Saturday, May 28, 2016

Remove the Negative Influence

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way, contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17, NIV).

            Almost every word used in this Bible verse is in the strongest possible language -- 
--“Urge” has the force of “beg” (as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him). 
--“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.
--“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines (described in Galatians 5 as an act of the sinful nature). 
--“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal” (which is caused by judging another person, as in Romans 14:13 – “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another.  Instead, make up your mind not to put any “scandal” in your brother’s way”). 
--“Keep away” is not simply a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger (think: Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from the seductress wife).

            Here is my own translation:  I beg you, brothers and sisters, to identify people in the church who create man-made divisions and offensive scandals as if they were as important as the gospel.  Get yourselves as far away from such persons as you can.

            If this was a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians.  In the church at Rome, there were actually three primary groups of people: 
1)      Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life;
2)      Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions, but were willing to change in light of the church being established by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost;
3)      Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions of Judaism, but valued them to such a degree that they would preserve them at all costs.  In other words, their agenda was to make Jews of the Gentiles and they would do anything to make sure that happened, including using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity they could to hold on to those traditions.

            Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, trained in the ways of Judaism from his youth, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake.  Paul’s insistence throughout the book of Romans is to argue for the priority of the gospel, the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, Jewish liturgical traditions, feast days, and everything that went into making a good Jew a good Jew. 

            The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions.  They tried to negatively influence everyone they could.  And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him that they could.  But Paul remained consistent in all of the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.

            Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people.  Which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace:  “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with him.  You may be sure that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

            When a passion for power and tradition trumps a passion to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then that is a character issue.  Trying to create a surge of negativity against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativity that is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.

            It takes two to tango.  Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it.  We are to stop being negative, and are to stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals.  If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something in particular in the church, Paul says to stay away from them.  Have nothing to do with them.  Do not participate in the divisive speech.  Refuse it.  Rebuke it.  Redirect it.  Uninstall the negativity because God does not want us participating with evil.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Need for Courage

People are not naturally courageous.  Ever since the fall of humanity, none of us has to work at being afraid – but we all have to work at being brave and having the courage to face our fears.  Sometimes we adults think we have to teach kids not to fear because we believe they are afraid of the dark, high places, and monsters in the closet.  But I think most of that is our own adult fear projected on kids.  Actually, I think it is the other way around.  Some of the bravest folks I have ever known are children.  They do not understand near as much as we adults do, yet they conquer their fears every day by facing the world with courage.  If you were to go to any children’s hospital today, I believe you would be amazed at the kind of courage you would find amongst kids.  It seems to me that adults have a whole lot to learn about being brave because:

We have become far too sophisticated in hiding our fears and avoiding courage.

            This is why the most repeated exhortation is all of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid.  We all need courage to live life in the way that God wants it to be lived.  Jesus had to remind his disciples to not be afraid; and, God the Father himself had to exhort the fearful followers of Jesus to have the courage to listen (Matthew 17:1-7).  We all need courage to listen well to God the Father; to live by the words and ways of God the Son; and, to follow God the Holy Spirit wherever he prompts us to go.

We need the courage to love people without needing their kudos (John 2:23-25). 

Jesus did not get carried away with his own press.  Whether people responded to him by the hundreds, or whether they refused him altogether and tried to throw him off a cliff, Jesus was consistently always the same.  He did not need people’s response or the lack of it to do his mission on this earth.  He continually loved people and did not do things in order to get them to love him in return, like insecure and fearful people do.

            The most read book in my library is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  It was written five-hundred years ago by a Dutch priest who was training others in the ministry of Christ.  The reason I keep coming back to that book again and again is that Thomas understood the need for the courage to love the unlovely.  He understood that perfect love casts out fear.

            This is what Thomas had to say about loving others:  “We should not only love our brothers and sisters, but also not consider ourselves better than them.  Instead, we should show compassion and acceptance to others.  We want to have others strictly reprimanded for their offenses, but we will not be reprimanded ourselves.  We are inclined to think the other person has too much freedom, but we ourselves will not put up with any restraint to our freedom.  There must be rules for everyone else, but we must be given free rein.  It is seldom that we consider our neighbor equally with ourselves. Yet:

 If everyone was perfect, what would we have to endure for the love of God?

            Thomas is always good for a solid spiritual slap to the sinful flesh.  Hear him again:  “Look at yourself and see how far you are from real love and humility.  It is of no test of virtue to be on good terms with easy-going people, for they are always well liked.  And, of course, all of us want to live in peace and prefer those who agree with us….  However, in this mortal life, our peace consists in the humble bearing of suffering and contradictions, not in being free of them, for:

We cannot live in this world without adversity. 

Those who can suffer well will enjoy the most peace, for such persons are brave, courageous, not afraid of pain, have Christ as their friend, and heaven as their reward.”

            Imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance his kingdom in this world, yet held hostage to phobias, irrational worries, and destructive fears of failure, harm, or rejection.

If you and your church don't fulfill the mission God assigned to you, who will?

Saturday, May 14, 2016


            Just this morning a group of us guys from church had a large grill session of burgers, brats, and hot dogs in preparation for a Sunday celebration.  This time of year is hugely significant when we attune ourselves to Holy Time because it is Pentecost.  Ten days after recognizing Christ’s Ascension, and fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection from death, the Christian Calendar observes the day of Pentecost (which literally means “fifty” in Greek).  The day coincides with an established Jewish festival, the Feast of Weeks.  Back in the day, Jerusalem would be filled with all kinds of different nationalities and ethnicities during the festival.

            Pentecost is often known as the birthday of the church.  It marks the time when the Holy Spirit came upon the fledgling believers in power.  The account is found in the New Testament book of Acts:  “On the day of Pentecost all the Lord’s followers [120 believers] were together in one place.  Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind!  It filled the house where they were meeting.  Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there.  The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak” (Acts 2:1-4).  The upshot of it all was that Peter, once an up-and-down follower, was filled with the Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly.  His call to repentance and faith in Jesus led directly to three-thousand persons added to the little band of one-hundred twenty.

            But it didn’t stop there.  We live in a tremendous age in which all believers in Jesus have the same Holy Spirit as our spiritual ancestors.  It is an era of the Spirit empowering the church to reach the world with the good news that there is forgiveness and grace through the person and work of Christ.  So, then, the church possesses confidence and security in knowing that the Spirit’s enablement and power is available for the mission of proclaiming Christ to the nations.  It is an immense call, a calling that befits the bigness of God.

            There are a wide range of Christian celebrations of Pentecost. Some churches do not recognize the holiday at all. Most churches at least mention it in prayer, song, or sermon. Other churches go all out, with worship focused on remembering the first Pentecost and praying for a similar outpouring of divine power.  Churches that employ liturgical colors generally use red on Pentecost as a symbol of power and fire of the Spirit.

            Pentecost reminds us that Christians are meant to live in the presence and in the power of the Holy Spirit, all day, every day, 24/7.  It is a chance to confess our shortcomings and failures because of fear, apathy, and selfishness, and to ask for a fresh infusing and infilling of God’s wonderful Spirit.  Pentecost flings every single believer into a congregational whole, the church, and lets us know that we are not to be rugged individualists acting alone but are part of the Body of Christ.    Thus, we must renew our commitment to the church for whom Christ died and the Spirit is ready to use.  Pentecost throws disparate people together in a unified whole, made up of every kind of language, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and race.  We are all to use the gifts of the Spirit given to us for the benefit of building up one another.

            The church is the church because of the Holy Spirit.  We are to do the work of spreading the gospel in passionate outreach using the power of the Spirit, equipping and encouraging each other displaying the fruit of the Spirit, and worshiping the person of the Spirit for always being present with us.

            Pentecost was and is a watershed event.  Worship, community, and outreach are the logical extensions and the collective responsibility of each and every church around the globe.  In solidarity, let the day of Pentecost be recognized and observed with heartfelt thanksgiving and renewed impulses to exercising our spiritual abilities graciously promised by Jesus and given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Masters of Small Worlds

Americans have tremendous faith in themselves. In 1950, a Gallup poll asked high school seniors: "Are you a very important person?" 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, "Yes, I am a very important person." Time magazine asked Americans:  "Are you in the top one percent of earners?" 19 percent of Americans said they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Americans rank 25th in the world in math, but if you ask most Americans if they are good at math, they often say “yes.”  As columnist David Brooks has said: “We are number-one in the world at thinking we are really good at math.”

            We Americans are also certain about our faith, despite the contrary.  When Jay Leno was still hosting the Tonight Show he frequently did "man-on-the street" interviews, and one night he collared some young people to ask them questions about the Bible. "Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?" he asked two college-age women. One replied, "Freedom of speech." Leno said to the other, "Complete this sentence: Let he who is without sin ____." Her response was, "have a good time." Leno then turned to a young man and asked: "Who, according to the Bible, was eaten by a whale?" The confident answer was, "Pinocchio."

            Yeah, I understand that we will quickly say that all the aforementioned people are not you and I, to which proves my point:  we are much too often full of ourselves to see that we are really ignorant about a lot of things, and too proud to admit it.

            When it comes to church ministry, we can be so certain about what needs to happen based upon our clear understanding of the Bible, that all other ideas, thoughts, and discussion is ended.  We can be so convinced that our experiences, our understanding of the good life, and our friendships are the way it should be in the world that we superimpose our paradigm on every other culture, church, and individual.  We are right; they are wrong.

            It is the height of hubris to believe that my (our) interpretation is the only way to look at Holy Scripture.  It is the pinnacle of ignorance to think that my church, my friends, my geographical place, and the kind of life I live is the right way to live.  All other ways of viewing Scripture and life are wrong.

            When we hear or make statements like “The American people want…” and “Everybody in the church thinks…” then we have become masters of very small worlds, projecting our smallness and insecurity onto others who do not share our predilections.

            Here is my conviction:  I don’t know.  The truth is that I don’t know what I should be doing half the time in this life, even as a pastor in a church, which is why I am constantly and continually running to God in prayer with all the humility and openness to the Spirit that I can muster.  It’s also why I keep interacting with people of other cultures very different from my own and seek to read Scripture with them because I don’t have the corner on how everything should be done.

            Ignorance is bred by only interacting with my small circle of friends and family and excluding all others.  Sinful pride is the inevitable result when I climb on an ant hill, believing it to be the mountain that oversees all creation.  No one individual, one church, one denomination, one culture, or one geographical place has all the answers to how life should work, how church should operate, and how Christianity should be lived.

            So, let’s not put our provincial ignorance on display by reading our Bibles in isolation from the wisdom of the early church fathers, the experience of medieval mystics, the perspective of the sixteenth-century Reformers, the passion of nineteenth-century revivalists, and the insight of contemporary cultures different from our own.  Let’s humbly bow before the Master of the universe, King Jesus, and allow God’s Holy Spirit to penetrate our pride long enough to learn the ways of Christ’s love for all people.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Change without Compromise

The church is called to conform not to the world, but to the reality of new life in Jesus (Romans 12:1-2).  God himself has said, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).  God is doing the work of transformation.  God is doing an extreme makeover, brain edition.  In other words, if you have never changed your mind about anything in the church, then you will not be able to discern God’s will because we are called to transformation.

            The church is called to change its methods and means of delivering God’s truth without altering the message itself.  The church needs to be a clear reflection of who God is and what he does.  This means the church must be relevant.  It must communicate God’s truth and hope in the language of the culture it is situated.  If I say to you:  “The sacerdotal implications of infralapsarianism are holistic yet interdependent in scope and complexity,” I am speaking the language of professional scholastic theologians.  But if I say to you: “A clear explanation of God’s truth is important for our deliverance from sin,” then you understand what I am saying.

            Yet, this is how many people feel about the church, as if we are speaking in some secret code with secret practices.  Being irrelevant is really the compromise to truth.  Followers of Jesus are Ambassadors for Christ.  An ambassador’s job is to learn the language and culture of the nation to which he/she is assigned so that they can represent their country well.  An ambassador does not need to adopt the values of the other country, but the ambassador does need to relate to the other country in ways that are relevant and understandable.

            Truth never changes.  But the delivery of truth does and should change.  When I was a kid, I lived on an Iowa farm.  Every year we had a huge garden full of sweet corn, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, peas, and every kind of vegetable under the sun.  Beginning as young as age four it was my job to water that big garden every day twice a day.  We had an old well with a hand pump.  It typically took eight to ten pumps to get the water up and several more pumps to fill the bucket.  It took a lot of buckets to water the garden.  I was so small that I literally had to jump on top of the pump and use all my weight to make it work.

            I did this every summer for years.  Then one year my Dad had a new well dug.  A new pump was put in and I did not need to hand pump water into buckets anymore.  In fact, I could get a hose out, hook it up to the new pump, use a sprinkler and sit in the sun and just watch the delivery of the water to the plants.  Praise the Lord!

            The water didn’t change.  It was still the same life-giving water that the garden needed.  But the delivery changed.  It would be ludicrous if I would have said to my Dad, “Dad, I’m a pump guy.  If hand pumping water into buckets was good enough for you and for my grandparents, then it’s good enough for me.  I don’t know how this new pump works, but I’m against it.  In fact, this newfangled well and pump is evil.  If anybody uses it they’re going to hell.  I’m not touching it.”

            Here is a crucial question that every church and Christian must ask today:  If the church is really concerned about getting God’s truth and Christ’s gospel of grace to people, then what is the best delivery system available today? 

            When the church does not do everything in its power to communicate God’s truth to people in a relevant way, then that church is not following in the way of Jesus.  Therefore, the focus in decision-making within the church is to determine the best delivery system for the water of eternal life.  So, when it comes to the environment, the music style, and the language, we must be relevant.  We use these things to deliver truth so that people might connect with Jesus and have their thinking renovated, their minds cleaned, and their lives improved to the glory of God.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension of the Lord

            Jesus was taken up to heaven.  Christians label this significant event as the “Ascension of the Lord.”  It is hugely important for followers of Jesus because it means that Christ is now presently sitting at God’s right hand offering continual prayers on our behalf to the Father.  We have an advocate, a champion who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell.  This is no small thing.  On top of it all, Christ’s ascension means that Jesus is the universal ruler; he commands a kingdom which will never end.  This is no small deal.

            So, why does a day set aside on the Christian Calendar celebrating the Lord’s mighty and redemptive ascension over all creation, done for us, garner such little attention from the church?  Perhaps the clue is the disciples’ response when Jesus ascended.  “’The Holy Spirit will come upon you and give you power.  Then you will tell everyone about me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and everywhere in the world.’  After Jesus had said this and while they were watching, he was taken up into a cloud.  They could not see him, but as he went up, they looking up into the sky.  Suddenly two men dressed in white clothes were standing there beside them.  They said, ‘Why are you men from Galilee standing here and looking up into the sky?  Jesus has been taken to heaven.  But he will come back in the same way that you have seen him go’” (Acts 1:8-11).

            The picture that Luke paints for us in the account of our Lord’s ascension is a group of guys looking up into the sky slack-jawed and shoulders hunched.  It took a couple of angels to come along and, in essence, ask them what in the world they were doing just standing there.  Now is not the time to stand and gawk at the clouds.  Jesus will come back when he comes back; you aren’t going to know when.  So, now is the time to get busy with what Jesus just told you two minutes ago to do:  Tell everyone about me.

            The Ascension of the Lord is a deeply theological event; it is freighted with major implications for our prayer lives; and, it means that Christ is the King to whom we must obey.  And he is coming again.  In the meantime, there is to be no cloud-gawking.  There is to be world evangelization.  There is to be talking to not just a person or two here or there, a once-in-a-while when the feeling of guilt strikes me and I puke out the gospel of Jesus on some poor unsuspecting pagan because this is what I should be doing.  No, rather it is to be such a well-developed and well-cultivated connection with Jesus that what (super)naturally comes out of our mouths is the gracious good news that Christ died, rose from death, and ascended to heaven for mine and your forgiveness of sins and a new clean slate on life.

            The church is not to be found standing in the parking lot gawking at the clouds at the Lord’s return.  They are not to be looking up into the sky having those destructive parking lot discussions after a church meeting.  The church is not to be in some earthly holding tank with stained glass windows just waiting for Jesus to come back and beat up everyone we don’t like and take us to heaven.  Rather, we are to be telling everyone about Jesus.

            We are Christ’s church.  The Ascension of the Lord means we are God’s people blessed with salvation from sin, confident in the hope of ultimate deliverance, and seeking to realize all of creation coming under the rule and reign of the Lord Jesus.  The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 49, says:

How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?

First, he is our advocate
            in heaven
            in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
            as a sure pledge that Christ our head
            will also take us, his members,
            up to himself.
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
            as a corresponding pledge.
            By the Spirit’s power
                        we seek not earthly things
                        but the things above, where Christ is,
                                    sitting at God’s right hand.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Remain Humble

            One of the most real of realities when it comes to church ministry is this:  you can do everything that needs to be done in laying strategy, planning for ministry, and implementing it – but still fail.  Not every ministry goes as planned.  Not every person is blessed by what you do.  We are all limited in our imaginations, resources, and spiritual gifts.  There is no ironclad prescription for church success.  But you probably already know this from your own personal experience, or just from watching others.  You will never find any pastor or Christian ministry leader who controlled every variable and planned for every contingency and always pulls-off every endeavor to perfection.  Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there are no guarantees.

            We must, then, come back to the practice of self-control – of continually monitoring our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus.  Another one of those really real realities when it comes to church ministry is that pride and hubris are far and away the most insidious problems a pastor or leader will ever face.  It is gratifying to be a leader and exercise pastoral care, teach others, and mentor young people.  It’s also far too easy to be seduced by your own perceived power and importance and blame any shortcomings on cranky parishioners.

            Humility is the path to resolving arrogance and the only true road of Christian discipleship.  Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could describe himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble” (Matthew 11:29).  Jesus is our perfect and true example of the leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others.  Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, but always connected what he did and was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

            You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others.  Wise church leadership knows they can’t do it alone and they act accordingly.  Truly humble pastors dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it.  They do not continually chatter-on with certainties and answers but, instead, are committed to deep listening to those around them.  They give generous and sincere credit to others.  They think about how to build up the Body of Christ, not their own puffed up press about themselves.

            It takes a lot of courage to be humble.  It requires a lot of bravery to admit you are not always right; that you cannot always anticipate every congregant’s needs; that you cannot solve every problem in the church; that you cannot envision everything the church is supposed to do and to be; that you are not always congenial; that you make mistakes; that you are sometimes grumpy like everyone else; and, that you are a real live human being.

            When a pastor lets his/her guard down and becomes real and vulnerable, then biblical faith can begin to take root and together clergy and laity can create something that they never could alone.  We all must remain humble and unassuming.  We all need to persist in being open and full of wonder to God’s world and Christ’s church.  We all need to be down-to-earth and keep our feet on the ground no matter the level of success or failure.  We all are dependent on God.