Monday, May 25, 2015

Hiding Behind Closed Curtains

14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. – John 17:14–18 (NASB95)
Many Christians observe the world from behind closed curtains, bemoaning culture instead of engaging it. Many local churches are isolated from the wider community and world … suffering from fear of an open public square with divergent viewpoints and lifestyles. – Krish Kandiah, "An Explosion of Joy," Christianity Today (June 2014)
For much of my lifetime, I have endured a theology of the church that has caused a great deal of struggle on my part. The struggle has nothing to do with doubting, lack of faith, or any form of unbelief. The struggle has been how I see the church and her purpose in the world and what I’ve heard from so many well-intentioned Christian leaders. I thought they were wrong for years. I still think they are wrong. Bear with me as I try to explain.

Many of us labor under the mistaken idea that the church should be withdrawn from the world. It has caused us to hide in our church houses and reject the idea that we should engage the world around us. We have become isolationists. We frown on all but a very few connections with the community at large. We refuse to participate with others around us, even though they might be doing a great deal of good for others. We don’t want to associate ourselves with anything, or anyone because we fear it will somehow taint the purity of the church and cause us to compromise our beliefs.

Today’s church is often a secluded little bunch of hardheads who pride themselves on being “gooder” and “righter” than others, all while ignoring the fact that many others are shaming us by reaching out to a lost world, preaching a gospel that we refuse to take anywhere outside our building, caring for people in countless ways while we do little but talk about all the ways we disagree with their doctrines.

We talk a good game. We play a poor one.

Our members have forgotten old-fashioned doctrines like the priesthood of all believers. Newly-minted theological terms like “missional” are laid out as if the idea that the church ought to live in the world as a missional society is something new. It’s not. It’s a very old concept, it just got laid on a back burner somewhere along the way and now there is a new generation of church leaders who have never seen the church live this way. That’s sad!

We’ve become the church that is proud to possess the truth, but we’ve decided to keep it to ourselves instead of sharing it with anybody.

We let the hurting, miserable people around us suffer without hope, doing little to relieve them with the good news of God’s kingdom.

We often quote the verses that tell us that faith without works is dead, but refuse to practice the works that would prove our faith to be alive and vibrant.

We’ve become self-centered, selfish, and hard to satisfy. Instead of focusing on life-changing, world-changing activities, we fuss and fume over silliness.

We’ve become addicted to ritual, ceremony, and tradition while denying that we have any of them.

We’re slowly dying, retreating further into our cave, and with ever step of retreat we erect another barrier to the world around us.

Jesus did not call us to such a life. He prayed that the Father would not take his people out of the world. He said we are not “of” the world, but we must live “in” the world. The world needs the church that we are supposed to be, but it will never get it while we are hiding behind closed curtains.

Two Secrets To Growing A Church

9 ‘Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Matthew 22:9 (NASB95)
     Our family was entertaining new acquaintances for dinner. Before they arrived we told our three-year-old, Reggie, to be on his best behavior. When he questioned us, we explained, "We're having special company for dinner. You'll like them."
     Reggie, scrubbed and mannerly, joined us at the dinner table. Immediately after the blessing, he said in a loud voice, "Would you please pass the company? My mom says I will really like them." – Betty Bishop, Hampton, Florida. Christian Reader, "Kids of the Kingdom."
While never an expert on the subject, I have long been interested in the topic of church growth. I have read many of the books written both by researchers and scholars, and by those who have managed to grow large, successful churches. I have worked with more than one church that experienced measurable success in growing from a small handful to a much larger congregation. I have a personal friend who earned his Ph.D. in church growth who used to often call to talk about what we were doing, and I’m sure he used some of the insights I shared with him to become a recognized expert in the field. I say all that, not to brag, but to let you know that I think I know at least a few things about what goes into growing a church.

I have also come to some conclusions about why churches do not grow. One of the biggest reasons is that churches do not want to grow, and worse, they actually resist growing.

I know it sounds strange, but I’m convinced it is true. One of the fastest growing churches I’ve worked with had this problem. We started with 55 people, counting my wife, our two children, and myself. In about two years, we grew to around 200, having baptized more than 70 people. But one day, that original 50 or so folks woke up and realized, “It’s not our church anymore!” There were more new people than we had started with, and the new people had now become the leaders and the ones deciding on the direction of the church and how we did things. That realization in the minds of the original group was the beginning of the end. We moved within the next year, and with two years after that, the church was back to almost exactly the original 55 people.

For a church to really grow, it cannot be afraid to grow, and it must be willing to bring new leadership on board, new ideas, new projects. It’s not that the original group must be replaced, but the original group must be willing to adapt and move with the “newness” happening in the church.

I have also come to believe that there is one thing that all growing churches have in common. You can find all sorts of variables in growing churches that differ from one church to another, but a small number seems to remain common to all of them.

For example, all growing churches are churches where the members bring people to church. Show me a church where that doesn’t happen, I’ll show you a church that doesn’t grow. Show me a church where the members consistently and constantly bring friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc., to worship with them, I’ll show you a church that grows.

In fact, this might be, at leas in my mind, the single most important factor to make a church grow. Members must bring in the new growth. That’s exactly what happened in the church I wrote about above. We grew because our members brought people to church.

The challenge to us is obvious. First, we need to be aware that we might be afraid to grow, or that we’re resisting growth. Second, we need to realize that if our church is going to grow, we have to bring people to church. Those two factors, one negative and one positive, just might do wonders if we handle them correctly.

That first one requires some deep soul-searching and a willingness in our current membership to change. The second requires some purposeful action from our members to bring visitors.

I Really Liked That Sermon!

1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.– 2 Timothy 4:1–4 (NASB95)
Allow me to reveal something that every preacher would love to know. We want to know, not so much how well you enjoyed the sermon we just preached, but whether it was a “good” sermon, a “helpful” sermon, a “useful” sermon. Different preachers might attach a few additional descriptive words, but you get the idea. We want to know, “did it work?”

I have to tell you, this is a major concern of any and every preacher who wants to succeed at delivering God’s word to his audience.

Preachers are accustomed to getting a few responses after the assembly is over. We stand near the door to shake hands and greet people as they leave. We hear lots of comments:
“I really liked that sermon!”
“I enjoyed that one.”
“You really told them today!”
“I wish _____ had been here to day to  hear that one.”
“That was the best sermon I’ve ever heard.”
“Thank you for that lesson. It was helpful.”
“I’ve always wondered about that passage.”
“I’ve never heard it put quite like that!”

Those are the positive comments (and others). Sometimes we’ll hear a negative response. I’ve heard everything from, “I disagree with everything you said today” (really? everything?), To “I’m so upset I can’t even talk to you right now.” Usually when people don’t like a sermon, they just slip out quietly and say nothing, or they simply speak, shake your hand and move on. But preachers always wonder whether or not the sermon they preached was, in any way, positive.

H.B. Charles, in an article titled, How’d It Go? (, gave some excellent guidelines to measure Sunday’s sermon. Condensed to just his main points, here is his list of measures:
A faithful exposition
A prepared message
A Christ-centered focus
A pastoral concern
A consecrated heart
A trusting abandonment

Some of those points might not make sense to those who don’t preach, but most of us who do will likely see his points as valid. Still, the problem is that even this list is mostly focused on the preacher and his message. Truth be told, a sermon can get five stars on each of the above points and still fail. Or it can be a one-star sermon and end up being great.

I quit trying to judge the value of a sermon long ago. I still marvel that sermons I think are home-runs, few, if anybody, has much to say about it. Then I preach a sermon that I think stinks. A dozen people will tell me wonderfully positive things and ask for CDs. I don’t get it. Never have, and probably never will.

Preaching God’s word is somewhat of a mystery. Isaiah 55:11 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.  (NASB)

A sermon, if it is true to God’s word, won’t fail. The problem is there just isn’t any way to measure it’s worth. Well, perhaps there is one way. But it’s virtually impossible to measure in numbers. You have to look at the lives of the people who hear the sermons. Even then, the sermon might have been excellent. But no sermon is over until those who hear, act.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

“Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. – Genesis 41:33
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. – Thomas Sowell
Someone once suggested that the hardest decisions are not ones where we must decide between good and bad, or right and wrong. Instead it’s when we must choose between two goods or two rights. Maybe!

When I was in my teens an older man told me that big decisions tend to take care of themselves. It’s the smaller ones that are harder. Lots of truth there.

It seems to me that both these ideas are rather on the positive side of things. There is at least the suggestion that life will be filled with a whole lot of goods and rights to choose from, or that faced with some big choices, I shouldn’t worry because the big things will pretty much take care of themselves. I’ll just have to deal with some small stuff.

I find the worst times, the hardest decisions, the toughest circumstances, and the most painful consequences are all found in that wonderfully awful spot located “between a rock and a hard place.”

On the one hand, things look bleak. On the other hand, things look not so good. When I’m between a rock and hard place my choices often seem to be between two bads or wrongs, and regardless of the “size” of the decision I must make, nothing will take care of itself. I have to choose, and there is no good choice, and when it’s all done, I’ll have to bear the consequences.

If you’ve not been in that detestable spot before, I applaud you, but I fear it’s just a matter of time. I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist, and the truth is that your turn will come. I hope you’re prepared for it.

It would be so nice if life presented us with nothing but clear choices. Years ago, a man who was the President of a local bank came to see me. The economy wasn’t good and he was looking at some choices. He could stay where he was and ride out the hard times. He could move to a bigger bank in a larger city, but he would be a small fish in a big tank there. He’d thought about funding a small business for his wife that might turn an easy profit and help out the family. The reason he came to see me was he wanted to know which one to choose so that he would “be doing the Lord’s will.”

We talked about the situation and I told him I was afraid I couldn’t help; not because God had no will for his life, but because I thought he had the wrong idea about God’s will. His thought was that one, and only one, of the possibilities he had considered was God’s will. In his mind he had to choose the one, and only one, to please the Lord.

I reminded him of the TV show, “Let’s Make A Deal” where contestants tried to make deals that brought them good prizes and not white elephants. I told him that occasionally, behind all three of the curtains on the stage were pretty decent prizes. All you had to do was pick one and go with it.

I suggested that he just decide on one of his potential solutions, and then be God’s man in whichever one he chose. He left, not totally happy with our talk.

The next Sunday, I saw him at church, and he had this huge smile. I asked him if he’d made a decision. He said, “I have, but I got to thinking about those curtains with prizes behind them, and I got to thinking that this is really my game, so I picked two curtains! I’m going to stay with the bank, but I’m also going to put my wife in business.” That move turned out well for him.

I tell you this because we often think we’re between a rock and a hard place. If that happens, trust God, and do your best. Be God’s man or woman whatever you choose.

A Lesson From Pachomius

A man named Pachomius, an Egyptian soldier, became a Christian after his release from the military. He soon became a follower of another man named Palamon who was an ascetic, whose idea of the Christian life was self-denial and a solitary existence.

But Pachomius began to question the idea of such solitude as an effective way to develop real spirituality. His questions were honest, practical, and down to earth:
How can you learn to love if no one else is around?
How can you learn humility living alone?
How can you learn kindness or gentleness or goodness in isolation?
How can you learn patience unless someone puts yours to the test?

 He said, "To save souls, you must bring them together."

I think Pachomius was brilliant. He resisted the lean toward the solitary life so popular during his time. While certainly different from what we see today, there is a growing tendency among modern Christians to something akin to “individual” faith. It’s behind the statements people make about not attending church. “Well, I just think I can be as close to God alone in the forest, or at the lake, than I can be with him in church!” What they’re saying is that they don’t need anybody else. God and themselves is plenty.

We see similar attitudes in young people today. They simply do not see the need for “church.” They are bailing out by the droves. They are not the only ones, just the latest wave. We’re actually well into a generation or more of people who don’t see the value of gathering together at church. They think they can do just fine, thank-you-very-much, without having to show up for meetings.

The ascetic has long believed that the deepest spirituality was developed alone with God. Thus they hid away in caves, wandered the deserts, or lived in remote places where they could enjoy a very private, intense kind of faith. At least that’s what they thought.

Pachomius, however, saw the flaws in this thinking. His questions are right on target, and they are still on target for us today.

The Bible teaches that we should love one another. But without somebody around to love, it’s impossible to develop a loving spirit.

Humility? Impossible living alone or separated from other people.

Kindness and gentleness, by the very definition of the words, requires some other person to be the recipient of our actions.

One of my favorites is patience. Yes, you actually need a few people who drive you up the wall for patience to become real in your life.

But we’re still not good with these things. Too many run away and hide, or at best, surround themselves only with those who create no tension at all. Those who do this remain in an immature faith.

Which brings me to the point I want you to hang on to. Why should we invite people to church, invite them to become involved with us, invite them to settle in and become part of our church family?  Because they need us and we need them. Neither of us can grow like we should without the other.

Churches can get comfortable. We begin to feel safe and we’re grateful that we achieve a peaceful and settled atmosphere. But this is the mindset of the hermit. We need to be constantly stirred by fresh faces and new lives among us. It’s in the sharing of life and its constantly changing face that we become what God desires us to be. Invite some folks to church!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Coming Back To Corinth

1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -- 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 (NASB95)
You could find every kind of philosophy in Corinth. And, you could find every kind of immorality in Corinth. The church at Corinth lived in the midst of an alien culture - both geographically and spiritually. -- Dr. Paul M. Elliot
To add to Paul Elliot's comment, I think it would be fair to say that one might find all those philosophies and immoralities in the church at Corinth. It was a troubled church. Perhaps we might say that the church at Corinth had more problems, more serious problems, than any other church in the New Testament, including the seven churches of Asia addressed in the book of Revelation.

And yet.  The Christians in Corinth were still a church. Paul wrote to them, addressing them as the "church of God which is at Corinth", as "those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus", "saints by calling", and along with Christians elsewhere, they were people who "call(ed) on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ". That's a pretty impressive list of terms for a people with so many troubles.

Today's church isn't much different. Christians have just gotten better at covering our tracks. Some churches will hire PR consultants and spin-meisters to frame communications with the public, especially when there is the possibility of some negative news leaking out that might embarrass the church.

I've known Christians who took the position that they no longer committed any sin. One of the reasons they did that was to look better to outsiders. But that warps reality. The truth is that Christians as individuals, and Christians as a collective (a church), sin, get things wrong, misbehave, struggle knowing what to do, and sometimes have the same or more problems as any non-Christian around. You won't find a lot of Christians comfortable with that statement or admitting to it.

This creates at least two problems (there are more) that spell trouble for the church. Let me explain what I see.

First, this faulty idea that churches are pretty near perfect, is trouble for outsiders. How do you preach the gospel of Jesus to sinners, tell them that God will forgive their sins and make them better people, then turn around and deny that God needs to do anything about the sins still present in believers? Outsiders see through this fakey faith. They hear us say one thing but live another. If they are really after a solution to their sin problem, they won't look for it among people who can't own up to reality. I think outsiders would rather see people struggle honestly with sin and find forgiveness from a merciful and gracious God than to see supposed believer act as if they didn't really need a Savior in the first place.

Second, this same faulty idea creates trouble for insiders. One of the plagues on today's church is that many Christians keep looking for the perfect church. They too see the reality of sin, problems, lack of maturity and spirituality, etc. But instead of acting like the family of God we're supposed to be, a great number of people engage in church hopping. I've heard it too many times. "I've decided I'm going to church "B" because ________ (fill in the blank with some problem, sin, or disappointment). The thinking is that church "B" doesn't have these problems. Really?

I've always wondered why Paul didn't write to the church at Corinth and tell the faithful to get out of there and start another church. There isn't anything resembling how we modern Christians treat one another remotely suggested in the Bible. There are some honest new church plants, but everybody knows that a great many churches begin because disaffected people just wanted to leave a troubled church.

Don't assume I'm writing from some lofty, I've-never-thought-this-way point of view. No, I've had exactly the same temptations. But I keep coming back to Corinth. If the Corinthian church was across town, nobody would want to have much to do with it. And if we (you and me) belonged to that church, we would probably be working behind the scenes to gather a subversive group together to go plant our own church and get out of that mess.

But here's my problem (thought it might not be yours). I keep coming back to Corinth, and I keep reading Paul's words. "church of God", "sanctified in Christ", "saints by calling", and just like Christians in every other place, call(ing) on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ".

What term will I then wear that makes me a better Christian than those at Corinth? Is it not a spirit of legalism that suggests I do something better than they, therefore I am in better standing with God? Isn't it to miss that if either of us is right with God, it's not because we're better than the other, but because of God's grace and mercy found in Jesus? How else could Paul call that bunch of sinful, divided, philosophically and spiritually misguided people "the church of God", "sanctified in Christ Jesus", and "saints by calling"?

There are no perfect Christians, and when you lump us together we don't make perfect churches.  Most of us are a bit messy, and the rest of us are more so. Perhaps it's time for us to learn how to live our faith, love our brethren, and learn how to help one another grow to be more like Jesus. We say we don't want to be like the church at Corinth. Fine. But you need to know that some of the problems there were spiritual pride, philosophical arrogance, and division. If we're not careful, the very same problems will infect us, but we'll just ignore them, pretending we're not like that church.

We need to come back to Corinth occasionally. Especially when we think we see imperfections in our brothers and sisters. We might be looking at ourselves.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Little Negativity Goes A Long Way

13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”15 But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. -- Galatians 5:13–15 (NASB95)
Shortly before Dallas Willard died from cancer in 2013, Pastor John Ortberg asked him, "Do you regret anything?" Willard answered, "I regret the time I have wasted." -- Adapted from John Ortberg, Soul Keeping (Zondervan, 2014), pp. 186-817
There's a fascinating article written by James Clear titled, "Haters and Critics: How to Deal with People Judging You and Your Work" (you can read it by clicking HERE).  I say it's fascinating because the writer has managed to find a way to look at criticism positively. I don't mean he likes it, but he's managed to turn it into something other than a life-crusher. Read his article. It's very good.

I think it's fascinating also because it addresses something all too common in today's communication between people. There is a harshness alive today that wasn't always present. Well, maybe it was present, but it didn't seem to be quite as bad as it has become.

It's behind the bullying you've heard about rampant among school-age children. It abounds in Internet communications of all kinds. If you're a blog reader have you read the comments that follow many articles? There will be, perhaps, a good number of positive comments reflecting agreement or something a reader has appreciated or found helpful. Then there are the bashers! It will range from disagreement to character assassination, and it's done in increasingly harsh tones. A lot of bloggers are now turning off the comments section because it's not worth the hassle.

But this is nothing new. Hate, spite, bitterness, slander, even outright lying about people has been around just about as long as people have existed. A theologian might say that it's part of our fallen nature. I'm sure! There is a negative, hurtful, destructive bug in us somewhere, and none of us are completely innocent. Give me the right situation and I can rant with the best.

One of my favorite sections of James Clear's article uses a quote from Mario Andretti, famous race car driver. Here's what he wrote:
Many racing experts consider Mario Andretti to be the most successful and versatile racing driver of all-time. During his career, Andretti won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Formula One World Championship and the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. He is one of only two drivers in history to win races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR.
During an interview with SUCCESS magazine, Andretti was asked for his number one tip for success in race car driving. He said, “Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.”
When young drivers are starting to race, this is one of the most critical lessons that they learn. When you’re driving at 200mph you need to focus on the road in front of you. If you look at the wall, then you’ll end up hitting it.
The same could be said for your life, your work, and dealing with critics.
Criticism and negativity from other people is like a wall. And if you focus on it, then you’ll run right into it. You’ll get blocked by negative emotions, anger, and self-doubt. Your mind will go where your attention is focused. Criticism and negativity don’t prevent you from reaching the finish line, but they can certainly distract you from it.
However, if you focus on the road in front of you and on moving forward, then you can safely speed past the walls and barriers that are nearby.
"Don't look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go." Exactly. If negativity does anything, it takes our focus off what we're doing, where we want to go, and how we plan to get there. That's precisely what negative people want you to do. When people criticize you, dump a bunch of negative, name-calling, and character assassination on you, they're really trying to get you to stop whatever it is you're doing.

Perhaps there are times when all of us need a good critic to force us to rethink things. We don't always get everything right the first time. But so much of the negative bashing isn't "constructive" at all. I've learned to always beware of the person who says, "I'd like to give you a little constructive criticism." It's seldom constructive.

Sadly, some of the most negative, fault-finding, critical, and generally unloving people I've ever known are Christians. I'm sad to say this, but it's true. And it seems that the general public has picked up on this. Researchers are telling us that some of the biggest reasons people are turned off to Christianity and the church, in general, is that God's people thought to be harsh, judgmental, and far too critical of others.

The apostle Paul had it right when he wrote to the churches of Galatia. Bite and devour one another and you'll destroy one another. The answer, of course, is no secret. Paul would urge us to practice the fruit of the Spirit, among such are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That's not the entire list, you see. There are other things "like" these that would be very helpful in defeating the destroying elements.

But we don't seem to be making much progress. Many years ago a man told me something I'll never forget. He said, "If I don't leave church feeling like I've been scalded, I don't feel like I've been to church." I thought then, and I still think today, some preacher convinced him that was the way church ought to make him feel. To me, that is one of the saddest views of church I've ever heard.

Recently I read someone (I forgot who!) suggest that we try going 24 hours without saying a single negative word to anybody, about anybody or anything. That might be a good exercise. You willing to try it? What makes this whole subject so important is that a little negativity goes a long way. You could have dozens of people brag on you, but one critic will occupy your mind for days. The vast majority can be very pleased with your work, or you as a person, but let one knucklehead judge you as worthless and it will stay with you for days.

I wish it were not so, but it is. Cruel, hurtful, demeaning, crushing words are powerful. Christians should not perpetuate this problem. We ought to be the ones whose words and actions are just the opposite. If you're one of the people always finding something wrong with everything, you need to repent. If you're the target of this sinful behavior, all I can say is, "Don't look at the wall." That's easier said than done, but I firmly believe it's time we do not allow the critics to rule the world.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Time To Deal With Real Sins

1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:1–3 (NASB95)
In 1937, a researcher at Harvard University began a study (originally named The Harvard Study of Adult Development) on what factors contribute to human well-being and happiness. . . Over the period of 72 years, several men have directed the research. For the last 42 years, the director has been psychiatrist George Vaillant. In 2008 someone asked Dr. Vaillant what he had learned about human health and happiness from his years of poring over the data on these 268 men. You would expect a complex answer from a Harvard social scientist, but his secret to happiness was breathtakingly simple: "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people." – Joshua Wolf Shenk, "What Makes Us Happy?" The Atlantic (June 2009), pp. 36–53
I believe the secret to church unity is in the first three verses of Ephesians 4. It simply matters how you live with other people. And Christians are called to live a particularly different kind of life.

You cannot be hypercritical, complaining, and grumpy. It matters how you engage others, how you talk to them, how you treat them. You cannot be selfish and self-centered. You cannot be irritable and hard to get along with. All these, and anything similar to them, are destined to ruin your relationships with others. This is true whether it’s relationships at work, at home, at school, at church, wherever you are.

I learned a long time ago that if you want to find some of the most cruel, unkind, uncaring, and hurtful people then go to church. What’s amazing is that very often they are the very people who think of themselves as solid, sound Christians!

The real truth is that the Christian calling, and the Christian life is something very different from what such people think it to be. It’s time we stop being afraid to call these people on their sins -- the real sins that are actually mentioned in the Bible. Pride, arrogance, insensitive roughness, impatience, intolerance, and a lack of love are all real sins. They violate God’s will. For too long, we have allowed these sins to live unchallenged in the church. The result is that outsiders see these traits for what they are, and they are choosing to go elsewhere. One great reason people are fleeing the church today is that it's not really the church.

There is a right way to live with other people. Spend your life living Eph. 4:1-3.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

10 As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. 11 Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? – Psalm 90:10–11 (NASB95)
"It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing,"also known as purple prose. The phrase comes from the original opening sentence of Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

I think I first read the words, “It was a dark and stormy night” in a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy keeps trying to write his novel and frequently begins this way. It was long after that I learned it was from a real novel, and that awards are given (not necessarily so complimentary) for similar beginnings.

Still. I understand about dark and stormy nights. You do too. We all understand. We know because we’ve lived through such nights, or we know someone close to us who has. Just like real dark and stormy nights they keep us awake, fill us with fear and dread, steal our peace, and leave us shaken.

Sometimes, we create our own dark and stormy nights. Sometimes, they surprise us, blowing up out of an otherwise clear sky. The result is the same. It’s what makes dark and stormy nights undesirable at best, tragic and heart-breaking at worst.

Here are some ideas to work with as you face your own dark and stormy night:
  • First, storms pass. Even the worst of them. Yes, they can leave destruction in their path, and there might be a long recovery, but they pass.
  • Second, storms never eliminate the next bright day. Seems like they will, but they don’t.
  • Third, God provides hope and help. You will likely have to look for it and want it. But it’s there. When you find it, you get help to clean up the mess, and you get to enjoy the sunshine of a bright day.
Many can look back on dark days of their past and honestly say, "It was a dark and stormy night." The night has passed.

Grace And Change

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. – Titus 2:11–14 (NASB95)

God’s hardworking change.
It’s where the good life comes from.
But it’s the only place it comes from.
– Matt Chandler, Recovering Redemption, p. 151

Grace is a great thing. One big thing about grace is that it has to be free. I mean really free. It’s can’t be like one of those places that offers you a free toaster if you spend $1,000 with them. I can just buy a toaster for way less than that! When it comes to salvation from sin, grace means you don’t deserve it, and you can’t earn it. God’s grace is found in Jesus. Put your faith in him, for has done the work, not you.

But there’s more to grace, and at times it’s neglected. Real grace doesn’t overlook your sins and act like they’re not there. The truth is grace is the only lens through which I would ever want to look at my sins, because it’s the only thing that is both real with sin, and yet offers an undeserved, unearned way out!

Then what? Right here is the crucial issue that sometimes goes ignored. Grace doesn’t mean you get to keep right on living the same old way you’ve been living. It makes no sense to think that God, in his grace, sent his Son to die to save you from your sins, only to turn right around and say, “Now it doesn’t matter how you live.”

Instead, grace serves as a kind of life instruction. It teaches us to deny ungodliness. That means anything ungodly, you need to turn your back on it. It teaches us to live sensibly, righteously and godly. Real grace doesn’t say, “Anything goes!” Real grace says, “You need to rethink that one, Friend!”

The whole thing is geared to change you. Yes, there’s that word. Change. You need to be different from what you are. We all do. Ask what grace is doing to change your life.

Consider The Wonders Of God

14 “Listen to this, O Job, Stand and consider the wonders of God.” –Job 37:14 (NASB95)

“Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” —A.W. Tozer

One thing we can say about the conversations between Job and his friends - they struggled to understand God. They expressed the same confusion about human life, purpose, and meaning that we still struggle with today. Elihu may come closest to pointing Job in the right direction, at least at times. His statement in 37:14 is one of those that’s right on target. “Stand and consider the wonders of God.”

But it may be that very point of view that we’ve lost. Modern humans, at least most of us, seem to lack the ability to “stand in wonder” of God. We think of ourselves as smart, educated, and wise. Science enables us to tackle most of life’s problems. Technology makes it possible for us to do things that ancient people never dreamed possible. We’re convinced we’ve got pretty much everything covered.

At least until trouble shows up. A crisis, regardless what kind, has the potential to shake us into reality and shock us with the sudden realization that there is a vast number of things we don’t know, can’t handle, and feel completely incapable of solving. The universe is a much bigger place than we think.

Maybe we should learn to practice this “stand and consider the wonders of God.” David must have done that on many occasions while tending sheep. In the quiet solitude there was ample time for him to think, question, consider, literally “wonder” at God. Paul must have done that because he knew that the creation itself declared God’s eternal power and divine nature. Jesus must have spent much time reflecting, meditating, and thinking through the scriptures. All “wondered” at God.

You might read that word, “wonder” and think that I’m talking about a confused mind. Quite the contrary. It has nothing to do with confusion, but a realization of the sheer vastness of God. It is to be awed by God’s power, knowledge and wisdom. It is to marvel at the beauty, complexity and superiority of even a blade of grass to man’s knowledge and ability. Human education and technology? No comparison to God.

Let your soul gaze upon a saving God. That’s a wonder of wonders!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mercy, The Grace Partner

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Heb 4:16 (NASB)
A Wall Street Journal article reports that doctors discovered there are subtle differences in a baby’s cry that helps medical staff understand how to treat the infant. More than just hunger or being tired, differences in cry characteristics can provide clues that something is wrong. A computer program was created to analyze the cries in 12.5 millisecond frames and measures factors like pitch, volume and “voicing” which is how clear the cry sound is. Doctors hope such analysis can provide clues so that treatment can begin earlier than standard test results might indicate. – adapted, Sumathi Reddy, "What Science Hopes to Learn from a Baby's Cry," The Wall Street Journal (8-27-13)
You will read them together in many passages. Grace and mercy are great partners. As someone once noted, grace is getting what you don’t deserve while mercy is not getting what you do deserve. That seems to be a fair summary of some important ideas contained in the words.

We need to also connect grace and mercy to our prayers. The passage is Hebrews 4:16 tell us about something available to Christians. Access to God’s throne of grace is one of the benefits given to us because Jesus serves as our Great High Priest. The very idea of confidently coming into God’s presence is startling, but to think that access is to present ourselves, in all our humanness, including our needs, our pains, our struggles, and especially our failures is more than words can convey.

Make no mistake about this throne. It’s a throne of grace. Not one of us deserves to be there. None of us, by our virtue or our accomplishments, have an earned place before the throne of God. We’re there because of grace. But it’s not just a throne of grace. It’s also a place of mercy where God withholds what we really deserve, and grants us help instead.

That’s quite a different picture than one held by many. They see God as a demanding tyrant eager to threaten and punish. The truth is God does warn, and he will punish, but those are things reserved for those who reject him and refuse to believe and obey him.

Christians are not better than other people. We have the same troubles, commit the same sins, struggle with the same difficulties. The difference? Access to a couple of partners, dispensed from the throne of God.

A Place Of Grace

16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. – John 1:16 (NASB95)
Walls don't just divide us. They make us ill. After the Berlin Wall went up, East German psychiatrists observed that the Berlin Wall caused mental illness, rage, dejection, and addiction. The closer to the physical wall people lived, the more acute their disorders. The only cure for "Wall Disease" was to bring the Wall down. Sure enough, in 1990, psychiatrists noted the "emotional liberation" felt after November 9, 1989 when the Wall finally fell. Thousands of jubilant Germans climbed the Wall, wept, and embraced each other atop the concrete, and proceeded to tear the Wall down with joyful abandon. – Adapted from Marcello Di Cintio, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Soft Skull Press, 2013), pp. 10-12
Not all walls divide and make us ill, but some surely do. Walls of our homes should be healthy and supportive. Walls of businesses make it possible to create, sell, and serve. Walls of a bank should declare strength, security and confidence. So, walls can be good or walls can be bad. It depends on what’s happening inside the walls.

Churches have walls. Yes, I mean the walls of our buildings for one thing. The building isn’t the church, but the walls of our buildings say something. If the church is people, we need to know that people have walls too. They aren't brick, or metal, or wood, but they are walls nonetheless. We put up walls to keep some people out of our lives and others in.

I want to sort of combine those “church walls” into one metaphorical wall. I want to combine the walls of our building and the walls of our hearts into one wall because there is something I think the church needs to hear. Remember I said earlier that walls can be good or bad depending on what’s happening inside the walls? I want you to think about that. What’s happening inside the church? Whether it’s the walls of your heart or the walls of our building, what’s happening inside?

It’s too easy to forget what “church” is all about. First and foremost, we’re followers of Jesus. We are the redeemed, the saved, the justified, the sanctified. None of that is because we’re all that great. We need a fresh view of ourselves as sinners in need of help. We have little, if anything, to offer God. If we’re saved, it’s because God loved us in spite of ourselves, granted us mercy and grace, and washed us in the blood of Jesus. We didn’t achieve our salvation, Jesus did. If we forget that, we’ve forgotten something vital, urgent, and revealing.

What’s going on inside the walls of the church? I want to suggest to you that inside those walls, whether physical walls of a building or symbolic walls of your heart, church needs to be a place of grace. Grace doesn’t mean we deny or ignore sin. Grace means you can be forgiven and live better. Grace is what gives hope to dying people. Let’s be a place of grace - in your heart, in our house.

Come Out From Your Hidiing Place

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NASB95)
In a classic episode from the classic TV series from the 1960's, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, is out of town. His deputy, Barney Fife, is in charge, and he has deputized the local mechanic who is named Gomer. The two deputies are walking down the street one evening when they notice that someone is robbing the town's bank. They hide behind a car. They are afraid and don't know what to do. Finally, Gomer looks at Barney and says excitedly, "Shazam! We need to call the police."
In utter exasperation, Barney shoots back: "We are the police!" – Stephen Mansfield, Mansfield's Book of Manly Men (Nelson, 2013), page 12
I went for a job interview many years ago with a big church. At the time I was preaching for a very small church. Well, it had been small. There were only 55 of us (counting my wife and two daughters) our first Sunday there. The church had grown, things were doing well, and I guess I got the attention of some folks who knew some of our members. It was quite an opportunity. If I were to tell you what church it was, some of you reading this would be both surprised and impressed.

But I was still a pretty young preacher. I was just hitting my stride, as they say. And as much as I was flattered and humbled by the opportunity, I turned them down. Yes. They never got the chance to tell me I wasn’t their pick, I turned them down. Why in the world would I do that? I remember talking to a couple of the elders. I said, “I really appreciate the opportunity, but I’m just not sure I’m your guy.”

I still think that was probably the right decision. But looking back on it now, I know who they hired and who followed that guy, etc. I now think I could have done just as good a job as those guys.

I’ve heard us pray for “opportunities.” The truth is they come every day. Instead of accepting them, and doing something with them, I think most of us have a tendency to say, “I’m not your guy.” We seem to think whatever comes our way demands somebody with greater abilities, better talent, more ‘smarts’, or some edge that we don’t possess. The truth is, we are ambassadors for Christ.

I wish it was a simple matter writing an article, tossing out a challenge, having someone read it, and find themselves moved to change their lives. I pray we can become more confident; not haughty or irritating people, but confident enough to speak to people about Jesus. We are his ambassadors. We represent him.

I know it’s not that simple, but I want to challenge you anyway. You are an ambassador for Christ. Don’t be like Barney and Gomer. You don’t need to call anyone. Step out from your hiding place.

Feel Like You're Drowning?

25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. – Matthew 14:25 (NASB95)
Mark Twain was accompanied by his wife on one of his visits to the Holy Land. They were staying in Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a moonlit night, and the weather was perfect, which gave Twain the romantic idea of taking his wife for a boat ride on the lake.
They walked down to the pier, and Twain inquired of a man sitting in a rowboat how much he would charge to row them out on the water. Twain was dressed in his usual white suit, white shoes, and white Texas hat. The oarsman, presuming him to be a wealthy rancher from the USA, said, "Well, I guess about twenty-five dollars." Mark Twain thanked him, and, as he turned away with his wife on his arm, he was heard to exclaim, "Now I know why Jesus walked!" – Ward Williams, "Walking on Water,"
All respect to Mark Twain, Jesus didn’t walk on water because it was too expensive to ride in the boat. It does make for a good joke!

A lot of people relate to the idea of water and boats, however. Maybe you’ve said, “Well, we’re all in the same boat!” Or you’ve heard someone say, “I’m neck deep in water!” Another twist on this is, “I’m drowning!” Despite Peter’s desire to walk on the water with Jesus, I suspect he identified more with people in trouble than he did with Jesus. It’s on reason he started to sink.

I’d just like to say, we need somebody who can walk on water. We need Jesus because he could walk on water. In times of trouble when we feel like we’re drowning, or we’re up to our necks, or we think we’re sinking and can’t swim, we need to know there’s somebody who can help.

A man who walks on water is a man who is living by, and possesses, a power far more potent than anything I’ve got to offer. He’s got control of physical elements, and if he’s got control over those things, that alone is power, but it hints at even greater power.

Stories like this aren’t there to trick us or give us a mere mythical tale. Stories like the one that tells of Jesus walking on the water are there to build our faith, our trust, our willingness to depend on such a man. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to sink. So do we.

The next time you get that sinking feeling, or think you’re drowning, look for the man who walked on the water. He will reach down and save you.

I've Got A Question

46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. – Luke 2:46 (NASB95)
"Were we to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, 'What comes into your mind when you think about God?' we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." – A.W. Tozer
Questions are important. Asking appropriate questions, even more. Asking the right question at the right time. Wow. Light bulb time.

Jesus was a master question asker. At the age of 12, he was found in the temple, “both listening to them (the teachers) and asking them questions. He started early, like most young people. Adults often tire of questions, but it’s questions that reveal the inquisitive mind, one open and ready to learn. It’s also the tool of the master teacher to pry open closed or unthinking minds.

Todd Catteau wrote that most of Jesus’ questions could be organized into one of three categories (“The Questions of Jesus”, Discipleship Journal, Issue 100 (July/August 1997):
● Questions that validated his teaching
● Questions that challenged false ideas
● Questions that deepened faith
Frequently, Jesus made statements of truth, followed by questions designed to cause people to think about how sensible the statements were. Or he would question the standard beliefs people held by getting to think about alternate possibilities. Occasionally, questions dug at what people believed, or challenged their faith in a way designed to deepen it.

We should learn to love questions. Instead, we avoid them. They irritate us. They confuse us. We just don’t want to bother with them. Sometimes, we act as if people shouldn’t ask questions at all. Questions aren’t always easy or comfortable. They do throw us off balance. They betray the reality that we might not know all that we think we know. We don’t like being shown up by a good question.

Still, it’s getting answers to questions that causes us to grow. Jesus didn’t want to merely irritate people. He didn’t want to confuse them. He wanted them to think, to learn, to grow. All of us should want that.

Do you really believe that Jesus is unnerved at our questions? I don’t think so. But I do think he will unnerve us with his questions. We need to learn to love questions. We need to ask them, and we need to consider the ones found in scripture. A good question opens up a world of information.