Archive for the ‘Christians and Culture’ Category

If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.

Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.

At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.

First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.

Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.

Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.

So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.

So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.

It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.

 

Recently Rob Bell was quoted as saying some rather provocative things about the church, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the irrelevancy of the Bible. As has been the case for the last few years, whenever Bell speaks there is a minor firestorm that erupts. One of the unfortunate aspects of the firestorm is at some important truths often get lost in the conflagration.

In this case, Bell was making the case that it is inevitable that the church at large will come to accept gay marriage. Bell said, “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”

Without getting into whether or not it is inevitable that the church at large will adopt gay marriage as acceptable and without dealing with the crux of the issues regarding homosexuality, I want to focus on Bell’s statement about the Bible. In many ways it was what most set people off. I can understand that. Here is Bell, a former darling of the evangelical camp, all be it a more progressive strain of it. He was hailed as a preacher and Bible teacher for a new generation. Now here he is pointing out the irrelevance of the very scriptures he made his teaching reputation. The sense of betrayal that Christians feel when one of our own turns on the things we hold dear and believed he taught only adds to the blaze.

But let’s try to set all that aside for a moment as look at what Bell is saying from the perspective of the secular world we are trying to influence for Christ. When Bell says, “the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense” he has a point that we need to hear. If you are a follower of Christ I would hope that all you need is the truth of those letters in the Bible written 2,000 years ago. They are the eternal truth of the Word of God and they have authority in our lives, something every denomination and church from liberal to conservative has in their creeds in some fashion. But if you look at it from the perspective of the person who does not believe the Bible to be the Word of God and to have authority in our lives then yes, quoting 2,000 year old letters carries no weight, it has no influence. People are just not there. It is comparable to a Muslim quoting the Quran to a Christian. The Christian would consider it irrelevant because they do not consider the Quran to have any weight or authority. That is where many people are today and have been since antiquity.

It needs to be noted that the Apostle Paul understood this. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens, the center of philosophical learning, debate and even academic snobbery. After spending a few days getting a handle on the culture of Athens Paul begins to speak and debate the leading thinkers of the culture. He wants them to understand the Gospel and embrace Jesus as Lord. When he speaks he starts not by quoting the Bible, in this case some things written by Moses and other prophets between 400 and 2,000 years earlier. Rather he begins by quoting a Greek philosopher named Epimenides who lived more than 600 years before Paul. What Paul does is appeal to an authority that his audience would respect and then uses what they already agree to as a bridge to get to the truth of who Jesus is. Simply quoting the Bible to his audience would have gotten Paul nowhere fast. He was not denying the Gospel. He was being wise in how he presented it in order to best communicate with his hearers.

Bells says that if we are quoting the Bible as our best defense we are going to be increasingly irrelevant. He is partly right. Ultimately the Bible is our best case for the truth of God. It is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and will cut between bone and marrow, to quote Hebrews 4:12. But it is not our only tool and it is not always the first one we should use. For Christians to truly impact the world and people in it we need to understand what they hold as authoritative. What carries weight with them? What truths are to be found in their thinking that lead to the truth of Christ found in the Bible? Those truths are there. Paul says in Romans 1 that the knowledge of God is present within every human being but we suppress that knowledge to follow gods of our own making. That residual knowledge makes itself known in various ways, in little truths and in the yearnings in the hearts of men and women. We need to be students of the culture like Paul was in order to show people exactly why the Word of God is their best hope for finding truth and living life as it was meant to be.

Unfortunately, the reaction to Bell’s statement is typically to shout our Bible verses louder and with more anger in our attempt to prove to people that the Bible is relevant to the subject at hand. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. It is always relevant. Certainly getting angry over it doesn’t serve us or Jesus well. What we need to do is show the culture that much of what they already believe is contained within the Bible, just as Paul did in Athens. I may disagree with Rob Bell on many, many things. But we need to hear what he is saying from the perspective of a disbelieving culture so that we can better communicate the truth of God to people immersed in it.

WIthin his statement we can see what drives Bell. It is the people standing in front of him. I think he has an incredibly compassionate heart. As his famous books says, Love Wins. Bell is right that Evangelical Christians could take a few lessons in love, especially loving your neighbor who is a complete and total enemy of the things of God. Where Bell goes astray is thinking that you can have a loving God without also having a holy God, a just God, a God who gets angry over evil and injustice. We Christians are big on speaking the truth to people. But we are called by the truth of Scripture to “speak the truth in love.” Incidentally, that also applies to how we speak to and about Rob Bell.

The terroristic attacks on the French Magazine Charlie Hedbo have once again thrust a simmering conflict into the headlines. The magazine is well-known for its satirical cartoons that are equal opportunity offenders. The Pope, Christianity, Islam, the prophet Mohammed are all fair game for the magazines satire. It is clear that the attack this week on the magazine’s headquarters, which left twelve dead, was motivated by satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Even as I write this the French security forces have surrounded the two suspected gunman who are reported to have told police they are ready to die as martyrs.

In the past few days there have been numerous articles, blogs, and news reports about the violent responses that radical Islamists have made to similar affronts to Islam in recent years. In the midst of the reports and debates there have been a variety of responses to the very idea of printing images that are offensive to religious sensibilities. Many editors and cartoonists have expressed solidarity with Charlie Hedbo by posting illustrations of their own, vowing to never give up the right of free expression. On the other side a number of news agencies, CNN and AP among them have made statements that they have long had a policy of not printing such offensive images.

The problem with the CNN and AP statements is that they are mistaken at best and outright falsehoods at worst. As recently as October of 2014 CNN ran a story on shocking works of art and included a picture of the infamous exhibit of a crucified Christ in a jar of urine.  Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of news agencies that feel free to attack and offend Christians at every turn, apparently without a second thought, yet go to great lengths to avoid offending other religious groups. I don’t want to delve into that subject. Rather, I want to look at how Christians need to view and respond to such attacks on the faith and on Christ.

The message of Jesus, as it relates to being offended, attacked, ridiculed, persecuted, or even killed for one’s faith, was a radical and provocative message. It boils down to these two things: one, expect those things to happen to you and when they do, consider it a blessing and respond to your antagonists with the love of Christ. Two, if you are not the subject of such attacks then reconsider whether you are truly following Jesus or not.

Jesus said it so clearly in His most famous message, The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5:10-12.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Far from being the exception that rocks our faith, Jesus says that persecution and ridicule are part and parcel of following Him and should actually increase our faith. Such opposition should serve as an assurance that we are truly following Jesus and being faithful to Him. The result of such opposition is that we are in some way blessed by God. We are in a better place in life when such things happen than when they don’t. Blessing in God’s economy is not measured by your prosperity and health but according to Jesus by the push-back you get because you love and serve Him alone as Lord and King.

Of course it is possible to be ridiculed for your faith simply because you are being a jerk to people. What I am talking about is the opposition that comes because you adhere to Christ and His teachings and do all of it under the command to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. I am talking about holding to theological and moral positions that the culture finds offensive, but doing so with the grace and love of Christ.

Being ridiculed and persecuted for who He was and what He taught is what Jesus faced all the time. His response was one of strong gentleness, returning evil with good and loving and forgiving even those who drove the nails into His body and spit on and cursed Him as He died. In Matthew 10:25 He warns us that is this is how the world treats Him, the Master, then why would we the servants expect to be treated any differently?

Why would a follower of Christ become offended and indignant when attacked for their faith? If anything it should be taken as a badge of honor that we are counted worthy to suffer for His namesake. That is exactly what Paul says to the Philippians in chapter 1 verse 29.

29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake

Talk about provocative! Paul is saying that we have been granted, as a privilege, to believe in AND suffer for the sake of Christ. When he writes of his own imprisonment for the Gospel he writes of the benefits such suffering and persecution have had for the advancement of the Gospel, making the point that other followers of Christ have been emboldened to share their faith more openly as a result of Paul being persecuted. How counter-intuitive is that? Rather than run and hide out of fear or protest the injustice of his persecution, friends and colleagues of Paul shared the Gospel even more. I think it was because they saw his imprisonment, his persecution, not as a sign of something going wrong but of everything going right! Rather than be angry and lash back at the opposition, they showed the love of Christ even more boldly.

That is the Christian response to offense, ridicule, persecution, and even martyrdom. Instead of fighting back with vitriol, or anger, or even guns, the follower of Christ fights back with joy, love, grace, and forgiveness, in short, with the Gospel of Christ. For some people the answer is to destroy their enemies by way of attack. Abraham Lincoln asked the question, “If I make my enemy my friend, have I not destroyed my enemy?” That is the way of Christ. Not to make your enemy die, but to rather lay down your life for them so they are no longer your enemy. That is the way of the Cross. It is not an easy way. The easy way is to retaliate, to fight back, to punch harder and more frequently. The way of the Cross, the way of the Provocative Christian, is to respond with love by serving and sacrificing for your enemies. You do that so they may one day become followers of Christ, no longer enemies, but friends, even brothers and sisters in Him. So pray for those who persecute and ridicule you. Look for opportunities to serve them and love them in Jesus name. Refuse to attack their character or intentions. Certainly engage their ideas but as 1 Peter 3:15 urges, “do so with gentleness and respect”. And finally rejoice that you have been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.

 

Safety, comfort, and security. They sound like wonderful, worthy goals that no one would take issue with. After all, who would willingly seek out and embrace their opposite numbers, danger, suffering, and turmoil? Yet in a previous post I began to make the case that these three nearly universally accepted values of the western world are in fact slowly suffocating and choking the life out of the faith of most Christians. In that post the focus was on our obsession with safety and its negative impact on a faith that trusts God enough to move into circumstances that on the outside appear risky, even dangerous, when remaining in place is actually more dangerous to your soul.

This post is about comfort. On the surface you would think who could possibly have an issue with comfort. The Bible itself is full of references to comfort and how God promises to comfort His people. Not all comfort is created equal. When God offers to comfort His people it generally is in the context of a people who are suffering and God wants to strengthen them in the midst of hardship. That is what comfort is really about. It is the combination of two Latin root words, com, meaning with or alongside and forte meaning strength. So to comfort someone in a classic sense is to be alongside them providing strength. I will take kind of comfort whenever I can get it, especially when it is God who offers it.

Far from a comfort that brings strength in time of need is the 21st century variety. Our value of comfort is more about making life free from all struggle, all hassle and all minor irritation. It is about making a nice life as soft and plush as possible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating pain and suffering as a virtue to be pursued. Last year I put in nearly 175,000 miles in an airplane seat as I traveled the world helping train pastors and leaders to plant churches. That level of frequent flyer miles means that on rare occasions I get bumped up from economy to business or first class. Trust me, it has never crossed my mind to turn down that upgrade to a more comfortable seat in the name of some misguided love of discomfort. When you have a fourteen hour flight ahead of you and someone offers you a bigger, softer reclining seat with a meal served on real plates, you take it. There is nothing “holy” about bumping elbows with your neighbor as you try to eat bad food with the seatback in front of you nearly in your lap. Yes, I will take the upgrade when I get it. What I try hard to do is take it as a blessing so that when I don’t get upgraded flying overseas, which is 90% of the time, I don’t get annoyed and put out by the experience.

When I speak of our obsession with comfort I am talking about what I see as a value that no one should ever be physically, emotionally or socially uncomfortable. Take some time to watch ads on television and you will quickly see that Madison Avenue is selling, among other things, the life of comfort. Anything that makes life easier, more plush, softer, is good. It doesn’t matter if the product is a car or toilet paper. Conversely, anything that is difficult, hard or stressful is intrinsically bad. Parents want their children to never ever feel uncomfortable so to the delight of makers of sports trophies, even the worst player on the worst soccer or Little League Baseball team gets a trophy at the end of the year because Lord forbid that a child should be forced to deal with the painful reality that some people are better at kicking or hitting a ball than they are. 

So what does this have to do with your Christian faith? Simply this, I have found that my faith often grows stronger when I am forced outside my “comfort zone” and it grows weaker and softer the more comfortable my situation and surroundings. Our cultural value that seeks out comfort at nearly any cost is in direct conflict with one of the most important ways God uses to deepen our faith and relationship with Him. Imagine for a moment that you are faced with two possibilities. You can take a two-week vacation to that favorite relaxing spot you’ve always dreamed about. Be it a tropical beach resort or a lush mountain getaway, it doesn’t much matter. The point is it is a place of comfort, beauty, special service, fantastic food, huge soft beds and wonderful hot tubs. You enjoy the comfort of servants who cater to your every need. Each night you go to bed stuffed from the abundance and variety of the food you feasted on. At the end of it all you drag yourselves to the airport and go home to face the work week. You love the time you had in comfort but somehow feel like you need a vacation to rest from your vacation, yet you cannot of the life of you think of what you did that really mattered and will last.

Your other option is two weeks in a third world country caring for AIDS orphans. The food will be the same everyday, something along the lines of pasty grits with some beans on top. You will bath out of a bucket after a night of sleeping on a very hard bed under a mosquito net. But everyday you will be challenged by the smiles and laughter of children who have nothing but feel they have everything because you came to love them for the briefest of days. You will find yourself praying for strength and feeling guilty that you complain about the food knowing that these kids eat the same thing everyday. Well actually only Monday through Friday when they have school. On weekends there is no food at home. You will find yourself reading your Bible every morning AND evening because you need it like never before. Incredibly the words jump off the pages and into your heart as never before. When it is finally time to go home the tears flow as children rush to hug you and say goodbye and it takes all you have to peel them away and not smuggle one or two into the van.

Which was the more comfortable two weeks? Which was the more difficult, challenging and uncomfortable? Which one did nothing to strengthen your faith and as a result actually weakened it? Which one changed you forever and drew you nearer to the heart of Jesus as never before? That answers are obvious, yet most people will never, ever consider the uncomfortable two weeks because it is just that, uncomfortable. They dismiss it out of hand without realizing they have made a decision based on a deeply held cultural value and not a call from God to change the world. It is not just the decisions on what to do with two weeks of vacation that is in play here. It is the decisions we make every day to select comfort over challenge, ease over effort, soft over sacrifice. Those daily decisions add up over time to suck the life out of the Christian faith.

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing thing. Like all living things when healthy it grows and even reproduces. As long as it receives the proper nourishment and right environment it can flourish. But if we cut back on the nourishment or the environment becomes toxic, sickness and even death can result. The scriptures speak often of the difference between the things of this world and the things of God. For the follower of Christ our citizenship is in heaven but we currently live in this world as something akin to aliens and sojourners. We are to some degree living in an environment that by its very nature threatens the health of our faith.

The environmental issues that most threaten the health of Christianity in America are not the things that we Christians typically focus on, you know the lists of various sins du jour that come under scrutiny. There was a time when many preachers focused on three “big” sins of sex, drugs, and rock n roll as the cause of the coming downfall of the American Church. Sex, (whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety), drugs even legalized marijuana, and certainly rock n roll will not be the death of Christianity in America. Rather there is a different big three that are far more insidious and dangerous. I am convinced that the American obsession with safety, comfort and security are slowing sucking the life’s breath out of Christianity in our country because Christians have unwittingly and uncritically been breathing the toxic air of an environment in which those three values subtly influence nearly every decision we make.

The illustration of a frog in a kettle of water has been used often, even being the title of a widely read book on church growth and transformation in the 80’s. The idea being that if you put a frog in a kettle of water that is extremely hot the frog will immediately jump out and save its life. But if you put the frog in water that is a comfortable temperature and will stay there even as you slowly raise the temperature to boiling and kill the frog. Christians in America are the frog in the cultural kettle. Over time the culture values of safety, comfort and security have become more and more the guiding values and as that has increased, we have not even noticed the life threatening change. Or maybe to stay with the analogy of air, many people have slowly succumbed to the toxic poisoning of carbon monoxide without even realizing they were breathing in their very death. In either case the point is, our cultural values of safety, comfort and security are killing our faith and witness and in a shocking irony we are embracing those values as being prudent, wise and even biblical.

Let’s talk about the first of those, safety. We have become obsessed with safety to the point that products have warning labels that go to the extreme of telling you not to use your electric hair dryer while sitting in the bathtub full of water. Children are not allowed to ride their big wheels unless they are wearing OSHA approved helmets and are in the basement where the walls are covered with protective foam and the floors are rubber. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should be reckless and there are real risks to life and limb in the world. But it seems to me that we have progressed, or may regressed to the point where anything that has the slightest potential what-so-ever to have a bit of danger in it is immediately off-limits. I contend that in our efforts to insulate ourselves from any pain, hardship or disaster we have in fact insulated ourselves from life in the process.

So how has this impacted the church? I have three sons, the second of whom spent a year in Egypt. It wasn’t just any year. It was the year of the revolution. He arrived in Cairo just a few weeks after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. During the year my son was there protests and violent clashes were still a fact of life. Tahrir Square was at times a battle ground and people died. On more occasions than I can count people asked my wife and I if we were worried about his safety. Our answer was always the same and it was heartfelt and fully believed. Our son was convinced that God wanted him to be in Egypt serving others during that year. With that as our foundation we were certain that the safest place for him to be was Cairo, Egypt. Our home in Orlando would not have been safe, at least not in ways that really matter. His year in Egypt was a year of amazing growth and life for him. Was it risky on a physical level, sure. Would Orlando have been less a physical risk, maybe, maybe not. But it certainly would have been a greater risk to his faith and relationship with Jesus. Only by stepping into the risky place where God had called him for that year could he have experienced the things that so deeply impacted his relationship with Jesus and his view of the world.

Here is the point. Jesus never promised us safety. Instead he promised us life, life abundant which is a far better deal than mere safety. Jesus said in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly”. He promised us life to the fullest which only comes in a healthy, living, breathing relationship with Him. That means sometimes going places and doing things that seem risky to a world obsessed with safety. Oh and the other thing Jesus promised is that we would face danger and even suffer. In Matthew 10:16 he warned his followers that he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves. That usually doesn’t turn out well for some of the sheep. But notice that Jesus did not say, hey there are wolves out there. It’s dangerous. You better stay inside. No, instead he acknowledged the wolves and warned that they are there. But we are not meant to live life as sheep protected behind the walls of a sheep pen safe from all harm. We were made to go into the world, living life and bringing life, even when it is dangerous, even when there are wolves around. It is in those moments that you will experience being fully alive.

Somehow we have bought into the cultural worldview that sees anything hard, painful and the least bit dangerous as something to be avoided. The result being very few Christians will ever feed a homeless person because who knows what they might to when you give them something to eat. Very few Christians will ever use vacation time to go serve in another country or even another part of America, because isn’t it dangerous there? Very few Christians will ever share their faith in Christ with a neighbor for surely they may get mad at me? Very few Christians will ever truly experience the abundant life Jesus offers us because we are obsessed with being safe when in reality we are slowly destroying ourselves by breathing the toxic air of a cultural value.

The Kingdom of God will not be advanced by Christ followers who are always measuring what to do based on the value of being safe. In such a worldview being safe will always trump advancing the kingdom because advancing the kingdom is not safe, it is risky and dangerous, but it is full of life, life abundant.

Part 1 of 3. Next up, How Our Obsession With Comfort Has Made Us Spiritually Obese.

It was the type of opportunity about which one can only dream and pray to come to pass. A group of exchange students from more than two dozen countries visited Northland Church in order to have a 90 minute presentation and Q&A about Christianity and Jesus. They came as part of a program, supported by The State Department, with the intent of encouraging dialogue that leads to mutual respect and a lowering of tensions around the world.

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There were a few things I hoped to accomplish with my time. One was to help them understand that what tolerance really means is that I respect you as someone made in the image of God and treat you with dignity, even if I disagree passionately with what you think. In the past there was a common cultural ethic that said, treat one another with respect, engage people with different ideas, debate those ideas, and seek truth in the process. The current understanding of tolerance says, you cannot tell anyone that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong. But the end result of that new tolerance is to not pursue truth and disrespect and marginalize anyone who claims their ideas right and others wrong. We need to get back to a place where we can say what we think, agree and disagree with others, respect them as people, and never attack the person, only the ideas.

 

Second, in light of that understanding of tolerance, here is what I believe about Jesus, why I follow Him, and why I think He is the only way to Heaven. It was a delight to hear the questions that students asked regarding Jesus, why I thought He was the only way to Heaven, what place I thought Mohammed had in God’s plan, the Bible vs the Quran, and a host of other questions. Even though my answers clearly showed that I disagreed with much that Islam teaches, they loved the open yet respectful honesty of the answers.

Third, in the midst of our dialogue, questions and answers, I wanted them to see in real life the tolerance I just told them about, so they could actually experience someone who disagreed with them yet loved them. You see it is one thing to talk about tolerance and respect and dignity, but it is another thing altogether to demonstrate that in the real life tussle of questions and answers over difficult topics that are passionately embraced.

Not only is this type of understanding and tolerance needed between Muslims and Christians, it is even more needed among Christians of various stripes and theologies. We can’t really expect to engage, in a respectful Christ-like way, people who do not follow Christ, if we are unable to do it with people who identify themselves as Christ-followers.

 

 

This sermon was preached on November 3-5th at Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood Florida.

The link includes the whole worship service which I hope you will find uplifting. The sermon starts at the 39 minute mark.

Being a Person of Hospitality

We have lost something in our culture. It is the practice of valuing the newcomer, the stranger, the outsider, and welcoming them into our world. If you are a follower of Christ this make no sense since you were once the stranger, outsider, who Jesus welcomed into His sphere.

This piece was first posted four years ago today. I find that it is just as relevant now as it was then and can only hope that people who claim to follow Christ will exhibit Christ-like character no matter what their political position may be. It is deeply concerning to me that I see many Christians, politically right and left and theologically right and left, who have made their political ideology superior to their Biblical commands. By that I mean, many people are interpreting Scripture in light of their politics and not their politics in light of Scripture. I think this because the vitriol that I see in the Christian on Christian attacks and ad hominem arguments are only possible if we are setting aside the things that Jesus taught us about our relationships and responding to one another out of human pride, bitterness, and anger.

With that said, I trust that the following will speak to you and that you will be encouraged to trust in an almighty God who has been running the universe very well, long before you and I ever showed up on the scene to tell Him how to do it.

First published in November of 2008

“This morning I was confronted with one of those Bible passages with which we like to do one of two things. It is a passage that we either try to ignore altogether or explain it away so that we become convinced that it could never apply to our situation. The passage deals with giving honor to leaders, even bad leaders, even if you vehemently disagree with what they are doing. The words come from the Apostle Peter in 1st Peter 2:13, 14 and 17. “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good…17 Honor everyone. Love the Brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” Peter goes on to talk about also honoring your boss as well as being willing to suffer for doing good. Those are not easy things to put into practice.

Now before I go any further let me make it clear, in the last election I voted for the other guy so this is not coming from an apologist for the current administration. Rather, I am trying to look at this from the standpoint of making Christian witness a priority over political ideology. What I have seen in recent months, in terms of political rancor and vitriol is not new, at least not in my eyes. One advantage of being a child of the sixties is I have seen demonstrations against the government that make the G-20 demonstrators look like a Sunday school class out for an ice cream social. So I am not concerned about the general population getting all angry and nasty in politics. That is nothing new no matter what the media says. What does concern me is the level ridicule, bitterness, and anger bordering on hatred that is being poured out by many claiming to follow Christ. Instead of attacking the issues that we disagree over, many are falling into the time-honored tradition of attacking the person expressing the ideas.

I always find it humbling to the extreme that the first century Christians continued to honor the Emperor with the exception of worshiping him as a god, even as he was having some of them put to death for their faith. Peter makes it clear why this was to be the practice of Christ-followers. 1st Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” That is the kind of life that we as Christ-followers are to demonstrate to the world around us.

But what is the purpose in it? Peter also makes that clear. We are to live this way, honoring those in authority even when they make us suffer so that they will glorify God. “Keep your conduct honorable among the gentiles so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1st peter 2:12 This is why I say I am more concerned with our Christian witness than I am with political ideology. Peter says that the ultimate goal is NOT for us to shape the government. Certainly we are to be involved in the process but if we get the public policy we want and do not live in such a way that leads people to people glorify God, then we have failed. It would be better to have lost the policy debate and have won people to Jesus than to have won the debate and lost our witness and our souls.

This is why Peter says that we are to honor others. We are to treat them with respect and dignity, even serving them while we disagree with their policy or their methods. We debate the issues. We don’t attack the person. We should be involved in the public debate in order to demonstrate what a Christ-follower is really like, not just what we think, but how we love and honor others. So disagree all you want with President Obama, with your governor, mayor, town dog catcher. If you are in another country the same applies to you. Disagree with policy but honor the office and the person in it. It may mean that you will suffer for disagreeing, because we should never be surprised when unbelievers don’t play by our rules. But that is never an excuse for us to do anything differently from how Jesus did it.”

Before you go off on me as being somehow un-American, I was born into a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar family. My Dad’s first job was in a coal mine before he worked his way to owning a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and fulfilling his version of the American dream. My favorite actor always has been and always will be John Wayne. As a kid I cried when he died at the end of The Alamo. As an adult I tear up when an American flag gets handed to a family member at a funeral with the words, “on behalf of a grateful nation”. If I have a slight regret it is that I didn’t sign the enlistment papers that Marine Captain Tacksus had ready for me back in college. So yes I love America. But America and Christianity are not the one and the same, and the fate of Christianity is not dependent on the fate of America or any other country.

If, as history shows to be the way of all great nations, America one day becomes eclipsed by some other nation, that does not mean Christianity is somehow eclipsed or automatically in decline. I get the distinct impression that many people think otherwise, both Christian and non-Christian. Some non-Christians seem to relish the possibility of both the decline of America and Christianity. If it would be possible to deal a blow to both with one stone, then they say, so be it. For some their primary hatred is for America, which they view as monolithically Christian and so they hate Christians/Americans. The recent violence and demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, and now strangely enough Australia would fall into this category. Many Muslims see America as a Christian Nation and their picture is the decadence of Hollywood, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more sex, hetero and homosexual and a nation that militarily is trying to impose “Christian values” on other countries. For others their hatred is for Christianity and they view America as the bastion of Christianity and if America must decline for Christianity to lose its influence that’s all well and good.

This illustrates the problem that Christians create when we too closely align ourselves with any kingdom other than God’s Kingdom. The missteps of a government or society that we cannot control can easily drag Christianity, or the external perception of it, in a direction that is neither helpful nor accurately Christian. Most people outside Christianity, not to mention within, do not appreciate the nuance of a Christian being a model citizen of their country, yet with a higher citizenship that trumps anything the earthly country might do or call for. Additionally, most people paint with a very broad brush and we let one example fill in the blanks for us in understanding a whole group. That was part of the point of Daniel Khaneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow” that I reviewed some time ago. So when a government, an anonymous movie director, or a screw loose preacher, says or does something provocative in a destructive way, people paint with a broad brush, decide that is what all America and thus Christians are like and they get violent against all things American/Christian.

The connection of a country with Christianity is not new. At least since the Reformation and the 16th century it has been largely the case. Prior to America it was the British Empire that Christianity hitched a ride with and circled the globe doing missions wherever the Union Jack got planted. In some cases with worked well. In others, Christianity became synonymous with English invaders and colonial oppressors. Prior to that it was Spain and the expansion into Central and South America that tied a Roman Catholic brand of Christianity to the Conquistadors. So you see the problem. Christians and Christian mission can benefit as a result of the work of countries and empires. Certainly the existence of the Roman road system made it possible for Christianity to spread in the first few centuries. But when we become so closely connected to the culture and/or government that Christianity becomes nearly indistinguishable from them, then Christianity looses its power and message.

I said even many Christians do not understand the nuance of being a model citizen of an earthly country while being first and foremost a citizen of God’s Kingdom. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see. One is our inability to disagree with someone or something and still love them. The other is that our view of success is based on one of worldly power and dominance.

As to the first, one only needs to look at a few church splits to see that Christians have a hard time disagreeing on even the most mundane and unimportant things, without taking sides that cause conflict. It goes all the way back to the first disciples of Jesus who wanted to prevent some people from casting out demons in Jesus name because they were not part of the group. In another case, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven onto a village that did not want to listen to Jesus preaching. In both cases Jesus harshly rebuked them. In America we Christians need to learn how to disagree with people in a Christ-like manner. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says we are to speak the truth in love. There is a dynamic tension with which few seem willing to live. We either love someone and don’t speak any truth for fear of hurting their feelings, which is actually incredibly unloving and untruthful, or we speak the truth without any love, under a false guise of love, while in the process ripping a person’s guts out, which is also not loving and incredibly dishonest. Christians must absolutely learn to disagree in as loving a way as possible. That must be the case in politics, religion, and any other area of life. You can love your country, serve it, sacrifice for it, but at the same time disagree, lovingly, when it goes wrong.

The second issue, our view of success and power, is more difficult to deal with. No one would argue against being more loving as we speak truth. It is obviously what Jesus wants. But our view of success is far more deeply rooted in our culture than we Christians want to admit. The thinking goes something like this. America is a great nation because God has blessed us, because we have been a Christian nation that was obedient to the Bible. As long as we follow the Bible and are a Christian nation, we will be a world power and a blessed people, in every way, including our material, physical, and emotional well-being. If we start to decline morally, as we seem to be doing, then God will judge America and we will lose our place of blessing, and Christianity will decline around the world as American influence declines.

There are so many false assumptions in that line of thinking that I fear it would take a whole book to address. But let me briefly deal with a few. First, Christianity did just fine expanding from place to place and reaching more and more people, long before America ever existed. Remember, the first viable English colony in North America that succeeded, didn’t get going until almost sixteen hundred years after Jesus walked the Earth. It was another one hundred and fifty years before the colonies split from England and became a separate nation. It has really only been since World War 2 some seventy-five years ago that America has been a world power and with the collapse of The Soviet Union, THE world power. God was doing just fine in expanding His kingdom for the 1900 years of history from Jesus to American dominance, and I suspect He will do just fine until Jesus returns, no matter how long that takes. A second presumption in the previous paragraph is that America has, until recently, been a model Christian nation. For almost the first hundred years of that City Set On A Hill we call America we allowed white people to own black people as property. Not exactly a shining Christian nation moment. Let’s not even talk about what we did to people who were Red not Black and lived here before European’s arrived. On the other end of the spectrum, motivated by Christian Temperance Movements we passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. It was the worst kind of Christian Pharisaism and resulted in all sorts of violence and corruption not to mention leaving a lasting picture of Christians as extremely legalistic fanatics who want to dominate others. No, America has not been the ideal Christian nation that would automatically be showered with God’s blessing. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption in the previous paragraph is that America somehow is fulfilling a role of being The New Jerusalem. As a result people attach to America all sorts of Old Testament prophecies about Israel, Jerusalem, or various Hebrew tribes. Now it is generally true that if nations follow the things of God that things will go better than not. But that is a result of God’s truth having that effect whether we are believers or not. However, that is a far cry from saying that America is God’s new chosen nation and applying prophecy to it; especially prophecy that was already fulfilled in Israel 1500 years ago.

The bottom line is this. America is a great nation that has at times demonstrated amazing “Christian” principles and culture and at others times not. In the last few decades it seems to be more not. God’s Kingdom is far greater than America. God does not need America to fulfill His plan of redemption that was set before the foundations of the world. God can and does use America as He has and does use any nation. Christians need to actually live what we so often point to on America money, “In God We Trust”. We do not trust in American dominance or success in order to feel secure that God’s plan of redemption will succeed. Conversely we do not fear failure in God’s plan of redemption is things in America are not going as we would hope. In recent history, America has been the key player in the World Christian Movement, but South America, Asia, and Africa are seeing massive growth in Christianity. China will soon become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world. South Korea, as small as it is, is beginning to lead the way in missionaries sent. Some see that as the decline of America. I think God sees it as the ascendency of a global Christianity. No matter what happens in America or any other nation, God is still sovereign and will prevail, as will The Church. Jesus promised that even the Gates of Hell could not withstand the ultimate success of His plan.

I am coming to the end of a week in Burundi in Eastern Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to Africa in the last 6 years. It is probably approaching twenty. I do know that I have been to eleven different countries from Egypt to South Africa. Without fail I am struck by the extreme contrasts one finds in Africa. It doesn’t matter which country I visit, or what leaders or everyday folk I speak with, the story is the same. This is a continent of incredible beauty and massive ugliness, abundant resources and crippling poverty, gracious hospitality and violent division, widespread Christianity and rampant paganism, sacrificial generosity and selfish corruption beyond measure. It is not unusual in the least to one minute be in awe of the natural beauty of Africa and the next be heartbroken at the ugliness of civil war and genocide that often overtakes parts of Africa. I regularly meet people who are eager to serve a guest and give the best of what they have but also hear unending tales of politicians and other leaders who stuff their pockets to overflowing, siphoning off foreign aid meant for their people, only to put it in off shore bank accounts.

More than once I have been asked what the answer is to the problems of Africa. My answer is the same time and again. Everything depends on leadership, and for Africa to realize its true potential everything depends of leadership from the church. As I see it, only an African Church that has leaders who live the radical faith of a follower of Christ, can begin to point the way out of the current state of affairs. With corruption being at the heart of economic problems in Africa, there is a desperate need for leaders in the church to first live above that corruption themselves and then be in a position to model and call for a new way of doing business. But if pastors can be bought off by politicians then they lose their credibility and their power to bring about change. Pastors and other church leaders must become servant leaders, serving others as Jesus did, not living as the chief who expects others to serve him. That kind of servant leadership then gives them the standing to be able to call other leaders, business, academic, and political, to also be servants of the people.

On a more corporate level, pastors need to begin to work together and not care who gets credit, or benefit from the work. The division among pastors in Africa is epidemic. I suspect that some of it is left over from the days of colonial missionaries who did not always cooperate with one another. But there has been fifty years of independence in most of Africa and it is time for Africans to work together, along with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world, so that together we can do more. The need for schools, hospitals, businesses that provide jobs and job training are beyond what any one or a few churches can do. But if pastors begin to set aside their own ego and pride and fear, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide leadership that results in a partnership and synergy that really does begin to tackle the problems of Africa on a large-scale.

I realize that I am writing this as a westerner, and a white American to be specific. As such there are some who will immediately discount what I have to say or even react against it. I can live with that, in the hope that there are some, both in the west and in Africa, who will read this first with eyes of faith and not eyes of culture and colonialism. What I would hope is that what any follower of Christ says will be taken on its merits by any other follower of Christ and not cast aside because of cultural or ethnic bias. You see, we followers of Christ need each other. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, and then somewhere further down the list of importance we are American or Burundian or Egyptian, or Kenyan, or white or black or any of the other distinctions we use to separate one from another. We need to see those distinctions not as things that divide us, but as blessings that together make us more than we could ever be apart from one another. That is the lesson of 1st Corinthians 12. We are all different by the will of God and those differences should make us stronger and more dependent on one another, not weaker and divided from one another.

I look for the day when Christian leaders, not only in Africa, but from every continent will rise above division and self-promotion and instead live for the sake of others and work together for the Glory of God.

It is impossible to turn on the news today or go to the internet without being confronted by the news of President Obama’s statement that he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married. While I can certainly appreciate his compassionate heart for people who feel they are unfairly being denied the possibility of a marriage to their same-sex partner, and I can even affirm that I believe the President to be my brother in Christ, I have to disagree with his position on clear biblical grounds.

At the heart of the issue is this, who determines what a marriage is and who can get married and who cannot? In the last 200 years or so, governments have played an increasingly large role in that decision and the religious community has played a smaller and smaller role. But for the entire period of human history prior, that was not the case. Prior to that time, certainly in western civilization, it has been the church, and I mean that in the broadest terms, that has defined marriage and informed the government on what is and is not a marriage. Clearly the tables have been turned. Now instead of the faith communities informing society and the government on what is and is not marriage, it is western philosophical, post-enlightenment philosophy that shapes the our understanding of marriage. We have gone from marriage being a sacred union between man and woman, to being a contractually based relationship between two people who want certain benefits of accorded such couples by the government and society. That is founded on faith in philosophy not faith in God.

But where does the church get its understanding of marriage? On what basis does it take a stand. Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a blog dealing primarily with homosexuality. That is only secondarily the issue here. What I am talking about is marriage and its roots. In the Christian community we look to the Bible as our revealed source of God’s truth. That is a given. You can debate the wisdom of that all you want but the fact is, the Bible is what Christians hold to as their depository of God’s will and wisdom. I say that as strongly as I do, so that it becomes clear, if you want to affirm same-sex marriage you are doing so with full knowledge that the Bible teaches otherwise. That may not matter to you, but it matters to millions of Christians in America and a billion world-wide. First let’s be clear on what the Bible does not say. The Bible does not say “same-sex marriages are sinful”. You won’t find those words. Why? Because rather than take a negative approach full of “thou shalt nots”, the Bible takes a positive approach and holds up the ideal that we are to strive for. The positive teaching of the Bible on marriage is that it is designed by God to be between a man and a woman. That teaching is so clear and so taken for granted that there were no same-sex marriages and thus no need to say anything against them. That doesn’t mean there was no homosexual behavior. There was. But same-sex marriage was unheard of so there was no need to speak against it. Rather the Bible says what marriage is, why it is and who is eligible for marriage.

To understand what the Bible teaches, we have to start with Genesis 2 and the account of the creation of man and woman.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-24

It doesn’t matter whether you think this actually happened as a literal event or that it is somehow a myth handed down to make a point. For Christians, and incidentally, Jews AND Muslims, this is something revealed to us by God to teach us about our origins, purpose, and destiny. As it speaks about marriage it is crystal clear that God made it to be a union between a man and a woman and that it has spiritual significance. They are somehow joined together as one. They are not just two people signing a contract detailing how they will share property rights or designating who can visit them in the hospital or any other such important issues. Those are the issues of the contractual understanding of marriage in the post-enlightenment west. The Bible is saying there is more, there is a binding together of man and woman in marriage that is instituted and blessed by God.

Some will say that the Genesis passage is Old Testament and therefore culturally irrelevant. For that reason it also needs to be recognized that Jesus affirmed this teaching in the clearest possible ways.  In Matthew 19 he repeats and expands on the teaching from Genesis 2 as a way of affirming the sanctity of marriage and the exclusive nature of the relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus does not deal with this as a cultural issue but rather as an issue of theological truth that is founded in the very character of God. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he also affirms that there is a spiritual component to the physical relationship that is supposed to be reserved for husband and wife. A biblical understanding of marriage must include the recognition that it is more than two people agreeing to live together and be partners in some domestic limited partnership. There is a third-party involved. The Bible says that God joins together a man and woman in marriage. That is why it is primarily a spiritual and not a civil matter.

In making any decisions about our view of marriage we must, or at least confessing Christians must, look to what the Bible says about marriage and seek to understand it and implement it as best we can. Some people may come to a different interpretation of what the BIble teaches. I understand that and can work with that. At least from there we can discuss the meaning of the passage and its application based on mutually agreed methods of literary interpretation. What we cannot do is simply ignore what the Bible says because we are trying to be compassionate, modern, or even fair.

What are the concerns in all this? Some who support same-sex marriage might simply say, “why don’t you just live your way and let them live their way?” That sounds so nice and reasonable and fair. But here is the problem. Because government now has the primary role in determining who can get married and what a legitimate marriage is, they also have the power to determine who can perform such marriages and who cannot. Given the nature of government to spread its power and authority rather than limit it, as an evangelical pastor I have a legitimate concern that the day may soon come when the government says, in order to have the authority to perform any wedding, I must be willing to perform all weddings, same-sex or not. You think that is far-fetched? Think the government would never do such a thing? Look at recent history. Religious hospitals are being faced with regulations requiring them to perform medical procedures they find to be immoral. Religious schools and other institutions are being faced with the possibility of being required to provide insurance coverage for those same procedures. Clearly the government has shown a willingness to ignore the conscience of people of faith and require them to do things that violate their religious beliefs. How ironic is that, when one of the foundational principles of our culture today is to respect the beliefs of others and not force anyone to adhere to your beliefs. It seems that only flows one way.

Let me make one final point. I place the blame for where we are, squarely on the shoulders of Christians and the Church, though probably not for the reasons you may think. It is not because we have failed to oppose such culture shifts vehemently enough with protests and indignation. Rather, it is because we have failed to teach and uphold the positive Biblical ideals on marriage, sex, and human relationships. Far too much of our teaching and preaching is moralistic do’s and dont’s without any solid foundation based on the character of God. Such moralism quickly gives way to what is expedient, easiest, or “most reasonable”. In other cases our teaching too closely represents the latest self-help steps to a better marriage or relationship. It is teaching, full of practical tips, void of Biblical power. We need to get back to a Biblical understand of the purpose of marriage, the oneness between man, woman, and God that is the glue that holds the marriage together. We need to be captured by the holy mystery of man and woman becoming one, and that being more than sexual intimacy but a binding of soul on soul that is for the benefit of society and the glory of God. Let’s live out the glory of a Biblical marriage that makes it so attractive and compelling that people would yearn for that ideal and accept no substitute for the blessings God has for them.

 

I am not great at sound-bite theology. You know the kind I am talking about. It’s those pithy little sayings, often in 140 characters or less that seem so spiritual, deep, and insightful. They are easy to remember getting passed on time and again until they become accepted as a given, collective, cultural,  truism. To oppose such massive wisdom makes one appear to be as out of touch as your basic Neanderthal. Worse yet, in Christian circles it makes people think you are certainly not spiritually mature and may not even be a true follower of Jesus.

The latest of these maxims drives a wedge between following Jesus and being connected to the church. I cannot count the number of times I have had people say, things like, “I don’t want to get caught up in all that church stuff. I don’t need all that. I just want to follow Jesus”. On the surface it sounds so pure, so right, so spiritual. But is it really? Is it what Jesus calls us to? I dare say that every time Jesus hears one of His followers jettison the church in favor of some personal, individualistic, walk with Him, He has to at least wince, if not weep, or even get a bit ticked. Why do I say that? Simply for this reason. Jesus says that the church is His Bride and He loves His Bride. He loves His Bride so much that according to Ephesians 5:25-27 He gave up His life for her, was willing to die under the excruciating pain of the Cross for her, was willing to sacrifice it all for her sake. Make no mistake, Jesus absolutely loves the church, more than we can imagine. It is His Bride who He intends to perfect and beautify so that on a great wedding day, at the end of this age, that Bride will be presented to Him, holy, pure, beautiful, and spotless. That Bride will be His glory and joy. Jesus loves the church. Why don’t we? Saying that you Love Jesus but can’t stand the church is like telling me that you think I am awesome but my wife is a complete loser. Sorry pal but we are going to have some words over that, and maybe a bit more than just words. You can’t have me and disrespect my wife. It is no different with Jesus.

The current issue of Newsweek Magazine has a very provocative article titled, Forget the Church Just Follow Jesus. In the article Andrew Sullivan does a masterful job of explaining this growing phenomenon. Sullivan points out that a major reason people are taking to this road of abandoning the church, yet still trying to follow Jesus, is because of the ways in which denominations, leaders, and local congregations have abused their positions and been drawn to power rather than servanthood. As a voracious student of history and a pastor for 30 years, I clearly understand the abuses, problems, and damage that is so often found in various expressions of the church. The history of the church is littered with heartbreaking examples of exactly what Sullivan writes about. On an emotional, psychological level I understand why people bail and want to go it alone, or nearly alone, with Jesus. It is simply easier. You don’t have the messiness of dealing with people. You don’t have the debates over theology or the practical out-working of it. You don’t have to deal with leaders who have gone off the deep end. It’s just easier. But it also breaks Jesus heart.

All of the problems that you see in the church are just like problems you see outside the church. People abuse power, from presidents of countries to presidents of home owner associations. People argue and divide over the smallest disagreements, from political parties to married couples. Since the church is made up of people we should not be surprised to see the same sinful behavior. But what we should see in the church is the people of Christ responding differently to those things. In the world we argue, attack, and vilify and then we take our ball and go home convinced of our own righteousness and everyone else’s depravity. Incredibly that same cycle has become part and parcel of life in the church. There will always be such struggles because we are still people beset by a sinful heart. But it should and it must be different in the church. It is the Bride of Christ that must show the world how to wrestle through those disagreements and struggles. It should be the church that shows the world what it means to reconcile with your brother or sister who has sinned against you. It is the church that should show what a redeemed community looks like. It is the church that needs to live out what it means to love your neighbor. Loving one another does not mean we always agree and get along. It means we continue to forgive and serve one another in spite of  not always getting along. You can’t do that in isolation. It must be done within the context of this community we call The Church, the Bride of Christ, His Body.

Now the minute I say church, many people immediately go to the local congregation on the corner. They think of the organizational structure, a denomination, they think dead orthodoxy, religious legalism. They think of the pastor who hurt them or the church split that so devastated them. I am not talking about how a church is organized on a local level, or the various groups that have had such tragedy in their midst. I am talking about the church universal, what the Apostles Creed means when it says, “I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church”. That has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church or any other particular structure. It is about the Bride of Christ throughout history. The Bride Jesus loves. I love that church. Right now she is a battered and disheveled bride. Her hair is a mess, lipstick smeared, gown torn, vail askew, one heal broken, knees scraped, and nylons full of runs. But she is still His Bride and He adores her!

The answer to the woes of the church is not to point out all her flaws and then retreat into isolation saying you don’t need or want the church. The answer to the flaws is to ask, what can I do to make that Bride ready for her wedding day? What can I do to help present her to Jesus as a beautiful, perfect bride who will bring glory to Him? To do that you absolutely must be in community with other followers of Christ. You must be willing to work through the hardship and struggle of community in order to experience the joy Jesus takes in His bride. I am not saying you have to be a part of any particular structure, denomination or group. People will make decisions to disconnect with local churches for many reasons. I am not debating that. What I am saying is that the sound-bite theology of forgetting the church altogether and just following Jesus is in the long run, dangerous! It is dangerous to your spiritual growth and well-being because you cannot grow in Christ with out being connected to the Body of Christ. It is simply not possible. Any part of the body that is connected to the head is by default connected to the rest of the body. Cut yourself off from the rest of the body and you cut yourself of from much that the head wants you to experience.

Jesus loves the church. It is the worlds best hope. For all its flaws and dysfunctions, the Bride of Christ is the worlds best hope. Rather than cast stones at her and flee into an individualistic, pietism of just me and Jesus, we must embrace the Bride, give her a hug of encouragement and then do all we can to prepare her for her wedding day. Idealistic? You bet it is! But that is because Jesus always places the ideal before us and says, reach for it, run to it, strive for the best that God has for you and the world. Failure is not an option and neither is giving up on the Bride. I love the church for a simple reason, Jesus loves the church so much that He gave His life for her. Can we do anything less?

Ann Rice, the one time popularizer of the current vampire genre, has announced that she  is leaving Christianity.  She recently talked about her decision with Joy Behar. What is fascinating about her announcement is that she still professes a faith in Christ and actually feels that in order to keep following Christ she has to separate herself from organized religion and what she perceives as the judgmental actions of many Christians. Part of her decision is that she wants to make a statement that she is not like those “other” Christians.

Rice holds views on issues of ethics and morality that would certainly be on the theological left. She refuses to be “Anti-Gay, Anti-feminist” and “anti” several other issues. Her desire is to say that her commitment to Christ requires that she distance herself from followers of Christ who she perceives to be judgmental and bigoted. So for all of the hype about her leaving Christianity she clearly still sees herself as being a follower of Christ.

The bottom line issue for her is that in trying to remain committed to Jesus she has to step away from the public debate and arguments the swirl around the church and among Christians. In fact she makes it clear that in order to keep Christ at the center of her life she has to step away for a time and get with God.

I for one want to applaud her. Though I would disagree with many of her positions, I deeply respect that she is doing everything she can in order to stay close to Jesus. She may be giving up on organized religion and the public debate over issues of faith. But she is NOT renouncing Christ. In fact, she is trying to hold up and honor Christ as best she can. If you watch the whole interview that becomes abundantly clear.

What I hope can come out of her decision is two things. First that she would come back from her self-proclaimed wilderness experience with a renewed understanding of who Jesus is and how we as Christians need to engage the world in a more Christ-like manner. It would be a benefit to the rest of Christianity if we could learn that from her experience. Second, would be that all who claim to follow Jesus would do whatever it takes to make sure that He is at the center of their lives. There may be some equally radical thing you need to do to make sure that nothing gets in the way of following Jesus.

There is however one concern that I have and it is a deep concern. There is a growing notion in our culture and in the church that one can follow Jesus without the church. In the sense of not needing to be a member of a particular local congregation, I get that. But in the sense of not needing to be connected with and identified with other followers of Jesus, sorry, not an option. Being a follower of Jesus means being committed to others who are also struggling to follow Him. It is only in the context of deep, committed relationships, over time, that we can really be shaped into the people Jesus wants us to be. A season of wilderness like Rice is taking can be the right thing for a season. It is a disaster for one’s faith if it becomes prolonged and permanent. The God of the Bible and this Christianity is a relational being. That is one of the main lessons for the Trinity. We are made in God’s image and part of that means that we are to be relational as well. Will there be conflicts and disagreements in those relationships? You bet there will. But that is how we learn to be like Christ and forgive one another serve one another.

In the end, Ann Rice needs the rest of the Body of Christ and we need her. That is what family, the church is to be about.

Blessings to you Ann as you walk the wilderness. Don’t stay away too long. I look forward to what the future of the faith looks like with you in it.

I have been thinking recently about the seemingly growing mass of people who do things just to be noticed and known. The examples are so numerous that it is hard to decide which ones NOT to mention. Just think on some headlines over the last few months. Remember “Balloon Boy” and his parents scam to get attention by faking his accidental trip in a hot air balloon? How about “Baseball Taser Dude” who ran onto the field at a Phillies games after calling his dad and asking if it was a good idea? Then there was the copycat the next night. Add to that the countless people who still go on shows like Jerry Springer, or the whole Jon and Kate Plus Eight debacle. Then you have people who play to the paparazzi just to keep getting noticed; Lohan, Hilton, Kardashian, etc, etc. On the far more tragic side I was reminded recently that when Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon on a New York sidewalk the first thing he said was, “I shot John Lennon”. He wanted to be famous and the closest he could get was to be infamous.

So what is it about us that we have this growing need to be known, to the point that we do the ridiculous or even the tragic just to have our proverbial fifteen minutes of fame? I think at the heart of it all it goes back to the biblical story of Adam and Eve and our rebellion against God. Now before you get all distracted by the debate of whether or not Adam and Eve were real people, let’s skip past that to the lesson the story teaches regardless of the historicity of that couple. The point of the story is that human beings are in some sort of rebellion against God and this rebellion, known as sin, has had cosmos altering consequences. We have become alienated from God and from one another. That alienation has produced fear and insecurity, loneliness and shame.

You might be thinking, “Hey, we have always had alienation, fear, and insecurity. What’s different now?” What is different now is two-fold. First, there have always been other social institutions that helped us overcome our alienation and fulfill our need to belong and be known. Once upon a time the tribal group, or community, or family gave us a sense of security, identity, and purpose. We knew people and they knew us. Not simply in the informational sense of knowing, but in the deeper heart sense of knowing. It is more like the sense in Dutch and Afrikaans of “ken” as opposed to “weet”. Weet is informational knowledge, you know about something or someone. Ken is heart knowledge. It is what the Bible speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:12 when it speaks of a longing for a new day “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The more mobile we become, the more isolated we become behind our automatic garage doors that allow us to drive into our house without speaking to neighbors, the more we sit on the back porch and not the front stoop, the more we move from place to place and job to job, the more we run the risk of being isolated and alienated and yearning for connection.

The second factor is that on top of the human element there is the divine element. During the rise of the modern era and the commitment to science as having the answers to all our problems, we put God and spirituality on the shelf. We further isolated ourselves from the needs of our soul. Eventually people began to sense that modernism and science did not have all the answers and so an outbreak of being “spiritual” but not “religious” has been sweeping western culture. Why? Because we still have the deep inner need to be known and to know, especially by something or someone greater than ourselves.

In search of that need to be known, to be significant, those already mentioned and many others have taken a decidedly neurotic path. Others have taken a more reasonable and socially acceptable route. The rise in popularity of social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, is in part an attempt to stay connected or reconnect with people who are important to us. Such social media can be a great tool to keep and grow our relationships and give us a sense of place and belonging. Of course it can also fool us into thinking that we have deep and meaningful relationships just because people see our status updates and we have hundreds of friends, some of whom we have never met.

Ultimately all our efforts to connect with one another, to be known by one another, to feel like we are significant and that we matter, will fall woefully short if we do not address the root cause of that alienation. We are alienated from one another on a horizontal plane because we first became alienated on the vertical in our relationship with God. We can have all the human connections we want but until we are connected intimately with God, we will still be lacking and still looking for more. Blaise Pascal said it best; “We all have a God shaped vacuum in our soul that only He can fill”. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about being known, he was speaking of the longing to be known by and to know God in as intimate a way as possible. All our searching for meaning, fame, security, belonging, and connection is at its core the result of a need to know that we are loved by God and to experience that love in deeper and deeper ways.