Friday, August 30, 2013

Christian Hospitality

            Because the end of all things is near, we must have our wits about us and have a determined focus on prayer, love, and hospitality (1 Peter 4:7-11).  The word “hospitality” is literally “love of the stranger.”  In other words, we invite another into our home that we do not know very well, and befriend them.  This is what Jesus did for us.  Through sin and disobedience, humanity became estranged from God – we were on the outside.  But because of God’s great love, he sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to come a dwell among us.  Jesus invited us into the life of God.  He is now standing at the door and knocking, and we are to invite Jesus in (Revelation 3:20).  Jesus has so closely identified with his people that when we invite others into our homes and lives, we are inviting Jesus in. 

            Inviting another person into our lives, into our homes and our hearts will cost us time and effort.  So, we must practice it without grumbling.  In an ideal world we always receive something back for our work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you.  But that does not always happen, and it cannot be the driving reason why we practice hospitality.  Hospitality must be a work of love that comes from a heart that has been touched by the hospitality of God.  Our earthly hospitality is to be a form of saying “thank you” to God for his great grace to us.  Complaining comes when we expect to receive and don’t get it.  If you receive another person as though he were Christ himself, you will not complain but will rejoice in your service.  But if we do not receive another into our lives as if he/she were Christ, we will not receive Christ either because Jesus said “whoever receives you, receives me” (Matthew 10:40).

            In ancient Christianity, a concrete expression of love to other believers in Jesus was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire.  Many times the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place (3 John).  At other times, believers were deprived of some of their basic necessities due to the occasional waves of persecution that broke out. They were often poor and needy because of their situation of being different; the townspeople were not typically hospitable.  So, Christians had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.

            Hospitality, then, was an important means of providing love to fellow Christians.  Paul made it clear to the Roman Christians:  Share with God’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality (Romans 12:13).  One of the qualifications for church leadership is that they are hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2).  Our default mode as Christians is to invite each other into our lives.  It is to happen by opening both our homes and opening our hearts to one another.

            There is a great need for hospitality in our world.  Many Americans’ circle of friends is shrinking.  According to one study the number of people who said they had no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled in the past 10 years.  32 million Americans now live alone (which is 28% of all households).  Hospitality cuts both ways for us.  We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and, the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.

            Food is to hospitality what weightlifting is to bodybuilders; you really need food, meals, and the sharing that goes with it in order to experience genuine hospitality that makes a difference in another’s life.  In biblical times, eating a meal together was a sacred affair.  To have another person in your house, sitting around your table, communicated much more than simply providing food.  It communicated acceptance, care, and friendship.  This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law had such difficulty with Jesus eating with ‘sinners;’ by eating with outsiders Jesus was clearly communicating his love and acceptance of such persons.

            I want us to think the thought that our dining room tables are little mission stations.  When my wife and I were new believers, there was a Christian couple who often had us into their home.  Both of us had grown up in families where we had experienced some unhealthy ways of relating.  Here we were, not really knowing what a Christian family should look like.  Through hospitality, eating together and sharing around the table, we began to learn how a family dedicated to Christ lives.  We learned life lessons that we probably could not have learned in any other way.

            When we think about our world, it can be a sad place.  Can people of different races live in peace?  Can Democrats find common ground with Republicans?  Can a Christian family carry on a civil friendship with a gay or lesbian couple down the street?  Can people who are very different from each other get along?  The early church did.  And they did it without all the stuff we have – sanctuaries, church buildings, programs.  Those early believers did it through the message of the cross, and the simplest tool of the home.  Not everyone can serve on the foreign mission field, or serve in a professional ministry position; but each one of us can be hospitable.  Something happens at a dinner table that does not happen in a church sanctuary.  In church we see the backs of heads – around the table you see faces.  In church you hear the preacher – around the table everyone has a voice.  A church service is on the clock – around the table we have time to talk.  Hospitality, inviting others into our hearts and homes, opens the door to true community.

            Jesus, on the night that he enjoying a meal with his disciples, said: “Take and eat.  This is my body given for you.”  One of the things Jesus meant by that statement is that eating and ingesting the elements of bread and wine, serve as a very tangible way of understanding what life is to be like.  We are to take Jesus into the depths of our lives; we are to ingest him, that is, to engage in a very close and intimate relationship with him to the degree that the two of us cannot ever be separated.  The same is to be true of our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church.  We are to do life together.  We are to enjoy eating and drinking together.  We are to share with each other not only our resources, but our hearts. Let your heart and your home be open today.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Confess Your Sins to Each Other

When it comes to learning a new skill, or developing some practice, it really requires the willingness to take a risk and go to places we have not been before.  But fear of the unknown can hamstring us and be a significant barrier to our development as followers of Jesus.  Any growth in Christian faith will require risk.  Understandably, this is uncomfortable.  Especially as we grow older and settle into certain routines and ways of life, we become used to being in control.  Over time our comfort zone might shrink to encompass little more than the things we are good at, doing the activities that bring us a reasonable chance of success, and avoiding things that leave us vulnerable.

            But God calls us to faith, which requires a real sense of dependence and the necessity of putting ourselves out there for him.  So, hearing the biblical phrase “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16) may cause us to be anxious, nervous, or just downright scared.  All of us, without exception, have our adverse circumstances, our trials, and our tribulations in this life.  The perspective of the Apostle James is that coping and dealing with the things that trouble us and give us grief cannot effectively be dealt with apart from the church.  Overcoming our troubles requires corporate involvement.  The medicine that we need to deal with life is confession of sin and prayer.  It may be a hard pill to swallow, but every good thing in the Christian life is accessed through the humility of confession.

It is part of the church leadership’s job to encourage, to listen to confessions, and to pray (James 5:14-15).  The Apostle James clearly puts the burden on the needy person to share his/her need.  You cannot expect others to read your mind or pick up on clues; you should take the initiative to seek prayer and encouragement.  And you should not expect healing to happen if you do not admit your need for help.

            In his book Invisible Men, psychologist Michael Addis tells the story about meeting a middle-aged man named Patrick. Although by all accounts Patrick was an easygoing, happily-married family man who ran a successful business, he had just tried to take his own life. After some prodding from Dr. Addis, Patrick finally divulged the events that led to his suicide attempt. His business had steadily slowed until he was unable to make the mortgage payment on their new house. Things went downhill financially from there. Then the economy crashed.  Dr. Addis writes:  “It was Patrick's response to these events that really struck me. Rather than letting his wife and close friends know about the struggles he was facing, Patrick kept it all to himself. Over time, the gap between what people thought was going on in his life and what was actually going on grew larger, and Patrick became profoundly depressed. He couldn't face working, but he also couldn't face telling people how bad things had gotten …. Eventually the depression became so overwhelming that he saw no other way out.  "How could I face them?" he asked. "What would they think of me? In their eyes I'd look like a has-been, somebody whose time had come and gone, only because he couldn't handle it."  "But those were extremely difficult experiences you had," I said. "Nobody could have foreseen the financial difficulties."  "I should have been able to. Besides, that's not what I'm talking about. I should have been able to handle it emotionally. Instead, I fell apart and turned into a sniveling little boy. What was I going to say, 'Oh, Mommy, please help me?' I couldn't let people see me like that."  On the one hand, it seemed obvious to me that no man would want to see himself like a little boy asking for Mommy's help. But then if you stopped and thought about it, is asking for help worse than dying? How far will a man go to hide his shame? How many Patricks are out there who would rather [suffer alone] than try to break through the gauntlet of silence and invisibility that prevents them from finding the support they so desperately need?”

  • Some Christians are emotionally suffering and mentally struggling because of their unforgiving spirit concerning some past event and are holding on to bitterness.  They will not be well until they accept God’s prescription of confession and prayer.
  • Some Christians are suffering in silence and experiencing physical ailments because of a stubborn refusal to admit need and obey the Scripture to confess sins.
  • Some Christians are overwhelmed with life circumstances to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion because they are holding on to things that they think are important, but are not important to God.
  • Some Christians have gone to doctors, counselors, and talked to everyone under the sun about their situation, but have not taken the Bible seriously through confession and prayer to deal with their problem.
  • Some Christians are harboring secret sins and do not have victory over them because, even though they have prayed, their pride has stopped them from confession to others.

So what should we do?  We should confess our sins to each other and pray for each other so that we may be healed.  This is the responsibility of every believer.  God has not given a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).  We can do this.  I am praying for you, that your personal courage will result in confessing your sins to a trusted Christian person.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

True Community

Not all communities of Christians are alike.  Some churches are vibrant, open, and caring; some churches are downright grumpy as if they were all baptized in pickle juice.  Churches are at different places with each other because to be a genuine God-honoring community takes much work – community cannot be cheaply gained or maintained.

M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist and the author of one of the most read books of the 20th century, The Road Less Traveled.  He wrote many other books, including the lesser known, but just as significant work, The Different Drum, where he argues that we all must march to the beat of a different drum when it comes to community.  He observed and described 4 stages a community must move through in order to become a true authentic loving group of people:

1. Pseudo-community.  This is a community where people are polite, nice, friendly, and well-behaved, but say very little about themselves because they are guarded with each other.  They speak in generalities and platitudes.  “How’s it going?”  “It’s going fine.”  Community at this stage, if the people have been together for a long time, is a mile wide and an inch deep.

2. Chaos.  Peck labels this stage chaos because it is here that every group of people must experience the out of control feeling (chaos) of doing conflict together.  This stage is doing the irritating work of accountability, and loving each other enough to confront and not let each other stay in the first superficial stage.

3. Emptiness.  Peck means here the act of self-emptying love.  In this stage we let go of our ego, and put down our personal demands, so that we can respond to others’ needs.  This is a stage of genuine listening to each other and responding in grace and love, instead of just making dogmatic statements toward each other.  This is where we hear one another’s stories, and extend forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  We seek to bridge our differences with integrity, kindness, and concern for the other.

4. True community.  Everyone belongs to each other, and we all belong to Jesus.  We give to each other the encouragement that is needed no matter what.  This is a stage of deep honesty, and deep caring.  Sin in the Bible is not so much breaking the rules; sin is giving up on Jesus and/or giving up on his church.  Apathy and lethargy are the twin demons that destroy Christ’s Church.

What I am stating is neither easy nor popular.  There is more pain in community than outside of it.  But there is also more joy.  And there cannot be life apart from the church.  The perspective of the Christian Scriptures is that we must act Today, because there may not be a tomorrow.  Grace and forgiveness are to be the rule of Christian community, because this emulates the behavior of our Savior, the Lord Jesus.  That cannot happen apart from true community and the work it takes to become one.  So, it is high time to get another perspective on community, a face to face one with real people, rather than a view of the back of people’s heads.  It takes much personal courage to gain community.  Are you willing to do it?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I Am My Brother's Keeper

It is a common misconception among some Christians today that what others do is none of my business.  Therefore, any bad attitude, each morsel of gossip, every tidbit of running another person down behind their back, and a person’s spiritual lethargy or half-hearted commitment is just politely ignored.  But Christian love will not allow this without a word of exhortation and a helping hand of encouragement.  Every believer is to have a personal interest in the spiritual well-being of others.  It is the spiritual obligation of every Christian to promote the growth in grace of every other Christian.

            Love cannot be expressed in isolation, but only in community.  Proverbs 27:17 says:  As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  And Proverbs 27:5-6 says:  Better is open rebuke than hidden love.  Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.  There is to be a care, concern, warmth, and willingness to speak truth and grace into the life of others and not leave them wallowing in a superficial Christianity with toxic relationships that are of no benefit to others.

            The Church is to be a gymnasium of the soul where we dig in with a group of believers, be it hell or high water, and commit ourselves to the way of love and good deeds, rather than only having a personal concern for what benefits me.  Even though Cal Ripken, Jr. is one of the greatest individual players in baseball history, what mattered most to him was succeeding as a team. In one interview, he said: "I'd much rather be referred to not as an individually great player, or someone who tore up the record books, but someone who came to the ball park and said: 'Okay, I'm here. I want to play. What can I do to help us win today?'"   He went on to say:  A lot of people ask, "What is your greatest play—your greatest accomplishment?" I say, "I caught the last out of the World Series." It wasn't a great catch—I didn't dive, I didn't do a cartwheel and throw the guy out at first base. People's mouths didn't drop open on the play. We all want to be part of something bigger. But we all have our little jobs that we have to do as a member of a team. Everybody has their individual responsibilities, but they all have to come together for a main goal, and that's to win. I've had great years when we haven't won, and they have not been really fulfilling. I've had not-so-great years, but we've had a good success as a team, and they were more fulfilling. So the most fulfilling moment I could ever have, again, was catching the last out of the World Series—knowing we did it!

            Christians are to consider one another, to pay thoughtful attention to other believers, take an interest in their welfare, and think about how to encourage them (Hebrews 10:24-25).  We are to put some effort into it.  A major opportunity for this occurs at corporate gatherings.  Believers in Jesus are to not be in the habit of skipping opportunities for growth in grace.  Attendance to church services and other Christian gatherings is not an end in itself, but is the means to the end of practicing love and good deeds toward one another.  This implies and requires us to not think solely in terms of what I personally get out of the meeting, but also what we have to offer others.  And what we offer to each other is, quite literally, to spur one another on.  We are to give each other a loving kick in the pants when we need it.  We are to be provoking, inciting, even irritating each other to spend our lives for Christ.

            Please note that this does not mean we lay a guilt trip on people, because Christ’s blood cleanses us from a guilty conscience.  Rather, it means we lovingly come alongside another person and help him/her be effective in walking with Jesus and being a faithful follower of Christ.  If left to ourselves, we end up becoming disillusioned and bitter.  Hebrews 12:15 says: See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.  If you are in a conversation that ends up leading to gossip, or slander, or back-biting, or tearing another down, then you need to step up to the plate and lean into that discussion and call it for what it is.  And after shutting it down you need to not just walk away but turn that conversation into something that encourages and builds up and helps and spurs and incites each other to godliness.  If you are not willing to do that then you had better start fasting and praying for God to grow you up so that you can do His will.  After all, I am my brother’s keeper. 

            How is your Christian community characterized?  What level of accountability exists between one another in your group?  Do people love each other enough to confront?  Is restoration and reconciliation pursued at all costs, or not?  What can you do to help spur others on toward the way of love and good deeds?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why We Christians Do What We Do

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).  When is the last time you have sat with this verse of Holy Scripture and let its truth wash over you?  Notice that this use of the term propitiation (atoning sacrifice), which means to satisfy God’s wrath, comes in the middle of a discussion of God’s love.  In other words, sin arouses the wrath of God because God is love (by the way, Scripture says clearly that God is love, and never says that God is wrath).  God stands against everything that damages and destroys and hurts others.  God is just, and seeks to overthrow injustice.  His great love is why his anger is kindled – he has no toleration for things that separate him from people, and which separates people from each other.

The wrath of God does not mean that God ‘flies off the handle.’  What it does mean is that God is steady, unrelenting, and uncompromising in his antagonism toward evil in all its forms and manifestations.  I am often asked the question, “where is God?” when a tragedy or calamity occurs.  But God is not found in the calamity; He is found in the remedy.  He is found in the thousands of people who risk their lives to rescue others in the rubble of an earthquake or in a blazing inferno; God is in the giving of supplies and money to tornado victims; God is always in the solution to the tragedy.  But we often look for God in the wrong place.  God provided the ultimate remedy in sending Jesus Christ as a propitiation, an atoning sacrifice, for our sin.

What is amazing about sacrifice is that God himself makes the propitiation – the satisfaction for appeasing God’s wrath does not come from us.  God is offended by sin, and nothing we can do can overcome the offense simply because our sin is so evil and heinous.  We cannot talk our way, or work our way, out of trouble.  God himself presented Jesus as the solution to the sin problem once for all.  Because of God’s love, Jesus came to die for us; he took our place on the cross.

People are alienated from God by sin and God is alienated from people by wrath.  It is in the substitutionary death of Christ that sin is overcome and wrath averted, so that God can look on people without displeasure and people can look on God without fear.  Sin is done away with, and God is satisfied.

It is this love of God which is the basis for our own love toward others, and the solution to the dark places of our own hearts.  Because I am able to love at all tells me that there is a God who lives in me.  As we live and minister and love, it is necessary to never lose sight of why we do what we do as pastors, church leaders, and committed laypersons.  It is all about the person and work of Jesus – and at the center of it all is the cross, the atoning cleansing blood-soaked cross.  Here is the life that is truly life.