to do so is manipulative and only creates more problems. 

          Depressed people are not alone.  Depression is as ancient as creation itself.  Even some of the big dogs of Holy Scripture got depressed:  Elijah, David, and Jeremiah.  But they didn’t stay there, and their experiences of facing depression changed not only themselves but readers of God’s Word throughout history.  It only makes sense to tell a trusted pastor or church leader how you are really feeling.  One does not crawl out of the abyss of darkness that is depression without some sage people surrounding the person who offer wise counsel, prayer, and carefully apply Scripture.  This is one reason why church ministry exists, so let the church do its redemptive work.  And may the clouds roll away into the hope of a new tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Heart of Ministry


          

          Church ministry is not for the faint of heart.  It is both challenging and rewarding, frustrating and a joyful privilege.  In a typical day I can experience the heights of rejoicing with new parents, and grieve with one who has lost an aging parent.  Emotions can run the gamut simply by being available for people, people who can be encouraging one day, and another day become downright ornery.  The thing about ministry is that, unlike any other vocation or work that people do, there is something supernatural about it.  That is, we cannot do it on our own; we need God.  Furthermore, ministry neither occurs in a vacuum, nor in a distant objective sort of way, as if our very personhood were not needed.  Rather, God works both in and through people to accomplish his purposes on earth.  Therefore, we must minister out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Loving others results from the fact that God has first loved us. Since this is true, it is vital that we meet with Lord often and allow him to care for our souls. Plans, strategies, schedules, evaluations, and the demands of life and ministry are the reality for the Christian servant. To neglect the soul is to fall into the demonic trap of believing in grandiose thinking instead of trusting in God for the ability to engage in ministry to others. The snakes of self-reliance and pride slither about our feet looking to strike at any time.

          In order to be an effective minister, one must take the journey into the self and discover the union that exists with God through Christ. Intimacy with the divine is the whole purpose of the Christian life. The practicality of reaching this is through the ongoing process of detachment from worldly allurements and a growing attachment to the things of God. Prayer is the vehicle by which we wean ourselves from trust in our intellects, abilities, personalities, and pet theologians and learn to become an intimate friend of God.

          Prayer, then, is not primarily the means of getting what we want and promoting our ministry agenda as if we were making some sales pitch to a skeptical buyer. It is the place of meeting with God and experiencing the union for which Jesus Christ died to procure for us. God himself takes delight in dwelling within the innermost sanctum of the heart, as if we were his temple.

          If this is God’s goal for us, then it is also the aim for the persons for whom we seek to minister. To lead them in the path of intimacy with God, with knowing Christ better, is our highest and most joyous call. What do we model to the people around us? Ask yourself:  Is my agenda really God's plan for my church? Does the journey of spiritual formation I lay out lead straight to the heart of God in a vital union with Jesus? How do I engage in the role of spiritual director with others? What do they need to be delivered from?

          If this world is to be turned upside down for God, it must begin with me and you. There must be a healthy rhythm in life of detachment from the world, attachment with Jesus, and then an engagement with others. To have engagement without detachment and attachment is to do nothing but perpetuate the brokenness that already exists in this fallen and decaying world. Instead, may you find the garden of paradise in the soul where God meets with you, that you might minister out of the overflow of the heart in a union with Christ.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why Not Women?

          Women are the greatest and largest untapped resource in the church today.  You might wonder why I would say such a thing, being that more women attend church than men.  But I stick to the statement because  the reality for many churches is that only men can hold positions of authority as elders and deacons.  The reasoning goes something like this:  "the Bible says women can't serve over men, so women can't hold those positions."  Really?  So, a woman can serve as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, can be elected as governor of a state, and can manage men on a factory floor, but that same woman cannot serve as an elder in many evangelical churches?  I once asked a pastor that very question, and he answered with "yes, because the Bible says so."

          If you are of the belief that a church office is to based on gender instead of just good ol' calling and gifting of the Spirit, then, methinks, it behooves us to ask these questions of the biblical text:

  • If women are not to exercise authority over men in the church, how do we account for actual women leaders in the Bible, such as Deborah, Huldah, Philip's daughters, Priscilla's role in Apollos' life, not to mention the list of women leaders in Romans 16?  If our impulse is to say that these are exceptions because there were no men to "step up", what does that say about our theology, that God isn't big enough to find a man to put into a position of leadership?
  • If we insist that women ought not to teach and be silent based on Paul in the book of 1 Timothy, why do we ignore Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians that women are to publicly prophecy and pray?
  • Doesn't the prominence of women in the ministry of Jesus and Paul suggest something different than just having women tag along to teach children?
  • Just when does a boy become too old for a woman to legitimately teach him?  If women can't teach men, why in the world would we ever think that they are the best teachers for boys?
  • How can we apply Galatians 3:26-28 as everyone else besides women as free to serve?
  • Does the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers only apply to men?  Doesn't the absence of women in church leadership go against this?
  • Isn't it weird and confusing that women have an equal vote in congregational decisions, even when a male leader is being elected and/or disciplined when they aren't supposed to exercise authority?
          I could go on, but I think you get the picture; the absence of women in leadership is problematic at best.  Its a problem because there are actually women leaders in the Bible.  So, here is my unabashed, dogmatic, and biblical belief:  All individuals are equally created in God's image, and, therefore, have equal worth, privilege, and opportunity in Christ's Church without any limitation, including gender.  There, I said it, and I'm sticking to it.  

          In today's evangelical church there are far too many wonderful Christian women who are exhausted and depressed because they are trying to live up to a certain expectation of being someone they are not.  They suppress their gifts and calling because they think it is delusional, and that they have to prop-up the fragile male egos around them.  They aren't free to serve in leadership positions and it is eating them from the inside-out.  These women think there is something wrong with them, but the reality is that there is something wrong with the whole system of male-only authority.  What is more, if I'm right, we are missing out on the blessing of God.  It is high time we value all women, even those with gifts of leadership, by allowing them to serve without limitation.

          This is a passionate subject for me because I have a wife and three daughters.  And all of them are more intelligent, more gifted, and better leaders than me, the lone family male.  To have them using their superior talents in the church by leading and serving is the least threatening thing to me on this earth.  I love it that they can outdo me; it is my joy!  Even more than that, I believe it is Jesus' joy, as well.  We must be proactive in cultivating and nurturing the gifts and calling we see in women.  They do not need to be put in their place; the good ol' boy system of the church needs to be put in its place so that men are practicing a leadership that sacrifices on behalf of making women's leadership a priority.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Seven Deadly Words of the Church

           “We've never done it that way before.”  Any church leader or board who has this as their mantra is on a one way road to death.  I know that’s a harsh statement, but sometimes we need eye-opening statements to shake us from our denial about how things are really going.  Jesus did not just change people’s lives; he changed the systems that kept people in bondage.  If we have no substantive spiritual growth, and no real evangelism occurring, our church system is giving us what it is set up to do.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem and took a whip to the existing system of buying and selling and money-changing, needy people came and filled-in the space where the vendors were.  Praise to Jesus by the children could now be heard.  Jesus, as he has done so many times before, healed the blind and the lame.  The Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ time forbade anyone who was lame, blind, deaf, or mute from offering a sacrifice at the temple.  The picture here is one of needy people streaming to Jesus to be healed so that they can worship God along with everyone else.  By engaging in his healing ministry, Jesus was attacking the establishment by making the way clear for all to come to God, which was God’s design for all nations and peoples to do in the first place.  Jesus will not tolerate a system that practices profiling based on anything, whether it is age or disability, when it comes to worship.  He wants no obstacles to anyone who wants to come to God.

            Any time any existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.  It is a myth to think that when a church changes something, whether it is a new program, cutting an existing one, or introducing different ways of doing worship or ministry that there ought to be 100% acceptance.  When the American Revolution began only about 25% of the people believed that a revolution ought to take place.  Most were either loyal to Britain or thought fighting wasn’t the way to go.  After the revolution, you would be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t rejoice over it.  The chief priests and the teachers of the law were incensed and angered by the systemic change Jesus brought.  They especially didn’t like the accolades that Jesus received for cleaning house.  At its core, the real reason the religious leaders didn’t like it is because it challenged their authority, and they were jealous and envious of the praise Jesus received.  They tried to dress up their indignation and hide their intense anger with a question that was designed to point toward the fact that Jesus ought not to be receiving such praise.  But Jesus sloughed it off, identifying himself as the promised Messiah.

            Jealousy and envy stand in direct opposition to the values of God’s kingdom, which prizes humility and mercy toward others.  Proverbs tells us that envy rots the bones (14:30), and the Apostle James tells us that envy and selfish ambition is unspiritual and of the devil and accompanies every evil practice (3:14-16).  The real culprit behind the religious establishment’s system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is sin.  But in order to try and appear better than we are, people often confront another with something that is not the real issue. 

            Back in the Old Testament, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife.”  Miriam and Aaron were the siblings of Moses, and they had a problem with a black woman (Cushites were Africans) being a part of the assembly and of the family and worshiping along with the Israelites.  But the very next verse tells what they said to Moses.  Instead of coming clean about what their real problem was, they attacked Moses with a different issue which wasn’t the real issue for them:  “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?  Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”  Even the issue they raised was really one of jealousy and envy.  They were acting like the chief priests and teachers of the law in Christ’s day, and Moses was a Christ-figure, exhibiting humility and trust through the situation.  God acted by making Miriam a leper, a person who would be excluded from the assembly, and left her to ponder how it feels to be treated as Moses’ wife was.

            Jesus was all about alleviating any and all obstacles for all people to the worship of God.  He cared about it enough to attack a system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was, and taking on the establishment that prevented certain persons from coming to God in prayer.

            The way for us has been made clear through the death of Jesus.  He has removed the old system and replaced it with the new.  Hebrews 8:13 says that “By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”  What is more, Christ’s death has made us clean, and as white as snow, having purified us from all unrighteousness.

            It is not our job to put limits on people on how they might serve or worship God according to race, ethnicity, class, disability, age, or gender.  The New Covenant demands it be so.  Jesus insists on it.  And, so, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise to him by eliminating any system or rule or practice which conflicts with Jesus’ ministry.

            It is an act of grace to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for change that brings people closer to God.  It is the grace of humility that helps us to keep questioning what we do, and don’t do, so that others will be blessed through our church.  We must keep exploring the frontiers of church ministry because we do not exist for ourselves.  Ego and hunger for power can get left at the door.

            May we be like Jesus, and be active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God by first having God clean out our own hearts.  May the seven deadly words of the church be replaced with a new set of seven life-giving words:  “We are always changing to reach people.”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A House of Prayer




Prayer is one of those things in church ministry that gets assigned a lot of value and importance, but when it comes right down to it prayer often gets lost and sandwiched in a worship service between the singing and the preaching.  Church meetings get the bookends of opening and closing prayer, with the “real” work of business and ministry taking place on our own. Our own contemporary reality of church ministry and prayer may not be far off from the ancient world.  When Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he strolled into the temple area and found a situation that disturbed him to the point of making a whip and driving out all who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice.  Christ’s reasoning for taking such violent action was:  “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”

This bit about Jesus in the temple sounds a lot like an old western where the sheriff strolls into town and acts like he owns the place, shooting up the bad guys, defending the women and children, and cleaning up the town.  This is a side to Jesus that might surprise some.  It can be tempting to reduce Jesus to one-dimensional qualities like ‘compassionate’ or ‘accepting.’  But this story reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.

Jesus is not just a merciful and modest king who graciously heals and forgives people; he is equally a mighty and awful judge who does not tolerate sinful systems and cleans house.    Because Jesus is superior over the temple and Lord of the church, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use.  He did not come to this earth to simply supplement our lives with some occasional answered prayers, to hang around in order to bail us out when we need it, or to help us get ahead in life with the thing we want.

            Instead, John’s Gospel tells us that zeal for his father’s house consumes him.  Jesus is all about pleasing his father and seeing that his church is what it is supposed to be.  It is our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around.  That will happen as we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and restore prayer to its place so that people can truly and genuinely connect with God.  Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw in operation.

            At the time of Passover all pious Israelites would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices and the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the temple in Jerusalem.  That meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling.  Over time, a system was set up in which there would be vendors that would line the temple courts who would have animals for sale as a matter of convenience.  Since there were folks that came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.

            This situation all makes a good deal of sense, so what is the problem with a little capitalism taking place by providing a service for the people?  Jesus doesn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the temple at all!  Jesus attacked the system and made a huge scene because the vendors and money-changers, even if they were using sound business practices (which they weren’t), should not even be there because it trivialized the temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.

            Here is how the system was supposed to work:  coming to the temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient; in fact, it was supposed to be difficult.  A family would spend the whole of a year raising, for example, a lamb.  The lamb would actually become part of the family, much like a beloved family pet.  But when Passover came, the family would pack up, bringing the lamb along – to be slaughtered as a sacrifice.  The miles and days of walking to Jerusalem would be a sober reminder of sin, and a time of contemplation anticipating worship at the temple.  Coming to Jerusalem with no animal, just money to buy one would be like entering into the Lent season by paying someone off to not eat chocolate for you, so you don’t have to go without it.  It misses the entire point of the system, and actually hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer.  Jesus will not put up with it to the point of rather violently driving the whole system out of the temple.

            Jesus is not one to play around with sin.  He didn’t ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals and doves to sell them at cost.  Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was an act of terrorism against the right and true worship of God!

            It has been the sin of the Church through the centuries to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (just think of the Reformation and the abuse of selling indulgences).  We might feel good by coming to a worship service and giving money and going home without ever having done anything to meaningfully connect with God because our orientation may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice, using our spiritual gifts, and laying our lives down.  It is really a heart issue.  For example, we might give to missions, and that is right and necessary, but if we give without any real thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having Jesus clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts. 

            So, what sacrifice do you bring for worship?  What would we do if Jesus came in to our churches, started moving the furniture around, and driving the whole system out of the way we do things?  Jesus will actually put up with a lot, but the thing he will not tolerate is having obstacles to worship so that people do not genuinely connect with God. Not only was the business done in the temple, it was done in the Court of the Gentiles so that non-Israelites were not able to pray.  So here is the question that this story creates for us to ask:  Does the way we do things help people to connect with God, to pray, or does our system prevent other people besides us from worshiping God?

            In order to be a house of prayer, the first step is to identify any systemic change that needs to take place.  Trying to lay elaborate plans for a prayer ministry, or just trying to motivate people to pray in the church will bear little fruit until the systems underlying the lack of prayer are dealt with.  I wouldn’t suggest taking a whip into the next worship service you attend, but I would encourage us all to think about what changes need to take place that will put people in a position to hear God, and help them to truly pray and know God.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Ministry Legacy of Scrappy




This summer my family has had its share of both highs and lows.  Without question the most difficult experience of the summer for us was watching our nearly fifteen year old cocker spaniel, Scrappy, go from health problem to health problem which finally ended in needing to put him down.  He was very much part of the family, and my daughter, Mikaela, really did not know life apart from him.  As I have reflected on Scrappy, and his place in our family, he really taught me a lot about life and ministry.

            Recently I was reading in the psalms and was struck with this verse:  “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:3, ESV).  I believe that all God’s creation has something to tell us and ways to teach us.  My family has been through a lot in the past fifteen years while having Scrappy as our pet.  I can remember about ten years ago going through a particularly difficult time and not always coming home at the end of the day with a good attitude.  There were times I even wept and wondered if God was even paying attention.  It was in that time that good ol’ Scrappy, no matter how I acted or what I said would be so happy to see me that it seemed like he would wag the tail right off his backside.  Even when I yelled at him, he would just come up and lick me like I was the most important person in the world.  There is no one quite like a dog to embody the words:  befriend faithfulness.  If I could have just an ounce of Scrappy’s faithfulness I think I would be the best Pastor in the world.

            Then there is the matter in the psalm about delighting in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Scrappy was happiest and never more in sheer delight as when he was with the family.  I didn’t matter much where we were; he just wanted to be with us.  And that is exactly the thing that he taught me about going through those rough stretches of life – that no matter what was going on around me, no matter what the circumstances and situations I had to face, God was with me, and I could choose to delight in him in the midst of anything.

            Over the years we learned to trust Scrappy as the family watchdog.  He was actually the runt of his litter, and was really a wimp.  Any feral cat could have beat him up.  But no one knew that by the way he acted.  Scrappy would bark the living daylights out of any stranger, or make a growling gesture toward the packs of feral teenage boys that would seek to date one of my three daughters.  Yep, Scrappy was a keeper.  You could count on him to secure the perimeter of the house, and guard against any and all danger that might be lurking about.  One day we came home to find Scrappy going nuts.  I couldn’t figure out what set him off.  A few days later I was walking around outside the house and noticed that someone had tried all the basement windows, and damaged some of them, to see if they could get in.  That night Scrappy enjoyed a steak with the family.

            I know that I can trust the LORD.  I know it, in part, because a crazy old cocker spaniel that God decided to throw my way for a few years on this earth helped me understand what trust is.  God’s grace can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.  Has God taught you things about himself, and about life, in unconventional ways?  Through people you never thought he would use?  In situations you would rather not find yourself in?

            May we all learn together the enjoyment of God, as well as the nature of God, through all of life’s ups and downs.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Imitation of Ministry


One day, several years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned right in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, "Dad, is that guy an idiot?"

               Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, the faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion, but is handed down from person to person (2 Timothy 2:2). Christians learn from leaders how the faith is lived out and practiced, not primarily from listening to sermons, but through imitating what they see.  It is good for us to ask the question: who do I imitate? We pass on things we learn from others, so it is imperative that we learn from the right people.

               Consider just a few biblical verses on this: "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us" (Philippians 3:17). "We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what was promised" (Hebrews 6:12). "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7).



               We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in the faith in the face of pain and suffering, and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean that we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean that we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ and are not self-promoting peacocks who go after being admired and praised. Paul chose Timothy to go to the Philippian church because Timothy had proven himself as being genuinely concerned for others, and not for making decisions that would simply further his ministry career (Philippians 2:19-23). Timothy had learned from his mentor, Paul, how to cultivate a life of service to others rather than to be self-serving.

               We are to imitate those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone the purgative fires of trials in this life may more easily become seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating.  Put in this light, the choosing and electing of church deacons and elders is greatly important.  Just getting a warm body willing to serve is not really an option.  Perhaps it could be that many young people are leaving the church, and even the faith, because they have not seen genuine Christianity lived-out with passion and integrity among those who hold leadership positions in the church.

So whom will you follow?

What Christians will serve you well as good models of faith and ministry?

Be alert for Christian leaders who exemplify genuine meekness, selfless service, and are in the habit of being helpful and doing good to others. Imitate such persons.

If you do not have someone in your life you can truly consider a "mentor" in the faith, begin today to search for a person for whom you can imitate.  It’s not only biblical, but will change your life for the better.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Big Deal About Education




Education is a big deal to people.  It’s big enough for parents to shell-out thousands of dollars to a university, and big enough for students to rack up tens of thousands in debt in order to obtain a college degree.  If it is that big of a deal, then it only makes sense that the church would take an interest in students and parents.  I’m in that parent role of seeing my own kids come and go into college.  Taking an interest in students by talking to them about their classes, degree programs, plans for post-graduation, and helping them to make sense of their education is a huge opportunity for the church to guide young people in forming a healthy view of school and in developing a solid Christian worldview.  Just sending kids off and hoping for the best isn’t the best approach to either education or the Christian life.  The following are some realities of student thought, and some ways we as the church can help them as they go through their education.

               Students look at education as a big deal because they tend to view it as instrumental in getting a good job, and going to college as a place to have fun. So, it really matters to them to obtain the degree so that they can have a rewarding, secure, and comfortable life. It is not very often that I have heard students talk about the intrinsic value of education, but only in terms of the advantages an undergraduate degree will have for them. Yet, a college education affords the chance to be shaped into seeing a broad perspective of the world and become productive members of society and responsible citizens. In other words, education has the potential to have life-long worth even if a student never attains a high level job.

                More than just obtaining information, knowledge of a subject, and a certain skill set, a good, well-rounded education can instill necessary critical thinking abilities and an expansive understanding of the world that will serve a student for a lifetime. So, rather than school being only a series of hoops to jump through in order to obtain respect, security, and a comfortable lifestyle, it truly has value in and of itself.

               One of the great privileges of getting to know and talk with students is helping them to think through the value of their education from a Christian perspective, to see how their major studies and degree programs used for God can impact the world, and how they can take all their acquired knowledge and make sense of it through biblical categories. In doing this, we can help redeem a college education from only being a means to an end in a pragmatic society.

Here are some questions I typically ask students concerning education and work:
--How do you understand the working world?
--Do you see being a student as a calling? Why, or why not?
--Do you view a "secular" job as a calling? Why, or why not?
--How do you, or can you, connect your faith and your education?
--What do you think is the meaning and purpose of work?
--How does being a student reflect the nature and character of God?
--How is God transforming you through being in college?
--Can you think the thought that God wants to use your job as a means of sanctification?
--What ethical challenges do you face as a student?
--How does your education help you to be a better person?

               What I am laying out here is a view of church, let alone education, which, seems to me, is necessary.  In other words, is church just a place to go and attend worship services?  Or, is church made up of forgiven people who seek to help one another redeem their lives in the world in which they live?  If so, relationships are imperative.  If this is all such a big deal, let’s show it by investing relational capital, and not just money alone, into young people’s lives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fumbling Forward to Forgiveness


         

         Several years ago I read a newspaper article of a man in Grand Rapids who killed his wife in the bathroom.  He calmly walked in, took the toilet tank cover, conked her over the skull, and then called the police and told them everything that happened.  I can think of a few better ways to handle a problem than a toilet tank cover.  More people are walking time bombs than we know.  It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will rip a hole in your heart and last a long time.

          When the hurt comes, we all have to decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness.  It is easy to talk about forgiveness when you’re not hurt – it is quite a different thing when you are.  One man, in the course of conversation, had this story for  Pastor Matt Woodley:

            “Nineteen years ago this guy stole my wife away from me.  They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted he flipped me the finger.  I’ve hated him for nineteen years.  He’s coming up here next week.  I have a thirty-two caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him I will kill him.  I’ve thought about it.  I’m sixty-three years old.  I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”
            
           Why even bother to forgive?  Our hurts can be such that we see no need for forgiveness.  Jesus does want forgiveness to be the last word.  He wants the last word to be forgiveness.  Peter, the disciple of Christ who was ever the wondering, if not wandering one, knew that if a person sinned and offended that they might do it again, and again.  At what point do we stop forgiving?

          What is true about us as people is that we feel a keen sense of “ought to.”  We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe.  This works on the emotional level, as much or more, than any other arena of life.  If we offend someone and make them angry, we feel we must make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.
            
           Dr. David Seamands believes, rightly I think, that the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) the failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people.

            What we must understand and live out is that we have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection.  We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  And equally true, if we are willing to hear, is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

            The failure to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection and achievement and recognition from others.  Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work.  This is what often fuels the work-a-holic, what motivates the addict, what may animate much of the service done in a church.  The problem among Christians is not that they don’t understand sin or even their own sinful attitudes and actions; the problem is what to do about it.  Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

            Here is a little test:  why do people (you?) go to church?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin; or, do we go to pay off a debt to God?  Does going to church assuage our guilt, and make us feel better through our attendance?  We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to do when there is no guilt – so we just go back to the guilt as our default setting, just like a dog returning to its vomit.  And the tragedy is only compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.  Another little test:  are we content to simply ask people to serve in the church, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate people to serve?  Guilt and arm-twisting are tools not from our Lord because they are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we think we have to do this or people or our kids won’t do anything, then we have a spiritual problem.  Everyone in the church ought to serve, but to do it out of a sense of gratitude toward God, not guilt.  Yet, there are always those in every church and in every family who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt wagon along with them.  We cannot forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

            The un-forgiven are the unforgiving.  At the heart of every broken relationship and emotional conflict we have is an insistence on debt-collecting.  We cannot get from others something they cannot give us; only God  in Christ can erase the great debt we have.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God can give us.  People are great at being people; but they make lousy gods.  Only God can meet the deepest needs of our hearts - our spouse, our kids, our friends, and our church cannot do it.  Only Jesus can.  The watershed issue is grace - whether we are able to receive it or not.  We cannot give something we do not have.

            Can you imagine a marriage vow going something like this:  “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon and take care of me.”

            We have this nasty tendency to make idols of other people and often look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness and joy and peace.  A marriage vow that is spoken in the heart like that will inevitably result in debt-collecting:  A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!”  Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace.  It is all about grace, not guilt, not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.  Hebrews 10:22 says:  Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.

                  Christians have been forgiven.  There is no need to collect a debt that has already been paid.  The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person is an exception to the grace of God. 


Is there someone you resent?  Is there someone who has wronged you, and when you see them or think about them you have resentment in your heart?  Do you every say to yourself:  "I would not have this problem if it were not for so and so?"  Our happiness is not dependent on another person.  No one is responsible for your well-being and happiness except you.

Matt Woodley responded to the man who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail.  You are.  You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.

The way to do it is through forgiveness.  To forgive involves a long journey for us, just like every other aspect of following Jesus is.  Forgiveness means to not hold an offense over somebody’s head for the rest of their life.  Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will soften.  We will want to begin the journey to forgiving others, stumbling forward with hearts both torn by hurts yet set free by grace.  May it be so of us all.