Tuesday, May 21, 2013

gospel response in great tragedy

At 3:20 yesterday afternoon, a monstrous tornado swept across Oklahoma and devastated the community of Moore. I watched throughout the evening as images and reports of this merciless tragedy trickled in non-stop through news channels. This morning, I talked with KCBI radio about how Christians might answer those who wonder what to think about God after the storm has passed.

The unbeliever (and some believers) ask one of three questions: Is God aware? Is God good? Is God powerful? Sometimes, when bombs detonate or buildings collapse, we try to make sense of things by affirming two truths but sacrificing the third:

> God is all-knowing and all-good, but isn't all-powerful. He watches and wishes, but He doesn't have the ability to control everything. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

> God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but isn't all-good. He is a mean-spirited deity who doesn't care about the world. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

> God is all-good and all-powerful, but isn't all-knowing. He is unaware of tragedy, perhaps distracted or caught off-guard by events on the other side of the world. Otherwise, bad things wouldn't happen.

Each of these options may tidy up our explanation for evil, but amputates an attribute of God in the process. We arrive at "an answer," but not the truth. So, what thoughtful response can a Christian give that recognizes the tension, and points people to God, not away from Him? Let me offer a few suggestions:

First, resist the urge to "rescue God." For 37 chapters, Job's friends tried to make sense as to why their friend might have been suffering. Each thoroughly-reasoned argument explained human causality, as if God wasn't even in the room when Job lost his family, his business and his health. But, chapter 1 puts God squarely on His throne. He was sovereign during Job's loss and in his recovery. People take cover in tornadoes, but God never retreats underground. When I sanitize the tragedies of life to make sure no trace of God is found, I unwittingly compromise who God is. I would rather have God fully in control of all things (and not understand this when bad things happen), than for God to only be in control of some things.

Second, reject pat answers. Every truth isn't equally helpful when people are at their lowest. Proverbs 18:21 teaches us that "the tongue has the power of life and death." Our response can be life-giving or death-dealing. Glib answers suggest that the solutions to life's problems are simple and self-evident. But, they're not. In highly-emotional times like these, consolation is better than information. While Romans 8:28 is an anchor of Christian hope, it's not a particularly sensitive verse to recite when a mother has lost her child. So, reject pat answers.

Third, reply with what you do know, instead of what you don't. One of the most authentic answers we can give those with questions is "I don't know." It's quite alright to concede what the great writers of Scripture even wrestled with. But as you do, turn the conversation to what you are sure of. God is good. Every moment, He is orchestrating life to accomplish extraordinary things. God is powerful. He sent His Son to defeat sin and death on the cross. God is knowing. He sees all the ravages of sin in the world and is directing everything to His eternal purposes. And, while I don't know what happens behind the curtain of the cosmos, I am sure that God so loved the world, that He sent His Son to die for the world, to rescue the world, to offer the world hope beyond this world.

Finally, respond with compassion. The word means to "feel with" people. In your gut. Perhaps the greatest gospel response Christians can have today is to weep deeply. To be genuinely sad at a planet undone by sin. As the world wonders about God, they can see the heart of God expressed through His people who grieve and then give generously to help those who hurt. This is what Jesus did in coming into the world. To be like us and to give His life.

Then the world will see. And then the world will know.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

people matter

Today, I read the gripping story of Reshma, the young woman trapped for 17 days under tons of rubble in the Bangladesh factory collapse. Unable to know night from day, she courageously crawled about in cramped tunnels and survived on four crackers and a few sips of water. However, what captured my heart was not only her resolve, but her rescue. When workers heard her small voice calling out from the ruins, a volunteer force sprung into action to save a woman who barely made $60 a month and was abused by her husband because her family didn't pay a large enough dowry. Reshma was rescued.

Because people matter.

Reshma's story gave me a glimmer of hope in a world where the message is that people don't matter or only some do. Take the story of Abercrombie and Fitch, the fashion retailer that made $237 million in 2012 through the exploitation of our kids. A 2006 interview has recently resurfaced where CEO Michael Jeffries candidly commented,

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes), and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

The message is, of course, only some people matter. 

In a bizarre marketing ploy, Hooters, the restaurant chain known for selling dinner on the devaluation of women, offered a free meal to mothers on Mother's Day. Yes, you read this correctly. It was their attempt to "improve their image." Earlier, I tweeted that this was like a thief trying to improve his image by donating proceeds from his loot to charity. It hadn't occurred to Hooters that you cannot honor moms while making their waitresses a fantasy to their husbands.

Enter Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was convicted of murdering at least three children in his clinic. I cannot even comprehend any human being holding a beautiful, dependent child in his hands and choosing death. It is a picture of world gone horribly wrong.

None of this should surprise us. In a world corrupted by sin, our values will always be inverted. What is cheap (like Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies or Hooters chicken wings) will be raised to significance while what is immensely valuable will be tossed in the dumpster. Fortunately, Jesus reappraised the true value of human beings. He feasted with those who weren't wearing the latest fashion. He defended women rather than used them. He came to give life, not to take it. Because people matter.

Los Angeles writer, Greg Karber, launched his own campaign against A&F by shopping at thrift stores for A&F apparel and distributing shirts, jackets and pants to the homeless--marginalized people the retailer would surely classify as "not cool" (see Karber's video here). Followers of Jesus can launch their own personal campaigns by simply dignifying people in every sphere of influence. Take bottled water to your trash collectors. Allow the customer with one item to check out in front of you. Be patient with the new cashier behind the lunch counter. Appreciate that the mother with the unruly kid might be at her own wit's end. Look for injustice and step in. Serve. Give. Honor. Wait. Defend. Fight to rescue beauty hidden beneath the rubble.

Because people matter.

Monday, March 25, 2013

with my hands lifted high?

There's a worship song that features the line "with my hands lifted high" and, every time the congregation sings it, hands raise on cue. Pavlov would be proud. There's a part of me that feels rebellious not lifting my hands while my lips sing out. And, in this wrestling, I'm learning to worship.

Two lessons come to mind:

First, there is value in hand-raising. Actually, there's a value in any body-movement in worship. One Jewish writer reflected that the "body should pray as well as the mind." For this reason, Jewish worshippers often rock back and forth, rhythmically engaging more of themselves in the act of seeking God. Likewise, when the Christian raises his hands, or claps, or stomps her feet or dances or kneels, they make an intentional effort to engage all of themselves in worship.

Hand-raising was a common expression of worship in the Bible:

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.--Psalm 28:2

So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.--Psalm 63:4

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!--Psalm 141:2

Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and plea to the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven.--1 Kings 8:54

“Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.”--Lamentations 2:19

In each instance, the person lifting their hands into the air communicates one or more of several spiritual virtues: humility [raised hands are a sign of surrender]; trust [willing and eager to receive from the Lord]; openness [vulnerability before God]; and affection [expressing a "reaching" or longing for God]. Each of these virtues gives me a good reason to raise my hands, whether or not the songs says I should or not.

The second lesson I'm learning is that my heart/will takes a while to catch up with my mind. Sometimes, the best act of worship is to do what I know is good, though my will is not sure it wants to go the distance. To say it differently, if I wait for my heart to catch up to what I know is true, I may miss out. But, if I "just do it"--knowing the value, though not fully embracing it yet--my heart will often follow suit. This is true, not only of worship, but of many things in the spiritual life.

This is how church works.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

how church works: loving those who leave

[NOTE: A year ago, I took blog break. I quietly stopped typing in order to turn my attention to other things. Today, I woke up from my long winter's nap.]

For the last several weeks, I have been preaching a series on "How Church Works." It's a handful of sermons that gets back to the fundamentals of why and how the church gathers. How do we listen to a sermon, take a communion , give, worship and connect with one another? Surprisingly, many Christians do church, but have never been taught how.

Last Sunday, I taught on how to leave. There is an increasing migration in and out of church--people who leave for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are "healthy" [career transitions, corruption in the church or God's ministry calling to a specific place]. Other reasons are less so [unresolved conflict, change, or conviction, to name a few]. While we talked about the "if" and the "how" of church transitions, the most important principle is unity.

In Ephesians 4, Paul commands the church to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received" [v. 1]. That is, to live a God-centered, gospel-saturated life that proves itself in the humble, gentle, patient, loving character of Jesus toward one another [v. 2]. These virtues protect our unity [v. 3]--a oneness based on the commonality we have under the love of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son and the transformation of the Holy Spirit [v. 4].

While these principles are important to prevent people from leaving churches so easily, they are also important after the fact. We--the church--have a responsibility to maintain unity with those who didn't hold the same value. We "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" by speaking well of them, praying for them, honoring their memory and being ready to reconcile should their hearts turn home. Unity isn't something we experience only when we're together; It's the kind of heart disposition toward each other when we're not together that would make it possible for us to be together again.

This is how church works.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

lucky 13

Last week, we concluded out PROTOTYPE series on The Lord's Prayer. Jesus wraps up His model prayer with the petition: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" [Matthew 6:13]. Temptation is the enemy's evil agenda to undermine the spiritual work God wants to accomplish in the Christian's life. Coincidentally, this verse is one of four New Testament "lucky 13" verses that help us understand the danger of temptation:

MATTHEW 6:13--We pray "Lead us not into temptation," but, truth is, God never leads His people into temptation [see James 1:13]. This request [expressed in a curious figure of speech called a litotes; to affirm something by negating the opposite (i.e., "This is no small matter" means "This is a big matter")], highlights the importance of coming to God for spiritual protection. None of us can win the war against temptation by ourselves. We depend on God's spiritual resources to gain spiritual victory.

JAMES 1:13--This verse, and those following, remind us the anatomy of temptation. Each person is tempted the same way: Capitalizing on our internal, evil desires, the devil lures us with attractive bait. None of us has been tempted by something repulsive. The enemy presents us with an opportunity for immediate gain, instant gratification, on-the-spot glory. Once hooked, however, temptation spirals downward into sin, which ultimately leads to death. One writer states, "Sin will take you further than you want to go. It will keep you longer than you want to stay, and it will cost you more than you want to pay."

LUKE 4:13 --This passage concludes Jesus' temptation during His 40 days in the wilderness before the inauguration of His earthly ministry [Luke 4:1-13, also in Matthew 4:1-11]. Luke writes, "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left [Jesus] until an opportune time." The phrase translated "opportune time" is a special Greek word. It more accurately translates "season." In other words, the devil came to Jesus [and would return to temp Jesus], not at fixed times on a clock, but at strategic seasons of his life. In the wilderness, the devil made use of the fact that Jesus was hungry, alone and about to launch a great work. Each one of us have specific seasons of our life where we are particularly susceptible to attack: just before a family vacation, when we are tired, when we have just "won" a great advancement at work or school. We must be on guard during these seasons of temptation [1 Peter 5:8].

1 CORINTHIANS 10:13--As we wrestle in the snare of temptation, we gain encouragement from this verse: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." Paul assures me that my temptation isn't special to me, but sympathetically endured by many others. I'm not alone. Moreover, when tempted, God will prove His faithfulness to me and Himself by providing a "way of escape" [NASB]. As I mentioned in my message, God's means of escape are found in prayer [Matthew 26:41], His Word [John 17:15, 17], His promises [2 Peter 1:3-4], biblical community [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12] and, Himself [Psalm 73:25].

I've lost track of the author, but have never forgotten the good proverb "You can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can sure keep them from building a nest in your hair!" Temptation is a sure nuisance of the spiritual life. But, remembering the "lucky 13," we can "Submit [ourselves] to God, resist the Devil, and he will flee!" [James 4:7]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ashes and abstinence

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of a 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter Sunday. In my childhood religious tradition, we marked this season by getting a mark--an ash-imprinted cross drawn with the thumb on our forehead. This ceremony traces its history back to 6th century Roman Catholicism and gained universal acceptance 500 years later. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of humility and repentance. Thus, the Ash Wednesday custom signifies subjection to God's rule and sorrow for having broken God's law: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes." [Daniel 9:3]

With ash comes abstinence. Traditionally, Lenten observers have given up something during this time. Some abstain from television, others from caffeine, meat, chocolate, Facebook, their mobile phone or the sports section of their newspaper. This voluntary "fast" accomplishes three spiritual goals.

First, denying our appetite and passions is symbolic of the daily decision we must make to say "no" to the cravings of our flesh. Jesus said,“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" [Matthew 16:24]. The normal spiritual life is a humble discipline of denial.

Second, abstinence turns our heart to God. The conscious act of turning down whatever my heart or stomach yearns for brings to mind the reason why I'm abstaining in the first place. In other words, the moment I say "No," the question comes, "Why?" Instantly, the Lord and my life in Him come squarely into view. Conscious refusal leads to conscious reflection.

Third, refusing the common, expected "food" each day leads me to lean upon the Lord for my daily bread. The more that is stripped away, the more that I discover the sufficiency of God for everything I need. I also find that He is more satisfying than anything else in the world. I want to be able to unreservedly say, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you" [Psalm 73:25].

Noel Piper reflects, "Traditionally Lent is a season of sober, realistic reflection on our own lives and our need for a Savior. It is a time for turning away from anything that has kept us from God and for turning or returning to him. It is a time to pray that God renew our love for him and our dependence on him." This year, I invite you to join me in this spiritual exercise. Let's enter into ashes and abstinence as we journey to the cross and resurrection of Jesus who gave up all for us so that we might gain everything in Him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

the 31 day experiment

Day three. A small distance in a larger journey I began last Sunday.

We began our study on The Lord’s Prayer [see Prototype] and learned that prayer isn’t automatic to the spiritual life. Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. Prayer is a learnable discipline. And it takes time to build discipline in the spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul describes the spiritual life as a race and a fight. Both require effort and training. To his young disciple Timothy, Paul urged, “[T]rain yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for    both the present life and the life to come” [1 Timothy 4:7-8]. The Godward life requires deliberate work. But, this work yields a payout for those who discipline their mind, heart and body. Donald Whitney affirms, “The Gold of godliness isn’t found on the surface of Christianity. It has to be dug from the depths with the tools of the Disciplines” [Spiritual Discipline for the Christian Life]. Speaking of the disciplined life, I’ll never forget the teaching of the late Vernon Grounds, “Ruts of routine are God’s grooves of grace. They are the roads that God uses to direct us to Himself.”
There are a number of spiritual disciplines practiced by Christians throughout history: Bible Study, verse memory, fasting, verse memory, meditation, silence, solitude, worship and prayer. In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ gives His disciples a template—a prototype prayer. One writer calls this “The prayer that teaches to pray.” The Lord’s Prayer isn’t intended to be prayed [though you can] as much as it’s intended to lead me into deeper praying. Each phrase unfolds something of the glorious nature of God and the depth of my human need. In fact, the very practice of prayer leads me into more prayerfulness.
When I was in college, I stumbled across a book titled The 31 Day Experiment. The author pitched that good habits are formed by 31 days of discipline. Do anything for a month and it becomes lifestyle. So, I choose to discipline myself in prayer. Not just spontaneous praying when I see a sunrise or think about my friend in need. But a focused, regular rhythm of prayer. I need more of this.
In November 2010, Tiffany talked me into running. I had resisted the exercise for 45 years. Then, on a whim, we went out for a casual, 3-mile jaunt. It took me three days to catch my breath. Over the next few months, my body adjusted to the habit and, very soon, breathing became easier and three miles became five and more. I recently ran 15 miles—a goal that seemed impossible to me a year ago. But, discipline makes distance possible.

I want to run further in knowing God, hearing God, experiencing God, being changed by God. This spiritual distance is possible through spiritual discipline. It’s day three. And, I’m running.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

good to go?

This week, I've had three conversations with/about people who have changed churches--either leaving their church to come to PBC or leaving PBC to go elsewhere. In a consumer culture, it's not surprising that any of us would so easily jettison one experience for another. But, in community culture--the Christian should think otherwise. Several years ago, I was asked to write an article about Christians switching churches. I came to three biblical conclusions:

Preserve Community. Healthy churches are formed around community relationships where people invest in one another.When people leave a church, the greatest sadness is experienced most often by those they leave behind--people who suddenly feel expendable. In a community culture, people think about others and seek to preserve relationships rather than sacrifice them on the altar of preference. In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul encourages the church, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." I confess, this commitment to the many, rather than the one, is a constant struggle in the spiritual life.

Seek Harmony. Most people change churches because of interpersonal conflict. They are misunderstood, misinformed, mishandled. This doesn't surprise most people who understand that the church is an imperfect community, learning to do life with one another. When we operate from a consumer culture instead of a community culture, we fallaciously think the next church will be better [not realizing that we were part of the problem in our previous place and we will be in the new place, making our next church as imperfect as the former one].

Community-oriented people courageously strive to reconcile differences within the Body of Christ. They run to conflict instead of from it. Remarkably, when we apply the principles of peacemaking from the Scriptures, we not only discover better, deeper, richer relationships, but prevent another church from welcoming wounded, unreconciled people into their midst. God has given His church the supernatural ability to work through differences and grow through difficulty.

Affirm Diversity. It might surprise some readers to learn that there are things I don't prefer in my present church. There were also things I didn't prefer in my previous church...and the church before that...and every church before those. On the one hand, I think God designed it this way to remind me that church isn't simply about what I come to get, but what I come to give. At the end of the day, it's not about me.

On the other hand, I think God is ever-challenging His people to live beyond their preferences and to accept the wide diversity within the church. For every person who wishes the Worship Center was lighter, there is someone who wishes we'd make it darker. For every person who wishes we had life-stage home groups, there's another who treasures intergenerational community. So many opinions, dreams, desires. Stay long enough at this church or the next and you'll discover something or someone you wish were different. Perhaps the reason that the New Testament doesn't give us much detail on how to do church, but instead, how to be the church, is because God is more concerned about our personal unity [heart connection] than our protocols.

On more than one occasion, I have talked with someone at their departure and they have assured me that "God was calling them" to move on. However, my study of Scripture has yet to yield instances where God called someone away from His church. Instead, He places a high premium on relationships, reconciliation and diversity. I do find a covert strategy of the Devil to discourage, divide and destroy. The Christian must discern one from the other. Something to think about the next time we feel that we're good to go.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

election reason

In my last post, I broached the potentially dangerous topic of divine election. Because human beings are spiritually helpless, we need God's assistance in loving God. Only if God intervenes in human hardness will anyone come to faith.

This raises an emotional question: "Why?" Few people ask the question "Why does God choose people?" though we should. More often, we want to know why God doesn't choose others. Don't the Scriptures say that God so loved the world [John 3:16] and that God doesn't want anyone to perish but wishes for all to come to repentance [1 Peter 3:9]? Why would God leave anyone behind?

Three reasons are worthy of our consideration:   
When salvation is put squarely in the hands of God, there is no room left for personal pride. Paul conceded that his only boasting was in the cross of Jesus, not in any human effort [Galatians 6:14]. If salvation depended on any human work---human ingenuity, human intellect, human will---the cross of Jesus would be diminished in its necessity [1 Corinthians 1:17].

But, the cross, wasn't just an extra "boost" to help mostly-competent people bridge a little gap. The cross did 100% for us what we were 100% unable to do. Thus election reveals the grace of God. The fact that God chooses to save some magnifies the greatness of His kindness and grace in salvation. If God didn't elect some, none would ever be saved.

Romans 9 provides one of the most helpful insights to God's purposes in election:

"What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory– even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?"  [Romans 9:22-24]

This is an interesting argument that is sure to raise the eyebrows of some. Paul highlights the prerogative of God to execute His wrath. Instead, God chooses to save some, in order to "show His wrath and make His power known" [v. 22]. I take this to mean that God chooses not to save some in order to amplify His justice among the redeemed.

Before we cry "foul," we must remember that justice is one of God's attributes. And, just as God wishes to make His love, mercy, power, wisdom, holiness and beauty known, He also wishes to make His jealousy, justice and wrath known. When we ask, "How could a loving God ever send someone to hell?" we prove that we have a limited view of God. God doesn't condemn people because of a lack of love, but out of a fullness of justice. And, His decision to elect is a demonstration of this justice.

Often, in the election discussion, focus is on why God doesn't save all people. In fact, we should wonder why God saves any people. No one deserves to be saved. All are justly condemned because of sin. Therefore, God's decision to save whomever He may ultimately points to His sovereignty. God answers to no one. The potter has the right to use the clay however He wishes [Romans 9:21].

So, we could try to figure out the "why" of election. Or, like some, unable to come up with a satisfactory reason, we could just dismiss it. But, perhaps God never intended for us to tie up the loose theological ends. Perhaps God prefers the emotional dissonance. Because, when we can't figure things out, all we're left with is faith. Election presents an opportunity for us to affirm God's sovereignty over all things and trust Him when answers don't make immediate sense.

Monday, October 3, 2011

election results

Yesterday, I preached on the conviction, calling and conversion of the Holy Spirit [3rd Person sermon series]. The moment I highlighted Romans 8:30 -- "And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified" --I could feel the emotion in the room grow tense. It was like someone had pulled the drawstring of a bag very tight.

Predestination is a difficult theological pill for many to swallow. Though the idea is unapologetically mentioned in God's Word [Mark 13:20; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 2 Timothy 2:10; 1 Peter 1:1], the prospect that God chooses anyone seems to offend our expectation that all people are equal and God is neutral when it comes to matters of eternal life. We would think it unkind for a parent to play favorites. How much more unloving it would be if God were not an equal opportunity Father. The result is that many throw predestination out the window in order to rescue God from any appearance of being uncharitable.

But, I believe in predestination. And, I arrive at this conclusion, not because it's easy, but because it fits the biblical data best. Let me explain in four comments:

SIN RENDERS US HELPLESS. Most Christians understand the universal problem of sin. All people are sinners, separated from God [Romans 3:23]. But, fewer understand the effects of sin. Sin makes us reject God, not seek Him [Romans 3:10-12]. Sin makes us spiritually ignorant, unable to understand spiritual truth [1 Corinthians 2:14]. Sin enslaves us [Romans 6:17], so that any notion that human beings have a free will --able to make any decision they want-- is thrown out the door. And, sin makes us spiritually dead [Ephesians 2:1-3]. We are unable to do anything for ourselves.

So, sin isn't just a moral problem that needs to be forgiven. The effects of sin are debilitating. No one seeks God, understands his truth or has the ability to make good decisions. We may not reach this conclusion about our neighbor who brings us fresh made pie and picks up our mail while we are on vacation. But, this is the conclusion of God's Word.

The next truth is the logical outcome of the first:

ALL PEOPLE NEED HELP COMING TO GOD. The philosopher Seneca once commented, "I have fallen into the pit of my besetting sins and I cannot get out and will not get out unless a hand is reached down to draw me out." Because of our ignorance, slavery, disinterest and death, none of us can reach God on his or her own. God must reach down to us.

GOD MOVES FIRST. If people are stuck in sin, unable to do anything for themselves, then God must be the initiator of grace. He must extend His hand toward helpless obstinate people. Jesus said "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" [John 6:44]. It's not that God moved second, responding to people who broke the chains of their own slavery, suddenly decided to pursue God, overcame their spiritual dullness and raised themselves from spiritual graves. Rather, God moved first. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" [Ephesians 2:4-5]. One commentator writes, "The Holy Spirit takes the initiative in the drama of rescue." Salvation isn't God responding to us; it's us responding to God. Otherwise, salvation is not by grace.

On these first three points, Christians on both sides of the predestination table can find some agreement. But, the jury still remains out for the election of God. For some non-predestinationists might argue, "I concur that all people are helpless and need God's intervention and that God graciously intervenes. But, God does this for everyone." This is the argument of neutrality. God gives everyone equal opportunity.

Theologians have referred to this as "prevenient grace"--a salvation footstool given to every person so that they can reach the upper shelves of God's blessing. Of course, the problem with this idea [other than the fact that it isn't mentioned in Scripture] is that people either understand spiritual truth or they don't. They are either free or not. They are either dead or alive. No one comes into the Kingdom because they have a shadow of truth, only have one spiritual shackle loosened and are spiritually comatose, wavering between life and death. Whatever grace God gives wakes the dead, sets captives free and opens minds to believe and hearts to desire.

This leads to a final comment:

GOD'S POWER IS POWERFUL. This is where the conversation about predestination hinges, in my opinion. Advocates of universal neutrality might suggest that God offers salvation to all and provides an infusion of grace to all to make His offer possible, but some simply reject the offer. This view makes God's calling impotent. Either God doesn't gives enough resources for a person to believe. Or, God gives all of His resources, but they are unable to accomplish their purpose.

Yet, Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" [John 6:37]. Paul writes that those were called, get justified [Romans 8:30]. So, the calling of God isn't a "first-come-first-served invitation." Rather, it is an effectual call, with the power to accomplish its goal.

To conclude, I back into my theology of predestination:

If people are spiritually dead and cannot do anything for themselves,
and if those people need help coming to God,
and if God moves first,
and God's help is always powerful, never failing,
then no one comes to God unless God works in them,
and everyone God works within does believe.

In my next post, I'll consider the reason why God might predestine some, but not all, to salvation.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

lessons from ground zero

In the 10 years since the Twin Towers fell, the American landscape has changed. Families no longer greet daddy at the gate as he steps off the plane from a business trip. Backpacks and purses are checked at ballparks. And, the nightly news usually reports on at least one international incident related to our military presence in terrorist hotspots.

But, it’s the spiritual shift--the internal change to our personal landscape--that is most significant. Reflecting on the last 10 years, these lessons have been most important to me:

WE ARE NOT INVINCIBLE. In Genesis 11, the people of the world decided to build a tower, reaching to the heavens, so that they could “make a name” for themselves. Their mighty monolith was going to be a testimony to their ingenuity, their power and their will. America prides itself on being “the most powerful nation on earth.” And, I am privileged to be born in and enjoy all of the resources available to me in our great country. But, our success puts our souls in danger. Our ability to invent, overcome, solve, construct and win---the very things that put us on top of the world—actually prevent us from humbly relying on God. Jesus said that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven [Matthew 19:23] because his riches prevented him from realizing his great need. Today, Jesus might also add that it is difficult for accomplished architects, fund managers, trial lawyers, expert physicians, published professors or technology entrepreneurs to enter the Kingdom too. The tragedy of 9/11 reminded all of us that our greatest accomplishments are nothing compared to the greatness of God. Apart from Him, we can still do nothing. We are not invincible.
This reflection leads me to a second thought.
IT ALL FALLS DOWN. I write these words on my computer as I sit in the Fort Worth Water Gardens. It’s an idyllic setting…that will one day pass away. So will my computer. And the buildings that surround me. Second Peter 3:10 foreshadows a day when “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” Only God and the souls of men are eternal. This reflection doesn’t drive me to fatalism. It does, however, help me invest in the right things.
This leads to a third reflection.
LIFE IS PRECIOUS. The greatest loss on 9/11 wasn’t buildings, equipment, office files or the architectural legacy of two great towers. Loss is measured in almost 3000 people who didn’t make it home for dinner that evening. Loss is hundreds of infant children who never met their fathers. Loss is first responders who paid the ultimate price. 9/11 awakened us to the value of human life, no matter what age, what socio-economic category, what color their skin. When Jesus said “God so loved the world,” I think he meant the overweight woman smoking a cigarette a few yards from me. He meant the little boy with Down’s Syndrome playing on the stairs. He meant the homeless man in a straw hat with a cane, staring blankly into another world. All of these people have a beating heart, a life-story, future dreams and a family who would grieve if anything ever happened to them. And, each of them are priceless treasures to God—“red and yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight.” The loss ten years ago taught us all about the value of human life.
I HAVE THE HEART OF A TERRORIST. I’ll never forget the general tenor of the words Billy Graham spoke at the memorial service for victims of the Alfred Murrah attack [Oklahoma City] years earlier: “The evil you have seen committed this day is in the heart of every one of us.” As sharp as these words were, Graham was reminding us of the fundamental truth of sin. As I have watched the nightly 9/11 news retrospects during this last week, I have reminded myself that I could have just easily devised a plot to hijack a plane. I could have bombed a building. I could have hated people. In fact, I have. I have wanted to harm people. I have wanted to push my agenda at all costs. I have wanted to make whole groups of people “pay a price.” I have participated in conspiracies. It’s in me. It’s in all of us. What the terrorists did on American soil was only a matter of degree.
EVIL IS A PERSON. With all the talk of “terrorists,” we might think that the enemy of 9/11 was a coalition of evil, power people. But, driving the sinister, self-centered actions of people [plural] is a person. Not Osama Bin Laden.  Not Saddam Hussein. Not any extremist leader hiding in the hills. Evil is the mastermind of Satan, a very real spiritual person. He is a created being [therefore, not the equal, opposite of God], not simply an impersonal “force” in the world. Paul affirms this in Ephesians 6:12, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Because our enemy is spiritual, military might in the Persian Gulf will not ultimately defeat him. He must be fought with spiritual weapons of truth and prayer [see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5]. Because He is a person, we can be sure that he has a will, an agenda and a strategic plan leading to a strategic end. Peter warns us, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” [1 Peter 5:8]

JUSTICE IS FIERCE. The work of the devil is dangerous. But justice is even more furious. When the smoke cleared from ground zero, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field, Americans were left with a lingering sense of injustice. Freedom had been violated. Innocence was robbed. What happened “wasn’t right.” The response that followed in the days and months afterward may have looked like revenge. But, it was no doubt motivated by a commitment to “make things right.” Justice is hardwired into every human being. It’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God [Genesis 1:26]. This global pursuit of justice is in-line with God’s purposes [because it reflects His character]. But, it is also a reminder that God will have the final say on justice—among all people. The whole world is accountable to Him. One day, we will all stand before His fierce judgment. And, the only way that anyone will stand secure is if the violence of their life has avenged at the cross of Jesus Christ.

GENUINE VIRTUE GIVES INSIGHT INTO THE ETERNAL. As the drama of 9/11 unfolded, hundreds of stories began to unfold. Brave firefighters climbed up the stairs as terrified workers streamed down. Teachers protected elementary school students. Flight passengers took matters into their own hands. Tributes have been written about calling, courage, community, and commitment. Each of these virtues is simply a shadow of a greater, eternal reality. Since we are made in the image of God, it’s not surprising that we would look and live like Him. So, just as our need for justice [see above] reflects the perfect justice of God, so each beautiful act of kindness, generosity, or bravery is a window into who God must be—but infinitely more.

GOOD TRIUMPHS. Just as the period ended the last sentence, so the good of God will be the final stroke in the history of the world. Every terrorist will be caught. Every evil will be recompensed. Every life will be restored. Every loss gets repaid. Every uncertainty gets clarified. This isn’t just a hope; it’s a promise. In the end, good triumphs because God triumphs. Dawn awakens the night. And for this reason, we can lay our heads down to sleep.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

transplant timing

Meet Stu and Jackson. A father and his bright-eyed 6-year old son. They share a bond that is more than family. Stu and Jackson had heart transplants in the same week.

Stu's heart had been failing for some time and, eight months ago, he was placed on the transplant list. On July 27, his close-knit community began a 30-day prayer initiative asking God for the perfect donor. Five days later, the phone call came that a donor had been identified and Stu and Teresa made their much-anticipated drive to Medical City in Dallas. At 7 a.m., they were at the hospital waiting for the donor heart to arrive and, by 2 p.m., Stu had been wheeled back to pre-op. At 4 p.m., Stu received word that the donor's family withdrew consent. Disappointment ran deep for a man who was still confident in God's faithful provision and a community of friends who continued to stand firm with compassionate support.

Rewind the tape a month earlier. Stu and Teresa brought Jackson (then 5 years old) to Pantego Bible Church to talk with Keith Smith about getting baptized. As Pastor Keith listened to Jackson's emerging faith, he encouraged Jackson with a book that he could take home to learn more about Jesus. His heart wasn't ready.

Jackson was scheduled with a follow-up conversation with Pastor Keith on August 3. Because of his father's sudden dash to the hospital, the meeting was expected to be delayed. But, because of his daddy's missed opportunity, Jackson was able to keep his appointment. He sat in Keith's office and expressed unwavering, articulate faith in Jesus. Now, his heart was ready. In a moment, he was new.

Miraculously, on August 6, Stu received another call. The donor heart was good and the surgery was successful. Stu's recovery was spectacular. And, nine days later, he returned home to a crowd of supportive friends. In a moment, he was new.

In Ezekiel 36:26, God expressed the coming covenant this way: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Jesus came to perform a heart transplant--to replace calloused, hardened hearts that are opposed to God with vital, pulsing hearts that beat for a relationship with God. The story of Stu and Jackson remind me that each spiritual transplant is the work of God. We may never know why Stu received the second transplant instead of the first one. But, I'm confident that the God who makes hearts beat was operating before the surgeons ever were. Similarly, I have no idea why God providentially arranged for Jackson to talk with Pastor Keith on August 3 instead of July 27. But, heart-change is always according to God's timetable, not ours.

This week, we begin a sermon series on personal evangelism and the story of these two heart transplants encourage me with great freedom when it comes to sharing my faith. I have no idea where people are on their spiritual journey. I cannot be sure whether their "body" will accept or reject the message. I don't control the time or receptivity. All I can do, as a Good News donor, is give away my faith. And, I trust God to do the rest.

Monday, August 8, 2011

the heart of the matter

Yesterday, I preached on James 5:1-6. It's one of those passages where a casual gloss of the text could easily lead the reader to conclude that the passage doesn't apply to them. Who of us thinks we're really rich? What's the standard of luxury? Few of us have unpaid farmers who have mowed our fields. So, we do nothing.

But, the Bible is written to get to the heart of matters. And, while a text may not seem applicable to me on the surface, there's always a deeper principle that God has designed to impact my life [see 2 Timothy 3:16-17]. For example, the deeper principle of James 5:1-6 is the stockpiling of resources to benefit oneself to the loss of others who needed the resources more. While I didn't think that I had personally refused blessing to anyone in need, the Lord brought to mind the saving of mission resources in our church budget "for a rainy day." This potential "hoarding" of mission riches stood in stark contrast to the the growing famine in the horn of Africa. Poor people desperately need what we could give. We just needed to apply the biblical principle and act.

And we did. Pantego Bible Church committed $40,000 to famine relief through our partnership with World Vision, a ministry that has a long track record of caring for children and families in the developing world. Through government grants, this contribution will be matched five times, for a total of $200,000!

The remarkable thing is that a seemingly irrelevant passage suddenly sprung personally to life! This is the way God's Word operates. If we really don't want to be changed--to continue living a Christ off-centered life--then the Bible will never be more than ancient letters written for someone else. But, if we approach the Bible expecting to be changed, we position ourselves where the Holy Spirit can take us beyond the surface facts to the heart of the matter.

Friday, May 20, 2011

camping out

The world will end tomorrow. That's what a small band of religious people are expecting. Sometime between 7 and 9 p.m. They have more than 500 billboards around the country warning of the impending judgement. Many have left their jobs and homes to travel in an RV caravan to urgently share their message before a cataclysmic earthquake strikes and a sudden rapture snatches more than 200 million Christians off the planet.

This May 21 date is the calculated conclusion of 89-year old Bible teacher, Harold Camping. He figured God's time-keeping formula from 2 Peter 3:8 ["With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."]. Then, he noticed that God told Noah that He would destroy the world in "7 more days" [Genesis 7:4]. Camping concluded that the world would be completely destroyed 7000 years [1 day = 1000 years] from the beginning of the flood, which he figured at 4990 B.C.

Camping's calculations call to mind an unforgettable quote from a seminary theology professor: "That is an interesting theory, sir. However, it has been bludgeoned to death by a gang of angry facts." There are several lessons I learn from this Bible teacher---though likely not the lessons he wanted me to learn.

First, no one can determined the times or dates which have been set only by the Father [see Acts 1:7]. Even Jesus didn't know the period determined by God. Many have tried. In fact, even Camping claimed the Rapture would take place in September 1994. Then, when he woke up the day after, he quickly decided to reboot his calculator. If he had read beyond 2 Peter 3:8 to verse 10, he would have discovered that the end will come "like a thief"--suddenly, surprisingly and unannounced. Not only is it a waste of time trying to figure the end times math, it is potentially dangerous.

Second, leaders are held responsible. In James 3, the writer sternly warns that "not many should claim to be teachers" because those who say "thus sayeth the Lord" will be held to a strict standard. Preachers and teachers carry authority. This means they have the influence to lead the way and lead astray. Camping will be held accountable for leading his band of followers and countless others to sell their possessions, quit their jobs, abandon their families and drift off mission because of his leadership. 

Third, every Christian is personally responsible with the way they handle the Scriptures. Paul writes, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" [2 Timothy 2:15]. His admonition reminds me that it is possible to incorrectly handle the Word of truth. When we neglect the careful study of Scripture and allow ourselves to be led into faulty interpretation by unqualified teachers, we indict ourselves as we stand before God. The Bible is God's word to us. So handle it well.

Finally, be prepared for the Day. Since we cannot know the days or times when Jesus will call His children home, it is right to always be ready. Peter urges Christians,

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. [2 Peter 3:11-13]

If Camping's campaign has done nothing but alert God's people to the certain return of our Savior, then the headlines are worth it in the end.

Monday, May 9, 2011

redefining normal

It's been a month since I last posted and 5 months since I preached a series "Redefining Normal." This is a good time to get back on track with both.

In this vision series, I offered the possibility that what many Christians think is the radical life is really "normal" in the eyes of Jesus. And, what many Christians think is the "normal" spiritual life would be considered quite abnormal from Jesus' perspective. What we need is to redefine what we think is normal. In the 3-part sermon series, I offered the normal, biblical point of view on connection, transformation and mission.

COMMUNITY | The normal spiritual life is lived in community with others. There's no place for individualism and privatization in the church. We were made to BELONG to Christ and each other. In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul writes that if we have been united with Christ and if comforted by His love and if we have any life-change...then pursue one another in selfless, humble community. He offers the example of Jesus who gave Himself completely to us. A Christian who "does" church but has no connection with community isn't normal.

CHANGE | Paul goes on in Philippians 2:12-18 to redefine change. The common experience for many Christians is the experience of incidental life-transformation. That is, the change that comes accidentally, by chance, simply because they happen to be at the right spiritual place and the right spiritual time. But, normal change the Christian should be intentional--choosing to join God's Holy Spirit in the life-long journey of sanctification. In 2 Peter 1:5-7, the author charges his readers to  "make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love… be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure." While the Holy Spirit ultimately brings about life-change, we have a responsibility to grow in vision, knowledge, character and skills.

CAUSE | The Christian who is connected in community and changed by God makes themselves available to be used by God to change their world. They have a cause worth living and dying for. To conclude chapter 2 in his letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus. These two men served faithfully and were even willing to sacrifice all for the Gospel of Jesus. They stand out as examples of the what it means to live life on mission. The normal Christian life gives itself away.

To listen to the three messages on "Redefining Normal," click HERE and scroll down the page to the sermon series. Finally, post a comment to get the conversation going. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, April 1, 2011

poverty and generosity

After preaching on principles of generous living last Sunday, I received an email from a friend encouraging me to remember those who have been stretched thin by the economy. That is, as we talk about greater giving, remember those who have been hit hard by the recession. Some have lost their jobs. Some people have urged me not to make poor people feel guilty for not being able to give.

I appreciate my friend's compassionate caution. In fact, as I started our series, I made four promises including a promise to be gracious. When it comes to money, no one wants to be kicked when they're down. So, let me offer a few guiding principles to those who may feel they have nothing to give or to those who are searching for answers on how the teaching of Scripture applies to those who are financially low.

First, there is a difference between those who must unfortunately adjust their standard of living to fit unique circumstances and those who are actually below the poverty line. A family who lives on a double income totalling $80,000, and faces the loss of one job [ie, $30,000], will certainly have to reset their bill structure, cut out entertainment and not be able to sign their kids up for two soccer leagues. That change will be very difficult, no doubt. But, a $50,000 household income still puts that family in the top 1% of the richest people in the world [see http://www.globalrichlist.com/]. The problem for many [guilty here, too!] is that we increase our standard of living to meet our income rather than set a modest standard of living and give the rest away. So, when we face financial loss, we also face emotional and living loss too.

Second, those who are not financially well-off will often experience greater joy in the Lord's reward when they give than those who are wealthier. When I attended seminary, our household income was less than $20,000 a year. Tiffany took advantage of the seminary food pantry each week and she shopped for clothes at the seminary clothes closet. Even by economic standards of the early 1990s, we were considered to be at lower end of the financial food chain. Still, we gave 10% of our income every week. We chose to eat rice and beans rather than rob the Lord of what was His. And, the reward was extraordinary. We eagerly looked for God's blessing and, when we received it, we celebrated greatly realizing that faithfulness pays spiritual dividends.

Third, for those who are truly impoverished, the Bible welcomes you to receive rather than give. According to my calculator, 10% of 0 = 0. So, if a person has no income, God expects no tithe. In fact, the tithe was collected from God's people who did enjoy an income in order to support those who were impoverished. When a person ends up at rock bottom, the church becomes the Lord's grace to them.

Fourth, generosity is somewhat relative to our present circumstances. While the Bible taught a specific tithe (10%) in the Old Testament, the concept is not prescribed in the New Testament. To be fair, the responsibility of God's people to contribute to God's work never changed. The principle of generosity never changed. Neither did the importance of trusting God with all our resources. But, a single mother making $15,000 a year may express generosity by giving $65 a month (5% of her income). But a couple making $175,000 may need to give $2000 a month (13.7%) to truly express generosity. In the end, God isn't operating with a magical formula as much as He is expecting a spiritual response.

Finally, in God's mind, there is no line of financial security by which a person should begin tithing. Sometimes, when we engage in the conversation about "Not talking to Greg and Marcie about tithing because Greg has been without a job for 6 months," we sound like we think giving is only a responsibility for those who live above the line and can afford it. This natural, but unbiblical, thinking completely misses the point of the financial stewardship. God commanded His people to trust Him with their finances all the time. If we only give when "we get back on our feet," then we've put our trust in ourselves and will only give God His due once we've been able to manage things to a level where we feel comfortable. For this reason, poor people end up with some of the greatest testimonies through their giving.

Monday, March 28, 2011

where does your money go?

I have started a short series on money called "The Great Give: The Discipline of Generous Living." Financial stewardship has been called "the one area of our spiritual lives we cannot fake." Our giving says so much about our spiritual living. Perhaps that's why Jesus taught more about money than He did about heaven or hell.

Once the topic of money is broached, a whole host of practical questions follows. How much? How often? Net or gross income [I love the answer: "If you want a net blessing, give on net income. If you want a gross blessing, give on gross."]? A very important question concerns the destination of our giving. To whom/where should we direct our generosity?

I'd like to answer this question on two fronts. First, I believe it is important for Christians to focus a majority of their charitable giving on Kingdom-centered initiatives. To be sure, the local symphony, animal shelter or policeman's banquet are all noble causes. But, when the souls of people are at stake, the greatest investment we can make is in ministries which are strategically and intentionally designed to make Jesus Christ known. This doesn't mean that every ministry is financially accountable or equal in regards to its effectiveness. But, when the Christian has to decide whether to save the trees or save people, give to people. In this, you lay up for yourselves treasure which are heavenly and eternal [Matthew 6:19-20].

Second, I believe it is important for Christians to give to their church first, then to support ministries. Throughout the Bible, God's people were commanded to give their tithe ["tenth"] to the priests, the apostles or the church. The Israelites were not allowed to take a tenth of their crop and distribute it at will. The early church brought their money "to the apostles to give to those who had need" [Acts 4:35]. Each time, God's people entrusted their resources to leaders who were given the responsibility to steward and safeguard the resources.

I believe there is a logistical and spiritual reason for this plan. Logistically, or practically, the community leaders [Levites, apostles, elders, etc.] are charged with seeing the needs in the whole community. As leaders of God's people, they are better able to disburse the funds of God's people in an equitable, balanced, strategic manner. Conversely, if all the people in the church gave to whomever they wished, the church would have no means to accomplish it's central mission. Spiritually, the act of giving is intended to be a step of faith wrapped in surrender. There is the ever-present temptation to go half the distance of faith/surrender by giving, but still attempt to maintain control by personally choosing where my money goes and how it is spent. In this, I miss the full "losing" and "gaining" that God has planned for me [Matthew 16:25].

Having offered this perspective, let me also address the other side. I do believe it is important for Christians to support initiatives within their community. Supporting participants in a breast cancer awareness walk-a-thon or giving a contribution to the local Girl Scouts can be a great thing. In addition, I do believe it's important for Christians to support ministry beyond the scope of their church. Hopefully, every believer has a relationship with a missionary whom they support. There are thousands of God-honoring, non-profit organizations who are committed to spiritual life change [I sit on the board of a an incredible Christian fraternity, http://www.betaupsilonchi.org/] and they deserve our partnership, over and above our commitment to our churches.

The good news is that all the money to accomplish all of God's mission is available. Let's seek the wisdom of God to give faithfully, regularly and strategically to the places where we might see the greatest return on our generous investments.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Q&A: a brief theology of work

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Theology of work: Why should I bother to work with any excellence at all if all I do is temporal and will all burn in the end? Does God think I am wasting my time? --Miki Anzai

A: Miki, first of all, let me tell you how much I miss you. Ministry with you in Austin was a real privilege. I will never forget your testimony of quitting your job, in lieu of an opportunity to serve on a short term mission trip, trusting that God would line up new employment when you returned. Your investment in the eternal puts your question above in sharp focus. Does our work matter?

I have previously been tempted to start forming my theology of work in Genesis 3 where God announces to Adam,

17 "Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

Sin brought the curse of painful toil, thorns and thistles, and laborious sweat. My conclusion was that work was the curse. People sinned, so God sentenced us to hard labor.

However, Genesis 3 simply declares the new, qualitative aspect of work. In chapter 2, before sin arrived in Eden, God put man in the garden to "work it and take care of it" [v. 15]. Work was a pre-fall design, not a post-fall discipline. I believe that God set Adam to work in the garden as an expression of man made in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27]. Just as God is creative and productive [expressed in creation], so He made human beings to reflect His creativity and productivity. In other words, work is an opportunity for each of us to express our connection to God Himself.

It's in this realization that work may become worship. Paul writes that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" [Ephesians 2:10]. Of course, the Apostle is referring to the "good works" of Christian virtue and service, not vocational work per se. But, God's "work" in our salvation is intended to reproduce itself in our "working" in a way that pleases God. So, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" [1 Corinthians 10:31]. We work with excellence because God is excellent. We work with diligence because God is diligent. We work with perseverance because God perseveres. It's not the work that honors God, but how we work which has possibility of glorifying Him. And, in the end, it matters little whether we dug water wells of built widgets. Our work is a reflection of our Divine design and, therefore, becomes an opportunity to magnify the Lord.

And, worship is never a waste.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Q&A: real faith

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Is it possible to believe that Christ died for my sins and was the Son of God, but still not be saved? --Rick Lawson.

Q: I'm always uneasy when I read Matthew 7:22-23: "Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" How can they have His power if they don't know Him? --Lewis Crow

Rick and Lewis, your questions are related and foundational for understanding the nature of authentic salvation. Both questions are connected because both deal with profession vs. practice. There were many in Jesus' day who were "card-carrying" religious folk. But, their lives failed to correspond with their lips; They didn't practice what they preached.

In Matthew 7:22-23, Jesus noted that there would be some who would stand before His judgment seat and be surprised. They will argue that they preached and perform miracles "in the name of Jesus," but Jesus won't give any claim to them. He will call them "evildoers" and sentence them to eternal separation. To Lewis' point, these condemned will feel as if there religious work was substantive [even believing that they had experienced the power of God in their ministry], but they will in fact still be enemies of Christ.

The Apostle James offers the strongest warning in James 2:14-17:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Verbal faith without corresponding action is useless. James calls it "dead" faith. It's not that action saves a person. We are saved by grace alone [Ephesians 2:8-9]. Rather, action, produced by authentic faith, is the evidence of faith. So, those who claim to have faith in Christ have no other evidence of the genuineness of their faith except their changed lives. To say it another way, "Talk is cheap" and "Put up or shut up."

To support his point, James writes, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" [v. 19]. His point is sobering: Demons are good theologians. They have the right answers and can conclude correct answers. What separates them from the rest of creation is their failure to act on what they believe. Thus, the person who claims to be a Christian, but whose life is void of evidence, is no better than demons and is in danger of missing out on Christ's best when they stand before Him.

I hope this helps. I look forward to your comments.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Q&A: holding the line

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: It seems like what is "acceptable" in the "Christian" community keeps changing. The line keeps moving in the sand about what is OK. The Bible hasn't changed yet what is OK seems to be. i.e., movies that are acceptable, language, etc. Seems like the line keeps getting pushed further and further.--Kristin Keilstrup Kimmell

A: Kristin, you highlight the ever-constant challenge of the Christian: living in the world but not letting the world live in them [Romans 12:2]. In the Old Testament, God's people were commanded to keep themselves "holy" [literally "set apart"] and not co-mingle their values and practices with those of the surrounding culture. When they entered into Canaan [Book of Joshua], they were to tear altars to Ball and Ashterah poles, reject intermarriage with foreigners and stay true to the Law of God. In fact, the reason for widespread annihilation of pagan people was to protect God's people from the ungodly influences of their culture.

The same charge is given to God's people today. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul cautions the church about co-mingling with culture. He writes,

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people."

“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
[2 Corinthians 6:14-17]

Unfortunately, today, too many Christians throw their hands up and concede, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Rather than draw sharp lines, they allow the world to "squeeze them into its mold" [Romans 12:2, JB Philips translation].

How do we stand firm and stay pure? Let me offer 4 suggestions:

CONSIDER what God has said. Many Christians don't know where the lines are because they've never seen where they're drawn. God's Word is remarkably clear in so many areas of life. My one-year Bible reading has been a great refresher for me, reminding me of God's high standard and right reward for holy living.

CONVICTION ahead of time. Daniel "resolved" that he would not eat the kings food [Daniel 1:8]. That is, he formed a conviction based on what he knew from God's commands. For example, my son has an immovable conviction not to entertain female friends at our house if we're not at home. His conviction is a reflection of his commitment to holiness.

COURAGE in the crowd. People with convictions stand up to stand apart. Eventually, they will end up standing out. People will ask questions. Someone will roll their eyes. Your kids might be the "odd man out." To be sure, there are many things not worth "dying for." But, when the time arrives for you to make a decision based on conviction, you will need godly courage to endure. Just before the Israelites entered Canaan, God assured them, "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go...Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go" [Joshua 1:7,9].

CULTIVATE a heart of humility. The danger of holiness is that it can breed a kind of haughtiness. Pride is ever on the heels of principled living. The more separated I am from the world, the more sensitive I must become to my world around me. God wants to use me to change my world. And, if I ascend the the peak of the mountain, I become distantly useless to my neighbors in the valley. Monks make terrible evangelists. So, ask God to help you remain humble as you pursue holy living.