Archive for August, 2009

Woke up this mornin’ turned on my TV set
There in livin’ color was something’ I can’t forget
This man was preachin’ at me, yeah, layin’ on the charm
Asking me for 20 with 10,000 on his arm

He wore designer clothing and a big smile on his face
Selling me salvation while they sang Amazing Grace
Asking me for money when he had all the signs of wealth
Almost wrote a check out, yeah, but then I asked myself

Would He wear a pinky ring, would he drive a fancy car
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would his dressing room have a star
If He came back tomorrow there’s something I’d like to know
Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show?

A singer of satire named Ray Stevens did that song back in 1987 at a time when Christians in America were rocked by the televangelist scandals involving people like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. You would have hoped that given the damage that era did to the reputation of Christ’s church that we would have learned. Sadly we have not.

I recently returned from a conference in Nairobi, Kenya and found that the image of the preacher or evangelist as a man of wealth and fame has been transported to Africa from America. I heard from numerous godly pastors who are embarrassed by the growing numbers of preachers who have adopted an image of gold and glitter. They have an entourage around them that keeps people at bay. In some cases these preachers have men who take off their coat for them as a vale’ and then stand by holding it while another attendant stands ready to wipe his brow if he gets sweaty as he preaches. Tragically this is not an isolated thing but a growing phenomenon. Without fail they pointed to recent American preachers who visited the continent and modeled this behavior. The African pastors are picking it up as a model for having a growing church. What ever happened to preaching the Gospel?

The mindset behind the TV preachers “styling” is rooted in a cultural value of success and pride. The thinking is that if you are wealthy and sharp then you are a success and people will want to be like you. We marry that mindset with a twisting of scripture saying that if you are a financial success then God has blessed you. We transfer that into the ministry and say that if we appear to be wealthy and successful then people will want to follow Jesus. That leads back to the question posed by Ray Stevens. Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? Is wearing a Rolex what following Jesus is all about? The answer is so obvious as to make the question seem ridiculous. Of course not!

Jesus never wanted people to follow Him because he was flashy or wealthy or appeared to be a human success. If anything he appeared as the polar opposite. We are told that there was nothing in His appearance that would have attracted us to Him. He was plain looking at best. He was blue-collar working class. His father wasn’t Joe the plumber he was Joe the carpenter. In fact it was his very simplicity and contentment that was part of what attracted people to Him. They wanted to be like him in character and demeanor. When we see a person with lots of material stuff we don’t want to be like them. What we really want is to have the stuff they have. There is a huge difference. Wanting to be like a person is wanting to have the character traits they exhibit. Wanting someone’s stuff is to be guilty of the sin of coveting. It leads to envy and bitterness and sometimes dishonesty in order to get “stuff”.

Such desires for “stuff” are rooted in a failure to be content with our circumstances. The Apostle Paul talked a great deal about being content.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. 1 Timothy 6:6-10

That kind of contentment is appealing to people. When people see that you are able to be content with what you have then you give off an aura of satisfaction and peace that people long for. The world says that life is better if you have the Rolex and the pinky ring. Even though we say we don’t believe that, too many Christians live as if it is true. But deep down inside people realize that the stuff does not really satisfy. If we really wanted to be like Jesus then we would learn to be content no matter if we are rich or poor, hungry or well fed, clothed in splendor or homespun simplicity. I suspect that people who don’t yet know Jesus also suspect in their heart of hearts that the stuff is not what matters. But they have never seen anyone live a contented life in Christ that proves that following Jesus, really following Jesus, is the only truly blessed way to live.

7“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. Matthew 18:7-9

I remember preaching on this verse as a young pastor and during the sermon I noticed a man in the audience who I knew had some issues with mental illness. I thought to myself, “If he misunderstands what I am saying, this could get ugly, really fast”. What I didn’t need was for this young man to mistake a provocative illustration by Jesus as a command for extreme self-mutilation. Fortunately the young man did not rush out and cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. But then again, as far as we know, nobody in the entire history of Christianity has actually done this. Of course there was the church father Origen in the 4th century who apparently castrated himself, but that was all about wanting to be eunuch for God and a different issue all together.

The tragic fact is, most people go the other direction. Most people completely ignore this verse. It seems that once we decide that Jesus is not asking for us to donate our limbs, digits, or other body parts in the name of holiness, we take a collective sigh of relief and decide there is no need to ask further questions.  We decide what Jesus did not mean by these words, but we don’t bother to ask “What did he mean?” Okay, so now I am asking. What did Jesus mean when he said it is better to cut off a limb and enter eternal life minus a body part than to enter hell physically whole. The answer is simple. It is the application of the answer that is difficult.

Simply put, Jesus is saying that anything that causes you to sin and therefore negatively impacts your relationship with God should be removed from your life. This is such a serious issue that even if it is your own arm or eye you need to get rid of it. If we assume that Jesus was using hyperbole, which He often did, then what is the application? It shouldn’t take long for any of us to answer that. Just ask yourself, “what seems to regularly trip you up in your relationship with God?” Now there are some easy and obvious things. If sex in movies has a way of dragging you down then maybe you need to cancel your premium channel subscription. Sure you would have to do without the other movies offered but there are ways of seeing those without opening yourself or your family to something that would be harmful.

The traditional list of sex, drugs, and other vices is usually where people go with this. But let’s consider some non-traditional options that are far more insidious. For most people in western culture and in growing parts of the rest of the world, materialism is having a huge impact on our relationship with God. When it comes to your house for example, is it a source of pride for you? Has the desire to “move up” in the world by being in the right neighborhood with a house you really can’t afford, put you in a position of financial risk AND caused you to be further from the Lord? Maybe you are attached to your pride, or arrogance as much as you are attached to your eye or arm? Are you attached to your comfort and pleasure as much as to an ear or a leg?

The point is, anything that you love more than you love Jesus has the potential of destroying your relationship with God. It requires a great deal of honest reflection and inner searching of your attitudes and actions. This is not an easy thing to do. It means being willing to ask yourself some hard questions and facing the consequences. Those consequences can be difficult because we are facing the loss of something that is precious to us. What must happen is that Jesus and our relationship with Him must be more precious than anything, even and eye or an arm.

Today I felt like I was observing history in the making. I was one of over two hundred people who gathered for the African Forum on Religion and Government just outside Nairobi Kenya. The Minister of Information from Liberia spoke about how Jesus is changing that nation. He was followed by the Vice President of Kenya who shared a similar story of his nation. But the highlight, without a doubt was the President of The Republic of Burundi, Pierre Nikurunziza.

To understand why this was so compelling and inspirational you need to know a few things. First, President Nikurunziza is the first democratically elected president of that country to be in office longer than three months! His father was a member of parliement and governor who was killed in 1972 when 100,000 other Burundians were killed in a rampage of ethnic violence. In 1993 civil war erupted, again prompted by ethnic division. In the ensuing war between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi, five of his siblings were killed and he escaped death when his car was riddled with gun fire before he got out an ran away. Estimates are that upwards of 300,000 Burundians lost their lives in the civil war. That is a staggering number in itself but even more so when you consider that one out of every 25 Burundians died in that war. If a similar percentage was applied to the USA then we would be talking  about over 11 million dead. The impact of that much death in a country is beyond comprehension.

Since becoming president four years ago, Nikurunziza has worked on a principle of reconciliation prompted by his deep love for Jesus Christ. The result has been the disbanding of the rebel factions and their inclusion into the army and police force. There is such a unity within the army that the Burundians are now serving as peace keeping forces in at least three other African countries. The president said, “We have a responsibility to bring to others, the peace that Almighty God has brought to Burundi”.

The resulting peace in Burundi has allowed them to begin rebuilding the country. The focus has been on hospitals and schools. In the past few years they have built over 500 schools throughout the country and for the first time are building hospitals without having to wait on foreign aid to do it. That kind of work is also motivated by the presidents faith in Christ. There is an understanding that the whole Gospel, preached to the whole person, must include more than just an assurance of getting to heaven. If Jesus came to set the prisoner free, to heal the sick, to restore people to wholeness, then the building of schools and hospitals, the push for racial reconciliation and the efforts to bring peace to other lands are all seen as part of the responsibility of the government under the command of God.

To sit and listen to a head of state speak so openly about his faith in Christ was a unique experience. To hear him talk about how that faith in Christ, faith in the Gospel, motivated him to be a blessing to all the people of his country, not just to Christians, was an inspiration. Certainly Burundi has a long way to go. The peace is still young and as such can be fragile. In a country with a history for assasinating it’s leaders, the life of President Nikurunzizi is stressful to say the least. Pray for him. Pray for his country that it can be a model for others.

Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. The Book of Acts 2:45

If there was ever a passage that ran counter to our culture of accumulation then this is it. The first generation of followers of Jesus made sure that no one who was a part of their new found family of faith ever lacked the basic necessities of life. Nobody in that first church in Jerusalem ever went without a meal, or a roof over their head, or a cloak to ward off the cold. They did not have all of their wants and desires met but they did have all of their needs met. In essence what was taking place is that God was working through His people to fulfill the prayer that said, “Give us this day our daily bread”.

Anyone who had something extra turned that extra into a blessing for others. People who had some property, sold the property to buy food for people who were hungry. People sold furniture and bought clothing for people who had threadbare garments. Those who had homes opened those homes to others who had none and took them in, fed them and made them part of the family. The list of acts of kindness is a varied as the life situations people found themselves in.

Given that this is such a radical act we must ask the question, why did they do it? Why would people sacrifice their own comfort and security for the sake of others? Let’s be honest. Most of us are willing to give out of our excess to people in need. We are willing to give out of our comfort as long as it does not cause any real discomfort for us. Most of our “sacrificing” for the sake of others is really not much of a sacrifice. We give away that which we would never miss anyway. So what caused those first followers of Jesus to be so provocative?

Let me answer that question by first asking you a question. If your son or daughter was suddenly homeless and out of a job would you open your home to them, even if it meant their spouse and children moving in for a undetermined amount of time? I suspect the answer is yes and I know that some of you have done just that. If not that exactly you have done something similar for a family member. And that is the point. Those early followers of Jesus understood that they were ALL family. Calling one another brother or sister in Christ was not some religious platitude. They really meant it. If God was indeed their father and Jesus was their brother, then they were all family. That meant taking care of one another as family. You sacrifice for family. You go without so family can have their needs met. You do it because you love your family. Jesus said that the world will know that we are His family, His disciples, by the love we have for one another.

What a difference it would make if we lived out that example today. People in the first century became followers of Jesus because they saw the love the first Christians had for one another. It would be no different today. If we in the church showed that kind of love for each other you would see a revival unlike  any thing you could ever imagine. Not only that. You would see a smile on the face of Jesus because His brothers and sisters had finally figured out how to be family.

A few days ago I had breakfast with Frank Viola. No he is not the Cy Young winning pitcher who played for the Minnesota Twins, although that would be a great breakfast also. This Frank Viola is the author of “Pagan Christianity”, a book that calls the church to consider the ways in which we have gotten off mission by adopting structures and values from outside the Bible. To say the least the book is controversial and challenging. For example the quote, “The traditional church has neither the biblical nor historical right to exist as it does”, is bound to stir up some serious response. Unfortunately what people focus on is the structural issues related to church that Frank talks about. He is a huge proponent of churches meeting in homes. So you can understand why some people get a bit touchy.

What people need to focus on, and what I had the privilege of exploring at breakfast, is the heart Frank has for followers of Jesus living in community with one another and doing so in a way that brings glory to Jesus. Far too many churches function as large groups of passive people watching a small group of people do all the ministry. They are often filled with people who have not had the blessing of being grabbed by the awesome power of living in real community with Christ and His people. They are people who have not been confronted with the amazing miracle of being used by God to lead another person to faith in Jesus. Far too often our churches are filled with people who have had a very limited and a very diluted experience of Jesus and the power of being fully devoted to Him.

As a result of our diluted and passive Christian experience most people never have an impact on the world around them. Most Christian lives are just not provocative. We don’t provoke questions from others. Part of the motivation behind Provocative Christian is that our lives are too much like those of people who are not following Jesus. As a result nobody sees any difference in our lives as Christians, at least not a difference that they want in their lives. Frank wants to help Christians live in such a strong biblical community that our lives will be different and those lives will draw people to Jesus. I couldn’t agree with Frank more.

One of the best parts of our discussion was on how much of American Christianity is focused on the individual follower. It focuses on how to be a better Christian who does all the right things. What gets left out is that we can never be the kind of followers Jesus wants us to be if we are not in community with other Christians. It is impossible to become more like Jesus if you are not living out your faith in community with others. A basic theological reason for that is our understanding of God as trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist as one God yet in the marvelous relationship that we call the Trinity. If God is such a relationship of unity and we are created in His image, then in some way we must demonstrate godly relationships.

On a more concrete level, any reading of the Book of Acts shows how incredible that first century community was. They loved, served, cared, challenged and died for one another. If anyone was in need then they met that need. If anyone was sick, the visited and prayed for them. If anyone was straying from the faith they went to them in love and urged them back. Living in such community made it possible for them to grow in Christ like character. It also caused the world to take notice of the difference in those followers of Jesus. Some people were in repulsed by those differences. People always will hate some aspect of the Christian life. But many were attracted by it. It was a compelling witness to how life could be different and so they asked why these Christians lived as they did, why they loved one another so deeply. Eventually the world was turned on it’s collective ear because of that community of believers.

Frank Viola is coming at this from the direction of the House Church or Simple Church. I come at it from the direction of discipleship and the need for each follower to give it all for Jesus. Yet in a very real way we are both coming at it from the same starting point. That starting point is the questions “What needs to happen for Christians to live a life so united to Jesus that they change the world for His glory”. There are lots of details that Frank and I would think differently about or at least have a different perspective. But when the bottom line for both is bringing glory to Jesus through changed lives then we stand on a pretty solid piece of common ground.

For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. 1st Chronicles 15:25

That verse from 1st Chronicles is one of more than fifty times in the Bible when fearing God is viewed as a virtue. Yet for all that frequency it may be one of the most ignored, even disputed concepts in all of Scripture. Why? Experience has taught me that anytime something so commonly found in the Bible is ignored or disputed it usually is because we don’t really understand what it means.

A friend of mine writes for http://www.probe.org. Her name is Sue Bohlin. Recently I read an article in which she talked about four questions that you should always ask when speaking with someone who disagrees with you. The first question is, “What do you mean by that?” followed by, “Where do you get your information, How do you know its true, and What if you’re wrong”. The first question needs to be asked when people say they don’t believe in the whole idea of being afraid of God. When it comes to fearing God, most people seem to think it means being terrorized by the thought that an angry and capricious deity may decide to smack you up side the head with a lightening bold for no good reason. As a result of that kind of thinking people decide that they don’t want to believe in a God like that so they give up on the God of the Bible all together. Well I don’t want to believe in a God like that and fortunately the Bible doesn’t want me to either. God is not some spiritual version of Freddie Kruger or Norman Bates. We are not to be terrorized by Him or the thought of Him. Jesus made that clear when he so often told the disciples, “Fear Not”.

Just by taking a look at the first half of 1st Chronicles 15:25 we can be sure that we are not talking about being terrorized by God. It says “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise”. God is amazing and should be adored and honored. That’s what it means when it says, “most worthy of praise”. The whole history of God’s relationship with His people is one of Him stepping in and caring for them, meeting their needs, protecting them, being their shield and defender, their Good Shepard. God is to be praised, not run from in fear. We are told that He loves His children to the point of coming into the world in Christ and giving Himself for them.

So what does it mean to fear God? I can’t help but make the analogy with my dad. He was 6’4″ and in many ways a disciplined and sometimes demanding father. I loved him, admired him, trusted him and in a certain way feared him. I was not terrorized by him, but I did have a very healthy respect for him. He was the boss, no doubt about it. There was just something about his presence that gave me a certain amount of awe for him. When the Bible speaks about fear of the Lord, that is what it means. The word for fear in the Hebrew is the word yare. It means to stand in awe of, to revere. When you stand in front of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, when you see the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when you hold your new born child, all these things can evoke a sense of awe, wonder and reverence. When we think of God, who He is and what He has done it should cause us to honor, worship and adore Him.

With that sense of awe and reverence comes a desire to follow and obey. The desire is not rooted in a need to avoid punishment but rather it is motivated by wanting to show respect. Far to often people approach God like He is some average Joe from down the street. Certainly we are invited into an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But that does not mean we treat Him like our golf partner or poker buddies. There needs to be a sense of being overwhelmed by the beauty, majesty, power, holiness and love of God. All of who God is should cause us to at times stand slack jawed before Him, speechless, overwhelmed, amazed. It should cause us to obey and follow Him because their is no other like Him. He is to be honored, respected, feared, above all gods. Nothing should demand our alliegance, worship or dedication like the Lord. That is at least in part what the Bible means by fearing God.