“Joy” to the World…

You can’t have Christmas without lights AND you can’t have Christmas without music. The two go together, as Forrest Gump would say, “Like peas and carrots.” Some homeowners these days are even investing in the electronics necessary to make the lights on their homes dance to the music of the season (Clark Griswold would be so jealous).

Songs of the Season

The songs of the season (at least the religious ones) share a common theme. We sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” The words of Psalm 96 and its companion Psalm 98 are reflected in Isaac Watts masterful creation that remains the most published Christian hymn in North America. Joy to the World is not the only song that carries the same theme. Listen to Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

  • Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”
  • And, the refrain from O Come, O Come Emmanuel proclaims: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • Can we forget O Come All Ye Faithful? Doesn’t it say how we’re supposed to come? “Joyful and triumphant.”
  • And, of course, there is the magnificent Angels from the Realms of Glory:

Angels we have on heard high, Sweetly singing ore the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains

Each of the songs of the season echo exactly what the Psalmist sang in Psalm 96:11 – 13…

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!

This is the “joyous” season, but there is a bit of a hollow ring each year at Christmas when we speak of joy. Christmas is, for many, the saddest time of the year. Many people find the stress of the holiday season overwhelming. Others battle depression, social isolation and loneliness. Still others are grieving the loss of a loved one. And, in this year of Covid-19, songs of joy, and smiling faces, and parties and gifts and such don’t really mean that much when no one really knows what Christmas gatherings will look like, or you’re living on the street in a cardboard box, or in a shelter with just the clothes on your back.

Chippie

There are, in fact, many people having a “Chippie” moment right now. You know who “Chippie” is, right? Max Lucado, in his book In the Eye of the Storm tells Chippie’s story. It all began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out his cage with a vacuum. She stuck the nozzle into the cage to clean up the bottom of the cage. Suddenly the phone rang. She reached for the phone with her free hand and not realizing it, her hand holding the nozzle rose slowly upward and sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner. Realizing what she had done, she dropped the phone and turned off the vacuum. 

With her heart in her mouth, she opened the vacuum bag to rescue poor Chippie. Chippie was stunned and covered head to foot with gray dust, but thankfully he was still alive. She grabbed him and rushed him to the bathtub, turned on the cold water full blast and held him under the water giving him a power washing. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering, so she did what any compassionate pet-owner would do. She snatched up the blow dryer and blasted him with hot air.

You may be wondering if Chippie survived all this. Yes, he did, but Lucado says, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. He mostly just sits there in his cage eyeing the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept. Being sucked up, washed out, and blown over has stolen the joy from his heart.

There are a lot of people in the world living their “Chippie” moment this Christmas—maybe even a few reading this today. My prayer for you is that you will find joy this season.

Joy vs. Happiness

Don’t confuse joy with happiness, though. The two are not the same. Yes, joy can bring happiness, but happiness is too dependent upon what happens to us, and what happens to us is not always bright and wonderful. Sometimes, life happens to us, and life can be unkind. Joy abides in spite of what happens because joy is a gift, and the gift is Jesus Christ. He is our joy!

See, it works like this. While the happenings of life may not be “good news,” word of a Savior is “good news.” As a matter of fact, it’s the Gospel. There is One who came to deliver us from the brokenness of this world. There is One who came to give us strength. There is One who came to offer hope, to bring peace, and to show us love. That One is Jesus Christ, and to a person living the chippie moments of life, the realization that life will not always be like this brings its own joy. 

When we encounter Jesus, either in a manger, or on the cross, or risen in victory over death, joy captures us, and it causes us to worship. We get a glimpse of the glory and greatness of God, and joy captures us. Joy captures us when we see God’s promises fulfilled. Joy captures us when we experience God’s presence in new and life-changing ways. Oh, no, my friends! We can’t find joy! Joy finds us in the gift that is Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew that joy finds us because it found him. Paul was a “chippie.” He had been stripped of everything, locked in a cold, dark, and wet prison cell, and had even been sentenced to die. And he sits down to write his friends in Philippi. “Yep, I’m in prison, again. This time sentenced to die, and oh, by the way, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!” From a cold, dark prison cell Paul writes a brief letter and mentions joy ten times! TEN TIMES!

How can Paul do that? He doesn’t have anything to be joyful about. His life is on the line, he is cold, wet, and tired, he has no freedom, has no shiny car with a bright red ribbon waiting for him in the driveway, no limited time diamond earring and necklace sale to take advantage of, no latest computer game or smartphone to occupy his time. He is parted from family and friends, and can’t take a single bit of joy from a job well done because well, being in prison has put his flourishing church-planting career on hold.

Yet over and over again, Paul brings up joy. Somehow he got it into his head, that you don’t need all that stuff to have joy. Even his earthly life being in jeopardy could not part him from joy. For Paul, joy doesn’t come from the world. It comes from God. God is the giver of true joy. God is the giver of a peace that passes all understanding. And, it doesn’t come from something we buy. It comes from something freely given—a person, Jesus Christ. Paul’s great joy was his assurance from God. He knew that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, too, have this great joy.

This truth is, of course, summed up in a song. My favorite, and I believe the song that captures the heart of Christmas as well as any other is O Holy Night. Take a listen:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!


Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

The light of joy is Jesus Christ. Lights and music. They are peas and carrots, indeed!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Sometimes, I Just Need Reminding…

The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”

The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.

THINK TO THANK

Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.

Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.

First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.

One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.

Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!

Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)

Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?

Yes, I need to think to thank…

LIVE TO LOVE

Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes:  God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).

I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:

Heavenly  Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut  us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the  laundry and spend a few precious moments with  her children.

Help  us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change  correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging  for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst  nightmares.

Help  us to remember that the old couple walking  annoyingly slow through the store aisles and  blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last  year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly  Father, remind us each day that, of all the  gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

May I live to love this holiday season.

COMMIT TO CHRIST-LIKENESS

For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.

Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.

One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.

We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

I Think I Need a Drink…

I wrote last week about the draining nature of 2020 for me, and the reality is that 2020 has been draining for many people, so much so that they have been driven to drink! Nielson reported a 54% increase in alcohol sales the first week of the “stay-at-home” orders in the U. S., and three weeks later the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use would exacerbate the health-related concerns of the pandemic. Go figure (see here and here for more concerns)!

I ended, though, with the expression of my desire to be filled…to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that idea, too! Those who follow Christ, Paul says, have “put on” a new way of being. This new way of being comes as a result of being filled…filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

A CASE FOR WINE?

We don’t simply come to Jesus Christ for salvation and that’s the end of it. The Christian life is like my fire pit. DE7E8223-A03C-479B-B090-F8D65F778712Vanessa and I love sitting around our fire pit, but to continue to enjoy its warmth and glow, we have to keep stoking the fire. It’s a process that keeps the fire burning. So is the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul liked to use analogies, too. As he wrote describing the life of followers of Jesus Christ, he variously used a wrestler, a runner and a soldier. Those are all active people. We must do something as we participate in this walk of faith where we are becoming people of Christ.

Paul having previously cautioned the Ephesians about their behavior, says in 5:15– “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

Some folks read verse 18 and think Paul is making a case against Christians drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). We know wine was a common beverage in the first century, and that Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (John 2: 1-12). This passage is not a case against drinking wine. It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in the city of Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

BE FILLED

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we came to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The problem is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul tells the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the word helps us understand that, too.

The word is given as an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastor’s and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, we are to live under the Spirit’s influence.

The word is also in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing (sort of like my fire pit I mentioned earlier). This filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience.

A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured (Matthew 17: 1 – 11). They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

There’s one more interesting point about the word used: the word is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

GETTING FULL

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us. Fill me as I go to work today, Lord. That’s what I do! Every morning, I’m continually asking God to fill me with His Spirit, to speak his word through me. You can pray these prayers, too:

  • “Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”
  • “Fill me as I face my boss today.”
  • “Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”
  • “Fill me for _______________.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5: 19). Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians, and does so once again as he says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible. When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Just reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the words opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing God’s work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it.

God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

0A615C60-C567-4824-B5DD-4044B35A7F4D_4_5005_cSo, let’s all have a drink! Drink in the fulness of Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Draining…

Draining. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the year 2020. Between the election, the Coronavirus, the racial discord and hurricanes (oh, and let’s not forget forest fires, floods and rioting and looting), I find myself drained and wanting desperately for this year to be over.

We might say that today (November 3, 2020) is the day many have been waiting for (not me, I’m waiting for January 1, 2021). Many feel that as soon as the election is over things will be different. I’m not one of those persons. Oh, I think there will be different reactions to the outcome today brings. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind.

No matter what the outcome of today’s election, half the people in the nation will be overjoyed and the other half will believe the world is coming to an end (it is, by the way, probably just not tomorrow). Preparations are being made for any eventuality (see here).

My prediction? If Donald Trump loses the election, I suspect everyone will get up Wednesday morning and go to work and carry on with their lives anticipating a new administration (for better or worse). If Joe Biden loses the election, I suspect there will be many cities in our nation that will burn and many businesses will be looted and destroyed.

I’m not saying Biden supporters will be the ones doing the rioting. I am saying “antifa” or other nefarious anarchist groups may seize the opportunity to sow further division in the nation. I also know that half reading this will disagree, and half will agree. That fact is another evidence of the divided nature of our nation.

I’ve also been drained as I’ve watched the same divisions play themselves out in the church of Jesus Christ. As I wrote in a previous blog, we seem to forget that Jesus has torn down the “dividing wall” that separates us. We are no longer divided, but united through the blood of Jesus Christ. We sure haven’t been treating one another that way. No doubt, 2020 has been a stain on the witness of the Church in the world, and it’s just been draining.

I was challenged by John Piper’s assessment of the situation in our nation as he anticipates the election. The question on the lips of many believers is “How could a Christian vote for Trump?” The question on the lips of equally as many Christians is “How could a Christian vote for Biden?” To vote for the one is to vote for arrogance and boastfulness and pride and hatred. To vote for the other is to vote against life and truth.

Don’t ask an evangelical Christian from Louisiana how he/she could vote for Donald Trump. There was a time when Louisianians had to vote for a man who famously (or infamously) said, “The only way I could lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.” Of course, that was back in the day when you could actually say such a thing and not get canceled. 

That man was Edwin Edwards, a popular womanizer, gambler and extortionist who served a sentence in federal prison for his often unhidden corruption. But, evangelical Christians were basically left with no choice because his competitor in the race for governor was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, who cleaned up nicely and said things many folks wanted to hear. He garnered just enough support to slip into a runoff with the former governor, leaving Christians with a terrible dilemma. 

Most in Louisiana did with Edwin Edwards what they will do with Donald Trump—hold their nose and cast their ballot, not because Donald Trump is a man of pristine character, but because the Democrat Party has chosen a candidate and established a platform that opposes so much of what evangelical Christians value most. 

They will hold their nose and cast their ballots in Louisiana because they’ve been down this road before. They will vote, not on personality, but on what they believe to be the best policy to lead this nation forward. I would caution against questioning their virtue as evangelical Christians (though many will). When the choice is between two evils, one needs be picked. It is the nature of the two-party beast.

I suppose one could choose not to vote, or vote for a third-party candidate. I think we’re all struggling to do our best, and the reality is we don’t always do our best when we’re drained. I also know that God has enough grace to go around for all of us.

I also know that whatever happens today (and in the days ahead as results unfold), Jesus is still on the throne and He calls me to a higher obedience than does this or any nation. If freedom continues to ring throughout the land, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ. If tyranny for the believer comes, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ, and I will pray that my faith will sustain me (and that the Church’s faith will sustain her) through any fiery trials that come, and that she (and I) will be a better witness of the grace of God than perhaps we have been in the past. Either way, we (the Church) are safe in the shadow of the Cross.

So, as drained as I am, I will seek desperately to be filled–to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are filled that we will find strength to live through every time and age and circumstance that life brings. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s prayer to the Ephesian church:

15 Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, 16 I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. 18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.

19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.23 And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23 NLT)

I’ll desire to be filled by Him. May you be, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus IS the Answer…

I was just a kid in the early 1970’s, but I remember vividly the music of Andre Crouch and The Disciples. I remember his music because I was part of a youth choir that often sang songs he wrote. One song in particular that I’ve been singing over and over lately is one entitled Jesus is the Answer. I’ve been singing it because I believe the Jesus IS the answer for the world today.

I also vividly remember many people who mocked Andre Crouch and the title to that song. Mockers asked, “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” I don’t know if there was a specific question Crouch was asking back in the 1970’s, but I know there is a specific question folks are asking today (and I’m asking it myself, too). With the racial and political brokenness facing us in this monster year 2020, the question is “How do we heal the division among us?”

Is it necessary for me to point out those areas of division? Probably not, but just in case you haven’t noticed, here are a few:

  • Ideologically–Capitalist vs. Socialists/Communists
  • Racially–White vs. Black, et. al.
  • Politically–Democrat vs. Republican, Trump vs. Never-Trump
  • Religiously–Traditionalist vs. Progressive

The list could go on. The divisions are tearing at the very fabric of our humanity. I am concerned about where the divisions will lead us unless we do the hard work of reconciling our differences, and learning again how to live with our diversity as a people and as a nation.

Of course, we aren’t the first generation to deal with divisions. The Apostle Paul’s generation had one, too. He writes about it to the church in Ephesus as an illustration—and a vivid one it is! In Ephesians 2, he calls it “dividing wall.” The wall to which Paul referred was a 3 1/2 foot high stone wall in the Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews, and on that stone wall were signs that basically read, “Any foreigner who enters beyond this point is responsible for their ensuing death.” Paul uses the image to tell the church that in Christ that wall has been torn down. The division that existed between Jew and Gentile prior to Christ no longer existed. Through Jesus Christ, the two people are made one. They are united in Christ. That was their new identity.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the first disciples, steeped as they were in 2000 years of history as God’s chosen people, to be told that they were to treat Gentiles the same as they would other Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have any real equivalent today. Here they were, a tiny, insignificant nation, and yet God had chosen them and revealed himself to them. They had Moses and the Prophets. God said they were a holy  nation, set apart for his service.

They actually had a somewhat arrogant view of their calling. William Barclay wrote that, “The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” He would also write, “It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother [at childbirth], for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world.” It was such that if a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the family had the funeral for the boy or the girl right then. No, Jews and Gentiles were not friends, and the Temple had a vivid image to remind them of that fact.

The chosen people had erected a wall, and Paul tells the Ephesians that the wall was the law, but Jesus abolished the wall through his death on the cross, and reconciled everything by the power of his blood to God, the Father. Now, everyone—Jew and Gentile—comes to God on the basis of faith in His Son. There is a key word there–reconciled.

So, what does Paul say is the result of this reconciliation in Christ? First, the Gentiles are no longer aliens and strangers, visitors without any legal rights, but rather citizens of God’s kingdom. They now enjoy all the privileges of being part of God’s people.

We are embroiled in a debate over the immigration laws in our nation, and I’m not going to give commentary one way or the other about that, but think for a moment the risks so many of those immigrants are willing to take to come to America. The benefits of being an American citizen are worth going to any lengths to obtain.

If being a citizen of America is so good, what about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God? But, it’s even better than that. Paul extends the analogy. He says, “You’ve now become members of God’s household.” You’re part of the family. Being part of a Kingdom is one thing, but being part of family of the King, is another. It means, in the context of this passage, that we’re now brothers and sisters of one another. No matter what our background, we’ve been brought into a new relationship of care, affection and support that may not characterize our earthly family, but does characterize the ideal family, the family of God.

Paul doesn’t leave the analogy there, though. He says Christ destroyed one thing to build another. He tore down a wall so he could build a house. He’s building a house on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with himself as the cornerstone. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to build a great tower to reach heaven, and God came down and confused their speech so they couldn’t communicate with each other. They all went off to their own parts of the earth. That was the beginning of the alienation of the races. But in Jesus, we see the process reversed. In Jesus, we see a new humanity, a new community being formed in unity with Christ as its foundation. As this new community is formed, it becomes the place where God dwells and where his people come together to worship him.

Don’t miss how important the corporate nature of the church is here. If we are ever tempted to have an individualistic view of Christianity, to think that God simply comes to dwell in each one of us as individuals and the church is just an add-on, think about what Paul says here. As we’re built together we become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit. As we’re united in Christ we become the new Temple of God, God’s dwelling place.

It’s important to note that Paul says we’re becoming a holy temple. That’s means we haven’t made it yet. God is still working to on us…individually and corporately. That’s part of Wesleyan theology…this whole idea that we are moving on toward perfection. It is part of the struggle we disciples have as we grapple with one another in this shifting culture. Where does God speak into the situations that divide us, and how does God speak into them?

Honestly, we start with what the Bible says. That’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  They’re the human authors of most of the Bible. In other words, the church is built on God’s Word. That’s why we take it so seriously, and it’s why we don’t tamper with it. We know how dangerous it is to tamper with a building’s foundation. That’s why we should prick up our ears whenever we hear someone undermining the authority of God’s word, or questioning its authenticity. I’m certain the conversation won’t end there, but it at least must start there.

So, how are we to be united? I think there are implications for us personally and corporately. There is one word that I believe is key for our unity is Christ, and that word is forgiveness. Personally, we must begin to tear down the divisions we’ve built between ourselves and others by seeking and extending forgiveness as freely as God has extended it to us through Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we can do that is to acknowledge the person I’m listening to may know something I don’t know. Jordan Peterson has written a fantastic book entitled Twelve Rules for Life. Rule number nine says, “Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.” When we listen to others, we can begin to find places where reconciliation may come, and then we’ll discover our unity in Christ.

Corporately, there’s nothing that happens in the Church that should cause a breakdown in relationships…nothing! The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How can we invite others into a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ if we’re not reconciled to one another?

Internal harmony is one of the things architects look for when they’re sizing up the aesthetics of a building. But the harmony we’re talking about here is more than just aesthetic. We’re talking about a harmony where all the parts work together to bring the building to completion. We overcome this division, too, by seeking and extending forgiveness.

We are united in Christ. That which divides us fades into insignificance when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. The worth of people different from ourselves can only be judged from God’s point of view. The color of our skin, the sound of our accent, the language we speak with most comfort have nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus Christ died to reconcile us to the father and to each other.

So, yes, I believe Jesus is the answer to the divisions in our culture. Unfortunately, the culture is turning further and further away from Jesus, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Crash…

Crash!

Vanessa and I were awakened at 2:59 a.m., this past Saturday to a thunderous crash. No, it wasn’t thunder. It was the crashing of a great white oak tree into our home during the passing of (by then) Tropical Storm Delta. Honestly, I knew what happened the moment I heard the crash. Vanessa and I were fine, so even in that moment, there was no fear. My first thought was, “Now everything is going to be wet.”

We hurriedly made our way to the back part of our house from whence the crash came. We still had electricity so we turned on the light to discover the exterior wall to our recently renovated dining room buckled under the weight of the tree, but surprisingly, the tree did not penetrate the ceiling anywhere in the house (the roof is another story!). Our back porch took the brunt of the tree’s weight and kept it out of the interior of the home. I’m thanking God for that back porch!

7’10” circumference

What did we do next? Well, the only thing we could do–we went back to bed. Well, Vanessa went back to bed. I went to sleep in my chair listening to the howling of the wind and the dripping of water inside my house. It wasn’t long until I heard another crash. This time it wasn’t our house. It was our neighbor’s house. They took a tree about the same size that hit ours (30″ in diameter). No one was hurt in that crash, either.

You’re probably wondering by now why I’m telling you all this. I’m telling you all this because the “crash” prevented me from doing any writing this week, so I don’t have much to blog about. There will be no deep theological reflections this week. My Saturdays and Sundays have recently been reserved for any writing that needs to be done, but this Saturday and Sunday were otherwise occupied. I’m spending this early Wednesday morning simply trying to put some words on paper (?) as a discipline to keep creative juices flowing…that and a regular rhythm of posting to the blog (experts say consistency is one way to grow a blog).

So, I’ll just say that we’re grateful for so many things over the past week. I am grateful that Vanessa and I celebrated 39 years of marriage on Friday, and in those 39 years, we never once (that we can remember) filed a homeowners insurance claim. We can take that off our list of “never before’s”.

I am also grateful that we were not hurt, that the tree fell in a good place (if there is such a place) if it had to fall at all, and that (as far as we can tell), it didn’t do any damage to our deck. I am grateful that we have insurance, and that we know people who get things done (or, we know people who know people who get things done). I am grateful for family and friends who have reached out in love and concern, and for neighbors who care about neighbors.

In my gratitude, I am also prayerful and mindful of others whose losses are far greater than ours. What we suffer is going to be a minor inconvenience. Yes, it’ll be frustrating going through the process of repairing and rebuilding what’s been damaged, and it’ll be expensive, too (do you know about “Named Storm Deductibles“?), but I’m grateful that we have the resources to take care of the needs we encounter. There are many others who don’t, and our prayers are for them.

I am mindful of our neighbors and friends in southwest Louisiana who have dealt with two hurricanes in a month’s time, whose lives and livelihoods have been (literally) destroyed by nature’s wrath. My prayers are with them, and our financial support has already gone to ministries who are helping in those areas. Were I still in vocational ministry, I’m sure I would have spent time in those areas helping, but…

Life throws us curveballs sometimes. That’s just life. I officiated a wedding Saturday evening for my niece. Hurricane Delta provided an excellent example for me to share with the bride and groom. The rehearsal and dinner were held amid a torrential downpour as the storm quickly made its way toward our area. I told the couple on Saturday that they survived a hurricane to make it to the altar. Let that always remind them that when the next storm comes (metaphorically speaking), they can face it knowing they survived a hurricane to get there. If they can survive a hurricane, they can survive anything.

So, we’ll get the insurance adjusters and the contractors and we’ll get started rebuilding. We’ll survive the inconvenience and we’ll thank the Lord for His mercy and grace to do so, and for the resources necessary to make it a reality. We’ll also remember those who haven’t been quite so blessed, and do what little we can to help them experience His mercy and grace, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

No Needy Among Them (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 3)…

I love what Luke writes in Acts 4: 32-35–

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Can you imagine what that must have looked like?

As I began praying about a new church plant, I sensed the Holy Spirit calling me toward planting a “house” church. Initially, I interpreted the vision to be open to growing into a more traditional expression of the church—building, pews, administration, etc. As I’ve lived with and prayed over the vision the past two months, I’ve gained greater clarity as to where the Lord may be leading us as a new church plant. I am grateful to a group of 21 people who have consistently prayed for clarity in this unfolding work of the Holy Spirit.

It is not unusual for a new church to begin by meeting in a home. A small group of only ten or twenty people does not need a larger meeting place, and the costs involved in procuring any sort of space is often prohibitive. In this regard, a “house church” is understandable to many. But if they learn that it was the intention to continue meeting in homes no matter how large it grows, eyebrows will begin to rise.

The idea of the house church does not easily fit into the tradition of American discipleship. For generations, the idea of the church has been almost universally associated with a central meeting place—a church building. Even though the biblically informed disciple knows that the church is people, it remains almost impossible for some to escape the association between a particular local church and the building in which that church gathers.

When a society has grown up with an idea—a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation—a departure from that tradition can seem strange or even wrong. I will not fault anyone who questions the practice shared in this vision, or any who are not convinced of its benefits, nor is this unfolding vision a condemnation of the longstanding tradition of churches meeting in large central buildings. Too many examples of excellence within that tradition, both historically and currently, can be mentioned in its defense. My intent is simply to offer another reason why The House Church Movement will continue meeting in homes, and to demonstrate that not only is the practice biblically sound, but it is a great model for meeting peoples needs.

A NATURAL SETTING FOR FELLOWSHIP

During a House Church Movement meeting, we will enjoy facing one another in a warm, familiar environment, rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head while most of the activity takes place on a stage. We may also enjoy eating a meal together every week, sampling friends’ cooking, or sometimes bringing in pizza. We might enjoy drinking coffee or tea after a Movement Meeting while sitting comfortably around the living room, sharing in each other’s lives. We could stay late, discussing personal or church matters and doctrinal issues. Sometimes, advice or counsel may sought by one, and given in return by another, or even several. Sometimes, two or three may find a quiet place to pray together. It could be like a family reunion every week.

While this type of fellowship can take place in a sanctuary setting, in the home it is natural. And, even as The House Church Movement grows large in numbers, it never has to lose the familiarity and intimacy that can be experienced in a home’s setting. Instead, new congregations can be formed—teaching others how to experience this same rich Christian fellowship. There is little doubt in a hurting world that people are longing for fellowship and intimacy that a house church setting could provide.

A DESIGN FOR BIBLICAL INSTRUCTION

When the New Testament authors gave written instructions to the church, they were writing in light of what they knew the church to be—small assemblies meeting in homes. Consider: If the church were later transformed into something that had never been seen or anticipated by the authors of the New Testament, the instructions they gave to the early church might not be as readily applicable to the new form. As an example, consider this principle in light of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament—the commands to know, love, guard, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ (i. e. John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:1,10; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 John 3:16-17).

Certainly these are kept faithfully in many larger congregations, but one can hardly overlook the fact that increased size means increased difficulty in keeping them consistently. There exists the increased potential that some will fall through the cracks. It is evident that in order to keep the commands to love and care for one another, larger bodies need added structures and programs which, in turn, necessitate additional burdens of administration. I could multiply examples, but suffice it to say that in at least this one case, the instructions are much easier to follow consistently in a smaller gathering. I might even suggest that these instructions were designed for small gatherings.

Because no one falls through the cracks, needs are more readily known and easily met. I’m not sure there is a greater “why” for the house church, but there are still two more we’ll explore in coming weeks:

  • House churches take place where harvest happens, and
  • House churches raise up disciples to embrace the ministry to which they’ve been called.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Simply Jesus…

It really is all about Jesus! It being, of course, the Christian faith. I remember a parishoner named Mr. Joe who, as he departed every Sunday, would simply say, “Just give ’em Jesus.” I think that phrase sums up what the Evangelical Methodist Church means when it states “We believe each person must acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and be born again before he/she is a true Christian.”

A Matter of Grace

We can search the depths of theology and philosophy and discover one verse which, in its essence, sums up all God offers His creation, and we find it in a late night conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Of course, it’s John 3: 16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Let us be careful not to let the familiarity of the words lessen their power.

We are nothing apart from faith in Jesus Christ, and it is faith in Jesus Christ that gives us new life, that transforms us from what we were (a sinner), to what He intends for us to be (a sinner saved by grace). I am reminded that a relationship with Jesus Christ is all about grace–God’s grace.

We Wesleyans walk the Wesleyan way of salvation. Along that Wesleyan way are several “movements” of God’s grace. One of those movements is of justifying grace. It is this justifying grace of God at work in that moment that one comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The theological term for that moment is regeneration.

John Newton, in his famous hymn Amazing Grace, wrote of this moment of regeneration:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Newton wrote his classic hymn on a slave ship bound for England on March 10, 1748, as he endured a raging storm on the high seas. That evening, Newton cried out to God, and his life was forever changed. He wrote of that evening, “I cried to the Lord with a cry like that of the ravens which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. And I remembered Jesus whom I had so often derided.”

Regeneration

Justifying grace (regeneration) is that moment in time when we realize that God accepts us just as we are, and we say “yes” to his offer of salvation, and our eyes are opened to the love and companionship of God. Justifying grace (regeneration) is about saying “yes” to God.

The problem is that we need help when it comes to a restored and right relationship with God. The Good News is that God wants to help. God didn’t come to offer us things (like money or power or success or possessions) that we think will make life full, or us happy. God sent His Son Jesus Christ to offer us a relationship that is a relationship of love that flows out of His self-giving nature.

Regeneration happens in that moment when we accept the relationship God offers in his Son, Jesus Christ. We are justified in that very moment. This moment of acceptance is commonly referred to as conversion. It is what happens inwardly at that moment when most people would say, “I’ve been saved!” But the phrase “I’ve been saved” does not mean that conversion is ended. Rather it means we have begun a more adventurous portion of the journey that is God’s salvation.

We can just as easily say, “I am saved,” or “I am being saved,” for conversion continues when we find new ways of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Like when we come to a better understanding of ourselves, and when we come to a better understanding of the claim God is placing on our lives, but more about that in a later blog.

A Gift

Here is where it gets sticky and we have difficulty accepting God’s offer of salvation. Let me explain why. We have been taught all our lives that America is the place where hard work and determination meet opportunity to produce wealth and success. While there are exceptions we all could point to, we realize the American dream is fueled by hard work and determination. Gary Player, the legendary golfer and a South African, understood this attitude. He said, “The harder you work the luckier you get.”

The American attitude is an up-by-the-boot-strap mentality, and that attitude is what has made America great. Isn’t it ironic, then, the American attitude, that up-from-the-boot-strap mentality, is a major stumbling block in our acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. We know that hard work and determination are what make the measure of success, so we find it totally unreasonable that God would offer us salvation at no cost. Surely we have to do something to earn this salvation. We can’t do anything. But God does not give us something for nothing, and our salvation has come at great cost. It cost Jesus Christ his life.

All we can do is accept God’s offer or reject it. It is totally a free gift to us, and our acceptance of that offer is an act of faith. It is not our work, nor is there any work we can do to deserve or earn it.  This work is what Jesus Christ has done for us in the grand plan of God’s salvation. Listen to how the Apostle Paul describes it:

But now God has shown us a different way of being made right in his sight–not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. For all have sinned: all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26).

The faith that responds to this offer is an act of trust and self-abandonment by which we no longer rely on our own strength but commit ourselves to the power and guiding word of him in whom we believe.  Gratitude becomes the motivation for the life that follows the acceptance of this great gift.

God has given us the freedom to accept or reject his offer. He doesn’t interfere with that decision (that’s what makes a Methodist), but he does appeal to our intellect. Faith is not an unreasonable endeavor. When we engage our minds in the pursuit of God it is God engaging us, for how can we even begin to comprehend what does not exist. When we recall the testimony of countless saints who have gone before, it is God engaging our minds. God has given us the capacity for reasonable reflection. He engages our intellect as we make our decision.

God also touches our emotions. Gratitude and appreciation, love and compassion, joy and relief are all ways we respond with great enthusiasm, but we do not depend on those feelings for the foundation of our faith, for feelings wane. With each passing event of life we ride a roller coaster of emotions, but our faith in Christ is sure in the midst of life, and God touches our emotions to aid in accepting God’s great offer of salvation.

God makes this offer because He loves us. He loves us unconditionally. He doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. He loves us in spite of the fact we’re not perfect. If I might quote another old hymn of the church:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.
And that Thou biddst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

“But I can’t change,” you say. That’s what John Newton thought, too, until he experienced the grace that caused him to write:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Accept God’s offer of grace, justifying grace, and His grace will continue to work through you and in you, taking you to the next step on the journey to full salvation.

Regeneration–it is simply Jesus!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

I’ve been reading the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church devotionally that past week or so, and honestly, I’m just trying to make sense of it all, just like I’m trying to make some sense out of everything that has been happening in our nation since March 16, 2020.

Between reading 1 Corinthians, watching the evening news and reading Facebook and Twitter, there are some days (warning: confession ahead) I just don’t feel very much like a Christian. I really want to try and make sense of that, too.

Staying off social media might help, but for better or worse, more and more people are getting their news from social media than traditional means, so I suppose that just makes me normal. If I’m normal, then I suspect there may be a few of you trying to make sense of everything that is happening in our world, too.

CULTURAL DEBATES

I remember when the cultural debates among Christians centered around what movies it was appropriate to attend, or whether Christians should drink alcohol. Debates used to be about whether Christians should acknowledge Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or whether it is appropriate to observe Halloween.

The morals and mores of our nation are in a tectonic shift. I almost hesitate to address the issues being debated today because it’s impossible to do the subjects justice in a single blog post, and besides the fact I’m likely to say something to offend someone and that will get me banned from WordPress. Then, others have said, “Silence is violence,” so what’s a person supposed to do?

Less than twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was only a blip on the cultural radar. Now, it’s the law of the land, and it’s front and center in the church, as well-meaning and socially concerned Christians attempt to formulate a response to that cultural shift. The issue has already split several denominations, and is on the verge of splitting the United Methodist Church. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for 20 years.

Likewise, the debate over the legalization of illicit drugs, namely marijuana, was relegated to the fringe of culture. There were a few proponents, but they were greatly in the minority, and no one, a mere 10 years ago could foresee the dramatic shift in that debate. Oh, that we should long for debates about the Easter Bunny!

SHADES OF GRAY

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that was black and white? I’m not speaking racially, of course (I almost can’t even use the analogy today–someone will call me out for it), but I’m talking about a world where all the questions have yes or no answers—a world where something is either right or wrong. Sure would make life simpler.

We tend to think the Bible is really good at black and white answers, but that all depends on how one reads the Bible. We see God’s Ten Commandments, and they’re reasonably black and white: murder, covetousness, stealing, adultery, etc. All wrong.

The Bible is pretty clear on things that are right, too–like honoring God, honoring our parents, honoring the Sabbath. The shift in the cultural landscape has left us with situations and circumstances that are not quite so black and white. We’re left to try and make sense out of them, and live faithfully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s no easy task.

Most of the debates for Christians rise or fall on how one reads the Bible. Some will argue that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, or same-sex relationships. I would argue that he said a lot about it, all the way back in Genesis 2 (remember Jesus was present at creation), and in Matthew 5 and 19. And, it’s impossible to separate Jesus from his apostles, and what was Paul?

Others will argue differently. Whose Ph.D trumps (<– no political reference) whose? The point is there are a lot of issues not specifically addressed in Scripture for various reasons, yet we still have a responsibility to love God and love our neighbor, and we are often left with our own conscience to guide us. That’s another reason it’s so important to know what I (and by I, I mean you) believe.

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

In reading 1 Corinthians, I learn the Apostle Paul dealt with similar problems in the first century. In a church in the city of Corinth, new believers were learning to live faithfully in a culture as diverse as our own. Paul was confronted with several questions which grew out of the pagan influence upon these early Christians. One such question focused on the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Chapter 8). We’re not too worried in the 21st century about eating meat sacrificed to idols, but seeing how Paul addresses the issue helps me as I’m trying to make sense of living the disciple’s life today.

Here’s the issue: Most of the meat that was sold in the town market in Corinth came from sacrificial animals which were slaughtered at ceremonies in the local temples of pagan deities. Part of the meat of each animal was burned on the temple altar, part was eaten in temple ceremonies, and part was sold in the Corinthian marketplace for consumption at home. The question at hand was this: “Did these rituals somehow automatically taint the food with some weird spiritual voodoo? Could Christians eat meat that had been offered to idols?”

Some Corinthian Christians embraced the idea of liberty they obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul founded this church, and he undoubtedly shared with them the same philosophy he taught the church he established at Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free;” (Galatians 5:1).

What wonderful knowledge to possess! But that was just the problem. Certain Corinthian Christians possessed this knowledge and they flaunted it, and they appealed to Paul to prove that it really didn’t matter if they ate meat offered to idols. They had a point to prove to those who said they shouldn’t eat the meat, and they felt they were superior because they had this special knowledge.

Paul said to the Corinthians who embraced their liberty, “You’re right! It doesn’t matter if you eat the meat because you and I know that there is really only one God, and those other gods are no gods at all, so in reality, the meat has not been offered to anyone or anything” (the Lynn Translation). Then, he said, “Before you get all puffed up, not everyone understands this reality. Some people still believe those idols are real, and to them, to eat that meat is the same as worshiping idols, and they are convicted in their own hearts because they are weak, and by your liberty, you could cause one of them to stumble.”

Paul would clarify. He said, “Look, here’s what happens. You get an invitation to a wedding down at the temple of Aphrodite. You know Aphrodite is not real so you see no problem with going to the ceremony and sharing in the reception. But someone who is weak in their faith sees you at the temple doing what they think is wrong, and they say, ‘Oh, well, he is doing it so it must be okay,’ and they eat, but later they are convicted in their own hearts because they ate. They get confused, and their confusion can destroy their faith. And, don’t forget Christ died for them just like he died for you. So don’t use your knowledge concerning your freedom to allow anything like that to happen. Instead, give up ever eating meat if eating meat might cause one for whom Christ died to be destroyed.”

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

So, Paul really says this is not a legal question, but it’s an ethical one. That’s where it comes down for each of us concerning all the questions in the swelling cultural shift. They’re not so much legal issues as they are ethical issues.

Therein lies the problem. If it’s a legal issue, there’s got to be a law, and the law can settle the issue. Simple enough. But, ethics goes beyond the law. The Jim Crow laws reflect this reality. It’s the ethics that trip me up and keep me from making sense of all of it. It’s the ethics that make me think on some days, I’m just not very Christian.

The Ethic of Love

I note two principles Paul uses in counseling the Corinthians concerning this gray area. They are instructive to me as I seek to live faithfully to the Gospel. First, Paul says let love be your guide. In verse 8:1, Paul offers, “while knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.” Pride gets in the way of our love. We think we have all the answers, that we know all there is to know. I like to call it “holier than thou.” Paul said it was that type of attitude that would destroy the church. Love is what really builds up the church.

Love is the principle that sets boundaries around my liberty. The moral decay we see in our culture hasn’t happened because we allowed gambling, or because we went to the movies, or because we played cards, or smoked cigarettes, or because some Christian somewhere made a questionable value judgment in a gray area of life. Moral decay has come because we embraced the right to liberty without simultaneously embracing the responsibility to love. Rights without responsibility quickly devolve into selfishness.

Paul reminds us in chapter 13 of this same letter that “love is patient and kind,” that love is not “boastful or proud, or rude.” Paul says, “Love does not demand its own way.” That means I don’t use my freedom quite as freely because I have a responsibility to someone else to help care for his or her soul. Love takes the mind that was in Jesus Christ, who chose to humble himself through the obedience that carried him all the way to the cross.

We build up the body of Christ, and those who are weaker in their faith when we show the love of Christ to them, and put their interests ahead of our own. I am reminded that sometimes love asks more than I’m prepared to give, and love often requires more than I’m willing to do. Those are the times I don’t feel very Christian.

But, the love Paul speaks of is sacrificial love. We want to say love is unconditional, but it is not. The condition is sacrifice, and it is the second principle that should guide me in living in these confusing times.

The Ethic of Sacrifice

Paul said, “If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live…” (v. 13). Paul was willing to give up his freedom if it meant building up someone who was weaker. He did not demand or cling to his right, but embraced his responsibility to his brother/sister.

We ask ourselves a simple question when confronted with those sticky issues that hang out in the gray areas of life: “Am I willing to stop what I’m doing if I find out it is causing another person to question it?” If I can answer that question in the affirmative, then I am observing the principle of sacrifice, which, by the way, is what Christ did for you and me. Remember, he did not cling to his own rights as God. He made himself nothing for humanity. It is Christ’s example. May it be ours, too? Why? Because what we do matters.

Our lives are contagious. Leslie Flynn points out in her book, Your Influence is Showing, that the Italian word for influence is influenza. The word influenza was introduced into English in the mid-1700’s, apparently coming from the Italian phrase that attributed the origin of this malady to an influenza de fredo (influence of the cold). Our example spreads to others as easily as the flu. Does our influence destroy or does it build up?

I’ve come to discover in my own life that while God does care about how good I am, He cares as much about how good I am to others. And, while God cares about my liberty, he cares more about my life. With love and sacrifice as my guiding principles, maybe I can begin to make a little sense out of this confusing culture.

Here’s the truth behind the truth: Love and sacrifice are nothing without the power of the Holy Spirit, for I cannot love fully as Christ loved in my own strength, and I cannot offer myself as a sacrifice for the sake of others by the force of my own will. Only when I surrender to the Spirit’s power does my love become sacrificial. Only when I give myself to the Holy Spirit does He take this confusion and transform it into something rational, wise and, dare I say, holy.

That’s the truth our culture needs as much as I need it.

Until next time, keep looking up…

In This (Together?)…

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A Facebook friend conducted a (very unscientific) poll and asked the question, “What’s your least favorite term out of this whole COVID-19 thing?” My immediate thought was the phrase was “a new normal.” There is nothing about this new that should be considered normal by an reasonable person, and there are very few life adaptations that we should want to get accustomed too.

There were other responses that ran the gamut from amusing to sarcastic:

  • “Flatten the curve…”
  • “This mess…”
  • “Mandatory…”
  • “Cancelled vacation…”
  • “Social distancing…”
  • “Herd immunity…”
  • “Essential businesses…”
  • “Shelter in place…” (which really should be “shelter at home”)
  • “Together alone…” (Really? Is that even possible?)

Hardly Together

Well, you get the picture. Quite an interesting array of phrases used to capture our current climate. As I reflected on all the responses, “new normal” may be my least favorite, but the most overused (and incorrect) phrase is “We’re all in this together.” It only takes a cursory scroll of any social media, or three minutes into the latest newscast to discern that yes, we are all in this, but we are definitely not together!

Watch President Trump’s daily press briefings and tell me we’re in this together.

Watch CNN, and then watch FOX News and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the introvert who still has a job and earns a paycheck while working from home in flip flops and shorts while sipping cocktails, and then talk to the grocery clerk who MUST go to work and stand all day just to pay the rent and tell me we’re in this together.

Listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must not ease the “lockdown” restrictions too quickly, and then listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must open the economy immediately and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the person who has received the “stimulus” check, and then talk to the person who hasn’t and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the small business owner whose business has been declared “non-essential,” and then talk to the chairman of Home Depot and tell me we’re all in this together.

Talk to the person who lost a spouse or a parent to COVID-19, and then talk to the person who doesn’t know anyone with the disease and tell me we’re in this together.

I say again–We’re in it, but we’re definitely not together.

Where we sit determines our perspective. Even as I write that sentence, I’m remembering an encounter Jesus had one day with two very different people looking at life from two very different perspectives, yet their lives converged around Jesus, and because they did, they were both changed forever.

Perspective Matters

The encounter is recorded in Mark 5. Mark’s gospel characterizes Jesus as a person always on the move–on an incredible journey, if you will. But, it was a journey fraught with detours. On this detour, Jesus encounters two very different people:

  • He’s a rich man, she’s a poor woman
  • We know the man’s name, but the woman remains nameless
  • He’s an honored Jew, she’s simply a unclean, ostracized woman
  • He approaches Jesus from the front, but she slips up to Jesus from the back
  • He’s had twelve years of joyful life with a wonderful daughter, she’s had 12 years of miserable, incurable pain

The contrast of these two could not be more profound, yet they were in the same condition—utterly helpless. Sometimes, that’s the best place to be. Martin Luther gives us an example. Luther made the statement that his greatest insight into God’s grace came to him while he was “on the toilet.” That sounds crass to us in the 21st Century, but when we understand the phrase “on the toilet” was a common metaphor for being in a state of utter helplessness, it throws Luther’s statement into a different light. Jairus and the unnamed woman were right where Martin Luther was when he discovered God’s grace.

A Rich Man

Jairus was helpless because of his daughter’s condition. She was on her deathbed, and this father, knowing nothing else could help,  reached out to the only hope left open to him. As a leader of the synagogue, Jairus was obviously a man of some means. Well-respected in the community, he was a man who was “clean” as far as the law was concerned. But, his money, his position, his place in the community were all worthless in this helpless situation. In an act of sheer desperation, He reached out to this radical rabbi who has been making waves around the countryside.

Jairus had done all, and in that moment the only thing that mattered was his daughter. Not his position, not his place in the community, not his money. Clean, un-clean, sinners or no, Jesus was his last best hope to bring healing for his daughter.

There’s a great lesson for me here: No one is above needing Jesus.

A Poor Woman

The poor sick, nameless woman is a stark contrast to Jairus. For twelve years, she had been unable to go to synagogue, possibly the one Jairus now led. For her to be in the crowd at all was a monumental statement on her part, and it demonstrates her utter helplessness. Not only was she unclean, but she was dead broke. Mark says she has spent all her money and the problem was actually worse. She was broke physically, spiritually and financially. She was as broke as a person could get. Clean or unclean, crowd or no crowd, Jesus was her last best hope for healing.

Two incredibly different people in the very same situation, but the only thing they were together on was Jesus. I wonder if Jairus thought as Jesus stopped to help the woman, “Jesus, why waste such precious time on this unclean woman? My daughter is dying!” Jesus’ response teaches me that, just as no one is above needing Jesus, so no one is insignificant to Jesus.

Jesus came for the up and out, and Jesus came for the down and out. The only thing these two people had in common was a need for Jesus. Two distinctively different people from two distinctively different worlds bound together by a deep need for healing and wholeness. Their utter helplessness found them both, as Mark says, falling “at the feet” of Jesus. This encounter reminds me of the old saying, “the ground is level at Calvary.”

It is said that after the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, a devout Christian, visited a church in Washington, D.C. During the Communion service, he was seen kneeling beside a black man. (Turn your virtue signals off!) Later, when someone asked how he could do that, Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

Our Common Need

What makes that ground so level? The awfulness of our sins, the terrible price Jesus paid to forgive them, and the love He has for all people. We can all kneel together at the foot of the cross. In God’s economy, nobodies are somebodies and somebodies are nobodies. Life is not fair to the upwardly mobile or the down and out. One thing we need to remember is that bad times are bad times no matter who we are. The only thing we may truly be together in is our need for grace. Jesus loves us all, and is as ready to offer his grace to one as another. What matters is our openness to receive his grace.

Hope said they could find help in an encounter with Jesus. Hope brought faith, and faith is the key to surviving the bad times, or at least surviving them without bitterness and blame. To the woman, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, you’ve been healed.”

Then, friends of Jairus came and said, “You’re daughter is dead. Don’t bother him any longer.” Jesus only looked at Jairus and said, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.” Jairus had a choice to make: Trust Jesus, or trust the other voices around him.

Jairus chose to listen to Jesus. He acted on his faith, just like the unnamed woman, and he saw the life-changing, life-giving power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. There’s another lesson for me: Faith makes all the difference. Faith is believing something so that our actions are changed as a result. Belief about Jesus does not bring healing, wholeness or salvation. Following Jesus does!

Do we have faith in Jesus? Our actions should reflect that fact. I am reminded of the Roman officer who came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant boy. Jesus said, “I’ll come with you,” but the officer said, “No, I understand authority. I tell a soldier to do this and he does it. You just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus said, “I haven’t seen such faith in all Israel! Go, your servant is healed.”

If we have faith, we’ll hear Jesus and we’ll obey Jesus. Like, when he said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit, and teach them all things I have taught you. And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

I suppose we are more together than I give us credit for. The pandemic has left us all at the mercy of something totally beyond our control. In that regard, we’re pretty much helpless.

We also live in a world left helpless by the power of sin. How we see that sin depends on our perspective, but no matter our perspective, our need for Jesus remains the same. Church, do you think we can at least be together in that?

Until next time, keep looking up…