Ministry Should (Often) Be Uncomfortable

As a pastor of almost four decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people don’t really understand the concept of ministry.

My hunch, based on hundreds of conversations and years of observation, is that many people are in search of being involved in ministry that is fun, entertaining and self-gratifying.

Several years ago I was talking with a missionary who hosted a lot of short term mission groups. I asked him about some of the biggest challenges he faced. This veteran missionary shared, “It is very rare when groups ask how they can help us. Instead, they often show up with their own agenda in mind; an agenda that is really more about what they want to do rather than what we need done.”

Ouch!

Bringing it closer to home, its not uncommon for people to ask the pastor of a church how they can get involved in service. Yet, even after learning the various ways to plug in, some people remain uninvolved.

Why does this happen? My take is that some people are simply looking for a place to serve that really doesn’t cost them much. Put another way, they’re looking for they type of ministry activity that puts their felt needs ahead of seeking to meet the true needs of others.

But here’s the deal: true ministry is all about pouring ourselves out in order to help and serve others.

This approach to ministry often requires us to grow and stretch. Ministry isn’t really about us feeling good, as much as it is about helping take care of real issues. In fact, it is quite common to feel a level of discomfort when we begin serving in an area of life-changing ministry. That’s because real ministry can be hard work!

Several years ago I took on the task of teaching a class at our local Union Gospel Mission Center for Women and Children. Because the students were all women, I felt very intimidated! I felt like a fish out of water. But I knew UGM needed a teacher for this class, and so I went forward. Over the years I’ve become much more acclimated to this type of ministry, and count it a huge blessing to part of the recovery process for these women. And I’m glad to have been stretched in an area of ministry I wouldn’t naturally leaned into.

So here’s my pastoral advice: don’t necessarily look for a ministry that is custom-fit to you; look for a ministry where the needs are real. Dare to care more about the needs of others ahead of your own interests (Philippians 2:4). Ask God to help you overcome any feelings of fear or insecurity so you can lovingly serve those who need your wisdom, experience and grace.

Playing at ministry is tragic. Doing real ministry changes the life of both the on who is serving and the one being served.

Cultivating the Spiritual Life

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:15 NIV)

If you’ve ever tried to grow something in a garden, whether it be fruit, vegetables or flowers, you know that having some gardening knowledge – and applying that knowledge – can make a huge difference in your crop.

I know some gardeners and farmers who are able to, year after year, produce bumper crops.

As for me, I am an extremely amateur gardener, and as a result, my garden production is hit and miss. Probably more miss.

Bottom line, I’m not really sure what I’m doing.

I understand the basics:

  • Keep the plants watered
  • Make sure they have sunlight (although some like a lot of shade)
  • Feed the plants now and then

But that’s about it.

I know that there are a lot of different “tricks of the trade” that I could employ to make my garden become way more productive. So, its not that I couldn’t learn to be a better gardener. Its just that I’m just not that interested. Even though I would love more production, I’m generally not willing to do the work to make it happen.

Here’s another thing I know: apart from God, I can’t grow anything.

I can’t make seeds, thus I am unable to manufacture a garden on my own.

Only God can make something germinate. But, through knowledge and discipline, I can impact the development and output of my garden.

As it is with my garden, so it is for many when it comes to the development of the spiritual life.

I can’t create a spiritual life. Only God can renew a heart and regenerate a soul.

But even if I can’t create a spiritual life, I can cultivate one. I can apply myself to certain practices that enhance the spiritual life that God has bestowed upon me. Yet, a lot of us treat our spiritual lives like I treat my garden.

We could invest time and energy into learning how to become more productive, but our lack of interest and lack of wherewithal prevent us from taking steps in that direction.

Truth be told, if I’m not growing as a follower of Jesus, that’s on me.

Throughout the scriptures, God reveals certain practices that help us move closer to him as well as become better equipped for ministry and mission.

Things like Bible study, prayer, Biblical meditation, fasting, and times away from all the noise are ways we can apply ourselves to better knowing God’s ways and His will.

Paul put it this way in a letter he wrote to Timothy:

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

Paul’s point? If Timothy expected to grow in godliness, he would have to exert a degree of discipline. Put another way, Timothy ought not ever think that spiritual growth happens through passive osmosis. We must invest time, energy and thought.

V. Raymond Edman wrote:

Ours is an undisciplined age. The old disciplines are breaking down. Above all, the discipline of divine grace is derided as legalism or is entirely unknown to an entire generation that is largely illiterate in the scriptures. We need the rugged strength of Christian character that can only come from discipline.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that our lack of desire to invest in our spiritual development doesn’t directly impact our spiritual maturity and spiritual production.

 

 

 

The Greatest Cause

One thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is how a lot people get involved with various causes.

Why do people do this? Because people like to get participate in causes they believe will bring about change and make things better.

Nothing wrong with that!

For example, some people like to advocate for better treatment of pets, the elderly or minorities. Other people get passionate about issues such as urban renewal, stopping domestic violence or ending abortion. Some people are all about cleaning up the environment or making food safer.

You’ve likely noticed that the internet is brimming with advocacy websites where people can give money, sign petitions or register to volunteer.

The disruptions of 2020, whether they be due to medical, political or social issues, have only added to the amount of causes which people can attach themselves to.

Some causes are great, while some are suspect. Some causes are propelled by pure motives; others have roots that are more insidious. It takes a bit of discernment to figure the difference between a good cause and a cause that may be misguided!

The primary reason I know people are engaged in various causes is mainly through social media. That’s where I find people posting about the causes they believe in and the actions they feel should take place to resolve some of life’s problems.

There are a lot of causes I’m all for. Our world is far from perfect, and sometimes we need advocates to help bring about change in order to better our world.

But when it comes to our myriad of causes, I have a thought: for us Christians, we ought not pursue our cause to the point it impedes or supersedes the cause of the Gospel. That’s because sharing and spreading the Gospel is the greatest cause. Nothing else comes close!

More than anything in this life, people need to know about the forgiveness and peace and restoration that comes from embracing a relationship with Jesus.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t get involved in worthy causes. I’m just saying we ought not  let our investment in our particular cause do anything that might veer people away from clearly seeing Jesus and his message of spiritual reconciliation. Practically speaking, my concern would be that we become too combative or dismissive toward others as we seek to advance our cause.

I’m thinking that we ought never allow our advocacy (for whatever we might be passionate about) make it harder for someone to find new life in Christ.

See, we typically embrace a cause because we care. We believe in the mission. Which is great!  (It really doesn’t make sense to join of a cause that really doesn’t interest you.)

Yet, I wonder if such passion and devotion can sometimes cause us to become so wrapped up in our personal cause that we temporarily forget about the cause above all causes.

In other words, as a result of a strong devotion to our personal cause, we might be in danger of building barriers to the Gospel rather than constructing of bridges.

Simply put, if I’m not willing to defer my passion for my personal cause for the greater cause of reaching others for Christ, I likely need to check my heart and reestablish my priorities.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul wrote about his rights and authority as an apostle. Yet, even though Paul possessed these rights, he didn’t feel he had to insist upon them being practiced. Paul let the Corinthians know that, if he wanted to, he could have pressed them in a few areas, such as being monetarily supported for his labor and having a family. In other words, Paul could have pressed his causes upon the Corinthian Christians.

But what does Paul say the causes he could have pushed? Check out his response:

If I were doing this on my own initiative, I would deserve payment. But I have no choice, for God has given me this sacred trust. What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News. (1 Corinthians 9:17-18 NLT)

Bottom line, Paul was a man who, like a lot of us, had opinions and passions about things, but he knew when to set those opinions and passions aside whenever the Gospel was involved.

So, causes are great. It’s good to have issues we are concerned about and seek to do something about them. I’m all for making our world a better place.

But may we never lose sight of the greatest of causes: the message of light, life, grace and hope. More than anything, people need Jesus.

 

The Garden Many Christians Ignore

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19 (CSB)

The recently passed J.I Packer once commented on the state of the American church like this:

“The North American church is 3000 miles wide and 1 inch deep.”

That’s just a fancy way of saying, in a general sense, we are shallow.

We may have large church buildings.

We may have burgeoning church programs.

We may have large church attendance.

But at the end of the day, if Packer is correct, many of us are grossly undeveloped in regard to our spiritual maturity. Simply put, we’re putting more energy into creating facades than into laying foundations.

Here’s a reason I think this happens: its much easier to work on the appearance of godliness than actually doing the hard work of pursuing godliness.

If all we do is try to appear mature, it won’t take much for the superficiality of our so-called maturity to be revealed. The smallest trial will unravel us because we were not equipped to handle it.

As a result, when any sort of pain, suffering or challenge comes our way, we quickly become unglued. We can’t help ourselves, let alone anyone offer assistance to anyone else. We fall apart rather than stand firm.

So what’s the problem?

From my vantage point, I would say the problem is our refusal to tend to our inner life.

In other words, we aren’t willing to apply ourselves to the discipline of spiritual development. Likely because it’s hard work!

The issue of spiritual shallowness is nothing new. Paul gave his protégé Timothy a clear and distinct charge in order to be effective in his ministry:

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV)

So, what do I mean when I speak of the inner life? I’d describe the inner life as what’s going on inside of us. Its the collection of our thoughts, our attitudes and our emotions.

When the inner life is untended, the outer life is usually a mess.

  • When we think in a worldly, selfish manner, we typically lack in love, humility and servanthood. As a result, we operate out of pride, greed, lust or envy.
  • When our attitudes are driven by the flesh, we often say or do things that aren’t life-giving, but tear down and destroy. Thus, our mindset is set on survival rather than servanthood.
  • When our emotions are unchecked, our life can look like a roller coaster, hurtling up, down and around. We lack self-control, which results in a lot of collateral damage

The truth is that rather doing ministry, many of us with untended inner lives need to be ministered to!

I think some of the reasons our inner lives are so neglected include our over-busy lives, an overabundance of distractions,  and a culture that celebrates performance and production to the exclusion of faithfulness and thoughtfulness.

Add to the mix our propensity toward laziness and disobedience, which only make matters worse.

See, spiritual maturity demands effort. And just like physical exercise, we only grow when we experience some sort of resistance.

Charles Stanley right made this observation:

“Adversity is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives. The circumstances and events that we see as setbacks are oftentimes the very things that launch us into periods of intense spiritual growth. Once we begin to understand this, and accept it as a spiritual fact of life, adversity becomes easier to bear.”

Another challenge is that, in some quarters of contemporary Christianity, tending to the inner life is seen as mystical, non-productive and self-indulgent. Some will view slowing down to tend to the soul as “touchy-feely,” wimpy or selfish.

The problem with this is that, no matter how much we may deny it, we are multi-faceted human beings, and it does us no good to ignore any aspect of our being. Like it our not, we are emotional beings! Avoiding the emotional aspect of our personhood is a recipe for disaster.

I wonder: could it be that the American value of rugged individualism is actually hindering our ability to grow as a whole person?

I have a hunch that for many of us, the real challenge is tending to our inner life this: we are fearful to look within because we know its a mess. Sort of like that closet we know needs to be cleaned, but every time we open the door to begin the task, we feel overwhelmed and simply close the door. And so the closet remains in its state of disorder.

One more thought: generally speaking, as American Christians, we’re better at doing than we are being. We like to be busy and produce, but struggle with practices that slow us down. Prayer, scripture meditation, fasting and reflection seem terribly slow to us. We like to be on task, but are less interested in preparing for the task.

For these reasons (and certainly a few more) the garden of our inner life goes untended. Rather than flourishing with fruit, it is overrun with weeds. Yet, we don’t seem bothered enough to do much about it.

Such an attitude reminds me of the story about a woodcutter who failed to take time to sharpen his ax:

Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant. The pay was really good and so were the working conditions. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best.

His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he would work.

The first day, the woodcutter felled 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!”

Motivated by the boss words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring down 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he could only manage 10 trees. Day after day, he finished with fewer trees.

“I must be losing my strength,” the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?,” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I’ve had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been so busy trying to cut trees….”

Perhaps a way to think about our inner life is in relation to root systems. Some trees are beautiful, but because their root systems are shallow, they are easy to knock over. But other trees, like the cypress trees that inhabit the stormy coastline of central California have deep root systems, which allow those trees to stand in the midst of battering winds and rain.

Here’s the bottom line: what takes place in our outer life is inseparable from what’s going on in our inner being.

If our root system is compromised, then the trunk, branches, leaves and fruit of our outer life will most certainly be negatively impacted.

 

 

 

 

 

The Two Primary Roles Jesus Plays in our Daily Lives

To be a disciple of Jesus means we allow Jesus to get into our lives.

A disciple cannot push Jesus to the sideline, but must allow Jesus to become central to all we are and all we do.

But what is it that Jesus is meant to do in our lives? What roles is He supposed to fulfill?

Of course, Jesus is our savior. At the moment of placing our faith on Him, we are immediately transferred from death to life, from darkness to light and from gloom to hope. Through Jesus, God adopts us into our family and secures our place as participants in His kingdom.

But then what? How is Jesus supposed to function within our daily existence?

Here’s one way I look at it: at any given time, Jesus is meant to serve as either our comforter or our challenger.

Said another way, Jesus either acts as our peace or our provocateur. Depending upon our need at the moment, Jesus will either console us or goad us.

Jesus, our Comforter

In regard to comfort, the Scripture that comes to mind are these reassuring words from Jesus found in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (NIV)

Truth be told, the entire Trinity of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are concerned about our comfort during times of suffering or affliction. Jesus told His disciples that when he left the earth, He would leave them the Holy Spirit. One of the ways Jesus described the Holy Spirt was being “the Comforter.”

And in 2 Corinthians 1, Paul wrote about the comforting ministry that God provides to His children who are dealing with pain or persecution:

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)

I wonder, how many of us miss out on the blessings that come from God’s ministry of comforting?

Jesus, our Challenger

The other role I see Jesus playing is that of challenger.

The idea being that sometimes we need a gentle push from Jesus to do the right thing.

Although we may from time to time receive comfort from Jesus, the journey of discipleship is rarely comfortable.

That’s because the way of Jesus is typically quite different than how we would do things on our own.

  • Naturally, we are drawn toward pride. But Jesus pushes us to be humble.
  • We love to be in charge. But Jesus calls his followers to be servants.
  • Many of us are up for a fight. But Jesus calls on us to be peacemakers.
  • On our own, forgiveness is hard. But Jesus presses us to consistently practice forgiveness.

Discipleship includes the hard work of facing our sin, repenting, and turning in a new direction.

Through discipleship, Jesus will over and over challenge our natural man to die so that the spiritual man can live. Which isn’t always easy for us. In our western individualist society we do not emphasize Jesus’ values and therefore discipleship requires overcoming huge strongholds of the mind and heart.

But no one can say that Jesus didn’t warn us about the difficulty of discipleship. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24:

Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. (CSB)

When we come to Jesus we are like a ball of unformed clay. But God’s desire is to see that we become more conformed to the image of Christ. And so, we will push, prod and poke us in order that we shed the selfish and sinful attitudes of  our “old man” in deference to the values and commands of Jesus.

My hunch is that we are likely more welcoming to Jesus the consoler than Jesus the provocateur.

We’d much rather have a comforting hug than be goaded to change our ways.

But the disciple of Jesus needs to become comfortable with Jesus playing both roles.

And my guess is we probably need a bit more challenging than we need comforting.

 

 

Breaking Down Barriers

A lot of times Jesus is depicted as being fairly passive.

He’s shown patting kids on the heads or wistfully walking among the masses.

Now, Jesus did carry himself with an air of kindness, gentleness and self-control.

But Jesus could also do a really great job of making a bold, courageous point for the purpose of upsetting unhealthy cultural thinking.

Case in point: the time Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman next to a well (John 4).

By daring to converse with this woman, Jesus took on both hateful racism and female inequality.

See, in Jewish culture the Samaritan people were despised.

They we of mixed ethnicity; part Jewish, part Gentile.

On top of that, the Samaritans had taken aspects of religion of the Jews and blended it with other religions. They established as their center of worship a temple on Mount Gerizim, claiming it was where Moses had originally intended for the Israelites to worship.

The Samaritans had their own unique version of the five books written by Moses, the Pentateuch, but rejected the writings of the prophets and Jewish traditions. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true descendants of Israel and preservers of the true religion, while considering the Jerusalem temple and Levitical priesthood illegitimate.

It wasn’t uncommon for a Pharisee to pray that no Samaritan would be raised in the resurrection.

To the Jews, a Samaritan was more revolting than a Gentile (pagan); Samaritans were half-breeds who defiled the true religion.

The hate for the Samaritans was so strong that if a Jewish person needed to travel north from Jerusalem, they would often make a point of going around Samaria, even though it added a lot of time to their travels.

Being a Samaritan was really tough…but being a woman in Jewish culture was harsh as well.

Women were often treated as property, just one step above slaves, to serve the needs of their father, and later, their husband. A woman had to get permission from her father or if married her husband to leave her home. A wife could never divorce her husband, but the husband could divorce his wife by simply handing her a bill of divorce.

In Jesus’ time, women were excluded from much of public life. In fact, for a rabbi to speak with a woman on the street (even it was his own wife!) was considered a disgrace.

So, for the Samaritan woman of John 4, she didn’t have one strike against her, but two. A Samaritan AND a woman!

Yet, Jesus did not allow either of these social barriers to stop him from engaging the woman beside the well.

Jesus’ actions were so bold that John 4:27 tells us how the disciples reacted when they came upon the scene:

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” (NIV)

The disciples knew Jesus was doing something that wasn’t normally done.

Simply put, Jesus dared to knock down a pair of social constructs that had stood for centuries.

And he did it simply by having a conversation.

Now that’s the Jesus style!

People are really good at putting up walls and barriers.

But Jesus is even better at knocking them down.

Paul wrote these words of Galatians to remind us of the oneness we share as human beings in Christ:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

If we identify as followers of Jesus, we will likely have some pre-conceived walls about people that need tearing down.

Something we were taught.

Or something we came up with our own.

Which people group are you afraid of?

Which people group are you holding a grudge against?

What barrier within your sphere of influence needs to be broken down?

It might come a-tumblin’ down with a simple conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fences and Bridges

Living life as a Christian can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

That’s because Christianity comes with its own set of challenges and tensions.

For example, as Jesus’ followers we are called to be doggedly committed to truth, yet at the same time be extremely gracious and generous in our interactions with people.

Our model for this kind of “truth and grace” living is none other than Jesus himself, who John described as “full of grace and truth” in John 1:14.

Yet, I find that most of us will lean heavily on either one side or the other of the truth/grace equation.

Either we will tend to be harshly truthful because we lack grace, or we will tip toward being danderously permissive because we lack truth.

But here’s what I think: we are called to build both fences and bridges.

Allow me to break this down a bit.

First, Christians have a serious responsibility to protect true Christian doctrine from being tainted.

The apostle Paul exhorted his protégé, Timothy, with these words:

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21 NIV)

Similarly, the entire book of Jude is devoted to the idea of guarding God’s people from false teaching.

These verses are all about fence building. There are some Christian doctrines that are so important, they must be protected by some sort of barricade.

Some might say that these are, regarding Christianity, the hills we are willing to die on.

One thing about doctrinal fence building: we typically only have to do it once. Once we know which doctrines deserve such protection, we simply establish our fences around these truths in order to keep them from being infiltrated and contaminated.

But fence building isn’t our only spiritual construction project. We are also to be about the business of bridge building.

This is the idea that, relationally speaking, we are to make great effort in connecting with others for the purpose of sharing and modeling the Gospel.

And our bridge building projects ought to be drenched in attitudes of love, grace, patience and mercy.

Paul was a wise and skilled bridge builder. He was extremely mindful of ways to help people draw close to God through his relationships. Consider what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians:

Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law[d]—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 CSB)

What I gather from this passage is that Paul was interested in building as many bridges as he could! And to do so, he was willing to do a lot of flexing and adapting to make connections.

Unlike fence building, which only needs to happen once, bridge building is a lifetime pursuit. Meaning, we ought to always be looking for the next bridge we can construct.

Another occasion where Paul sought to build a bridge was in the account of found in Acts 17 where Paul at first found little traction in sharing the Gospel:

He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.” Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”  (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.) So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about. (Acts 17:18-23 NLT)

Here Paul was trying to speak to a group of people who had no context regarding Jesus and the Gospel. That’s why the referred to Paul as “a babbler.”

So what did Paul do? He thought about how the city of Athens was filled with monuments to various Gods and remembered seeing one shrine dedicated to an Unknown God. Paul decided to use that unclaimed altar to springboard into a discussion about Jesus!

Once again, Paul found away to build a bridge in order to make Gospel connections.

A final thought:

I believe that some of us are more wired for fence building. We are good at defending, guarding, protecting.

And some of us have a bent towards connecting, engaging and developing relationships. These are our bridge builders.

But I believe we are most balanced and successful when we realize we are called to both.

We are to establish protective enclosures around sacred truths, but at the same time we are to lovingly and graciously extend relationship to those who don’t know Jesus.

Put simply, we are challenged to both defend and extend when it comes to our faith.

If we only defend and never extend, we can become rigid and insular.

And if we only extend, but never defend, we can become sloppy and foundationless.

But if we are willing to both defend and extend, we protect the truth as well as bring the truth to the people who desperately need it.

Fences and bridges. May we be faithful in building both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labels

Label (noun): 1. a slip of paper, cloth, or other material, marked or inscribed, for attachment to something to indicate its manufacturer, nature, ownership, destination, etc. 2. a short word or phrase descriptive of a person, group, intellectual movement, etc.

Labels are a part of life. Many of them can be very helpful. Labels help me distinguish between Gala and Fuji apples. They allow me to choose the right size shirt. Thanks to labels, I’m able to determine which grade of gasoline I’m putting in my truck. In many ways, I’m thankful for the various labels I encounter throughout my day.

In some cases, though, labels can be frustrating. Like when certain labels (due to excessive amounts of adhesive) refuse to come off an item that I’ve just purchased. It’s no fun trying to scrape off the remnants of paper and glue that seem to be determined to cling to my newly purchased item. And, of course, nothing seems more agitating when something is mislabeled. Ah, the annoyance that comes from having to return a mislabeled item that doesn’t fit or fails to work!

We often use labels to describe people. We use words like funny, kind, handsome or intelligent to characterize the people we come in contact with. It’s our way of classifying their physical attributes or personality traits. And generally, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to use a descriptive label to understand one another.

But there can be a real danger when we rely too heavily on using labels when it comes to distinguishing members of the human race. As helpful as most labels are, some labels carry negative connotations. The nursery rhyme may state that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the reality is that some labels can be extremely discouraging and damaging.

I believe that if we are people seeking to accomplish effective ministry, we will have to make a concerted effort against employing the types of labels that often keep people from experiencing recovery and restoration.

Perhaps the best motivation for avoiding any negative labeling of people is by understanding some of the reasons why we label them in the first place. A few thoughts:

We label others because we’re fearful of trying to understand a person’s complexities. The reality is that every human being is complex, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. When we put a label on someone, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being.

We label people because we’re too lazy to take the time to get to know them. Sometimes we’d rather just assume something about a person than really take the time to discover who they really are. What we end up doing is casting a stereotype upon that person. It’s easy to assume a person is snobby or uncaring, when the truth of the matter may be they are just shy.

We label others because we’re judgmental. Labels are a quick and easy way to spread our prejudices. Without knowing anything about a person, we may make all sorts of presumptions based upon the color of their skin, where they live or how they dress. We ought never judge the actions of others until we know their motives. In other words, we need to judge them with our heart and mind, not our eyes and ears.

We label others because we don’t want them to succeed. In some cases, we cast labels upon people hoping they will permanently stick. We call someone a loser. We describe them as failure. We brand them the “black sheep” of the family. And the reason we do so is an insidious attempt to put limits upon their ability to flourish and thrive.

Once we understand why we label others, we can work on eliminating the habit of labeling. We can overcome negative labeling by cultivating unconditional acceptance, compassion, and understanding. We can learn to observe and experience the world without judgement. We can remain detached from expectations and demands. We can learn to accept what is and people as they are. We can grow in humility.

As a pastor, I encounter all sorts of people from a myriad of experiences, cultures and backgrounds. As a result, I can often feel the tug and temptation to resort to labeling. At times like these, I seek to remind myself that there is one label that applies to every human being: we are all created in the image of God. God has formed, knit and crafted His amazing imprint into each and every individual. True, humanity is a fallen and broken race. We have faults and we experience failure. But, by God’s design, we represent (in a limited fashion) many characteristics of our Creator.

The other thing I try to keep in mind is that, because of the grace of God and the power of the Gospel, every person is redeemable. In other words, we can break free of the labels that daunt us. Through Christ, we can leave behind labels like loser, failure or disappointment and exchange them with new, fresh descriptions of our identity in Jesus: beloved, victorious, overcomer.

Getting Back to Normal

Who knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will alter our way of life?

Things  certainly have changed.

  • Theaters are closed.
  • Sporting events are cancelled.
  • Beaches are off limits.
  • Restaurants are trying to function under severe restrictions.
  • And when we are able to go out for commerce or entertainment, it’s all face masks, disinfectants and social distancing.

More than once I’ve heard people mention their desire to “get back to the way it was.”

Back to a time when we could work, shop, gather or worship without thinking about what was touched or how close we get to other people.

Simply put, many are longing for a time that wasn’t so heavy and disheartening.

I imagine that’s how Adam and Eve felt.

For a time, Adam and Eve enjoyed unfettered fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden.

They delighted in the beauty of creation.

And they functioned with a sense of order and purpose.

All was good!

And then sin messed everything up. Disobedience against God broke the harmonious connection they once shared with Him.

Genesis 3:21-24 describes how it all fell apart:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NIV)

I imagine Adam and Eve often thought about what it would be like to go back to normal.

They lost so much!

  • They lost significance.
  • They lost security.
  • They lost relationship.

Regarding the Coronavirus, “normal” seems to hinge on finding an effective vaccine.

But when it comes to normalizing our relationship with God, everything depends upon Jesus.

When Jesus carried out his ministry here on earth, healing people of physical maladies was part of how He demonstrated his power over the physical realm.

But, I believe these healings also serve as a reminder of Jesus’ ability to heal us spiritually.

Jesus ultimate mission was to restore our fractured relationship with our Creator.

Colossians 1:21-22 says:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (ESV)

There is a pathway back to God. It’s Jesus.

Jesus himself declared. “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

What was broken and lost in the garden can be restored and reclaimed.

I think Timothy Keller sums it up nicely when he says:

“When we look at the whole scope of this story line, we see clearly that Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’s coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both the body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.”

Through Jesus, everything will ultimately line up as it should be.

Order, meaning, beauty, security and purpose will all be in place.

Some things will happen now, others are reserved for the future.

But the bottom line is this: Jesus is the source for discovering and experiencing what “normal” really is.

 

 

Daring To Get Real With God

One of the by-products of the COVID-19 situation has been the increased use of video as a means of communication.

Several of us have been part of Zoom meetings. Others have created videos in order to teach, preach or sell. The interesting thing about creating video content is that we can create an image that isn’t entirely accurate. We can create the illusion that we live in an orderly, sanitized environment depending on where we point our camera.

Think about it: our “set” may look cool and pristine, but if we turn the camera just a few feet either way, we may see a pile of unfolded clothes or a sink full of dirty dishes! We can also make our videos appear seamless through editing. Here, we can eliminate anything we don’t want people to see. All of our stammering and mess-ups are simply excised from the original recording.

I’m not against purposeful camera placement or editing. They can help us create a more palatable video experience.

But, it got me thinking. I wonder if sometimes we try to do the same thing to God.

You know, we try to fool God into thinking things about us that aren’t really true.

Which, in the end, is a fool’s errand. Because God knows the truth about us, whether we present it to Him or not.

Sadly, I think we might be tempted to try and give God a picture ourselves that is highly edited and contrived.

But here’s what the Bible has to say about such an approach:

As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever. (1 Chronicles 28:9)

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds. (Psalm 7:9)

Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. (Psalm 44:21)

This ability of God to know us inside and out is theologically known as OMNISCIENCE, a word which speaks about God’s capacity to know everything. God knows the amount of grains of sand on a beach and the number of hairs on a human head. And he knows the thoughts and motivations of the human heart.

We can approach God’s ability to understand in two ways: we can continue to try and hide from Him, or we can stop trying to fool God about who we are and what we’ve done.

Psalm 139 is an amazing description of a proper attitude toward God’s omniscience. In it, Dave acknowledges God’s ability to know all things; even the things that may appear hidden. And in response to this truth, David writes:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (verses 23-25, ESV)

Instead of considering hiding from God, David moves toward God! Why? Because that’s the safest place to be.

Here’s the deal: because God is omniscient we can be real. God’s omniscience means we don’t have to pretend with Him. We don’t have to clean up our thoughts and emotions before we approach Him. He already knows everything. God understands why we’re upset. He knows the root of our insecurities, disappointments, and our needs. He can handle our doubts, fears, and critical thoughts. He’s the perfect One to guide us to peace, health, and healing.

And, regarding those areas where we fall short, God’s heart is to hear our confession and fully forgive us (1 John 1:9)

Edward Welch said,

“The fact that God sees every aspect of our lives may, at first, leave us afraid and eager to hide from God rather than in awe, wanting to embrace Him. But the fear of the Lord makes us aware both of God’s holy purity and hatred of sin and His holy patience and forgiveness. When we remember both, we have no reason to run in fear, especially since there is no place to run beyond the gaze of God. Instead, as we look at the Lord, we see that He invites, cleanses, and empowers us to grow in holiness.”

The truth is that hiding stuff from God (which He already knows about!) is a lot of work. It’s tiring trying to keep up an image that doesn’t match reality. No wonder Jesus uttered these words found in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)

What’s better? Us trying to maintain the image of having it together, or actually allowing God to put us back together? It’s only when we get real with God that He can do a cleansing, transforming work in our lives.