Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Good Enough Pastor

            I got into this gig of pastoral ministry because I love the church, wanted to teach and preach God’s Word, desired to make a difference, and to help people move along in their path of discipleship with Jesus.  Sounds noble; yet, if I am honest, behind those words is not just some genuine altruism, but a significant dose of hubris that thinks I can, even ought, to change people’s lives.  Eee gads!  Even as I write that statement I hear the pride that believes church ministry success is up to me.  I have come a long way, but still have a winding and stretching journey ahead.



            I think many of us need to confess that our dreams for the church are this strange gooey mix of godliness and selfishness.  I’ve always thought it weird that many pastors, para-church ministry leaders, and church elders’ aspirations for the Body of Christ line-up so well with God’s will for their lives.  I just want us to entertain the notion that our dreams of lots people in attendance, big budgets, slick programs, and hungry disciples eating up the crumbs that come from our well-dished teaching may not exactly be what is in the mind of God for our ministries.

            Allow me, instead, to introduce an alternative thought for us:  being a good enough pastor.  Yep, I said it.  Just be good enough for the people in your charge.  And if you are a parishioner, allow your pastor to be good enough without having to be the next Tim Keller or Billy Graham (or whomever your favorite celebrity preacher is).  If we dwell with this fantasy of attaining some sort of great and impactful ministry long enough, we will inevitably be disappointed.  And when that happens, the next prideful step is the belief that if I just do things perfectly, everything will turn out the way I, uh-hem, I mean God, planned all along.  Oh, I certainly believe in the God of miracles and that Jesus is Lord over all.  But I don’t always believe that God is into the dramatic.  He seems more likely to show up, like with Moses in the cleft of the rock, in a still small voice in the quite ordinary and mundane quiet of the daily grind.

            Not every sermon has to be a home run.  Every conversation does not need to be a powerful encounter.  Not every meeting and decision really has to be researched and prepared to death so that there is some sort of wow factor that impresses everyone with my superior skills… that is, God’s mighty power.  You and I can do a good enough job in order to be faithful stewards of the gifts God has given, and obedient followers in the way of Jesus.  Give everyone a break and let the Holy Spirit show up and do his job; we don’t have to do it for him – he is competent to accomplish what he wants to do whether we are awesome or not.

            If this makes you worry, then you are not alone.  But we all do have a choice.  We can lay aside the anxiety and perfectionism and simply ask God for help to change what needs changing, especially in our own hearts.  God cares a whole lot more about our humility; he can work with that.  But if we hold onto our stubborn pride, God might end up breaking our wills, maybe even destroying our “godly” dreams before he will finally use us.


            Can you be a good enough church worker?  Can you live your life without everything having to be at the highest level of performance?  Will you invite the work of God into your life so that he can bring the deep change he wants to bring?  For this next year, let’s agree to drop the resolutions and sheer willpower, and allow God to make us into the leaders he wants us to be.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Praise the Lord!



The time between December 25 and January 5 are the 12 days of Christmas, and they are to be a great celebration because King Jesus has come and he is the rightful Sovereign over all creation.  We are to intentionally enter into the meaning of Christ’s incarnation.  We affirm the identity of Jesus as both full human and fully divine.  Beginning with Christ’s birth, we reflect on the meaning of Christ’s life and prepare for the Lenten journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

            Christmas means that we praise the Lord.  Not just us, but we praise God with all creation.  Everything outside our earth is to give God glory.  Everything in the universe points to a God who is worthy to be praised.  New York Pastor Tim Keller once said that when he was a child a Sunday school teacher changed his life with a simple illustration.  The teacher said, "Let's assume the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of this sheet of paper. If that is the case, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high. And the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high."  Then Keller's teacher added, "The galaxy is just a speck of dust in the universe, yet Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power."  Finally, the teacher asked her students, "Now, is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?"

            We serve a big God who is worthy to be praised, not only out there in the universe but here on earth.  The entire earth is to echo the adoration of God.  That means everything and everyone on earth – fish, animals, birds, and people.  Research in the field of bioacoustics has revealed that every day we are surrounded by millions of ultrasonic songs. For example, the electron shell of the carbon atom produces the same harmonic scale as the Gregorian chant.  Whale songs can travel thousands of miles underwater.  Meadowlarks have a range of three hundred notes. Supersensitive sound instruments have discovered that even earthworms make faint staccato sounds! Arnold Summerfield, a German physicist and pianist, observed that a single hydrogen atom (which emits one hundred frequencies) is more musical than a grand piano, which only emits eighty-eight frequencies.  Science writer Lewis Thomas summed it up it this way: "If we had better hearing, and could discern the [singing] of sea birds, the rhythmic [drumming] of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of [flies] hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet."

            Praise the Lord!  All creation is called to praise God as one great huge choir.  Praise is to occur with both words and actions.  With words, praise is an expression of gratitude to God for who he is and what he has done.  With actions, praise is a posture of submission and an acknowledgement of dependence.

            Therefore, testimony is important to the gathered church because through testimony we declare what God has done in our lives and how he is worthy to be praised and obeyed. Yet, praise is not just for the joyful; it is to happen no matter the circumstances because our happiness is not dependent upon positive situations but rather upon the person and work of Jesus.  It may not be easy to find our voice of praise along with everyone else, but we are not alone.  We can choose to join with all creation to praise the name of the Lord. 

My wife, who recently had two spine surgeries, said this:  “I am thankful for a chance to get out of the house. Of course my walker was with me.  I am amazed how quickly folks move over, slow down, and give me space when I am out with that thing….  At church it feels like I'm parting the Red Sea! The reason I hate the walker is because it says to the whole world, ‘Hey, I'm broken!’  I realize we all have areas that we are broken, most of them we can hide or cover up. Why are we so ashamed to confess the truth? Who really has it all together? I know we love our privacy and shun pity. However, I have been shown so much grace, kindness, and compassion as I push this piece of aluminum around that I hope this experience continues to change me for the better. I hope in the future I will be sensitive to those who are broken on the inside as well as the outside. May the love of Christ give me eyes to see people as he does, precious and accepted, just as they are.”

That word of testimony is the reasonable and logical end for the church of praising the Lord – to connect what God has done and is doing with what he can do through us as we glorify his name.  By simply being who we are created to be, we praise the Lord along with all creation.  When we as people created in God’s image, reflect that image in how we talk and how we live, we participate with the universe in declaring that God is good.  Praise is to be the comprehensive glue that binds every person, family, and ministry of the church together.


Whether you feel like it, or struggle to say it and live it, we are all to praise the Lord along with everything in the universe because we serve a God who keeps us close to his heart.  Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mary



Most of life is lived in the mundane.  For the most part our everyday lives are the same, going about our business and dealing with the daily grind.  Occasionally the monotony is broken up with holidays, seeing old friends, vacations, or the rare surprise.  We are common ordinary people.  So, we can especially relate to Mary, at the conception of Jesus, because she is quite plain.  Mary is in junior high. She wears consignment store clothing. She can’t read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We don’t know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people can’t point to on a map. 

            One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty” (Luke 1:26-38). Mary stands there in her flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to extraordinary.  The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; holy angelic light in a simple candlelit bedroom; awesome power and complete vulnerability.

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed.  She is in over her head.  That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She’s like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be greatly troubled.  She was disturbed and shaking in her ratty old slippers.  The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God.  In other words Mary was quite literally “graced” by God.  The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was not what she was looking for.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not an answer to prayer for Mary.  This was not on her agenda. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was.  After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and she was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up.  Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl.  Maybe his Google map popped up the wrong town to visit.  Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  None of this made any sense.

But the angel lets Mary know that God specializes in the impossible.  We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer:  she really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power.  If the story were to end here it would be a great story.  But to me the most astonishing part of this narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message, and having believed submitted herself completely to God’s will for her life.  I think we would totally understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this.  We would completely get it if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her.  We could relate if Mary just dismissed it all, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, with the angel and his message being all humbug as if it were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

But Mary not only believes, she humbly submits herself to what is happening.  And this is what we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village, but stepping up to the calling she received.  We, too, have received a calling in our lives.  We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing.  “I am the Lord’s servant” is to be our confession, as well.  “May it be to me as you have said” is to be our cry, along with Mary.  The message we proclaim is that Jesus saves – he delivers from sin and Satan and will restore all things.


            None of us needs to be extraordinary in order to be used of God.  We just need a simple faith that God will do exactly what he said he will do.  The church has a beautiful message of grace not only for this season, but all through the year.  Let us embrace it, embody it, and share it.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Renewal



In this time of year, there are many who do not have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas.  We have blessings, both material and spiritual.  And we can always identify those persons who are in much more need than we are.  We may even believe that those in need are in that position because of their own unwise individual choices.  But we must recognize that the maladies of our hearts are very real. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

            Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs.  We must not suppress those realities and those needs, but name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us:  the love of things and money; severed relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; and, hatred. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide ourselves from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

            The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs.  The gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom so that we can pass on that very real good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick.  There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help.  But we will not have eyes to see them or have hearts to help if we are ourselves stuffing burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

            Far too many church-going Christians have become expert emotion and need stuffers.  We might think that other people, “those people,” need ministries of justice and help.  But the truth is that many of us are either one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want living next door to us.

            We just may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation and so we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty.  What should we do?  We should turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and delight greatly in the LORD by focusing on his grace, mercy, and justice (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11).  Our souls ought to rejoice in our God because he will make a sprout come up.  God will cause us to grow. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls.  God will restore the places of our lives that have been devastated.  God will even renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

But it must begin with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us.  God cannot bring comfort to those who do not mourn; he cannot turn grief into joy if there is no acknowledgment of a dire situation.  If we want to be an oak of righteousness there must be in existence a confession of despair and an allowance of the justice of God through Jesus Christ to work its way completely through us.

            What is your true situation?  What are the realities of your life that need to be named?  Where will you go to address those needs and truths?  Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs?  Will you be vulnerable enough to allow the church to minister grace to your needy soul?


            Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty.  Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling.  Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God.  Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Monday, December 8, 2014

God's Patience



The Christian Year begins with the season of Advent.  Advent literally means “anticipation.”  It is an awareness of God’s actions in the past, in the present, and in the future.  While we wait for Christmas and the birth of Jesus, we also anticipate Christ’s second coming at the end of time.  Our Lord’s coming again always stands in the background of our yearly Advent anticipation.

We are often impatient people. It is important to understand that God’s timing is different than ours.  There are two words for time in the New Testament:  Chronos and Kairos.  Chronos is where we get our English word “chronological.”  This is time measured by the clock.  This is the way in which much of our lives are governed.  The other term for time, Kairos, is seasonal time.  It is not determined by the clock, but is event-oriented. 

God is not time-oriented in the sense that we are; that is, God is not ruled and controlled by the clock.  God is actually event-oriented which is why God’s understanding of time is that a thousand years are like a day and a day like a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8-15).  In others words, God does not measure time like we do.  When the Bible says that Christ is coming soon, that means there are no redemptive events left in the course of history except the Day of the Lord, the return of Jesus to judge the entire world.

I admit that I am a clock-oriented guy.  I also admit that my wife and girls are not.  Since this is our reality as a family, I end up waiting on them – a lot!  I have spent countless chronological hours of my life anticipating their readiness to go somewhere.  I used to get frustrated and impatient because I thought they should be clock-oriented like me.  But, over the years, I have learned to accept this reality.  Now I take the time of waiting and read.  I have actually read a lot of books over the years through my waiting.

What we need to get a hold of is that God has all the time in the world, and he is not frustrated about it.  It is us that get antsy and impatient because we think that God has to operate on our time schedule.  But what looks like tardiness to us is really something else.  God seems slow in keeping his promises because of his mercy. 

In the face of so much that is not right with the world we might wonder why God is not just stepping in and taking care of all the evil and unjust situations on this earth.  The truth is:  God is patiently waiting for all kinds of people to come to the point of repentance.  God is waiting for that lost soul to make his/her way to himself.

But the repentance that God is looking for is not just for other people outside the church; it is for Christians, as well.  God is waiting for us, too.  What should we be doing in the meantime while we wait for Christ’s Advent?  We ought to be living holy and godly lives as we look forward to Christ’s coming and speed its coming.

When I worked a factory assembly line, the reality of the situation was that the assembly line is only as effective as its slowest worker.  One person could determine the outcome of getting the product out the door in a timely fashion, or not.  God is not a factory manager, but the principle is still the same:  the church is often only as effective as its most mediocre member.  In other words, God has chosen to use us to accomplish his purposes.  If we do not participate in those purposes or procrastinate, the next event on God’s agenda (the Lord’s return) may well be slowed.  God has all the time in the world, and he is waiting. 

God is gracious.  He is not going to kick and prod you like an earthly boss.  He is not going to bully us or strike us with lightning when we disobey by failing to do his will.  God does not operate like us.  If we sin or disobey, he is patient, wanting us to come to him to receive mercy.  He is waiting for us to avail ourselves of his help to live holy and godly lives.  Our Lord’s patience means deliverance from all that disconnects us from Jesus so that we might rightly attach ourselves to Christ.


There is no better season to mend fences and deal with all that divides and angers.  The Lord is coming.  Let us be ready by living grace-filled lives reflecting our status as God’s people.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving



“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  If we are ever to wonder what the will of God would be for us and our churches, these succinct exhortations make it quite clear.  If we were to simply focus on those three short commands of Scripture it would completely alter the spiritual landscape of our lives and our churches.

            This is a season in which we take the time to intentionally and specifically thank God.  Engrafting the practice of thanksgiving into our lives on a consistent basis is a means of keeping cynicism and sarcasm away from us.  At this time of year we are not only in danger of frostbite on our fingers from being outside too long; we also can be in danger of having frostbite of the soul by a prolonged exposure to negative thinking and speech.  Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity to allow your inner self to thaw in the warmth of God’s grace and goodness. 

            It is an understatement to say that this has been a difficult year for my family.  Yet despite the challenges we have faced and are still facing we are thankful.  The Apostle Paul specifically encouraged the church to look for ways to be thankful whatever the circumstances may be.  So, I want to express my thanks to God in the following ways:

  • I thank God for the opportunity to demonstrate love for my wife through caring for her after three surgeries this year.
  • I thank God for my epileptic grandson’s constant happiness, his encouraging spirit, his smile, and the joy he brings to others.
  • I thank God for my oldest daughter’s hard work and her courage in raising a special needs son.
  • I thank God for my youngest daughter’s humor and keepin’ it real.
  • I thank God for my middle daughter and her husband – that they love the Lord in so many ways.
  • I thank God for the privilege of preaching God’s grace to my congregation each week.
  • I thank God for the many people who care and pray for me and my family each and every day.
  • I thank God for all you who commit yourselves daily to God’s Word.
  • And consistent with Paul’s admonition to be thankful in all circumstances, I thank God for the problems and the adversities of my life which humbles my heart to pray.

What has God done in your life this year?  How has his grace been mediated to you through the church?  In what ways can you be thankful in the midst of adversity or difficulty?  How is God currently blessing you?  To whom could you express gratitude for being helpful or encouraging?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King Sunday



Christ the King Sunday is intended to help us see the cosmic reality that Jesus reigns over all creation.  It is an intentional proclamation that every creature on earth must submit to Jesus as the only rightful Sovereign of the universe.  This Sunday always comes just before Advent so that we remember we do not only anticipate a baby in a manger, but a great king.

            The fact that Jesus is Lord of all exposes three problems that we might face.  First, because we live in a fallen world and we are all profoundly touched by sin, in our depravity we have this nasty tendency to build our own petty kingdoms and set ourselves up as masters over our own small worlds.  People who have been hurt (which is really all of us) often attempt to seize power for themselves in order to avoid ever being hurt again, or in the belief that if we had power we could stop others from being hurt.  The classic villains of movies, literature, and even gaming are the ones who seek to destroy the earth so that they rebuild it in their own idea of how the world should operate.  Instead of submitting to Christ’s rule, which we may feel insecure about, we will control our little ends of the world to protect ourselves from pain.

            A second problem which Christ as King exposes in us is a rush to bow to other kings besides King Jesus.  When we become stressed and under pressure from life’s difficulties, we might not run to Jesus but instead rely on another ruler to alleviate the situation.  Addictions are common ways of dealing with stressful circumstances.  But we also might expect other people like fellow church members, pastors, even politicians or others leaders to give us only what Jesus can.  No matter what or who it is, we might willingly submit to them as our king because they provide a temporary way out of our problems.  Instead of taking the gospel road of confession and repentance through Jesus Christ and doing things God’s way, we instead run to the kings we have set up in his place to cope with whatever is going on in our lives.

            A third problem is that we might not realize the power we actually possess as being subjects of King Jesus.  Maybe no one has ever told you that as a believer in Jesus you have authority in Christ.  Perhaps nobody has ever communicated to you how to use the power that has been given to you in Christ.  As Christians we reign with Jesus and can exercise authority over every dominion that exists, especially the dominion of darkness (Ephesians 1:15-23).


            In the name and through the blood of Jesus we have authority to use our God-given power to confront every enemy of our souls and resist all the machinations of the devil in our lives and our churches.  This is a day to take our place with Jesus as the Body of Christ and confront the dark forces seeking to destroy us.  Let us live into the position we possess with the incomparable great power for us who believe.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Envy



            It is simply the fallen human nature of people to look at the success of others, and our own lack of it, and conclude with the question, “Why not, me?”  This is a fairly typical garden-variety kind of envy.  Yet, if this envy is dwelled upon and nursed, it can easily turn into something more sinister.  Believing that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, we might buy into the notion that our gifts and abilities will be better used somewhere else where they are more appreciated.  As a result, people right in front of us, with real needs and a bevy of concerns, are not ministered to and do not have the faithful presence of a caring pastor in their lives.

            The wise man keenly observed that “a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).  When we begin to think that people, even God, owes us something then our souls become tainted and the rot of envy sets in.  Like a slithering snake we think more about what a congregation can do for us rather than what we can do for them, and for God. 

            Joe Pew Sitter also may struggle mightily with envy.  Believing that he has a right to be spoon fed by the pastor and leadership, he quickly moves onto another church when his perceived needs are not met.  “I’m not getting fed,” “I don’t like the worship style,” and “I didn’t like the decision the church made,” are all too common statements from envious parishioners who desire attention they are not getting. Perhaps there are others who harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition because they were not asked or were passed over for some important ministry or project.  Rather than facing the rot in their own hearts, they move on to another church hoping, like the Pharisees of old, to get their fix of recognition from others.

            The place to begin in addressing envy is to see it for what it is:  not just a common predilection that everyone has, but a sin of believing that I deserve something that God is not giving me.  That puts God in the position of holding out on us, much like Adam and Eve’s original sin of grabbing a forbidden fruit in the belief that God was not providing everything they needed.  Turning from evil pride and becoming satisfied in what the Lord has already provided are the remedies to an envious heart.

            Thankfulness and gratitude are spiritual practices that, when engrafted into a daily walk with Christ, provide a strong antidote to keeping envy at bay.  So, instead of wondering why God is not blessing my life and ministry in the ways I think he should, maybe we ought to be rather intentional about identifying and counting the blessings we already possess and enjoy.  Some of the greatest joys around us are the simple pleasures of everyday life – holding and sipping a hot cup of coffee; a quick kiss good-bye to my spouse on the way out the door; the opportunity to curl up with a good book on a rainy day; these and many more are blessings given to us by a heavenly Father who cares for us deeply.

            It might be a good thing to spend some time in your next leadership meeting, or your next time of prayer, and speak out many of the blessings that currently exist in your life.  For example, in the last week my wife had two surgeries performed on her spine.  Rather than wishing that she would have not have to endure this and envying the healthy, I rejoice that she is with me and that we enjoy one another’s love and companionship every day whether it is in times of health or in seasons of illness.


            As the season turns colder and the holiday of Thanksgiving comes closer, let us celebrate with grateful hearts that pushes the rot of envy far from our souls.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Are You Prepared?



We prepare for things we really care about; we anticipate things that are important to us.  Those persons that really care about hunting make careful preparations for the season and anticipate opening day.  People who have season tickets to the Green Bay Packers and care about football make appropriate preparations for attending games at this time of year and look forward to game day.  And weddings are events that take all kinds of preparation because families care about the marriage that will occur; in fact, since I raised three girls, I can testify first hand that wedding plans begin in 3rd grade for females.

            People come to the things unprepared largely because they do not value the event enough to be ready for it.  Casual hunters and fair-weather footballs fans go home when it gets too cold because they are not adequately prepared for the conditions.  Quickie weddings happen in Las Vegas where two people are not prepared to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime.  In other words, unprepared people tend to drop out of things when it gets too hard.  If they do not value the event enough, they just do without it.  But if they really care about it, they prepare for it, have patience through it, and persevere in it when things get tough.

            Just because someone professes Jesus as Savior and Lord does not necessarily mean:  that the person has Christ as their ultimate value; that they care enough to live into their baptism; that they will avail themselves of the means of grace at the Lord’s Table; that they will value the event of worship each Sunday; or, that they will continually make it their aim to love God, each other, and their neighbors.  The true test of authentic commitment comes when things are not easy and it takes blood, sweat, and tears to see something through.

            There are few human events more freighted with emotion and preparation than weddings.  Parents invest heavily in time, energy, resources, and love in order for their kids to have a nice wedding.  And there are all kinds of potential for disaster to occur at a wedding.  Since I have done my share of weddings, I can tell you that a lot of things go awry in the preparation process and at the wedding itself.  I have had bridesmaids pass out, grooms forget the ring, and families fight like cats and dogs in the narthex just as the bride is ready to come down the aisle.  All kinds of crazy stuff can happen with a wedding.  At my own wedding, Mary’s bridesmaids were literally sown into their dresses by the seamstress just hours before the wedding; one of my groomsman did not show up because, it was found out, he was in jail; and, we were married on the hottest day of the year – it was 100 degrees, which did not go so well for a bunch of women who were trying to have their best ever hair days.

            But we got married anyway.  The wedding happened because it was important to us.  I think it is interesting that Jesus chose to tell a parable using a wedding in order to tell us what the kingdom of God is like (Matthew 25:1-13).  The bottom line about this particular parable from Jesus is that the five foolish virgins were not ready because they did not care enough to be prepared.  This, at face value, might seem harsh.  But not having the oil they needed for their lamps in that day would be like in our day having half of your bridesmaids show up at the wedding at the last minute in jeans and t-shirts without having done their hair and expecting to stand up with the bride.  No bride or groom or family in our culture is going to roll with that kind of behavior.  And the reason it is not going to be allowed is because bridesmaids who show up not prepared in the way they should is deeply offensive to the bride and groom.

            The five wise and five foolish virgins point to the mixed nature of the church.  The church consists of both faithful authentic disciples of Jesus, as well as wedding crashers.


            Jesus tells us to keep watch, because we do not know the day or the hour when he will return.  So, the big question for every professing believer in Jesus is:  Are you prepared?  We are to be in a state of constant vigilance, being always alert for Jesus to show up.  It is one thing to profess Christ; it is quite another thing to live each and every day doing God’s will and being prepared for Jesus to return.  Let us live in the light that Christ’s Second Coming is immanent and be ready for his glorious appearing.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints' Day



In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect and broken people and transformed and used them for his own glory and honor.  On the Christian calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us.  This day is meant to be an intentional way of not forgetting the people, friends and family as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints’ Day should not be a focus on extraordinary persons so much as on the grace and work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives.  We give thanks for the gift of how they lived their faith each and every day.  We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected through the cross.

            Remembering is a prominent theme in Scripture.  Well over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant and actions on behalf of his people; to remember those less fortunate; and, to remember the important people in our lives who influenced us in our journey of faith.  The writer of Hebrews exhorted Christians with this:  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 are to be inspired in the present with the actions of faithful saints of the past.  They are to serve as a model of faithfulness so that they we will persevere in our Christian lives and not give up.  Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were given to God in service, we can be motivated to be patient and keep persevering until Jesus returns.

            Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate the gospel to you both with words and with actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus?  If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them.  Drop them a note.  Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life.  In doing so, you will not only encourage that person, but it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life that you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

            Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis:  “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in our home for a week and helped us do a searing examination of our lives. We will always remember his words: ‘"You are both momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or, you can embrace this pain together and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your hearts during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’"


            We are not to live our Christian lives in isolation from others, as if we do not need them.  We are here today because someone significantly influenced us in the way of Jesus.  And we will continue to persevere and thrive in the faith only when we remember those who have gone before us and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Family Faith Formation



            The default setting for most people is that they continue being in the present what they have been in the past.  For many persons, the only way they really know how to live their lives is by drawing upon how they have been raised.  Rarely do people’s thoughts and behavior change dramatically without some big-time exposure to new relationships or to completely different experiences.  As a generalization, only when people face insurmountable challenges and unsatisfying solutions do they consider a different path from the one that they have always known.  In other words, people don’t usually change unless they have to.

            This is why faith formation within a family is so very important.  If a family’s modus operandi is mostly doing their own thing, like watching their own TV shows in separate rooms or pursuing only personal goals, then faith formation will likely be negligible.  But if a family makes it priority and intentionally pursues eating meals together, discussing shared experiences, and reading Scripture and other works of literature as a family, then the likelihood of a significant faith formation will occur. 

            Families may place importance on church attendance.  Yet, if that attendance is not followed through with family discussions and by looking for ways to put the sermon or worship event into practice, then church may have little impact upon any given family member.  Sociologist Christian Smith has discovered in his research that in order to sustain high levels of religious commitment through the adolescent and emerging adult years, several factors are present, including:  a strong faith commitment among parents that provides significant modeling; shared faith experiences in families; personal and family practice of prayer; other supportive faith-minded adults; close relationships between family members; and, frequent Scripture reading, along with the openness to ask questions.  Smith furthermore found that within such families kids had few religious doubts and tended to place a much higher importance on religious faith.

            This combination of a teenager’s parental spiritual practice, the importance placed on faith, prayer, and Bible-reading within a family makes an enormous difference in what will happen to that teen when he/she enters the twenty-something years – a time when many young adults dropout of church.  Perhaps one of the most significant reasons why a twenty-something moves away from a sustained faith commitment is that he/she never really had a firm foundation of faith as demonstrated and lived-out within the home.  If our past family situations hold such a prominent place in how we shape our lives, then it behooves us to ensure that as parents, grandparents, and significant others that we make the default setting one of confident faith and serious engagement with Holy Scripture.


            “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6) is not a promise of the Bible, but a short pithy statement of experiential truth for most people.  A significant way of helping kids to grow a strong faith is by helping families grow strong in their own faith formation.  Churches and Christian organizations would do well to put their energies in such directions.  In so doing, they can be a default setting for a generation of emerging adults.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reformation Sunday



We all may be familiar with the fact that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church which sparked the Protestant Reformation, but we are probably less familiar with the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.

            In his Disputation, Luther contrasted two opposing ways of approaching Christianity.  He called these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin.  It is the death of Christ that is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin.  It is through being crucified with Christ that we find the way to human flourishing and life.  In other words, righteousness is gained only by grace through faith in Christ.

            The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross.  For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning that we readily see.  You perhaps have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like.  My guess is that it probably has something to do with an actual sinful lifestyle or particular evil acts. 

            Luther, however, insisted that the worst of sinners are those people who do good works, who pursue a theology of glory.  More specifically, the wicked person is the one who has clean living and does all kinds of nice things, but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions.  Another way of putting it is that the wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for him/herself, rather than giving glory to God.

            Our good works, Luther insisted, are the greatest hindrance to being a truly righteous person and living in the way of the cross.  It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone.  It is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word.  The only remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives life apart from that cross, trusting in him/herself so that people can recognize them and give them their due respect and praise.

            Here is what Luther had to say in a nutshell concerning his thoughts:  “It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

            So, then, the answer to this problem of doing good works out of our intention of gaining glory for ourselves is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and being connected to the vine of Christ. 


            Reformation Sunday is a time to remember, and a time to repent.  We remember that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.  We also take the time to repent of our works done apart from Christ and acted for the accolades of others.  Perhaps what we need today is another Reformation, that is, a reformation of spiritual habits that truly connect us to the vine of Christ – practices that shape our lives around the person and work of Jesus, and not around the idols of our hearts that make us look good and impress others.  What will you choose on this day?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Covenant vs. Contract



            It is a beautiful thing when someone makes a promise to you and follows through.  Whether it is someone promising to give free child-care, or to help out with a project that needs to be completed, promises kept are a kind of human glue that bonds us together as people.  When two people get married, they have a ceremony in order to publically make promises to one another – vows to remain faithful and to do everything within their power for the betterment of each other and the relationship, no matter the circumstances.

            God is a promise-making and promise-keeping God.  When humanity fell, God set in motion a plan to redeem his creation back to himself.  A healthy way to look at the whole of Holy Scripture is to understand that God has entered into covenant with his people.  That simply means that God has graciously made promises to certain persons – vows that he will fulfill.  The fulfillment of God’s promises is found in the person and work of Jesus, through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification.  In Christ, we are redeemed and made holy.  Our proper response to God is to place our faith in those promises. 

            However, there are those who view a relationship with God not based on covenant promises, but more like a contract.  In a contract, promises are not made, but a deal is brokered.  On the practical level it operates something like this:  if I do good works, have clean living, and do what is right, God will bless me; and, if I don’t, God will punish me.  In a covenant understanding, when we fail or are disobedient, we confess our sins and God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us.  But in a contract, when we fail we lose.  Relating to God according to a contract is like believing that life is like a math equation; if I do my part, God must do his.  And if God tells me to do something, I’d better do it or else.

            Too many Christians live by a contractual understanding of relating to God.  I knew a woman who was a very nice sweet person.  She grew up in a Christian home, never got into trouble, and did everything expected of her.  But when she became ill with a rare disease, her faith began to unravel.  She simply could not understand or make sense of the reality that she had been good all of her life and was dying a slow death.  Since 2+2=4, she thought that God was not holding up his end of the deal; the equation was not working the way it was supposed to work.

            On the outside, two people may be doing all the same things – serving in the church and doing a range of good deeds.  But on the inside, the motivation between the two may be very different.  One serves out of obligation to a contract; the other serves out of heart response to a covenant God who has made and fulfilled promises of salvation.  The litmus test of discerning between the two typically occurs when life does not turn out the way we expect, that is, when suffering and hard circumstances knock us hard on our rear ends.

            A legalistic view of the Christian life will always discern our relationship with God as a contract; we must do certain things in order to hold up the bargain.  But a grace-filled view of the Christian life has behind it a proper view of God as the One who has given us his very great and precious promises, despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve them.


            Which view do you hold?  Can you accept a God who relates to you based on love and grace, and not on your performance, or lack thereof?  The Christian life does not work on the idea that if I do my part, and God does his, that everything will be hunky-dory.  Instead, the wonder and beauty of Christianity is that there is a God who steps in and saves when we have done nothing to earn or deserve it.  The proper life response to this is living obediently out of gratitude for such a grace.  May our churches be filled with thankful believers.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gentleness



It is probably an understatement to say that we live in a day when so many people are polarized on such a wide variety of issues.  Whether it is politics, economics, or religion, lines have been drawn and people fall back into their like-minded groups.  The verbal missiles that are often launched across blogs, social media, news programs, and even in churches, evidence much anxiety and little listening or love.

I will get down to the point of this post:  the New Testament verse of Philippians 4:5 says quite plainly that we need to let our gentleness be evident to all.  The verb in this verse is in the imperative mood, which means that it is a command of Holy Scripture.  Having a patient forbearance is not optional equipment for those who profess the name of Jesus.  Furthermore, this command is not limited to a certain group of persons –gentleness is to be shown to all.

I think a legitimate and proper way to translate this verse would be:  You must evidence gentleness to everyone.  The simplicity of faithful presence, a gracious attitude, patient soulcraft, and a gentle application of the gospel has the effect of yielding changed lives in the Spirit.  The way in which we interact with people, no matter whom they are, was important enough to be a requirement for all of Paul’s churches.  The Apostle laid it down to his protégés Timothy and Titus that they need to select persons who evidence gentleness toward others (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2).  Church leadership is too important a matter than to allow angry people who rant about their views without any thought to how they come across to occupy the positions of elder or deacon.

One of the reasons I believe that fewer and fewer people turn to the church for reliable answers to their religious questions is that there are far too many Christians who evidence hatred and belligerence instead of grace and gentleness.  For the past thirty years my wife and I have had a steady stream of “marginal” persons in our lives – those wrestling with their sexual identity; addicts caught in downward spirals of habits; relationship problems; the socially unlovely; and, the list could go on.  As I reflected on why this has been the reality for us, I think it comes from a simple obedience to this command in Philippians.  We do not freak out about people’s sins or struggles; we just show some common compassion and gentleness and apply the gospel carefully to situations.

Now I think it really needs to be asked:  Have we obeyed Philippians 4:5?  Are we obeying this verse?  Will we obey this verse?  Are we evidencing gentleness, or not?  It is disturbing that churches are often not safe places for people caught in any sin to come and deal with what is going on inside their souls and find the Christian gentleness and pastoral sensitivity needed to address the situations at hand.  The kind of things that keeps me awake at night is a lack of demonstrated values to Christ's Beatitudes.  What makes my heart ache even now is that there are untold hundreds of people around us needing the gospel of Jesus, but many of us are too busy making loud and obnoxious pronouncements about things we have already made pronouncements about and are mad that no one seems to be listening.   

Some of my pastor brothers and fellow Christians fear what will happen in a moral slide in our nation.  But I am not much afraid what will happen to us as believers.  Rather, I am sick to my core for the persons who will not come to us and our churches for healing, or be pushed away from the healing, because of our un-biblical bedside manner.


We must evidence gentleness.  It is a simple command.  Let us obey it with humble simplicity and watch the saving work of Jesus do its gracious change through the power of God’s Spirit.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Safe Place



A most basic command of Holy Scripture is that we are called to love our neighbor.  The church is the people of God who exist, in part, to be a hospital for sinners.  There are certain subjects and issues that sometimes capture the church’s attention and may cause believers to lose sight of grace, love, and basic biblical commands.  There is a particular subject that continually gets identified (in my church circles) as an “issue.”  It is the “issue” of homosexuality.

            First of all, I have “issues” with this being labeled as an “issue.”  We are talking about people.  As long as we continue to frame our discussions in this realm of an issue, we are going to inevitably end up taking at least some of the human element out of the conversation.  It is much easier to lambast an issue than it is a person. It must be constantly and deliberately borne in mind that gay individuals are people who have been created in the image and likeness of God.  They are not bowling balls.  They aren’t Buicks.  They are people.  And based on that fact alone, they ought to be treated with all the respect due to any person.

            Second, using the term “homosexuality” betrays the reality that we have not done our due diligence in listening well to gay persons.  In my humble experience, homosexuality is a word that immediately puts up unnecessary roadblocks with LGBT folks.  Continually using the term homosexuality typically communicates that certain individuals are in the category of a mental disease that needs to be cured.  What is more, when certain church folks start tossing around the term, not far behind is the handful of biblical references that are supposed to make gay persons feel guilty enough to either:  become heterosexual on the spot; or, live an eternally celibate existence without ever talking about their dirty little secret again.  Even if all this is communicated with an altruistic sense of love by the church person (which seems pretty rare), it isn’t likely that anything good is going to come of the conversation.

            Here is my most basic concern:  the church ought to be a safe place.  Whatever your understanding is concerning gay persons, I would hope beyond hope that you can sign-off on the sheer necessity of the church being the one place on planet earth (or in God’s kingdom!) that people who are wrestling with Scripture when it comes to sexuality and gender can come with their questions and find help and resolution with what is going on deep in their souls.

            Whenever we church leaders make our pious pronouncements and babble on about how we are upholding the authority of Holy Scripture, it sounds to me like we are saying things that help make us feel better about ourselves instead of saying something that will help the other through their time of need. 

            Here is a ridiculously simple observation:  gay people are not going to magically disappear.  Yet, it seems like there are some churches that want to blink and just expect that there will be no more gays around.  Here is another simple observation:  gay individuals have eternal souls just like anyone else, and they are looking for redemption and hope just like anyone else.  The question of the hour, then, is:  Will the church show pastoral care and sensitivity for all people, or will the church be a country club with a chaplain caring only for “acceptable” members?


            We are all sinners in need of God’s grace in Christ; we all belong to the same human family.  It is high time we begin focusing on our commonality so that we might shepherd one another toward Jesus, the Great Shepherd.  He is our Savior.  Let us come to him together.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Following Christ



Following Jesus is not like being a groupie who thinks the Son of God is cool.  In the New Testament, it was no small thing that Paul did, converting completely to Christ and following him.  Paul had everything going for him.  He was the up and coming star in Judaism.
 
Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time.  But he forsook it all in order to know Christ (Philippians 3:1-14). 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was; on a much smaller scale, it would be like Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers (give me a break – I live in Wisconsin), at the height of his career, leaving football altogether in order to become a missionary to remote places that no one knows much about.  Many people would think he is throwing away something valuable and important.  So it was with Paul.  People thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

            But this is to misunderstand what is really of greatest value.  In our society there are messages and voices proclaiming to us every day what we really need.  Whether it is economic security and accumulation of stuff, or emotional security and self-protective behavior, a genuine Christianity of revolving all of life around the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competition. 

On a practical level, it is much too easy just to toss following Jesus on the smorgasbord of good ideas that we get handed each day. 

Jesus can be lost to us on the plate of life with the mass of other food that is piled along with him.

            Whenever I talk with non-Christians about Jesus, what he has done and what he means to me, they typically celebrate that reality.  I have gotten a response of “I’m glad that works for you” more times than I can count.  “It’s not my thing, but I’m glad you found happiness in Jesus.”  It is so much more than that.  All people need Jesus Christ, and to know him crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.  The distinctive of Christianity is that there is no other Name by which we can be delivered from brokenness and an empty way of life except Jesus.

            The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know Him.  This was the cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so valuable to him that he gave up everything in order to pursue Christ and follow Jesus. 

If we ever strip Christianity of its true value and lose sight of knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like church attendance, perfunctory prayers, and clean living. 

            The cry of Paul’s heart was to know Christ (Philippians 3:10).  Paul did not simply want to sign-off on right doctrine, but wanted an intimate experience of Jesus.  Paul desired this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, is rubbish.  In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps; instead, the street served as the place people threw their garbage and it would get trampled into the ground.  That is how Paul thinks of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst; there is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny; there is no comparison between the Packers and the Vikings (keep in mind I’m still in Wisconsin); and, there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.”  By that he meant that we pursue whatever our affections are set upon.  One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, but if Jesus is absent or has to compete for our affections in the middle of those things then it is a disordered love and the solution is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection.  Scripture puts it this way:  repent and believe in Jesus.

Knowing Christ is meant to be a profoundly intimate affair of experiencing the depths of Jesus each and every day of our lives. 


It is further meant to be enjoyed together with a group of like-minded people who share the same values and pursue the same affections.  This is church as it is meant to be.  Don’t settle for being a groupie; instead, follow Jesus as the surpassing greatness he truly is.