Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Itching Ears and Civil Religion

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions."  Paul, 2 Timothy 4:3

As a young seminary student, every time I heard this passage expounded upon in a chapel service, it was nearly always applied to theological liberalism.  I was preparing for ministry during the latter period of my denomination's "conservative resurgence," a time when the authority of Biblical truth was threatened with compromise, and a time when we were repeatedly warned by visiting speakers to be vigilant.  After all, there would be those I would preach to as a pastor each Sunday who would not appreciate my devotion to the whole counsel of God--those who might even walk out in protest, and find another church home with another pastor who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

In those same days, Jack Graham had recently moved from Florida to be the new pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, and Robert Jeffress was burning books in Witchita Falls.  I would never imagine that 20 years later, I'd be reading this passage and thinking first of them.

Yet, this was the passage that came to mind as I read a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, describing these two men--alongside a few others--threatening to pull their church's financial support of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  The ERLC is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention--speaking to Southern Baptists to help them best express their faith in the public square, and to some extent also speaking for Southern Baptists and representing our doctrinal distinctives and social concerns to leadership in Washington, D.C.

For several years, I was on record advocating the elimination of this entity, which by 2011 had become little more than a Republican Party echo chamber.  I saw the $4 million given in support of this entity annually as better invested in missionary work abroad.  But in 2013, the ERLC trustees named Russell Moore as their new President.  Moore represented a new generation of Baptist ethics that while holding firmly to historic Christian faith--and subsequently deeply entrenched views on some important social issues--nevertheless presented itself as "above" the fray of partisanship.  Under his leadership, our commitment to protect unborn children hasn't moved an inch, but our "pro-life" position has been more holistically applied to minorities, women, the poor, the immigrant, and the refugee.

Full disclosure: Russ is an old friend and former seminary classmate whom I have always respected and admired.  But it was his leadership at the ERLC that restored my faith in the purpose of that entity.  And it was that consistent leadership on moral issues that made him a sharp critic of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate--criticism that called into question the apparent hypocrisy of so many public Christian leaders who threw their support behind a man whose lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the Biblical description of righteousness.  Once Mr. Trump became the Republican nominee, most evangelical Christians understood that hard decisions were in front of them, and respected each other even when  sometimes coming to different conclusions regarding what one should do when arriving in the voting booth.  But Moore's constant reminders that the public support and unbridled advocacy of Trump by Christian leaders was a bridge too far was enough to ruffle the feathers of those supporters, including Robert Jeffress, who later said that any Christian who didn't vote for Trump was a "mamby pamby, panty-waisted, weak-kneed, hypocritical fool."

Now, the same guy who lashed out in this way is joined by others who claim Moore was "disrespectful."

Pot, meet kettle.

What we are witnessing now among too many evangelical pastors is a regurgitated form of Zealotism that seeks to curry favor with power, even if obtaining that cultural favor makes us appear to the culture as just another interest group rather than representatives of a higher Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20).   And when zealotism is mixed with theology, the result is a really ugly baby called civil religion.

And in this case, civil religion means orthodoxy is determined by the mob.  Louisiana Baptist Executive David Hankins expresses this view accurately when he stated that the issues surrounding Moore are the result of "disagreement with a large majority of his constituents."  Until reading this, it never occurred to me that in a denomination supposedly committed to the absolute truth and authority of Scripture, "he isn't saying what we want to hear" would, by itself, be sufficient grounds for a heresy trial.

And what about the historic Baptist principle of dissent?  Healthy exchanges during disagreement aren't always comfortable, and they can sometimes even be offensive, but they are an excellent way to arrive at the truth, provided we are listening both to the Holy Spirit and each other.  Without this, "group-think" infects us like cancer, and healthy congregational environments turn into toxic "democracies."

And that sets a horrible example for our churches.  Years ago while leading a local Baptist Association, I moderated a very painful business meeting, the end of which was punctuated by the resignation of a faithful pastor.  Pressured by a group within the church to whom he said things they didn't want to hear, he finally had all he could take, and left.

My next meeting with church leadership was for the purpose of charting a course of congregational healing and restoration, but the leaders wouldn't have it.  "Why," I asked, "wouldn't you want to try to make things right?  You are at odds with your brothers and sisters and the unity of this body is threatened.  Why not make attempts to reconcile?"

The answer from one of the men still haunts me to this day.  "Because we won," he said.

I have yet to hear anyone successfully challenge the truthfulness of anything Russ Moore said this election season.  I have only heard that he was "disrespectful" and didn't say what others wanted to hear.  Those making those claims "won."  The candidate they championed will move into the White House on January 20.  So why keep fighting?  Is it guilt?  It is shame?  Or could it be that their candidate rubbed off a little too much?  Nothing is worse than a sore loser--except perhaps, a sore winner who doesn't feel they have been "congratulated" enough.

Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Hankins, William Harrell and others need to knock it off.  Stop pretending that the ERLC should somehow be punished because its President was more faithful than them in the proclamation of Biblical righteousness.

As it turns out, preachers sometimes have itching ears too.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: One More Word about Depression and Mental Illness

Our church family is currently in the midst of a series called "Hearing God Through the Holidays."  For those of you who joined us yesterday, I spoke about how depression and mental illness go into overdrive during the Christmas season, and we looked to God's Word in Psalm 42 to learn ways to cope, and hear the voice of our incarnate Savior above the depression.

I hope you walked away encouraged, and this morning I wanted to add a couple of things for clarification.

First, I urged caution yesterday with regard to the use of medication.   Our culture has developed a "pill popping" mentality that seeks a quick fix, and we should not give in to that mentality, especially where powerful psychotropic medication is concerned.

That said, psychotropic drugs aren't the only medications used to treat depression or other mental illnesses, and even when they are used legitimately, they aren't wrong.  My warning was for caution, not complete avoidance.  Additionally, while many of these medications result in the same pharmacological outcomes as some recreational drugs, medications for mental illness are NOT cocaine or heroin!  Many of the physicians and other health care and mental health professionals in our church family would want me to make this clarification for the sake of your own long-term mental health.

My point was and is simply this:  Be careful, be cautions, and seek more than one opinion, but if it is determined that medication is the best course for you, by all means, take it!  Listen carefully to the professionals who treat you.  We have many in our church family who love Jesus and His Word who can serve you well as you make the appropriate decisions about your mental health.

Second, mental illness and depression are medical problems.  Just like cancer, heart disease, or any other physical ailment, God can and does heal.  We have seen Him do that here in the past and give Him glory for that.  But He doesn't always choose to do so.  Ultimate healing on this side of heaven is not an unconditional promise to everyone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

I say that because yesterday I also mentioned that you can have victory over depression through the Gospel.  I believe that.  But I didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that this means if you don't eventually "get over it" that there is something wrong with you.  In particular, during the 9:00 AM service, I'm not sure I made it clear that depression may be something some of you have to struggle with for the rest of your lives, and the victory Christ intends for you is a daily victory as you surrender to Him for your strength, even as you continue to struggle.

Below is an article I wrote some years back just after the suicide of Matthew Warren.  My hope is that it will give you a broader picture of the posture I want our church family to assume as we move forward.  As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

Pastor Joel


On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew.  Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including  parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.

I watched, first of all, as a father of three.  There is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do for my children.  I can't imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.  My heart broke for the Warren's when I first heard of their son's death back in April.  Last night, this father's heart broke all over again.

But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind:  "Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?"  I want the church to be the first stop for people in need.  Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.

As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant.  Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church.  You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this:  48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness.  Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a "spiritual" issue.  By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness.  Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don't think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.

I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals!  I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health.  I've seen it with my own eyes--cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God's people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don't know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment.  Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.

In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture.  The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.

Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways.  General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15).  Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).

So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways.  Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed.  Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.

In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help.  Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn't always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith.  But we also can't dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned.  Some veins of historical science haven't exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I'm not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox.  Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.

With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field.  First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation.  To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.

Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual.  Admittedly there are times when this is the case.  Over the past 20 years, I've met with more than a few who claimed to "need counseling," when what they really needed was repentance.  But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us.  My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let's treat character issues like character issues, but let's treat illnesses like an illness.

Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other.  The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.

I'll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society.  We pop a pill for just about anything these days--when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins.  It is true that sometimes the answer isn't becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.  But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn't no medication.  Its appropriate medication.  Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance.  Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday.  Let's seek to understand each other within the church--the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters.  Let's equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let's cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.

As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories.  If the church doesn't play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential.  But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.  

We don't stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes.  We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.  Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.  

Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church.  Let's work toward that day!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Joseph of Nazareth and the Global Orphan Crisis

Yesterday, our church family observed "Orphan Sunday" two weeks late.  We didn't wait because the issue was unimportant.  We waited, not only to finish a prior series I had started on marriage, but also because we wanted to do this right.

The more than 150 million orphans deserve at least that much.

What does this crisis have to do with the church?  It would take a book rather than a blog post to answer that question (and if you want to read a good one you can find it here!) Our Gospel is itself a story of "alien children" formerly cut off from a God who through Christ welcomes us into His family as His own.  But yesterday, we spent a Sunday looking at the story of Joseph--the adoptive father of Jesus.

Most of the time when we speak of Joseph, its in terms of what he didn't do.  That's not bad.  The Scriptures teach, and we believe, that Jesus had no earthly biological father.  But often in the midst of rightly affirming Mary's virginity and thus Jesus' uniqueness within the human race, we forget that Joseph was his father.

As Matthew opens the narrative part of his Gospel, Mary and Joseph are already engaged to be married.  In the 1st century, engagement didn't look like it does today and involved far more than a diamond ring.  With Jewish engagement came all the expectations of a marriage except for living together and sex.  Legally speaking, your union at engagement required something very similar to a divorce to be broken.  And it is within that relationship that Matthew tells us "before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."

So Joseph now finds himself in a highly controversial, scandalous mess that is not of his own making.  The law actually required a man to divorce his wife for adultery, and a wife who did this to her husband could be stoned to death.  From every vantagepoint of 1st century Jewish society Mary had brought shame on her family, on Joseph, and on Joseph's family.  And Joseph has a decision to make in reaction to all of this.  Because he is an honorable man, he is not vindictive.  He has no desire to bring greater injury to Mary and her family, so he seeks a "quiet" separation.

But the other side of this is that because he didn't believe his fiance, he had no real desire to remedy the situation.  His actions--at least initially--indicate an attitude that says "I didn't cause this, so I'm just backing away because I don't need this kind of trouble."

Way too many Christians look at the global orphan crisis in exactly the same way.

Thankfully, an angelic visit convinces Joseph to get involved, and as a result, our Lord and Savior grew up with a father.  Aside from not sharing his son's DNA, Joseph was in every other sense, "Father."  It was Joseph that Jesus would have called "Abba" as a child--the nearest word we have to "Daddy."  And it was Jesus' identity as Messiah that is tied to the crucial decision that Joseph makes to adopt a child who is not his own flesh and blood.  From this story, we learn many things about the orphan care mandate.

Orphan care is often done in obscurity.  Joseph doesn't get a lot of recognition for this.  And in all likelihood, the recognition he does receive for this decision isn't good.  Claiming this child as his own probably did great damage to his personal reputation.  For the rest of their marriage I can imagine the whispers from the neighbors.  "Poor Joseph; hoodwinked by that whore Mary."  Or perhaps it sounded like this. "How irresponsible for Joseph to get himself into trouble with that girl!"

Doing the right thing, more often than not, will go unnoticed.  And sometimes it will even draw negative attention.   Most truly life-changing, world-altering work is like that.  It won't be covered on CNN.

Orphan care is costly.  It cost Joseph his reputation, and probably cost him business as well.  Later in the story, it will even cost him his home.  A genocidal crisis erupts under King Herod and Joseph now has to escape with his adopted son and wife to Egypt.  2000 years later, caring for the most vulnerable in the world still carries a high price tag.

When the church says "yes" to God's call to orphan care, it will involve standing with families, loving their children from another culture who in their adaptation to a new environment will often make a mess and disrupt order.  It will involve surrounding ourselves with he trauma of past abuse as we welcome children who have been subjected to it.  And it will involve creating a culture in which when you hear the word "orphan" at Covenant, you no longer think of an unfamiliar face on TV, but the names of kids you know.

Orphan care will wreck your life.  But in a good way.

Orphan care is spiritual warfare.  The story of Joseph involves a paranoid king who slaughters the most vulnerable for his own empowerment.  Herod orders all male children under the age of 2 to be executed.  Bethlehem is soaked in the blood of its most innocent.

And standing in between this bloodthirsty tyrant and the newborn Messiah is a lower-middle class, blue collar carpenter from Nazareth.

Wherever in the world that children are abused--be it in the home of a drug addict, in a war zone, or a Planned Parenthood clinic--there are bloodthirsty, profit-greedy tyrants involved who are enabled by Satan himself.  And right in the middle of it all, just like that carpenter from Nazareth, stands you and me.  When the church stands with orphans and their adoptive families we are running toward and not away from crises.  And when we do, we are engaging in a battle for the lives and souls of children that Jesus died to save.

Orphan care is the essence of the Gospel.  Eventually, the comparison between Joseph and any of us is going to break down.  There will never be another virgin birth, because there is no need for another one.  None of us is going to be the adoptive father of God incarnate.  Joseph is unique in that respect.

But the faith Joseph exercises is not unique.  It is the same faith Joseph's son James--the half-brother of Jesus--will later describe by saying "religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep yourself unstained from the world."

Bottom line: if our religious practice, no matter how pious, doesn't lead to holy living AND care for the most needy, it is empty and meaningless.

The half-brother of an adopted sibling wrote this!  I wonder what stories he heard growing up about his father's decision to treat his half-brother Jesus as if Jesus were his own?  Whatever he heard and experienced growing up in that home obviously had a profound effect on him.

Orphan care isn't just about "rescuing a child."  Its about growing in our own faith as well.  I want that to be the story of our church.  And there is a way we can make this our story.  Take the adoptive families we already have been blessed to have in our faith community, and make their stories normal.  If you were here yesterday and listened, you know God is already moving mightily in this area among many families, and we are almost doing this by accident.  Imagine the level of damage we could do to the kingdom of darkness, if we became intentional?

Monday, November 07, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: Is There a Man in Your House?

Since 1945, the age at which a boy becomes a man--a fully functional, responsible adult--has lengthened from 18 to 27.  From 1970 to 2000 the percentage of 30-year-old men who had taken a wife dropped from 85% to 33%.  They spend more on pornography each year than is spent on professional baseball, basketball and football combined.  On average, they spend three hours daily in front of a PlayStation or XBox.  They rape more than 683,000 women every year, and the wake of trauma they inflict on women and children in our culture is astounding.

We have a man crisis in our culture!

Yesterday, we continued our series "A Marriage Made on Earth" by looking at this crisis, and challenging men to be the kind of husbands God expects.  And for those who call themselves Christian, we have a perfectly ideal model for manhood in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.  But because too many men reject Jesus' model for manhood (regrettably, even in the church), we tend in our fallen natures to either become barbarians, or cowards.  Acting this way in relationship to our wives produces emotionally traumatized women and children, emotionally distant sons, spiritually starved daughters, and a family that doesn't grow toward Jesus together.

Men, God holds us responsible when that happens!

Thankfully, we saw instruction from Peter yesterday regarding how we overcome our fallen tendencies.  In one sentence, the Apostle gives to men--to husbands--a life-long challenge.

"Likewise husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered."

Men, study your wives!  Live with them, Peter says "according to knowledge."  In all areas of our life guys, our call as the head of our homes is to be sensitive to the needs, fears, and feelings of our brides, and live accordingly.

Do you really know your wife?  I've learned much about marriage over the past 22 years of my own marriage relationship from older men who practiced what Peter talks about here.  Conversely, I've been highly disappointed to meet too many men--men married longer than I have been alive--who knew nothing about their wives.  We can't love them as Christ loved the church if our needs don't become subordinate to hers.  And that can't happen if we don't know them.

Men, empower your wives!  The "weaker vessel" reference here isn't about inferiority.  Its about difference.  Our wives are created and wired by God for a specific purpose.  And our role as husbands is to help her discover and reach that purpose.  Guys, that means we need to invest in our wives!  Too many men strangle their wives by giving them no time away from the kids, no opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth with other women, and high expectations that drain her energy and suck the spiritual life right out of her.

Men, honor your wives!  We do this because they are an heir with us of the grace of life.  That fact is rooted in your wife's identity as your sister in Christ, and as a daughter of the most high God!

Men, do you show your wives the honor that is befitting a daughter of the King?  Do you abuse her physically, verbally, or emotionally?  Do you speak to her with disrespect?  Do you speak of her with disrespect when you are around the guys?  Here is a good question to gauge your level of honor for her:  If I were to ask the other men you work with, or play golf with about your wife, would their perception be that she is a daughter of God?  Or do they think less of her because of how you speak of her?

Men, fear God because of your wives!  Peter explicitly states that mistreating your bride can stunt your own spiritual growth.  And when you think about it, it only makes sense.  I have a daughter.  If you abused her, or treated her disrespectfully, and then had the audacity to ask for my help with something, what do you think my response would be?

The longer I'm in ministry, the more convinced I am that many men are actually so stupid as to think they can mistreat their wives and everything be OK between them and their Creator.  Many men--ALL of us actually who are married--will one day stand before God and answer for how we have treated His daughters.  And many will pay dearly on that day for their behavior.

So our study of, empowerment of, and honor of our wives should be motivated by a sincere, "keeps me up at night" legitimate fear of Almighty God.

And there is a reason all of this is important guys.  Its because we are dangerous men.  I would protect my wife from harm, and I believe most of you reading this would too.  But the most dangerous man in my wife's life isn't the thief, the murderer, or the rapist.  The most dangerous man in her life isn't the one who hides in the shadows waiting to snatch a purse or jack a car.

The most dangerous man in my wife's life is the man she goes to bed with every night!  And for me to be the husband God has called me to be, that man must be CRUCIFIED--DAILY!

But this is the great hope of the Gospel--that through Jesus' own death and resurrection, you and I can become like Him--we can live after the pattern of the PERFECT man.

So for the sake of your wife, your kids, your community, and the glory of God, put that old man to death, trust in Jesus, and watch a new man arise!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Ecclesia semper reformanda: What we Should Learn from the Protestant Reformation

Tonight I will gather my kids--two of which will be dressed as a "Minecraft" character and a princess--and head for German Street--a quaint, wonderful stretch of our Shepherdstown, WV community.  Why?  Because this is the only night of the year in which it is culturally appropriate to allow your kids to beg strangers for unhealthy food.  For most in our culture, October 31 is merely that: a fun holiday that consists of costumes, candy, and haunted hay rides. 

But for the church, October 31 marks a major turning point in our history, and provides lessons to us today.  499 years ago tonight, a German monk gathered his parchment, a hammer and a nail, and ignited a movement that would spread like wildfire throughout Europe

The story begins in Medieval Rome.  The doctrinal integrity of the medevial Church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Empire, enabled by the church.  Every kind of moral evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by priests to the fleecing of the poor and marginalized, was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, this young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  But what he saw when he arrived shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But Luther was more offended by the way the poor and marginalized were treated by those who claimed to be the representatives of Jesus on earth.  The system of indulgences that had been set up by the church to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor not only lived in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation. The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "if there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences in Rome for the next seven years.  But by 1507, the escalation of the abuse of the indulgences, and the extension of these abuses into more remote areas outside Rome by Tetzel's preaching would compel Martin Luther to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through a document that you and I now know as the 95 theses--nailed to the door of a Wittenburg castle 498 years ago tomorrow.  Though initially written to reform the Roman church from within, Luther would eventually come to learn that the immorality and abuse he was witnessing was enabled by twisted theology that held the edicts of the church as a greater authority than the commands of the Lord of the church.  Medevial Rome was preaching a counterfeit Gospel, and it was time for the true church to separate herself and rise from the ashes.  The Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," this reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For other groups who joined Luther's followers in the break from medieval Catholicism, subsequent confessions of faith would be written--each of which would proclaim themselves as the "true church" over against the Catholicism out of which they had just emerged.   The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complementary foundations of the priesthood of all believers and open access by all people to the Scriptures, which at this time were being translated into the various lingua franca employed around the world.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well--as it was our theological ancestors who would bear the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent were commonplace throughout this period of history, and included the execution of those who held different views.

The big idea is this:  by the end of the Reformation period, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel, but instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia that at times crossed the line into violence.  As a result, Protestants would ultimately--and legitimately--be accused of violating Jesus' "prime directive," as the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggested to Luther that these new Protestants couldn't possibly be the true church, because they had no missionaries.

To be sure, no period of Christian history proves that sometimes, Jesus' followers are Jesus' biggest problem so much as the Reformation period.  Two corollary messages rise from these events:

1. Truth is Immortal.  What Luther eventually discovered in those days leading up to the assembly at Augsburg is that a counterfeit message produces counterfeit disciples.  While maintaining what would be considered historically essential to orthodoxy (Belief in a Trinitarian Godhead, the deity of Jesus, and the necessity of salvation through His death and resurrection), the medieval church had hidden the Gospel behind centuries of syncretized tradition which, by the 16th century, was of great benefit to Rome's ecclesial institutions, but counterproductive to the spread of Jesus' message globally.  In short, the Gospel was not preached with clarity, nor was it applied consistently to Catholic followers.  The result was an immoral, greedy, self-centered church that sought the advance of its influence through power, and the intimidation of the marginalized.  Ideas, as the late Francis Schaefer was fond of saying, have consequences.

By the time of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther had come to realize that the dastardly and oppressive actions of the church were the natural result of the bastardized "Gospel" being proclaimed by the 16th century Roman Church.  If October 31, 1517 reminds us of nothing else, it should remind us that actions flow from our true beliefs.

Want to live a lie?  Then simply start believing and proclaiming lies, and you are well on your way.  On this day, the church is well-served by remembering that Truth, as revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture alone, is the starting point for any true church.  Without it, even those who claim to follow Jesus will devolve into a 16th century Catholic-style oppression, or a Word of Faith style materialism, a Fundamentalist-style legalism, or an emergent-style relativism.  Our Gospel determines not only what we say, but how we live.  We'd better be sure we have the right one!

2. Truth Has a Purpose.  Truth is supposed to be spread, not "guarded" to the point that we spend more time arguing about its content than we do spreading its hope.  Protestant Christians of every tribe need to remember that not everything in our DNA is healthy.  More particularly, we need to remember that while our ancestors--including Luther whom we all hold in common--rightly began this movement with a strong critique of Roman Catholicism, a recovered Gospel does no good if we merely maintain a posture of critique and as a result continue to fight over minutiae.  Erasmus was right: no church can truly be the church without a missionary impetus that seeks to make Jesus more widely known.  Furthermore, a clear understanding of sola gratia means that we will not approach non-Christians with the presumption that we are the sole monopolizers of God's message.  Instead, we are what D.T. Niles once claimed: beggars sharing enthusiastically with other beggars where we have found bread.

It would take a separate post--or perhaps more than one--to point out the flaws of Martin Luther, because he had plenty of them.  But on days like today, I'm thankful for the legacy God gave us through Luther's fiery ministry--Scripture in the language of the people, the priesthood of all believers, and the non-negotiable element of saving faith--that it comes by faith alone in a crucified, resurrected Savior.  We too, are imperfect people, prone to wander from our intended missional path onto side-roads of dissension that keep us from the more effective spread of Jesus' message.  As we reflect on the historic significance of this day and the theological axioms we've been given through it, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions:

sola scriptura: Have you drank deeply lately of the very Word of God, which has now been available in your language for many centuries?

sola fide Have you shared your ultimate hope in Jesus with others?  When was the last time this took place?

sola gratia Have you approached non-Christians, not as an autonomous knower who is better than they, but instead as a trophy of the grace of God?

sola Christo Have you shared with others the identity of Jesus with clarity, and without so much of the western cultural baggage that weights-down His image?

soli Deo gloria Have you given God the glory for how he has worked through imperfect people throughout history, and for how He has worked through you?

Such questions honor the spirit of the Protestant cry expressed 400 years later by Karl Barth; Ecclesia semper reformanda.  The church, always reforming.  May our Lord continue to reform us, and by doing so empower us for the global work to which He has called us.

Monday Morning Rewind: The Woman of the House

Yesterday, I spoke on a touchy subject.

Actually, that's a colossal understatement.  I spoke on a subject that tends to get preachers picketed and protested.  And to evoke that kind of response, I don't even need to say anything myself.  I needed only to quote the passage we read together yesterday morning:

"Likewise wives, be subject to your own husbands...."

Yesterday, we entered week two of our series "A Marriage Made on Earth."  For marriage to work as God intends, both husbands and wives need to be obedient in their respective responsibilities toward each other.  Next week, we get to the husbands. (In fact ladies, the guys get TWO weeks!).  But yesterday, we started with the wives, because that is where the Apostle Peter began.

But that word "submit" causes a lot of misunderstanding, confusion, and anger, so we first had to unpack its meaning--and it doesn't mean what most in our culture think it means.

1. It doesn't mean all women are to submit to all men.  Because maleness, in and of itself, doesn't qualify anyone to lead anything.
2. It doesn't mean the husband is the ultimate authority. That position is filled by the Lord Jesus, and no man with a brain wants to try to assume it.
3. It doesn't mean that husband micromanages everything.  Truthfully, most husbands would make a colossal mess trying to do so.

So what does it mean?  Ultimately, the command to submit is given because God will hold husbands, not wives, responsible for the well-being of the entire family unit.  Male headship is about responsibility.  And the picture that unfolds in these verses is the picture of a family moving forward toward Jesus together, with the husband leading the way, and his wife following that lead in a way that helps him and makes him better.  And Peter describes four ways that "submission" is displayed by wives in a marriage relationship (next week, we will look at how this sort of deference is to be displayed by husbands for a marriage to work)

1. In Her Actions. Non-Christian husbands come to Jesus, Christian husbands become better followers of Jesus, and all husbands become better husbands, when the actions of a wife in the home who lives out her faith with consistency.  Few men will change by listening to their wives preach at them.  But I've seen many who have drawn closer to Christ by watching the "walk" of their wives.  I'm one of them!

I spoke yesterday about an experience when our daughter had major surgery many years ago--watching the way my wife cared selflessly for her.  Watching Amy sacrificially give of herself during that time, and seeing the grace with which she handled that whole situation modeled sacrifice for me, and it made me a better man.

2. In Her Appearance.  Some people believe, based on this passage, that women shouldn't wear makeup or jewelry, or be concerned at all about their looks.  But that isn't what Peter has in mind.  But what he does have in mind is a godly woman who isn't obsessed with her appearance.

Too many women today live in an environment of "body shaming" that takes two forms.  The first is the false expectation of a certain kind of body style or shape, or a certain weight that drives too many women toward bulimia, anorexia, or other harmful acts. The second is the "Abercrombie and Fitch" era that pushes women--knowingly or unknowingly--to be defined solely in terms of their bodies.  The Christian answer to both of these expressions is simplicity, and modesty.

Most "women's magazines" you pick up at the grocery store have a lot to say about how you should look as a woman.  Few address how you should live.  Peter tells us here that what is truly attractive to a man who is right with Jesus is a modest, simple, and thus naturally and truly beautiful woman who has put the lion's share of attention on her heart, not her physical appearance.

3. In Her disposition.  Peter speaks of wives here as having a "gentle and quiet spirit."  Sometimes, this can be misinterpreted to make it seem as though if a woman is boisterous and loud, she is violating the Scripture.  But actually, what Peter has in mind with these words is less about a woman's volume and more about her disposition toward her husband.  I know many godly couples for whom the wife is the extrovert, and she is not violating Scripture by simply being herself.  You can be the life of the party and still live in the kind of submission Peter speaks of.  Conversely, you be a very quiet, reserved woman and be unsubmissive, rebel against authority, hover in the background and be controlling.

The big question is this:  Ladies, are you living in a way that your husband would say you are good company?

4. In Her Mentors.  Peter concludes this section by calling women toward emulating the examples that came before them.  And ultimately, he points his female readers toward Sarah--the wife of Abraham who became the mother of all Israel.

But let's be honest about Sarah.  This woman encouraged her husband to sleep with another woman so they could have a child together, then in jealousy would later put that woman and her child out of the home.  So later this week when you scream at the kids or let stress get to you, I hope you remember that even our female heroes made some pretty bad mistakes.

When those hard times come, women need other women.  So if your mother or grandmother is a Christian, go to them for advice.  If you don't come from a Christian family, find godly older women in our church family who can listen to you, pray for you, and give you advice.  Read biographies of great women of God like Elizabeth Elliott or Ruth Bell Graham.  Learn from those who came before you, and be encouraged!

"Submission" isn't about women being "inferior."  Its about you emulating the very example of Jesus who, though He was God, willingly submitted Himself to the will of His Father.  Its about you becoming more like Jesus in your role as a wife.  If it still seems objectionable to you, I'd only ask you to consider the alternatives offered by our culture--a vision of womanhood that includes you watching porn with your boyfriend to keep them happy and living with you--a vision that includes you paying for your own dates in the name of "equality."--a vision that includes you using your body rather than your entire being to keep worthless men interested--a vision that includes a culture where women are increasingly the victims of violence at the hands of those who would abuse them--a vision that includes sharp rises in depression, bi-polar disorder, anorexia, and STDs.

What do you think ladies?  Is the serpent still trolling the garden?  Are the daughters of Eve, thousands of years later, still just a gullible as their mother was on that dark day?

God has something better for you, and for your marriage. That "something better" doesn't require a trip back to the 1950s, nor does it require you to check your college degree and brain at the door (and any man who thinks it does isn't worth your time!)  But it does require submission--first to Jesus--in the way you relate to the man you call "husband."

Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: The Meaning of Marriage

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Yesterday, we began a brand new series called "A Marriage Made on Earth."  Over the past several decades as the divorce rate began to rise sharply, all manner of "marriage helper" tools have emerged in our culture.  Though all are well-intended, many perpetuate myths about the marriage relationship that are simply untrue.

The Scriptures on the other hand paint a broad, clear picture of the key elements that make a marriage last.  And when we contrast these views, two major trends of how marriage is perceived in our culture are exposed as faulty:

Marriage as Romanticism:  Concepts such as "falling in love" or "finding a soul mate" are rather recent developments.  When they describe the romantic elements of the marriage relationship they can be healthy things.  Human beings are highly complex creatures, and romance can be a powerful and positive thing.  But when romance, and the idea of living "happily ever after" is viewed as the essence of marriage, it can actually destroy it.  How often have you heard a divorcing couple say something like "well, we just fell out of love?"  That is a marriage built on the sinking sand of "romance."

Marriage as Consumerism.  This is capitalism applied to the marriage relationship.  Too many marriages today are a social transaction.  I seek a wife because I need someone to meet my needs and serve my interests.  In other words, its about "what I get" out of the relationship.  Our culture has been groomed to treat marriage this way because we believe individual happiness is the ultimate value.  So marriage becomes like a trip to my preferred store.  When they stop carrying the product line I like, or new policies emerge that don't work for me, I shop elsewhere.  When your marriage is rooted no more deeply than the amount of "relational currency" the other has, sooner or later one or both will run out of currency, and the relationship is over.

Marriage, according to the Scriptures, isn't romanticism or consumerism.  Marriage is Covenant!  Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34 are two areas of the Bible where this Hebrew practice is outlined graphically.  Two parties would reach an agreement, cut an animal in half (nose to tail!), and walk between those bloody halves as a way of saying "may I become like this animal if I do not keep my word to you."  Ever seen that picture on the front of a wedding invitation?

But this is the essence of a marriage that lasts--a dual promise to sacrifice and commit unconditionally to the other.  Yes, marriage can be romantic and fun.  But at heart, marriage is a bloody struggle of spiritual warfare.  It is one man and one woman, arm in arm, facing all the hardships of life together, and bringing glory to God together.

Marriage is war. And winning that war together requires a covenantal commitment that understands three things about marriage.

Marriage is grounded in creation.  One man.  One woman.  One lifetime.  Yes, humanity deviated radically and early from this God-given precedent.  Polygamy, rape, premarital and extramarital sex, divorce, homosexual behavior, and a host of other "expressions" emerged early on.  But Genesis 1 and 2 describes what has been God's standard since the beginning.  When we are given to each other in marriage, we are being given a great gift from a loving God that is grounded in the created order itself.

Marriage is a tool of sanctification.  No, you don't have to be married to grow in your faith, and there are hundreds of ways that God makes His people holy.  But marriage, if it is done right, is the expressway to husbands and wives both becoming more like Jesus.

Marriage is a proclamation of the Gospel.  Marriage, Paul says in Ephesians 5, is "a profound mystery" that we should spend a lifetime exploring together as husbands and wives.  But this we know for sure from the beginning: our marriages should be a reflection of Jesus and His church--and of the Gospel of His sacrificial death and resurrection that makes successful marriages possible.

This is the meaning of marriage--hand in hand, walking through the war zone of life together--and in the process, going deeper and deeper into the mystery.  Does this describe your marriage?  It can.  Whatever your background or that of your spouse, God can bring your marriage to this place, and over the next several weeks, we will look more deeply into how this happens.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Missional Life

Growing Passionate Followers of Jesus Christ who serve all people.

That's our mission statement at Covenant Church.  But as we move forward together, we need to ask ourselves a serious question: Are we really making disciples, or are we just enabling religious consumers?  Sometimes, the two look an awfully lot alike.

I was visiting the church of a close friend a few years back, which at the time had about 3000 in attendance.  When I walked into the foyer, I saw stations offering people multiple opportunities to serve--and not just within the church walls, but within their community and around the world.  Banners advertised those same opportunities all over the building.  Everywhere I looked this place screamed "we are here to build servants to our neighbors and the world!"  I happened to be walking with the Communications Director--the guy who was responsible for all that "messaging" and I complimented him highly.  "I was in here less than 10 seconds, and I know exactly who you guys are.  You have done a fantastic job with the message!"  As a new staff member, he was thankful for the compliment, but had also just come from a much larger church led by a "Health, Wealth and Prosperity" Pastor--the kind of church that promised its people everything and demanded nothing--except money of course.

To my compliment, this new staff member replied "Yeah, this message is a lot harder to sell than the message at my last church."

Yesterday, we finished up our series entitled "A Different Kind of Life" with a long, hard look at Hebrews 11 and 12.  What we saw there was a phenomenal picture of the saints through the ages who gave everything they had--including sometimes their own lives--for the sake of Jesus.  They weren't religious consumers.  They were faith-filled disciples who lived on mission 24/7.  What we learned from their lives was that to live missionally is to live in faith.  So what is a faith-filled life?  And how do we live it?  Because without it, we can't live the way Jesus wants us to live.

What is a Faith-filled life?

1. Its a life of singular passion.  Faith is, to put it simply, living your life as though God can be trusted.  Even when I don't possess what has been promised to me, I continue to move forward.  And when I live that way, I'm living the life of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, and thousands of others.
2. It takes the long view.  So many of the people we read about in this passage lived their whole lives on a promise they never saw fulfilled.  In other words, they weren't living primarily for this life, but for the next one.  Jesus said "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Everything we have in this life is temporary.  Often we think of tangible possessions, but this is also true of relationships.  One day, everything that is precious to me in this life is going to be taken from me.  A faith-filled life that lives for eternity takes a view that is much longer then ones' own life.
3. It produces spiritual heroes.  2000 years after this letter is penned, we know the stories of these people, and so many more who came after them.  Even beyond the stories we read in Hebrews, we remember a Lutheran pastor named Bonehoeffer who stood up to Hitler at the cost of his life.  We remember Martin Luther King standing in the midst of a nation infected with the virus of Jim Crow describing a dream of a better world.  And when we think of these people, we think as the author of Hebrews; "The world was not worthy of them."  That is spiritual heroism, and living a life filled with faith can bring you to join the list of those who fit that profile!

So how do I live this life?

1. Get rid of what holds you back.  The author of Hebrews says "lay aside every weight and sin."  What sinful habits are keeping you from greater intimacy with your Creator?  What is causing you to live in fear?  Throw it off!
2. Never give up. The athletic imagery is inspiring.  Like a marathon runner, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Don't back down.  Don't tap out.
3. Fix your eyes on Jesus.  Get your focus off of your circumstances, a questionable financial market, a circus-style Presidential election, or anything else that is causing you to lose heart, and focus your attention on Christ--who endured the cross for you.

Imagine an entire generation of Christians right here, right now, of whom it could be said when we are dead and gone, "the world was not worthy of them."  Are you living your life in that way?  Because that's a life of faith, and its a powerful place from which to serve Jesus to the fullest!

Let's start living it together church!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Christ-Centered Life

"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

Those infamous words are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, though there is zero evidence of his ever having spoken or written this, or anything like it.

But even if he had, it would remain a stupid thing to say.

Yesterday, we finished week three of a four-week series entitled "A Different Kind of Life."  The Scriptures repeatedly call God's people to "stand out" and lead a life that is markedly different from others--noticeable to the point that it is questionable to others.  Like those on whose shoulders we stand who healed the sick, fed the hungry, educated children, treated women as equals, and changed the world through lives no one in the 1st century had ever seek before, we are people whose lives should evoke the simple question, "who ARE you?"

But none of that means anything if it isn't grounded in the person and the work of Jesus.  We can feed the hungry, heal marriages, start addiction recovery programs, and help people economically, but without a Christ-centered life that produces a verbal witness, all we will do is send people to hell sober, with full stomachs, happy marriages, and fatter checkbooks.

The reason we focus on tangible and more immediate needs is to point to the ultimate need of forgiveness of sins and the transformation of our hearts.  Without that message at the core of everything we do, we are merely dabbling on the surface of things.  The point is we can't just live differently and make a lasting difference on people if that difference isn't informed and empowered by something beyond this world.  And in the introductory verse of Romans, Paul describes five ways that Jesus completely transformed his life--ways that describe how our own lives can be transformed.

Jesus Changes Our Lives. The Christian Gospel isn't just another religion alongside other world religions--another "choice" among many paths to God.  Jesus transforms His followers at their core, and Paul's own testimony is evidence of the miracle that Jesus works into each of us.  This former Pharisee who was committed to earning his salvation by obedience to the law now calls himself a "bondservant of Jesus Christ."  This "Hebrew of Hebrews" whose identity was once wrapped up in his ethnicity is now the "apostle" sent out by the one who came to save the whole world.  This persecutor of the church--the 1st century equivalent of an ISIS recruit--is now set apart to proclaim the very message he once sought to eliminate from the earth.

When we read the opening words of Romans, we are reading the words of a changed man.  And it is that change that empowers us to live the different kind of life to which we are called.  In our own strength, we can only "fake it" for so long.  The life we are called to live can't be produced in our own strength.  We can never be happy enough, or inspired enough on our own to keep it up.  It requires a complete overhaul of our identity.

Jesus Moves our Assurances. The whole of the Christian message is rooted in the fulfilled promise that Paul describes in verse 2.  The promise of Jesus was a promise first made in the Garden of Eden, and Paul emphasizes here that it is a promise that has been kept!  In our world, of written contracts and low trust, its easy to be a little skeptical.  But we serve a God who keeps His promiises, and all of our assuracnes can be placed in Him.

Jesus Centers our Focus  In verses 3 and 4, we see Paul describing the essence of the Christ-centered life.  This "Son of David" who came as Messiah--this "Son of God who is perfect man and perfect God--has conquered death.  As we live high-risk, high-stakes lives for His glory, bad things might happen.  But the worst thing that can happen is death--something Jesus has already defeated.  This is a man worth placing at the very center of our lives.  This is a man worthy of defining the totality of our identity.

Jesus Increases our Gratitude.  In verse 5, Paul reminds us that if we are Christian, our story begins and ends with grace.  Unmerited favor.  Something we get that we do not deserve and could never earn.  The gratitude that comes from realizing this is more than enough motivation to live differently, noticably!  No one should change their life rythym becaue they were made to feel guilty.  We should be intiving strangers to our table because of the grace of God that invited us--strangers, aliens and enemies--to HIS table!  We should live questionably because we serve a Savior who did things that blew people's minds.  When you have been transformed to the core, you posess the kind of grace that won't burn you out.  Gratitude for what Jesus has done becomes the nuclear source from which we can continue to live questionably and hospitably.  Its all about gratitude.  Everything else is a fossil fuel that runs out.

Jesus Encourages our Awe.  In verses 6 and 7 we see the heart of what it means to find your identity in Jesus.  Here we see that as His followers of Christ, we are His property (we belong to Him), and we are His beloved.

You were loved before the world was created.  You were chosen before you were born.  Jesus bled for you before you were born.  The Holy Spirit has immersed you into Christ permanently--eternally!  Imagine the kind of powerful life you can live when you simply embrace and live in that identity!

David Hume, the 18th century skeptic philosopher, left his office one evening, telling a colleague of his intent to hear George Whitfield, the British preacher and revivalist.  Surprised, his colleague said "I thought you didn't believe the Christian message."  Hume replied "I don't.  But I'm not going because I believe.  I'm going because George Whitfield does."

How many people would say that about you?  Is your life so immersed--so centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ--that they would say of you what Hume said of Whitefield?  "What they believe is crazy!  But I am fascinated by them, because it is obvious to me that they really believe this stuff!"  That is a Christ-centered life!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Reasons for Christians to Stay Quiet on Social Media Tonight

"Clinton-Trump Debate Expected to Be Rare Draw in a Polarized Age."

That was the New York Times headline that led my news feed yesterday.  The article predicted the possibility of as many as 100 million viewers--20 million more than the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that has thus far held the record for the most viewers.  83 percent of registered voters are likely to watch.  But many of the reasons behind these predictions have little to do with issues affecting our nation or the expectation of high-minded debate.

And the NYT article didn't hide that fact, stating clearly that "the uniquely uncivil presidential campaign is about to produce one of the biggest civic gatherings in decades. . . .many may tune in merely for the spectacle."  Comparing this debate to the Ali-Frazier fight, former talk-show host Dick Cavett stated the painfully obvious; "There's possible drama and fireworks and insults and horror and disaster and potential enlightenment.  It would attract anybody."

In short, most people aren't tuning in to be educated on substantive issues.  Most will be watching hoping for a train wreck.  And in the event of a train wreck, expect lots of pictures.  And tweets.  And Facebook statuses.  And further polarization, contention, and all-around nastiness.

With that looming context in view, it might do Christians well to remember Paul's words:  "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  (Ephesians 4:29)

There are times when followers of Jesus should engage, and engage fully in cultural conversation.  This is especially true when the principles of the Kingdom dictate a higher and more worthy approach than what we hear and the manner in which we hear it.  There are other times, when the conversation is set up in such a way as to make it unredeemable, when Christians should just walk away and "take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness."  (Ephesians 5:11)

I'm not saying a Christian shouldn't watch tonight's debate.  But I am suggesting that our best response to anything said tonight might just be silence. Rick Warren has well-stated that the western church has successfully severed the hands and feet of Christ so that all that is left is a big mouth.

So if I may be so bold, let me make a simple suggestion to any Christ-follower reading these words ahead of tonight's debate.  When it comes to your use of social media, just stay quiet tonight.

I think this is a good idea for three reasons.

Division is not our business.  Inevitably, there will be someone who responds to this with "but TRUTH divides!"  And that's true.  But anyone who believes either of these candidates deals in "truth" is living in a dreamworld.

The kind of polarization we have witnessed in recent months--some of which has actually escalated into actual physical violence--is simply antiChrist.  Followers of Jesus may disagree with each other--even strongly so--about how to solve a problem.  But in the end, our commitment under the Lordship of Jesus should be to the solution, not to attacking those with whom we disagree.  Can we all be honest enough to admit that tonight's "debate" isn't going to be about issues so much as personalities?  Let's not contribute to the national division we are experiencing by throwing our own vitriolic, social media-empowered gasoline on that already-raging fire.

We aren't going to change anyone's mind.  Currently, less than 8 percent of the electorate is "undecided."  And even if that number was larger, the chances of changing someone's mind with a Facebook post is slim.  The greater chance is that you lose a friend, or lose your testimony.  Tonight, refuse to be part of the social media "echo chamber" that in the end, solves nothing and only deepens the division.

We may throw away greater opportunities. I'm the pastor of a church filled with people who will vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, and Jill Stein. (a  few in our congregation have told me they are writing in "Mickey Mouse" as a protest vote, but I digress.)  Each has different reasons for supporting their chosen candidate, and none at this point in the election wants to hear their brothers or sisters say "how can a Christian vote for THAT person?!"

Let's be honest.  That question could legitimately be asked of ANY of these candidates for various reasons.  But when we take to social media with those opinions, we are--more often than we realize--throwing away greater opportunities for unity with each other, and walk in relationship to each other.  If someone you know perceives that you think they are "stupid" or "ungodly" or "unenlightened" or in any other way less than you because of a social media statement about this debate, you may very well lose any further opportunity to engage with them about issues far more important than this temporary kingdom in which we find ourselves.

This is especially true for church leaders.  Pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, Sunday School teachers and others who lead need to realize that if your social media presence causes you to be seen as a shill for one candidate or one party, your influence in the body of Christ will be greatly diminished--perhaps deservingly so.  You have a much higher calling that should not be wasted on this nonsense.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul compares his ministry to that of a "master builder."  In the end, he states that we will all stand in front of Jesus, and "each one's work will become manifest." (3:13)  In Paul's mind, there are two kinds of builders; those who build with "gold, silver, and precious stones," and those who build with "wood, hay and stubble."  At the end of the age, he tells us that the first group will be rewarded, and the second will have their work burned up.  Because in the end, it never truly amounted to anything.

As I observe how tonight's presidential debate has been set up, advertised, publicized, I see a lot of wood, hay and stubble.  Should you watch?  That's up to you.  Should you vote?  I believe you should.  Should you watch waiting for the right moment to pounce on the one you want to lose?  I'm pretty sure that kind of activity on social media won't amount to anything.

Tomorrow will be a new day.  I expect, given what has been predicted, that a blanket of negativity and caustic rhetoric will have been thrown over our national discourse once again.  That will be our opportunity to shine a unifying, clarifying light.  That will be our opportunity to truly face our national division in a more effective way.

But tonight, maybe we should just keep our mouths shut.

Monday Morning Rewind: A Hospitable Life

Picture a kitchen table.

It doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate.  Four legs and a top.  That's all you need.  Some of the most life-changing, world-altering encounters and conversations have transpired around a simple table.

The table is powerful.

Yesterday, we continued our series "A Different Kind of Life" by talking about hospitality.  For many people, hospitality is a struggle.  For one thing, genuine, Biblically-defined hospitality always involves the love of strangers, and even enemies.  But this concept is also a struggle because in our culture, we too often confuse "hospitality" with "entertainment."  The real question of hospitality isn't whether the table linens match or if the event schedule is off.  Want to know if you are truly hospitable?  Ask yourself one simple question:

Do people feel welcome and wanted when they are in your company?  

That's it!  Are people happy to be around you?  In your presence?  In your home?

Another way of asking it is this:  What do people experience at your table?  As followers of Jesus, nothing embodies this call to love and serve others more than a story about a wedding feast in John 2.  And when we look at this story and the miracle it contains, we see four things hospitality does.

Hospitality fosters community.  Yesterday, we saw that Jesus was invited to a wedding at Cana.  This means someone at the party knew him, and liked Him!  That is the kind of community that leads to people finding Jesus.  No matter how doctrinally sound you are, or how much of the Bible you have memorized, you will never get to truly share your faith with anybody if they don't like you.

But when others feel at ease in your presence, and enjoy your company, powerful spiritual conversations can occur!  When you focus on welcoming others and loving them no matter who they are; when you focus on their happiness and comfort--you are creating the very kind of community that can open those doors to share Christ.

Hospitality serves a need.  For us, running out of wine (or anything else for that matter) isn't such a big deal.  You head around the corner and you pick more up.  But in the 1st century, when you're out, you're out!  And when you're out at a Jewish wedding, its humiliating.

In Jewish thought, wine is always associated with joy.  The Rabbis even had a saying that "without wine there is no joy."  And out of this embarrassing crisis John paints a deep, spiritual lesson for us.  Apart from Jesus, there can be joy in your marriage, or in a wedding or other celebration.  But good times that are nothing more than good times will eventually run out.  If we want unlimited joy, we need the presence and power of Jesus.  And that is just what we witness in this story.  The deepest need at this party could only be met by Jesus.  Likewise, our deepest needs, and those of our neighbors, can only be met by the presence and power of Jesus.

Hospitality brings joy to others.  When you take the facts of this story into account and do the math, you come to the conclusion that Jesus miraculously produced between 110 and 180 gallons of wine.  That's a lot of wine!  And that's the point; that the problem Jesus is solving is a shortage of something associated with joy and hospitality, and it is His presence that provides a joy and gladness of welcoming that will never, ever run out.

When we demonstrate Christ-centered hospitality toward others, both the quality and quantity of joy goes up.  They have never felt more loved, more welcomed, or more valued then they do when they are in your presence.

Hospitality mirrors the character of God.  This entire scenario did what any genuine, Christ-centered demonstration of hospitality should do: it brought great glory to Jesus.

Again, the table is a powerful thing, especially when those tending that table are followers of Jesus.  Because when you and I put our focus on another--when we welcome the stranger to our table--we are doing what Jesus did when He invited us to commune with Him.  Remember, we were strangers to His table, and had no business sitting at His table.  But he invited us anyway, just as he invited Zacchaeus, the tax cheat, to dine with him and it changed that man's life, and he paid back everything he had stolen with interest! (Luke 19:1-10)  Being hospitable mirrors God's character, and it can produce miraculous results.

What about you?  Who is your Zacchaeus?  Who is that person at work?  At school?  Who is that person in your community that no one wants to be around?  Who is that group that is held at arms' length that YOU need to be rubbing shoulders with?  Make the time to get out of the "holy huddle" with your Christian friends, and welcome a stranger.  Focus on the other.  And watch the power of the table as you mirror the character of God by bringing unlimited joy to the lives of others!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Questionable Life

Yesterday, we began a four-week series entitled "A Different Kind of Life."  If you have been a follower of Jesus for any significant length of time, or if you have been around a lot of people who follow Jesus, you have probably heard that Christians are supposed to be "different" from everybody else, and that's true.  Our Bible is full of passages calling us to a different sort of life.  In fact, the Scriptures have a word for this, and that word is "holy."

Now, when you ask someone to define "holiness" you get all sorts of answers.  Growing up in a conservative small town in the south, I was taught that this was always associated with certain activities that one should avoid.  In other words, in addition to following Jesus I should never use tobacco, drink alcohol, or vote for a Democrat. (no kidding!)

Of course, the problem with "lists" of forbidden behaviors is that they really don't produce the kind of life Jesus calls us to.  While there may be wisdom in avoiding activities that could be enslaving to the body and soul, even those who meet those standards often find themselves thinking the same way, having the same worries and concerns, and possessing the same aspirations as others.  In short, when others look at our lives, they often see little noticeable difference.

That raises a question:  What is this "different kind of life" that we are called to?  Well, that kind of life involves several things, and we began this series yesterday by emphasizing that this kind of life should be "questionable."  Our lives should be lived in such a manner as to cause others to ask, "who ARE you?!"

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, we get a glimpse of what this looks like.  When we looked at Chapter 4 yesterday, we saw a contrast between what he prayed for them as opposed to what he asked them to pray for him.

Be Vigilant.  Paul asked the church to be persistent in their prayers, and to pray fully aware of their circumstances.  When we read these requests, it should cause us to ask if we pray fully aware of what is transpiring in our neighborhood, our cul-de-sac, our community, and our world.

One of our staff values is "Prayer is our Primary Strategy."  In other words, prayer can't just be the "bookends" of a long meeting.  We try to look at our agenda, and if that agenda could be discussed anywhere outside of the church if we just removed "prayer" from the beginning and end, its probably not an agenda that deserves the attention of God's people or their leaders.

How about you?  Is prayer a regular and strategic part of your life?  Your family's life?  Vigilant prayer is informed, purposeful, personal, and as a result, far more powerful, and any truly "questionable" life starts with, ends with, and is permeated by it.

Be Bold.  Paul further asks the church as they pray to ask for boldness on his part.  It is obvious from this and other places in the Scripture that Paul was a gifted evangelist, and God tells us that He still gives the church those kinds of people today (Ephesians 4:11).  These people have an extraordinary ability to share the message of Jesus with clarity and compel others to turn from their sins and put their faith in Christ.

This doesn't mean that ONLY gifted evangelists should share their faith.  But it does mean that when it comes to these people, we should give them the room they need to exercise their gifts, encourage them, and pray for them often--that they would be BOLD!

But again, not everyone is gifted in this particular way.  Ever feel as though the church was "squeezing you into a mold" you didn't fit?  Some of the worst stories I've heard involving this were stories in which well-meaning church leaders suggested that everyone should be the bold, door-knocking, barrier-crossing evangelist.  Are you one of those people?  What if you aren't gifted in that way?  How should you take responsibility for sharing your own faith?

In other words, "what about the rest of us?

Be Intentional.  When Paul shifts his focus back to the church in verses 5 and 6, his tone changes.  Rather than ask for them the same thing he asks them for, he prays that they will "walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time."  Picture an airplane circling the airport--a regular stop in your routine.  Paul says to the church, "I want those moments to be spent in the presence of outsiders."

If he were alive today, Paul might express it this way; "Get out of the 'Christian bubble!'"  For too many followers of Jesus, we isolate ourselves from the very relationships Jesus intends that we establish.  Maybe its because we don't want to be uncomfortable.  Perhaps we think in doing so we are protecting our children from "corrupt influences."  But regardless of our reasons, the Apostle is telling us here "rubbing elbows with non-Christians should be a regular and intentional part of your life!"

In short, be strategic with your life!  And to be strategic and intentional, you have to walk among the world "in wisdom."  Think about how you spend your life.  Some of us have better health than others.  Some of us have more money than others.  But time is the great equalizer.  Every one of us is given the same 168 hours per week.  God expects us to use those hours strategically.

He also intends that we use that time in a way that is "questionable" to the world.  So while gifted evangelists should seize every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel with boldness, most in the church will share their faith via answering the questions unbelievers are asking who are in relationship with them.

That raises another question:  What are you doing, and how are you living that makes your life questionable?  If we worry about the same things as our non-Christian neighbors, spend our money in the same way, act the same way, react the same way to problems--if our life looks EXACTLY the same as theirs, what would they ask us about?

Paul's challenge here is to live a freakishly weird life--the kind of life that causes others to ask "who ARE you?!"

By the 4th century, the Roman Empire, which at one time saw Christianity as an undesirable faith to be eliminated, had begun to see thousands of people following Jesus.  That didn't happen because of mass evangelism, literature distribution, or a "hot band" on the stage.  It happened because followers of Jesus fed the hungry, showed hospitality to strangers, tended the graves of the dead who were not part of their faith treated women as equals in a male-dominated world, and treated household slaves as brothers.

Rome came to faith in Jesus because no one in Rome had ever seen a life quite like this!

How about you?  Are you living in a "questionable" marriage?  Are you running a "questionable" business?  That is our calling; living a questionable life to the glory of God!