Monday, August 19, 2013
The biggest threat to Western Christianity is not persecution and hardship; it is ease and comfort. Jesus promised us that following him would be difficult. But, it's hard to understand that when being a Christian is reduced to dropping $10 on the latest WOW! Worship CD or reading and discussing "How to Be a More Perfect Christian" on a comfy couch in your small group leader's living room. So, I think it's only natural that we look for ways to figure out what Jesus meant when he said it would be difficult.
For some, that seems to mean picking political battles with non-Christians (or with Christians who happen to disagree with them) over abortion, gay rights, and the audacity of some people to wish each other "Happy Holidays" throughout the month of December. I would suggest that this is a very shortsighted view of what Jesus was talking about when he said that following Him would be hard. In fact, I have hard time reconciling this attitude with anything that I see in Scripture.
But, the simple fact is that this kind of persecution mining is much easier and requires far less discomfort than what Jesus was talking about. Instead, we should be setting aside our comforts in order to love others sacrificially. We should be holding ourselves to a HIGHER moral standard than we demand of others. We should be looking for opportunities to walk and even live among the disenfranchised, rather than just sending our monthly sponsorship check.
Imagine, for example, if the Christian response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s had been to reach out to the infected, particularly those in the gay community, and asked, "how can I help?". Instead, the response was all too often, "look at the judgment that God hath delivered to these vile sinners!" And, when I look to this history, it's not hard to see why there is so much hostility in some parts of the LGBT community towards the church, especially when many in the church continue to pick fights over that issue.
To be fair, since then a lot of Christians have stepped up to the plate to provide care for HIV victims, but it is interesting to me that this came en vogue only after it was determined that HIV was not contagious through superficial contact. But, the Christians who made the biggest difference are those who walked into the midst of the AIDS epidemic, fully accepting the reality that they might become infected themselves, simply by holding hands to pray with an infected person and those who welcomed gay AIDS victims into their homes, saying "I don't care how much flack I catch from my fellow Christians for being your friend; Jesus told me to love you, so that's what I am going to do."
I cite this as an example that I would hope most would understand. The idea is that the type of "persecution" and "suffering" that Western Christians face doesn't come from the "evil secularists and atheists." It comes from a conscious choice to live without the luxury, comfort, and security that our culture insists that we should demand. What I have found is that the more I try to take seriously the gospel call to live like Jesus, I do get some pushback. And, 9 times out of 10, this comes from other Christians. But, I don't dwell on it, and I certainly wouldn't call it persecution. Instead, I see it as a reminder of how far we have yet to go and the danger that my comfy life places on my Christian faith.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Saturday, July 9, 2011
As a reality, the cross is a gruesomely simple device used by the Roman government in the First Century to slowly and painfully execute criminals, political dissidents, and others who earned the severest contempt of the Roman authorities. It is a means of execution that might be mostly forgotten, but for its use to execute "the author and perfecter of our faith" in the sometime in the 3rd or 4th decade of the First Century. For Christians, the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection is the basis for and the evidence of our reconciliation with God. And, whether historically accurate or not, the symbol of the cross (used to symbolize our redemption) has been portrayed as a vertical plank intersecting a horizontal plank.
And, it is this intersection of the vertical and the horizontal is the basis of the metaphor for Christian relationship that is the subject of these posts.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
It is interesting to me that the Bible, on more than one occasion, speaks of our spiritual goal, that of advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, as being comparable to a race. For example, Paul challenged the Corinthians to “run in such a way that you may win [the race.]” He encourages them to remain unsatisfied with mediocrity in their spiritual journey. We are all encouraged to take seriously this challenge, to seek excellence in all of our endeavors, but most importantly in the task of advancing the kingdom. In one translation of the Bible, Paul is quoted as saying, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace.” Paul’s experience with God was so profound that there was absolutely nothing that mattered to him more than being a faithful and enduring servant of Jesus Christ.
In thinking about this metaphor, there is one thing that keeps coming to the forefront of my mind – the need to train. I have now been training for about 10 weeks now for the Dexter-Ann Arbor 10k, and every day of training has been important in preparing my body and mind to be effective in meeting my goal. Preparation for our spiritual race is every bit as important. I cannot be effective in advancing the Kingdom and testifying to the gospel if I do not train for it through the disciplines such as Bible study, prayer, discussing Scripture and my spiritual walk with other believers, moral integrity, and serving within my local church community. If I were to run a 10k without having trained, I would not only perform poorly, but I would likely set myself up for injury. In fact, one reason I have chosen to run the 10k this time around is that I know that I am not yet prepared for my ultimate athletic goal of running a marathon; that will have to wait until I have trained much longer and harder. In the same way, the tasks that I take on in my spiritual journey, in serving and in proclaiming the gospel, should reflect my own level of spiritual preparedness.
This should not be seen as an excuse to avoid deeper and more intense levels of Christian service, but rather as a call to humility, self-awareness, and discipline. We are called to serve with the same attitude “that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . . and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” We need to appraise ourselves honestly, confessing our sins and shortcomings and seeking the renewal of the Holy Spirit. I cannot be made effective if I am not willing to look honestly at my own spiritual condition. However, “[i]f we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Equally important is spiritual discipline. To successfully complete the race, we need to be prepared for it, which will require of us self-control, discipline, sacrifice, and an overwhelming desire to see lives transformed by the love of God and the advancement of His Kingdom. My prayer is that we will run the race, well prepared to win it.
“Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
 See, e.g., Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24; Galatians 2:2, 5:7; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 12:1
 1 Corinthians 9:24 (All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 Acts 20:24 (New International Version)
 Philippians 2:5-8
 1 John 1:9
 1 Corinthians 9:25-27
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Recently, I participated in a discussion on an internet forum about the biggest issues facing American Christians today. The conversation was sparked by a professing atheist, who suggested that biggest five issues for Christians were:
1. Evolution in schools.
2. Sex Education in school.
3. Gay Marriage.
4. The "dissent" of television.
5. The poor opinion the world has about many Christians.
Sadly, the Christians who responded to this, by and large agreed that this or some similar formulation indeed represents the most important issues that we, as Christians, in America face. I don’t want to belittle these issues (or other issues, such as the environment, HIV/AIDS, etc.) as unimportant. However, I see many of these issues and other as mere symptoms of greater shortcomings and signposts to greater issues.
The main issue that I believe that we as American Christians face is the same as it has been for all followers of Jesus for the last 2000 years: advancing the Kingdom of God and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people. Jesus introduced his ministry as one that would “bring good news to the poor. . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Jesus confirmed in this that the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Jacob, is concerned, above all else, with defending the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the innocent. This is a theme seen throughout the Old Testament and made fresh through the ministry of Jesus and the Early Church.
We serve a God who loves the world deeply, but especially those who are in the greatest need. It is tempting for me, at this point, to throw at the reader a long list of Scripture passages illustrating God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. But, God’s compassion so pervades the pages of the Bible that I think that this point is not easily missed by any serious student of the Scriptures. This point is echoed by Jesus as He concludes his teaching ministry, as recorded by Matthew. He tells us that whenever we do an act kindness for one of the least of his brothers or sisters, we do it for him. He warns us, however, of the eternal punishment awaiting those who turn away his poorest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Essentially, Jesus begins and ends his ministry declaring God’s love for the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. He begins by declaring that the people such as these are the very reason he came to be among us. He ends by calling all of us to serve them with the same selfless love that he did. Jesus’ younger brother, James, further reminds us that this remains one of our key purposes in the world: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We are called to love and serve as God loves and serves, not to show favoritism to those who can repay us for our kindness, but rather to give generously especially to those who can never repay us in kind. When we, the Church, live up to this calling, we will see with clarity the Kingdom of God, and we will see healing in all aspects of our lives and of our society.
We live in a very broken world. Problems like poverty, warfare, religious persecution, and preventable diseases (not the least of which is HIV/AIDS) destroy far too many lives. For example, estimates are that 26,000 children, under the age of 5, die every day due to poverty related causes. As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, we are called to care about this and to do what we can to show God’s love to a hurting world. We are called to be bearers of good news to the whole world – no exceptions.
 My apologies that it took almost two weeks to get this entry posted. Something about it was not sitting right with my Spirit, so I chose to take some extra time to pray and meditate on the topic prior to posting.
 Luke 4:18-19 (quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)(All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 Matthew 25:31-46
 Paraphrase of Matthew 25:40
 Matthew 25:45-46
 James 1:27
 See video posted at http://www.30hourfamine.org/
Thursday, April 23, 2009
According to Paul, the greatest gift that God gives us is love. Not only does He share freely with us his love, as demonstrated by Christ’s heart of service and his death on the cross, but He also instills in each of us the ability to love others. Having given us this gift, he commands us to do something with it. When we love as Christ calls us to, often we find that the result is no less miraculous than what Peter and John witnessed at the Beautiful Gate.
I saw an example of this at the Rescue Mission this weekend. Five of our teens, along with another adult leader and I, served at a facility that provides guidance and rehabilitation to drug addicted men. We had the opportunity to meet several men who had just weeks ago been slaves to their drugs of choice, who are now clean and sober, thanks to the love that they receive from the staff and volunteers at this facility. I have no illusion about the fact that some, if not many, of these men will relapse someday (perhaps soon). Having personally experienced the despair and hopelessness of alcoholism, however, I count every man in that facility who has the sincere hope of recovery as a miracle no less profound than the lame man jumping and rejoicing in the Temple. Unfortunately, some may have to struggle longer before they find lasting freedom. However, if only one man leaves that facility to live a productive life, freed from the chains of addiction, then that is a miracle over which we should find great delight.
Every man that walks out of that facility with the hope of a new life of freedom from addiction is a miracle. These miracles are made possible by the dedication and love of the staff, volunteers, and financial supporters of the Rescue Mission. No matter what type of ministry we are called into, we have the opportunity to see similar miracles happen: lives changed by the power of Jesus. These begin when we take the time to love another human being like God first loved us.
 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
 E.g., Romans 5:8; Philippians 2:5-8
 Matthew 22:37-40 (“He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”)(NRSV)
 Ephesians 5:1-2 (“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”)
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It is interesting to me that the night before we had gone to the Rescue Mission, I had written a draft of a blog entry, wherein I referred to a quote by Jesus speaking of the blessing that we receive when we serve others. This experience demonstrated to me how true this is, and I am thankful that ten teens and four adults (including myself) got to experience this.
The bigger miracle that I see in all of this, however, is that God’s blessing is not a zero- sum situation. Our teens were blessed because they chose to bless someone else. In a more extreme way, Peter and John experienced something similar, when they met the lame man outside the Beautiful Gate. Even though the man sought the ordinary blessing of a small amount of money with which to buy food, Jesus’ disciples were unable to help. Instead, Peter responds more boldly than anyone (even Peter I assume) would have expected: “Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’” Luke tells us that “Jumping up, [the man who had been lame] stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”
When I read this section of the book of Acts, I envision that the lame man was not the only one jumping for joy and celebrating. I am sure that Peter and John experienced at least as much joy as he did. Not long before, they had watched Jesus suffer and die a humiliating death by crucifixion (so humiliating, in fact, that Peter would not even acknowledge knowing who Jesus was). Then, they saw God’s power resurrect Jesus from the dead. And, then he left them once and for all to be with His father. What an emotional roller coaster that time must have been for them! And then, an ordinary situation presents itself, a poor and lame man begging for change, and Peter, acting almost instinctively on what Jesus had taught Him, offers up the only blessing that he could muster. And, in doing so, Peter and John got the most extraordinary blessing imaginable: proof positive that, although Jesus had left them for good, He continued to perform miracles in their midst. From an ordinary situation, they received and experienced and extraordinary blessing.
(To be continued . . . )
 John 13:17
 Acts 3:1-11
 Acts 3:6 (All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 Acts 3:8
 See, e.g., Mark 14:66-72
 Acts 1:1-9
Monday, April 20, 2009
What exactly does it mean to be saved? There is a common understanding, among some Christians, that all that really matters is whether an individual is “in” or “out”. According to this viewpoint, the main benefit of being “in” is that we get to go to heaven when we die. Consequently, the Bible gives us a simple formula to determine whether we are saved: do we confess that Jesus is Lord and do we believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead? If the answer to both questions is affirmative, then we are "in", and we get to go to heaven someday. In all fairness, I doubt that the person I was speaking to about my salvation thinks along these lines, and I would not want to assume that to be the case. Nonetheless, this line of thinking is all too common in the Church, and I find it somewhat problematic.
What concerns me is that this viewpoint does not recognize the completeness of our salvation in Christ. Certainly, we are promised eternity with God, and I do not want to minimize the importance of that in any way. But, as I read the Scripture, I do not see salvation as merely fire insurance or a guarantee of heaven someday. Rather, as I have discussed in previous posts, it is an invitation into the Kingdom of Heaven, right here and right now. It is an invitation to love and serve others as Christ loves and serves us. It is the beginning of a changed life, filled with the Holy Sprit and a change in our loyalties from the temporal to the eternal.
While Jesus was walking the Earth, he promised his followers an Advocate, who would be with us forever. We are told that “[we] will know him, because he abides with [us], and he will be in [us].” Paul, throughout his epistles, gives us a deeper understanding of what this promise entails. Specifically, he points to a changed life, which is exemplified by the contrast of the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.” According to Paul, the works of the flesh are (in part) “fornication, . . . idolatry . . . anger. . .envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Paul goes on to explain what a Spirit-filled life (which could also be described as a “saved” life or citizenship in the Kingdom) looks like: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” He tells us that “[t]here is no law against such things.” In short, salvation is an opportunity to experience life, right here and right now, filled with love and all that flows from it.
When we enter this new life, our loyalties change. Rather than being “enslaved to sin”, we become “slaves . . . to obedience, which leads to righteousness[.]” Salvation, therefore, is not a gift that we must wait for temporal death to unwrap. Instead, it is a changed life that begins on the day we confess and believe, according to Romans 10:9-10, and continues to mature as we allow the Holy Spirit to change us from within. The assurance of our salvation is not a mere statement of belief. It is the changed life brought about by the Holy Spirit living within us, “as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
 The most relevant portion, I believe, is verses 9-10: “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 John 14:16-17
 Galatians 5:19-21
 See Philippians 3:20 (“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”)
 Galatians 5:22-23
 Romans 6:1-23 (specifically vv. 6, 16)
 2 Corinthians 1:22 (NIV)(The NRSV translates this to say that God is “giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.”)
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Only when we have chosen to open the door (or to attend the banquet to use Jesus’ other metaphor) can we begin to understand what it is to dine with the Lord. When we do this, we find that He has a very different idea of what it is to celebrate and to party than the view that we have grown accustomed to in this world. We often tend to think of celebration as a self-gratifying and indulgent experience. Jesus, however, encourages us to seek, as our mode of celebration, to love and to serve others as he has loved and served us. This really should not be surprising coming from a man who was born in a barn and who lived his life with a plan to die by crucifixion. Nonetheless, many times, this upside-down view of celebration becomes a stumbling block to many would-be "partiers ".
Jesus demonstrated his heart for serving us in a very profound way in John 13:1-17. He begins to wash the disciples’ feet. This is hardly something we would expect a King to do for His subjects (or followers). But, as we learn in reading the Scriptures, Jesus is not just a typical King! Ever-reluctant Simon Peter insists that he will have no part of such a thing: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus gently reminds Peter that He is the King, who has chosen to do this thing, and “unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  At this, Peter sees the light and, going from one extreme to the other, insists that Jesus ought to wash all of him.
I believe that Peter’s reluctance and his exuberance can both be explained by one simple fact: Peter understood the implications of what Jesus was doing in that moment. If we are to be a part of Jesus, a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a partier at the King’s banquet, then we are called on the King’s terms, not our own. In our case, we have King who prizes serving others above all other forms of celebration. The inescapable implication of this is that, if we are going to party in the King’s banquet hall, we are going to be asked to serve and love one another with complete selflessness. And, in serving, we will be blessed in ways that are now unimaginable to us.
If we value the Kingdom of Heaven, like the man in the parable valued the treasure he found in the field, then we will learn to view serving as Christ did. It is a response from a grateful heart to the immeasurable sacrifice that Christ made for us. But, more importantly, it is an act of celebration and opportunity to experience the richness of God’s blessing. The more we understand this, the less we will experience serving others as something we do “if we have the time” and the more we will make it the central and most vital focus of our lives.
 Revelation 3:20 (All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 John 13:8 (emphasis mine)
 See John 13:9
 See John 13:15-16
 See John 13:17
Saturday, April 18, 2009
In the parable of the marriage feast, Jesus tells us of a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. Those who were invited found every reason in the book to explain why they were just too busy to come: “I have bought a new piece of land, and I must go and see it” says one. Another says, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I need to try them out.” And, still another explains, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So, the king angrily sends his slave out again to invite “the poor, the blind, the crippled, and the lame,” explaining that “‘none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” We are then told that “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
What is the difference between those who were originally invited (the people of prestige, the affluent and the religious) and those who actually responded to the invitation (the poor, the blind, the crippled, and the lame)? The answer seems to me to be desire. The first group did not have time to be bothered with the king’s silly wedding banquet; they had “important” things to do like check out their investments, tend to their business interests, and consummate their marriages. They failed to see that, even though these things are certainly important, they pale in comparison to the invitation that the King extends to each of us. The second group had no such “important” things to stand in the way of such an awesome opportunity, and so more easily recognized the invitation for what it was: a once in a lifetime opportunity to dine with a king and a prince.
How often do we let the “important” things in our life stand in the way of the invitation to participate in the King’s banquet? How often do we, like seed sown among the thorns, “let the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word” and distract us from embracing the invitation the King has extended to us? My prayer is that each of us may see this invitation for what it truly is. In doing so, I believe that we will inevitably view it as an opportunity too good to pass up, rather than as a distraction from the important things in life.
(Next – The opportunity of an eternity)
 Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24
 Luke 14:18 (All Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted).
 Luke 14:19
 Luke 14:20
 Luke 14:21, 24
 Matthew 22:10
 Matthew 13:22
(Next – The invitation)