And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:14, 16-17
“The world can do almost anything as well or better than the church…You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.” Philip Yancey (What’s So Amazing About Grace?) quoting Gordon MacDonald
Batteries Not Included
Gift-giving can be tricky. Over my years of celebrating Christmas with family and purchasing, assembling, prepping and wrapping hundreds of gifts, I have learned some things the hard way. For example: waiting until the wee dark hours of Christmas morning to begin assembling a child’s Christmas gift…NOT A GOOD PLAN. And these lessons come at a cost, both to us and to those for whom the gifts are intended.
For at least an entire adult generation, there are three simple words that, if not heeded, represent a huge failure in Christmas gift giving: “BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED”. Yikes! Those words bring back so many bad feelings! If I don’t see them printed on the box early enough in the whole gift-giving process, they can turn the most awesome gift ever into the biggest disappointment of some child’s season.
The Church has a Gift for the World
I wonder if there is even consensus today about what gift, exactly, the church has to offer the world. It is not just food for the hungry nor shelter for the homeless nor healing for the sick. Those are all just the …
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I Corinthians 13:12
There is so much wrong with our public discourse these days, even among Christians…maybe especially among Christians. The arrogance, the tribalism, and the mere screaming across the cultural divide (as if adding a little outrage to my message will make it more convincing) is just sickening to me. Maybe it is to you as well.
I have no idea what mirrors looked like back when Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth. But I’m certain they weren’t as good then as they are now. I rather suspect that the image in the reflection was pretty poor, maybe like looking at your reflection on the back of a silver spoon. However their mirrors worked then, one thing is clear: Paul is telling us that our state of “knowing” spiritual things is pretty poor on this side of Heaven.
For me, this is a truth which keeps me humble, especially when I am discussing theology or scriptural interpretations or even more general matters of God. Whatever it is I think I know, however certain I think I am, I must hold even that certainty with a healthy dose of humility. And when I lose that humility, I lose my ability to influence those who might disagree with me. By that I mean that any hope of conveying that truth to anyone not already inclined to listen is lost.
I sometimes think that we in the evangelical church have convinced ourselves that our job is to persuade. We act as though the gospel, despite its inherent power, somehow needs our polished communication skills …
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside… 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
Imagine my joining a CrossFit class and telling the trainer, “I just do not do squats of any kind. Sorry. It’s not that I cannot do them, because I can. I just don’t believe they will help me at all.” That trainer is likely to respond with something like, “Well then you don’t really want to do CrossFit, because squats (of every kind) are pretty foundational to everything we do here.” And then he/she would encourage me to leave and try a different program somewhere else; one that I really can believe in. I might ask him/her to please explain WHY squats are so foundational to CrossFit, and maybe that trainer would have a great answer, or maybe not. That’s not really the point. The point is, squats are a foundational part of CrossFit. So, if I am able to do them but just don’t really believe they’re helpful, then I really don’t believe CrossFit is helpful. If I don’t want the accountability CrossFit offers, then I don’t really want CrossFit. It’s simple that way.
Christianity works that same way. It is a revolution founded by Jesus, who …
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.He killed James the brother of John with the sword,and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Acts 12:1-3
There is a fair amount of debate these days over just what the accurate number is of Christians in this world who are being persecuted for their faith. A lot of that debate has to do with how we define “persecuted for their faith” and which genocidal numbers should or should not be included in that count. There is actually a pretty decent description of those numbers and that debate from this Christianity Today article last year. Our struggles here in the U.S. do not yet rise to the level of “persecution”. Indeed, I am embarrassed that we sometimes use that label to describe our culture wars here in this country, when our brothers and sisters around the world are being tortured, dismembered, and killed by political entities. Still, for our purposes here, suffice it to say, genuine followers of Christ are finding the journey more and more difficult.
I am struck, then, when I read about the early church’s responses to political persecution. And I am convicted when I compare their response to our response today. From the account of Peter’s miraculous rescue in Acts 12, here are a few observations about the natural tension between Christ followers and the world in which they are called to be salt and light:
The battle is the Lord’s and, as with all battles He fights, He wins in the end. OK, we don’t necessarily learn that from this particular passage. In fact, this account takes place as the culture wars are only just getting started. But still, you
Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom…When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:3, 10
Our circumstances are similar to Daniel’s in some respects, aren’t they? Babylon was not his home. Rather, he was exiled there for a lifetime, instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of this lifetime home. As Christ followers, this world is not our home. It is merely where we are for this lifetime. And we are instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of our lifetime home. God expected Daniel to be salt and light in his new home. God expects the same from us. Finally, like Daniel, we find ourselves in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward us and toward the God we worship. So, what does Daniel have to teach us about these circumstances?
When the opposition organized against Daniel and created laws which his walk with God simply could not abide, what did Daniel do? How did he respond? Here’s a list of ways he did NOT respond:
He did not take to his loud, proud social media voice and begin slamming those who had conspired against his God;
He did not stoop to his adversaries’ political ways by mobilizing his own political action committee to fight the battle in the world’s arena;
He did not create a bunch of hateful protest signs and organize a march on King
These are the times that try men’s souls. Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:12-14
During the American Revolution, author/philosopher, Thomas Paine, wrote a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis in which he challenged colonists at the infant stages of a revolution to stay resolved and to have hope. Considered a liberal (most such revolutions against such a long-standing government as the British empire are), he reminded the colonists that the war against Great Britain was a just war, with God on our side. He denounced any thoughts of compromise or of negotiated peace, but called the colonists to hold onto the values and principals in which their only hope lay.
Some would argue the U.S. is in another similar time of crisis. The political divisiveness of our current culture suggests as much. While I agree we are approaching a time of crisis, I think it is for different reasons than the current state of political divide. After all, is today’s divide truly deeper than the race fights of the 60s? The Vietnam War crisis? The fights over prohibition? Women’s suffrage in the early 1900s? The slavery issue and the Civil War? No, …
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. Luke 23:23-25
I am no fan of politics. As far as I can see, it represents much of human behavior at its very worst. At least in our culture, politics seem to have devolved into the extremists and their screaming voices holding the larger percentage of us in the middle hostage. The more we try to shut those voices out, the louder they become, and the wider the chasm dividing our country becomes. And, in the meantime, every important issue politics touches gets hijacked into the feeding frenzy of labels and manipulation. In short, politics poisons everything it touches.
This week, I am reading the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is so filled with ugliness and power struggles and politics and manipulation, it is an amazingly frustrating story to me. A few religious leaders who feel threatened by Jesus incite a virtual riot and use their influence to create an angry mob to ensure Jesus’ crucifixion…it is a portrait of how truly ugly humanity can be when politics take over.
It saddens me that this kind of ugliness has invaded the church today in the same way it did 2,000 years ago. In fact, some of the nastiest, ugliest pictures I have ever seen of an angry mob have been church business meetings or staff retreats or deacons meetings or committee meetings. Crucifixions, as it turns out, have become a dangerously common phenomenon in the contemporary church culture.
Sad, isn’t it?
But if you have been in a leadership role in the church …
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Acts 9:17-19
Have you ever wondered why exactly Ananias was necessary to Paul’s conversion experience? Doesn’t it seem like a lot of extra (unnecessary) steps? God could have handled this entire conversion experience so much more efficiently by just handling it Himself. What is the point of blinding Paul until a fellow believer could come to him and play a part in helping Paul see again? Friends, I believe we, the church, must answer these questions if we are to understand God’s expectations of us.
I have built an entire ministry around the proposition that the church is not just one alternative plan to reach this broken world, but rather is God’s only plan. I believe this with all my heart. Christian Unity Ministries is not about finding alternative ways to reach the communities of the world…it is about bringing health and vitality to the only vehicle God has already ordained for that work: his church. And a big part of that work involves helping churches become the people God expects us to become in order to love well, whether the objects of that love are within the church or outside the church. If we are to be God’s vehicle for reaching a lost and broken world, we must learn to minister even to those in our culture with whom we strongly disagree or fear.…
And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:3-5
Who, in your life, are you certain would do this for you? What relationships have you nurtured and developed to the point you can now count on them to be there for you when you most need someone to carry you? And you will, at some point, need someone to carry you…we all do.
In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg refers to it as “the fellowship of the mat”: that hard reality that, at some point, every one of us will need to be carried…will need to be loved by a few people who will go above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty and will carry us extraordinary lengths in order to get us through whatever dark season awaits us. We will all be called upon to do it for someone else at times and we will all need someone to do it for us.
But having those kinds of relationships in our lives does not happen accidentally. Whether it is family or just close friends, the truth is, those relationships are hard work, and not all of us are necessarily up to the task. This reality does not sit well with our current culture. Much of the cultural pressure today is toward a kind of love or acceptance or affirmation that is devoid of any hard conversations or difficult truths (or any truth at …
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1
The church in America is in the wilderness. That’s not such a bad place to be. It’s a difficult place, often a painful place, but it’s a place God often leads his people when He has some difficult lessons to teach them or preparations to be made. And the American church certainly has some difficult lessons to learn. Moses learned in the wilderness, as did Elijah. The people of Israel learned in the wilderness. And Jesus went there as well, where he experienced some critical “perspective builders” in the form of temptations. The American church, while in the wilderness, is experiencing temptations as well. If there were ever a story written about it, the way Jesus’ story in the wilderness has been written, the enemy’s temptations of the church might go something like this…
I. The devil said to them, “If you are the Church of God, tell these people to become members.” As bread represents a basic necessity for our body, believers (i.e., members) represent a basic necessity for the Church. There is not a church leader anywhere who, when describing the church he/she serves, is not tempted to describe it at some level in terms of number of members. It is one way we measure our effectiveness in mission. Every evangelistic outreach is measured this way. And since we all want to be seen as “successful”, the temptation here is to move as many bodies as possible from the “prospect” category to the “member” category as quickly as possible. The temptation is to use emotional pleas, scare tactics, or other forms of manipulation toward an all-important “decision”. And what the church is left with, especially over the long term, …