Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Rays Celebration of Redemption

Last night I witnessed perhaps the most improbable comeback in baseball history (well, if I'm recording it). The Tampa Bay Rays, down 7-0 in the bottom of the 8th inning, came back with 6 runs, then a 1 run homer in the 9th with two outs and two strikes to a hitter only batting .120. Dan Johnson had one homer in April, then stunk so bad they sent him down to the minors. Then, after a shaky 12th inning, where the Rays allowed runners to reach 1st and 3rd with no outs, the Yankees followed with three consecutive outs. Finally, Tampa Bay slugger Evan Longoria closed out the game with one of the shortest home runs Tropicana Field has ever seen. Sportswriters sum up the game here and you can watch highlights if my vivid writing falls flat to you. A home run that was only a home run because they shortened the height of the wall a few years ago.

To top that all off, only 3 minutes earlier, the Red Sox had blown a 3-2 lead with 2 outs and 2 strikes on the batter. Crazy. The script could not have been written any better. What I thought was so fascinating is that the Rays won in such a way as they could celebrate freely, yet humbly. They were remarkably humble, but that only added to the celebration. Here's why.

1.) They played like garbage against a rookie pitcher making his first start and continued to play like garbage for 7 straight innings. They couldn't boast in their play.

2.) While Longoria did come through with some clutch homers, it would have all been for naught if Dan Johnson, the unlikely hero-who had no plans of even getting into the game-didn't hit his home run in the bottom of the ninth. With 2 outs and 2 strikes. Their star pitcher David Price gave up a grand slam. In the end, it took an unlikely hero. For the most part, the stars could not boast.

3.) The Yankees, either sensing that the Rays couldn't come back from 7-0, or that they just didn't care, didn't use their stars. They couldn't simply boast that they beat the best team in baseball. They beat the bench of the best team in baseball.

4.) It took several more innings, and a rookie base running mistake by the Yankees, for the Rays to finally capitalize. They couldn't boast in someone else's mistakes.

Now none of these things took anything away from the celebration. In fact, I happen to think they added to it. The celebration comprised a bunch of unlikely victors who depended upon a ton of factors which were out of their control. They were 9 games out of first place when September started. Even if they played well, the Red Sox had to play poorly. Impecuniously-if I may say-poorly. And they had to lose that night as well.

So in the end, it wasn't simply a celebration of how good they were, but a celebration of a number of fortunate events like guys who aren't very good making great plays, and timely decisions/guesses. That kind of celebration is much more special than simply winning the division because of your skill, then and resting players. I think that celebration would probably have been less special because it was a celebration of self achievement.

I don't know how Yankee fan felt after they clinched the division. But I doubt the celebration was as great. And I don't think its simply b/c they just want to win it all. Celebration in your own goodness pales in comparison to the celebration that comes with needing someone else to be good for you.

In God's story of Redemption, he uses the Dan Johnson's, the dependence upon factors we can't control, and the goodness of the Redeemer. We can't boast in anything except in Him. And as a result, the rejoicing in heaven is that much greater. And it should be just as crazy down here on Earth. Don't ever forget to pop open a bottle of the bubbly when you think of the gospel. The celebration starts now, but remember this is just the beginning.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A rare helpful Barna article

It's not really any "news" that many younger folks leave the church during college years, but eventually come back when they have kids. Of course some don't. Probably many, but I don't know percentages. I could make one up that might be just as accurate if pressed.... 

Here's a new article by the Barna Group. Normally those words make me cringe. Barna's ecclesiology leaves something to be desired. Very desired. I heard an interview with him once where he said "I don't go to church." Not only that but the Barna Group's research methods have been at times deemed questionable at best, according to some.  Nevertheless, I actually liked this article because it didn't provide alarmist statistics to cause panic. 

Instead of yelling "fire," this article discusses 6 reasons why young adults leave the church, and even includes some possible solutions to the problems. So even though percentages are thrown your way, they seem to take more of a back seat.

Again, you can read the article here. If you've gotten this far into this post, I don't doubt that at all. So I'll just comment on two of the reasons. And apologize for the weird formatting that follows-I tried 3-4 times to "pretty" it up. No luck. 


One of the reasons include the exclusivity of the gospel message amidst a pluralistic culture. You can't do a whole about that "problem." Now you can not be arrogant and not demonize those who don't love Jesus. That's called loving your neighbor or your enemy. But you can't include them as part of God's family when John 1:12 tells us that those who believe in Jesus have been given the right to become children of God. Jesus gives that right. No one else does.

Unfriendly to Doubters 

Perhaps the reason that gave me most "hope" to work with was number 6.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).

Is the church really unfriendly to those who doubt? Well that depends upon the church. Certainly many are, and certainly many have ignored Jude's warning (although most people probably ignore that book altogether) "have mercy upon those who doubt (vs 22)." 

Sometimes the problem lies with a perception of unfriendliness. It's not that those who doubt (and we all do in some way) can't ask the questions to those in the church. It's often that those who have such questions, want to answer them isolation of the church. That way they can be objective with their struggles. But to go in isolation, and listen to voices outside the church (which are far from objective), or to try to discern what the bible "really says"by yourself outside the church, only increases your subjectivity. That's a problem I see in young folk today. 

But on the other hand, do we offer times or promote a culture where kids in the church can really ask questions? Questions that we can affirm as legitimate questions? We've tried to do that with our youth here at Redeemer. In Sunday School, the Sr High are going through The Reason For God video series. In it, hard questions have been raised. I reminded the teacher to welcome such questions, and feel free to say, "I don't know," instead of cringing, freaking out, or being flustered at such (not that she was-she's a great teacher). The youth are asking them to the church, in front of their friends in the church. Hopefully when they have faith crises in college, they'll know the church can be a safe place to doubt.

We've also tried to make the church a safe place to doubt by doing a whole Jr High semester series on THEIR questions during our youth group time. I solicited the questions from THEM. Hopefully Redeemer, and whatever church they go to when they leave this place, will be safe. But just as importantly, I hope that they don't ASSUME their next church isn't. 

Finally, in the home, we can avoid such hard questions (and assume we know how our kids would answer), or we can welcome such questions. Or even raise ones we know are out there. But this is obviously hard, and it scares me to think about. I don't want Connar to say, "Dad, I don't think I believe in the bible." But if he doesn't have the freedom to express this doubt now, he will eventually live out those doubts like many (you don't need a study to tell you that) who leave for college.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The God who grieves

This is my final thought, for now, on God's Sovereignty over all things, even our suffering. To say that God is Sovereign and plans all things to happen does not mean that he doesn't also grieve for things He has ordained. Take Jesus, for instance. He doesn't cry at his own death, but he cries over the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11). Now typically we use this verse to show the human nature of Jesus. But if we also get our Christology from Colossians (1:15-17), we understand that Jesus was involved in creating and is involved in sustaining the world. So the same person who created the world also cried at the experience of losing a loved one. The God who ordains all that comes to pass also grieved at what he ordained with Lazarus.

I was reading Psalm 116 today and heard the "voice of Jesus" in verse 15, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." He cares when people die even though He numbers their days (Psalm 139:16). He also doesn't delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11). He cares. Even in martyrdom, we can't say that God isn't grieved. He hates sin and hates the affects of sin. That's why He came to redeem not only people, but all things (Col 1). One day there will be no tears. And in that day, God will rejoice with us, just as in some way, he mourns with us even now.

If you want another example of how God can ordain something and yet grieve over that something, check out the cross. I know God ordained that cosmic display of justice, wrath, and infinite love; and I'm pretty sure God the Father was saddened by forsaking God the Son. 

The Christian can boast of a God who both ordains and grieves. I'm thankful for both.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Let Go, Let Man" isn't good either

The downside of truly believing that God is Sovereign over everything, as the Psalmist purports in Psalm 135:6: "Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps," is that you can become quite angry with God. I get that. That's why most folks don't want God to ever have ordained anything we would deem bad. And I do understand that. I really do. I just don't get a vote.

The upside of believing that God isn't in control of all things and does not ordain anything-or at least most things-is that you will, or should not, ever become angry with Him. For instance, when calamity strikes, it is merely the result of God letting people have their free wills. Since he doesn't "step on any toes" in regard to free will, you as a result, don't ever become angry at Him.

Now at first glance, that sounds pretty darn practical, doesn't it? Rabbi Kushner reflecting on the death of his son When Bad Things Happen to Good People, concluded God is ultimately powerless to stop the evil. God had no part to play, so we can't get mad at him. And I can see how that is comforting when confronted with a crisis such as that. For a time....Here are some thoughts on trading God's Sovereignty for "Let Go, Let Man" viewpoint.

1.) Most of the Psalms involve a Psalmist crying out to God to do something. Do something in him. Do something in or with His situation and enemies. While Psalmists struggle with anger, doubts, and questions, they bring the aforementioned to God. He seems to be pretty cool with that kind of thing, you know? You take away the belief God is in control, you take away a pretty large book of the bible.

2.) The Psalms aren't simply existential meanderings recorded to help us cope with tragedy. They point us to Christ and how to respond and pray for God to actually DO something (and trust Him b/c He has already DONE something in Jesus). A Sovereign God DOES. We need him to DO away with the presence of sin.

3.) If you trade Sovereignty for a "Let Go, Let Man," attitude you really limit the scope of prayers. For instance, if you believe in complete autonomous free will, you really can't pray for protection when you drive your car. There are millions of little decisions, distractions, that happen on the road, from singing to texting to the internal struggles of "I hate my boss" on the way to work or school. God can't protect, because He's got His hands tied with that whole, "I can't interfere with their decisions" stuff. If someone is coming to hurt me, I want (or rather need) a God who can override their decisions. I need a God who can step on toes and shut their mouths, change their minds, etc...Don't you?

Yet when people pray, they pray for judge's decisions, for the salvation of their neighbor, for their kids to listen and be nice to their friends in school. I don't know how prayers can truly be effectual without God's ability to override individual autonomy. I really don't.

While trading God's Sovereignty over disasters may be comforting on the short end when tragedy strikes, there are practical long term issues that will keep you from finding comfort in the greatest good God our Father could give us: His Son Jesus.

None of this is intended to be counsel for those currently suffering. It's only designed to build the framework and lay the foundation for responding to regular trials of which we shouldn't be surprised (I Peter 4:12).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A God in Hurricane season

A few weeks ago, this article on the CNN belief blog came out, claiming that even "religious" people don't necessarily look to God to explain why such storms happen. The conclusion was that for the most part, people understand such storms happen because of a variety of atmospheric conditions, and happen NOT as a result of the hand of God. Here's a snippet:

Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of American Christians—believe that when God has something to say He speaks in less dramatic ways, including the still small voices in our hearts and the slightly louder voices of the preachers in our pulpits. When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, however, our authorities are geologists and meteorologists. Most of us interpret these events not through the rumblings of the biblical prophet Jeremiah or the poetry of the Book of Revelation but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates. As a result of this sort of secularization, we are much better at predicting the course of hurricanes...... 
So we are better prepared, thank science. Our stories are far less dramatic, however. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. But their God no longer acts out his fury as in Bible days.  Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has.

When we believe in some sort of "clockmaker" Enlightenment-esque type God, who winds the world up, and then lets it go, we will obviously interpret things differently through this lens. Here are some thoughts.

1.) People don't regularly blame God for Hurricanes. Hurricanes aren't de facto judgments (not saying that they can't be-we just don't have access to that info and shouldn't ASSUME) on sinful cities. That is positive I guess. Because we obviously don't need "prophets" telling us this storm was for that reason because they don't know. Instead we react to disasters like Jesus told us: not with judgment on others but as opportunities to repent ourselves (Luke 13:5).

2.) But if Hurricanes and Tornadoes have only a natural origin and God plays no part in it, then that's obviously not only unbiblical (Gen 50:20), but it makes God irrelevant to any level of suffering. A God that plans and ordains all things is the God who can do something with the mess of the storms and with the mess of our lives. We need a God who doesn't have to say, "Oh crud, now what can I do to help these people out, now that this has happened?" I write this now as theological truth, not as counsel to someone in the wake of tornadic activities.

I had to think a bit after reading this article. Does a secular world-view really help prepare us for hurricanes whereas a biblical worldview hinders? What part does God really play in storms? Should our science and knowledge of how storms arise and go forward really put God into a different part of our world in a sort of Descartesian duelism (science in physical realm; God fits into the personal/moral realm)?

A skeptic could say (and I have skepticism within me-I think most of us do at some level), the reason that storms are ascribed to God by the ancients is because they had no other explanation. So now we can observe wind patterns, sea currents, barometric pressure and such; we're beyond that biblical point of view.

But the cool thing is that the bible doesn't only ascribe to God unexplainable phenomenon (at the time), but also very the very observable. For instance, even morally evil things like vicious unjust wars.

The Babylonians were an instrument of judgment upon Judah, just as the Assyrians were instruments of judgment upon Israel. Both empires were quite evil and both chose to attack, and go "too far" in their wartime atrocities. Yet God declares that he raised up the Babylonians to come and open up a can of, well, judgment, upon His people (Habakkuk 1).

Why did these people come and invade Jerusalem? On one level, they wanted to do so because they liked killing and conquering (secondary cause). But on another level, God ordained them to do it (primary cause) as part of His plan. The same thing goes with tornadic (probably not a word, but I like it) activity and hurricanes. The weather systems, barometric pressures, ocean temperatures and currents, all have a part to play. But these mere observations don't tell the whole story, just as observing war time atrocities in 586 BC didn't tell the whole story. There is still a primary cause: God.  

God still speaks through His Word today. He still speaks through His creation and our consciences as they are consistent with His Word. We don't need him to speak clearly (as specific judgments we can understand) through Hurricanes, I'll grant this lad that. Scripture is sufficient. But we cannot afford to assume that He has nothing to do with Him. We will miss the redemption and restoration which come from both figurative and literal storms in our lives if we ignore the one who is Lord even over storms (Mark 4:41).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Calvinist "Likes-to-fight" guy

I find myself persuaded most by people who are gracious, gentle, and loving. I want to like what I would become if I believed more like them. I think most people are probably like that. When folks are angry because they feel they are divinely defending the truth (and sometimes a situation calls for righteous anger-I just think probably less than we think, though I can't prove that) like a Martin Luther had to do, many either tune them out or choose the opposite side. The anger of the messenger stalls the propagation of the message. Now of course some folks like that angry-get-in-your-face-guy and they follow him. Then they become him. They become Calvinist "likes to fight guy." Not good.

Unfortunately there are many "Calvinistic" folks who are just flat out angry at others. They defend their positions with as much vociferation and defiance as say a Martin Luther did, while claiming the same amount of scriptural clarity to the issue. While I'll always hold to the "doctrines of grace" (part of Calvinistic understanding of salvation) because I believe it makes most scriptural sense to me and gives God the most glory (I think scriptures put that higher on God's priority list than our autonomous choice), I never want to be an angry Calvinist drawing a sword to pridefully attack other legitimate branches of Christianity. 

There are too many such folks out there. Many are Presbyterians. But that's why my seminary, R.T.S. coined the phrase "Winsomely Reformed."It's a nice way of saying, "There are too many jerks out there calling themselves Calvinists; the doctrines of grace should make people like you more, not less!" 

Here's an interview exchange with Baptist church planting guru and Lifeway researcher Ed Stetzer (I don't think he's Calvinistic but does run in such "circles") and Joe Horn on the problem of Angry "fake" Calvinists. Pretty cool.

You wonder if God would ever say, "You know more people would have believed the doctrines of grace if you weren't such a jerk." Now for a Calvinist this is clearly a hypothetical scenario only. Nevertheless, its probably a good exercise to think through while on Earth.

If you've run into angry Calvinists, and are turned off by them, then please realize that there are many not like that. If that term is something vilely offensive to you, then it might be worth re-examining some of the scriptures with a winsome Calvinist. Because people have the power to turn me off, even to things that I already like or promote, it's very clear that the messenger of God's grace has to be shaped by God's grace before many will believe in such "doctrines of grace." 

And if you find that it is scripture itself, and not just some angry Calvinists who are very hard to love, (nor YOUR notions of what God should be like), which prevents your from landing in this "camp," then God bless you, and keep on keeping on. And reading on I hope! I'm glad and proud to call you brother or sister or father or mother in the faith. Hope the reverse is also true.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"What's love got to do with it?"-by Pat Robertson

You may have heard of Pat Robertson's outlandish and ridiculously un-biblical comments stating that it was OK to divorce a spouse dying of Alzheimer's Disease. If you haven't, you can see them here.

I don't think it takes a whole lot of biblical knowledge to know that this is not what God really says on the matter. Outside of sexual infidelity or abuse (some folks file this under "abandonment"), God just does not give us the green light (Matt 19; I Cor 7). 

Instead of refuting a ludicrous claim, I'll just let this lad speak for me. Never heard of him, but he does a great job of graciously refuting Robertson's claim and couches the "until death due us part" in the context of sacrificial covenantal love. 

But I do have one take on a question raised in this interview: whether or not "until death due us part" is actually in the bible. That specific wording is not, but that is irrelevant given the nature of covenantal love and vows.
We're not to make ridiculous vows such as Judge Jepthah's whopper, "The next thing who walks out of the house to greet me when I return from battle I will sacrifice (Judges 11)." Bad idea jeans. We're also told it is better not to make a vow then to make a vow and not fulfill it (Eccl 5:5).
But when you do vow, and it's not bad to vow-it can be part of your worship to God-you should take it seriously. God does.

Regardless whether or not some verbiage is in the bible, like "until death due us part" (it is nevertheless assumed in context of covenant and Ephesians 5), it is still a vow that needs to be honored.

I know most people don't take their vows all that seriously, sometimes we see this in vows of church membership. But regardless, if you vow something before God, then you are accountable to that vow, regardless of whether you can find it in the bible. For instance, if I vowed, which I did, to make known any major changes in my theological convictions to the presbytery, then I'm responsible to do that. There is no verse needed to support that. I vowed it.

This is only really part of the issue, but I found it worth thinking about. The main part is the nature of covenantal love. What's love got to do with it? Everything.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We're not the same but we can be friends

This is probably my final 9/11 thought for a while. Most likely.

Last week I came across this article on the CNN belief blog titled "How 9-11 eroded our shared faith and American identity."

The writer laments how the attacks of 9-11 distanced the Christian-Muslim-Jewish communities from each other. And obviously he is right. Folks are probably more wary of Islam than when I was in college in 1999. They may see more of a distinction with this religion. If branches of Islam lead people to fly planes into buildings and also kill other branches of Islam, then obviously that doesn't seem like the same faith. 

And the truth of the matter is that he does have a point. Not all branches of Islam, particularly in America advocate violence. Nevertheless some do, and go on killing rampages like the disaster at Ft. Hood. And of course, "Christians" in the name of "Christianity" kill people in Jesus' name.

Upon first glance, you could argue Christianity and a western form of Islam have some commonalities in regards to ethical claims like loving others and taking care of the poor. The writer goes beyond ethical claims to point out that the two faiths are essentially the same. Writing about his interfaith family:

Our mini "melting pot" succeeded because we focused on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, the most obvious being that we worship the same God. How could we not? After all, we share almost identical prophets such as Moses, Abraham and Jesus.

If the bible depicted Jesus solely as a prophet, it would be a little harder to disagree with him. But we studied Colossians 1:15-18 in our CD (community/discipleship) group last week:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

If I'm praying to Jesus, who is more than a prophet, but the 2nd person of the Trinity, then its pretty hard to argue that someone who says, "Nope, Jesus was just a prophet, and a heck of a nice lad," is praying to the same God. If Jesus called Jews who didn't believe in Him "children of the devil" (John 8:44) and that our shared history of Moses and Abraham did not mean Jews and Christians were "on the same page"-Abraham rejoiced at seeing Jesus (John 8:56) then I don't think it would be a great leap to think Jesus would have said the same things about a future religion which shared common roots but minimized or disbelieved in His deity.

We can just agree to disagree and still be friends, and extended family members with cordial relations, can't we? Do we have to agree in order to be friends? While that's a present American fallacy, I'm pretty sure that it wasn't this way when we started. Regardless, Jesus prayed for those who ignorantly disbelieved in Him, and so can we (Luke 23:24). 

The problem is that there is no American paradigm for disagreeing with someone's religion or sexual preference but at the same time still befriending and getting to know them. What that means is that Christians have an opportunity to prayerfully, lovingly, and patiently introduce and demonstrate that to our culture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why it matters whose "work" it is

Philippians 2:12-13 is a solid passage. I hesitate to say, "favorite verse" or "favorite passage" anymore because that tends to not mean anything when so many verses are your "favorites" (not that YOU can't say that!)

But I do like it. I like it a lot. I like it because it expresses the great Reformed truth of God's Sovereignty alongside Human Responsibility. But I'm not the angry Reformed guy trying to convince everyone I come across of TULIP.

However, such great Reformed truths like this do have an affect. What you believe DOES affect how you live. That's what I want to focus on this great truth now. Here's the verse:

12"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

Ultimately God calls us to follow Him, but you need to realize that He alone enables and empowers you to follow Him.

That sounds good, and it should sound good. After all, that is great news. I need to put myself in places/times where I can hear and reflect upon the gospel, but I can also relax and trust the changing part to God's Spirit within me. 

Well how do you know that you actually believe that? I'm not saying how do you know if you're a Christian, but how much do you actually believe that the work in you (even the desire to put yourself in places where you grow) actually belongs to the Spirit?

Here's a good test: Look at how angry you get when others aren't "working" like you are. For instance, the other day an older gentlemen told me how he had served his wife through a debilitating illness. And I saw it. Others did too. He loved her well, and modeled Christ's love for her. But then he became angry and judgmental toward all others who did not love their wives as well as he did.
If your following Jesus is truly Jesus' working in you, then you can't be arrogant or angry at others lack of "work." It makes no sense. In fact what it means is that we often believe the first part of the verse "work out your salvation" but not the latter. And the latter is really the gas which moves car, "for it is God who works in you to will and work according to His good pleasure."

I could have used an example from my own life. But I used this example from another lad because the contrast was so strong. He loved his wife in a way that would put most husbands to shame, me included. But in his heart, he demonstrated that he believed it was "his work" instead of "His work."

When you find yourself becoming angry or impatient at those Christians who just don't seem to get it, who aren't actively "working" and following Jesus in the way He's called them, remember the latter part of this passage. You're not believing that it is really His work. At least not that much. His work in us is as evident as it is humbling. The more we believe it is His work, the more patient and less angry we'll be with others. 

Ouch, two things I really need to "work on." Or rather have Him "work in." I often don't believe this truth like I purport to believe it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Only YOU: Lesson from 9/11 Part II

This is the 2nd of my 9/11 related thoughts, centered around the interview with the fireman pictured on the right, who survived the terrorist attack. The fireman resisted the question of, "Were you saved for something special," and instead retorted, "Don't put that pressure on me. I get up and do my job each day the best I can...." You can read my take on that here.

But does the question of being spared for something play any part in the Christian psyche? We need not elevate, center, dwell upon, demand, or expect the sensational out of ourselves or our children's salvation. However, because as Christians we have been delivered, the concept of "being saved for something" should shape our thinking. 

After all, Paul instructs the Ephesians in chapter 2 that they have been saved. They were "children of wrath," but have now been "seated in the heavenly places." They have been saved for something. There is a reason why God saved them. 

Ephesians 2:10 "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
God does have something special enough for everyone: good works. Good works that can only be done by you. Think about that. Only you can honor Jesus by serving at YOUR family with YOUR kids in YOUR neighborhood and/or at YOUR workplace in YOUR city in YOUR lifetime with YOUR personality. That is pretty special if you think about it. Only you can do it. You were saved so that YOU could honor Jesus by following Him. Not the only reason, but certainly a reason.
And when you fail at following Him you only have to go back two verses, "by grace you were saved through faith." It's OK, your works never saved you in the first place and they won't help you in the last place.

Instead of survivor's guilt we should all have a great sense of "survivor's grace." We do have something special in store for us. We should feel like there is a reason we were spared. Whether or not it's something sensational that brings us celebrity, fame, readership, accolades, or puts us in history books is ultimately none of our business.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Don't put that pressure on me: A lesson from 9/11

Yesterday was 9/11 and is probably the next closest thing to Pearl Harbor. Ten years afterwards, and it still remains fresh in our minds and hearts. I imagine my kids will eventually understand 9/11 and perhaps even pass it on to their kids. I can't see our country forgetting that event for a while. 

In light of this I saw a fascinating, though very brief interview with two 9/11 survivors still carrying with them the scars of their experience: one working in the towers and the other a fireman, if I remember correctly. The interviewer asked the fireman this seemingly appropriate question: "How do you live life differently because you were saved and others were not?"

His answer kind of astounded me in both its brutal honesty as well as its depth: "No, don't put that kind pressure on me. I can't deal with that. I just do my job the best I can each day."

I don't know if this man experienced "survivor's guilt," where one wonders, "Why wasn't it me that was taken?" But clearly, he felt some pressure to "do something great" by this reporter. This is often the question we raise when someone is saved from calamity and the person siting next to them isn't. Why did God save you and not them? He must have something pretty amazing for you to do? I guess I never thought about that kind of pressure before? That really puts pressure on folks to first of all, find that "mysterious" plan of God, and then the pressure to accomplish it.

Now perhaps God does have something "special" and extraordinary for such a person like curing cancer or something crazy like that. But to assume that is nonsense, because we have no idea why God allows one person to live and the other to die. I like this lad's response, "Don't put that pressure on me."

But I also like the 2nd part of his response: "I just try to do my job the best I can each day." Nothing sensational. Just trying to be a good husband, good worker, etc....We know God's plan for us, and much of it isn't sensational. When we're told to find "the will of God" it is primarily in terms of our walking with Jesus and growing in Him (Eph 5:17, Col 1:9, I Thess 4:3). It is about sanctification, not our professional calling. Kevin DeYoung's book Just Do Something really fleshes this out a bit more and better than I could if I had more space. You can download it for free here

Instead of thinking sensationally like there is something crazy out there, or something so specific that we have the burden of trying to figure it out, why not think more simply like this lad? Be a good husband, good parent, good Dad, love Jesus, follow Jesus daily, serve the church with your gifts. That seems a lot more biblical than the pressure of trying to figure out why you were delivered and the other bloke wasn't.

God has made known to Christians the "mystery" of His will in Christ (Eph 1:9), so no other mystery should cause us to lose much sleep or put pressure on us.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Petyon Manning Syndrome

For the first time in the Colts last 227 games (you do the math-seriously, I"m not going to), Peyton Manning will not be playing the quarterback position. Perhaps even more amazing is Buccaneer defensive back Ronde Barber's streak now takes center stage. Seeing as Ronde is actually in there tackling people while Peyton rarely gets touched, I'm more impressed with the former. He just happens to be a Buccaneer....

Peyton's streak has been a blessing. But one would wonder if at some points it has also been a curse? Some wonder if this could spell the end of this Roman Empire-esque run for the Colts. But in this case, the problem is not Goths, immorality, infrastructure, or anything like that. It appears that if there is a collapse-and this is only a possibility-that one failure will stand out above the rest: failure to groom a successor for Manning.

In the article I linked to above, one aspect of a good employee/teammate is:
  ....a man's true value to his employer is revealed by what's accomplished when he's not around. Well folks, it's time to finally put that premise to the test.

On Sunday, we'll finally see what happens when Peyton Manning doesn't step onto the field. We'll see what happens when a team only keeps 2 quarterbacks on the roster for years and doesn't develop any new talent. But not all teams with Iron Man quarterbacks have fallen prey to the failure to address the need for new leadership. Green Bay drafted a quarterback you may have heard of named Aaron Rogers (fresh off a Super Bowl win-even though the Pack had the same record as the Bucs last year) and gave him time to develop before Brett Favre "diva-ed" his way out of there.

Peyton Manning Syndrome happens in churches all the time. Someone is talented at preaching, teaching, leading a small group bible study, playing music, evangelizing, etc....For years that person just does what he/she does best. But eventually that person will die, go to college, move away, or change churches. 

As pastors and church members, I think we always need to think a few years out. Who can I train to do what I do so that we'll presently be multiplying ministry (as opposed to simply maintaining) as well as protecting ourselves for unseen transitions? Now I'm not referring to programs. Some programs need to die. I'm talking about people ministering the gospel to each other in in its various forms.

1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies- in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Who else has gifts similar to yours? Can be they be trained to assist or eventually replace you to pursue more personal ministry?

A pastor and member's true "worth" (I'm not arguing some folks are essentially more important) to the church is probably seen more in their temporary absence (as they step aside and share leadership) than in their conspicuous presence. The church needs the gifts of its members. But in some way, the less dependent a church is on ONE person here and there-unless that person is the God/Man Jesus-the healthier and prosperous that church is and will be. 

Now most of this falls on the church leadership to think more like the Green Bay Packers than the Indianapolis Colts: to always be thinking 2-3 years down the road. Nevertheless, members can serve in the same way by trying to raise up replacements or assistants which will then open up new opportunities for them or for new-comers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Room at the table for differing conversions

I heard a challenging sermon called "Paul's Life and Ours" last week on a very familiar passage. In Galatians chapter 1, Paul defends his gospel as coming from Jesus himself.

"15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days."

Martin Ban from Christ Church Santa Fe called attention to the fact that there was a difference in the way some of the Galatians received the gospel (Jesus via preached word we assume) and the way Paul received the gospel (via personal encounter with Jesus). Part of their unwillingness to listen to Paul, perhaps came from this difference. Paul was a suspect since he didn't receive the gospel the way they had (obviously some of them probably hadn't at all). 

The Galatians needed to feel concern with the content of the gospel way before they needed to be concerned and question Paul's experience. His application was that we need to be more tolerant in the experiential component or "the where," (the "where" also includes the historical gospel story) when the content of the gospel is believed. 

Citing examples of Anne Lamott and his own experience of being a Christian while growing up Catholic, he challenged his congregation to not greet everyone who came to faith in a different way with a hermeneutic of suspicion. In other words, just because someone's faith journey looks different than yours, that does not make it illegitimate. And you shouldn't assume it is.

I came out of college ministry that tended to question the legitimacy of one's salvation if he or she couldn't produce an adequate time, date, or experience of conversion. I still struggle with being suspicious over crazy faith journey's like the murderous "Son of Sam who has refused parole though I blame that on own tendency toward skepticism.

But the more I live, and the more I minister, the way Jesus "meets" people and brings them from death to life seems to be vary quite a bit. There is no cookie cutter experience.

Sometimes a person person might be involved in a bible study for a long period of time and eventually the light bulb clicks on and they "get the gospel." More and more people today find themselves converted to the church before they are truly converted to Christ. After they see Christ's community, and experience the gospel shared and lived out in community, they may embrace it without a conscious experience. This can happen in youth groups as well.

We pray that Connar never knows a time where he doesn't trust Jesus as His Lord and Savior. Of course he will need to profess faith one day and say, "Yep, this Jesus, I rest in Him alone." But I would be completely happy if he can't remember a time when he didn't know Jesus. He will have only Jesus to rest in, and not an experience.
And some kids do profess faith at a young age. I don't think we should immediately be skeptical and withhold Communion or Baptism (if they haven't received that sign) because we're suspect of their experience. Provided they can profess a child like faith to the elders, I'm not sure that we should require much past that.

And I also pray for those consciously running from Christ either because of their morality or immorality, that they will turn to Jesus, rest in Him, and experience and display their faith. Their story and experience will look quite different than mine. And there's plenty of room for all of us in the local church.

We should not expect the cookie cutter experience today because we don't see that in scripture. Timothy came to faith as the gospel was passed down through his family (II Tim 1). Jesus' disciples were just told to follow him and they did. Others came to faith by means of traveling Evangelists like Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:48), and some who never personally knew them (Colossians). The thief on the cross came to faith a bit of an unusual way (Luke 23:43) you could say.

The emphasis in scripture seems to be less on conversion experience, but instead on "knowing Christ," and demonstrating faith NOW as opposed to proving you had faith THEN. 

Anyhow, I felt convicted of my suspicions. Provided the content of the gospel is there, and the person is walking with Jesus, but of course struggling like the rest of us, make sure you leave room at the table of fellowship.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why we have kids sing

Few things are more entertaining than watching little one's play sports. But I enjoy few things more than seeing little one's sing about Jesus, particularly when it is my own little one we're talking about. Yet should we have kids up front to entertain the congregation because they are getting ready to hear a long sermon? Or could there be another reason for kids to be up front?

While a church service isn't intended to entertain folks (we'll miss Jesus, if we aim for entertainment), it nevertheless is still the highest joy that I and many other experience in the week. While its not entertainment, I'm often full of joy when I leave on Sundays. And on one particular Sunday when we had the benefit of being blessed by our children singing, I rode "cloud 9" the whole day.

Here are some reasons why I was so blessed and look forward to more of these opportunities in the future.

1.) Jesus said, "Let the children come to me (Matt 19:14)." You don't HAVE to have kids up front singing a song during the tithe, but it is a way for us to let them come to Him and lead us in worship. We are legitimating them as members of the covenant community.

2.) Little children possess a joy that adults sometimes lose because of the cares of this word. Is it naievete? I don't think so. As adults we are to be responsible, but we often times forget to relax and trust Jesus. Little kids remind us to do the latter, even if they are unaware of some of the responsibilities like working and paying bills. Seeing their joy can restore our joy.

3.) Next generation. You don't HAVE to have little kids up front singing, but having them reinforces that our God is a God to us and our children. He is faithful to us as we attempt to pass on the truth of the Lord to the next generation. Some of the kids up there do have personal faith and want to profess it. Others will probably some day soon profess faith. We see the faithfulness of God working and don't need to be afraid of this evil age, as though it somehow can snatch our children out of God's faithful hands.

4.) Is laughter part of worship? Well we can laugh in sermons, can't we? Laughing during confession of sins is obviously not apropos, but laughter has a place in redemptive history; it signifies that we are redeemed. So I think it is apropos during corporate worship, which aims retells the gospel story each week. The laughing folk are the redeemed folk.

Psalm 126:2-3 "Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them." 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy."

5.) It gives the children an opportunity to express that they love Jesus. Adults have opportunities obviously through joining the church and professing faith, or by leading or playing music, or by giving testimonies. But I think that we need to hear from kids more often.

6.) Some kids in this video do not like being center of attention. Obviously you can tell my son, in the middle, wearing red, has no problems. When he gets older, we'll explain to him not to try to draw attention to himself. Yet he was so excited to get up and sing about Jesus, that I didn't want to put any parameters other than "Don't fall off the stage!"

But for other children, it took real faith to get up there. Faith in the One whom they were singing about and to. That challenged and encouraged me.

7.) The simple message and joy of Jesus washing our sins away, and how it truly is a "Happy Day," can mean something more coming from a child than an adult or pastor. Sometimes we need reminders that we entered into a relationship with Jesus because of a child like faith and possessed a great joy because of it. Sometimes it takes children singing freely and unhindered, experiencing that joy while they are expressing it, to lead us back to the joy of God's salvation.

Luke 18:17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."

If you haven't seen the video of the kids singing, here it is.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A heart under the hoodie

One thing I don't do very well, but realize that I need to do well, is find positive things to say about those with whom you disagree. My least favorite coach in the NFL is Bill "Belicheat" Belichick. Not fan of that joker for a number of reasons.

However, I found out something about this lad which surprised me quite a bit: he seems to have legitimate feelings. He says in reference to the final cuts when teams have to go from 80 down to 53 players:

“It doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s something you have to deal with every year,” Belichick said. “It doesn’t really get any easier. It’s always a grouping of people and you’re affecting their lives and their families and their careers and trying to do what’s best for the team, but that still can be tough. It is tough.”

I have no personal interaction with Coach, so its not that tough to commend his concern for his players. There really is a heart under the "hoodie" (probably the least fashionable coach in the NLF, he simply wears a "hoodie" sweatshirt, and pants of course) as hard as it is to admit.

Yet it becomes much harder when dealing with folks with whom we have actual relationships. How much more with those we struggle fancying? Nevertheless, we will rarely ever be "heard" until we can also find and relay something positive to such folks. Very few people listen to those who can find NOTHING positive about them. I think this is why Republicans and Democrats rarely ever get anywhere with each other.

Since all of us truly are made in the image of God, we can find something positive to say about our enemies, critics, or those folks who we find harder to love than others. As much as I struggle to believe this, it still rings true.