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


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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What is Your View of God?

           Everything comes down to God.  Yep, you read that correctly.  The way we view God is the way we will live our lives.  For example, if we tend to see God as a stern Being whose main activity is to continually rebuke and punish people for their sin, then we will live with a constant sense of guilt and anxiety for fear of angering such a God.  We will invariably live a performance-based life trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps in order to please or placate such a God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure that we do not mess up.

            Such a life is miserable because it is an impossible standard.  This is why many people internally say “To hell with it!” and live in outright rebellion against a God who seems not to care a wit about their happiness.  The cruelties of this world like cancer and natural disasters seem only to be God mocking their abysmal failure at being decent people.  Indeed, it is an impossible task.  It would be like telling my grandson with epilepsy to stop having seizures, as if my love for him is dependent on him being seizure-free.  My guess is that most people would consider it abusive for a parent or grandparent to yell at a kid for having seizures.  With that kind of view of God, I wouldn’t want to know him either.

            But, on the other hand, if we understand God as a loving father who is pained by the damage sin has done to the souls of people, then we are open to seeing the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ coming to set broken spirits right again; the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in taking care of the sin issue once for all.  God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves; He gave His life so that we could live as we were intended to live:  enjoying God and His creation forever.

            With such a (correct!) view of God, the task of spiritual formation is one of constantly replacing destructive understandings of God with the kind of thoughts of God that filled the mind of Jesus himself.  And the only good way of doing that is through the basic spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer, and the practices of silence and solitude that helps us connect with God and His Word.  The grand redemptive story of the Bible is that the steadfast love of God found its apex and fulfillment in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus.  Therefore, all of Holy Scripture is to be viewed through these lenses of the grace of God in Christ.  It is a very different picture than the one of an indifferent God.

            Seeing God from the perspective of grace brings a joyous way to live because it views God as generous and hospitable.  From such an angle, the logical and appropriate response is one of gratitude.  All false gospels have at their core a kind of you-are-bad-try-harder approach. Preachers of such an ilk only rail against people as being scum buckets of sin and offer no real hope of transformation in Christ.  It is promoting a grace-less religion, and it is nothing less than biblical malpractice.

            I take heart that if we have trouble seeing God as we ought, or experience difficulty viewing life as it is meant to truly be lived, we can ask God to give us wisdom.  And the promise connected to that encouragement to pray is that God will give generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to them (James 1:5).  That is, a generous God will help his people to see beyond the trials of life to the development of faith, equipping persons for a committed Christianity over the long haul.

            In such a view of God, prayer is not a chore but a delight; service is not drudgery but a willing response; reading Scripture is not a mandatory exercise but a wonderful practice of knowing Christ better.  This is practical theology at its best:  knowing our guilt before God; knowing the grace of Christ that handles the guilt; and, responding in gratitude by living grace-filled lives as Jesus did.  May our churches be filled with such Christians abiding in Christ.  Amen.