Archive for December, 2009

There is a certain sense in which I am glad that most people I know have never been inside a jail. After all, people usually end up there because they have done something that in hind sight they really wish they had never even considered doing. It usually means someone was hurt in some way and often becomes one more chapter in a lifetime of sad and tragic events. But on a completely different level I wish that most people I know had spent at least some time in jail. I did that last night and it wasn’t my first time.

Fortunately for me, my few times being in a jail were my own choice and they were in service to someone who was forced to be there. Their time in jail was always the result of some terrible choices they made. My time there has always been the result of a choice I made many years ago to follow Jesus to any place he led. Last nights visit was my second to the Seminole County Jail. The first was a year ago in order to make arrangements for the worship services from Northland Church to be made available, via a web-stream, for inmates who wished to gather for worship. I went to jail last night so I could actually worship with those men and a dozen volunteers who go to the jail every week to serve them. It was an amazing experience and one that I wish every follower of Jesus could have.

The main reason I would hope that every Christ-follower would visit people in jail is because Jesus said that we should. In Matthew 25:36 Jesus said, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came and visited me.” He said those words in a parable that was intended to show us that whenever we serve the outcast, the downtrodden, the sick, even the person in jail, we are really serving Jesus. He made it clear that these are the kinds of things that are to mark the life of His followers. It should also be noted that what Jesus asks of us is a very intimate, personal involvement. He does not say, “I needed clothes and you donated your extras to the Salvation Army”. He does not say “I was hungry and you gave to the local food bank”. He does not say, “I was a prisoner and you gave money to Prison Fellowship”. He says, “You clothed me, you cared for me, you visited me”. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Giving to organizations and ministries that care for the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, and the rest of societies outcasts and downtrodden is a good thing. But it is only a part. The real deal is giving yourself, getting close enough to touch, to smell, to feel, close enough to be uncomfortable. It is what Jesus showed us when he touched the leper, the blind man, the bleeding woman.

The reason behind this need to make it personal is that God is personal and intimate and he makes his ministry to us personal, and intimate. He does not sit on high looking down on our plight, refusing to engage us. Rather, he emptied himself and came into the world, taking on the form of a servant, being made in likeness as we are, serving us to the point of death on a cross. Jesus took on flesh, became one of us. He got up close and personal with humanity in order to demonstrate the powerful and intimate love of God for lost people. If we are going to be like Jesus, then our ministry to others must get up close and personal. It requires an investment of ourselves, not just our check book.

Such an investment can be costly and scary. It is costly because it takes a piece of who you are. It means giving of yourself from the heart, maybe from a place that you have never wanted to give. It is scary because it means dealing with people who are unknown and apparently unlike you. But such fears are not coming from God. They are not the voice of prudence coming from God for our protection. They are more often than not the voice of the enemy disguised as light and reasonableness. Jesus never calls us to take council of our fears but rather to “fear not”.

I mentioned that a reason for our fear is that these are people who are unknown and unlike us. But that is not true. They are not really unknown and they are certainly not unlike us. Last night in the jail, I saw and spoke to one young man who I already knew. I didn’t know he was in jail. He is 22 years old and I have known him since he was 8. There were others there who I had never met, but in just a few minutes of conversation it was clear that I “knew” them. I knew enough of their story to know what they faced, the pain they have, the mistakes they made, the regrets covered over with bravado. In those brief conversations and in observing these men worship Jesus, I also learned that they are not unlike me. They are in fact just like me. Their sins may be different but they are still sinners like me. And as we stood before a holy God worshiping him last night, I knew that God saw no difference. I knew it, because I knew that He saw all of us through the lens of the Cross on which Jesus died.

The reason Jesus came into the world was made clear in the earliest days of his ministry and it is what we have been called to in His name. Jesus said in Luke 4:8 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed”

Recently there was a gathering in Australia called The World Parliament of Religions. It was a meeting of thousands of people representing every conceivable religious group and idea that you can imagine. There were the standard Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish groups. But you also had Native American, Wiccan, Zoroastrian, (didn’t even know there were any of them left), Australian Aboriginal, Haitian Spiritualists and… well you get the picture. A friend who attended the event said that there were a couple of themes that every speaker, except for him, held to. First no one religion has the truth and can claim to know the truth. Second, no one from any religion should seek to convert people from another religion.

Those themes are not new. I have been hearing theme since before I started following Jesus. In fact I probably accepted those ideas for a time. You know the question, “How can you be so certain that your way is the right way and everyone else is wrong?” But that was before I was confronted with the person who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. John 14:6 Jesus spoke those words. They are very clear and definite words. He did not say as many want to believe, that he is “A way”, “A truth”, or “A life”. He was not putting himself forward as one possible option among many equally acceptable options. He was claiming a very exclusive place. He was claiming to be the one and only ultimate way, the one and only ultimate truth, and the one and only ultimate life.

What the folks at the Parliament of World Religions want people to believe is that there is not a single correct path to God and that any path will do. They are not even saying that there are a handful of paths. They are not limiting the paths to God to the major monotheistic religions. They are saying that any and all religious ideas and practices are valid and just as good for getting to the next level, whatever that is, and getting closer to God, whoever or whatever that may be, as any other religion. They believe that there is no “truth” that must be acknowledged by everyone and therefor no path to God that is “the correct” path. It is much like the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat when Alice asked which road to take. “Where do you want to go”, asked the cat. “I don’t know”, replied Alice. “Then any road will do”, said the cat. If you have no idea of truth, of who God really is, then you really don’t know who or what you are trying to get close to. You just don’t know where you are ultimately going. It doesn’t even matter where you are going. Thus, any road or religion will do.

What is fascinating is that in any other sphere of life one would never settle for such a response. Imagine two engineers talking about building a bridge and trying to decide on the load bearing capacity of the bridge and one of them says, “it doesn’t matter what formula we use to calculate this, any formula will do”. We had better hope that the engineers decide that there is a right formula and a wrong formula and that they use the right one. In fact we live everyday trusting that there is a true formula and that it is the one used. But some would say that the “hard sciences” like math and chemistry are different. Those are agreed upon facts proven over time. “Soft sciences” like psychology and religion are not based on facts and therefor they are just opinions and one is as good as another. Okay, let’s test that. You are raising children. Psychology offers some advice in that regard. Would you be willing to say that one method of child rearing is just as valid as any other? Of course not. Some ideas of raising children have clearly shown themselves to be harmful and destructive. In the common vernacular, they are just plain wrong. The premise they are built on is false. If we are unwilling to give up the idea of truth in the building of bridges and the raising of children, as important as those things may be, why are we willing to give up the existence of truth when it comes to our relationship with God, which is surely the most important aspect of life?

Just as it must be said of bridge building and child rearing, that there are right and wrong, true and false, so it must be said of religion. Some are just wrong. Some are built on false assumptions that do not fit reality. In numerous cases religions are in such logical conflict with one another that it is impossible for them to both be right. For instance, you can’t have a Hindu view of reincarnation and eventual release into non-existence AND a Muslim view of one life then you die and go to paradise, especially if you are a martyr for your faith. Either one or both must be wrong!

That gets me back to the words of Jesus. When he claimed to be THE WAY, and THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE, he set up a situation in which he placed himself over and against all other religious figures and ideas. There is no room for saying one idea is just as good as another in Jesus world. So, either one must follow Jesus only as being the truth, or one must say that all religions are equally valid with the exception of Christianity. Christianity would be the only false religion because it claims to be the only true religion. That in itself is a rather curious idea that our society seems on the verge of adopting, the only things that must not be true are those which claim to absolutely be true.

Claiming that following Jesus as the only true way does not open the door to be harsh, angry, and arrogant towards other people with different ideas. The command from Jesus to love ones enemies still stands. The words of Peter to always respond with gentleness and respect are still binding. The example of Paul in Athens, surrounded by idolatry, yet willing to engage in a respectful dialogue is still the example for all Christ followers.

We live in a world that wants to abandon the notion that there is one way to God. If followers of Jesus buy into that notion, then there will in effect be no one who knows the way to God. We will all be like Alice having fallen through the looking-glass. We will find ourselves in a world of absurdity where up is down and down is sideways, now is never, tomorrow is yesterday and the road you are on just simply doesn’t matter.

I thought some of you might be interested in this article on changes happening in churches in which I am asked about the work I am doing with Simple Churches. My part is short but the article is interesting as a whole.

http://www.charismamag.com/index.php/features/2009/december/23878