Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why I Read the Bible Every Day

            My earliest memories of the Bible are in the church in which I grew up.  I remember Bible stories from Sunday School and the pastor talking about particular verses from the Bible while I sat in our regular family pew at church.  But I really have no recall of ever having read the Bible for myself.  It wasn’t until my late teen years that I took up the task of reading the Scriptures.  And, I have to tell you, it absolutely changed my life.  I found that many of the stories I heard as a kid were a lot juicier than I realized.  I also discovered that there were simply a lot of things in the Bible that I didn’t know even existed.  But maybe the most profound breakthrough for me was plowing through all four Gospels and seeing the life and teaching of Jesus.  My adoration and appreciation of Christ rose exponentially after watching him in action throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            I was so impressed with reading the Gospels that I moved into the rest of the New Testament.  Then, I went back to the Old Testament and read it all.  In a matter of months I had read the entire Bible.  But what I then discerned is that, although I had read the whole Bible, I had more questions than when I started.  There was just far too much I didn’t understand about it.  So, I read the whole thing again… then again… and again… somewhere along the line I’ve lost count of how many times I have read the Bible – I estimate that I’ve read the New Testament around four-hundred times and the Old Testament about two hundred.  And I still have so much more to learn, discover, and unearth in this richest of books.

            Maybe all that reading of the Bible seems over the top.  I assure you, it isn’t.  Why in the world would I spend so much of my life in plain straightforward reading of the Scriptures?  Let me offer several reasons:

I cannot lay hold of God’s promises if I don’t know what they are.  Living from a place of faith and calm in the midst of uncertainty and unrest doesn’t just happen.  It comes from knowing the words of Scripture and applying them to everyday life.  The promises of Scripture are like an asthmatic’s inhaler, enabling us to slow down and take a deep breath.

I cannot be like Jesus if I don’t know him very well.  Reading Scripture about Jesus is like eating food. I have to do it regularly.  It nourishes me for the day. Bible reading is stored energy, stockpiled emotional and psychological capital.  I can speak and act like Jesus throughout the day by making moment-by-moment withdrawals from that vast reservoir of stored Scripture knowledge.

I cannot be wise if I am not connected to wisdom literature.  By nature we are all ignorant and have to learn through humility and experience what is wise, just, and good. But over time we can shed folly and become wise. I cannot do it on my own. I need a word from God each and every day to face life’s challenges, its ups-and-downs, as well as its mediocrity and mundane nature.  Every day the Bible tweaks my life and prompts fresh mid-course corrections.

I need to see God for who He is, and not what I think He is.  Everyone has an idea about God.  But I believe the Christian Scriptures tell me who God really is in all of his attributes, character, and sovereignty.  God is pretty big – so big that I can read the Bible for a lifetime and still get to know more about him. I read my Bible in order to sharpen my vision of God and to think more accurately about all that matters most in this life.

I need to see the Church for what it is, and not what I think it is.  Everybody and their dog have an opinion about how church should be and operate.  But I must take my cues from the Bible about what is most important about the church and what it should be doing.  I read the Bible in order to better know and understand who God’s people really are, and what they ought to be doing in this world.

I need God.  Reading the Bible is a personal experience — an actual encounter with the author. Daily Bible reading requires routine and structure, but it is not mechanical—just as a body requires a bony skeleton, but it is not the skeleton that gives it life. We do with the Bible what the Psalms guide us in doing—adore God, thank him, complain to him, wrestle with him, express perplexity to him, etc.  Without God I am lost.  Which is why, apart from Scripture, I am lost.

            Reading the Bible is an investment of time, energy, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  Struggling through its contents can change your life.  It did mine.  One of the most important decisions you could ever make is to read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation because it is God’s Word that reveals to us the God whom we serve.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Humble Leader

            In this Advent season as we anticipate Christmas, I have been reflecting on the great importance of humility.  Since Jesus humbled himself and became one of us, it seems to me that Christian leadership and church ministry really ought to take some cues from the posture of our Lord.

Humility is the queen of all Christian virtue, especially that of leadership.  Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas in order to embrace God’s agenda.  Being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), becoming like a little child (Matthew 18:3), and thinking of others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) are the cornerstones to becoming open to what God has for us.  To be a humble leader means to be obsessed with seeking God’s will and way in everything, and then to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

            Therefore our task as Christ followers is to be consumed with seeking God’s direction rather than living purely according to our instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views.  We continually need a radical openness to God.  We must work to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading us.  God is up to something and He has plans for us and our community.  Humility allows us to listen well to God’s Spirit.

            But being open to God is not quite as easy as it sounds.  We need to recognize that not everyone is open to God.  There are those, maybe even including ourselves, whom are closed to God.  If our focus is more on creating safety and security, trying to do enough good deeds to be recognized by God and others, and having the church be what we want it to be, then we have become closed to what God wants.  This comes out in a couple of different ways.

            First, people who want to maintain tradition at all costs may be closed to God.  When doing things the way we have always done them makes us feel safe and secure, then anything that threatens that security makes us angry.  This is the place where folks practice either fight or flight – they wage either a holy war or just leave.  Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for them.  But that is what it takes if we are going to follow God.  Like Abraham, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going.

            Second, it is not just members trying to maintain traditions who can be closed to God.  Those who want to get rid of traditions can be just as closed off to God.  Sometimes folks who want new or different music, spiritual practices, and ministries desire to create a church of their own making to serve them and their needs, and not a church that focuses on what God is calling them to do.  Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around.

            So, what to do?  Have the humility as leaders to continually and constantly ask the question: “What is God’s will?”  We need to practice leadership that is incredibly open to God.  This allows us to lead from a position of faith, and not fear.  This helps us to let God flow in and through us, rather than willfully insisting it should be our way or the highway.  This enables us to practice hope and love, and not rely on our own strength and desires.  Humble leadership which is open to God makes prayer and discernment the foundation of what we do, always seeking what God wants and then leading others in that direction by inviting them to the same kind of prayerful process.  We must read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it, and pray like there is no tomorrow.

            If we have humility and a deep openness to God; a conviction that we are primarily called to follow Jesus Christ; a willingness to let God’s power flow through us; and, a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen in our churches.  Let our prayer together be this:  “I’m yours, God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Smelling Christmas

When I think about the smells of the Advent and Christmas seasons, my nose immediately goes to my Grandma’s homemade Christmas cookies.  I would gladly spend an afternoon making the dough, rolling it out, using the Christmas cookie cutter shapes, and sprinkling red and green sugar in order to do some kid-serious kind of cookie indulgence.  And the smell!  Oh, my, the whole house would smell something of what I think heaven probably smells like.

            But the smells we might typically associate with Christmas (i.e. Christmas cookies, Christmas evergreen trees, and, Christmas presents) are a far cry from the smells of the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  When Christ was born, he was surrounded by animals.  Jesus was actually placed in a manger, a feeding trough.  Shepherds came to pay him homage.  I don’t know if you have ever been around shepherds.  To put it delicately, they usually stink.  In my first church in Michigan, our immediate neighbor was a shepherd.  He spent his days shepherding his sheep.  His name was Art.  Art always smelled bad.  Art smelled bad because he was constantly dealing with stinky sheep (not to mention that Art also never used deodorant – guess he thought that was pretty useless).

It is interesting that when Jesus grew up and began his ministry as an adult, he continued to associate with people of low position.  The guys he mostly hung out with were his disciples – a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If you put a shepherd and a fisherman side by side, I’m not sure which one would stink more.  But, to Jesus, shepherds and fishermen had the aroma of salvation on them.  Christ purposely sought out those who needed God.

After our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, his disciples continued his ministry of associating with stinky people who need Jesus.  It was the Apostle Paul who encouraged the church to “Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16). 

Jesus did not come to this earth as a privileged upper class king who demanded that others give him honor and obedience.  Instead, he humbled himself and became a servant.  He was born into the most humble of circumstances and never aspired to anything but doing his Father’s will.  As God’s people, we are to carry with us the aroma of Christ – not creatively finding ways to avoid others – but lovingly engaging those who need the message of Christmas.  How do you smell?  What aroma do you give off to others?

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).

Jesus was a real baby.  There were times he smelled.  Changing diapers is just part of the deal with babies.  The very same baby, Jesus, who had to be cleaned-up and have a first century diaper change, was the person who would one day be stripped of his clothes and hung naked on the cross for the world to see.  There is perhaps no more terrible smell than the smell of death, especially death on a cross.

            I don’t know of anyone who actually likes dirty diapers, except maybe your dog.  You do those endless cleanings and put up with the smell of it because of love.  The reason Jesus came to this earth as a vulnerable little baby who was dependent on someone else cleaning him up, and the reason he became obedient to the horrible smell of death was because of love.  “This is love,” said the Apostle John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And, because Jesus is our pioneer, blazing a trail of salvation love before us, we are to follow him as his devoted disciples.  “Dear friends,” John said, “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

            We would do well to remember and emphasize such gospel love, especially when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, this year.  In our business and our busy-ness, let’s keep our focus on why we have a Christmas.  May your church season be filled with hope, peace, joy, and love as you anticipate the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


            When we think of Jesus, we might immediately think of him as Lord and King, the sovereign of nations, the high and exalted ruler above all creation.  But in this time of year, we remember that Christ did not come to this earth with triumphal strength.  Jesus came as a weak little baby.  He purposely divested himself and became just like us – vulnerable and subject to weakness.  “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).  The incarnation is an astounding doctrine.  Such a doctrine really ought to inform our church ministry and how we operate with one another.

            Weakness tends to be one of those things we don’t like.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We fear being taken advantage of if we are exposed.  So, instead, we value self-sufficiency, independence, and holding our own.  Strength is a value we can buy into.  The Apostle Paul struggled with his weaknesses.  Yet, he learned not only to accept human weakness, but to actually value it.  It wasn’t easy, especially since Paul had to hear from Jesus himself:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  It was then that Paul made the decision:  “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

            From a biblical perspective, weakness is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is through the weak that God delights to work.  “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” was Paul’s message to a Corinthian church that esteemed strength and looked down on weakness (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Weakness and strength are not moral or ethical terms.  To be weak is simply to recognize reality.  The goal of life and ministry, of both pastor and parishioner, does not really demand strength.  I always chuckle when a church tells me they are looking for a “strong” pastor to lead them.  Um, maybe they should get their job description from Scripture.  Vitality and vigor among pastor and people are not the goal but by-products of dwelling together in Christ as real people without pretense or posturing.  It is when we insist on strength that we get things like hypocrisy and two-faced behavior.  We keep up appearances so that we can avoid being seen as weak.

            Weakness is vulnerability.  And vulnerability demands reality.  In order to become real people in a real church we must embrace our collective weakness.  Until we can get to that point, there will continually be an emphasis on manipulation and technique to produce strength.  Black and white thinking takes over the unreal church.  The lone ranger and rugged individualist who seem to have it all together are held up as the model.  But Scripture will have none of this.  True community comes through weakness and vulnerability. 

            We cannot truly understand ourselves until we can admit our weakness and our inability to understand everything.  Indeed, one of the great mysteries of Christian faith is that God himself exists as a perfect One in a community of Three.  Embracing weakness allows us to embrace the mystery of God and the Gospel.  This compulsion that so many have to nail every theological statement down in neat packaged solutions is to treat weakness and vulnerability as some disease to be cured.  The obsession for clear answers to every question only creates anxiety, which, in turn, produces irrational behavior.  An anxious church makes decisions with no sense to them because they are always trying to gain the high ground of certainty through strength.

            If we want to live into our weakness, then we need to drop the pretense and admit how we are really doing, feeling, and even believing.  For, no one can truly live life to the full in a fantasy world constructed of our own strong making.  Weakness allows us to experience true community, significant relationships, and connection with God.  God became a baby.  He embraced weakness and vulnerability.  Let that thought marinade in your heart and soul in this season so that the New Year will bring a truly new life.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Taste That the Lord is Good

            Throughout the past thirty-one years of Thanksgivings that my wife and I have celebrated together, many of them have included college students, co-workers, and church members – all with no family in the area.  On one particular Thanksgiving we had a young woman from India over to eat with us.  She was a Hindu from the highest caste in Indian society.  She looked like a real live Indian Barbie doll and carried herself like royalty.  She had never observed Thanksgiving and been with an American family to celebrate it.  It is always our tradition to go around the table during the meal and describe one thing we are thankful for in the past year.  I purposely made sure she was the last one to share, and let her know that she was not obligated to do so.  But she wanted to speak and said this:  “I never knew that there could be love like this amongst a family.  You see, in my culture we are always concerned about how we are displeasing one of our many gods and what we can do to appease them and solicit their help.  Love is not something we think much about.  I do have a question, if I might ask:  Why do you eat this food, and why so much?”  Yeah, good question!  Why do we do that?  And why do we do what we do at Christmas?  Why do we hold to certain traditions and do particular things in the holiday season?

            I said something to her like this:  “The food reminds us that the God we serve is a good God who provides us not only with what we need, but graciously gives us beyond what we even ask or deserve.  This is what we call “grace.”  And the fellowship we share around the table reinforces the story of God – how we were once spiritually hungry – and God sent his Son, Jesus, to give us what we could gain for ourselves.  He satisfied us with the spiritual food of forgiveness and freedom to become the people we were intended to be from the beginning.  The food is symbolic and the celebration is a ritual that reinforces God’s grace to us in Christ.”  She left that day with many questions and lots to think about.

            God uses symbols to reveal himself to us.  For example, when he wanted to show us the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told his people, the Israelites, to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar.  It sounds awful.  But no worshiper ever walked away from that experience scratching his head and wondering what in the heck it was all about.  That’s because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption.  His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

            Symbols have power.  God wants us to know him, and we cannot know him with only our minds.  We are not just brains on a stick.  We need more – we need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals.  We need both words and sacraments.  That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of love in giving gifts and sharing food.  Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people.  Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together.  Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of love and redemption.  Jesus did not just tell them about his upcoming death.  He spoke and acted symbolically.  “Take and eat – this is my body….  Take this cup – this is my blood – drink from it, all of you.”  The disciples did not sit around and analyze the bread and discuss the wine’s vintage.  They ate and drank.  They tasted real food and drink, but they also tasted real spiritual food.  It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

The taste of bread reminds us of:  the life of Jesus who humbled himself and became a baby; the incarnation of Christ; Christ’s humiliation and death.  The taste of drinking the cup reminds us of:  the blood of Christ; the sacrifice of Christ; the drops of blood which Jesus sweated in Gethsemane; and, the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that resulted in Christ’s bleeding.  Tasting the bread and cup when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper reminds us that:  our sins are forgiven; we are united to Christ; and, we are united together.  We are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes again.  Respond to God’s wooing invitation through his church to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through repentance and faith in Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

How Has Jesus Touched You?

Touch is one of those things that we likely take for granted.  Yet, touch is very important to everyday life.  Several years ago, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book entitled “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.”  It is largely a biography of Dr. Brand who pioneered both the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy.  He discovered that leprosy occurs because of a lack of feeling – an inability to sense touch.  The delicate nerve endings we all have in our fingers and toes are numb to the leper.  The lack of sensing pain in the extremities leads to small cuts or injuries, which would be immediately treated by someone who feels pain, becoming gangrene with the losing of fingers and toes.

            When it comes to the spiritual and the emotional, the ability to feel is vitally important.  A calloused unfeeling heart and soul does not realize the damage that is being done to it.  One of the greatest gifts we have as people is the ability to feel guilt, sorrow, disappointment, and pain – it is actually a gift.  It brings about attention to prayer and addressing the situation.  In Luke’s Gospel account, Elizabeth was a godly woman who was sensitive to God.  She was the wife of Zechariah the priest, and came from a family of priests.  Elizabeth was also old and childless.  She believed her opportunity to be a mother was gone forever, and it pained her (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45).

            But God specializes in the impossible, and Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.  My wife and I are definitely past the child bearing years.  If my wife became pregnant right now it would really be a miracle.  But, when I think about it, the real miracle might not be a conception but in having the strength and energy to raise a newborn, a toddler, and make it through the tweener and teen-age years!

            Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the niece of Elizabeth.  As soon as Mary approached Elizabeth, the baby within Elizabeth did not just move but leaped in her womb (Luke 1:41).  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit – she felt the touch of Jesus.  Jesus touched Elizabeth’s life in ways she could never have dreamed.  Jesus changed her life.  Elizabeth was never the same after encountering this miraculous touch.  She knew great joy because she first knew great pain and sorrow.

            How has the touch of Jesus impacted your life?  As great as Elizabeth’s story is, and your story and my story, it really only points to a much larger and even more significant story:  the birth of Jesus and its significance.  All of our stories have meaning because of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is what made Elizabeth’s story such a great one.  Elizabeth’s response to being touched by Jesus was joy, thanksgiving, and blessing.  She blessed the whole thing.  To be “blessed” is to have God’s stamp of approval on your life.  There is an emotional component to the word.  It is to be happy.  In other words, to recognize God’s grace and goodness through his merciful approval results in the response of being happy and joyous.

            How has Jesus touched you?  What is your story?  How has that touch changed your life?  How, in response, have you touched Jesus and blessed his heart?  All of our stories are still being written.  Our lives aren’t over yet.  We still have the opportunity of using our lives in a way that will bless the heart of Jesus.  Having the courage and boldness to share our story with another, even in a church setting, has the possibility of not only affirming your own faith, but impacting someone else’s faith, as well.  May we believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished in us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


            Food, football, and family have become the annual trifecta of the American Thanksgiving Day.  I liberally indulge in all three, and look forward to doing so.  I’m not here to bash on the fact that Thanksgiving has become almost a day of secular worship around an unholy trinity.  And that’s because I really believe that underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and obnoxious relatives that we actually know why we are celebrating the day:  to give thanks for our abundant blessings.  And I think even those who do not readily acknowledge a God in the world intuitively know that there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves that makes all good things occur.

            Celebrations are a spiritual activity.  Parties were not invented by secularists.  God created them.  When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first-fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16).  The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings; they were commanded and expected.  Gratitude was an important dimension of Old Testament worship.  Even before America as we know it was in existence, the people of God were used to setting aside certain days as events of special thanksgiving to God.  The church has always acknowledged that God as our Creator is also the Provider of all the bounty we receive.

            Consider some biblical verses that encourage us toward giving thanks.  “Come to worship the LORD with thankful hearts and songs of praise” (Psalm 95:2).  “Be thankful and praise the LORD as you enter his temple.  The LORD is good!  His love and faithfulness will last forever” (Psalm 100:4-5).  Our mouths need to speak our thanks out loud to God.  “Tell the LORD how thankful you are, because he is kind and always merciful” (Psalm 118:1). 

            In the New Testament, Luke tells the story of ten men with leprosy who were miraculously healed by Jesus.  A Samaritan, the lowliest of the low, was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with intense gratitude.  While the other nine went about their lives free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19).  Indeed, sometimes we must be reminded to give thanks and to show gratitude for the ways in which God has provided for us.  And it is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, the marginal of society that are the ones who lead the way and teach us what genuine thanksgiving looks like.

            The people of God are to never forget what they possess in Christ.  Paul told the Colossian church, “You have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord.  Now keep on following him.  Plant your roots in Christ and let him be the foundation for your life.  Be strong in your faith, just as you were taught.  And be grateful” (Colossians 2:6-7).  Prayer and thanksgiving are to go together like mashed potatoes and gravy:  “Never give up praying.  And when you pray, keep alert and be thankful” (Colossians 4:2).  Since God created everything –  each bite of juicy turkey, every homemade roll, and that piece of pumpkin pie – it is all good (maybe not good for you – but good!).  Every meal is to be eaten with the cognizance that God is really behind it all (1 Timothy 4:4).

            If church ministry is not perpetually punctuated with times of celebration, praise, giving thanks, and even blowout parties, then that particular local church will become dull, boring, lifeless, and will not have the lifeblood of Jesus coursing through their corporate veins.  But a joyous church which takes advantage of giving thanks to God at every excuse to do so will be attractive, winsome, and peculiar (in the good way, and not in the weird way of your strange uncle).  Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because they have been forgiven; know the presence of God; are provided for; are confident in the fact they are protected; and, know the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

            Yes, eat to your heart’s content and have a belly full of cornbread stuffing.  But remember to give thanks – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation.  Let thanksgiving and not constant complaint shape you and your church.  Be that one person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise, worship, and gratitude – and see how God can change your life and your church.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Grace to the Poor

“My dear friends, pay attention.  God has given a lot of faith to the poor people in this world.  He has also promised them a share in his kingdom that he will give to everyone who loves him” (James 2:5).

God’s grace is what makes the world go round.  Grace trumps everything.  An absence of grace in God’s people is offensive to him.  When I was growing up, our family dog was named “Sam.”  Sam loved being on the farm.  One time he tussled with a skunk.  I could barely get close enough to him to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism toward those with means over those who don’t, stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others.  And he is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us.  Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that the dog is running away from the bath of grace.  In order to develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.

            God cares about persons trapped in poverty.  The poor are important to him.  When Jesus began his ministry he pointed people to Isaiah 61:1 – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).  In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was such a pervasive reality (and still is across the world!).  The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, being poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons are the Hebrew anawim.  The anawim are humble persons who are caught in grinding poverty, having no choice but to put their trust in God.

            God has a lot to say about such persons because they are dear to his heart.  The law was quite clear about how to treat the poor.  There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward the poor and needy in your land (Deuteronomy 15:11).  Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.  Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it.  Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

            The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to such persons were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel.  God had something to say concerning them:  Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” – skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.  The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:  “I will never forget anything they have done” (Amos 8:4-7).  Instead of being generous to the poor and allowing them to forage for grain at harvest behind the harvesters, they kept “those people” away from the fields so that they could turn a profit at every little bit they could.  And God thought it all stunk to high heaven.

            We must be reminded that it is only the poor in spirit who will enter the kingdom of heaven.  Only those who trust in God alone, and not in their stuff, will he accept.  The real issue here is the humility that demonstrates grace to people who cannot offer you something in return.  It is easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs.  But it is altogether a different thing to be gracious from a place of humility and service to God.  God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts.  Inattention to the needy only betrays a heart far from him.  If God were to audit you, would he find your finances reflecting a spirit of humility and concern for the anawim?  God does not judge people on face value and the state of their finances, and neither should we.

            We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice.  The only way to rid ourselves of the stench of showing favoritism is to receive the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  The shampoo of grace is available, if we will let God apply it.  God is the expert in:

Ø  Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves;
Ø  Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources;
Ø  Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.

Ministry to the poor is a non-negotiable for the Christian church.  Beyond only dispensing benevolent funds, the poor need relationships, connections, resources, and a chance to give back in ways they can contribute.  It’s just part of being attentive to them, and extending them grace.  How does your church show their concern for the poor in your city and/or region?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Don't Show Favoritism

“My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others.” –James 2:1

            Have you ever felt like an outsider?  It is an awkward feeling, isn’t it?  As a young pastor I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners.  He was having a procedure done at a large downtown hospital in the city near where my church was located.  I had never been there before.  I parked my car and walked into the hospital like I had done at several hospitals before.  But there was something very different about it.  You see, I became very much aware that in the time it took me to go into the hospital and find my way to the unit where my person was located, on this particular day, I saw no other Caucasian persons – I was the only one.  Every person I encountered was African-American.  Now, mind you, I had African-American friends and had spent considerable time around many of them.  But I had never been in this situation before in my life, where I was the minority – and it was awkward.  Everyone else seemed to be okay with me being there and showed me respect, but it was still weird.  I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience:  “So that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”

            Now imagine being a visitor to a church worship service.  Picture with me that you are a just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy.  You have never been to this church before.  You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park.  What are you thinking?  What do you see?  “Wow, that building is really big!  I don’t know anybody here.”  Yet, the visitor works-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the big building.  The inner dialogue is going on:  “Where do I go?  Will anybody notice me?  How am I supposed to act?  Are my kids going to be okay?  Where do I sit?”  All the things we never think about and take for granted are at the forefront of this visitor’s mind.  You see, not everyone thinks like we do – and that is the point.  If we are only attentive and aware and care about people who look just like us, think just like us, and act just like us, then we are playing favorites and have become judgmental persons who cannot be trusted with the things of God.

            Discrimination of people based on our limited understanding of them is soundly condemned in Scripture.  “To show partiality is not good,” says Proverbs 28:21.  The Apostle Peter had to get the insider-outsider mentality out of his head and heart concerning Gentiles.  It took a series of visions from God himself for Peter to get this testimony into his life:  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34).  Even people who are socially and economically in an inferior position are to be treated well.  Paul told masters not to play favorites and look down on their slaves.  “Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (Ephesians 6:9).  And if that were not clear enough, Paul flatly stated to his young protégé, Timothy:  “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels… to do nothing out of favoritism” (1 Timothy 5:21).

            Favoritism is a big deal to God and he soundly condemns it because with him there ought never to be star-bellied Sneetches in the church who look down on those without stars on thars!  A poor woman once wanted to join a church.  She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member.  The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street.  He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church.  She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”

The ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society just as he did with the rich and influential.  They were all just people who needed God in their lives.  The church is the consummate expression of God when it follows Jesus to the least and the lost, as well as the movers and shakers, and invites them all into its total life.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Brother Jesus

James, the author of the epistle bearing his name, grew up in a devout Jewish home.  His family life centered round the daily rhythms of the family carpentry business, the weekly rhythms of the synagogue, and the seasonal rhythms of Jewish festivals which celebrated the ancient work of God toward his covenant people.  There was never a time that he did not know about Jesus.  In fact, Jesus was perhaps so familiar to him that he only saw him as that overachieving obnoxious big brother.  Yes, Jesus was his actual brother.  But James just did not “get it” when it came to Jesus.

            For James and the rest of the family, it was one thing for Jesus to step out of the family business so that he could get this obsession with talking about God’s kingdom out of his system – it was quite another thing to speak to the established religious authorities like this: 

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters….  Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.  You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?  For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.  But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:30-37).

            This is not the kind of thing that James had learned at home or at synagogue.  Big brother had crossed the line; he had gone too far, making himself out to be the authority and talking on about how our words are so important.  Crazy Jesus had to stop.  It was time for an intervention.  So, the text of Matthew 12 says this:  While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.  This was not a nice social call.  James and the rest of the brothers were there to set Jesus straight about how he was upsetting the family and going against the system.  Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

            Something dramatic happened to James after his brother’s miraculous resurrection:  James moved from seeing Jesus as the familiar brother to the Savior who has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and the Lord of life who must be followed with unflagging devotion and obedience. 

            I can relate to James.  I grew up in the family farm business.  Jesus was a name familiar to me all my life.  My growing up years marked with the daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms not much different than James.  And like James, I did not really know Jesus.  The first seventeen years of my life Jesus was just a name in the background of my existence.  He did not really exert any significant impact on me.  But when I came to the point in my life where I saw Jesus for whom he really is and I gave my life to him, it changed everything for me.

            You see, I can no longer look at church as a building and a place to go on Sunday.  The church is now the people of God gathered and sent into the world with a mission to make the name of Jesus known as more than just another name.  I can no longer hear the words of Jesus and think he is off his rocker talking like he did.  I now take those words to heart and believe that I really ought to be making disciples and mentoring people into a faith that shapes everything I say and do.

            When Jesus is nothing more than a familiar name, we live our lives with only an acceptance of the religion we have always known.  But when Jesus moves to being the Savior and Lord of our lives, it changes everything.  Acceptable religion without Jesus is marked by some church attendance, not rocking the spiritual boat, and doing what our families have always done.  But James learned from his big brother and became the leader of the Jerusalem church.  He followed Jesus into martyrdom and left a legacy of faith, commitment, and wisdom for us.  Acceptable religion for James changed to becoming measured by how well we control our tongues, how we care for the needy, and how morally pure we can be within a corrupt world.  

What is acceptable religion to you?  
Does it measure up to James’ view?  
Where do you go from here?  
Is Jesus for you someone to be followed, or in need of an intervention?  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Be a Doer, Not Just a Hearer

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22, ESV).

  “Obey God’s message!  Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it” (CEV).

            The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.  This is a consistent theme in the New Testament.  Paul warned the church in Rome:  For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Romans 2:13).  Our Lord Jesus himself stated the same truth:  Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears.  He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands.  Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

The danger is that we have the potential to deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay just because we know the right things and believe the right things.  Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

True hearing leads to true response.  When my firstborn daughter was still in the womb, I constantly talked to her.  I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew.  I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed.  I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her.  I told her of Jesus and his love for her.  I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day came that God graced us with her birth, the nurses took her and she cried and cried.  She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.”  The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room:  little baby Sarah immediately got quiet.  It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital.  The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.  It would be no surprise for you to know that Sarah has always been a Daddy’s girl.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it.  If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know his voice.  Baby Sarah did not need a lesson on how to respond to me; she knew exactly who I was:  her father.  Do we know our heavenly Father?  Can we distinguish his voice?  The greatest need that we all have is to be servants of God who hear his voice and respond to it, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Whenever we refuse to love the unbelievers around us, we are not hearing God and doing his will.  When we listen to the gospel, but then have no intention of sharing that same gospel with others, we are being disobedient.  When we hear about how God forgives us in Jesus’ name, but then we insist on not forgiving another person, we are not being doers of the Word.  When we read the Holy Scriptures as an end in itself without the expressed intent of doing whatever we find in it, then we merely hearing.

            The Bible is only boring and irrelevant when we read it with no intention of doing what it says.  This is why whenever we read it we need to write out what action we are going to do after having read it.  This is also why the church needs to corporately and collectively covenant together to act on what they hear from God’s Word as they examine it together.  Without this, we are only a random collection of individuals listening to a talking-head preacher.  We go home and forget what we just heard.  Instead, let us act in unity and purpose to do what we find in Holy Scripture.  Can you imagine even just one church who devotes themselves to such a sacred task, and what impact it would have in the world?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Logical Church Fallacies

            Every day in the church is an adventure.  Sometimes it’s pretty groovy.  At other times it’s just goofy, and I feel like I’m in an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Whenever I’m playing the role of Pastor Serling, it’s usually because of some bizarre or twisted thinking which is taking place.  We call them “logical fallacies.”  A logical fallacy is nothing more than a flaw in reasoning; it is to forego critical thinking skills and skate on some lazy brain action.  Logical fallacies create havoc.  The paucity of reasonable, rational, logical thinking has not only turned-off potential and emerging leaders for the church, but has left a sizable gap in our discipleship of the mind.  The lack of solid critical thinking skills can ruin entire congregations.

            Perhaps you doubt.  But consider some familiar ways of thinking within the church which are really nothing more than logical fallacies:

The Strawman:  This is misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to attack.  Someone makes a blanket statement that only consumers want an alternative worship service, or that poor people just don’t want to work.  This faux position makes an easy target to knock down.  The problem is that the person setting up the strawman does not have enough information to be drawing conclusions.  Most of the time there has not even been one conversation with the people for whom the strawman argument is directed.

The Slippery Slope:  This fallacy is the assertion that if we allow A to happen, then B will consequently happen too, therefore A should never be allowed to happen. One example:  If we allow same-sex couples to marry in our society, then biblical authority is out the window and the next thing you know the traditional family is gone.  Whatever your view is on same-sex marriage is not the issue here – it is asserting the fallacy that if allowed all hell will break loose.

The Loaded Question:  This flaw is asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that it can’t be answered without appearing guilty.  Some church people love this approach.  For example, one parishioner asks another if the pastor has visited them, within earshot of the pastor – it puts the person being asked in a no win situation with the unreasonable assumption that the pastor is negligent in his duties.

The Bandwagon Jump:  We likely all know this one:  appealing to popularity or the fact that a lot of people do something; it’s meant as a form of validation for one’s position.  This is the church person who will confidently proclaim that no one likes the new small group ministry, and everyone hates it, which is meant to deflate the new ministry before it ever really gets going.  It works because there are usually people who do not want to be on the “wrong side” of the issue.

The Emotional Appeal:  This fallacy is in manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument.  A person stands up in the church’s annual meeting and says we don’t need padding on the pews because there are Christians in Africa worshiping in a hut with no pews at all.  No one wants to be a wimp, so the padding never happens.

The Ad Hominem Argument:  This is my personal favorite.  I chuckle every time I hear it.  I chuckle a lot.  Instead of dealing with the argument, this is simply attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine his/her position. For example, after providing a compelling reason for a change in ministry focus to families, another church member then questions why we should listen to a person who has never been married.

            There are a whole lot more fallacies, and this is only a small swatch of them.  Turns out we fallen people have all kinds of creative ways of refusing to think well about things.  In all cases of logical fallacies there is an inherent bias toward a certain position.  Therefore, the person purporting his position does not listen and seek to understand.  He only wants his opinion validated, or position adopted, or ego stroked, and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.  It is nothing more than lazy thinking and a lack of humility.  Jesus offers us an alternative to logical fallacies with sound humble reasoning through careful storytelling and logical teaching.  But don’t take Pastor Serling’s word for it.  Go ahead and read the Gospels for yourselves.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Breathing of Prayer

            Prayer is the breath of the believer.  There is no life apart from the breathing of prayer.  But with prayer there is life because it opens us to a life-giving relationship with God in Christ.  One of the ancient fathers of the faith once described prayer in this way:  “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.”  It would be weird if I told you that it is your duty to breathe.  Instead, it is our delight to breathe clean fresh air every day.  We don’t need to be told to do it; it is just a part of being alive.

            There is such a thing throughout the history of the church known as “the breath prayer.”  It is to pray short repetitive prayers, like breathing.  It would be strange if I told you that breathing is too common and repetitious, and, so, it should be different or not done so often.  Like breathing, prayer is to be done not once but many times, over and over again.  The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer.  It comes from a combination of Luke chapter 18 verses 13 and 39:  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Put together, it can be said in a breath.  Breathing-in, you pray “Jesus, Son of David,” and breathing-out, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It is a prayer meant to surrender ourselves to God’s grace as naturally as it is to breathe.  To utter it several times is a continual reminder of the God in whose presence we stand.  If we are to live into Paul’s command to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), then learning the rhythm of breath prayers can be quite important.

            Furthermore, just like breathing, prayer is more effective and is better done in a position or a posture that is conducive for it to happen.  Putting a pillow over your face makes it difficult to breathe.  But sitting up and paying attention to taking-in deep amounts of air helps us to breathe well.  Within Scripture, there is no one-size-fits-all to prayer.  Standing, having outstretched arms, uplifted eyes, kneeling, and even prostrating ourselves are all postures of prayer before God.  We severely limit ourselves if we only think of praying with eyes closed, head-bowed, and hands folded.

            Standing is usually seen as a gesture of respect in many cultures, even our own.  Sometimes it is good to stand when we pray, acknowledging God’s majesty and our desire to submit to him.  Lifting our arms helps to give us an awareness of God’s bigness and that he is over and above us; it is a posture that literally opens the core of our body toward God and communicates a willingness to receive whatever he has for us.  Looking up to heaven with open eyes causes us to know we are not alone, but God watches us.  Praying on our knees is certainly a way of expressing humility before God.  Prostrating ourselves, or lying face down, is a powerful reminder that we pray mindful of our place – that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  Every breath is dependent upon God in whom we place our trust.

            It is therefore only fitting that a room your church building be designated for the primary task of prayer.  A Prayer Room not only visibly reminds us how important prayer is to the church, but is a special place available to stand, sit, or kneel in prayer so that the Spirit-breath of God can fill us with life and blessing.  A Prayer Room is designed for Christians to worship and pray, to intercede for others, and to stand in the gap by praying for the salvation of those who need Jesus Christ.

            Seasons come and go, but it is always open season on prayer.  Let us renew our efforts and our effectiveness at praying to the God who was, who is, and who is to come.  May you know the joy of answered prayer, and the love of God in whose mercy is our very breath.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hurry Up and Listen

“My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or get angry.  If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done” (James 1:19-20).

            Rarely does anything go as planned in life.  Yet we all have certain desires and expectations about how things should go in our lives.  When things go sideways, tempers flare.  People do not listen well and are quick to blame and jump to conclusions.  Difficult life circumstances can lead to pointing fingers and giving heated opinions about problems.  Verbal jabs can take over in the church.

            Inside of all our heads we have higher brain functions, and lower brain functions.  We need both of them.  When there is danger, the lower brain immediately kicks in and puts us on a hyper-vigilant state to resist and deal with the threat.  This works great when a burglar is in your house, or you jump in to help someone in a car accident, or any number of things which threaten life.  Adrenaline is great for danger but not so great when there is simply things going on we don’t like.  The problem with the lower brain function is that it operates more on instinct and not on rational, logical, and reasonable thought.  When the lower brain is functioning the higher brain function is not so much.  If you have ever seen someone all worked-up about something and that person does not listen to any kind of reason, you are observing a person who is operating in the lower brain function.  Most of our contemporary problems are not solved through the lower brain’s activity of responding to fear and threats of danger.

            We need to hurry up and listen.  People caught in their lower brain function do not listen because all they can see is what upsets them.  There is a great need for listeners today.  Very little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state going on and on about their opinions and what’s wrong with everything and what we should be doing.  We just talk over and on top of each other because we already have our minds made-up about how things really are.  Nobody is listening.

            On top of all this, there are a number of things which distract us from any kind of ability to listen well:  our busy-ness; constant background noise of the TV, radio, tablet or computer.  And these often just appeal to the lower brain with no substantive thoughts.  This all has major implications when it comes to listening to God.

            Bible reading is the primary source for Christians to listen to God.  But reading the Bible is too difficult and dull for far too many believers.  Sitting quietly before God and slowly reading the words of Scripture, and giving focused attention to Him in prayer has been relegated to the super-spiritual among us, as if it is not normal to read the Bible and pray.

            I haven’t even said anything about preaching yet.  It is little wonder why so many preachers today think they need to be showmen with such little listening that actually occurs.  Then, there are always people who think they already know what needs to happen, so they check out during the sermon.  In order to hurry up and listen to God’s Word, it needs to be a priority in our lives.  We must say “no” to some things in order to make room to listen to God.  We must prepare for worship and listening through deliberate preparation.  Listening is not just going to happen.  It has to be looked at as a skill just like anything else in life, and purposefully cultivated.

            A teachable spirit which is attentive to the words and ways of Jesus is a listening spirit.  A place to begin is to allow some space for listening within the worship service.  Cramming the time with as much stuff as possible is not conducive to hearing from God.  But through slow and deliberate speech, times of silence and contemplation, and careful planning can spawn an atmosphere of listening to God and his Word.  Let the church model for parishioners how to listen well.  For straining out all others voices in order to hear God might be one of the best things we can do today.