Archive for February, 2009

You can’t read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats without being just a little bit nervous about your eternal destiny. Now without a doubt, the Bible teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ and even that is not our own doing but a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8-9 is about as clear on this as possible. We are not saved by our works. Yet, there is a incredibly important role that our good works play in relation to our salvation.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells of sheep and goats who are separated at the judgment. The sheep are welcomed into eternal life and the goats are sent to eternal punishment. When they ask why one group goes to heaven and one does not they are told that one group, the sheep, visited the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked. As a result, the really did those things for Jesus. The other group, the goats, failed to do so and as a result failed to do so for Jesus. What is amazing is that Jesus said to the goats, away from me, I never knew you. Incredibly, these goats called him Lord in the story. They claimed to know who he was, but he denied knowing them.

So what are we to make of this? Is Jesus teaching that we are saved by works? Is he saying that we can earn our way to heaven when other parts of the Bible clearly say otherwise? Is he saying that we can loose our salvation if we don’t do enough good works? The answer is going to be found in understanding the less clear parts of the Bible, in light of the perfectly clear parts. We have to use Scripture to understand Scripture.

We have already taken a look at Ephesians 2. The next place that will help us is James2:14. “What good is it brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The answer that James gives is no, it can not. What we need to be clear about is this, James is talking about a certain kind of faith, not saving faith. In essence what he is saying is this, can a faith that does not manifest itself in a changed life, that shows no evidence of doing the works of God, that does not forgive people, serve people, love people as ourselves, really be a faith that saves? True saving faith will demonstrate itself by how we live or more precisely, how we LOVE. If we love God with all we have and all we are, we will love our neighbor. We will serve them and care for them. That is what Jesus says the sheep did. That kind of faith will save you. Faith that does not show up in loving others is really no faith at all. That kind of faith will not save you.

That is the issue with the sheep and the goats. The goats thought they had faith. They thought Jesus was their Lord. But their faith was pure lip service. It was not people service. They talked a good game. They did not walk the talk. What the Bible teaches is that if you have a faith that is guided by loving God and loving your neighbor, then you will show people your faith by how you serve them in their time of need. Those good works do not save you. They are evidence of the faith that you have that saves you. Failure to love your neighbor and love God would be an indication that saving faith is not present. People who show no evidence of loving God by serving others my be shocked to find out that Jesus does not know them as his sheep.

Last night I sat in a conference listening to Neil Cole talk about the damage we have done to the cause of Christ by making the ministry of the professional clergy more important than that of the average Christian. I could not agree more. If you are a follower of Christ, you have been called by God to be a minister in Christ’s name. The job of the “professional” is not to do what God has called you to do, but to give you every tool and training you need so that you can do what God has called you to.

This is stated as clearly and as boldly as possible by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:11-12

11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up

As a pastor my job according to Paul, is to equip people for the ministry they have been called to by God. It is that work, work of ordinary Christ followers, that will build up the Body of Christ. It is the work of ordinary Christians like you that will make the real difference in the Church and in the world. People in positions like me are just coaches. You are the real players who make things happen.

Throughout the Bible we get the picture of how vital you are to the work of ministry. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ. He makes it clear that each and every person in the Body has a crucial role to play. Each person has a ministry that has been given to them by God. Each person is equally important in the functioning of the Body and the ministry of Christ. The hand is no more important that the foot, which is no more important than the eye, which is no more important than the ear. You my friend are of vital importance to the Body of Christ and if you are not doing the ministry God has called you to, then the rest of us are functioning one handed, or lame in one leg, or blind in one eye, or deaf in one ear. No wonder the church struggles.

But there is another very important point that Neil made. Do not think that your ministry that God has called you to is some “church” thing. Far too many people think that what they do from 9-5, Monday through Friday is “secular’ and what they do with the church is “sacred”. NO! All of life is sacred. Colossians 2:17 is clear, in whatever you do in thought word and deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I wrote a post on this several weeks ago. https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/provocative-worship-pt-2-all-of-life-is-sacred/ The point is, whatever you do, is to be done as an act of worship. That makes all of life sacred. All of life is ministry. If you are called by God to be an accountant, or cook, or engineer, or flight attendant, you are to do that for Jesus and look for every chance to serve others in His name.

I know that for many people this is a new concept. I know this because I teach a university course on this at Belhaven College. My students are adults who are finishing their degree at night. They are by and large people who have been Christians for some time and go to good churches. But when we talk about their job being a calling from God and something sacred, the lights come on for the first time. They never heard this. They always saw their job as somehow being inferior to that of their pastor or some other professional church worker. Real ministry is what the pastor does. That is nonsense!

When I came to faith in Christ I had never been a member of a church. I had rarely attended a church. What I did have at that point was the example of ordinary people who led me to Jesus and a Bible that talked all about ordinary people who did radical things in service to Jesus. I had no expectation or model that said “real ministry is done by professionals”. So stupid me, I just started doing what I saw people do in the New Testament and what my friends had modeled for me. All of life became life in Jesus. Whatever we did became an act of worship. If we went white water rafting it was a chance to experience the joy of the Lord and fellowship in His creation. That was no less an act of worship than when we sat down with a guitar around a camp fire and sang songs and prayed. When we went to work and became salt and light in the marketplace, it was no less ministry than when we went to a local park and talked to pot smoking teenagers about Jesus. There was no divide between the sacred and the secular and between the professional pastor and the ordinary follower.

You are a minister in God’s church and what you do everywhere, everyday is to be sacred in the eyes of the Lord.

In an era that promotes tolerance as the highest of virtues and the idea that truth is relative, it is considered outrageous to claim that Jesus is the one and only, exclusive way, for people to attain eternal life. I have heard it more often than I can count; “What about all the people in the world who don’t believe in Jesus, who follow Buddha or Confucius or some other teacher?”. “How can you say that they won’t go to heaven?” Well there are a couple of reasons why I think we must say that. First and foremost among them is what Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

Jesus made it very clear that the way to the Father and ultimately the way to eternal life in heaven is through a relationship of faith in Him. The rest of the New Testament affirms this over and over again. Just one example comes from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9 The only way to say that there are other ways to eternal life is to completely discount everything that the Bible teaches on the subject. In order to be certain of a place in eternity with God you must trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You must believe that He died and rose again in order to pay the penalty for your sins and conquer death on your behalf.

Of course there are certainly some folks who would discount the Bible and decide that it only makes sense that if you are sincere in what you believe then you will live forever. The thought is that sincerity, not truth, is the higher of the two virtues. The supreme being who many believe is out there somewhere is seen as a being who is only gracious and compassionate and would never draw a line in the sand that has anything to do with truth or right and wrong. So the good, sincere Buddhist, or follower of Confucianism, or Taoist, or Hindu, will still go to Heaven.

The problem is, none of those faiths have as their ultimate goal, the kind of heaven and eternal life that most westerners have in mind. In fact, in most cases, they don’t even want to go to heaven. Take the Buddhist as an example. The Buddhist doctrine is that all of life is suffering and the goal is to end all suffering. That goal is something called Nirvana. It is a state of being absorbed, if you will, into the great nothingness of the cosmos. You no longer have an individual existence or awareness of yourself. For the Buddhist, the Christian idea of heaven and earth becoming one, and living forever in that state, would be seen as a step backwards. The Hindu faces a similar though slightly different path. For them, the cycle of death and reincarnation looks at life as being a giant wheel. It goes around and around every time you die and are reincarnated. The goal is to stop coming back, to stop the wheel of time from turning, and to become one with creation. It is another loss of self and identity. It is not heaven, but being absorbed into creation.

For the most part, it is only people raised in a western philosophical mindset who have a problem with the exclusivity of Jesus. It is only people raised in some sort of “Christian” culture who seem to be embarrassed by the claim of Jesus to be the only way to heaven. Oddly enough, most other religions try to incorporate this exclusive Jesus into their faith in some way. Muslims call him an honored prophet. Buddhists refer to him as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened one who shows the path to other. Hindus think if him as an incarnation of Vishnu, one of their highest gods. I wonder if somewhere deep on our hearts, there isn’t that general revelation from God that points us to Jesus as in fact, The Way, The Truth, and The Life. As a result, even in religious systems that are opposed to what the Bible teaches, there is a need to honor Jesus.

There is no need for a follower of Jesus to be embarrassed by the the exclusive claims of Jesus. He is the Lord who rightly demands our allegiance. Our highest command is to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is Jesus who is the way to eternal life.

Those words come from a song by Larry Norman. It was his album, “Only Visiting This Planet”  that provided me, a Led Zeppelin listening new Christian, with some great rock n roll that focused on Jesus. That quote from the Beatles and the commentary on their eventual inability to work together tells us something of the worlds shallow and impoverished view of love. Being that it’s Valentines Day it seem appropriate to take a look at what ideal of love really is. For that there is no better place to look than the words of Jesus.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13

Those words point clearly to the ultimate expression of love and as such point us to what love is really supposed to be all about. To hear people talk of love today, and talk of their experiences of love, you would be convinced that love is this fickle, emotional, euphoria that sweeps over you without your control. It is a sense of joy and delight that you experience in relation to another person. It is great when you have it but it may come or go on a whim without you being able to do anything about it. It is something you “fall into” and can just as quickly “fall out of”. If life with a person is light and breezy then you must be in love. If it starts to get hard, they disappoint you, you have a difference of opinion, then love must have moved on and you are now no longer in love with them. All I can say to that is “horse-hockey”. (to quote Colonel Potter from M.A.S.H)

That definition of love should have been left behind in 8th grade. It is the stuff of giddy school girls and overly optimistic boys hoping for some action at the school dance. It is a step above the passing of notes that ask, “Do you like me?” Check, Yes, No, or Maybe. It is a sad state of affairs when a vast majority of our culture is stuck at a middle school level of emotional understanding.

The love that the Bible and therefore Jesus, speaks about is a love that is deep and strong and will last through the most difficult of times. It is a love that is not concerned about what we are getting out of the relationship so much as it is what we are investing in the life of the other person. Think about the love of a parent for a child. We have all seen unhealthy examples of parents who derive their emotional sustenance from their children. Their children become little emotional booster shots for them. They find their validation as a person in their children because they make them feel so good inside. When the child starts pulling away or rejecting the parents oversight in some way, their world collapses and they give up being a parent. A healthy love for ones child means that a parent is going to do all the hard things needed as a parent so that their child can grow to love and follow Jesus. They are going to sacrifice their time and energy and heart. They are going to risk angering their child by requiring certain behaviors from them. They are going to have nights of tears and days in prayer over their child. Much of that time will be devoid of warm fuzzies and joyful tingles. It will be hard work. But it is love as Jesus speaks of love.

The same is true of spouses. Paul makes it clear when he writes to the Ephesians in chapter 5 that husbands and wives are to submit their lives to one another. He speaks specifically to husbands saying they are to lay down their lives for their wife, just as Jesus did for the church, His bride. The greatest expression of love comes when we sacrifice for another, not when we get all warm and starry eyed thinking about them.

When we sacrifice for those we love and do it without expecting them to return the sacrifice, then our love for them grows even deeper. There is a very real sense in which love properly understood and properly given gets stronger in the giving. On the other hand love improperly understood and improperly given is drained away and dies a slow death with each expression. The reason for that is the love that focuses on what we feel or are getting out of the relationship can never be satisfied. It is like a drug addict who develops a tolerance to the drug. Over time he needs more of the drug in higher doses to get the same euphoria. If he does not get it, he dies. Self serving love needs more and more of the experience of euphoria to sustain itself. But like a drug it consumes the consumer. Love that looks to give itself away in service to another is something that according to God’s economy, keeps giving and getting stronger the more it gives itself away. To quote another of my heroes, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, “It is not logical, but I have never the less found it to be true”.

The more you give yourself away in love and in the power of Christ, the stronger your love grows. The more you focus on the needs of the other, at least as much as you focus on your own, your love will get deeper. The more you look for ways to honor your beloved and sacrifice yourself for them, the more you will experience being blessed. Because you see, the love that sacrifices for another finds it’s highest reward and blessing in the benefit of the other.

How different might the music scene have been if the Beatles had learned that all you need is love that puts the other person first and sacrifices for them, instead of love that always measures if you are getting more out of the relationship than you are putting in?

The Theology of Travel Problems

Posted: February 13, 2009 in Uncategorized

There I was in the Johannesburg airport in South Africa. I was supposed to be changing planes in Atlanta right about then and heading home to Orlando. That’s what happens when your connecting flight from Cape Town gets diverted to another airport, in a town you never heard of, due to bad weather. The four hour cushion we built into the process was quickly eaten up and disappeared. Fifteen minutes late meant a 24 hour unplanned stay in a hotel, waiting to catch the next days only flight to home. In one of life’s ironies, if we had taken a later connecting flight and left ourselves only a two hour window, we would have been able to land at the right airport and get home on time. Of course this is the back end of a trip that, for me, started two days late because of a passport issue. I was cleared from Orlando to go to South Africa, including my passport. However as I was about to board the flight in Atlanta all I heard the gate agent say was, “Off load this one”. Moments later my traveling companions boarded the flight with dazed expressions while I took the next two hours to try and sort out the issue.

What has been interesting has been the responses to the missed flights. Many people have shared tidbits of theology regarding such things. Some people wondered if there was some divine plan that God had in mind, something significant that I am supposed to experience as a result of the missed flight. Others shared the recommendation to simply relax and not think or worry about stuff you can’t control. Their advice was to enjoy whatever God puts before you. Some raised the possibility that missing the flight might have been a blessing since something might have gone wrong on it. The immediate thought in the minds of Sean and Micheal, my two dazed looking traveling partners was, ” is this plane going down and it was just not Dan’s time?” I of course thought, “is tomorrows flight going down and it was just not Sean and Michael’s time?”  Of course there is always the age old bit of theology that says it is all about sinful people not doing what they should. On the front end of the trip it could be either the agent in Orlando or Atlanta not doing something right. On the back end it was the airline of the connecting flight not communicating as they were supposed to with the other airlines so planes could be held for passengers like me. It also may have been the desk agent who closed the gate more than an hour before the flight and absolutely refused to let us check in. (Still can’t figure that out, especially when the two guys in front of us in line did check in)

Maybe the answer is really found in the deep theology of the bumper sticker that says, “Stuff Happens” or something like that. But the more I think about it the more I am persuaded that “Stuff Happens” really doesn’t explain anything since of course “Stuff Happens”. If stuff didn’t happen then there would not only be nothing to write about, there would be nothing at all, zip, nada, nothing. Stuff needs to happen for there to be anything.

So what have I decided is the big theological secret behind my missed flights? Being fairly well persuaded that God is sovereign and rules over all things, there is a tendency to see His direct hand and purpose in all of this and the necessity of figuring out what His plan is. But that makes my head hurt after 48 hours of travel. Right now I am more comfortable with the idea that our sovereign God, while aware of and approving of all things, and even directing things by His decrees, also allows things to take place in something of a natural course of events. It is still His will in that He permitted it so I am comforted in the knowledge that He is always with me and knows all that I am going through. It is also clear that everything that happens can and does have something to teach us about God and ourselves and we should always be looking at things from the perspective of how each event allows us a way to bring glory to God. No matter what unexpected roadblocks, setbacks, or hardships we face, we must always ask, “How can I best honor God in this situation?”

Okay, but let’s cut to the chase. What is the bottom line in all this? Why so many unexpected hurdles? What is the great cosmic reason for it all? That’s simple:  “Stuff Happens”. As Michael said when we are asking ourselves this question, “We will probably never know the reason for it all”. Yet that does not mean there is nothing significant in all this. No matter what stuff happens I know I am always within the gaze of my heavenly Father who knew all about this before it ever happened and at the very least He allowed it to happen and maybe even said, “I will make this happen”. From the foundation of the world He was well aware of what the events would unfold this past week. I just wonder if he let out a little chuckle and said, “let’s see how he reacts to this one”. Hopefully it was in a way that honored Him above all else.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” Philippians 3:10

We met the first week of sixth grade. I was the new kid in the class and as it turned out we lived two streets apart. In one of those oddities of life a group of six of us in the neighborhood became friends and all of us had a first name that began with the letter D. So very quickly we all became known by our last name with a D in front. I became D’Lacich and he became D’Johnson. His real name is Dwight and he is my longest lasting friend and as such a most treasured friend.

When we were growing up it was all about sports and girls. I wont say anything about the girl part of things but sports is another matter. We spent lots of time together on the baseball field, the basketball court, golf course, and the football field. In every instance except football, Dwight far surpassed me in ability. The sheer brute force aspect of football served me better than the precision of the other sports. I never could beat him on the golf course for instance. But I noticed that my game always got better when I played with him. In fact the best round of golf I ever played was the day before Dwight and Debbie were married. I played out of my mind that day, and still he led the way with a better score.

Many memorable events in our lives were shared events. We woke up in my parent’s living room one New Years day to the news that our hero, Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission to Puerto Rico. Dwight was in the room along with two other friends, the night I gave my life to Christ. We were in each other’s weddings. Like the deepest of friendships, no matter how long the time is between phone calls or dinners, the bond of friendship is still unbreakable.

A year ago I received the proverbial punch in the gut when I learned that Dwight had just been diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure for ALS. The best they can do is manage the pain and the deterioration of the body. The first sign for Dwight that something was wrong was the difficulty he had holding a golf club. In just a year he has gone from that, to being in a wheel chair most of the time and needing a neck brace to hold his head up when he works on his computer.

Six months after the diagnoses we were together at a charity golf tournament for him and his family. The goal was to raise money for the remodeling of their house to accommodate the inevitable wheel chair. Just a few days ago we got together again, this time at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. For two die-hard Steelers fans it was a dream come true, especially since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. For me, getting a picture with Dwight at that game was more precious than I can describe. The Steelers winning was an ecstatic experience. Being with Dwight was deeper, more important by far, and will remain etched in my mind like few other events. It is another of those highly valued, shared events.

Whenever someone close to you has a tragedy strike, it must be a nearly universal response to at some point wonder how you would handle that in your own life. The way Dwight and Debbie have handled the illness that, barring a miracle, will end his life, has forced me to ask that question over and over again. You see, my friend Dwight loves Jesus with all his heart. It was out of love for Jesus that he and Debbie adopted two little boys with special needs, adding them to their very healthy biological daughter and son. It is out of love for Jesus that he has served in his local church. It is out of love for Jesus that he is approaching his suffering thinking only about others. I am forced to ask how I would handle such suffering because I see Dwight doing so with dignity and grace and for the glory of God.

Often times in the face of suffering we play the victim. “Why me?” we ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” We argue with the fairness of it all. In other cases we lapse into depression and give up. Dwight has been all about Jesus getting the glory. His attitude has been that of the Apostle Paul, whether I live or die let God be glorified. Also like Paul I think Dwight has an even deeper connection to Jesus because of the fellowship shared by those who suffer. Dwight wants Jesus to use his personal experience of suffering to point others to Jesus. I think his love for Jesus is actually growing as a result of that shared fellowship. Dwight understands that God never promised us a life free of suffering, at least not this side of eternity. What He did promise us was that He would be with us always, no matter what. We would be in fellowship with Him.

There is a sense in which suffering is the calling of the Christian. The health and wealth Gospel crowd that tries to show that God only wants you to be free of suffering and blessed by a huge bank account are totally out of touch with the true heart of God and the example of great saints from the past. The Apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus. In that suffering there was a renewed sense of being united with Him and of pointing people towards Him. Dwight Johnson is doing that every day. The more his body deteriorates the more glory he brings to Jesus by living a life that loves Jesus above all else.

The more I think about Dwight the more I am forced to smile. He was better than me at Baseball, Basketball, and Golf. Now it appears he is better than me at being a Christian as well. He is bringing glory to God in a situation that I don’t know how I would handle. However, I do know this, when the time comes when I must face that kind of suffering, I know that my game will be better because of Dwight. Some things never change.

UPDATE: Tuesday February 1st 2011. I visited Dwight for the last time today, in this life anyway. The breathing apparatus that he has been using is no longer helping. The next option is a tracheotomy to put him on a ventilator. Dwight and Deb decided long ago that when it reached this point, they would not take that option. There is no point. Dwight is ready to go. So on Thursday morning they will transition Dwight off the breathing mask, give him some medication to keep him comfortable, and wait until the CO2 levels rise to the point that he sleeps and slips away into the arms of Jesus. Dwight is ready to go. In fact he is so ready he decided to not wait to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I told him I understand, for all the glory that is the Steelers and Super Bowls, the glory of Heaven outshines that in ways indescribable. I have to admit that my emotions bounce from moment to moment between joy at the picture of Dwight with Jesus, emptiness at the sense of a page turning in my own life and the resulting void, to wanting to break something, and back to joy. But this is not about me. It is about Dwight and Deb and the incredible way in which they have dealt with this. As Deb said today, she knows that God is real if only because of the otherwise unexplainable peace that washes over her when she pictures Dwight with Jesus. Enough said.

Troy Polamalu wears number 43 for the Pittsburgh Steelers but is clearly more commonly known by his extremely long, flowing hair trailing behind in the breeze, while he runs like few men can. On the field he appears to be everywhere at once. He makes plays that cause the most seasoned commentators, coaches, and players to be in awe. It doesn’t matter if it is tackling an opposing player with wrecking ball force, making an interception that seems physically impossible, or getting from point A to point B without seeming to make use of time or space in any conventional manner. Polamalu is probably best described as a human Tasmanian Devil, that whirlwind of a creature made famous on Bugs Bunny cartoons. It tears through everything and everyone and never stops. It makes the energizer bunny look like it is in a coma. Polamalu has that kind of impact on the football field. Other players at times seem to be running on dying batteries when compared to him.

Yet by all accounts, off the field he is one of the most calm, quiet, and considerate individuals you will ever have the privilege of meeting. His hobbies are listed as playing the piano and growing flowers. Growing flowers! Are you kidding me? This from a guy who is a perennial All Pro in one of life’s most brutal sports. Yet he finds joy in the simplicity gardening. On top of that he is most known for the fact that as an adult he converted to the Eastern Orthodox branch of the Christian faith. It is evidenced by the fact the he crosses himself after every play, doing so in the Eastern manner of from right to left and not the Western of from left to right.

Many people are struck by what seems to be a disconnect between the on field dynamo of energy and aggression and the off the field contemplative, meditative, religious gardener. If you are someone who has not experienced the passion of a faith that guides your life then such a diversity seem irreconcilable. That is because we too often look for external consistency and not internal ones. The internal consistency that I see in Polomalu is that he is passionate about whatever he does and I suspect that his Christian faith is understood in such a way that he is sold out to it 100%, just like he is to football and gardening. I also suspect that his faith is such, that he sees all of life as being centered around the God he trusts and prays to. There is nothing lukewarm about how he approaches any aspect of life, be it football, flora, or faith. It all comes from the heart of a man who is passionate about the things he deems important. It does not matter to him if they don’t seem to go together on the outside. The outside is not what really matters. It is the heart of faith that knits it all together in a very consistent package.

What are you passionate about? What drives you to experience all that God has to offer in life? What grips you so much that after every instance you do something to acknowledge the God who made you? Are you at peace enough in your life to be able to tend the roses and explode with a joy felt power and see no incongruity? It really is not about if things seem to line up on the outside, it really is about it things line up on the inside, in your heart of hearts. A radical love for God at the core of who you are will make it so much easier to have all of your life fit together and make sense, even if people looking from the outside don’t exactly get it.