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Christian Life, Culture, Evangelism

Jesus and Comfortable Distance

November 28, 2016

 

 

Several years ago I had a somewhat heated discussion with some staff members at a church about whether or not it was reasonable to ask the congregation to take a somewhat significant step of faith in the realm of finances. I pointed to Jesus’ command to not worry about money or clothing but to instead seek the kingdom of God, and the general response was along the lines of “that’s a nice sentiment, but you’re still young and you don’t have kids or anything yet, so you don’t understand that you can’t ask that much from people.”

I left that conversation pretty frustrated and disillusioned. It felt like the church leadership was culling what, to me, seemed a clear and challenging statement from Jesus, making it into something safe and comfortable for the middle class crowd that showed up each week. Doesn’t Jesus’ command override what we feel we can or can’t do based on our life situation? Is our security and comfortability Jesus’ priority, or is he pushing us toward something else?

I’m older now (at least by a little bit), and I have a kid. My wife and I live in a nice three bedroom house that we’re able to afford only because of our landlord’s generosity. Over the last couple months we’ve had multiple conversations about the incredible pressure there is to conform to the comfortable – to co-opt following Christ and make it a means of making us feel good.

It does make us feel good to go to church, to sing worship songs, and to know that we’re going to heaven and our sins have been forgiven. It’s comfortable to go each Sunday and know what to expect, to smile and greet the people you see each week, and to sit in “your spot” in the sanctuary. Because we, pastors and church leaders included, so love comfort that we structure our churches and our lives (often unconsciously) to keep anything that might threaten us at a comfortable distance.

The problem is that when you come to Jesus – the real Jesus – he refuses to leave you any room for comfortable distance from the difficulties of the world.

Jesus’ Uncomfortable Closeness

Jesus went out of his way to get close to people and situations that would make almost anyone uncomfortable. We see him converse with a demonized, severely mentally ill man and bring healing up close rather than praying from a distance (Mark 5:1-17). He touches a man with a debilitating, highly contagious disease (Luke 17:11-19). He converses in public with a religious and political outsider (John 4). His whole life was a stepping in closer than comfort would allow for the sake of comforting those who were afflicted. He spends time with drunkards, the homeless, prostitutes, and all the people that make our conservative, middle-class sensibilities shudder and scrabble for “wise” reasons to keep our distance.

It wouldn’t be wise to give to the person begging for money at the intersection because he might spend it on alcohol, despite the fact that Jesus said “give to the one who asks from you” (Matt 5:42) with no qualifications. The church shouldn’t have to deal with people who are mentally ill or disruptive to the service, despite the fact that Jesus seems to welcome such disruptions and bring restoration to those who are broken. We shouldn’t have to give too much of our time or money or possessions because it wouldn’t be wise to not have boundaries, despite the fact that our lives are supposed to be living sacrifices.

My friends, Jesus is the epitome of wisdom, and his wisdom looks a lot like uncomfortable closeness – stepping into difficult situations in the power of God and bringing change. He most certainly did not stay at a distance.

Our Call for Closeness

Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” If we are truly going to follow Jesus we need to get out of our safe spaces and go even into uncomfortable situations. Would you go with Jesus into a village where there was an ebola outbreak? Into the home of a prostitute? To sit with the man who is twitching on the street corner? I certainly hope so.

If you have the Holy Spirit, when you go into those places today you go with Jesus. Christ followers ought to be the first ones to go to the people and places that the world (the religious world especially) avoids. Any form of Christianity that makes us feel good and righteous apart from serving and loving those who make us uncomfortable is false religion. As James wrote in his Epistle, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Jesus exemplified it. He stepped out of the security, peace, and comfort of his position in heaven to come into this earth and get close with troubled humanity. the Father’s call for us is to go to those same people.

I don’t want to get 10 years into leading a ministry and be making excuses for why we’re not doing what Jesus said to do. I don’t want the American dream to have more say in my life than the Kingdom-of-God dream that my Lord offers. Let’s take conscious steps out of our comfort zones and into faith, befriending, loving, and serving those who the rest of the world rejects. In Jesus there’s no room for comfortable distance – only the dreadful, beautiful power of grace and love to break down any and all barriers for the sake of saving those who are wounded and wandering. Amen?

 

 

 

Christian Life, Culture, Faith

Defend Your God

August 15, 2016

 

 

 

Nothing gets people as riled up as religion and politics, or so the common sentiment goes. Conversations on either topic can spiral from polite to ferocious in a matter of moments as all involved work to hold their ground and prove their point. Bitter divisions can evolve from just a brief encounter.

I can’t help but wonder if such conflict is really God’s way for his people, particularly in the realm of religion. Are we called to be “defenders of the faith” who forcibly prove the truth of Christianity? Should we protest when the ten commandments are removed from courthouses? Organize rallies against professors who teach college students that God is a myth? The people of the world will fight tooth and nail for the honor of their idols of sexual freedom, personal pleasure, and relative truth. Should we Christians do the same for the one true God?

Religion and Rioting

There’s a scene in Acts 19 that may shed some light on these questions. Paul and a few of his fellow missionaries are in Ephesus, teaching those who have become believers how to walk in the ways of Christ when a silversmith named Demetrius, a man of some influence among the craftsmen in the city, makes this speech to his fellows;

You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

The craftsmen are outraged and “When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar.” Things quickly get out of hand as a mob gathers, dragging some of Paul’s companions to a local gathering place, everyone shouting and yelling for nearly two hours “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” until one of the city officials convinces everyone to calm down and go their separate ways.

Defend Your God

What drove this riot in Ephesus? Demetrius summarizes it this way; “the great goddess Artemis will be discredited…will be robbed of her divine majesty” if Paul and the Gospel he preached kept spreading.

For the Ephesians, Artemis was their identity and their idol. The goddess gave their city prominence and power. If someone attacked the goddess or threatened her preeminence then the people needed to defend her, and thus a riot begins and hours of shouting ensue, all to make sure that Artemis’ divine majesty is clear.

Not that much different from what takes place today in the name of politics and religion. The question is, does a shouting crowd truly prove the majesty and honor of Artemis? Do sharp-witted debates about the truth of creationism or the historicity of scripture prove the glory and power of Jesus?

I don’t think they do. And Paul doesn’t seem to either.

Our God Defends

Paul and the Ephesian believers don’t stage a counter protests. They don’t take to the streets to yell “Greater is Jesus Christ!” Instead they ride the wave of the uproar and when it subsides Paul leaves town after encouraging the believers who would remain. There’s no organized resistance, only quiet confidence in God just like what the Apostles demonstrated earlier in Acts when they were brought before the Sanhedrin.

You see, here’s the thing that separates followers of Christ from the people of this world; we don’t have to defend our God. He is the one who defends himself. There’s never any fear that he will be discredited or robbed of his divine majesty. In fact, our God not only defends himself, he also defends his people. See Moses and the Isrealites at the Red Sea, where God commands them to simply stand still and watch him work for their salvation. In stark contrast to Artemis and the tens of thousands of other “gods’ in this world who need their followers to defend them, the Christian God keeps his own glory and honor, and protects his people as well.

In a world that goes wild at the merest mention of the true God and the Gospel of Christ, I’m convinced it’s not our job to defend the faith. It’s not our job to organize rallies and protests and social media movements to get Christianity a seat at the cultural table so our God can be legitimate again. He’s never been illegitimized. Jesus is so glorious that even should the entire world attempt to shove him aside and ignore him, he would lose nothing. He doesn’t need men to defend him.

Instead we ought to live the faith, always being ready to give an answer when we are asked about the hope that we have. Like the Apostle Paul our day-by-day life ought to be so potently Spirit-filled that we shift the very foundations of the cultures we are in as we proclaim the Gospel and make disciples. Our job is to proclaim Christ and make disciples. It’s up to God how that will impact the culture. In the long run that is what will make true change.

 

 

 

 

Culture, Discipleship, Evangelism

Evangelism and the Prodigal Son – Part 1

August 8, 2016

 

 

 

Have you ever noticed that the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) never allows his son to fully proclaim his repentance? Instead of allowing the son who took and wasted half his wealth to speak his rehearsed apology and offer himself as a hired hand, the father cuts him off in the middle of his declaration that he’s not worthy by saying, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his fingers and sandals on his feet…” The apology is interrupted by the father’s celebration of the son’s return. The son isn’t given any space to prove his repentance or wallow in his sorrow. He’s returned. It’s time to celebrate.

Is this how people are treated when they return to God and step into the Christian community? In my experience, I don’t think Christian culture at large has practiced this well. We tend to want people to really prove their repentance before we celebrate their return. We want to see the “fruit” before we put the robes and rings on them. By fruit we generally mean show some real sorrow and agony over the bad stuff done in the past. Then when they’ve realllly demonstrated that they’re back to stay we can celebrate. But not too much, lest someone get the idea that sinning and leaving the father isn’t that big of a deal.

Does that align with God’s attitude and practice? Not if the father in this well known parable is an accurate reflection of God the Father.

Say you’re sorry

This kind of attitude has given us a mode of evangelism that’s aimed mainly at getting people to feel bad about their sin (i.e. be convicted) so that the forgiveness offered by Jesus will be appealing. They’ll see the beauty of the savior when they feel the fear of God, right? When they realize how far down their sin has taken them they’ll reach out for a savior to rescue them, won’t they?

There’s absolutely biblical merit to this. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that the law was given so that we might realize just how sinful sin was. The Old Testament prophets play strong and loud the note of God’s judgment and justice. John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness for repentance and fleeing from the wrath to come.

Here’s the thing though. In each of those instances the message is directed primarily at the people of God; those who already knew the law, had been raised with the stories of the Exodus, and had the context for a just God and a baseline knowledge for what sin was. They already had the mental framework on which to build that message.

For those of us in modern America, particularly those working with young adults and the coming generations, that’s no longer our context. It’s increasingly common to talk with people who have literally never read the Bible, have been to church maybe twice, and don’t have the moral groundwork that traditional bridge-diagram type Gospel presentations assume.

I believe the story of the prodigal son an often-overlooked element that can help us communicate the gospel to a culture that doesn’t have that context.  We need to ask the question, what was it that made the prodigal son return home to the father?

The Son’s Realization

Was it that he realized how sinful he was and that what he’d done was wrong? No. The text tells us that the son says to himself, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v.17) It was the son’s realization of his need (“here I am starving”) and remembrance of how good his father’s servants had it (they “have food to spare”) that drove him home.

It wasn’t a conviction that he had done something wrong that drove him home. If anything that conviction and shame of his wrongdoing is what kept him away for so long after squandering his inheritance. It was his need for food and memory of the good things that his father did for his servants that inspired his return.

Are our churches places where the goodness of God is on display? Are they places where people see something that they long for? Does our life together in Christ communicate that the Father’s children and servants “have food to spare”? When we present the Gospel, are we communicating it in a way that is actually good news for those to whom we are speaking?

Where Jesus, John, and the other apostles are blunt, often brutally so, about the need to repent when talking to religious people, the tone changes drastically when they are speaking to pagans who feel the shame of their sin but don’t have the knowledge of the law. Rather than trying to convince them that they’re sinners in need of grace (as most modern evangelistic trainings would have you do) they start with grace.

Witness the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) – Jesus welcomes and answers her questions, offering her the water of life and true connection before he ever mentions her sin. The thief on the cross simply hears the words “today you will be with me in paradise,” no repetition of the wrongs he’s done. In John 8 we see the woman caught in adultery who Jesus actually defends from the justice that the law demanded be meted out to her, explicitly saying “neither do I condemn you” before gently telling her to leave her life of sin. Zaccheus too, that wee little man, is never told to repent in Luke 19. Jesus simply says that he’s coming to stay at his house. It is Zacheus himself who brings up the wrong he’s done, repenting in that very moment.

Encountering Goodness

My friends, If we want to reach those who are not religious, we need to give them an encounter with the goodness of God rather than beginning with the battering of God’s wrath and justice. In their spirits they already know those things well, because the Holy Spirit is at work. As Paul writes in Romans 2, it’s the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God that leads people to repentance.
When you’re sharing the Gospel with someone for the first time, begin with the infinite grace that is found in Christ. Welcome prodigal sons into your midst where they can taste and see how good the sons and servants of the Heavenly Father have it! As we do so it’s like setting up a beautiful feast at the Father’s house next door to the pig sty that they’ve been living in. They’ll smell the rich food, hear the joy and laughter, and see just how good the Father’s servants have it. They will come home, and the Father will once again be ready to run to them with arms wide to clothe them with the righteousness of Christ.

 

 

 

 

Culture

Third Party

August 1, 2016

 

 

 

Is it ok to be ashamed to be an American, at least at the moment? Sorry Lee Greenwood. Because that I am, in large part due to the utter ridiculousness of the current election cycle. Oh, I love this beautiful country and am blessed to live here and am incredibly grateful for the men and women who have given their lives to defend the freedoms we have, but we seem to be on a spiral towards destroying ourselves, arguing and name calling rather than getting over our differences and working to fix things.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about politics on this blog, but there’s one thing that’s been a recurring comment made to me in the dozens of inevitable political conversations that come up throughout any given week as the move closer to the elections. It generally goes something like this:

The talk bounces back and forth between Trump and Hillary and each of their horrid constellations of accusations, hear-say, and outright lies, and then someone (often times me) brings up the fact that there are other people running for the office of President of the United States. Everyone nods sagely and agrees that those third party candidates seem a more appealing than either of the major party candidates.Then comes the comment that is apparently expected to, bafflingly, end any delusions about voting for a third party. It’s always something to the effect of, “Yea, but that’s just throwing away your vote. If vote for (insert third party candidate) you’re basically voting for (insert major party candidate).”

Seriously, where did this idea come from? Why is voting for a third party candidate who may not win the same as voting for a major candidate? Do our votes only count if they go to the winning team? That seems to be the logic at work in most of these conversations that I’ve had, and I don’t think that it makes any sense.

Just for fun, let’s put this kind of thinking into play in a few different scenarios and see if it works.

Scenario 1: Nazi Germany. Your options: join the Nazi party, escape to England to live with a cousin, or remain and rebel by secretly helping Jews escape the country even though you will most likely be caught and killed.

Is rebelling in secret the same as joining the Nazi party because your rebellion won’t defeat them? The logic that says “voting for a third party who may not win is the same as voting for a major party candidate that you really don’t want to win,” rebelling would be exactly that.

Scenario 2: You enter the grocery store to buy some fresh vegetables. There are three brands to choose from. You’ve done your research. One brand employs slave labor (but hey, they treat their slaves pretty well) to harvest their vegetables. The second brand uses pesticides that are known to cause cancer and that your child is allergic to, but they’re realllllly inexpensive. The third is a small local, ethical, organic brand that’s been struggling to stay afloat financially and may soon be bought out by the first brand.

Is buying the third, local brand the equivalent of supporting the first?

Scenario 3: You’re 14 years old and there are two dominant social groups at school, the jocks/cheerleaders and the preps. Between the two of them they control pretty much the whole social sphere, with the jocks being dominant. Much lower on the totem pole are the nerds and the punks. You’re new to the school and dislike both the jocks and the preps and how they treat people. What group will you choose to join?

Is joining the nerds or punks the equivalent of joining the jocks? Maybe you should join the preps, since having one more on their team might allow them to win.

 

I could give dozens more scenarios, but hopefully that communicates my point. Voting for a third party, if they align with your beliefs, is not the equivalent of voting for Trump or Hillary or whoever the major party candidates are at the time. Your vote is a statement about what you value. The purpose of it isn’t to put you on the winning team. It’s to communicate to our government in some small way what you believe, and that communication happens regardless of whether the candidate you vote for wins or not.

If there was any time in the history of our country that we need something other than one of the major party candidates, this is that time. As two of our founding fathers noted, there is a great danger to America if we are operating on a two party system. John Adams wrote,

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
– John Adams

And George Washington in his farewell address at the conclusion of his presidency echoed the sentiment about the dangers of “factions” in politics and how such parties with their sole leaders would bring great harm to the liberty of the people.

“The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

In my opinion we would do well to heed Adams’ and Washington’s warnings (albeit a bit lately) and look a bit wider than our current, broken two-party system.

A stool doesn’t function well with two legs. There are plenty of other options out there when you vote this fall. You may not agree with any of them. In that case, don’t vote if that’s what you feel you need to do to communicate what you believe. But please, please don’t buy the lie that your vote is wasted if you don’t vote republican or democrat.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Culture

Church Discrimination

July 11, 2016

 

 

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
– James 2:1-4

Martin Luther King Jr stated, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

For the last five years I’ve attended Salem Evangelical Free church, an amazing community of Jesus-followers here in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Before that I attended a similar church in the Brainerd area, and throughout the years I’ve been able to visit hundreds of churches as I’ve traveled and explored. I’ve noticed that, by and large, the evangelical church is a place for middle-class white families. It’s implicit in the architecture, language, staffing, and programs of most churches. It is, intentionally or otherwise, often as MLK Jr. said.

Oh, we’d never do what James is confronting the church about in the second chapter of his letter and make someone sit on the floor or stand in the corner because they’re different. At least, not verbally. But we do it incredibly well without using words. Our posture, our disapproving glances, our easy avoidance of conversation all work to exclude and declare that we do indeed play favorites and, as usual, it’s the middle class white folks who are favored.

The Problem of Privilege

If the racial tension and conflict that has erupted in the past few years around the United States has made anything clear, it’s that there is such a thing as ingrained, subtle “favoritism” (i.e. racism) in our country. It’s subtle enough that it’s found it’s way into the culture of many of our churches, setting up certain unspoken expectations that say loudly, “you don’t fit in here.”

The twenty four year old man who grew up in church, attended youth group, and is familiar with the cultural ins and outs of Christianity won’t feel uncomfortable if they enter a church and walk to their seat without being welcomed. But for the person not raised in church, for the person of another race, and for the person who doesn’t fit the expected “look” of a church person, being ignored is a declaration that they aren’t welcome.

In the above verses the apostle James makes it clear, “believers in our Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism,” and yet our churches are often structured to do exactly that. The culture we’ve created often communicates who we favor and who we don’t. Sermons that spend extensive time discussing “the greek” implicitly exclude the less educated. Immaculate, clean cut decor communicates that you need to have it together to fit in. Worship bands that play comfortable Chris Tomlin songs with no expression of emotion hint that those from more exuberant, outwardly expressive cultures should tone it down or find somewhere else to attend.

I could go on, but you get the point.

If we believe James’ words are the heart of Christ, then we must ask ourselves what we need to do to bend back against the default favoritism that’s shown to the middle class white families that fill our church and instead create a place that is equally welcoming to those of other races, lifestyles, socio-economic classes, and fashion preferences.

I want to offer four practical things that we as individuals and churches as organizations can do.

How To Not Show Favoritism

  • Determine to not define others by their appearance.

In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell discusses the incredible power of the human ability to make assumptions based on our first-glance impression. We are literally wired to make snap judgments based on stereotypes.

The first step towards not showing favoritism within our faith communities is to intentionally postpone your internal judgment about others until you’ve conversed with them, heard some their story, and known them as a person. Don’t let yourself assume that the guy covered in tattoos is a rough person. Don’t assume that the homeless-looking man is a lazy drunk, or that the young asian man is an international student. Determine not to define others by their appearance and you’ll make significant progress against prejudice.

  • Declare that they are welcome.

The real work of combating favoritism in our churches comes on the ground level of relationships, but requires corporate involvement as well. Pastors, worship leaders, and the announcement guy/girl should go out of their way to declare from the stage that the church is excited to have a wide variety of people present. They should affirm the fact that we have a God who delights in different cultures and the vast uniqueness of his human creations. Bonus points if you have people from other cultures and social classes in the role of pastor, worship leader, announcer, etc.

  • Operate with outsiders in mind.

On a corporate level it’s also crucial to operate with the outsiders in mind. Those who have the stage should speak with an awareness that there are people who are different than them present. Define things clearly. If there are non-native english speakers present use less plain English. If there are people with no church background there, give them tips as to what’s coming next. Help them navigate the waters of Christian culture so that they feel valued.

  • Befriend them.

Finally and most importantly, those of us who are a part of Christ’s church must go out of our way to befriend those who are different than us. Pause the conversation with your friends after church and engage in real dialogue with the person who looks different from the rest of the group. Get to know the homosexual couple and invite them out for lunch. Discover the stories of the students from Bangladesh. Skip the sermon to chat with the homeless couple that wanders in just for the coffee.

 

Jesus refused to show favoritism. Instead of doing the expected and spending his time with the other teachers of the law and Pharisees since he was a teacher and a rabbi, he intentionally inserted himself into the company of those different from him. Even his incarnation is, in itself, a rejection of favoritism and a radical affirmation of crossing cultural barriers. Jesus went out of his way to welcome us into his Father’s household, going so far as to adopt us as brothers and sisters in his family. Because of what Christ has done we too are called to go out of our way to ensure that we are not the “judges with evil thoughts” who discriminate amongst the people present.

Let us, the followers of Jesus, be the ones who shower abroad the favor that has been poured upon us. As we do so may our churches become places that demonstrate the supernatural unifying power of the God of Peace who brings together men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation. What a beautiful declaration that will be to a country and a world so obsessed with race and division. As Jesus said, it is by our love for one another that they will know we are his disciples, and where love is there is little room for favoritism.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Commentary, Culture

The Year of Opinion

June 20, 2016

 

 

 

Hello 2016. You and your people are strange beasts, so driven by emotion and caught up in the tumble-cycle of instant feedback and unlimited validation. Everyone here seems to think that whoever has the strongest emotional reaction must be the most right. Whoever hollers loudest has the most power. Whoever is the most provocative and/or different should get the largest audience and probably be president. Or something like that. It’s the year of opinion. Hop on the nearest social media platform, website, blog, or news station and let’s go for a ride.

It might benefit you and I to take a step back. Or, better yet, a few thousand year’s worth of steps back. Back to when the book of Proverbs was written and someone with the hand of God behind their writing declared the proverb,

The way of fools seems right to them,
but the wise listen to advice.

Fools show their annoyance at once,
but the prudent overlook an insult.
– Proverbs 12:15, 16

Let’s step back for a moment, 2016, and think about this for a second.

The Fool

“The way of fools seems right to them…Fools show their annoyance at once.”

Self-diagnosis time. Here’s a few of the symptoms of foolishness. You decide whether you’re infected or not:

  • The fool feels the urge to jump into every conversation, particularly when the subject at hand is something they disagrees with. Their opinion must be heard.
  • The fool is easily annoyed and offended because their identity is in his opinions. If you disagree with them they’re going to have a hard time being your friend.
  • The fool acts on the emotion and whim of the moment, ignoring possible consequences and just doing what their heart tells them.

If I’m honest it feels like most of us in 2016 land in the fool category of this proverb. We’ve bought into the utterly modern idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion and that because it’s their opinion it must be right for them. That expressing our emotions is legitimate because anything else would just be inauthentic and, here in 2016, inauthenticity is the worst of sins.

The Wise

“The wise listen to advice…the prudent overlook an insult.”

Second round of self-diagnosis. It’s not enough to know the negative side. We need to see what healthy looks like. In direct contrast to the symptoms that the fool displays, the wise person exhibits characteristics like these:

  • The wise person listens and considers, even values, the opinions of others.
  • The wise person overlooks insults and assumes the best about the other person, regardless of what they’ve done in the past.
  • The wise person acts according to the truth, not emotion.

No one wants to be the fool, yet the world around us is structured for the cultivation of people who operate exactly like the fool describe here in Proverbs 12. The question is, how do we move out of the fool category and into the life of wisdom?

It’s really not complicated. 1 Corinthians 1:24 declares that Christ is the wisdom of God to us. Want to be wise? Get Jesus. When you receive him you receive his Spirit, which is the Spirit of all wisdom. If you know Jesus you’re no longer the fool (even if you occasionally act like it); you’re now full of wisdom and prudence.

The Christ-Follower

Let’s be who we are. If you know Jesus you know that he’s the one with the ways of righteousness, and that more often than not the ways that you plan out miss the mark. You’re more than ready to listen to advice from others, because you recognize that you still have more to learn.
Our identity is in Jesus, not our opinions. We can readily stand, smile, laugh, and overlook an ocean of insults. If our master could bear the insult and mockery of roman soldiers and the pain of the cross, how much more can we who have his Spirit bear verbal jibes?

Brothers and sisters, it’s not our rightness or our vehement declaration of our opinions that leads others to Jesus. It’s in our humility, forbearance, and love that we demonstrate the kindness of God that leads people towards repentance. The wise listen to advice, don’t feel the need to proclaim their opinions, and overlook insults easily. Let’s be those people.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Culture, Life

Facebooking while the world burns

March 28, 2016

 

 

The internet has both distanced us and brought us closer to what’s taking place around the world. We have almost invasive awareness of news that even fifty years ago would have barely touched at the edges of our attention. At the same time we have exponentially increasing demands on our attention from thousands of trivial things from Vine compilations of the cutest kittens meeting puppies for the first time (who has time to compile these things anyways?) to a myriad of mobile games (Hearthstone, anyone?) to twenty articles that say the exact same thing about Starbucks cups and Donald Trump.

The constant barrage of world news isn’t a bad thing. The question is, what do we do with it? When the news of dozens killed or wounded in Brussels flows through our feed, accompanied by strident reminders that Brussels isn’t the only event of its kind in the last week, how should we respond? When heart-tugging photos of Syrian refugees fill the screen, along with opinions about whether they should be allowed here or there or anywhere else, what should we do?

With the massive amount of information at our fingertips our default has become calloused minimal interest. Glance, absorb, and move on. Read, comment, forget. Such cool evaluation and response is dangerous for the soul and raises the ire of the God who created the human beings that we so quickly pass over.

Listen to God’s words to the elite of Israel in their comfort and ease, casually absorbing the news of tragedy around them and moving on:

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
to whom the people of Israel come!
Go to Kalneh and look at it;
go from there to great Hamath,
and then go down to Gath in Philistia.
Are they better off than your two kingdoms?
Is their land larger than yours?
You put off the day of disaster
and bring near a reign of terror.
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful
and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end.
– Amos 6

“Woe to you who are complacent…to you who feel secure.”

If I’m honest with myself, that’s me. If I look around at the people I spend most of my time with here in Fargo, that’s us. We’re safe and secure. Terrorists wouldn’t target little ol’ Fargo, right? Tsunami’s won’t happen here. Earthquakes are incredibly unlikely. Our worries are generally something along the lines of whether it will be really cold this winter (it will) and if our car will start if it does get really cold (it might not). In our security we embrace complacency and slowly, silently our souls are crushed.

“You lie on beds adorned with ivory…You strum away on your harps”

Here we are, sitting on our plush couches watching Netflix, simultaneously flipping through our favorite social media outlet’s feed. Here we are, enjoying song after song via Spotify and eating at any of the dozens of restaurants within a ten minute drive from our home. Lounging, eating, and singing while the world around us explodes, is shot, sleeps on the roadside, and begs for food.

“Go to Kalneh and look at it”

God’s words for those who sit in comfort, blissfully and intentionally ignorant of the pain around them are no easy words. “Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.” Now, clearly we are not Israel. These words of the Lord shouldn’t be taken as a promise that if we don’t act God’s going to put America in a situation similar to Syria. They do, however, give us significant insight into God’s desire for his people, reinforced by the example of Jesus and the way he refused to shy back from the pain of the world.

My friends, we need to refuse to turn our faces aside; to refuse to scroll past too quickly. Solomon, in his God-given wisdom, wrote in Ecclesiastes 7,

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Don’t block out the pains of this earth. In a world where thousands of means of entertainment combine with a deluge of information to callous our hearts, we must intentionally engage our emotions when we are exposed to the hardships around us. Rather than moving on so quickly we must slow down and leverage the tools God has given us to empathize with those who are hurting.

Here’s a couple quick, easy ways that we can do this;

  • Use your imagination and put yourself in the refugee’s shoes before you post an opinion on what should be done with them.
  • “Go to Kalneh” by reading background information on the countries and people you hear about so you know at least some of the story.
  • Skip the latest Walking Dead episode or the newest superhero movie and instead read a novel that tells the story of someone who’s gone through hardship.
  • Get off your couch, shut off your music, and go meet some real people who are in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter for an hour or two. Befriend some refugees.

If we are to be full followers of Christ then, like him, we must refuse to avoid the hard things of this world. We can’t avoid the pain. We need to learn to engage our emotions fully and respond with compassion. Most of us aren’t able to physically go to Belgium or Syia or Pakistan, and most of us don’t have the connections to make on-the-ground changes in those places of pain, but we can all refuse to lounge, eat, and Facebook while the world burns, instead turning our prayers and passions more in line with the heart of our great God who calls his people to be ambassadors of his kingdom to everywhere that there is brokenness and hurt.

 

 

 

Culture, Life, Spiritual Warfare

Fear Not

March 2, 2016

 
We live in an age of terror. Where fifty years ago the average person’s main news outlets were the local newspaper, a few radio stations, and word of mouth, today we’re standing in the middle of dozens of channels of global news. We’re inundated with the flood of horror stories from around the globe and across our country. Video of ISIS murdering dozens in Syria, a barrage of articles about armed stand offs within our own country, radio discussions about rogue nations testing possible nuclear warheads, and plenty more. The world is increasingly operating on a foundation of fear.

Nowhere is this more clear than the current American presidential race. The vast majority of political candidates are using fear as the main driver for their campaigns. Be afraid of muslims and vote for me because I’ll keep you safe. Be afraid of financial collapse. Be afraid of the establishment. Be afraid of the rich and the banks. Be afraid of the future. Fear is, sadly, the politician’s most effective tool.

Hard truth time. If your mind is filled more with fear and worry than faith and worship, you’re dishonoring God.

Every day we’re given hundreds of reasons to live in fear. And, to the delight of the Devil, fear and worry have become the default for many Jesus followers. We, like the world we live in, get swept away by the torrent and fall prey to Satan’s attacks, forgetting that, as the Apostle Paul writes, “true love casts out fear.”

When we partner with fear and let it direct our thoughts, we’re denying God and affirming the evil one. I want to take one verse and three key moments in Jesus’ life and remind you today that you literally have no good reason to live in fear. As George Whitfield said, “We are immortal until our work on earth is done.” What do those who are invincible and immortal have to fear?

There’s a moment early on in Jesus’ ministry where he’s teaching a crowd of Israelites and they get so ferociously angry at his words that they try to arrest him in order to kill him. John summarizes the moment by writing, “These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20). Note that last sentence; “because his hour had not yet come.”

Safe from arrest

These seven words make a massive statement about just how secure our lives are. Jesus couldn’t be arrested because his hour had not yet come. The Father had a time set for his arrest, and it wasn’t then. No matter how vicious the crowd, no matter how fiercely they desired his arrest, Jesus could stand unafraid because his hour had not yet come and until his hour came he was invincible.

We serve the same God that Jesus did. He has the same care and power in our lives. No matter what the political reality of the present or future may be, no matter how viciously people oppose us, no matter how angry others may be, we are utterly safe. We have nothing to fear, because God is good.

Safe from Satan

Later in his ministry as he nears his betrayal and murder, Jesus says to his disciples,

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (John 14:30-31)

Catch that? Jesus calmly notifies his followers that Satan is coming for him, but he’s not afraid. The devil has no claim on him. Oh, he’ll go along with things and be crucified, but not in fear. He goes to the cross in faith, “so that the world may know that I love the Father.”

If you are a follower of Jesus you have the same Spirit that he did. You can, by faith, say with equal boldness, “the ruler of this world has no claim on me” and face even the most potent of demonic opposition without giving an inch to fear.

Safe in death

The story doesn’t stop there though, as you probably know. Jesus goes forward in love and is crucified. He dies, but even in death Jesus doesn’t give way to fear. He is utterly confident that his Father is sovereign even over the power of death. Jesus is just as safe in death as he was in that moment at the outset of his ministry when the Jews wanted to arrest him.

You too, like Jesus, can face even death with confidence. Paul writes in Romans that those who are connected with Jesus will surely be resurrected like him. Even in dying you’re secure.

Here’s the deal, my friends- fear focuses on the situation; faith focuses on the savior. We live in a world that says “be afraid, be very afraid!” ten thousand times a day. We have a savior who has said, “Do not be afraid, I am with you always” and proven it a million times over. Whose story are you going to buy? What kind of life are you going to live?

I for one don’t want to let fear define how I live. I want to be a love promoter, bold and laughing in the face of fear because I know my Father is the one with all the power. He has all the power and he’s promised that he’s going to use it for the good of everyone who have put their faith in Jesus. Get on board. Build your anchor on Christ, the firm foundation. Set aside all worry and doubt and trembling and embrace the truth; if you’re in Jesus, God loves you and is for you. You’re invincible. What do you have to worry about?

 

 

 

Christian Life, Culture, Evangelism, young adults

Five ways to bear witness in a post-Christian culture

December 28, 2015

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

  • 1 Peter 2:11-25

 

In the last generation and a half Western culture’s opinion of Christianity has shifted from generally positive to downright terroristic. Christians have gone from being seen as nice people to being characterized primarily as dogmatic bigots, sexually backward traditionalists, and ignorant conservatives. The backlash from four hundred plus years of Christendom is coming full force, and as others have noted (See here and here for a couple insightful articles along these lines) we need to set aside our assumptions of being a majority with significant cultural clout and learn to live into the role of exiles and a minority.

This is especially true for millennials, young adults, and the following generations who will (and do) live in the midst of this quickly-coalescing anti-Christian culture., The book of 1st Peter will become an increasingly valuable Biblical guidebook for how to live in light of exile and how to bear witness to Christ in a world that has little to no positive associations with Christianity.

In 1 Peter 2 the apostle lays out a strange strategy for bearing witness to Christ in exile. In contrast with the common evangelism tactics used over the last fifty years or so, Peter’s strategy doesn’t have much to do with cold-calls, getting people to acknowledge their sinfulness, or preaching on street corners. Honestly it doesn’t have much to do with speaking at all; it has everything to do with living a kind of life that brings up questions. Here’s what Peter calls the people he’s writing to to do in order to bear witness:

1. Stop sinning

In verse 11 he writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” How can a believer bear witness to the power and glory of the Gospel of Christ in a post-Christian culture? By removing the sin from their lives. Cut out lust and pornography, lying and manipulation, self-praise and laziness and the world around you will begin to wonder what the source of your transformation is.

2. Do good

It’s not enough to stop doing bad things. Instead, we must “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”Our lives should overflow with good deeds – from helping a new neighbor move in to congratulating a coworker on their success to giving generously of our finances. Our lives should be so full of good deeds that other people can’t help but be impressed.

3. Submit to authority (even bad ones)

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” Oh how hard this presses against our American tendency to assert our right to overthrow unjust and ungodly authority! We’re quick to fill Facebook feeds with articles insulting Obama and calling for the reform of American government, but does that truly reflect the character of Christ who submitted silently to the questioning of Pilate and bore stoically the utterly unjust weight of the cross?

The world, post-Christian or otherwise, knows well how to buck the authorities they dislike. What will bring questions and bear witness to patient faith in God is not mainly civil disobedience and moral outrage; it is submitting, for the Lord’s sake, to even unjust human authorities. (Disagree? Comment below.)

4. Honor everyone

“Show proper respect to everyone…fear God, honor the emperor.” Not only are we to submit to even evil authority, we are to honor everyone. Everyone here means – you guessed it – everyone.

Christian, do you know how to honor homosexuals? Are you equipped to honor, regardless of their policy on immigration/taxes/social security/ISIS/gender norms, the next President of our country? Will you be prepared to honor your boss when they fire you simply for being a Christian or will you take to social media and release your righteous, fully justified indignation? Trevin Wax has some wise words about honor and social media. (http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2013/11/25/does-your-facebook-rant-honor-everyone/) We followers of Jesus should be known for the way we are fair and honorable towards those who we disagree with and dislike.

In my personal opinion this practice of honoring everyone may be the most powerful tool for bearing witness to Christ in a post-Christian culture. We need to learn how to leverage it.

5. Love other believers

Peter commands us to honor everyone, but to “love the family of believers.” Echoing Jesus’ command in John 13, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” Peter echoes that indeed, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Love goes above and beyond honor. Where honor can be done solely on the outside, bowing externally while the inside is raging, love demands a peculiar level of affection. Love covers over differences and focuses on the good of the other. Love ignores petty divisions and searches out common ground on which to stand. If we want to reach young adults and millennials and a post-Christian world, love must be the tone of every conversation and interaction we have with other Christians. Petty divisions be damned, love be all.

 

As I look out over the collapse of Christendom I see a world of opportunity. I see a generation of young adults who are hungry for true spirituality and who are eager for purpose in life. in the midst of our culture’s is increasing opposition to Christianity we have a massive opportunity to help them correctly redefine what it means to follow Jesus. It is as we “live such good lives among the pagans” that we will bear witness and be the re-writers of those definitions.

Let’s begin to live that kind of life and “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” As we do so we will begin to see the fruit of true conversions and discipleship take place. Truly, there is no other way.

 

 

 

Culture, Discipleship, Evangelism, Leadership

Celebrate the right sheep

December 16, 2015

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’

-Luke 15:1-7

 

Jesus constantly seems to go against our expectations. Our priorities are, more often than not, in direct opposition to his.

No where is this more clear than in the world of ministry when we look at what is talked most frequently about and celebrated most consistently. In my experience we generally default to celebrating the fact that we have a whole bunch of really good Christians in our ministry/church/small group. Oh, we’re not so backwards as to measure only attendance. Our measurements hinge on the holiness and “christiany-ness” of the people who we’re ministering to. Do we have a group of people who are really working hard at obeying Christ, studying their Bibles daily, and praying together? Let’s celebrate! Have the believers in our care grown spiritually? Time to party!

Jesus, however, says that there’s more celebration in heaven over the recovery of one lost sheep than there is over the many already found. Jesus says that there are more parties in heaven when someone moves from lost to found than for when someone who is already in Christ gets in a small group or develops a Bible reading habit.

Which one are you and your ministry celebrating? Which are you prioritizing; the keeping, feeding, and training of your existing sheep or the recovery of lost ones?

Judging by the parables in Luke 15, Jesus thinks the priority (and the party) is for the recovery of those who are lost. Those who are the shepherds of God’s people are called to be missionaries, not managers. Somewhere along the way we get caught up with managing the growth of those who are already saved and lose sight of finding the lost. If we want to line up with God’s priorities for us  we need to shift how we operate and what we celebrate.

Drawing from Jesus’ three parables in Luke 15, there are at least four things that we can to do create a culture that aligns with heaven and celebrates the recovery of lost sheep more than the management of the saved ones.

Trust God with the ones that are already found

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

What a foolish shepherd! He leaves 99 sheep alone in the open country to go after one! Doesn’t he know that sheep are defenseless and there are predators around and that other sheep will wander off while he’s gone? That, at least, is how we generally operate. But not so for the ideal shepherd that Jesus portrays here. This shepherd trusts God to protect the sheep that are already with him. He operates as a missionary rather than a manager and goes after the one, knowing that God will keep those who are his.

Are we truly trusting God with those who are his, or are we spending our time fretting over keeping the sheep that we already have?

Go searching

The shepherd doesn’t wait for his lost sheep to come back. The old woman doesn’t wait for her coin to show up magically. In both cases they search. Want to have lost sheep rescued through the ministry God’s given you and brought into the kingdom of God? Step out of your safe, found-sheep security and get out into the wilderness. Get down on your hands and knees and look in the places where a coin might go. Go where the lost are. Stop expecting them to come to you – they’re lost. Start searching.

Do you have time set aside in your schedule – especially if you’re a vocational minister – to be in places where people who aren’t believers hang out?

Welcome sinners and eat with them

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

When you go searching, don’t drop in to throw out a gospel presentation and then disappear. Instead, settle in and share a meal. Make friends. Jesus makes a point of spending his time in places where the lost spent time.

When was the last time that you shared a meaningful meal with someone who wasn’t a believer? Who can you name as a real friend that’s not a “found sheep”? If the religious people are muttering about you, you’re probably doing something right.

When a sheep/son/coin is found, party!

What we celebrate is a huge statement about what we value. Three times in this chapter Jesus emphasizes how much God values the return of a lost person. Heaven rejoices at the recovery of a lost sheep. God the Father throws huge parties when his lost children return home. We ought to do the same thing. After all, what better reason for celebration than the salvation of an immortal soul?

When someone who was lost is found, gather your friends and neighbors and party! Go all out in extravagance. Let your celebration echo heaven and be a statement to those in your ministry that what gets you stoked is the saving of the lost. Invite those who aren’t believers in to the party and let it be a statement to them that coming to Christ is more than just assenting to a set of rules.

 

I want to be like Jesus in this. Over the last few months I’ve found myself getting frustrated at the slow growth of the found sheep under my care. God used Jesus’ parables here in Luke 15 to push me back and challenge me to evaluate what I’m valuing, and I believe he may want you to do the same thing.

Let’s get our priorities straight. Celebrate the return of the lost sheep. Be a missionary, not a manager.