Saturday, April 18, 2015

Who I Am


     There are two crucial matters that every church needs to understand and grapple with; they are:  1) Christians are children of God, loved by God – that is their status and identity; and, 2) Christians are to abide and live into this identity as children of God, loved by God.  In other words, we must, first, know who we are; and, second, know how we are to live (1 John 3:1-7).

Who We Are

When Jesus was on this earth he was misunderstood by nearly everyone around him, and Christians must learn to expect the same.  If we are true children loved by God, we will neither fit in with the world, nor will we seek the world’s affirmation and accolades.  The practical difference between Christianity and the world is that Christians locate their primary identity, allegiance, and purpose in Christ, whereas the world finds their identity in things other than Jesus.

Being loved by God brings assurance, peace, security, and hope.  These qualities cannot be manufactured by us because they are results of being loved.  The world cannot give us these characteristics because it does not have the love of God to give.  This does not mean that Christians always have it all together.  In fact, we are continually in a process of discovering our true identity and growing more and more into that uniqueness.  The reason Jesus could live his life without needing the world’s recognition is that he was firmly and securely assured of the Father’s love and care for him. 

As Christians, we will keep learning what it means to be loved by God in Christ.  And this will help fortify our faith so that we will not find our identities in worldly roles, however intrinsically good those roles might be.  A woman whose primary identity is a mother will live for her family to such a degree that her salvation comes through it.   A person whose primary identity is a teacher will live for the job because saving the world for him will come through education.  But when the Christian has his/her primary identity as a child of God, loved by him, then that person will view deliverance from sin as coming through Jesus.  When the church, living and serving together is secure in its identity as children of God and loved by him, then we are able to withstand any adulterous flirtations from the world to woo us away from the centrality of Jesus and onto something else.

How We Are To Live.

            Jesus said all the law could be summed up in two commands:  love God; and love others (Matthew 22:37-40).  For Jesus, breaking the law means hating instead of loving; working to undermine someone instead of seeking their best interests; excluding others instead of including others; dividing instead of cooperating.  No one who abides or remains in Christ keeps on sinning by continuing on the same trajectory that they had before knowing Christ (John 15:1-17).  Jesus came to take care of the sin issue once for all through the cross.  Therefore, Christians, loved by God, cannot be sinning if they are abiding; the two cannot co-exist with each other.

            Identity and life are to work together.  For example, I am a citizen of Wisconsin.  It is both a status and a life.  I not only live in this state geographically, but I am to abide in it as a responsible person.  What does it mean to be a Wisconsinite?  How is it different from the rest of the world?  Being a relatively new resident, two words come to mind about living in Wisconsin: sports and food.  Wisconsinites readily identify themselves as Packer fans and forsake any identification with the god-forsaken pagan Vikings.  We like our prep and collegiate sports; and, our outdoor sports of hunting and fishing.  When it comes to food, there is nothing to compare to the Friday night fish fry; the cheese curds; the venison; the mustard; and, wash it all down with a “Spotted Cow,” or maybe a trip to the “bubbler” will do just fine.

            We are to become more and more like Christ.  Our identity as loved by God means we will seek to live in Christ by living a life of love.  The people of Wisconsin have a general reputation of being polite and helpful, not rude and unhelpful.  They should live into this identity and behavior.  And as Christians whose primary identity is in being children of God, we should keep living and abiding in Christ through love and obedience. If our primary identity is secure in being a loved child of God, then what comes out of us will be loving words and actions, even to those in the world who might not believe or understand.

            Knowing our true identity is necessary.  Without it, the church is only a random collection of individuals doing their own thing, however good it is.  But knowing who we are brings focus, purpose, and value in a way the world cannot provide because the greatest need we all have is for Jesus.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Confession of Sin

            “If we confess our sins he (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  This is a tremendous promise – forgiveness and cleansing from all sin.  Yet, it cannot be activated apart from confession and admitting one’s true condition.  Secret sins tucked away deep in the soul will only fester and boil, while on the outside the snakes of temptation slither around our feet seeking to immobilize us with fear.  The result of un-confessed sin is spiritual blindness, darkness, and death.  When Scripture speaks about confession, it does not just mean a private personal confession; it also means a corporate and public confession.  “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you might be healed” is the unambiguous command of the Bible (James 5:16).

            There cannot be new life and renewal, revival, or revitalization of church life and ministry apart from real honest tell-it-like-it-is biblical confession.  If this scares the hell out of you, it really should.  Dealing with sin radically is what Jesus talked about in his Sermon on the Mount when he said we should pluck our eyes out if they offend and cut our hands off if they cause us to sin because it is better to be in God’s kingdom with no eyes and hands than to burn in hell with our parts intact (Matthew 5:29-30).  Confession is more than simply mouthing some words about not being perfect and a sinner like everybody else; it is to lead to a complete turn-around and change of how we live our lives.

            If we have besetting sins that dog us on a regular basis and we do all the same things this year that we did last year to deal with it and it did not work, then we will be right back to the same place next year in the season of Eastertide carrying the very same burden of guilt, shame, and regret.  Walking away from the church will not deal with it.  Walking away from God will not deal with it.  Trying some new teaching or new practice will not make it go away because that is only re-arranging the inner furniture of the soul.  No, only agonizing spirit-rending yet freeing confession will allow God’s clean surgical knife to take out the offending sin and bring spiritual and even physical healing.

            Patricia Raybon in her book I Told the Mountain to Move shares the regret and grief she carried after aborting two children.  She writes, “I had told myself than an abortion would end my problems, not complicate them by bringing an innocent life into my own upheaval.”  She shares a courageous and heart-wrenching confessional letter she wrote to her two aborted children:
Dear Babies:
This is Mama.  You will know my voice, I think, even though we were together for such a short time.  I did a bad thing.  I did not trust God.  I did not understand that God would have made everything okay.  I was like Peter… who looked down at the waves, not at Jesus.  And when he looked at the waves, he started to sin – down, down, down.
That’s how I felt, like I was sinking down.  When the doctors said you were growing inside of me, that’s how I felt, like I was sinking down…. So, I didn’t know how to love you.  I was afraid.  So I let fear convince me that more babies would just make things worse.
Instead, look what I did.  I robbed us.  First, I robbed you – taking your own lives… I didn’t think I was strong enough.  So I robbed myself of all the joy you would have brought me too.  Brought all of us, your sisters, your family, and for each of you, your daddy.  I thought we would have more problems. That we did not have enough money. That we did not have enough time.  That we did not have enough love.  But I just did not know then that God is bigger.  And God would make everything all right.  I didn’t know….”

Genuine authentic change will not occur without first dealing squarely with our past thinking, choices, and behavior.  This is why some form of a prayer of confession really needs to happen at every church worship service.  Ignoring such a vital liturgical prayer and practice will, at best, leave people with no guidance for confronting sin; and, at worst, will teach people that confession is not necessary to Christianity and leave them a spiritual mess.  Instead, the carefully constructed prayer of confession can lead believers to unburden the things they have done, and the things they have left undone.  Only then will we experience the advocacy of Jesus Christ who speaks on our behalf because of his once-for-all atoning sacrifice for sins.  This stuff is really too important to blow-off.  Church pastors and leaders need to put some real time and prayer into understanding the dynamics of confession, repentance, and new life because they are all vitally linked.  It is the first step to a spiritual breakthrough.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Christ's Resurrection

It is actually possible that some Christians can be laid back concerning the subject of Christ’s resurrection.  Those who have grown up in the church have heard it all before.  They believe it and have signed off on it on their invisible Christian doctrinal checklist.  Yes, yes, Jesus has risen from the grave… now let’s talk about some exciting stuff, like Wisconsin basketball!  When we view Christianity as merely a set of beliefs to hold, it is only logical to have some boredom over the resurrection.  But if we go beyond this and rightly discern that following Jesus is a way of life, then Christ’s resurrection becomes vital, interesting, and wildly significant.  It is necessary to believe in Christ’s resurrection as a real historic event.  But his rising from death was never meant to end there because God has a way of life for us to live into.  God desires us to lean into that resurrection power as the foundation for glorifying him by experiencing a new changed life.

            Jesus had in mind to see a community of redeemed people, delivered from the power of sin and death, use their salvation to love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength; to love one another in such a way that demonstrates God’s self-sacrificial love by following him together; and to love the world by talking about the events of the cross and resurrection with people wherever they go, just as naturally as we discuss collegiate basketball.

            It is the kind of life that cannot be achieved on our own because spiritually dead people cannot make themselves alive.  It is a life based upon the power and love of Jesus Christ.  God does not choose, adopt, and save based upon how lovely we are or how good we are at making ourselves attractive to him.  He loves us because love is who he is – it is all about his giving us belonging as his beloved child.

            Timothy Paul Jones tells in his book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace about his adopted seven year old little girl.  It was with much prayer that he and his wife decided that God really wanted them to have her become part of their family.  It was not because she was a sweet child.  In fact, this was actually this little girl’s second family because another family had adopted her and did not keep her because they could not handle her.  She had ended up back as an orphan.

            After she was adopted and with the Jones’ family for a while, Dad discovered that her former family went to Disney World every year… without her.  The Mom, Dad, and biological siblings would all go, but they would always leave the little girl behind with extended family.  That meant the girl would have to hear all year about the memories of the family and the see the pictures without her in them.  So, after learning about this, Dad decided that the next family vacation was going to be to Disney World, including the adopted girl.

            In the month leading up to the vacation, the little girl began lying for no reason, saying incredibly hurtful things to her siblings, and was just a handful to deal with.  Two days before they were to leave, she said to her Dad: “I know what you are going to do.  You are not going to take me to Disney World, are you?”  In her previous family, she had tried being as good as possible, but it never earned her that trip to Disney.  The little girl had been so terrible in the past few months that Dad had the thought to use the trip as leverage to get his daughter in line.  Rather, he wisely responded to her by saying, “This is a trip we are doing as a family, and you are a part of this family, so you are going with us.”  He went on to say, “You will get consequences for your behavior, but we are not leaving you behind.”

            The daughter’s behavior did not change, and the car ride to Florida was awful.  But after the first day at Disney World, there was a breakthrough and a turn-around.  Dad asked his daughter, “So, how was your first day at Disney World?”  After a long pause, she said this: “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World… but it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”

            Jesus died and rose again, giving us the grace of forgiveness and a new life not because we were either good or attractive; he did it because we belong to him.  There can be no grace without people who flip their middle fingers at God.  Jesus died and rose again because of our sin; because we needed a Savior.  God’s grace is a farmer paying a full day’s wages to a crew of deadbeat day laborers with only a single hour of work (Matthew 20:1-16).  God’s grace is a man marrying an abandoned woman and then refusing to forsake his covenant with her when she turns out to be a whore (Hosea 1:1-3:5).  God’s grace is the nonsense of a shepherd who puts ninety-nine sheep at risk just to rescue one lousy sheep that is too dumb to stay with the flock (Luke 15:1-7).  God’s grace is the extreme commitment to save people from their own sinful stupidity and stubbornness by sacrificing himself on a cruel cross and rising from the dead just so people can live brand new lives full of peace, love, and joy in a new family of redeemed people with lots of siblings who love each other and want to love the lost world who still does not know what they can have in Christ.

            A true and real grasp of the grace of God in Christ never results in yawning or boredom; it leads to unending praise and extreme gratefulness.  In the wake of Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus is more than a once-a-year recognition for believers; it is to be a way of life in grasping the power of grace and belonging in Jesus.  It ought to change our lives.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Week

            In the middle of the most important and significant week in the Church Calendar, my initial thought was to post some glowing account of an uplifting story; maybe something witty and inspiring; certainly something prescient and encouragingly insightful.  But it only took me a short time of thought to realize that the real message of Holy Week is sad, messy, and tragic.  In other words, this week is filled with reminders and remembrances of great suffering, pain, and agony.

            Ah, suffering.  It is a topic we Westerners like to avoid like the plague.  After all, it hurts!  Don’t remind us of the stubbornness and ignorance of others which causes discomfort (see, we like to use words that don’t seem so, well, painful).  Suffering is one of those things that we think we can circumvent.  It goes something like this:  if I do everything well, without screwing up, and don’t make anyone upset or angry, and do an excellent job at all I do, then I won’t suffer.  The problem, however, is that this kind of thinking not only doesn’t work; it isn’t even biblical.

            The bald fact of Holy Week is that Jesus Christ lived a completely holy life; he did everything perfectly well and right; he handled each situation and every person exactly the way it should be done; and, it got him violently tortured and killed.  It is the great irony of Christianity that through suffering and death there is life and victory.

            It wasn’t just Jesus.  God’s people from Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion.  Much as we may like, we cannot wriggle out of the very straightforward talk of the relationship between believers and suffering.  “Now if we are God’s children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory” (Romans 8:17).  The glorious life of bliss cannot and will not come apart from first suffering; there must be suffering before glory.  Then, there is that pesky verse tucked away in the book of Philippians that many would like to forget:  “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).  So much for thinking that forgiveness of sins means a pass on trials and tribulations.  If that weren’t enough, we get a Dragnet-just-the-facts-ma’am kind of statement from Paul to Timothy: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

            Maybe our culture is just so stinking hedonistic that we have trouble to no end trying to make sense of why these kinds of verses are in the Bible, let alone embrace them as the norm for Christians.  The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and faith.  For them, just the opposite was true: they could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution.  Thomas a Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the 15th century these words:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention….  When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment….  It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing….  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

            Spending time and energy praying, crying out to God, searching the Scriptures, and forsaking the perquisites of this world are much more worthy endeavors than running from every conflict and hardship that looks like it is coming our way in order to avoid the suffering that might result.

            Holy Week’s message is certainly one of deliverance.  But that salvation has a price, and Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible to pay it.  We, as his people, do not get a pass on suffering; it is part and parcel of knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Let us not run away from the cross, but run headlong to it, humbling ourselves before a God who is acquainted with grief and sorrow.