As Long As The Gospel Goes Forth

Sometimes we need a ministry heart check. I know that several times through the years I’ve had to step back and reevaluate my attitudes, my perspectives and my motives.

When I first started working in church ministry as a wet-behind-the-ears youth pastor, I quickly found myself challenged. My struggle? I tried to figure out how to approach my relationship and involvement with some of the youth para-church organizations in our area.

(For those desiring a definition, a para-church organization is described as a ministry that comes alongside the church to offer assistance. By definition and design, para-church groups ought to come alongside churches to provide ministries those churches cannot fulfill alone. Such groups are meant to assist, not replace the work of the church.)

Here’s what caused me to feel rubbed the wrong way (both mentally and emotionally): As I heard it directly from the mouths of some of our local para-church leaders, their job was to reach kids for Jesus and seek to get them involved in local churches. From there, the local churches would support, disciple and equip these freshly regenerated students.

Sounded like a great plan to me!

But after some time I noticed that one or two of the para-church groups seemed to make no effort to guide kids toward a church body. To borrow an expression from the world of fishing, they did the catching, but they also got to business of cleaning. These actions made me feel like my toes were getting stepped on.

What made matters more challenging for me was this: some kids from our church sometimes went to the activities and events these para-church groups held to raise up these young believers. So, in my estimation, not only were these para-church groups not allowing kids to get to the churches, they were also willing to let kids from churches get involved in their discipling programs.

I had a hard time reconciling the fact that these para-church groups weren’t doing what they said they would do. Their actions made me feel both vulnerable and competitive at the same time. I wanted to love the leaders of these para-church groups, but I felt some frustration that, in my mind, they weren’t keeping their end of the bargain. I wondered: are we co-laborers or competitors?

What was I to do?

Rather than act rashly, I decided to run my predicament by a youth ministry expert.

I got on the phone and called Dewey Bertolini, who at the time ran the youth ministry program at the Master’s College in Southern California. I’d read Dewey’s books on youth ministry and figured he might be able to help me navigate what I viewed as perplexing, treacherous waters.

Thankfully, Dewey took my call and graciously listened as I described my plight. He acknowledged my frustration and affirmed the reality of the ministry disconnect I was experiencing.

He also made sure I knew that if I planned to stay in ministry for a long time, I had better get used to ministry relationships that didn’t always line up nice and neat.

And then Dewey asked me to take my Bible and look at Philippians 1:15-18.

The context of the passage had Paul sitting in prison, bound in chains. While Paul sat behind prison walls, some visitors gave Paul updates on how the Gospel was advancing.

They also added this tidbit of information: there were a few people faithfully spreading the Gospel, but at the vert same time they were bashing Paul. It seemed that a spirit of competition and exploitation had taken hold of these evangelists.

Imagine how such a dissonant report made Paul feel. They spoke well of Jesus, but of the world’s greatest missionary, they spoke dismissive words of jealousy and opposition.

Warren Wiersbe offered this insight into what was going on with those who were more than willing to speak badly of Paul:

In describing where Paul’s rivals were coming from, he likened it to “selfish ambition.” The word used in Philippians 1:16 carries the idea of “contentiousness.” It means to “canvas for office; to get people to support you.” Paul’s aim was to glorify Christ and get people to follow Him; his critic’s aim was to promote themselves and get a following of their own. Instead of asking, “Have you trusted Christ?” they asked, “Whose side are you on – ours or Paul’s?”

Who could blame for feeling a bit stung by such a dissonant report? It would seem that Paul would have every right to feel frustrated and angry with those who were willing to exalt Jesus, yet at the same time give Paul a black eye.

But look at what Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians:

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18 NIV)

At the end of the day, Christ being preached mattered more than Paul’s influence and reputation.

Talk about taking the high road! What a radical way of thinking.

It’s easy to get petty. It’s easy to get political. It’s hard to take the perspective of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

As for me, I could have continued on with frustration toward my para-church brethren.

Instead, by way of a wise youth ministry expert, I was pointed to God’s Word, which in turn challenged me to cheer on these co-laborers because kids were hearing about Jesus.

Ultimately, our job is to see that God is magnified.

Even in less that perfect circumstances, we can rejoice when God get’s the glory due His name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Intended Impact of Christianity

Within each of us exists the image of God, however disfigured and corrupted by sin it may presently be. God is able to recover this image through grace as we are conformed to Christ. – Alister McGrath

A lot of people declare they don’t like change.

For some, to mix up a routine, rearrange a sock drawer or move some furniture around can bring about feelings of frustration…maybe even anger.

The challenge of change is so real that one person wrote a book about it called Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.  How popular was this book? Who Moved My Cheese? remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for almost five years and spent over 200 weeks on Publishers Weekly’s hardcover nonfiction list. It sold more than 26 million copies worldwide in 37 languages.

So here’s the deal: Trying to live the Christian life and avoid change is an exercise in futility. Why? Because Christianity is all about change!

Perhaps the best know verse regarding change is Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)

As we purposefully engage the Word and our moved by the Spirit, the growing Christian embraces change in the areas of beliefs, thought, attitudes and actions.

As we step into a relationship with God through Jesus, God has three main areas of change he wants us to experience:

A relationship with Jesus is meant to change our perspectives

To know God and follow Jesus means our worldview will change. We will, hopefully, see things from a much more biblical perspective.

For example, the pursuit of power, control and influence is common in our culture. And it was common in the time of Jesus.

One time Jesus’ disciples began arguing about who would have the seats of power and prominence in heaven. After a time of squabbling, Jesus pulled his men together for an impromptu lesson. Here’s how it all went down:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

In short, Jesus was telling his guys, “You need a new perspective! The people of the world push for power, but the people of my Kingdom are made to serve.”

In his teachings, Jesus offers us the opportunity to change our perspectives on things like money, use of time, prejudice, true spirituality, the afterlife, and so on.

When a person comes to Christ, there are a lot of perspectives that need to be changed. But. even if we’ve known Jesus for a long time, there are always new perspectives for us to attain.

A relationship with Jesus is intended to change our priorities

The reality is most people live for themselves. They rule and reign their lives as if they sat on a throne.

But knowing God means we rearrange our priorities.

In what Jesus boiled down as the essence of what it means to live the Jesus Christ, two priorities emerge: Love God, love others.

In Philippians 2, Paul gave a challenge that goes along with Jesus’ teaching about our priorities:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:1-4 ESV)

Bottom line, our natural inclination is to elevate ourselves, but the Bible calls on us to prioritize others!

Another way we see the idea of re-prioritizing in scripture is found in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in Matthew 6:28-34:

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

If we a intentional in our pursuit of Jesus, we will naturally find that he has several things in mind that could be re-prioritized in our lives.

A relationship with Jesus is designed to change our practices

In Luke 19, Jesus meets a man named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was a tax collector who made a habit of extorting money from people. But after hosting Jesus in his home, Zacchaeus decided he needed to pay the people back.

What a wonderful picture of how Jesus intends to change our behavior!

When it came to Paul’s New Testament letters, he usually followed a typical blueprint. First, Paul would write about theology. He’d talk about God’s character and God’s plans. He’d share about the workings of justification, sanctification, regeneration and so on.

The second part of Paul’s letters were mainly devoted to the Christian’s practice. Paul would be very specific about how we should live practically in response to the Gospel.

For example, consider Epheseans 4:25-32. Note this passage begins with the word “therefore,” which serves as a hinge between Paul’s doctrinal and practical teaching. What Paul means is this: based on all that I’ve told you about theology, now align the practice of your life with the proclamation of the Gospel.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32 ESV)

In the short space of eight verses, Paul offers direction in the areas of handling emotions, honest labor, watching our words, and how we treat those around us!

No one comes to Jesus without room for change. We all have areas of our life to bring before the Lord, allowing Him to reveal to us our weaknesses, blind spots and outright sinful behaviors.

Nothing paralyzes our lives like the attitude that things can never change. We need to remind ourselves that God can change things. Outlook determines outcome. If we see only the problems, we will be defeated; but if we see the possibilities in the problems, we can have victory.

 

 

 

How an Honest Self-Assessment Opens the Doors of the Gospel

(This blog post is a condensed summation of a lesson taught at one of our Sunday morning groups at CDA Bible Church. The class is called The Jesus Creed, based on the book of the same name by Scot McKnight)

One of the main reasons some people don’t understand the Gospel (and subsequently fail to receive its benefits) is because they view themselves too highly.

See, the Gospel doesn’t make sense for the self-righteous, but rather speaks volumes to the spiritually desperate.

If we see ourselves as spiritually arrived or spiritually deserving, we miss the point of what God offers us.

Core to understanding and receiving the Gospel is something called repentance. Some phrases that help understand what this word means include:

  • Turning over a new leaf
  • Starting over
  • Changing the direction of our life
  • Leaving certain thing behind

Repentance happens when we get real with God and tell him (and ourselves) the truth.

There are three levels of life we have to speak truth about:

  1. Our public persona
  2. Our family image
  3. Our inner self

Out of these three, coming clean about our inner self can be the most challenging. Why? Because this this the area of our life which we can most easily hide.

Truth be told, we human beings have been expert hiders ever since the fall in the Garden of Eden. We are quite adept at keeping secrets from God and others. Sometimes we are so deluded we keep secrets from ourselves. No wonder the Bible declares:

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

In the book The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight makes this observation:

“Because we have learned to hide, we need new beginnings to set us free.”

To experience a fresh start and a new direction, we must embrace truthfulness. Why? Because truthfulness awakens forgiveness. Another way to say it is this: confession begets exoneration. Coming cleans is the means to restoration, redemption and refocus for our lives.

So often, though, our mind tells us that confession, or truthfulness, is dangerous. Our fear is we won’t find redemption, rather we will just get busted.

To such thinking, Henry Nouwen offered this perspective:

“I am beginning to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it difficult as possible for me to find him, but instead, as the one looking for me while I am doing the hiding.”

So, what are some of the areas of life we can come clean about? Here are three to consider:

Our spirituality

Here’s the deal: true spirituality is not something we make up on our own. Nor can we attain it from the efforts of other people. As the saying goes, there won’t be any coat tail Christians in heaven.

No, true spirituality can only be received from God.

In Ephesians 1, Paul assessed the true condition of our spirituality: he wrote that it was dead!

It is only when we recognize our great need that we can receive what God desires to give to us freely: a spiritual awakening and renewal.

Our possessions

Ever notice how the Jesus and the New Testament writers talk a lot about money and possessions? Here’s why: money reveals a lot about our hearts.

A spiritually attuned person will know this about God: He is generous.

And so it follows that a mark of a spiritual person is that they, like their God, are generous as well.

Jesus made it clear: we can’t serve both God and money. Yet, the temptation to do so is ever present.

Our power

What we do with our power says a lot about whether we have practiced repentance.

Apart from Christ, power is seen as something to wield against others to get our way.

Of power, Chuck Colson once opined: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But Jesus had a different take on power. He once said to his disciples:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Here’s the thing: God already knows the absolute truth about us.

Our challenge is to realize this and stop fooling ourselves.

Bottom line: Getting real with God is where our relationship with Him begins.

 

 

 

 

 

Active Christianity on Full Display in a Dallas Courtroom

This week the court case involving the fatal shooting of a man by a off-duty Dallas police officer came to a close. Its a case I had been aware of, but not really followed.

No one but the shooter, Amber Guyger, really knows what  happened that fateful evening. What is known is that Guyger entered the apartment of a man named Botham Jean and shot his as he sat on his couch while eating ice cream and watching TV. As the story goes, Guyger walked into the apartment thinking it was hers and reacted when confronted with the idea that someone was inside her dwelling.

This post is not about the particulars of the case. As I wrote above, the only witness to the shooting was Amber Guyger. But, after all the evidence and testimony were submitted to the court, a jury came back with a conviction of murder. What this post is about is what happened at Amber Guyger’s sentencing, where she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Family members were given the opportunity to speak to Guyger through what is known as a “victim impact statement.” Typically, this is when those affected by the crime are able to share the pain and suffering that come about due to the criminal offense. Those making such statements are given to restrictions: no threats and no profanity. It’s not uncommon for people making a victim impact statement to weep, to blame and to vent.

But as revealed in the video clip below, Brandt Jean, Botham Jean’s brother took his impact statement in a markedly different direction:

I stand amazed at the ability of this young man to apply his faith in such a tragic situation. We might be tempted to say that Brandt Jean had every right to direct his anger and hatred toward Amber Guyger. And make no mistake, the loss of his brother was enormous. But, on this day, Brandt Jean put something above his emotions. He brought the Gospel to a Dallas courtroom. 

First, Brandt Jean practiced the Gospel by communicating his forgiveness toward Amber Guygen. And then Brandt shared the Gospel, inviting Amber to give her life to Christ. By this, Brandt was sharing the source of his strength and the wellspring of his perspective. And then, in a surprise to all, Brandt Jean asked the judge if he could give Amber Guygen a hug. For me, this was Brandt Jeans means of communicating the veracity of everything he had just said to Amber.

I’ve sometimes wondered what type of terrible situation might cause me to push my Christian practice aside because of painful, bitter emotions. I hear men like Brandt Jean offer forgiveness to the person who ended his brother’s life and I wonder: would I have the wherewithal to do the same thing?

But, Brandt Jean’s actions in the courtroom were not the only ones worthy of awe and  reflection. After the gavel was struck to signify the closing of the case, Judge Tammy Kemp went to her chambers, only to return a few moments later with a gift for Amber Guyger: a personal copy of the Bible. Here’s the clip:

Here’s how the ABC news affiliate in Dallas described the scene:

After stepping off the bench to comfort the Jean family, the judge walked over to Guyger, still at the defense table. She bent low and spoke in the young woman’s ear. “You understand?” the judge said, barely audible.

The judge appeared to be overcome in the moment, and left the courtroom. She returned a moment later, a small Bible in her hand.

“You can have mine,” the judge said to Guyger. “I have three or four at home.”

She then began to counsel Guyger. The pair were talking low, barely audible, just the two of them. “This is your job,” the judge said, opening the book.

The judge mentioned John 3:16, saying this will strengthen her. Guyger nodded her head.

“You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith,” the judge said. “You start with this.”

Guyger embraced the judge, who hugged her back. Guyger whispered something.

“Ma’am,” the judge said warmly. “It’s not because I’m good. It’s because I believe in Christ.”

“You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven,” the judge told her. “You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”

The judge told Guyger that she could take the Bible with her as deputies prepared to escort her to the prisoner holding cell connected to the courtroom.

And, like Brandt did before her, Judge Tammy Kemp gave Amber a hug.

To me, Judge Tammy Kemp revealed a firm grasp of what it means to walk in both truth and grace. As a judge, she had to do her job in upholding justice. But as a human being, she looked upon Amber Guyger as just another person in need of a savior.

Sometimes we need examples of how to put our faith into practice. In a Dallas courtroom, a grieving brother and a compassionate judge provided models of what it means to have the Gospel take captivity of our heart.

A Cost of Being a Leader

I called this post A Cost of Being a Leader on purpose, as there are many costs to leadership. Those who assume a leadership role will often deal with multiple costs such as sacrifice, fatigue, loneliness, depression and pressure.

But, in this post I want to address a particular cost that often accompanies leadership: criticism and judgment that comes from those who have limited information and finite understanding about a given situation. In other words, people will allow themselves to come to firm conclusions about decisions and/or actions a leader has made, even though they don’t really know exactly what happened or why the leader came to a certain determination.

This is a common malady we can all succumb to. We get tempted to speak into a situation without having a firm grasp on all the facts. I think we live in a time and culture where leadership is regularly questioned, even when there may not be much evidence to support such doubt or hesitation. This doesn’t mean we follow our leaders blindly. No leader is above critique. But to function, every leader needs a good measure of support.

The first time this cost of leadership became apparent to me was at the church where I served as a youth pastor (my first full-time pastoral position). Our senior pastor was one of the most disciplined, fair, and thoughtful people I had ever worked for. He seemed to never rush into a decision, took time to try and understand all sides, and never used his position of authority to lord it over people in the church. This was a man who had a grasp on Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership. He wasn’t perfect, but always seemed above board in his dealings. Yet, during my twelve year tenure at this church, more than once did I witness people question, criticize and jump to conclusions with this pastor without really knowing much about any particular circumstance or situation that might be happening in the church.

In one situation at this church, a decision was made to release a person who had recently been brought on staff as a pastor. Not long after this pastor’s arrival, certain unhealthy behaviors began to emerge. Even after intervention and counsel from our senior pastor, the negative behaviors persisted to the point that some people in the church were made to feel vulnerable. After prayer and consultation with church leadership, the decision was made to let this new pastor go. Of course, the details of all that was going on was not something that could be made public to entire congregation.

Not long after, a few people in the church began to murmur and gossip, questioning the wisdom of the leadership, particularly the senior pastor.  They didn’t know the entire story, but that didn’t seem to matter. Regardless of any knowledge about the situation, the leadership was suspect.

A few times I had some suspicious people approach me, asking me about the inner workings of the decision (of which I had some knowledge, but not complete knowledge). First off, I had to let these people know the particulars were not mine to share. Second, I asked these people to consider the long-time record of their senior pastor. Had he been trustworthy? Was he a man of humility? Had he done anything to make people think that he wouldn’t have the best interests of the church in mind? Was he known to handle matters in a measured, professional manner?

For some people, this series of questions helped them get back to a more level perspective of the matter. Others, unsatisfied with my response, moved on in search of people who might give them the negative answers they were seeking. As far as I know, they were unsuccessful.

Through the years, I’ve seen this scenario play out time and time again. Leadership takes action and suspicion soon follows.

But, as much as it seems unfair and unprofitable, I have come to accept that it is part of the price of acting as a leader.

The apostle Paul endured such criticism and rejection at the hands of the Christians in Corinth. We’re talking about Paul! The one who gave so much of himself to help plant and nurture the Corinthian church. Yet, in their pride and immaturity, the Corinthians didn’t hold back at taking a few swipes at Paul.

If Paul had to face it, I think we ought not think ourselves immune. If such criticism could happen to Paul, it can happen to anyone else who takes on leadership.

J. Oswald Sanders, in his landmark book on leadership noted:

No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.

In a blog posting at the Vanderbloemen Church Leadership website, four points are offered to better navigate the criticism that often comes a leader’s way:

1. See it as inevitable.
Jesus was criticized as a drunk and a tool of Satan. The Apostle Paul was criticized as not being a legitimate apostle. Famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “You always find the most clubs under the best apple trees.” In fact, in some ways a pastor can rejoice when criticized. Why is that? Because Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).

2. Respond only when necessary.
Some criticisms don’t warrant a response. Nehemiah would not be distracted from his work of building the wall to respond to critics. Jesus did not respond to all criticisms. Abraham Lincoln was constantly criticized yet rarely responded. Responding to criticism can distract you—keep your eyes on the goal! As a Pastor, when I got anonymous criticisms, I immediately threw them away and told my staff to do the same.

3. If a response is necessary, be slow to respond.
“IN AN AGE OF EMAILS AND TEXTING, OUR RESPONSES ARE OFTEN WAY TOO FAST!” Proverbs 12:16 says, “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” In the New Testament, James writes about being slow to become angry.

4. Consider the source.
How well do you know the critic? Have they been overwhelmingly positive in the past? Do you know their love for you? Some criticism is legitimate, and we need to learn and grow from it. But often, if the criticism is overly harsh or angry, it says more about the critic than it does about you. They may have major issues going on in their life that is boiling over to the surface.

As kids, if we ever came across a large mound of dirt, we inevitably ended up playing the game “king of the hill.” The goal of the game was to get to the top of the hill and hold your position. For those not at the top of the hill, the mission was to knock “the king” off the top spot.

Sometimes that’s how it feels to be a leader. But remember, it’s part of the deal.

(And let’s be honest: there are plenty of bad leaders out there who make it harder for people to rely on those in positions of authority.)

Thank God for those people who have taken the challenge given in Hebrews 13:17:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

May we not lose heart of give up because some people seem intent on questioning our actions or doubting our motives, even when they don’t really know what’s going on. Such activity is as old as the hills. And remember: as leaders, we are not above doing the same thing to others that causes such pain and confusion within us. May God keep our hearts in check as we come under the leadership of others.

 

A Different Kingdom

Lately the news headlines have leaned heavy on stories related to politics and governance. An impeachment inquiry. An upcoming presidential election. Battles over Supreme Court justices. On an on it goes. It now seems like a regular, daily occurrence that a new scandal arises. Fingers are pointed at those perceived to be political enemies with the hopes that they will tumble out of power.

Both the pursuit of power, as well as trying to hold on to power, seems to bring out some of the worst human qualities imaginable. Amid all the political maneuvering we often find a host of lies, half-truths and deceptions. It can begin to feel like a big game of chess where the overarching motto is win at any cost. 

Such wranglings are nothing new. They span the length of human history. Political power struggles are as old as dirt. And often as ugly as dirt as well.

Sadly, as nasty as the realm of politics can often be, we too can sucked into the fear-fueled thinking that if we can’t beat them, perhaps we should join them. Why? Because we don’t want to lose power and control. So, life can often look like the early morning rush at the front doors a department store on Black Friday. We elbow our way to the front of the line because, well, everyone else is doing it…and we just have to have the new flat-screen TV. Our means become justified by our goals.

One time, the disciples of Jesus got into a bit of scrap about power. The situation is described in Matthew 20.

The mother of two of the disciples thought it wise to approach Jesus and ask Him if her sons could get the best seats in the kingdom; the seats on the direct left and right of Jesus’ throne. She envisioned her sons being close to the king, and thus close to power.

The other 10 disciples finally caught wind of the mother’s plan and acted as if they wished they had thought of it first. They realized that this woman’s two sons had figured out a way to the top and it made them want to compete for such choice seating.

At this point, Jesus decided it was time to call a meeting to bring the chaos to a close. He gathered his 12 around and shared these words:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

The way of the world is to seek out of a position of power. And, if you can get one, hang on to it with all your might. Also, use it to lord over people and exercise authority over them. The goal is to be in charge so that you don’t have to take orders from someone else. It’s all about leverage – once you get it, use it to your advantage.

But, Jesus says that His kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is, in fact, the very opposite. According to Jesus, greatness is not measured by the amount of power one employs, but in the amount of lives impacted through humble, sacrificial service.

Rather than trying to climb life’s ladder in order to get your way, Jesus challenged His followers to descend it, looking for ways to think about how to help others.

John Wesley put this mindset into a memorable, highly applicable mandate:

Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.

 

 

 

 

 

Stay Salty, Keep Shining

(This post is an adaption of a message I recently shared for our church’s SERVE CDA week, a time when we challenge our people to connect with and serve alongside various local ministries such as Union Gospel Mission, Children’s Village, Love INC and Safe Passage Violence Prevention Center. The text for the message is Matthew 5:13-16.)

Interesting, the very first word of the great commandment is GO! Not STAY! The great commandment implies movement! What a great opportunity to step outside our comfort zones and explore what God is doing in the lives of people in need. And it is often outside our comfort zones that God is doing his most interesting, impactful work! But, let’s be honest…moving out of our comfort zones can be downright uncomfortable! I mean, who likes to be uncomfortable?

Yet, the call of God remains: Go and make disciples! Go and serve as my ambassadors! Go and connect with a world without Jesus! 

One of the ways that Jesus tried to help his followers (including us) to understand their calling was to speak to them using some super-understandable imagery. And when it comes to understanding our calling as representatives of the Gospel, perhaps no teaching of Jesus of is as on point as what he shares in Matthew 5:13-16. The context here is that this declaration of Jesus is made in the midst of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some have referred to the Sermon on the Mount as the Manifesto for Jesus’ Kingdom. It’s a shout out to those who say their desire is to live under the rule and reign of Jesus. It’s a call to both higher and more purposeful living. And part of that kingdom living is wrapped up in the idea of influence. How we live hs the potential to impact some of the lives around us! So, what was it that Jesus said? Here it is:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Jesus used two everyday items in his teaching that even a child could understand: salt and light. If I could boil down Jesus teaching to just 4 words, it would be these: STAY SALTY, KEEP SHINING. Jesus said to his listeners, “YOU ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH.” But what in the world does that mean? Two thoughts come to mind.

Obviously, we know that salt is used to season food.

With just a few shakes of the saltshaker, we can transform food that is bland to becoming highly palatable. Try and imagine a world that is unseasoned by the presence of Christians who love God and love people. A world with less sacrificial love, less mercy, less grace. A world devoid of the challenge to think about God and to live as God created us to live. Bottom line, we are called to go out, engage and influence our world. This doesn’t mean that every person we meet will respond to God. Our job is to provide a witness, God’s job is to change a heart.

The other aspect of being spiritually salty is this: in the ancient world, salt was an invaluable commodity because of its ability to preserve food.

For us, we have refrigerators and freezers to keep our food fresh. But that was not a luxury known at the time of Jesus. So, when Jesus uttered the words, “You are the salt of the earth,” those listening likely associated his words with the preserving qualities of salt. What they would hear was this: that all of Jesus disciples were to serve as preservatives, stopping the moral decay in our sin-infected world.

Pastor and evangelist Michael Youseff reflected:

“The spiritual health and strength of the Christian is to counteract the corruption that is in the world. Christians, as salt, are to inhibit sin’s power to destroy lives. This in turn creates opportunity for the gospel to be proclaimed and received.”

How’s that for serious business! But the last part of verse 13 in Matthew 5 reveals a concern: the worry that the follower of Jesus would not allow themselves to act as salt! This happens when we either:

Deliberately disengage from contact and relationships with those who don’t know Jesus…or, live such a life of hypocrisy and compromise that, as a witness, our life no longer serves as seasoning, but in fact becomes spiritually confusing and corrosive. 

The challenge is this: STAY SALTY! Watch your life and be sure to get out into the world as an ambassador for Jesus.

The other word picture Jesus used to talk about the call of the believer was light.

In verse 14 Jesus said, “You are the light of the world!” In the case of sin, our saltiness is meant to act as a preservative. When it comes to acting as light, our lives are meant to offer people a counter-perspective to how most peopleend up living! Whereas salt preserves, light illuminates! Our lives are to be an on-going witness to the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we worship God with pure hearts, when we love others as ourselves, and when we do good without growing weary, we are lights shining. Get this, though: it is not OUR light, but the reflection of the Light of the world, Jesus Christ Himself, that people will see in us. Philippians 2:14-15 (ESV) says:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,

Walking, wandering or running in the dark can be dangerous! We bump into trees and we trip into ditches. Who here hasn’t at one time in their life been injured because of a lack of light! Without solid illumination we often make mistakes and mess things up! Well, everyday we are surrounded by people groping around in the darkness, separated from the God who loves them.  And God’s desire is to use His children, like beacons from a lighthouse, to show the way to Him. But, just as in the case of salt losing its saltiness, Jesus expresses concern about the believer somehow covering up their light. The way Jesus presents it, just as it makes no sense to light a lamp and then cover it up, it’s just as absurd to be impacted by the Gospel of Jesus, and then make all sorts of effort to keep that light shining through our lives. I like the perspective of DL Moody, who said:

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining- they just shine.

If we love God and pursue his will for our life, the light will naturally flow forth! STAY SALTY and KEEP SHINING. That’s Jesus word for us! But here’s the deal: Either we are “salt” and “light” by the grace of God, or we are willfully disobeying the One who saved us for such a time as this. If we are being “salt” and “light” then we can expect fruit from our faithfulness. If we are allowing God to use as salt and light, then today is a perfect time to repent and let God have our best for His glory.

Imagine a world without salt and light. This would describe a world where people don’t feel any tension regarding their sin, or how to find a pathway to find forgiveness from it.

It’s on us to let God use us to reach a lost and dying world!

 

What Matters Most

When asked about the most important teaching in all of God’s directives to his people, Jesus answered:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NIV)

Reduced down, the command is this: Love God, love others.

At the bare minimum, it’s this: LOVE.

This command has two aspects: how we relate to God, and how we relate to others.

The first aspect is vertical in direction (upward), the second is horizontal (outward).

My takeaway is this: nothing matters more in this life (and in this universe) than right relationships.

A lot of Christians get it that we are to love God through worship, obedience and service.

We certainly aren’t perfect at loving God in these ways, but we know what we are called to.

On the other hand, my hunch is we have a lot of work to do when it comes to figuring out our horizontal, human relationships.

Likely, this is because we have a lot of our priorities mixed up.

In other words, we value some things more than the people around us.

But here’s the deal: the pursuit of loving relationships ought to matter more than:

  • How much money we make
  • What kind of car we drive
  • Where we land on the social ladder
  • The clothes we choose to wear
  • What music we listen to
  • What we do for fun
  • The style we seek to radiate
  • The demographic where we feel most comfortable
  • The level of cool we think fits us

All these things hold the potential for pride and selfishness, but healthy working relationships are always grounded in humility and selflessness.

The apostle John’s letters seem to focus on the idea that some of his didn’t quite make the connection that loving God ought to naturally lead to loving others. Thus, he wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one anotherNo one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12 ESV)

And just a few verses later, John gets even more direct:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21 ESV)

How’s that for straight talk?

What a challenging exercise it is to think about what keeps us from loving others as we ought.

I think at first are likely to think about the other person, coming up with reasons why they a such a challenge to love.

But I think it would do us well to stop and think about what types of things keep us from being able to, as Jesus says, love our neighbors as ourselves.

  • What are our hangups?
  • What are our misplaced priorities?
  • What are our prejudices?
  • What are our selfish preoccupations?

Whatever they are, they need to go, because these obstacles keep us from fulfilling what Jesus describes as the most important thing we can every put our mind, heart and strength into: loving God, loving others.

 

 

No Such Thing as a Ministry of Affliction

Early on in my ministry years I heard (on more than one occasion) this expression:

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

The idea, as I heard it, was the ministry leader was to be a balm to those who were in the midst of pain, but an agitation to anyone who seemed (in the leader’s estimation) too settled in and comfortable to be of any godly use.

The idea was that if you spotted someone within your ministry who looked overly cozy, it was your job to figure out a way to perturb the person to the point they get the clue that God doesn’t like snug, comfy slackers.

Essentially, the goal was to bring a measure of stress and chaos to this comfortable person’s world.

The roots of the “comfort/affliction” axiom are found in the 19th century world of journalism. It came from a 19th century newspaper columnist, and the statement came from one of the writer’s fictional characters, one “Mr. Dooley.”

Interestingly, some people have interpreted the expression as a mandate for proper journalistic practice, when in reality the original assertion was a complaint against the newspapers of the day. Here’s what Mr. Dooley (in thick Irish accent) actually said:

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.” – Observations by Mr. Dooley (1902)

But back to the topic at hand.

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sounds noble, doesn’t it?

And yet, I find such a perspective only half correct.

Scripture is brimming with imperatives to bring consolation and solace to those who are in the midst of pain and suffering. Consider this sampling:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV)

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1 ESV)

Considering all the difficulty experienced in this world, we will always have plenty of opportunities to comfort those around us. It’s almost like a full-time job.

Now, ministry is not just about comforting. Their are other aspects to take into account. Practices such as:

  • Teaching
  • Training
  • Warning
  • Guiding
  • Exhorting
  • Challenging

Our ministries are to be well rounded.

Paul, in writing to the Thessalonian elders, offered a three-fold perspective of how to minister to the needs of people:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14 ESV)

Simply put, we have to consider our unique people and the varying situations in which we find them.

But I can’t seem to find the so-called “ministry of affliction” within the pages of my Bible.

Life is full of affliction. It doesn’t seem that God’s ministers need to dispense any more than that which already plagues our people.

I must confess that a couple times in my early ministry years I actually made things purposefully difficult for some people.

Yes, I had bought into the “afflicting the comfortable” philosophy of ministry.

I took it upon myself to conclude that these comfortable individuals needed their world upset a bit, thinking that my actions might move these people to deeper discipleship.

In reality, I was simply being an annoying jerk.

My actions weren’t rooted in true discipleship, but rather, I suspect, in pride, immaturity and an unhealthy need for control.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit wasted no time to convict me of my misguided efforts to try promoting spiritual growth.

The world in which we inhabit is overflowing with pain and suffering, thanks to something called sin.

Sin steals. Sin lies. Sin kills. And sin leaves a terrible amount of damage in it’s wake.

We don’t need more affliction. There’s plenty to go around and then some.

We need leaders who will comfort us in the midst of difficulty and perhaps guide us to figure out how our struggles made be used for a better purpose.

We need shepherds, not ranchers.

We need pastors, teachers and equippers, not psychotic boot camp drill sergeants.

Jesus said His people would be known for their love.

Let’s stick with that.

 

The Whole Enchilada

No, I’m not talking about the wonderful, amazing Mexican dish.

I’m talking about the idea that Christians are to worship God with every aspect of their being.

Here’s the scripture I’m basing this on:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” ~ Mark 12:29-32 (ESV)

This of course was in response to the question posed by a scribe. Mark 12 describes a series of questions thrown at Jesus with the intent of tripping Him up.

Jesus’ response was masterful because in two sentences, he encapsulated the intent and practice of the entire Jewish law. If the Jews had simply followed these commands, they would not have had to worry about the ever-growing list of rules being produced by their legalistic religious leaders.

In regard to the Ten Commandments, loving God covers the first four laws; the practice of loving a neighbor takes care of the final six.

But, here’s where I want to go with this. My point is that our love of God can (and should) be practiced in the way we think, the way we feel, and in the way we live.

  • We love God through our mind by learning and thinking correct thoughts about Him and the world we live in. (Philippians 4:8: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  • We love God by matching our emotions with the types of emotions that are descriptive of God (mercy, compassion, justice, and righteous anger for example). Micah 6:8 comes to mind.
  • And we love God when we use our physical bodies to do those things that serve as acts of worship toward God, rather than using our bodies for our own selfish pursuits. Romans 12:1 says it well:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

By nature, we tend to have a bent in one direction or other.

Some of us are more intellectual.

Some are more emotive.

And others are more physical.

But may we, to the best of our ability and with God’s help, live a life that honors God in all we think, feel and do.

Finally, Jesus added that love for God was part of the equation. The other part is how we love our neighbor.

Here God challenges us to love him by loving others.

This is the challenge of relationships.

The apostle John made the point that love for God can’t be separated from how we interact with others:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. ~ 1 John 3:16-18

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. ~ 1 John 4:20-21

The temptation we often face is to try and compartmentalize our relationship with God.

We tend to lean in to the things that come more naturally and ignore the things that come with greater difficulty.

But our calling is to engage and embrace the entire spectrum of what it means to love, honor and obey God.

We love God through our thoughts. (Think Philippians 4:6

We love God through our emotions and attitudes

We love God by using our bodies in ways that He prescribes.

And we love God by passing to others the same love He shows us.

That’s the whole enchilada.

(How come I’m starting to feel hungry?)