Saturday, December 19, 2015

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All?

It was the prophet Micah who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the small village of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5).  In Micah’s day there was no “peace on earth, goodwill to all.”  It helps to have some historical context in order to understand and appreciate the promise of God.

            Ever since the time of Solomon the kingdom was divided between north and south:  the northern kingdom of Israel with Samaria as its capital; and, the southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital.  In the 8th century B.C. the powerful Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.  They deported many of the Israelites and re-populated the cities with their own people.  This is why the Jews in Jesus’ day looked down on Samaritans.  They pejoratively viewed them as “half-breeds” who were a mix of Jewish and Assyrian descent.

            The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in order to keep them at bay.  The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah wanted to maintain their power and lifestyle.  They expected the poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

            In addition, thousands of refugees from Israel were flooding into Judah and Jerusalem.  They had lost their homes, their land, and had nothing but their lives.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink.  Judah was a mess.  Those in authority and power, the ones with the resources that could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth because people were just trying to survive.  In some cases the leadership leveraged their power by pushing people off their land and taking it over.  It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

            Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival Micah’s message was that a new kind of leader will come.  He will have humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed them and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

            As Christians, we understand this prophecy to speak of our Messiah Jesus.  This is why we look at Scriptures like this one during the season of Advent.  Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again with an agenda using power for security, peace, and goodwill.

            Jesus is the promised one to come.  His exercise of leadership and power is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule.  This is why Jesus called his disciples together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43).

            The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.  When we see that God always keeps his promises; when we gain the understanding that Jesus is the fulfillment of all those good promises; and, when we receive the gift of the Spirit, it is not a duty but a delight to give ourselves to the triune God who has orchestrated salvation for us.  Since Jesus loves and serves us, it is a small thing for us to give ourselves to him in return.  May this be the reason for your joy, peace, and goodwill this season, to the glory of God.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Grace Is the Word

Whether we are aware of it or not, the world spins on the axis of grace; without God’s mercy life as we know it would cease to exist.  Judgment and death are never the final say over the earth – grace is the word that changes everything and transforms the impossible into the realm of reality.

The large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with the message of judgment for both Israel and the nations that surrounded her.  The sins of Israel were many.  The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy with the have’s taking manipulative advantage of the have-not’s; and, empty worship rituals toward God.  Social and spiritual corruption was rampant.  God pleaded with the people through his prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing justice, encouraging the oppressed, and defending the causes of people who do not have the power to defend themselves (Isaiah 1:10-17).

            Although God’s judgment was imminent through the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate his people.  God promised that a Righteous Branch would grow up from the seemingly dead stump of Israel.  A child would be born.  A Messiah would be given.  There would be hope in Israel.  Heartfelt authentic praise will again fill the air.  Proclamation of God’s great name will again be on the lips of Israel.

            What is remarkable about all this is God’s grace.  God made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to his people by his own radically free love.  It was not a situation of making a deal – “if, Israel, you get your act together then I, God, will be good to you.”  No!  Before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be gracious and merciful.

            If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation because only grace can save us.  What we have in common with the Israelites of old is that we both are totally dependent upon God’s amazing grace.  Without grace, we are lost.  There is praise because it is a response to the incredible grace God gives which is completely undeserved (Isaiah 12:1-6). 

            Grace is the thing that is distinctive about Christianity – no other religion, no other place will you find grace amidst the awful muck of the world.  Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return.  Grace is recklessly generous.  Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics.  Grace does not demand – it only gives.  Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.  That is what God did for Israel.  That is what God has done for us.  And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, there is a cascade of praise that comes rolling out of our hearts and onto our lips.

            The prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus.  Jesus came because of grace.  Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and all our anglings to be respected.  Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort to justify and validate ourselves before others.  The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer.  And when we get a glimpse of it we are forever altered and undone by its mercy.  Grace brings praise.

            When grace takes hold of a congregation there is no mumbling of songs – there is a shouting aloud and singing for joy because God is great!  Grace brings such joy and gladness that we do not care what we look like to other people; we are going to shout and sing and express our joy!  Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, reflective worship… and, there is a place for completely letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!

The season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness. Let us return to the Lord.  Let us be captivated by grace.  Let us renew our love for Jesus.  Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.  Let us worship Christ the King.  Let us proclaim his name as exalted over everything.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Take the High Road

            When I was younger I thought my Dad was too wishy-washy when it came to political allegiances.  He was always fiercely independent, never declaring a political party or a particular platform.  His two favorite presidents of all-time were Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, two men that could not be more different and opposite.  Now that I have a few years under my belt (not to mention a few pounds) I am beginning to see the approach and wisdom of my late Dad.  Dad was no stranger to politics and dealing with people.  He served for many years on the local school board and presided as its president through some mucky issues of the school system.  Through it all he was able to maintain his convictions without estranging others.

            Within my local congregation there may be very little ethnic and racial diversity, but it is more than made up for in political diversity.  Right-wing conservatives and left-leaning liberals populate the church, with everything in-between.  Within my sphere of social media friends the differences and diversity is even more pronounced.  Just a quick glance at Facebook, I would never know that it is the holiday season where we celebrate peace and goodwill toward our fellow humanity.  Heated polemics and sarcastic rhetoric seem to be everywhere.  It is one thing for the world to act in such a way, it is quite another for people who profess the name of Jesus Christ to act with hate-filled speech.  When unthinking Christians splash their spiritual immaturity in public for all to see, it is time for us to take the high road to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.  Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe my Dad was onto something after all – remaining calm and carefully engaging in political talk in ways that are helpful, not hurtful.

            It was our Lord Jesus Christ who clearly taught us that it is the peacemakers who are blessed and are called children of God (Matthew 5:9).  Jesus had some strong words for those who would stoop to name-calling (Matthew 5:22).  What is more, Christ our teacher clearly instructed us his followers to love and pray for our enemies, to forgive those who have wronged us, and not to judge them (Matthew 5:43-48; 6:14-15; 7:1-5).  The gospel that Jesus and Paul proclaimed was one of peace, not wrath.  Our Lord did not go to the cross in order to give us ammunition to blast others who disagree with us; Jesus died to bring peace and to completely eradicate any us-versus-them mentalities.  The warped compulsion we have to divide the entire human population into good and bad misses the mid-point of history where Jesus stands to bring peace, having abolished our predilections for separating others (Ephesians 2:11-18).

            It is time to take the high road.  It is not wishy-washy to pray and work toward peace.  I have come to see that my Dad showed more courage in not taking sides than aligning himself with a certain group of people.  Our focus is more out-of-whack than we probably know.  It is high time we get our heads and our hearts back on the One who will ultimately come and consummate God’s benevolent and peaceful reign upon all creation.  By adopting Christ’s kingdom values we are being faithful subjects in a rule that is meant to transform the world, not through fear and hostility, but by the grace of King Jesus.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christian Soulcraft

           The word “soulcraft” might conjure different images in your mind.  I am not talking about a boat or a bike.  I am neither making reference about a video game nor a corporation.  I am not referring to any avant garde religious expression.  Rather, I put the two words “soul” and “craft” together to highlight the importance of what a solid pastoral ministry does for Christians.  Sometimes the metrics we use in the church to determine its effectiveness and impact has more to do with budgets, attendance, and building maintenance than it does with the careful crafting of souls into the image of Jesus.  We must become adept in the church at patiently and tediously constructing souls.  Caring for the spiritual needs of people ought to be high on the list of priorities for every church ministry.  It is a constant work in progress.

            Just as the term implies, caring for souls is a special craft that one tries to constantly improve.  Pastors and church leaders never come to the point of ceasing to need continuous training, education, and experience in the business of crafting souls that are bent toward Christ’s kingdom values.  Throughout the history of the church much attention has been given to the care of souls.  Early church fathers such as Gregory the Great took great pains to describe the pastor’s work as offering moral and spiritual guidance to both churched and unchurched persons.  The Reformation teaching of the priesthood of all believers is a special emphasis upon every Christian’s privilege and responsibility to intercede and help others toward spiritual growth and health. 

            In 1656, Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a book, The Reformed Pastor, which set the standard of pastoral care for generations.  In his work, Baxter elaborated on seven functions of dealing with the souls of people:  converting the unconverted; giving advice to inquirers; building up the believers; shepherding the families in the parish community; visiting the sick and dying; reproving the impenitent; and, exercising church discipline.  All these functions are designed to do the pedantic work of crafting and forming souls.  It is often not glamorous high impact work; it is humble nitty-gritty ministry which typically goes unnoticed by many because it is a slow process over time.

            The many references to “one another” in the New Testament point toward the spiritual dynamic that needs to take place for souls to thrive.  Encouragement, mutual edification, love, forgiveness, and hospitality are just some of the tools of the trade in a careful crafting of souls.  As we look at the example of Jesus, such practices as healing, teaching, guiding, and mending souls were all a part of his mission to bring God’s benevolent kingdom to earth.  As we learn to help people toward peace, sustain them in difficult times, reconcile broken relationships, and guide them in making wise choices, we are doing good spiritual work and fortifying souls.

            We ourselves need to continually feed our souls if we want to do the work of soulcraft.  Engaging in the spiritual disciplines such as daily Scripture reading and prayer, practicing Sabbath rests, silence and solitude, fasting, and other spiritual tools can enable us to be built up in Christ so that we might shepherd others toward the ways of Jesus.

            The Apostle Peter encouraged his fellow leaders:  “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  In difficult times, there is no greater need than the presence of God.  That divine presence is often mediated through loving shepherds and believers who take special care to bring grace to hurting people.  May it be so, to the glory of Jesus.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Pursue Peace

Over the past several years I have developed the notorious “pastor paunch.”  But, in the past three weeks I have lost fifteen pounds.  It didn’t just happen.  It has been intentional.  If I were to only focus on the negative of what I can’t eat, I would never make it.  After all, if I keep thinking about the anchovy pizza that I’m not supposed to have, eventually my willpower breaks down.  But if I focus on the positive, of becoming healthy and incorporating positive practices of health into my life on a daily consistent basis, then I am setting myself up for holistic well-being.

            Peace does not just happen.  Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus (Colossians 1:20).  And it must be pursued (Ephesians 4:3).  Practices of peace must be engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level (Romans 14:13-15:7).  Is it hard?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it worth it?  I’ll let you be the judge.  I think your conscience already knows the answer.

            How bad do we want to be spiritually healthy?  How bad do we desire the peace of God:  Enough to stop being negative? Enough to reconcile and make things right? Enough to pursue Jesus?  It is high time we begin redefining our situations from a negative focus on only problem solving to the positive vision of peace, wholeness, integrity, and spiritual growth and health.

            Zechariah’s song of praise anticipating the birth of Jesus gives us a vision of a future full of peace, joy, and thriving (Luke 1:68-79).  The name “Zechariah” means in Hebrew “God remembered.”  God has not forgotten his promises.  The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health.

            The World Health Organization did a study which has found that 10% of Americans suffer from some form of depression.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has taken notice of the rising figures of suicide in this country, which has been growing steadily for the past thirty years.  Last year nearly 42,000 people took their own lives in the United States.  That’s approximately 13 suicides per 100,000 people.  Large numbers of people lack peace in their lives.

            This year a study came out from a task force put together by professionals across a wide spectrum of disciplines known as the World Happiness Report.  Every country in the world was ranked according to criteria such as the gross domestic product, social support, healthy lifestyles, freedom to make choices, lack of corruption, and both negative and positive outlooks on life.  The U.S. did not even make the top ten.  Even with all of our vast resources Americans are, collectively speaking, a very unhappy people.  I believe the most interesting finding from the World Happiness Report was their conclusion as to what makes one country happier than another.  The Report concluded that citizens of the happiest nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in three sources:  their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

            If we are not finding joy in our lives through our Christianity and/or our church involvement, then it is reasonable to conclude that we are not experiencing the peace of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps we need to find newfound hope and joy through celebrating the Table of the Lord together.  It is a religious ritual that we experience together which reminds us that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Forgiveness of sins, spiritual peace, and human well-being is ultimately found in Jesus.  We both remember Christ’s accomplishment of peace through the cross, and participate in that peace through the common elements of Bread and Cup.  As we eat and drink, let us ingest the peace of Christ into our lives.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Longing for Justice and Righteousness

Some words make us squeamish.  Justice often gets a bad rap by some in the church, as if it were some code word for “liberal.”  Righteousness seems more like the “right” word, but gets thrown around like an old familiar blanket, as if we already know all that stuff.  So, what’s the big deal about justice and righteousness?  Other than being very biblical terms which get used a lot in Scripture, being just and right is what the Messiah is all about (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

            Justice and righteousness are most often paired together in the Old Testament.  They are really two sides of the same coin.  We often think of justice in punitive terms of giving lawbreakers what they deserve.  But biblical justice has much more to do with giving someone what they need and deserve in order to live and thrive as human beings.  To act justly means to provide things like clean drinking water, a safe environment, fair and equitable business practices, food to eat, a place to sleep, etc.  Righteousness is the relational element to justice.  To be righteous means to have right relationships, to connect with people, to move toward them and provide them with all the relational things that people need like respect, dignity, friendship, hospitality, fellowship, etc.

            Justice and righteousness are always to go together.  Justice without righteousness is at best, impersonal, and, at worst, condescending.  Righteousness without justice is only a dead faith that wishes well but never delivers.  But together, justice and righteousness brings love, peace, harmony, well-being, and human flourishing because all the basic necessities of life, physical and relational, are met in abundance.  This is what is meant in the Old Testament when Israel is referred to as “a land of milk and honey.”

            The time of abundance is here for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Yet, it is not here in its fullness.  We anticipate, wait, and hope for the Second Coming of our Savior and King.  While we exercise patience, we long for better days.  A true Advent spirit is a deep longing for justice and righteousness because King Jesus is just and right!

            What do you long for today?  I long for things which are broken to be made right.  I long for biblical justice.  I long for the day when my grandson will have no more seizures.  I long for the day when individuals and families will not have to fight cancer anymore.  I long for the day when there will be no more depression, mental illness, or dementia.  I long for the day when people will be completely free of addictions.  I long for the day when there will be no more sex trafficking, death from malnutrition, grinding poverty, corrupt governments, whole families and communities torn by the ravages of HIV and AIDS, refugees with no place to call home, and devastating natural disasters.
I long for righteousness.  I long for the day when women and girls all across the world will not be abused and become the victims of disordered power.  I long for the day when Israelis and Palestinians, Iranians and Iraqis, Japanese and Koreans, Russians and everybody else will no more hate each other.  I long for all believers everywhere to experience the exhilaration of new life in Christ.  I long for my community to repent and believe the gospel.  I long for men and women of God to embrace Jesus and forsake all other gods.

            I long for the kingdom of God to come in all its fullness, in all its freedom, joy, prosperity, peace, and happiness.  God’s kingdom will not be ushered in through continued worship of things and the constant practice of accumulating more and more.  God’s kingdom will not come through worshiping a particular nation or country.  God’s kingdom will not be ushered in because of self-effort, savvy marketing, and full schedules.  God’s kingdom is not the same as our personal agendas for life. 

The kingdom of God will come when God decides it is going to come because Jesus is Lord and no one or nothing else is king!  I want to be doing justice and righteousness when he arrives.  The church of Jesus is a gathering of people who are to be just and right in their thinking and practice.  Holding those two important words together is vital to every congregation.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


             I did not begin my ministry as a Pastor decades ago observing Advent. I needed to learn for myself that Advent is a special season anticipating the arrival of the Lord Jesus.  I have come to completely embrace the season.  Here’s why:  I found in Advent a solution to the problem of secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. We as Christians recognize that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s a holiday that focuses on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of Christmas, we spend much of our time preparing, not for a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the holidays. We buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are all wrapped and delivered. We attend and host holiday parties. We have relatives who come to visit, and/or we are the relatives who go elsewhere to visit.  Christmas cards need to get out, and the annual Christmas letter often turns into a project for next year.  Our holiday season requires lots of planning and energy, and it can end up being downright exhausting. If we have younger children, we may very well spend hours trying to assemble gifts on Christmas Day that come with sketchy instructions written by someone for whom English is, at best, a third language….

            Christ can, ironically, get pushed out of Christmas, not by unchurched non-Christians, but by us.  But Advent helps us come back to God and put our focus and our delight where it rightly belongs:  in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

            Embedded within the season of Advent are a message and a mission.  The Gospel of John begins with the great proclamation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God has entered into human history in the person of Jesus.  It is a message of grace and hope, completely centering round Christ.  It is a story – the greatest ever told – of God loving his creatures so much as to become one of them.  This redemption narrative gives shape to our own witness.  We simply tell the story of God’s love to humanity through the sending of the Son, Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell and bring us into a kingdom full of grace, joy, wholeness, and love.

            So, how, then, do we keep our focus where it needs to be during the month of December and observe the Advent season?  First of all, attend Advent services.  Pay attention to the Advent Wreath and candles, the special readings, and all the heightened awareness of Christ’s coming.  Another way to focus on Jesus is by enjoying Advent music.  This sounds easy, but really is not. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping malls. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God.  Other ideas for Advent can include:  putting together an Advent Wreath at home; and, using a Nativity scene with lots of pieces as an Advent Calendar, adding one character to the scene every day.

            A practical way I discovered in remembering Advent is standing in the long lines of stores during the holidays.  A few years back I was going nuts waiting in a crazy long line with a cashier who was clearly seasonal help.  As my frustration mounted, God did what God often does with me.  He asked a question. “Tim, why are you so upset?” “Duh, God! This stupid line and slow cashier!” “Tim, what is my Advent really all about?”  I was busted. As a Pastor I tell others about the time of waiting and anticipation, but here I was selfishly impatient.

            Go ahead and try it out this season.  Let the inevitable standing in line be a reminder that Advent is really about waiting and patiently anticipating the coming of the Lord Jesus.  Let’s be honest.  You are going to wait whether you like it or not.  If by God’s grace you don’t stand in a line, you will instead wait in the heavy holiday traffic that moves at a snail’s pace.  But you and I have a choice.  Either the wait will form us for naught or for good.  Let’s allow the time of waiting to bring a fresh Advent spirit into our lives this season so that our Christmas will be a glorious one.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Reign of Christ the King

In my undergraduate college days, one of the required classes for my major was Philosophy of History taught by a crusty old professor who looked like he was one-hundred ten years old.  Professor Thompson knew that I was a Christian because I always sat in the front of his class taking notes with a Bible on my desk.  One day he came into the classroom and began his lecture by looking directly at me with those beady black eyes of his and said, as only Professor Thompson could say it, “Ehrhardt!  Can God change history?”

            My answer was this:  the question is only relevant if God were never in control and sovereign over history to begin with; there is no need to change history if God is actively and continually working out his purposes in and through history.  So, a more appropriate question would be:  Since God is Lord over all history, will we submit to him? 

            In difficult times, it is only human to wonder if God is really sovereign over all the earth.  When terrorists kill others; when natural disasters claim countless lives; when Christianity is seen as a threat to many; with such realities we might ask ourselves – Can God change history?

            Even though Christ’s reign is invisible and seems limited and temporary, it will ultimately be visible and is pervasive and permanent (Revelation 1:4-8).  Faithful believers in the first centuries of the church would witness to their faith and tell others about the redemptive events of Jesus and that, since Jesus is alive, others can experience new life.  They were effective enough to alter the social order of things, which brought persecution and, in some cases, death.  These men and women were killed proclaiming their devotion to Jesus, witnessing to others.  So, the term “witness” or “martyr” began to refer to those who were killed for their proclamation of the gospel.  In doing this, they saw themselves as only emulating and following in the way of their sovereign Lord Jesus, who was himself a faithful martyr.  Just as Jesus died proclaiming the kingdom of God and people’s need to submit to it, so the earliest believers needed to see their solidarity with their Lord so that they would not falter and give in to being silent.

Jesus is Lord of both good days and bad days.  Our faith cannot be dependent upon our circumstances because it is the blood of Jesus that has freed us to live for God no matter what the situation we have before us.  We overcome only on the ground of the blood of Christ – not because everything goes our way.  We overcome our consciences, bad tempers, defeats, lusts, fears, and pettiness on the basis of the blood of the Lamb.  Jesus frees us! The goal of the church is not having a wonderful existence without any adversity; the goal is to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, dead, risen and ascended. 

As believers in Jesus we have continual access and unconditional acceptance of God through his blood.  We can intercede for others directly by going straight to God.  Just as Jesus has unlimited access to the Father, so, the Christian has the ability and the privilege of coming to God at all times.  Christians are a kingdom of priests where every believer intercedes for other believers, and even for the world which persecutes them.

While we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus, we do not idly wait.  We intercede for the world.  We proclaim the gospel to all the earth.  We love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Nothing in this world can ever deprive us of grace and peace.  No circumstance or adverse situation, no terrorist or natural disaster, no ornery people, no other person can take away Jesus from us.  So, with this security, assurance, and blessing we are free to rescue others from the coming judgment.

The reign of Jesus Christ elicits some probing questions:  Will we be faithful to Jesus by being faithful witnesses?  Will we live into the new life offered to us?  Will we submit to King Jesus?  Jesus is worthy of our praise.  He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  His kingdom will never end.  Since this is true, we are meant to serve God.  In life and in death, we belong to God.  We are not our own; we were bought at a price.  Therefore we are to serve God in the ways he wants us to serve.  “Can God change history?” is not really the question we should be asking.  Since God has changed history forever in the sending of the Son, what will we do with him?  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be an Encourager

Attending church is not an end in itself – there is a practical reason why we are to be regular attenders.  We are to pay thoughtful attention to other believers, to take an interest in their welfare, and put some significant thought into how to help, support, give hope, love, spur, assist, stimulate, and uplift them into keeping up with Jesus (Hebrews 10:24-25).  A major opportunity for this is to occur at corporate gatherings.  Worship services, small group Bible studies, and other ministries of the church are all important because they are opportunities for us to encourage other people.  Yes, we are to be fed ourselves, but we are also to have the attitude and practice of attending ministries so that we will have the opportunity to speak words of encouragement to others.

This whole church thing is not some sort of optional equipment for the Christian life.  We need each other.  We need the church.  Eugene Peterson has said:  “Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’ is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.”

The church provides Christians with the nurture, guidance, and encouragement necessary for spiritual development. God gives us the church:  to help form our identity as Christians, and give us a secure sense of belonging; to bring comfort and encouragement in difficult times; to proclaim the Word in preaching and sacrament; to provide godly examples for us to imitate; and, to discipline us when we go astray.  We are to be the church to one another, helping each other to become more like Jesus.

            Therefore, we are to put ourselves in a position to be an encouragement to others, to love them with the love of Jesus.  Here are six types of encouragers that I see displayed in the book of Hebrews for us to emulate:
  1. The Cheerleader.  “You can do it.  I believe in you!”  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on to push through the quitting points.  They did it, and so can we (12:1).
  2. The Affirmer.  “What you are doing is valuable and important!”  The preacher said, “We are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation.  God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (6:9-10).
  3. The Rebuker.  Better is open rebuke than hidden love.  “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3).
  4. The Prayer Warrior.  “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).
  5. The Partner.  Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs – not by themselves.  “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13).
  6. The Pastor.  Shepherding in the Bible is a practice and function, not just a title.  It is someone who comes alongside and helps make sense of the confusing situations of life, knowing what to do.  “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:12-14).

There is enough criticism already out there; one needs not look any further than Facebook to get their fill of it.  Instead, decide to be an encourager.  Everyone needs encouragement, which means every single Christian needs to be an encourager to others.  What kind of encourager are you?  In what ways do you need to develop to become a better encourager?  How can you influence your church through encouragement?  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Christian Contemplation

           There is a great deal of loneliness in this world.  Increasingly, more and more people live alone.  As job hours build to crazy levels, disconnection occurs simply out of having no discretionary time to spend with others.  So, for many people, taking the time to sit in the presence of God and forget about the clock seems almost absurd.  It is as if contemplating Christ is some luxury instead of a necessity.  But it is a vital Christian practice. 

I propose that just maybe the reason why so many Christians, churches, and ministry organizations have contemplation off their spiritual radars has to do with how we view our relationship with God.  Communicating with God is a great privilege, and made possible through the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Christian contemplation we do not just pray to get something; we seek to adore God and enjoy being in his presence.  God longs for our companionship.  Yes, you read that right.  God delights in us.  He wants to be with us.  This weird notion that God always wants something from us is one-dimensional and truncates the true knowledge of God into a business transaction where we give God obedience and he answers our prayers.

If that is your typical understanding of how we relate to God, consider the beginning of humanity.  God enjoyed “walking in the cool of the day” with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8-9).  The original garden is portrayed as a paradise because it was the place where God and his creatures simply enjoyed being with one another.  We must come to grips with the reality that becoming spiritually mature means learning to love God for who he is, not just for what he can do for us.

Contemplative prayer has as its singular goal being with God, period.  It is about allowing time to melt away into an enjoyment of God, and God’s enjoyment of us.  If this seems strange, mystical, or medieval, it is only because contemporary evangelicalism has strayed far from the streams of living water offered through the kind of prayer that contemplates the grace and love of God in Christ.  Maybe you can only view God loving you if you are living a perfect life.  Remember this:  there is nothing you can do to make God love you more or less.  It is high time we relax enough to receive the wondrous reality that God loves us for who we are and not for what we can give to him.

God longs to be with us!  The “Jesus Prayer” is a simple and ancient prayer that combines the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18:13 (“God be merciful to me, a sinner”) with the earliest confession of the church (“Jesus is Lord”).  Put it together, and the Jesus Prayer is:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It is meant to be a means of entering into the presence of God and experiencing communion with Jesus.  Repeating phrases from Holy Scripture are some of my favorite ways of engaging in contemplative prayer.  I like personalizing Philippians 3:10, “I want to know you, Lord Christ, and the power of your resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in your sufferings.”  Using the biblical book of psalms is a wonderful place to express the desire of our hearts toward God, and to drink in his love for us.  Over time the repeated words begin to fall away into a deep connection with God.

Again, if I seem to be sounding like some reclusive monk locked up in a remote monastery, I can assure you that I am not in any such place.  I am a busy pastor who has more responsibilities that he ought to have.  But I do neither my church nor my God any favors by constantly working with no time set aside to connect with the reason we are to engage in this Christian work to start with:  to know Jesus to the very core our beings.  None of us are brains-on-a-stick meant to check off on a list of beliefs; then, go on our merry way being uptight, anxious, and worried about everything under the sun because we did not let those beliefs sink down into the marrow of our spiritual bones.

God is huge, and he is full of huge love for his creatures.  The Western church must begin to allow the fog to lift so that we can walk with God in the garden of the soul.  How will you and your church allow God into your lives to make this happen?  The answer to that question might just be the very thing you have been looking for all along.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Forgiveness Is Real

When my girls were small and growing up in West Michigan, they always enjoyed going to Meijer, which is a something like a Super Wal-Mart and a Super-Target combined.  At Meijer they have a row of mechanical horses that only cost a penny to ride.  Riding the horses was always the highlight of shopping for them.  On one occasion their aunt came for a visit and brought a coffee can full of pennies and took them to Meijer just to ride the horses for an afternoon.  All three of my girls are now grown adult women.  They do not ride mechanical horses anymore.  They now ride real live horses.  As excited as they were to ride mechanical horses, my daughters now have no desire to do so because those horses were only a simulation of the real thing.

            As Christians, since Christ has come as the true and real sacrifice for sin, we are no longer to be content with simulations and copies of the real deal.  And we are to know the difference between them.  Our forgiveness is not a simulation, not a copy or a shadow, but is real because Christ is the real thing (Hebrews 9:24-28). 

            When my wife and I were raising those three very active and precocious girls, we had a certain process we would go through with them when they did something wrong toward one another.  We would talk about the offense, and then they would need to say the words, “I am sorry.”  But the matter was never over until they hugged each other and told each other they loved the other.  If they could do that, it was the real deal.  You see, they could mouth the words to get us off their backs, but to hug and express love was the reality.

            Jesus did not just mouth words to us of forgiveness.  He secured it through his death on a cross.  It is not a cheap forgiveness.  It is real.  Christ died a very violent death.  This whole emphasis in Scripture on blood and sacrifice can be upsetting for many people.  But we need to understand that our sin and disobedience is really terrible.  Christ’s death reflects the horrible sin of humanity.  Since Jesus has secured forgiveness for us at such a steep price, we are to receive it with much humility and a great deal of joy that God would love us so much.

            Jesus Christ came to deal with the sin issue once for all through his blood.  He came to do away with sin, not just veneer over it.  The old sacrificial system was like whitewashing a barn – it took care of the issue for a while, but it would need to be done over and over again.  Jesus is no temporary arrangement.  The forgiveness he offers is permanent.  There is no need to keep offering sacrifices over and over because Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  The forgiveness we possess is not like paying an annual fee and getting a forgiveness sticker for the year.  In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!  And this forgiveness was purchased with Christ’s own blood.

I truly believe that what this old world needs more than anything else is forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving, but a real forgiveness that is so costly that it lasts forever and ever.  A lot of religious energy can be spent trying to figure out how to make ourselves acceptable to God.  But in Christ we do not need to fear the future.  We have been made right with God through the death of Jesus.  Through Christ’s sacrifice the doors to heaven and earth get flung wide open.  The way has been secured, the trail has been blazed, and the road has been made smooth in order to come to God.

Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead so that we could live ho-hum Christian lives.  He has granted us forgiveness so that we will eagerly eat the Word of God and sit right up front to hear the preacher serve the meal.  Jesus sacrificed himself so that we would enjoy laboring together in the gospel, looking forward to how the Spirit will transform lives through his forgiveness.  The price has been paid for a real forgiveness which opens our minds and our energies to live for Jesus, the pioneer of our faith.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Young Adults and Faith

            It is no secret for many churches that the millennial generation, particularly ages 18-24, are leaving organized religion.  A lot has been written in the past several years about why they have left.  But let’s turn this around and think about what makes those who do not stray stay in the institutional church.  My own anecdotal evidence of why this age group either stays or leaves leads to three reasons:  the involvement, or lack thereof, in church ministry beyond the youth group; the impact of the family; and, whether there are basic spiritual disciplines practiced, or not.

            I have noticed over the years of serving in the church that when teenagers have a significant involvement in a ministry that reaches across the span of the church community (i.e. worship services, small groups), then they are much more likely to understand that they are needed in the Body of Christ.  I have also observed that when kids are raised in a spiritual environment that places emphasis and importance on church ministry engagement, they are exposed to it being modeled and are likely to follow the example.  Finally, there is simply no substitute for basic practices in the Christian life getting started as early as possible.  Teens which learn to read their Bibles and pray tend to keep up those disciplines into adulthood.

            Ministry experience is one thing, but there is evidence to back up some of these observations.  Sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, says that his extensive research demonstrates that highly religious teenagers are not very likely to become very un-religious five years later.  Smith points to six factors that lead to the strength of religious practice among emerging adults:  strong parental religion; frequent personal prayer; high importance of religious faith; frequent reading of Scripture; many supportive religious adults; and, doubts about religious beliefs.

            Each one of these factors can be unpacked and examined in much more detail.  But for our purposes here in simply broaching the subject, it should become increasingly clear that we can exude a good deal of influence toward the younger generations within the church.  Whether a young adult is devoted, regular, sporadic, or disengaged in church might be their personal decision, but it is within our corporate sphere of control as to whether we will leave an impactful impression upon him/her for positive good.

            Indeed, from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures we get the admonition to leave such a persuasive influence upon our kids.  “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

            If Christianity is a commitment that centers round all of life, then we can reasonably expect that this will leave an enduring and endearing legacy.  But if Christianity is something that exists to be present only when needed, then we ought not to be surprised when Christian faith is jettisoned by young adults who find something else that addresses their wants. 

            Inter-generational ministry, then, is not really something that is a nice notion, but is vital to the ongoing faith development of teens into adulthood and beyond.  It is the sage leadership team that thinks through these realities in their own context and develops some concrete ministry.  After all, the Christian life is not just for a season; it is to move and mature over a lifetime.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Free to Serve

I am not into arm-twisting when it comes to recruiting volunteers for service in the church.  And whenever someone thinks I am being “soft” on people by not making them feel guilty, I respond with conviction:  “That kind of approach is not consistent with the gospel of grace.”

Yet, that does not mean we ignore guilt because only true guilt can lead us to grace.  We all have times when we feel guilty.  Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Guilt is the response of the conscience to things we have done or left undone.  Guilt is the conscience telling us that we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done.  It is what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. 

There are several ways we can respond to guilt.  We can rationalize our guilt and not accept the truth about what we have done.  When we use phrases like “it’s not my fault,” “it’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “they deserved it,” and “it’s not that bad,” then our conscience can be seared like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty.  The result is of this is always hardness of heart.

            Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed.  There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done.  Shame feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good.  Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences.  In other words, shame is really false guilt.

            The result of shame and false guilt is always one of two responses:  either we become inactive through feelings of discouragement and defeat; or, we become hyperactive by working like crazy to feel better and hope that the guilt and shame go away.  It is to impose a certain penance upon yourself in order to cope with the dirty feelings of guilt.

            But the good news is that every one of us can have freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.  If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.  If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and guilt on our consciences.  If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt.

            Here’s why we experience freedom and a clear conscience:  Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).  Back in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest would enter the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifice.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) he would enter the Most Holy Place.  The Ark of the Covenant was there.  The priest would slaughter the heifer and take some blood and sprinkle it on the altar. 

There were all kinds of rituals to perform in order to access God, and even then the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people.  But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom.  The way has been opened for not only an outward purification, but an inward cleansing of a guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.

All are now welcome at Christ’s Table.  There are no hoops to jump through.  There is only a radical hospitality that accepts everyone who comes to God by faith in Jesus.  We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ.  We can now serve God with joy and not serve him in order to gain spiritual brownie points and assuage our guilt. 

Service in the church needs to be motivated not by feelings of guilt but by a deep awareness of grace.  When we are overwhelmed with grace, to serve is to love God, which is the very thing we become eager to do.  So, when recruiting volunteers, take the route of inspiring grace in others, not guilt, for we are gloriously free in order to serve.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jesus Is Enough

Jesus is our great high priest.  His priesthood, his intercessory ministry, is permanent.  He is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins.  Jesus lives forever.  He saves completely.  Jesus meets our need.  He has been made perfect forever (Hebrews 7:23-28).  Say any of those statements in the typical church and hardly an eyebrow would get raised – they almost seem ho-hum.  Our blank affect testifies that we have lost a great deal of the original force and extreme impact of Christianity.

In the first century, it was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  Every ancient person understood that sacrifices were only temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again.  Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice.  No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no sacrifices, period.  There was no longer any need for them because Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  This was such a crazy and ridiculous notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it.  Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a liberal progressive idea.  It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because somebody just became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

            Yet, we in the modern church sometimes go back to the old kind of sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true.  We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves.  However, Jesus has not just saved us partially, but fully.  Our church attendance can subtly be looked upon as a sacrifice to appease God, as if he needed to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.  Our giving can become some non-bloody sacrifice that is meant to satisfy God’s furrowed brow against us.  Our service can degenerate into a sacrifice to assuage our guilty conscience.  In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

            The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.  Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin.  Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace.  That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with performing spiritual cartwheels or some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice.  The truth is that there is never a time in which we lack attention from God.

            Since we have been justified by faith in Jesus, we need not worry anymore about being good enough.  Since Jesus is perfect, his work is made complete in us.  This constant anxiety of feeling like we don’t measure-up does not come from God.  Jesus is sufficient and has taken our place so that we can live in the freedom and joy of a complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell.  There is no longer any necessary sacrifice to make!

            “Well,” you might say, “if everybody in the church believed that then nobody would ever do anything.”  No, it is just the opposite.  When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more.  A low level discouragement sets in and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough.  We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything.  We consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us.  But when we grasp the New Covenant of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips.  It is a joyous offering ourselves, body, soul, and spirit.  It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

            On this upcoming Reformation Sunday we celebrate the glorious reality that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by our own accomplishments, pedigree, or effort.   Trusting in our heritage, relying on our family’s faith, or believing our hard work gives us a leg-up toward heaven will only end in despair.  But if we trust in Christ’s perfect sacrifice then a whole new world of mercy and grace opens before us.  Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Challenge of Change

            People are all for change – we just typically want everybody else to change but ourselves.  Just say the word “change” in a church and you will get responses from some guy going apoplectic about not changing ‘on his watch’ to another person lamenting loudly over the lack of change within the congregation, to every response in-between.  Peter Steinke, a respected church consultant who deftly applies systems-theory to congregations, has made the most basic of observations:  “Change is a magnet for emotional reactions.”

            Every church leader has inevitably run into an emotional buzzsaw when attempting some sort of change, whether minor or major.  When people feel they are losing control or not getting what they want from a proposed change, they might try and throw a monkey wrench in the whole deal through some means of sabotage.  Yes, it does happen in churches.  People do not always play well or fair.  There are individual parishioners who will go to almost any length to have things their way or keep an existing system entrenched.  As a result, some pastors and leaders wither under the pressure, afraid of the emotional reactivity that might result from implementing some sort of change.  But when we take up the mantle of leadership, like Nehemiah of old, we regulate ourselves to staying on task even when the naysayers and saboteurs look for a way to frustrate the vision (Nehemiah 6:1-15).

            It must be kept in mind that every healthy living organism will grow, change, and reproduce.  Churches that never change are unhealthy.  At the least, they are just plain ineffective at ministry; at the worst, they become stagnant pools dispensing spiritual death.  But good outcomes can and do happen as leaders take courage to address issues and implement change without abandoning the goal.  The Apostle Paul stated the goal like this:  “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).

            Sometimes, we as church leaders do not immediately think like Paul.  We desire a successful ministry, full of resurrection power, but neglect the bald reality that there must be suffering.  You cannot have a resurrection without having a death.  Paul embraced suffering and death as the means of attaining new life.  It would be sage for us all to reflect on this and how it applies to our ministries.  Change is typically a slow, often painful process, of dying to self and old ways and re-awakening to a new spiritual life of knowing Jesus Christ.  In order to truly know Christ, we will experience difficulty.  Our congregations are going to know Christ not by always having their way and/or never having to endure the hardship of change.  No, they are going to know Christ through sharing in his sufferings.

            Resistance to change will come.  Bank on it.  Plan for it.  Anticipate it.  It will happen. I have to admit that I am no expert in this area.  I have made more mistakes and flubbed more ideas and attempts at ministry than you can possibly imagine.  From the school of hard knocks, here is what I have learned:  it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to move an existing congregation to a new way of seeing and living; and, there needs to be a biblical goal in order to stay the course and realize transformation.  I believe the best goal is to help people know Christ better, and introduce people who don’t know him to a new relationship with Jesus.  All our strategic plans need to keep on track toward this grand pursuit of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

            So, what will you do to help move such a goal forward?  How will you work together with others to achieve knowing Christ?  In what ways will you deal with the inevitable resistance to change?  What things do you need to put to death in order to realize new life?  Where do faith, hope, and love fit into your plans for growth and change?  Let’s all pray for one another, so that we come to maturity in Christ together, knowing Jesus better and living and loving like him in all things.  So may it be.  Amen.