How One Bible Teacher Got it Wrong This Time

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path~ Psalm 119:105 KJV

  In recent years I have witnessed seismic shifts take place in evangelical churches. I have also learned that even God-fearing Christian people can get it wrong sometimes (Jeremiah 17:9). As a result, there is little that happens in the church world that shocks me anymore.

 Nonetheless, occasionally something happens in the church world that is so peculiar or just plain awful that I am profoundly shocked by it. This occurred last week as I was catching up on some old podcasts.

 One of the podcasts I listen to regularlyfeatured as their guest pastor and guru of all things evangelical Andy Stanley. Like most American Christians I have read several of Andy Stanley’s books. Some I liked okay, others not so much. To be perfectly truthful, up until about ten minutes into the podcast I would not have classified myself as either a fan nor a detractor. I was fairly middle-of-the-road on the topic of Andy Stanley.

 But then.

 He began to make a case for minimizing the use of the Bible in preaching and evangelism.  Mr. Stanley believes that rather than steering people towards what the Bible says about issues that we ought to simply point them to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and teach them to love others. The following quotes were taken directly from the interview. They sum up the essence of the program fairly succinctly:

 The Bible did not create Christianity. Christians created the Bible…. What created Christianity was the first Easter morning…”

“In the culture and in the marketplace and in the public square, we have to shift the focus from the Bible to the Resurrection. Because the Resurrection is completely defensible now just as it was in the first century.

“I think [some people] put [the Bible] in the place of Jesus.”

 All the New Testament imperatives that we find after the gospels are simply applications of Jesus’s new covenant command to love as I have loved you. The Apostle Paul wasn’t coming up with new rules and new laws.”

 Sigh.

It is not my intent to malign, besmirch or vilify Mr. Stanley (I try really hard to avoid that sort of thing). Rather, I want to share five things that inevitably happen anytime Christians intentionally or unintentionally choose to minimize the importance of the Bible.

We lose our true north-

 The Bible is more than just simply a book filled with dusty old ideas. The Bible is our true north. It is the one thing fallible humans can count on to act as a reliable guide anytime human wisdom fails us (as it inevitably does). Without the Bible to act as a compass we quickly begin to lose our way and devolve into doing our own thing. Without the Bible guiding us through life we become like the Israelites in the book of Judge where every person did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

 We devolve into myth and superstition-

 Andy Stanley correctly points out that few (if any) early Christians had access to personal copies of the Bible. This is because few people could read and books as we know them today simply did not exist. The scrolls that did exist were prohibitively expensive for all but the most outrageously wealthy of people.  However, this situation was far from optimal. Because few people had access to the Bible the church frequently fell into fits of heresy and individual Christians were prone to superstition, mystical thinking and believing all kinds of weird myths about God.  This problem reached an apex just prior to the reformation when even well-educated church leaders were commonly biblically ignorant and spiritually lost. Without an ongoing emphasis on the Bible we will assuredly follow their path.

  We construct our own standards of right and wrong-

 The great thing about the Bible is that it spells out in no uncertain terms exactly what is right and what is wrong. This prevents Christians leaders from playing favorites (most of the time) and applying standards of behavior to some people and not to others. It also keeps Christians from simply adopting the standards of an everchanging culture.

 We become hopelessly reliant on subjective definitions of right and wrong-

 We know exactly what sin is because sin is clearly defined in Ephesians 5:3-7, Galatians 5:19-20, 1stCorinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:21-31. We know what love is because God spelled it out for us in 1stCorinthians 13. We know when divorce is morally acceptable because of Jesus’ teaching on the subject in Matthew 19:4-9. Without these and other teachings found in the Bible we are left to decide for ourselves the definitions of key issues. Anytime foolish humans are left to define right and wrong for themselves there will be some monster who decides that it is a loving act to kill people he or she finds distasteful or burdensome. It’s simply a fact that life gets really weird, really fast without hard and fast definitions of right and wrong.   

 We doom ourselves to stupidity and repeating the mistakes of the past-

 Most of the New Testament letters were written to correct wrong thinking concerning various doctrinal issues. When we willfully ignore the vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge contained in the Bible, we doom ourselves to make the same mistakes early Christians made. The only difference between those early believers and us is that we are without excuse because God has graciously given us everything we need in the word of God to avoid the doctrinal errors of the past. 

 All we have to do is study it.

 

 

Lies We Believe about Life and God and How Those Lies are Killing Us

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised~ Romans 1:25

 Recently, I have noticed that a lot of people (who really ought to know better) are becoming less and less troubled by the whole notion of lying.  

 Seriously.

 Hardly a day goes by when I don’t turn on the television and catch a broadcaster or politician saying something with a perfectly straight face that is demonstrably and provably untrue. The truly tragic thing about all this is that no one seems to be calling anyone out on it.

 Sadly, this phenomenon is not unique to the secular realm. Lies are proliferating in our Christian culture as well. The lies Christians tell are especially dangerous for two reasons. First, unlike heathens who lie,  Christians typically believe the lies they tell. The vast majority of Christians who spread spiritual lies don’t want to hurt anyone. They are simply operating out of biblical or moral ignorance. Nevertheless, a lie told out of ignorance is no less harmful than a lie told maliciously.

 Secondly, when Christians lie the lies they tell almost always concern issues that have eternal consequences.  It’s one thing to lie about who-did-what-to-who. Those kinds of lies are ultimately between God and the liar and I for one am more than happy to let Him sort all that out in whatever way He sees fit. Spiritual lies on the other hand, inevitably lead to wrong thinking, wrong thinking leads to wrong behavior and wrong behavior has eternal consequences (Matthew 15:18-20, Ezekiel 18:20-23). So, in the interest of truth-telling following are five of the biggest lies Christians tell about life and God:

 As long as someone loves Jesus what they believe about life and God is basically irrelevant-

 Most people who have bought into this lie don’t even realize they believe it (Matthew 24:4-9, Luke 21:8, 2ndTimothy 4:3-4). The lie has simply become a part of our operating system as Christians. This particular lie has become so widespread that it has literally transformed the way we do church and Christianity. It is the underlying reason professing Christians don’t attend church services. It is also the reason churches have ditched Bible studies, midweek services and Sunday school classes for “connect groups” and “fellowship nights”. It is time for us to once again embrace the fundamental fact that acting on the truth laid out for us in God’s is what sets us free from sin and spiritual bondage (John 8:32).

 Love is the end-all-be-all of everything Christian-

 This lie is almost true and that makes it more believable and therefore very dangerous. Love is a really big deal to God. Christians are straight-up commanded nineteen times in the New Testament to “love one another”. The problem isn’t with love. Love is awesome. The problem is with how we have chosen to define love in our society. Christians have taken their cues from a godless culture and chosen to define love in feel-goody kinds of terms. The current definition presupposes no one should ever say anything to anyone that might make them feel bad about their choices. This is not love, it’s a form of deception (2ndTimothy 4:3-4).   

 Christian kids need to experience “life”-

  Too many Christian parents have bought into the lie that their kids are missing out on something vital and formative if they don’t get ample opportunities to sin like their peers do. I am all for Christian kids having experiences that will enrich their lives and expose them to different kinds of people (missions’ trips are great for this). However, too many worldly experiences without a lot of teaching and training will inevitably turn Christian kids into worldly people with zero interest in God. 

  God is somehow nicer than He used to be-

 Contrary to popular belief God hasn’t actually changed since Old Testament times. He is exactly the same God He’s always been (Numbers 23:19, Psalm 55:19, Hebrews 13:8). It is far less burdensome to be forgiven than it was once was (Leviticus 9:7, Leviticus 14:19). However, that does not mean God’s opinion of sin has changed the tiniest bit (Isaiah 1:16, 1stCorinthians 15:34).

 What I do in private won’t hurt anyone-

 This lie presupposes that sin doesn’t actually affect the sinner in anyway. This is simply not true. Sin changes us, it hardens our hearts and makes it much harder to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when He is speaking to us (Hebrews 3:13). Sin also changes the way we view other people. Sin diminishes our compassion for others and makes us far more self-serving. Self-absorbed Christians who lack compassion and empathy hurt everyone.  

 God loves me just the way I am-

 This is another lie with a kernel of truth at its core, making it more believable and therefore more dangerous. It is absolutely true that God loves everyone no matter what they have done (John 3:16). It is also true no one has to be perfect or have life all figured out to become a Jesus follower (Ephesians 2:8). That said, God does not want anyone to stay stuck. God wants everyone to change and grow and become better people after we begin a relationship with Jesus and if we don’t something is seriously wrong. In John chapter eight Jesus tells a woman that He had just forgiven to “go and sin no more”.

 He wants the same thing for all of us.

 

Four Reasons the Church Is Not Impacting the Culture

 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge~ Romans 10:2 NIV

It’s been a week.

 It all started last Sunday night when the overlords at Facebook decided that my last (not political at all) blog post was too political and they refused to promote it.  I was seriously irritated by this turn of events and I am not easily daunted when I’m irritated about something. So, I dug through the archives, unearthed an older post, did a little editing, published the older post and got the-powers-that-be to promote that one instead.

 Hah.

 The post was about sex and how Christian attitudes towards sexuality have evolved over the course of the last five decades. I stated in the post that I am convinced that the majority of Christians today believe what most non-Christians in the 1970’s and 1980’s believed about sex: that the rightness and wrongness of sex is determined not by a spiritual or legal commitment (marriage) but rather by the feeling of “being in love”. This theory is backed-up by the statistic that sixty-four percent of adult Christians surveyed no longer believe it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage.

  An astute reader (Aaron Mendenhall) asked the following question regarding that statistic:

 “Has anybody bothered to ask the 64% of Christians aged 18-59 surveyed if they are aware of the Scriptures that explicitly condemn fornication (sex outside of marriage)? And, then, if they ARE aware of them, why they feel they have the right to IGNORE those Scriptures?”

 Aaron’s question got me thinking about the whys and how’s of where we are today, not just concerning the issue of sex but a whole host of other issues as well.  It is simply a (sad) fact that there are a large number of Christians who claim to love Jesus who (for whatever reason) are not taking their cues on how to live life from the Bible (John 8:31, John 8:51, 2nd John 1:9).   

 Sigh.

 It’s convenient to blame outside factors like value-free sex education and secular entertainment for problems we are having inside the church. However, outside factors cannot force anyone to do anything they don’t really want to do.  I believe there are at least four reasons why Christians are not doing what the Bible tells them to do.

 We do not use our time well-

 There are 168 hours in every week and 672 hours in the average (four week) month. The majority of church services these days are exactly one hour long. The average self-identified “committed Christian” attends church 1.2 times a month. Sunday school is no longer a thing in most churches and most small groups are more about relationships and support than Bible study. Moreover, according to a study done by Lifeway only twenty percent of “committed Christians” read or listen to the Bible daily. Conversely, the average adult spends twenty hours a week messing around on the internet, five hours a day watching television and ninety minutes a day staring mindlessly at their phone.  It should not shock anyone that we have forgotten how to think biblically, Christian teaching is not a primary influence in our lives anymore (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1st Corinthians 15:33).

  Fearing God is not a thing anymore-

 The whole notion of fearing God is thought to be rather strange and antiquated these days. We have been taught ad nauseum that the entirety of all Christian teaching can and should be summed up with “love God” and “love people” However, we have forgotten that we are commanded more times in Scripture to fear God than we are told to love Him. Loving God is noble, good and absolutely essential but we need to remember that fearing God is equally as noble, good and no less essential. Fearing God is also the first step to acquiring wisdom and the key to living a life that pleases God (Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10, Proverbs 2:5, Proverbs 14:27). Fearing God simply means that we really believe (and act on that belief by being obedient) that God will do what He says He will do. This includes things like judging people.

  There’s a lot of biblical ignorance out there-

 One reason Christians don’t do what the Bible says is because they don’t know what the Bible says. It is tempting to lay the blame for this one squarely at the feet of pastors, but I am not sure that is entirely fair. It is true that most churches have adopted a “seeker friendly” model where little emphasis is placed on doctrine or the teaching of Christian ethics during Sunday morning services. However, it is also true that we live in a time and place where everyone has access to Bibles, commentaries on Scripture and books about the Bible. Biblical ignorance is truly a choice in our day and age (Proverbs 1:29, Matthew 13:12, 2ndPeter 1:5-7).

 Too many of us get spiritually stuck after salvation-

 God never intended for salvation to be the end goal of all things spiritual in the life of a Christian. Rather, salvation is meant to be the starting place of a lifelong journey of faith and transformation (Matthew 28:19-20). In recent years the whole notion of discipleship has taken a backseat to evangelism. We must focus on both.  

 Like it or not, what we do and how we choose to behave as Jesus followers matters because God has called His people (you and me) to be a preserving influence in the culture (Matthew 5:13-16, 1stPeter 2:12). When we do what God tells us to do, people who don’t know God want to know God. When we don’t, those same people rightly dismiss Christianity as just another religion that lacks the power to change anyone or anything.  The good news in all of this is that we can change what the world thinks.

 All we have to do is make better choices.

 

 

My Biggest most Intense Church Peeve Yet

 

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing~ 1stPeter 3:9 NIV

Regular readers of this blog know by now I have some issues with the way many contemporary Christians do church. My various church peeves have been documented ad nauseum in previous posts. To be truthful, I decided recently that the peeve posts were getting a bit old and I probably wasn’t going to write another one. Then I came across a “Christian” video on Facebook and discovered my most passionate church peeve ever.  I literally could not stop myself from writing about it.

 The video features a Christian guy who has a bunch of tattoos. He begins his harangue by telling a story about another Christian (a woman) who informed him that his tattoos made him look trashy. She also said that his tattoos were so offensive she couldn’t stand to look at him.

 For the record.

 I sincerely believe that other people’s tattoos are none of my business. I do not care if he (or anyone else) gets or has a tattoo. Please do not assume that this is some sort of anti-tattoo screed. Because it’s not. I repeat. I do not care about his stupid tattoos. I do care about how he handled the situation with the woman because it hurt the reputation of Jesus. Badly.

 I will begin with what he did not do.

 He did not tell her she hurt his feelings with her harsh words (Luke 17:3).  He did not inform her that there are people in this world who have tattoos who need the forgiveness and grace that only Jesus can offer (John 3:16, Mark 2:17). He did not tell her that her attitude towards tattooed people might make them reluctant to become followers of Jesus (2ndCorinthians 6:3).  He did not attempt to educate her on the differences between Old Testament Law and New Testament freedom (Romans 7:6, Galatians 5:13, 1stCorinthians 10:23). He did not (from what I can tell) pray for her (Matthew 5:44). He did not take his concerns to the elders of her church and ask them to help him work out his issues with her (Matthew 18:15-16).

 In other words, he did not handle the situation biblically.

 Instead he posted a video where he proclaimed loudly and proudly that he “hates Christians and the church” because of “people like her”.

 It has become nauseatingly trendy for Christians to declare passionately that they love Jesus but hate the church and all the people in it. They feel justified (even righteous) in saying these things because they believe that all Christians (other than themselves of course) are hateful, judgmental and pretentious. They also nearly always believe that the church is simply a misguided, human-run organization that has nothing at all to do with God or Jesus.

 Insert eye roll here.

 This idiocy is hurting everyone, especially unbelievers. It needs to end now for at least four reasons:

 This is not about us or our stupid, trivial, easily-wounded feelings-

 This is about people who do not know Jesus. When a non-believer hears from a Christian that all Christians are terrible people; that unbeliever is given every reason in the world to never become friends with a Christian, attend church or consider the truth-claims of Christ. Some will undoubtedly spend eternity in hell because of Christians who didn’t have the sense or self-control to stop hating on other Christians in public forums. The very thought that our actions or words might keep another person from a relationship with Jesus ought to put the fear of God into us all (Luke 17:1, Matthew 13:41). If it doesn’t something is seriously wrong.  

 Christians who hate on other Christians are disobedient, perhaps unsaved and placing themselves in danger of judgment (2ndJohn 1:5, 1stJohn 3:10, 1stJohn 2:9) –

 It is unloving and judgmental to hate someone because of their tattoos or hairstyle or how many earrings they have (I have five). That said, it is equally as unloving and judgmental to hate someone because you have concluded they are unloving and judgmental (Matthew 7:35).  We are commanded to suck it up and love the unlovable. That includes Christians we don’t like or always agree with (John 13:34-35).

 God will set us all straight someday- 

  Everyone says thoughtless and hurtful stuff, frequently without even realizing it. It’s part of being stupid and human (but I repeat myself). It’s important to remember that someday God will call each of us into account for our insensitive and foolish words (Matthew 12:36). Rather than rail against Christians who say stupid things we ought to examine our own words carefully and pray we all have the foresight and good sense to repent before our day comes.

 We are commanded to keep “family” stuff in the “family”-

  Christians are a family (Psalm 68:8, Galatians 6:10, Hebrews 2:11, 1stPeter 2:17, 1stPeter 5:9). Paul makes it clear in 1stCorinthians 6:5-7 that it is far better to be wronged by a fellow believer than to shame Jesus and the church by publicly airing family junk to those who are not part of the family. In Matthew 18:15-16 we are given the pattern for working-out issues between Christians.

 We would do well to follow it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

What You Can Do to Make the Church Great Again

 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love~ Galatians 5:13 NIV

 The whole concept of the church is a strange one if you think about very deeply at all.

 Most organizations and institutions are founded by, led by and maintained by people who, for the most part, hail from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, have same types of upbringings and live in the same kinds of communities.

 Not so in the church.

 From its inception the church was filled with men and women from every tribe, tongue, education level and social class imaginable (Acts 2:5-12, 1stTimothy 6:2, Galatians 3:28, James 2:1-4, 1stCorinthians 12:13, Revelation 7:9).  The Church was intended from the very beginning to be a place where societal norms are challenged at every turn.

 God designed the church to be a place where serving is favored over being served (Matthew 23:1), where the weak are every bit as cherished as the strong and where each member is working for the good of every other member. Church is where every follower of Jesus regardless of age, race, gender or social position is equal and equally loved by God (Galatians 3:28). 

 All that being said, the distinctive design of the church has created some distinctive problems. For one thing, many people struggle to define exactly what the church is and how it should operate. Our culture (and most Christians) tend to believe that church is a location. A specific place that we go to hear spiritual messages and do spiritual things.

 The Bible depicts the church as a body, a living entity, made up of a whole lot of distinct parts that form a whole (1stCorinthians 12:12-27).  The church is not a building it is people who have been transformed by the power of the gospel and set free from the bondage of sin and death to preach the gospel and do good in this world.  

 Because we ARE the church, churches function best when each person in the church sees themselves as the church. Conversely, churches tend to be the least functional when the people in the church view church as simply a place we go once or twice a week to hear spiritual messages.

 There are at least five things each of us can do to be the church in our day-to-day lives including:

 Deal with bitterness-

 The Bible makes it clear that bitterness is something Christians must avoid at all costs. (Ephesians 4:31). This is because bitterness has a corrupting effect on people making them unfit for Christian service (Acts 8:22-24). Moreover, bitterness has an infectious quality, it spreads like a germ from the bitter person to the people around them (Hebrews 12:15). We deal with bitterness by forgiving the people who have hurt us and letting go of our anger towards them (Colossians 3:13). This not easy, nor is it typically something that happens all at once. Rather, it is usually a process that takes time and prayer to achieve.

 Encourage the right way-

 Over and over again New Testament believers are commanded to encourage one another (2ndCorinthians 13:11, 1stThessalonians 4:18, Hebrews 3:13) Contrary to popular belief an encourager is more than simply a cheerleader who goes around telling people how awesome they are all time.  Encouragers do make an effort to notice and comment on the good they see in other people. However, biblical encouragers understand that encouragement is the act of inspiring others to be the best version of themselves that they can be (1stThessalonians 5:11, Colossians 3:16). Sometimes this means giving generous and heartfelt praise for a job well done. Other times it means gently correcting and admonishing those who are not living up to the potential they have in Jesus (1stThessalonians 5:14).  

 Be more than a doer-

 These days there is a huge emphasis placed on being a doer of the word of God. We are told that authentic love for Jesus is reflected in what we do for other people in Jesus name. For the record, I do not disagree with that view in the slightest. However, the only way we can know for certain if we are really doing what God wants us to do for others is if we know what He says in His word (Psalm 119:05). The only way to know what the word says is to study it.

 Love one another-

  I will not lie. I debated about whether or not to include this one. Not because I don’t think love is important or critical to the health of the church (it is).  Rather, I struggled because I think the definition of love we have adopted in the church is rather milk-toasty and uninspiring. Authentic biblical love does more than help people feel good about where they are at right now. Authentic biblical love loves people where they are (Matthew 5:46) and tells the truth about the consequences of sin (Ephesians 4:17, Acts 17:30).   

  Find a local body and contribute what you can-

You are the church but you also need the church. Find one where the pastor values the word and where the people love each other and get involved. God will be pleased (3rdJohn 1:4), you will grow and the church will become stronger (Romans 12).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Things We Can All Do to Make Church Great in 2018

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here~ 2nd Corinthians 5:17 NIV

 Its official (actually it was official in 2005) January is (at least for most people) the most depressing month of the year.

 I get it.

 January has its fair share of shortcomings. Once Christmas is over the snow promptly loses its charm and there is zero hope the weather will improve for at least another couple of months. The merriment of the holidays has ended and the irksome credit card bills have come due for the generosity we felt over Christmas. That leaves most of us feeling a bit Grinch-y in hindsight. Compounding the negativity, most of us are feeling a bit pudgy and gross after the all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy that is the month of December.

 Without question, all of the above is clearly true.

 However, you will never catch me hating on the month of January. I love January for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because it offers a respite from the frantic madness of November and December. The slower more relaxed pace of January provides a much-needed opportunity for rest, reflection and goal setting.

 In that spirit, I have spent the better part of the last week pondering some of the goals I have set for the coming year. And as I was thinking through all that it occurred to me that there are some small changes we could all make this coming year that just might make a huge difference in how the world perceives the Church, and by extension how they perceive Jesus and Christian people. Changing how Christians are perceived in the culture might just help us to reach more people this year with the love of Jesus.

 So, in the interest of making this next year a great one for the cause of Christ I want to suggest three small, relatively painless changes we could all make that would make Christianity more appealing to the world around us without compromising truth.

 Starting with:

 A commitment to change the things that need to change-

 It’s true that some people are turned off by the message of Christianity (believe in Jesus and repent of your sin [Mark 1:15]). That said, more often than not, people are turned off by the behavior of Christians long before they get to hear the message of Christianity. Being purposeful about our own spiritual growth (Philippians 2:12, Hebrews 12:14, 2nd Peter 1:3-10) prevents this tragedy. Intentionality in the arena of spiritual growth has to begin with a commitment to examine ourselves daily so that we will be painfully aware of our own sinful inclinations. It ends with an unwavering commitment to honoring God in every area of our lives. The payoff for a commitment to spiritual growth is two-fold. We grow into the people God has called us to be (Ephesians 1:4, 1st Peter 2:9) and the holiness we acquire through this process gives us the spiritual power we need to lead others into relationship with Jesus.

 Expanding your circle of friendship-

 It is true that we grow in our faith and knowledge of God and life anytime we spend quality time with other Christians (Hebrews 10:25, Proverbs 27:17). It is also true that non-believers have their view of the world challenged when they spend time with and engage in meaningful conversations with Christians (John 4, Acts 17:16-34). If we would all commit to building some meaningful relationships with a few people (Christians and non-Christians) outside our circle I believe we could have a significant impact on our own little corner of the world. That in turn would make our world a better place and in the process we will learn more about life and God and make some new friends all at the same time. That’s a win all the way around.

 Forgiving someone-

 Over and over again in Scripture Christians are commanded to forgive others (Matthew 11:25, Luke 17:4, Colossians 3:13), Jesus even tied God’s forgiveness towards us to our willingness to forgive others (Matthew 6:15, Luke 6:37). I believe that God wants us to forgive others because unforgiveness leads to bitterness (among other things). Bitterness turns us into ugly, unpleasant people who are unlikely to attract others to Christianity or anything else. This is why the writer of Hebrews tells us that bitterness causes trouble and defiles many (Hebrews 12:15). The New Year is a perfect time to begin the process of forgiving those people who have hurt us. When we forgive others we become people that God can use for the good of others and for His glory.

 Wishing you all a joyful and spiritually productive 2018!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned From Joseph this Christmas

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife~ Matthew 1:24 NIV

 I will not lie.

 I actually enjoy some of the less-than-spiritual aspects of Christmas. I love Jesus (I am not a heathen). I also love the parties, the food, the trees, the decorations, the music, and the traditions of Christmas. I even like some of the stuff I should probably dislike. Things like Frosty, Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and gift giving and getting. Basically, I like all the commercial stuff that sidetracks us from what should be a simple celebration of the birth of the Savior.

 Because I am drawn to the less-than spiritual side of Christmas I have attempted to discipline myself and spend a little extra time each year focusing on the birth of Christ. This year I started in Matthew and rediscovered an often forgotten hero of the Christmas story: Joseph.

 Like most people, I tend to overlook Joseph because Mary is obviously the star of the show. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of her story. Mary’s obedient response to Gabriel’s announcement is the picture-perfect example of how we should all respond to God’s call. She voluntarily endured personal loss, hardship and probably even ridicule to become the Mother of the Jesus.

 It’s impossible not to love Mary.

 However, this year it was Joseph that captured my attention. I’m convinced that if we were all a little more like Joseph the world would be a better place.

 The text tells us that God considered Joseph to be a righteous man. That, in and of itself was a fairly rare thing for God to say about anyone in those days. Then we are told that because of his righteousness he did not want to divorce Mary publicly. It’s important to note that at this point in the story Mary and Joseph were legally wed, the marriage was a done deal in the eyes of the law and their religious community. The only thing left to do was to consummate the marriage.

 According to both Roman and Jewish law Joseph had every right to publicly divorce (and humiliate) Mary. They were married and he had what appeared to be incontrovertible proof of infidelity. Her story about the angel was, by every standard, well, more than a little crazy. Most of us would have felt justified in publicly shaming a woman who slept with another man and then told a ridiculously outlandish tale about God and angels to cover-up her indiscretion.

 Seriously.           

 God’s evaluation of Joseph as a “righteous man” tells me that God has a special place in His heart for those who look out for the reputations of others. God blesses those who are willing to go out of their way not to behave in a vengeful way even when they have been legitimately wronged.

 I think my favorite thing about Joseph is how he ignored the opinions of people in order to gain the approval of God. Following the dream where Joseph was commanded to keep Mary as his wife, Joseph had to go back to his family and friends and tell them that he planned to go ahead with marriage to a girl most people were probably convinced was well, a hussy (for want of another word).

 I am persuaded that Joseph’s family and friends were convinced that Joseph was either a fool or a liar. It almost goes without saying that Joseph suffered heartache, humiliation and social disgrace for his choice to stick by Mary.

Joseph’s selflessness is a reminder that the kind of righteousness that pleases God almost always involves a high level of inconvenience and self-denial.

 I do not believe there is anything wrong with the fun side of Christmas celebrations. I am convinced that the God we serve is the originator of fun and joy. My prayer for all of us is that in the midst of all the fun and merrymaking Joseph’s story will serve as a reminder that our response to God’s goodness and generosity should be a life of authentic righteousness and self-denial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Seldom Recognized Ways Jesus’ Birth Changed the World

We love because he first loved us~ 1st John 4:19 NIV

 Three years ago I vowed (in a fit of self-pity) to never write another Christmas blog as long as I lived. I did this mostly because my Christmas blogs have a history of less-than-stellar readership and I prefer to write things I think people are actually going to read. However, I recently concluded that it’s probably time I got over myself and give it another try.

 This moment of clarity arrived as I was participating in a community Christmas celebration. As I watched the display it hit me out of nowhere that Jesus’ first coming changed literally everything about life in the ancient world. Those changes in turn, paved the way for the freedoms and prosperity much of the western world enjoys today. Simultaneously I was struck by how oddly trivial our Christmas celebrations tend to be in light of the impact the first coming of Jesus had on our world.

 It’s not that I have anything against the way Americans celebrate Christmas. I love Christmas and all the things we do to celebrate Christmas. That said, snowmen, sparkly lights, cookies cut into adorable shapes, and even traditional nativity scenes don’t exactly capture the magnitude of the impact that Jesus has had on our world. So, in honor of Jesus and all His birth accomplished, following are four seldom recognized ways Jesus’ first coming made our world a better place.

 Jesus made it cool to care about the poor, sick and marginalized-

 Prior to the advent of Jesus no one cared all that much about the sick and poor. Most believed the poor and sick were poor and sick because they were bad people who had been cursed by their god’s. As a result they were viewed as profoundly unlikable. Little was done (outside the Jewish community) to alleviate the suffering of the sick or to help poor people. Because Jesus cared deeply about the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized (Luke 12:33, Luke 14:13, Luke 10:30-3), so did His followers. From the earliest days of Christianity, charity (caring for the less fortunate) was a fundamental feature of Christian worship and outreach (Acts 6:1-7, Acts 9:36, Romans 15: 25-27, James 2:5-6). As Christianity took root in the Western world caring for the less fortunate became a natural part of life and something even non-religious people do. This was certainly not the case before Jesus came into the world.  

 Jesus gave children value-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus children were considered disposable in most societies ( Jews were a notable exception). Abortion was a common practice, and live newborns were routinely placed in the foundations of buildings (for luck). In Greece and Rome unwanted infants (mostly girls) were simply left on rocky cliffs to die of exposure. Attitudinal change towards children began with the coming of Jesus. Jesus loved children (Luke 18:15-17) and He was concerned with their physical and spiritual welfare (Matthew 18:6). Early Christians followed in the footsteps of Jesus and forbade the practices of abortion and infanticide among their members. Early Christians also made a practice of adopting the newborns that had been left to die of exposure. Over time, societies touched by Christianity enacted laws to protect children, but it was Jesus who forever changed the way we view the worth of children.

 Jesus gave women dignity-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus, women were (in virtually every society) thought to be profoundly inferior to men in every way. Respectable women lived cloistered lives and simply did not interact with men they were not closely related to. Unlike other religious leaders of His day, Jesus frequently had meaningful conversations with all sorts of women (John 4, Luke 8:1-3, John 11), and He allowed women to receive the same training as their male counterparts (Luke 10:38-41, Luke 8:1-3). Jesus even entrusted a woman with passing on the message of His resurrection (Matthew 28:1-8, Luke 24:1-12); this was a VERY big deal in a world where women were not considered legitimate witnesses in a court of law. After Jesus’ resurrection women were used in significant ways to build the early church. The Apostle Paul founded the Philippian church along with a handful of women (Acts 16). Pricilla along with her husband Aquila helped to plant churches and train believers in Corinth, Ephesus (Acts 18) and Rome (Romans 16:3). Women acted as deacons in the early church and were entrusted with significant tasks (Romans 16:1-2, 1st Timothy 3:11) and a woman (Junia) is even referred to as “outstanding among the Apostles” in Romans 16:7. Admittedly, throughout history some church leaders have not always valued women or the contributions of women. However, that does not change the fact that Jesus did. Jesus’ high view of women paved the way for many of the freedoms women enjoy today. If you doubt my word, take a look at the way women are treated in societies where Christianity has not made significant inroads. It’s a sharp and ugly contrast.    

 Jesus made it possible for people to actually change-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus people could change their actions but not their hearts. An evil or an unbelieving person was just kind of stuck that way forever. Jesus’ coming changed that reality. Because, Jesus’ presence indwells the people who believe in Him, His presence gives us the power we need to change not just our actions but also our hearts. Because of Jesus we can be better people tomorrow than we are today.

 That is something to celebrate.

Five Ways our Generation has Screwed-up Prayer

This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread”~ Matthew 6:9-11 NIV

 This week I got to enjoy a very long lunch with an old friend. This particular friend is not just an old friend in the sense that we have known each other a long time. She is also an old friend in the sense that she is a good bit older than I am. I don’t know if it’s because she’s older than I am or if it’s because she’s acquired some wisdom in life (or a combination of the two), but this woman never fails to challenge me. The truly maddening thing is that I’m fairly certain she does it without even trying.

 This visit was no exception.

 We spent some time catching-up on our families and grumbling about all the madness in the world, then we moved on to the topic of church and ministry. I shared a little bit about what’s going on in my life right now, she shared what she’s doing and a couple of “back in the day” stories.

 I will not lie.

 There was a time (to my eternal shame) when I would sigh quietly anytime an older Christian began to wax eloquent about how ministry was done “back in the day”. I assumed (like all youthful idiots) that there is nothing significant to be learned from how church or ministry was done in the past. However, my generations’ complete and utter failure to make meaningful spiritual inroads into to our culture has humbled me a bit. I am now much more inclined to listen to those with a few years on me.

 It didn’t take long for me to recognize that all of her stories had a shared theme. The theme did not include tales of strategic outreach, careful planning or exciting gimmicks used to lure the unsaved into church buildings or a relationship with Jesus. Rather, the common denominator to all her stories was prayer. In every story she told, Christians prayed really hard and then crazy-cool stuff would happen, hearts changed, non-Christians became Christians, sin got confessed and repented of, and miracles took place. By the end of our lunch I was deeply convicted that our generation has forgotten how to pray and screwed-up the concept of prayer in at least five ways.

 Beginning with:

 We plan instead of pray-

 I am a planner. One of my favorite adages (much to the chagrin of my poor children) is “failure to plan is like planning to fail”. I have even been accused of over-planning a time or two. That said, I suspect we might see more success in our churches and at our events if we spent at least as much time praying for events and services as we do planning for them.

 We just don’t do it-

 According to a bunch of self-surveys I looked at, the average Christian admits to spending about three minutes a day in prayer. The ugly underbelly of that already ugly fact is that it tells us that at least half of all Christians either don’t pray at all or pray for less than three minutes a day.  

 We don’t really believe anything will happen when we do pray-

 Over and over again in the New Testament we are told that God is much more inclined to answer prayer when the person praying actually believes that something will happen because they prayed. I will be the first to admit that God does not answer all our prayers the way we want Him to answer our prayers. However, that does not mean we should stop believing that God will answer when we do pray.  

 We pray for dumb stuff-

 I know I’m going to get some flak for this one. But seriously, the world is going to hell right in front of us (literally and figuratively) and I have been at prayer meetings where people requested prayer for the health of their pets and for a relaxing vacation. God does care about pets and rest (He cares about everything). However, I suspect He cares more about the souls of the lost and is more inclined to answer in the affirmative when we pray about stuff that actually matters.  

 We don’t pray corporately-

 Even when we do gather to pray corporately, most of the time we wander off by our selves and pray alone. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind when He talked about “two or three being gathered” in His name.

 I think our generation has screwed-up prayer because we have lost touch with the purpose of prayer. Prayer is not about getting God to do the stuff we want or getting stuff from God. Prayer is about getting our purposes aligned with His and getting the spiritual power we need to do the stuff that really matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Christians and Non-Christians be Friends?

 Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character~ 1st Corinthians 15:33 NIV

 I subscribe to a number of Christian leadership blogs, podcasts and websites. Most of the stuff I subscribe to is pretty good. A few are hit or miss and one or two are just kind of meh. The best ones consistently tackle issues I have never thought very deeply about, challenge my biases, and help me think more imaginatively about problem solving. The not-so-great ones tend to hit on the same dozen or so issues over and over again and never really give any answers, just raise a lot questions.

 Over the course of the last couple of years, I have noted a clear trend regarding the subject matter of many of the blogs I subscribe to. All of them have been encouraging Christians to be bolder in their pursuit of authentic and meaningful friendships with sinners (their word, not mine). A few have openly scolded other Christians for not having and pursuing more intimate friendships with non-Christians. Every article I’ve read on the subject holds Jesus up as the example we ought to follow when it comes to pursuing friendships with “sinners”.

For the record, I believe with all my heart Christians ought to pursue friendships with non-Christian people (more on that later). However, I am convinced this teaching trend has become dangerously unbalanced because it presumes without offering cautions.

 I will begin with the presumptions.

 The most common presumption is that Jesus spent most or all of His time just chilling with sinners. To hear many pastors and teachers tell it, Jesus spent every moment of His life on earth at the local bars, crack houses and brothels hugging and high-fiving the local riff-raff.  

 He didn’t.

 A careful reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus did indeed attend events and parties where “sinners” were present (a very big deal in His world). We also know that Jesus was kind and welcoming to everyone (including sinners) and He definitely wasn’t shy about interacting with sinners or building meaningful relationships with very messed-up people (Luke 19:1-9, John 4). However, that was one part of His over-all ministry. Jesus spent most of His time with the twelve disciples and others (Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:1) who were interested in following Jesus and learning to live a holy life.

 The second assumption many make is that the culture Jesus ministered in was exactly like the culture we live in.

Its’ simply not true.

Jesus lived in and ministered to a predominately Jewish culture where even the most messed-up “sinners” understood exactly what the Bible had to say about sin (John 4, Luke 9:1-9). This meant that the pre-evangelistic work of helping folks recognize the reality that they are sinners in need of redemption was done long before they came into contact with Jesus. We live in a post-Christian/atheistic culture where few people know or care about what the Bible has to say about much of anything. Even fewer feel guilt or remorse over their behavior. This difference is subtle and may seem trivial. However, it’s a difference that dramatically affects the dynamics of interacting with non-Christians. At the very least it makes spiritually productive conversations more difficult, and relationships trickier to navigate.

 And finally:

Some are assuming we are all a heck of lot more like Jesus than we actually are. Jesus was the perfect, sinless Son of God on a mission to save the world from the bondage and consequences of sin.

We are not Jesus.

 Even in our redeemed state we are still people who possess a sin nature (1st John 1:8). We are people who have been saved by the kindness and mercy of  a seriously benevolent God and nothing else (Ephesians 2:9). We are also people who have been commanded by a holy God to live a life of purity, holiness and righteousness (1st Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 5:3, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, 1st Peter 1:14-16, Hebrews 12:14). Our calling to holiness is sometimes made more difficult by our choice of friendships (Proverbs 13:20, Psalm 1, 1st Corinthians 15:33).

 All that being said, I still really believe Christians ought to be intentional about seeking out friendships with non-Christian people. People have to be led to Jesus and the only way that will happen in this culture will be through cultivating relationships. However, we need to initiate relationships with non-Christian people wisely and prayerfully, keeping two truths firmly in mind.

 First, the Bible warns us repeatedly concerning the dangers of spending an inappropriate amount of time around those who may tempt us to sin (Jude 22, 2nd Corinthians 6:14-15, 1st John 2:15-16). Secondly, we need to remember that we will NEVER lead anyone to Jesus if we make a habit out of sinning with them.