Saturday, September 27, 2014

Shared Values

I am the youngest of four kids, and because of that reality I had to follow my siblings in school and have the same teachers they had.  I can tell you that I heard this statement more than once:  “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” and “Why aren’t you like your brother?”  I often had this icky feeling in school that I somehow fell short because I wasn’t like them.

            Our task as Christians is to imitate Christ – not try and impersonate others by being someone we are not.  God has created each of us uniquely and has gathered us together in his church.  So, we need to strive to be the best particular person we are in imitating Jesus by means of who God designed us to be, and learn to work together in the church appreciating one another as we seek to follow Christ.

            We are to imitate Christ through embracing a biblical set of relational values (Philippians 2:1-2).  It is shared values, not smooth sailing, which keep a group of people together.  If we have experienced encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, and compassion then we need to remember and recognize this and pass those collective values on.  None of these ideals occur in isolation; they happen because God mediates his blessings to us through other people.  In other words, we owe to others what God has done through others for us. 

            These common relational experiences occur as we participate in the life of our triune God.  The values that undergird our relational dynamic in the church come from the perfect relationship that occurs within God himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.  As we spend time with God and are filled-up with him, the love and grace of God spills-over in our dealings with others.  This is not a matter of will-power; rather, it is a matter of spending time with God because we as people tend to imitate those we hang around. 

            If we hang out with people who are always complaining, we are going to continually be grumps who never get anything done.  But if we hang out with people who are always praying, we are going to have a value of constantly connecting with God and interceding for others.  If we hang out with people who are never happy, we are going to have a pessimistic outlook on church ministry.  But if we make it a regular practice to hang out with Jesus, we will imitate Christ’s values of humble service and a gentle attitude.  If we hang out with people who are encouraging, loving, tender, and compassionate, we are going to emulate those same biblical mores.

            My sister was the valedictorian of her class; I didn’t follow in her steps.  My brother was the kind of compliant kid that teachers envied to have in their classes; I think my teachers wondered if we were from the same family.  My other sister was friends with her teachers and they all enjoyed her; I remember getting a lot of sighs and eye-rolling from my teachers.  Eventually, I gave my life completely to Jesus Christ my senior year of high school.  I found my identity in Jesus.  I discovered I didn’t have to be like anyone else because God used me for who I was, right where I was, learning to imitate Jesus. 

We are not to be worried or discouraged about how far short we fall before our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith.  Instead, we are to be concerned about how God wants to fulfill all his good promises and purposes in us and through our shared values because at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God.  We are to pass on to others every good value we have in Jesus Christ.  May it be so.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Grace and Anger

            I once dealt with a woman who was so upset with her husband that she was literally shaking with anger.  There had been a time when her husband had been abusive, but he came to know Christ and became a loving person.  What was so upsetting to this woman is that God saved her husband instead of punishing him for all the abuse he had dished out.  She wanted some divine payback!  She was actually furious about God showing grace and compassion.

            This is not a novel or new experience.  In the ancient world, the Assyrians were notorious for their brutality toward conquered peoples.  They thought up forms of torture as a creative past-time. It was a violent culture full of inhumane practices and soldiers who were the scourge of the Middle East.

            We know from the little Old Testament book of Jonah that the ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh.  So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he tells one of his prophets to go and give a message.  And the message was simple:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). 

            For whatever reasons, when Jonah did not immediately obey God, God stuck with him.  God did not call another prophet to take his place, but insisted that Jonah be the one to preach.  If God calls us to something and we neglect to do it, we cannot simply think that someone else will do it.  Sometimes God insists that we do it, not someone else.

            Jonah eventually does go to Nineveh (after the infamous being in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights) and there is a great repentance of sin.  The entire city turns from their evil ways.  God saw this mass repentance and relented from sending disaster.  Instead of destroying the city with all its inhabitants and animals, he was gracious and compassionate, abounding in love.  If there is a response God delights in more than anything it is humility and the courage to admit personal evil and turn from it.

            But Jonah has a problem with what is going on.  He is not just a little ticked-off; he is greatly displeased.  He is angry enough about this whole affair to want to die.  Jonah was actually annoyed and angry by God’s goodness.  He wanted justice and judgment, not grace!  The grace of God is so massive that it even extends to some of the most evil people in history, and Jonah wanted no part of that theology.

            God asked Jonah twice:  “Do you have a right to be angry?”  It is the same question that God is asking his people today.  Jonah wanted destruction and pay-back for all the sin of the Assyrians.  But God searches our hearts and to expose our expectations.  Often, when those expectations do not happen we are disappointed.  But more than that, when the very opposite happens of what we want and expect, we can become very angry and upset.

            A lot of people are angry about radical Muslim groups killing and torturing Christians.  It is evil and it is upsetting.  In fact, many of the killings have taken place in the same geographical area as the ancient city of Nineveh.  Yet, perhaps God is asking us Western Christians who are looking for judgment the same question the little book of Jonah ends on:  “But there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; should I not be concerned about that great number?”

            God wanted Jonah to share the same heart he has, and God desires to see us have a heart that beats for lost people to know Jesus – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil.  Sometimes God calls us to do what we least want to do in order to reveal what is really in our heart.  Hating people to the point of wanting nothing but destruction upon them does nothing to bring about the righteous life that God desires.  But the blood of Jesus Christ has the power to bring healing and hope, even to the worst of sinners.  Thank you, Jesus, may it be so.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

God's Provision for Daily Life

God has provided everything we need today for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-9).  

Don’t just pass over that important biblical statement; let it sink in.  If that is really true (and it is!) then it is imperative that we learn how to utilize this divine provision in our daily lives.

The Apostle Paul said he was not ashamed of Christianity because it worked (Romans 1:16).  

There is nothing more practical, beneficial, and enjoyable than the application of biblical truth to our lives each and every day.  

Again, let that statement soak into the soul.  If we do not believe this, and think other things will bring greater joy, then it is no wonder that our lives would be characterized by cranky behavior and general anxiety about everything.  Rather, the application of biblical truth is an experience of getting to know Jesus Christ better, and becoming more involved with God.  This involvement, characterized by faith, hope, and love, increasingly transforms every area of the Christian’s character and life.  

It is not God’s will that we fail in living the Christian life.  

It is not his will that a church have ineffective ministry and milquetoast believers mumbling songs through a worship service; avoiding significant fellowship with other believers; and, unable to witness to their faith.  No, instead, we have all we need to love God, love one another, and love the world.
             If we are experiencing inner transformation; enjoyable fellowship; progressive deliverance from the power of sin; and, continual enablement to live a holy life and be an effective witness to the person and work of Jesus; then we know the grace of God in our current experience.  Living this kind of life will keep us from yielding to temptation.  It will motivate us to read the Bible and pray.  It will help us live above criticism and pretense.  It will cause others to understand we are genuine Christians.  And the most important benefit of all is that this kind of life will glorify God, enable us to enjoy him and serve Christ’s church with gladness.

            So, why don’t more Christians experience this kind of life-giving knowledge and joy?  It is possible, even with the best of intentions, to be mistaken in some important area of belief.  Such mistakes and errors almost always produce incorrect actions.  And these mistakes end up becoming barriers to living an enjoyable and productive Christian life.  Here are just a few erroneous statements I have heard as a pastor:

1.      It’s the pastor’s job to do all that stuff (as if parishioners can live vicariously through their pastor).
2.      I’m not obligated to be part of a church (as if we don’t really need other believers).
3.      I don’t like reading (as if this gets us off the hook to personally read the Bible).
4.      I feel _____ (as if feelings are the final authority concerning what I should do or not do).
5.      That’s nice advice (as if what is heard in the sermon does not really need to be followed).
6.      God will lead people to Jesus (as if I have no responsibility to witness).
7.      I sincerely believe ______ (as if sincerity makes something true).
8.      If I can’t do it 100% I won’t do it at all (as if service depends on my effort, not God’s power).
9.      I might fail (as if the word “grace” doesn’t exist in Christianity).
10.  That might work for you, but it doesn’t work for me (as if certain people are exceptions to being used of God).

      What would you add to this list? 

      What are some of the hindrances which keep you from enjoying the Lord?  

      Living in error will ultimately lead to broken relationships, unhappiness, or futility because it disconnects us from the God of grace.  Instead, let’s continually drink from the deep fount of Scripture and let the Holy Spirit be our divine mentor in leading us to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

How to Handle Opposing Views

There are as many opinions, convictions, and beliefs as there are people.  Whether it is at the workplace, in the family, or in the family of God, the church, the differences among us are legion.  In New Testament times, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus were very different from one another, and did not understand each other.  

Even though the Jewish Christians had come to embrace Jesus, they did not abandon their two-thousand year history of being with God.  They still held to their food laws and special days.  The Jewish believers thought the Gentiles should be like them, and they wanted the Gentiles to begin holding to the same ritualistic behavior that they had done for centuries.  The Gentiles did not comply.  So, the Jewish believers passed judgment on them and condemned them for the lack of sensitivity to the things of God (Romans 14:1-12).

On the other hand, the Gentile believers felt no reason to have such rules and regulations concerning their Christian lives, and they ate what they pleased and saw no need to hold to special Jewish days.  They could not understand why the Jewish Christians were so stuck in their traditions, and so the Gentiles looked down on the Jews as hopelessly misguided.  It was a potentially explosive situation.

It may not be the first-century, but the church has struggled with this teaching for its long two-thousand year history.  In fact, every church I have served has had their particular issues of “disputable matters” that they felt so strongly about that it crowded Jesus out of the center.  In my first pastorate, education was the big issue.  Some believed in Christian schools as the only real way to educate their kids.  Some felt that home-schooling was the only way to go because of the rottenness of the culture.  Others thought that public education needed the light of Christians participating and sent their kids to the local schools.  The problem was that each group sincerely believed they were right and everyone else was wrong.  It was a potentially explosive situation.

            In another church I served, there were hard feelings about the place of men and women in the church who had been divorced and remarried.  In yet another church, the issue was about whether church members could drink alcohol or not.  And yet another church’s issue dealt with how we dress and what our attire is at church.  I still remember vividly one lady in that church talking with a woman who had just two weeks before given her life to Christ out of a life of prostitution.  The woman was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  The church lady was giving her a lecture about how she should be dressing up for Jesus.  And the whole time I am thinking to myself:  “Lady, I’m not sure you are going to like the woman’s idea of dressing up for Jesus….”

Whenever we want to place “disputable matters” on people’s must-do list, then there will be trouble. 

What is more, we will judge others who do not do as we do because we have the mistaken notion that our way of doing things is equal to the death and resurrection of Christ, as if not doing it our way will destroy the church.

 Is being right so important that we judge and condemn others who disagree with us?  

Here’s the deal:  we do not need to necessarily change our views on disputable matters; but we do need to change our attitude and our behavior toward those we disagree with.   

            For the Apostle Paul, the issues that divide Christians are very important, not because he championed one over the other, but because the church’s identity was at stake.  For Paul, the really important question was this: 

Will the church be, at its center and core, a community of redeemed persons by the grace of God who center all their lives in the person and work of Jesus, or will the church be a community of opinionated individuals and groups all jockeying for power to have their way on how they think things should go?

            We need to use our freedom responsibly through basic human civility.  In a nation where we feel free to say whatever we want, we do.  In doing so, we elevate self-expression and our opinions over self-control and the mission of the church.  The need we have is for a “generous spaciousness” which allows room for us to discuss issues and disputable matters in an atmosphere of generosity, hospitality, and acceptance – seeking to first listen and understand before responding.  Our goal as Christians and followers of Jesus is not to win an argument or have our way; our goal is to uphold Jesus as Lord of everything and maintain our center in him, and him alone.  It is on this basis that we will be held accountable by God.  So, let us live wisely and well, knowing and pursuing Jesus with all heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faith, Hope, and Love

            God is real.  The Christian life works.  Those are the bedrock presuppositions and assumptions I work from each and every day of my life and ministry.  If I did not believe those statements I would be knee-deep in the muck of church work with little to offer people.  Because I believe that Christianity works for people, I also confidently hold that the correct response to the reality of God is faith, hope, and love.  Any response to God less than this will result in an inability to function well in the Christian life. 

The path to maturity for any local church is to bring all thinking, desires, attitudes, aspirations, and actions in harmony with trusting God, loving God, and making Him the object of our hope.

            At first glance this might sound difficult.  But this is really not rocket science.  It is only confusing if we have not been taught correctly according to the Word of God.  If we have lived in error when it comes to how the Christian life works, then there are established patterns of thinking and behavior which are neither easy to identify and evaluate, nor to defeat.

            Therefore, the very first step in solving this kind of problem is to get back to the bedrock belief of God.  We cannot effectively respond in faith, hope, and love to a God we do not know much of. 

Knowing God, then, is an absolute necessity to the Christian life in order to experience spiritual freedom and be fruitful in ministry.

            God is a Person.  He is the infinite God, the Creator of all things and is thus worthy of all our trust and affection (e.g. 1 Samuel 17:20-51; Daniel 6:1-28; 2 Chronicles 14-16).  God is absolute truth, love, and holiness.  God will always remain true to himself in all of his relationships and actions with us.  He does not act out of harmony with his basic character.  Therefore, God can be trusted.

            God has revealed himself through the Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible is God’s Word to us.  The Word of God cannot fail because God cannot fail.  God is always true to himself and to his Word (e.g. Psalm 119:49-50; 146:5-6; Jeremiah 32:1-44; Romans 4:21; Hebrews 2:1-3).  The Word of God is living and is therefore powerful. 

To the degree that we know and practice the Word of God, we have the experience of the grace of God and therefore have the power of God.

            It is a wonderful and tremendous privilege to possess the Word of God with all of its potential to effect change in our lives; its certainty concerning who God is; and, its assurance of pardon through faith.  So, then, each and every believer has a sacred responsibility:
We must be aggressive in knowing the Word of God; we must be confident in believing God; we must be active in claiming the promises of God; and, we must be intentional about living according to what God has revealed about himself and his creatures.

            Church ministry, then, has a sacred trust to help people know God better.  No matter what the ministries, programs, or activities, our greatest aim is to connect people with the God who is real and who has given us guidance by means of his powerful Word.  Faith, hope, and love are the logical and heartfelt responses to knowing God.  The promise we have is that when we seek God will all our heart, we will find him.  Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

On Loving Others

Here are a couple of things to know when reading the New Testament:  whenever you see the phrase “one another” in the New Testament, it is talking about fellow Christians; but whenever there is the phrase “the other” (NIV “fellowman” i.e. Romans 13:8), the Bible is talking about outsiders, that is, non-believers. 

So, the Apostle Paul’s vision for the church is that it should love all people, without exception. 

We need to do away with any kind of notion of the church being like a country club that caters to members who pay their dues, as if there is no responsibility toward outsiders.  Yet, neither are we to see the church as heading out to the deer stand and spending all our time outside trying to bag non-Christians with no regard for what is happening internally with the believers.

            Loving others is a message that is really not anything new for us.  My guess is that none of you will read this post and say, “Well, that was new!  I’ll be!  The Bible actually says I am supposed to love other people!”  It is not as if we are ignorant about the need to love others.  Yet, at the same time, we all know there is a lack of love in this old fallen world, and sometimes even in Christ’s church.  When author John Shore did research for his book titled, I’m OK – You’re Not:  The Message We’re Sending Non-Believers Toward Christianity, to his surprise the over-and-above answer he got from those outside of the faith was this:
“Why do Christians hate us so much?”

            I don’t know about you, but over the past few years I have actually “de-friended” some of my brothers in the faith from Facebook because their postings were so often filled with hate toward “the other” that it was just bringing me down. 

Feeling justified to hate another person does not come from the New Testament Scriptures. 

We, as Christians, owe the world our love, not our hate (Romans 13:8-14).  Just as I was writing this sermon, a man came into my office I have interacted with many times.  He is usually down-and-out, and looks the part.  Sometimes I help him with tangible assistance, sometimes I don’t.  But there is something that he needs as much or more than help; he needs love.  He needs a friend.  He needs relationship.  All people, no matter who they are, have been created in the image of God and, therefore, deserve the dignity of conversation and relationship rather than being looked at as a project or overlooked just because they are different. 

            We cannot really love one another in the church or love the other if we are continually putting ourselves in the position to indulge our sinful nature.  Like wearing a set of dirty clothes, we are to take off our selfish sinful desires, and put on the new clean clothes of God’s love in Christ.  If we are busy demonstrating love, then there is no room in our lives to behave indecently in any kind of immorality, dissension, or jealousy.  If we are committed to exercising our spiritual gifts given by God, there is not enough time in the day to think about how to gratify our sinful impulses.

            Another potential hindrance to a life of love has to do with the law.  The law is a good gift from God.  Yet, law has its limits.  What the law cannot accomplish, love can.  The law must serve love of God and neighbor, and not the other way around.  That is, the law must bow to the demands of love.  In Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge was a law-abiding citizen, and when faced with the needs of those less fortunate, old Scrooge appealed to the law.  He saw no need for loving actions or words when there were already poor houses, relief organizations, and prisons in operation.  It is the appeal in our day of saying that I am a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen and have no obligation to “the other.”  This brings us back to relationship.  It is easy to say people need to just work harder and not be lazy when we are not in a relationship with anyone who is in need.  Furthermore, it can be easy to indulge our sinful nature when we believe that we have earned the right through our law-abiding selves, without seeing God’s hand behind our success, to speak ill of the other, and even to a brother or sister in Christ.

            As followers of Jesus, we need to take a kind of Christian Hippocratic Oath:  to do no harm to our neighbor, but to do everything within our power to love them.  Since Jesus will return soon, the prompting of the Holy Spirit that we neglect today may not have opportunity tomorrow.  When Jesus does return, he will hold us accountable for our conduct, our speech, and our spiritual condition.

            Our guiding principle as Christians is:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The hour has now come to wake up and have eyes to see the people all around us in need of Jesus Christ and his grace so that we can be long on love of God, deep in our love for each other, and cast a wide net of love for others in the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thoughts on the Successful Christian Life

            The entire Christian life can be summed up in three important words:  faith, hope, and love.  Both new believers in Jesus and veterans in the faith know from experience how difficult it can be to practice these in our daily life.  One reason for this difficulty, even when we want to please the Lord, is due to the confusion that occurs between our inner feelings and our outer actions.  Once we have an understanding of this confusion and how to evaluate our inner experience, then it is a whole lot easier to make daily decisions of faith, hope, and love – decisions that are vitally essential to the successful Christian life.

            The confusion starts with the creation and fall of humanity.  In the beginning God created humans as persons with our relationship to Him as central to daily life (Genesis 1:26; 2:16-25).  What is more, God created us with the capacity to receive His revelation through our ability to think and reason (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10).  Before disobedience entered the world, in the original state before the fall, all human functions were under complete control with an inner experience of unity and harmony with one another and God (Genesis 1:31; 2:7, 16-25).  It is critical for us to recognize the distinction between our being persons and the functions that we do (Romans 1:21-32; 6:16-22; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Ephesians 4:21-32).

            If we do not grasp how cataclysmic the fall of humanity was, we are going to have big struggles with living the Christian life.  With Adam and Eve’s original disobedience to God, the authority for life was transferred from God to ourselves so that our sinful bent is to call our own shots without God.  The source of authority was also transferred from our ability to think and reason to our emotions so that our feelings rule how we think and act.  As church leaders, if we do not understand this dynamic we will be forever frustrated with people because they do irrational things.  We are flabbergasted that parishioners do not simply take what we teach them and go and do it.  If it were that simple there would be no place for the Holy Spirit!

            There is more.  In the fall, we lost control of our capacity to function well.  We are all now vulnerable to manipulation from our inherited sinful natures, from the surrounding culture, from sinful people, and, of course, from Satan (Ephesians 2:2-3; Galatians 5:16-21).  As a result, our inner consciences have become confused.  We are not always certain of right and wrong.  We misunderstand what life is really supposed to be all about.  We become obsessed with feeling comfortable and secure and pursue false gods.  And those false gods disappoint us and leave us with a lack of fulfillment in life.

            But the good news is that through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, and a new birth, the bondage of sin was broken in our lives are we were legally reinstated in a relationship with God where He is central in our daily life and the final authority.  In this new relationship we can again receive truth through the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.  We regain control of our functions.  However, unless we learn the Scriptures and grow in a daily walk with Jesus, the practical experience of this relationship with all its freedom, joy, assurance,  power, and fruitfulness may be greatly limited (Romans 7:14-25; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4).

            Even though we may have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and have believed in Him, it is still possible to regress to giving our functions and our emotions a place of authority in our daily life.  This is why Christians can experience conflict, doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and confusion.

            To live correctly means to grow in the experience and application of what it means to have Jesus Christ at the center of our lives.  We must, therefore, make daily decisions of faith, hope, and love based in who we are in Christ and recognizes His authority over us.  The following seven suggestions may be helpful:

1.      Recognize that you are a person with the ability to function in faith, hope, and love as God’s beloved child in Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 8:14-17).

2.      Recognize the difference between yourself and your functions.  Evil thoughts and emotions do not make you evil.  What you do with your feelings is what is vital.  (Check out how Jesus handled this in Matthew 4:1-11).

3.      Recognize that you can take charge of your functions and your life (Galatians 5:22-23).

4.      Recognize that the key in all of this is your use of the will in living in harmony with revealed biblical truth.  In other words, you really can make choices of faith, hope, and love that seem to contradict your feelings (Romans 4:17-21; Psalm 56:3; Psalm 43:5-11).

5.      Recognize the absolute necessity of rejecting whatever is contradictory to the Bible – in your thinking, emotions, and bodily desires.  All non-biblical patterns of action must be broken in Jesus’ name (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:5-9; Titus 2:11-12).

6.      Recognize the absolute necessity of choosing to respond to God and His Word by daily obedience.  Learn to think and act on the basis of truth and in spite of how you think, feel, or desire (Acts 27:25).

7.      Recognize that practicing the truth will result in freedom, a re-patterning of thinking and functions, as well as the fruit of the Spirit (John 8:32; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 2:12-16).

Part of the reason the church exists is to provide a supportive community of fellow redeemed people who worship and love Jesus together.  Just showing up at a church building without sharing our collective learning of the Scriptures and daily struggles of faith, hope, and love will inevitably result in a spiritual immaturity over the long haul.  Rather, seek to become part of a small group or bible study which will help to reinforce godly decisions and spiritual growth.  Talk about your shared experience of worship and the preaching of the Word.  In doing so, God is glorified and the church is strengthened.