Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Message of Palm Sunday

The story of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week leads to a couple of penetrating questions:  Is Jesus really enough for me, just the way he is?  Or, do I think he ought to be different than he is?

The majority of the people who gathered to give Jesus praise at the beginning of the week, shouted to the Roman authorities to have him crucified at the end of the week.  Why the big turn around?  The change in attitude came because Jesus did not fit the crowd’s expectations of what the Messiah should be and do.  They did not accept him for who he was.  We need to be aware of our own expectations for God, and for what we believe Jesus ought to be and to do.

Missed expectations create either hurt, anger, or both.  How we view Jesus determines how we will view the Christian life and the Christian Church.  If we see Jesus as being like an earthly politician and emphasize his war chest while downplaying his meekness, we will then have a triumphalist view of Christianity and be disappointed when there is no practical victory taking place.  The crowd wanted assurances that in Jesus’ first 40 days in office that he would put the big hurt on the Roman authorities.  They had expectations of strong leadership, making things happen, and accomplishing big hairy audacious goals. 

On the other extreme, if we view Jesus as only a Suffering Servant and pay little attention to his lordship over everything, then we will remain in spiritual contemplation without effectively engaging the world with the victory of the cross and resurrection.  But if we view Jesus as the Gentle King, the Humble Sovereign; if we see him as lowly royalty, giving due emphasis to both his divinity and his humanity, his authority and his humility; then, we will begin to worship Jesus as he truly is and not as we want him to be. 

            Most of the crowd checking out Jesus already had their minds made up about who they thought he should be.  They had no room for a suffering servant and a humble savior because they could only see the sins of others, and not their own sins.  They believed Jesus was the King of Israel, and, for them, that meant a political liberator from the Gentile Romans.  They were aware of the royal psalms that spoke of divine rule over the nations.  The crowd was understandably weary of being dominated by non-Jews, and wanted some serious payback and a new establishment with the Messiah in charge.

            To put this ancient scene in perspective, it would be like in our day getting completely jazzed-up about a particular presidential candidate who did some incredible things on the campaign trail and is now entering Washington D.C. to a ticker-tape parade and lots of flag-waving.  Palm branches were the national symbol for Israel, like our flag displays.  There was no question about what the crowd of people wanted:  a strong leader-king who was going to change the establishment and inaugurate a new administration of peace and prosperity that put the Romans in their place and give prominence to the Jews, like King David of old.

            But Jesus deliberately chose a donkey to ride on in Jerusalem (John 12:12-16).  He was serving notice to all the people that he was not going to capitulate to the crowd’s agenda for him.  He was not going to become the political savior they were looking for.  He was not coming to overturn the establishment.  He was not there to make everyone feel good about being a good patriotic Jew. 

Here is the point that this story emphasizes, and it is a timeless, necessary conclusion:  We are to adjust to Jesus, and not the other way around.  Jesus did not fit into the triumphalist and nationalist scene of the Jews because he is the not just the King of the Jews, but the King of All Nations.  He did take on the establishment – just not the Roman one.  Jesus came to overturn the ruling establishment of Satan and his wicked spirits; he came to upend the principalities and powers of this dark world.  Jesus came to take back the people of this earth for God, and he would not do it through a political revolution, but by a spiritual one.  Jesus would seize power by sacrificing himself for the sins of everyone, and making it possible for people to live a new life without the world, the flesh, and the devil dogging them at every turn.

The church has a wonderful message of deliverance to communicate.  Let us remember the basis for it in this Holy Week.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spiritual Growth

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jesus in John 12:24-26).

This was the message of Jesus.  There is no wiggle room or fudge factor to it.  Jesus unequivocally said what people really need to do:  die to self.  To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: water; correct temperature (warmth); and a good location (such as in soil). During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored with it in the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling's roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.

            This is exactly the kind of process that Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God.  People must never settle for being seedy because that is not what we are designed for.  Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit.  To follow Jesus means to die to being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again (reproduction).  We are to push down and anchor ourselves firmly into the soil of God’s Word and pull vital nutrients from it.  At the same time, we are to push upward toward the light of Jesus Christ so that his warmth and grace can cause us to be spiritually formed into the disciples that he intends us to become.  The process is only complete when we reproduce ourselves in others as followers of Jesus.

            Jesus said that the person who “hates” his/her life will gain eternal life.  That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ.  The one who serves Jesus will follow him.  Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.  My girls were all born in West Michigan.  When we lived there, my wife and I would take our three girls to the beautiful sandy beaches of Lake Michigan.  We loved being there on hot summer days.  The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt, so it was difficult to walk on them.  I would tell Sarah, Charissa, and Mikaela to follow me and walk in my footprints.  I told them to follow me not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me. 

            We are to forsake all other paths that stray from Jesus, and are to follow him by walking in his footprints.  We are not to turn to the right or to the left.  We are to hate all other avenues that are not behind our Lord Jesus.  We are to love his path and his ways.

            Church ministry that focuses on anything else other than true Christian discipleship must be, without compromise, jettisoned.  We are to be about the business of spiritual growth, helping others to take root in God’s Word and bring them the light of Christ.  Evaluation of programs, procedures, and ministries are to center in the path of Jesus and nothing else.  Determining the effectiveness of ministry based on how many butts are in the pews, how much money gets put in the offering plates, and how pleased people are with the pastor are not biblical criteria for church ministry.

            Lent is a season that is designed for us to remember Jesus, to recognize that we belong to him, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from him.  This is to happen on the corporate church level, as well as the personal individual plane.  There cannot be the new life of Easter without the crucifixion of self.  There will not be spiritual growth without dying to ourselves.  Ministry can only be truly Christian when it follows in the way of Jesus.    

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dying to Our Plans

Most people are not much into personal change.  Change means adjusting to a different reality, and we would much rather prefer others adjusting to how we do things so that we don’t have to change.  We like how we do things. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives. Even good change, like becoming debt-free or getting in shape is difficult, if for no other reason the effort and energy it takes to see our goals accomplished. In order to change something about ourselves, we have to be willing to admit we might have been doing it wrong and try to do something different.

            God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything.  But the kind of change that Jesus talked about and died for is not just making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule around.  It is not about exerting more effort or adding more to the to-do list.  Jesus, instead, loved us so that we would be completely transformed from the inside-out.  For that to happen, in order to have a new life, the old life must die.  What is more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are zombies who are not really living the life God intended for us to live.  No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death.  

            We must die to our plans.  Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went.  He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic.  He taught like no other person before him, and healed all kinds of people.  In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.

            The Apostle John recorded a contrast between two people, Mary and Judas (John 12:1-8).  Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go.  Mary took some very expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security, and poured it all on Jesus’ feet.  In addition, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair.  It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, no concern with how it would look to others, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.

            Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship.  We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing:  “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it.  A little perfume is just fine, but to use the whole bottle is just too over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!”  Judas had a secret agenda.  He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes.  Judas is the picture of a zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him.  Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go; and, when he became convinced that Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.

            When it comes to church ministry, every single member must be willing to die to self – to die to our own agendas of how we think things ought to go.  Conflict and contention exist because there are persons who tenaciously hold on to their pet programs or their ideas on how to proceed.  But what needs to occur is that each Christian must serve Jesus with the same attitude and action as did Mary.

            A church cannot be revitalized, revived, renewed, or resurrected apart from death.  Something or someone must die for new life to happen.  We must die to our plans so that God’s kingdom agenda can take over.  Believers in Jesus need to express the same devotion and dedication as did Mary.

            We all become frustrated and discouraged at times with the petty sinfulness of the church.  The answer is not to distance or detach, but to devote ourselves to dying to our plans and personal agendas.  When an entire group of believers does this, there is an abundance of grace and a mass transformation of heart.  May it be so, to the glory of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Effects of Humanity's Fall

            The entire world is profoundly broken.  Everywhere people are ‘messed-up’.  Anywhere one goes, whether it is school, work, home and even church, there is institutional brokenness expressed in systems or organizing structures that contain elements of bondage instead of freedom.  It does not take a Christian to observe and know that things just do not seem right.

            The Bible’s description of this reality goes back to the fall of humanity.  Satan, the devil, led the original persons, Adam and Eve, into disobedience of God.  Satan tempted Eve to doubt whether God really had her best interests at mind; to question the truthfulness of God’s Word; and, to wonder about the wisdom of listening to God (Genesis 3:1-5).  Adam just flat out chose to disobey God, and, so, the entire world changed (Genesis 3:16-17). 

            Immediately, everything was different in the world and with people.  The choice to disobey God brought feelings of fear and shame; a loss of fellowship with God; hiding from God; a bent to pervert the truth; the propensity for the genders to try and dominate each other; expulsion from the garden; and, physical death (Genesis 3:7-24).  That is quite a list of downright icky stuff.  No wonder the world is messed up.

            The fall of humanity still affects us all.  It has brought not only physical death, but spiritual death.  That means we are alienated from God, in rebellion against him, and enslaved to our own passions and desires (Isaiah 1:2-6; Romans 2:14-15; Ephesians 2:1-3).  We are alienated from one another as persons by having continual bents toward discord, suspicion, and jealousy instead of love and trust (Romans 1:29-31; James 3:14-16).  We are even alienated and totally out of touch with ourselves by either loving ourselves as gods or hating ourselves with inordinate emotional masochism (Philippians 2:21; 2 Timothy 3:2-4).  In short, we are selfish people who experience separation from God, others, and self.

            If this is the true reality of humanity, then it is depressing, discouraging, and damaging.  Who, then, will rescue us from this death?  Thanks to God who has given us victory through the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:57).  The good news is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus the curse has been reversed.  He has brought us restoration to our original place of fellowship with God.  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Only through him is there hope for humanity (John 14:6).  Freedom, therefore, involves knowledge, honesty, and sincere decisions of faith and love whereby truth is applied to life.

            Jesus offered himself for us so that we might live and no longer be separated from God, others, and self.  He has brought us reconciliation.  In him we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (2 Corinthians 5:16-19; Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).  Jesus is the rightful ruler of the universe, and is able to make all things work together for good in the life of his people (Philippians 2:9-11; Romans 8:28-29).

            The essence, spirit, and purpose of church ministry, therefore, is to come alongside people trapped in their cycles of  brokenness and tell them of the good news of Jesus to deliver from all the crud.  Anything short of this is not really Christian ministry; it is just doing stuff.  The church is, then, to call out sin where it resides in sinful structures and not only within individuals.  But we are to do this with all the graciousness that behooves children of God, and always with the remedy of the cross of Christ.

            Yes, the world is terribly askew.  But God demonstrated his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  We need a Savior.  God provided One.  Jesus is the answer.  Are you in touch with the ways you are separated from God, others, and self?  Are you aware of the ways in which your church has an unhealthy separation from the world?  In what ways can you and your church apply the love of God to broken people and systems in your community?  What will it take to reach the un-churched and de-churched in your families and neighborhoods?  

            Having the church ask the right questions is the first step toward bringing true Christian ministry to bear upon the great need of the world.  Don’t express your fallen nature by wasting your time debating personal preferences in the church; spend your energies and prayers in reaching people for Jesus.  The fall does not have to define us; we can get back up again because of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

John 3:16

John 3:16 is perhaps the greatest summary of the gospel we have in the Bible.  Maybe a closer look at the good news of Jesus will impel believers and churches to share him and pass on his life-giving message not because we have to but because we want to.  Maybe the great message will inspire a great mission impulse.

“God” is the greatest subject ever.

            The Bible certainly contains lots of messages, promises, and commands.  But those are not the primary purpose for having the Holy Scriptures.  The Bible has been given to us as a revelation or self-revealing of God to us.  In other words, we have this Book in order to know God.  Every time we use it, read it, quote it, pray from it, preach it, listen to it, and learn it, God’s Word is designed for us to know God.  Anything short of knowing God falls short of the Bible’s intended purpose.

“So” is the greatest extent ever.

            There is a great wideness to God.  That is, God is big, expansive, and huge.  Nothing is outside of his reach.  So, when God decides he is going to do something, there is nothing that can stop him.  We might be limited in our strength and abilities to accomplish things.  But God’s extent is limitless.  Our extent is temporary and small.  But God takes our human prayers and uses them to accomplish his purposes on this earth.

“Loved” is the greatest demonstration ever.

            There is no greater demonstration of love than our triune God, who loved us with a sacrificial self-emptying love that saw our great need for deliverance and went to the greatest lengths possible to accomplish it.  Where there is a lack of love there is an absence of God.  Every single human on planet earth needs the love of God in Christ and without it we are all lost.  The greatest thing that could ever be said of you is that you are “loved.”  And it is the truth!  Whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen that tears you down, belittles you, hurts you, or causes you to feel like the north end of a southbound cow, is not what defines you.  All may be going to hell around you, but nothing will change the unalterable reality that in Christ you are “loved!”

“The world” is the greatest object ever.

            The Jews of Jesus’ day could easily understand that God loved the nation of Israel; they readily bought into the knowledge that God loved his chosen people; but to say that God loved the world was going too far.  It meant that God loved Gentiles, specifically, Romans who occupied their land and oppressed their rights.  To capture the punch of this, it would be like Jesus showing up among us and saying that God so loved I.S.I.S.  Certainly God hates evil and is opposed to all that destroys.  But God loves people for whom he placed his image and likeness within.  For God to love the world is an incredible and scandalous thought because there are so many unlovely people in the world.

“That he gave his one and only Son” is the greatest gift ever.

            God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  God did not give his leftovers.  He did not give his second-hand items.  God gave what was dearest to him.  God gave his best and most beloved gift he could ever give.  So, if it takes cajoling and exhortation for us to give the gift of Jesus, then the problem lies in our hearts.  It takes coming back to God’s Word and knowing the love of God in Christ through the Scriptures.  If you lack love, pray earnestly for it.

“That whoever” is the greatest opportunity ever.

            If the greatest gift a person could ever receive is Jesus, then the best opportunity one could take advantage of is Jesus.  If you only know Jesus as someone you hear about once in a while, then you have the opportunity today to know him as Lord, Savior, teacher, healer, and friend.  If you have been familiar with the name of Jesus all your life but it has not really gone much further than that, then the next point is vitally important….

“Believes in him” is the greatest commitment ever.

            Jesus does not want only your acknowledgment of him; he wants you.  Faith is not only recognition of certain truths; it demands action.  Whenever I go home, our dog, Max Power, gets extremely excited.  He is not really my dog, so I don’t really get excited about him.  Everyone in the family knows what I am going to probably say to him: “Yes, Max, I acknowledge your existence.”  I say it in hopes that he will just kind of leave me alone and let me go about my business.  But Max wants more.  He wants my affection, my love, and my commitment.  He wants a pet, a walk, food and water, and all the stuff dogs need.

            God does not want to be treated like an annoying puppy.  God wants our commitment.  He does not want us to show up for church once in a while and say to him, “I acknowledge your existence.”  The most common response I get from people when sharing the gift of Jesus is “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”  It is their way of saying that they acknowledge his existence.  It is their way of saying that they are not much interested in giving their lives to him because they just want to go about their business without God pestering them about anything.  But God does demand something from us – our very souls.

“Shall not perish” is the greatest rescue ever.

            We either believe or perish.  Those are the only two options.  People perish not because God is unloving but because we like our sin and we have no intention of changing to accommodate a holy God in our lives.  The Titanic lost so many hundreds of people not because there was not enough room on the lifeboats.  In fact, most of the lifeboats went into the water only about three-fourths full.  A good many people simply did not believe they were perishing.  They trusted in the “unsinkable” ship.  Only Jesus can save.

“But have eternal life” is the greatest promise ever.

            The promise actually begins now, not someday.  Life is having a life-saving and life-giving relationship with Jesus.  It can be had today.  If you have ever had the feeling that there is something more to life than what you are experiencing; if you have ever wished that you could start over; if you have ever felt that you just can’t do this on your own; then, I have the greatest news for you that you could ever hear.  God has made a way to take care of all your guilt, shame, and lack of direction.  He loves you deeply in the person of Jesus Christ.  You can have new life in Jesus.  The way to have real life is to give up your old one and follow Jesus….

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fitting In vs. Belonging

            My family and I lived in an urban area of Michigan for fifteen years.  Then, we moved back to our roots in Iowa, cornfields and, well, more cornfields.  One of the first things my girls asked me after living in Iowa for a few days was, “Dad, where are all the Black people?”  They were simply struck with all the homogeneity – lots of white people... and corn.  Maybe you, like me, have strolled into a church on a Sunday morning and are immediately aware of how much the people are all alike, whether it is race or something else.  Typically, in any given church on any given occasion, the people talk pretty much the same; wear pretty much the same clothes; and, act pretty much the same.

            Too often we focus on fitting in rather than belonging.  We know how to talk, what to wear, and how to make the people around us happy.  We know what not to mention, what subjects to avoid, and how to be nice even though we fought like cats and dogs on the way to church.  After all, we want to fit in by appearing to have it all together, right?  Researcher and author Brene Brown does as good as job as anyone in making the critical distinction between fitting in versus belonging.  She says, “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted.  Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

            We all need a secure sense of belonging.  We do not all need to fit in.  Likely the reason for the presence of a Christian and/or Evangelical subculture lies in this tendency to want to fit in.  So, we learn how to wear gaudy t-shirts, place provocative bumper stickers on our cars, and be generally obnoxious to those who disagree with us because we want to fit in with our group of whatever-we-call-ourselves.  It is important to note, however, that we are not hardwired by God to fit in, but we are specially wired by him to be loved and to belong.

            Even within local churches, there can be cliques which focus more on a special issue or interest rather than Christ.  It was into such a situation that Paul said to the Roman church, “For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”  He went on to make this conclusion: “You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:8-12).

            It is not our job as Christians or church leaders to force people into fitting in.  Rather, it is our responsibility before God to give people a proper sense of belonging in Christ.  We all have a desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  As Christians, we long to see God’s kingdom come on earth and to see his will done here as it is in heaven.  We want to be a part of God’s grand work of spreading the good news of Jesus.  Fitting in to whatever is chic and seeking cheap approval are hollow imitations of the real deal.  True authentic belonging will only happen when we are real and open about ourselves to the people and the church to which we are committed.

            If we constantly fear what others think of us; measure our words in order to be accepted; or, swear at ourselves under our breath when we screw up; then, we have a problem with trying to fit in.  It is much better to be who we are and simply invite the Holy Spirit of God to do any kind of work in us that needs to be done, rather than being someone we are not in the false notion that people will reject us if they knew who we really are.  What is more, when others let us in and open ever so slightly their real selves, there needs to be unconditional love and empathy.  To sit and stare at another person like they are from Mars will not only shut down authenticity, it will push truth to the margins of the church.  If the truth will set us free, then we can only expect bondage when genuine sharing is not met with love.

            Practicing belonging instead of fitting in can be looked at as a spiritual discipline.  That is, honing-in on belonging to Christ and to one another are to be daily decisions of faith and commitment.  The church needs more Christians who belong, and less mindless conformity to cultural standards of fitting in.  We all need to give and receive love each and every day – the kind of love that Jesus displayed and practiced.  We do not need the second hand smoke of ornery believers who press others to be like them.  This is a conversation worth having with any small group or leadership team so that we foster a solid sense of godly belonging.  So, go for it and resist the temptation to be quiet and fit in.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On the Need to Recognize God's Presence

The Old Testament prophetic tradition minced nothing and cut to the heart of a matter.  For example, the prophet Amos sarcastically lamented over people who went through the motions of worship without a pure heart:  “Bring your tithes every three years.  Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings – boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do” (Amos 4:4-5).  The prophet Hosea responded to impure and disingenuous worship:  “When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.”  Hosea lays out what God really wants:  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 5:6, 6:6). 

            The New Testament book of Hebrews continues this practice of going after the heart of an issue.  The author plainly tells us that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Quoting Psalm 40:  “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.  Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:4-7).  Jesus is the superior presence above all else.

            Our trouble in the church is the age old predicament of caring more about the presence of other things rather than the presence of God.  When Jesus entered the temple courts and went after the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice, he was not speaking to pagan kings or Gentile sinners; he was speaking to people who professed the name of God and worshiped him (John 2:13-22).  But they did not seek the presence of God with all their hearts as their primary allegiance, and it ticked off Jesus.

            We must all desire the presence of God more than anything else in the whole world.  We must love Jesus more than we love anything or anyone else.  We must desire the presence of God in the church building more than the building itself.  We must desire the presence of God in the ministries of the church more than just having the programs themselves.  We must desire pastors who have the presence of God with them at all times more than we desire pastors who are present everywhere.  We must desire the presence of God in our families more than we desire the presence of kids, or order in the house, or that everything lives up to our standards.

            Jesus wants our hearts where they belong:  desiring the presence of God more than anything; and, loving him more than anyone.  Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time lost their true sense of purpose as God’s people.  They neither perceived nor focused on God’s presence, but cared more about the presence of animals and sacrifices, making money, and keeping their social positions secure. 

            If we are not pursuing nor looking for God’s presence, we are likely not to find it when it stares us in the face.  Last year the Washington Post orchestrated an interesting experiment.  They had arguably the best violinist in the world, Joshua Bell, play in the train station as a regular looking street musician complete with open violin case to catch monetary offerings.  Not only did Bell play some of the most difficult pieces of music for the violin, he played them on a Stradivarius worth $3.5 million dollars.  His earnings for a few hours of work:  exactly $32.17, less than the $100 for one ticket at a Boston concert hall he played just three weeks before.  No one noticed the extreme talent right in front of their faces, much like those who only saw Jesus as a regular guy instead of the incarnate Son of God.

            James 4:8 says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”  God is present, whether we recognize him or not.  He longs for you to pursue him more than you pursue money, other relationships, or other things.  The path to church renewal and revitalization is not through clever ideas or more tech savvy services; it is through Jesus.  You know, the guy always present, hanging around on the street corner.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


            There is a vulnerability crisis in the church today.  What I mean is that far too many Christians keep up appearances and keep their human interactions on the surface level.  Simple exhortations to not be that way will do no good because at the root of the behavior is shame.  If we want to have healthy behaviors in the church, Christians will need to have their identities fully based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.

            Shame is a mindset, not a behavior.  It is the notion that something is wrong with your personhood.  It is to believe that somehow you are deficient, defective, or worthless as a person.  It is to not have the ability to distinguish between what I do and who I am.  When we live with a sense of shame (either knowingly or subconsciously) we are setting ourselves up to practice idolatry.  If we really think there is something wrong with our very humanity, we will seek something to base our value and acceptance upon.  This is why the workaholic cannot stop working, because he believes that by much effort, hard work, and productivity it will make up for the deficiencies in his life.  Others will then accept him.  Indeed, he will accept himself.  This is also why so few people take Sabbath breaks or take advantage of a day off or even all their vacation time.  After all, they feel too guilty if they are idle.

            People who live with a sense of shame do not realize that they have the right to set personal boundaries.  If you have a terrible time of saying “no” to people, then it is a good bet that there is some level of shame working underneath the surface.  It just seems selfish to such people to refuse a request.  Living with shame is awful because one feels as though she is simply not good enough as a person compared to others.  The over-responsible, over-achieving, over-functioning person is compulsive about doing things perfectly well so as to avoid feeling ashamed of poor performance.  Conversely, others avoid responsibility, under-achieve, and under-function in the belief that if they were to do the job they will surely fail – so best to not do it at all.

            The real problem with all this is that it is a performance-based life.  And, so, it is crippling.  Always wondering if you measure up is a depressing way to live.  Unfortunately, there are far too many performance-based churches out there which shame people for struggling, asking honest questions, not complying with man-made rules, and not being like everyone else.  If I have not made it clear enough yet, trying harder does nothing to break the cycle of shame.  Satan has enough of the world on a self-improvement path; let’s put ourselves on God’s path to freedom.

            If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).  Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed (James 5:16).  Jesus has taken our shame away because he faced it down and achieved the victory for us that we could not achieve ourselves.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).  The cross may have been a humiliating experience, but Jesus did not let that stop him from bringing us salvation from sin and shame.

            We do not need to wear our hearts on our sleeves in order to become more vulnerable with one another.  Struggles with life do not mean we are defective – it just means we are real people.  Unless we come to grips with scorning shame, we will live stunted Christian lives in plastic Christian churches.  Only through embracing the truth about ourselves, and accepting Christ’s sacrifice on our part, will we experience genuine spiritual and emotional freedom.  There is no need to live in the isolation of shame.  Our identity is in Jesus.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Church and Bible Interpretation

            I admit from the outset that not everyone is going to agree with me, or like what I say on the subject of interpreting Holy Scripture.  I might even get downright under your skin.  But this is an important discussion because no matter what church tradition we come from, there is going to be disagreement as to how to deal with certain Bible verses.  In fact, most parishioners within the same local church do not even agree on how to treat particular passages of Scripture.  Just so you know, I was trained in a seminary that largely looked through the lens or the starting point of biblical authority, as if we had the right view on it all.  Biblical authority, however, is not really the issue, in my opinion.  Before you pick up electronic stones, hear me out.  The issue, as I see it, is this:

No matter who we are, we pick and choose what Bible passages are authoritative and which are not.

Although we Christians say the Bible is our authority, we all have what I would deem as “boss verses.”  That is, verses which control other verses.  For example, I take Matthew 28:18-20 as boss verses that control other verses.  Because of this, I am not willing to concede that the mission of the church is primarily about something other than making disciples.

            Okay, you might be with me so far.  So, let’s pick a hot potato: gays in the church.  When it comes to homosexuality, it appears to me that there are those who would take seven verses out of the over thirty-one thousand verses in Scripture and make them boss verses.  Even if we camp on verses where the world “abomination” shows up, it only ends up talking of homosexuality once.  Things like worry, procrastination, and gossip are addressed much more in Scripture and are also much more prevalent no matter where one goes.  But we do not make boss verses out of these, so we pretty much let them slide.  I don’t see any Christian church or denomination anytime soon talking about biblical authority in the same breath as sins of the tongue; or, looking to bring discipline to gossipers; or, getting upset about chronic whisperings behind others’ backs.  Instead, we just live with it.  We wish it were different, but it does not make our blood boil.  If gossip began to take away our power or authority, then I am sure it would make it to the floor of denominational meetings and local church annual scream-festivals.

            Here’s the deal as I see it: all Christians hold to biblical authority.  To me, this is not the issue.  The real issue is which Bible passages call the shots for us.  Until we are able to confess this practice, it seems to me we will get nowhere.  So, in the meantime, I would rather be looked at as a friend of sinners, or a friend of gays, because that controls my thought and practice more than injunctions from the book of Leviticus.  I take loving my neighbor as a boss verse, so this determines how I speak more than whether I speak in tongues or not.  I will choose to go out of my way to emphasize that all people are made in the image of God because I take the Bible’s reference to God’s creation of humans as a boss verse.  This does not mean I ignore other verses; it just means I have identified which verses of Holy Scripture I believe control other verses.

            I am really not trying to stir the pot (well, maybe a little!).  I am simply making a plea for us to be honest about how we handle the Bible.  And if we have never read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation (and more than once) then it seems to me we are on thin ice to make pronouncements about what are to be the boss verses or what is the clear teaching of Scripture.

            If you need to go pet your dog after reading this, I understand.  Please just do me the respect to think about these things without immediately jumping to conclusions or condemnation.  After all, I believe that grace is the boss of everything in the Bible.