Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why I Don't List Following Jesus as My Top Priority

Recently I was explaining to a friend some of my "priorities" in life.

I actually used the expression "my roles" and began to list my life's roles in order of importance. "I am a husband first and a father second," I said. "When God allows it again, I will be a pastor." And then I went on to list a few other roles I play in my life.

Later I wondered if I had offended him (probably not) by not listing "Christ-follower" as my first role. But as I thought about it, I was glad I hadn't. And as I think about it now, I wouldn't list that as my first role if I had it to do over again.

I know that may be a difficult acknowledgment for some to hear, but please read the rest.I don't think following Christ belongs on the list of roles I play in life. It is not something I do. It is not a hat that I wear. It is who I am.

Every role I play is temporal. Even the marriage commitment (which is "til death do us part") is not forever. Jesus said there is no marriage or giving of marriage in heaven. Following Christ is the only part of me that is forever, and for that reason it must be so much more than just a part of me.

I am a husband first. But I am a husband that follows Christ.

I am a father second. But I am a father that follows Christ.

I am a soccer coach. But I am a soccer coach that follows Christ.

Sometimes, I am a bus driver. But I am a bus driver that follows Christ.

If ever my pursuit of Jesus becomes something other than the central definitive element of my life, then I have lost my compass. To abandon that core is to return to a life of death, a life from which I was rescued long ago. To say that He is my everything is nice, but to live knowing He HAS my everything is better, and to die to everything but Him is best.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Five Years of Conversation About Race and We Still Haven't Really Moved


A few nights ago, Marianne and I had dinner with some friends. One of them shared how they had once been part of a church which split over how to handle a group of children from a different ethnic background than the majority of church members.

"Ironic", said I. "I was once in a church which saw a mass exodus over the same issue."

As I thought about this sad commentary on SOME American churches, I recalled this post I wrote many years ago. While it is certainly out of date, I still agree with the same conclusion I reached almost five years ago. Here you go:

In the interest of self-disclosure. I'm not planning to vote for Obama in the general election.

However, I've been observing this whole "bitter Pennsylvanians" thing from afar and have some thoughts.

1) Obama is trying to open the dialogue about race in this country. I don't envy him. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to have open discussions about race or any other issues as long as we have campaigns and journalists who spend all their time focusing on what people should and shouldn't say, rather than on what they actually say.

This is a great example. All we're hearing from anyone is, "Oh, he shouldn't have said that. He's going to offend people." We're hardly hearing anyone say, "He's right, and this is why..." or "He's wrong, and this is why..."

I'm inclined to say, "He's right." More on that later.

2) I'm bemused at the number of news outlets who are getting away with running only a small part of the quote. What people are seeing more than anything else is that Barak Obama said:
So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations
Very few people are seeing is the context in which he said this. Before he said anything about people being bitter, he explained why they are bitter. It isn't any surprise the Clinton campaign wants to gloss over this part of the quote:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them, And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
This selective quoting is just poor journalism and reveals that Fox isn't the only network that is "fair and balanced" in an interesting kind of way.

3) Obama is right. As someone who lives in a Midwest town where the jobs have been slipping away from 25 years or more, I can say with great certainty that a week rarely goes by where I don't hear someone talking about these very issues; blaming immigrants, minorities, or trade policies for the woes of the economy. Obama is right, people in these types of communities are bitter, and I'll go a step further than him, often this bitterness manifests itself in racist/prejudicial attitudes.

4) I'm embarrassed that the church is sometimes a hotbed for this. About a year ago, our church did a "Justice and Mercy" series that really set some people on their ears. I spent hours and hours listening to people lambaste me, our other pastors, and our church because of this series. The stated issues were a lack of Biblical preaching, and a lack of Biblical emphasis in our small group curriculum.


Why am I pointing this out in a post about Barak Obama? Because this is a typical Conservative Christian response when confronted by the sad realities of racism. The real issue that was going on for these people was that they were angry (bitter?) that we had other believers (from churches with prominent memberships of other ethnicities) come to our church and suggest that racism is still a big issue in America. They didn't like that we had two African-American pastors share our pulpit and declare that the church has not been a beacon of light in their community. They were angry (bitter?) that these pastors suggested we need to reconsider our opinions on affirmative action. (fyi, this is not conjecture, this comes from actual conversations i had)

So... instead of looking into their hearts to see if the Biblical mandates toward love, reconciliation, no favoritism, etc. should be applied in the area of race and social justice; they decided this conversation wasn't Biblical, and they left.

Why tell this story? Because this is precisely what is happening today in the media. Instead of evaluating Obama's words to see if they hold up under scrutiny, everyone is feigning offense so they won't have to deal with the possibility that he may be exposing a little darkness in our lives.

It's sad when the media does this.

It's rotten when the church does it.

We All Need a Little More Failure in Life

No long ago Pope Benedict XVI resigned his role as father of the Roman Catholic Church. Now a new "Father" is making his way as leader of the world's largest religion.

Benedict's decision was unprecedented in modern history. He is the first in over 500 years to resign as pope. While health and age certainly played into this decision. I believe Benedict chose this road out of his desire to commit one final exemplary act. He lived out his belief that men wither and glory fades.

1 Peter 1:24 says, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall" (NIV)


Little in this world is permanent. Even the blessed gifts which last our entire life (marriage), carry an expiration date ("til death do us part). Yet it is human tendency to assume and desire that all good things are permanent. Whether it is a job, a hobby, a stage of life or our children, we have a difficult time letting go. This wont be a popular statement, but I would suggest this reluctance to accept the end of things is sin.

Permanence is a lie of devil. In fact, it was one of his very first ("you shall not surely die"). He must think it is one of his best, because he still uses it today. Most people live the majority of their lives without thinking about their death. One of the most common phrases heard at a funeral is, "I can't believe he/she is gone." Death is unthinkable because Satan has convinced us of the permanence of all things.

We have bought Satan's lie. We believe not only that we will not die, but also that we will not age or wither or fade. Every year, hundreds of thousands of surgical procedures are undertaken to repair the bodily damage of middle-aged men who still think they are high school athletes. The plastic surgery is a billion dollar industry because so many women (and a few men) seek to roll back the clock via a surgeon's scalpal. Every year, corporations fail because the CEO or the President waited too long to step down. This is why Pope Benedict's resignation was so stunning. It was an admission that he was fading. It flew in the face of all we believe about ourselves.

A little over a year ago, I read a book entitled Necessary Endings. The author, Henry Cloud, uses the analogy of pruning to discuss the importance of endings in our lives. He suggests three types of pruning which are all necessary:
1. Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive 
2. Sick branches that are not going to get well 
3. Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones
Too often we are afraid to prune or be pruned because we think it means we failed. In our success-obsessed culture, failure is another naughty f-word. As a result, many people hold on to things or continue pursuits or avoid endings because they believe they might possible succeed.

Henry Cloud suggests that:
Failing well means ending something that is not working and choosing to do something else better.
We could all do more of that. Pope Benedict reached the pinnacle of his world. There was nothing left for him to do but fail. He chose a necessary ending. Rather than continue to lead when he realized his leadership skills had departed, he chose to be done. Perhaps, it felt to him as a personal failure; but his personal pain certainly spared the Roman Catholic Church a massive amount of pain.

Glory fades. Whether you like it or not, you will wither, fade and die. You cannot control that. You can, however, control how you fade and how you wither. Will you face your expiration with grace? Or will you scratch and claw for one more chance? Or will you cling and grasp for the glory of ages past?

Open your hands. Let go. Embrace endings.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

When "I Love You" Means Nothing

After three unsuccessful attempts to steal Samson's strength and betray him to the Philistines, Delilah resorted to the last card she had to play... She played the "Do you love me?" card.
Then Delilah pouted, “How can you tell me, ‘I love you,’ when you don’t share your secrets with me? You’ve made fun of me three times now, and you still haven’t told me what makes you so strong!” She tormented him with her nagging day after day until he was sick to death of it. (Judges 16:15, 16 NLT)
"I love you"

These are powerful words. I still love to hear them from my wife of 17 years. I still try to say them to her several times each day. I also make sure I repeat these words to my children every day. For as long as possible, I want them to find their love at home, not from some boyfriend or girlfriend at whom they are making googly eyes.


Here's the scoop. If you are a parent of a middle school or high school child, or if you are in middle school or high school; please pay attention to this...

GIRLS: if some teenage boy tells you that he loves you, laugh at him and walk away. Not only is he completely incapable of understanding what those words mean, he is only telling you that so he can have what he wants from you... And it isn't a long-term relationship.

BOYS: if some teenage girl expects you to say you love her, refuse and walk away. She is seeking to use you to fill a void in your life. if you allow her to control you know, she will nag you forever (not my words, they are directly from the story of Samson).

Truth is: Until you have a ring to accompany the words, "I love you", they don't really need to be said. More often what they really mean is, "I want something from you", and that is likely a sign that this relationship is going nowhere.

I'm only telling you this because I love you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Even Your Suffering is a Gift From God

This past weekend I made the statement that "Everything we have is a gift from God." I went on to suggest that even our life life's circumstances (good and bad) are a gift from God. Tonight, I received a super kind email asking if I would explain that concept a little more. I think this is a pretty common issue that people wrestle with, so here are some excerpts from my answer to him.

Please understand that I am NOT writing this as an ivory tower theologian or as a behind-the-pulpit preacher. I am a fellow pilgrim who has seen the swamp of despair and has endured the abuse of Vanity city. I have days when I am certain God has given me a burden better suited for someone else, and yet those same days are often marked by unmistakable interventions of his gracious provision. My life's journey is not resolved. In fact, it is decidedly unresolved and often I would be happy to give back the "gifts" God has deemed me worthy to receive....

Do I really believe that EVERYTHING is a gift from God? Am I saying that God is the author of evil?

In no way do I mean to excuse the terrible actions of sinful people. Much of the suffering in our world is a direct result of terrible decisions being made by sinful people. However, while I believe God hates the pain which is present in our world, I don't think that sin or the suffering it causes is surprising to God nor does it worry Him. I might not use the words "God caused it", but I am comfortable saying God is "in control" of it.

I look at James 1 as one of the passages which really inform my perspective on this issue. I believe that the "good and perfect" gifts of James 1:17 are actually our trials (which lead to perseverance and completeness). Like much of life, trials are best understood in the rear view mirror. While today's life circumstances may not feel like a gift, for those who faithfully endure there awaits a fuller understanding of the good God was forming in us. Joseph is a great example of this truth. I'm sure there were many points I his life when his situation didn't feel like a gift, yet when he saved his family's lives, I'm sure he gained a completely new perspective on his past suffering,

Of course you deal with suffering and pain that is likely far beyond what Joseph did. I hate that. I think God hates that. I know He hates the sin that has caused that. Yet, I have full confidence not only that He is capable of intervening (beyond what we could imagine), but that He will use life's darkest moments to bring glory to Himself and in so doing allow us to experience resolution and wholeness (in this life or the next).

God is not the author of evil, but He is the editor!

 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dear Pastor, Are You Preparing Your Church for Easter?

Dear Pastor,

Are you preparing for Easter?

I know... You just got past Christmas, Easter is months away, you have other people to do that stuff, you need to focus on this Sunday's sermon...


I know you are busy, and maybe Easter isn't really on your mind. But the truth is, you are already behind.

On Easter Sunday, more people will visit your church than any other weekend this year. More people who are looking for a welcoming church community will visit on Easter than any other weekend. More people who need to hear and believe the Gospel will be at your church on Easter than any other time. Easter provides you with an amazing opportunity, but it also carries a grave responsibility.

Will you be prepared to present the Gospel in a clear and relevant manner?

Will your people be prepared to welcome the explorers who show up to join your community that day?

Will your gatherings be planned and executed in a way that minimizes distractions and maximizes focus on the simple power of the Gospel?

Will your teams be ready to cultivate new relationships and graciously pursue those who show interest in the Gospel or in your community?

Are the members of your church empowered to go to the street corners and invite anyone they can find to the "banquet"?

Are you ready for Easter?

Dear Pastor, please begin today. You will have no greater opportunity this year to present the Gospel to such a large and needy group as you will on Easter. Please be sure you and your church are ready.

Thanks.



Only God Can Truly Care for You, Therefore Only He is Worthy of Your Faith

Give your burdens to the Lord , and he will take care of you (Psalm 55:22 NLT)

This is a pretty straightforward statement, similar to many other promises in the book of Psalms. Believing God is always in control means you can always believe He will take care of you.

However...

While we spout forth words that God will intervene on our behalf, our actions often speak of a very different belief. More often than not, we really depend on other people rather than our creator to take care of us. As a result, we often experience bitter disappointment.

As for my companion, he betrayed his friends; he broke his promises. His words are as smooth as butter, but in his heart is war. His words are as soothing as lotion, but underneath are daggers (Psalm 55:20 - 55:21 NLT)

Other people can never take care of us. Even those who claim to be friends will sometimes let us down. No one is more worthy of our trust than God. No one is more capable of taking care of our needs. Therefore, we should never look to anyone other than Him to be our provider and sustainer.