Monday, January 14, 2019

What is one of the hardest challenges for most Christians?

One of, if not, the hardest disciplines for Christians is reevaluating what we believe. Particularly, I’m talking about taking another look at certain doctrines we adhere to. It’s scary, I get it. It’s not so much that we are afraid to be mistaken occasionally (surely we are too humble to think we know it all), it’s more likely we are afraid that if we are wrong about one or two major points, maybe we are wrong about all of our beliefs.

What am I recommending here? I propose you take time periodically to review some of your core beliefs and try to see where you can grow in your depth of understanding. If you haven’t changed your opinions on any Biblical truths in a while, then simply put, you aren’t maturing.

If you found that last paragraph distasteful because of my use of the word “opinions” when it comes to what you believe, then you probably won’t see any need to reexamine what you “think” you know. In reality, there is absolute truth, and God wants us to comprehend it. Sadly, many people prematurely think they’ve “arrived,” or they won’t take the time or put forth the effort to reach the truth. And yes, you form opinions and you likely hold to these opinions as if they all are 100% accurate, but we should know we are fallible. Another way of saying this is, a little humility goes a long way.

The idea here isn’t to cause insecurity in your beliefs, instead it’s quite the opposite. The best way to deepen our confidence in our accumulated knowledge & comprehension is to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (II Tim 2:15). One result from this approach is having a faith we can share confidently with others, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (I Pet 3:15). This calls for studying God’s word, seeking to interpret and apply it accurately, which all requires a personal dedication to thinking through what we think we believe. 

In other words: Don’t just take the word of the preacher or of your mentor when it comes to the Bible. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. We also need to be more like the Bereans in Acts when they checked for themselves regarding the things they were hearing from Paul & Silas, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)

One of the best ways we can grow is when we challenge our thinking by bouncing our ideas off of each other. Consider Prov 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” I have a good friend, for example, who I love dearly. We see some doctrines quite differently from each other. Neither of us, thankfully, let our differences interfere with our relationship. We don’t try to browbeat each other even though we have solid convictions. Hopefully my friend will come around to my line of thinking in some areas..., and hopefully I will gain some better understanding from him in others.

If you always read the same translation when you study the Bible, surround yourself on Sunday solely with people who agree with you on every point, and you hesitate to rethink key portions of the Scriptures, you probably don’t have an ownership of your faith. You might be faithful, please, I’m not questioning that. But you might have settled for a borrowed faith or a faith that’s in a state of arrested development. Please don’t settle.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Sure, just keep politicizing Jesus, it's the holidays after all

With the holidays in full swing, our focus should be on Jesus, not on polarizing our families by politicizing Him. It’s hard to avoid talking about politics with the folks you are related to, especially when you feel compelled to convince them of the errors of their ways and enlighten them with your clarity. But please, avoid the mistake of thinking Jesus is always aligned with your political party’s positions.

For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to improve my station in life. Who wouldn’t want to provide well for their family? It think it is noble and admirable to take care of your family as best as you can.

Before I went to college, I worked for good concrete contractors who paid better than the companies I previously worked for. After college, I went on to earn two Master's degrees; yes to improve my skills in ministry, but also with the hope I could provide better for my family. So I say all of that to say, I do not begrudge anyone from anywhere who wants to make a better life for themselves or their family -- which is the root issue for the folks trying to immigrate to America.

You literally would have to live under a rock if you haven't heard about the caravan at the border. I can appreciate the efforts thousands of people have made, traveling thousands of miles towards the “Land of opportunity.” What I don’t appreciate are the incorrect comparisons to the immigrants traveling here to the birth narrative of Jesus.

For example, perhaps you’re familiar with the Indiana Church making headlines. Attempting to make a political statement, they have the Holy Family incarcerated/detained by I.C.E. -- they have an outdoor nativity scene surrounded by a chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire. There’s only one slight problem with this display, it’s grossly inaccurate.

Again, I understand the appeal of coming to America. And, you know if someone would work as hard at reaching our borders as these people have, they would work hard at any job they might land once they are here. Still, these people are not refugees, not in the sense that they come from famine or war-torn battlefields. And for the love of all that is holy, let’s not say their plight compares to Jesus’ earliest childhood years.

You might have heard the quote that’s making its rounds on the social media circuit, it goes something like this, “How can we worship a refuge on Sunday and ignore refugees on Monday?” It is supposed to shame everyone into thinking the folks trying to cross our southern border are in the same camp as Jesus. The problem with this line of thinking is, it’s mistaken and it is emotionally manipulative. Jesus’ parents weren’t seeking gainful employment when they temporarily went to Bethlehem (where there was “no room” at the Inn -- we should ask why none of Joseph's extended family took them in in his hometown), they were obeying their government's census decree. And similarly when they fled to Egypt temporarily, it was by God’s direction to avoid Herod’s attempts to kill the prophesied coming of the Jewish messiah, not to make a better living.

Neither trip for Mary and Joseph was for a permanent residency, and neither trip was financially motivated. Also, Jesus never referred to Himself as a childhood immigrant-refugee either.

If you are like me, you are exhausted when it comes to the topic of immigration. But we can’t seem to get away from it. It’s completely natural that people in impoverished nations would be attracted to what we have here in America. While I don’t know what the right answer is to our immigration situation, I do know a lot of people are not making things better by trying to exploit Jesus’ childhood or deceptively insert His childhood experiences into the context of the American immigration crisis.

I also know, sadly, we tend to gravitate towards the opinion of our favored political party without thinking issues like this all the way through. When politics doesn’t work to sway others, sometimes we employ the Bible to make our points... Does the Bible have precepts on how to deal with displaced people who are homeless wanderers? Sure. Are the people who willingly left their native South American lands and have traveled through Mexico to come here in the same category as the sojourners the Bible describes? You decide.

Whatever you do this Christmas season, please stop and think about the fact that our southern neighbors are not in and have not experienced the same situations Jesus did. It’s a bad comparison to make and it dishonors both Jesus and the folks trying to get here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Why would experts want you to distrust your memory...?

Presently, the results of the recent Midterm elections are dominating the news cycle -- shining a spotlight on the polarized state of our Nation. Don’t worry, you’ll forget all about these midterms soon enough.

You know there are other stories circulating as well, even though politics usually roars the loudest. While we are being distracted by arguments over the economy, immigration, and the future of healthcare, one subject keeps slipping under the radar. There is a subtle yet insidious small stream of information trickling throughout the media: Your memory, or more to the point, your undependable memory.

Sly efforts to undermine the confidence in our memory are slowly chipping away our confidence in our ability to recall the truth. If you haven’t heard the reports of how poorly we remember the facts yet, a simple internet search will surely leave you discouraged. Study after study reports how “notoriously unreliable” our memory is. Experts claim we generate details which are outright false, but “feel” correct.

Reach back in time and try to remember a period of time when our minds weren’t celebrated and considered trustworthy. I’d say from the 1700’s to the early 1990’s, the human mind was considered the most powerful and capable entity in the universe. Sure, the age of enlightenment had its faults, but the capacity for the mind was unquestioned. No longer is this the case in our “postmodern” milieu.

The recent Kavanaugh hearings are just one example of how “unreliable” our memory is. People on both sides of the “aisle” used faulty mental facilities to their advantage, after all these events were 35 years ago..., so the actual events would be fuzzy and hard to remember. Then, there are news reports and studies constantly being released detailing how we misremember our childhoods. Consider how parents and children remember tragic events differently in a family crisis. Therefore, the experts insist, we can’t trust our fickle minds to much of a degree of accuracy.

With the radical rise of relativism in the past few decades (that being the idea that there is no such things as absolute truth and what’s true for you isn’t true for me) the latest fatality to a Biblical Worldview is our mind. I’m guessing if you noticed this, you might not have stopped to ask what is the motivation to discredit our mental recall and the ability to trust our memory. There are similar attacks on the veracity of recorded history too. These biased perspectives have an agenda, not to uncover Truth, but to create disequilibrium, doubt, and disillusionment.

I’m of the opinion that certain people will seek to convince us we can’t trust our memory or history for the sole purpose of destroying the integrity of the Bible, and especially the reliability of the Gospel accounts. As you may recall, the Gospels weren’t written within months of the ministry of Jesus, but were recorded in written form decades afterwards.

I predict the onslaught attacking our memory and its reliability will increase rapidly over time. More and more people will become convinced that their memories are unreliable, and over time, this will erode their trust in the Scriptures. Is there an legitimacy to this attack?

Since you’ve misplaced your keys and forgotten important appointments, you might be wondering if our memories are as bad as the experts say. But then again, you’ll be hard pressed to find any contemporary who was aware of JFK's assassination that day who can’t tell you where they were when they heard the news. Same thing for those who remember 9/11. Just like the way you remember your wedding day or the last moments spent with a loved one on the day they passed, certain moments are etched on our minds with precision. Sure, you don’t remember what you ate last Saturday, but you’ll never forget the time you had food poisoning while you were on vacation.

Again, my opinion is there is a concerted effort to undermine the confidence in our memory ultimately with the goal to discredit the Bible. Not only do I believe are our minds more reliable than the experts claim, there’s the overlooked fact that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, human hands wrote down the sacred text, but as fallible as the individuals might have been, they were guided by God. This, along with the massive amounts of internal consistency throughout the Bible, gives me great confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The conclusion of Grace

Dying can be scary. I’m not talking about the death of our physical body, or even of a spiritual death. I’m referring to the essential principle Jesus emphasized -- the denial of self, i.e., dying to yourself. To live for others at a personal cost, it’s more than noble, it’s at the heart of the Gospel.

This important christian practice could be perhaps the pinnacle of discipleship and the goal of Spiritual maturity. The ability to deny one’s self and to willingly serve others, it doesn’t come naturally, and sadly neither our culture nor our churches make it easy.

Culture, overtly, sends the message, “It’s all about you!” From advertisements to the unwritten “right” that you deserve “more & better” from this life. We are persistently being manipulated from several fronts to feed our wants & desires. The church isn’t innocent here either.

Churches foster a consumer-mentality, or we feed it, by catering to the idea that any church can/should meet everyone’s needs. When we idly sit by while self-centeredness increases in our masses, and we make promises to be a “one stop” spiritual shop, we are contributing to the decline of an authentic Christ-centered existence.

For example, leaders will snap to attention whenever anyone complains about a church service with phrases like, “I didn’t get anything out of...” you fill in the blank. Whether is was the music or the message or what have you, if it “didn’t move me” on a Sunday morning, then someone else dropped the ball, but it wasn’t my responsibility to participate. It’s as if the burden of pleasing everyone is the purpose of the church. But, then we see leaders go lax while members languish in an arrested development for decades, lapping up all kinds of energy from the church, asking what more can the church do for me? without ever considering that’s not the point.

Who knows? Was it out of fear, self-preservation, or savvy marketing? Somehow we’ve trained a generation to ask “What can I get out of church” instead of asking “how do I serve more?” Think JFK's, "Ask not..." and you'll get the gist.

Maybe this is why, nationally, “church” attendance seems to have atrophied. Church, shocking as this may seem, was never meant to meet all of your needs. Church, assembling as a body of believers, is meant to usher in God’s Kingdom presence in our lives as it transforms us into servants. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of our purpose.

As Jesus washed the feet of the Twelve, He said, “Here’s your example!” Stinky. Demeaning. Bottom of the totem pole type work -- quite the opposite of glamorous, and Jesus just leaves it there for us, an object lesson in our true objective. No bells & whistles. Nothing too attractive for anyone with the wrong motives. Nothing that’ll impress the folks back home. No programs required either, just a, “Roll up your sleeves and do like I did.”

Ah, you got me, I must be selling you a salvation that we can work to earn? No. I’m not saying working harder or doing more is the way to heaven. An active faith won’t get you into the Kingdom, but when the Kingdom is is in you -- you’ll naturally imitate the Servant who washed the feet of His disciples.

Servanthood isn’t about earning your free salvation, or working harder to earn God’s unconditional love, and it certainly isn’t the opposite of Grace. You see, servanthood has nothing to do with the works of the Law.

Servanthood has nothing to do with religion or rituals, or doing religious acts or making sacrifices to appease an angry god. The works which the Bible condemn which contradict Grace and which violate trusting God’s sufficiency are the old works of the Law of Moses like circumcision and certain offerings for achieving atonement. You might want to re-read this paragraph before you move on.

I could say servanthood is a response to Grace, but from Eph 2:8-10, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” from this passage, I’d say a servanthood-lifestyle is the conclusion of Grace.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Constitution, Kavanaugh, and Christian Hypocrisy

At one time, we as a country could rally together around a common good. Think of WWII and the Victory Gardens, the willingness to sacrifice, and the way we were able to prioritize our resources. Why was this possible? The energy and the will for achieving a common good slowly coalesced by acknowledging a common threat, identifying a true source of evil, by agreeing on what the real problem was.

This isn’t to say we’ve always had a stellar track record. Slavery, which was allowable constitutionally, was hotly contested; it was partially the reason for our Civil War. The Constitution isn’t perfect, it’s a guide, it’s important, but being written by fallible men, it will never be the end-all resolution.

Our great nation has had dark periods of wiping out Native Americans and banishing their tribes to the reservation long after they were no longer a threat or of placing Japanese Americans in internment camps, and then again, we are known for doing incredible good for all of humanity in other periods. We are a mixed bag of embarrassments and achievements.

We are living in the best country on this planet, and we have so much to offer the world, if only we could agree on what is good & true. But, therein lies the rub.

It’s hard to settle in on a common good if we disagree about or ignore the real threat. And, you can see where this discrepancy has gotten us as a nation. While it’s nothing new for us, we are so polarized, we can’t replace a Supreme Court Justice without politicizing the entire process. We can’t gain any traction on the Russian interaction in an election that should be far removed from the news-cycle, and we have lost the ability to be bipartisan on nearly every front.

We as a nation have lost our ability to be objective. Why? In part, everything is “left” or “right,” it’s “liberal” or “conservative,” and “We the People” are at odds with the very people we eat dinner with.

Perhaps there’s a solution to our strife. A simple answer to the anger, hatred, and division. I’d like to say Christianity is, but how can I when we have dozens of denominational roadblocks that have segregated even us as the Body of Christ. Have we who confidently sit in our pews and piously observe the Lord’s day, have we really set the example for world peace and cooperation..., or love?

As long as we practically hate other churches while we hide behind our traditions and hang names over the doors of our structures that identify our theological/doctrinal correctness, we are no better than the politicians we criticize & their circus in D.C. I believe in the autonomy of each congregation to follow the Scriptures wherever they think God is leading them, but I don’t believe any of us has the right to feel superior or to condemn one branch or the other.

If we can’t love other folks who do call on the name of the Lord but meet in a different sanctuary, we will never love those who vote differently or speak another language or have a different color skin or sing to the tune of a different anthem.

Until our separate and individual congregations embrace our universal unity in Christ, and until we stop labeling other churches, and until we stop judging other believers, we have nothing to offer to this world except our hypocrisy. May God have mercy on our souls and may we take seriously Jesus’ words which He delivered to a very diverse group, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (JN 13:34-35)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Come Home

It probably didn’t happen overnight. It’s doubtful you saw it coming. A decade ago, you’d have sworn it could never happen to you. But it did, perhaps. Some life changes can creep up on us, and we hardly notice, at first, the subtle change. After all, it’s not like people wake up one Sunday and randomly say to themselves, “Awe heck, let’s skip church today and for the rest of our lives.”

I get it, once you are out of the habit of worshiping with a congregation on a weekly basis, it’s hard, really hard to get back into it. Maybe for you, you dropped out of church after you went off to college. Perhaps you had a child or started a new job, or maybe you moved. Maybe a hypocrite jaded your perspective of church. Who knows, but after a lifetime of being active in church, you found yourself drifting further away, until, you simply quit.

I run into people (usually it’s at the store) who feel like they owe me some sort of an explanation on why they are too busy for church. “Sunday is my only day off” “I’m really busy with....” “I’m too busy” “I really want to, but” and I simply smile and respond in love, “Sounds like you’re busy going to hell...” NO, that’s not what I say OR think.

I do smile, and I do respond lovingly, “You don’t have explain it to me, I hope when you get a chance, we’ll see you some Sunday.” Then, I continue to talk with them, maybe about about family, mine and theirs, work, and whatever else we have in common. Why? Because I do genuinely care. I could try to make them feel bad, but a harsh response or a critical answer isn’t going to help anyone. I see no reason to pressure, guilt, judge, or shame people who have disconnected from a local church.

I know many people who discontinue their relationship with a local church rationalize their behavior, thinking they are “okay with the Big Man upstairs” because they do a lot of good in their community, serving in various civic clubs, volunteering at the local schools or food banks, or because they help out certain members of their family. There’s a term for that....

The term I have in mind is usually reserved for Religious fanatics. It’s called a “Works-driven salvation.” Bible Thumpers & Pharisees are accused of a works-driven salvation because they think God owes them something for all the good they do. But thinking you’ll end up in heaven because you are good person and you do a lot of good for others, well that’s nothing short of thinking you are working your way into heaven.

Going into a fast-food restaurant won’t make you a cheeseburger, standing in a garage won’t make you a car, and sitting on a pew won’t make you a Christian. Conversely, I don’t think any of us will grow spiritually on our own. I think life is exponentially more difficult, it’s much harder, when we tough the storms of life alone. We need people to encourage us when we face struggles as well as to encourage us to strive towards deeper heights, and we need people surrounding us who will help us walk the walk. That’s simply the way God made us.

I know a lot of people tell themselves that they will go to church again, once they get their life straightened back out. That’s kind of like saying, I’ll go to the Emergency Room once the bleeding stops or the broken bone heals. Some people think they won’t be welcome in a church because of their past. If a heinous/offensive past disqualifies someone from congregating with the gathered saints on Sunday, I’m the first person that needs to go...

These ideas of inadequacy or disqualification miss the point of faith in Jesus. Love covers a multitude of sins, love gets messy, and love changes everything. The Cross cancels out our past, even when we stumble along the path. Consider I JN 1:7-10, “7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

We can’t work our way to heaven, but neither can we ever drift so far away in this life to the point that God won’t accept us. Is “going to church” a requirement for getting into heaven? That’s probably a moot point, because the church isn't a building, we don’t “go” to church. We, the people, we are the church, a weekly gathering of weak, broken, fallible, vulnerable people who are striving to grow closer to the risen Savior, together.

Come home this Sunday. Someone special might cry when they see you, but I promise the ceiling won’t cave in and collapse.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

When other churches...

There’s nothing wrong when another congregation gains some momentum or draws large numbers, but there’s nothing special about it either. There probably is something wrong with “church envy” though. We shouldn’t worry so much about the progress of other churches.

Unfortunately, many members of smaller congregations (the majority of churches in North America have around 75 members or less) harbor bitterness and resentment towards the churches that seem to grow. This is more dangerous for you than distracted driving.

If you are envious of the church down the street that is busting at the seams, please consider the following:

Most of the growth you think you are seeing isn’t necessarily an increase/net growth for the Kingdom. In other words, what you think you are seeing is most likely a reshuffling of the deck, so to say. To be clear, I’m certain souls are being reached/saved in the “popular” church, but most often what you are observing is merely a migration of the flock from one pen to another.

Dissatisfied people will leave one congregation and go to another based on a myriad of reason -- you’ll drive yourself crazy trying pinpoint why too... An attraction of bigger youth group, a younger more “exciting” Pastor, or an experience with church conflict or burnout back home can sway some. And to be honest, right or wrong, there’s something enticing about the scent of sawdust & fresh paint, and driving on new parking-lots too. Then of course there’s the “The padding is greener on the other side of the pew” syndrome. Also, never underestimate the appeal of a lifelong friend who after years of inviting you simply won’t take no for an answer.

That church you have your eye on that seems to be doing everything right while your congregation is languishing in the doldrums won’t be there forever, either. How do I know? How many of the churches which the Apostle Paul planted still exist? None. All churches go through a life-cycle. They are planted (or “splanted” in some cases) and they roll along for a period of time, and they eventually close their doors. Then again, sometimes a lamp-stand needs to be removed too.

I love churches of all sizes, but in a larger church even with all of the extra resources and capabilities, it’s too easy for people to fall through cracks. While on the other hand, in a smaller church there are more opportunities for you to use your gifts and you are noticeably missed when you aren’t around. Larger churches often can engage in more “big ticket” activities in their community, while people seem to grow more spiritually while serving in smaller churches. These dynamics aren’t evil or holy, they just are.

While we are considering this whole topic, this is probably a good time to reflect on what true “success” is. Are you basing your idea of your church’s success on a business model, or on something more substantial? We might think a hefty budget, well manicured lawns, big crowds and a large staff all indicate a church’s success. Hey, every once in a while hard work pays off, and sure the Spirit moves and we see a church “grow” as a result. Then again, Jesus never established a large campus and He barely kept a dozen followers together at any given time.

Did Jesus fail in your opinion or was He a success? Because based on the “mega-church” standard that most congregants establish for their church, Jesus wouldn’t score very high at His annual evaluation....

Actually, Jesus indicated success was about authentic transformation, i.e., when the disciple becomes like the teacher (Please read LK 6:40). That might happen in a large stadium, an auditorium..., although it could take place more than likely while drinking coffee and studying the Bible in your mentor’s livingroom.

Remember, some people who are looking for a church like all the bells & whistles while some people like church to be simple. Some folks love the KJV, others enjoy translations like the Message. Your church has a particular niche to fill, and you can’t appeal to everyone -- it’s just impossible to reach the engineer and the artist with the same slogan and the octogenarian isn't interested in pizza night or the whitewater rafting trip either.

The church across town or down the street isn’t your competition, quit judging them and be happy for them. Don’t question their motives or methods, and please don’t be jealous of whatever accomplishments they are experiencing. The bedrock reality is, we are all on the same team no matter what size church we attend. We should celebrate any healthy growth another congregation in our community experiences. So embrace your roll in the Kingdom, you have your own field to labor in, and God has you right where He planted you for a reason.