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A Nation Taken into Captivity

Last Tuesday I wrote “Election Tuesday” on my personal blog.  I had no idea what the outcome of the election would be as I wrote.  It was pretty clear that I, with the majority of Evangelical Christians, was hoping for a different outcome.  As I wrote that blog, this line stood out to me: “I would suggest our faith in Him is tested most when things don’t turn out as we think they should.”  With the results in, I have seen a growing fear concerning the future by conservatives and Christian’s alike.  I say this without trying to undermine the real issues we as a nation face.  They are real.  They are closing in around us and something will have to give one way or another sooner, rather than later.  Even in the worst case scenario, I still believe we Americans live in one of the greatest countries and have the highest quality of life as I reflect on humanity throughout history.  We have much to be thankful for lest we loose sight of the larger picture.

In the last 48 hours, the biblical story of Daniel keeps surfacing in my mind.  Israel had wandered from their God over and over again.  God had warned them through numerous prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, and others that discipline was coming.  They did not care (neither do we).  The book of Daniel opens with this prophecy coming true.  Daniel 1:2 states, “The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand…”  This was huge.  The Northern Kingdom had already fallen captive to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and now the Southern Kingdom was taken captive by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.  The nation of Israel existed no more.  It would not come back as a nation until May 14, 1948.  Clearly the situation presented in Daniel chapter 1 is worse than anything we are going through right now.  It is worse than anything we could imagine.  Period.

Here Daniel, a young man, was taken as a prisoner by a ruthless people who hated and destroyed the nation of Israel.  Daniel was exiled to Babylon to be indoctrinated into the Babylonian way for the purpose of eroding any remnant of Judaism.  Did I mention this was a really bad situation?  I wish I could review every story recorded in Daniel, but time and people’s attention spans are limited.  In light of this, I would like to fly over the Book of Daniel and draw out some practical principles from the life of Daniel.

Daniel’s God was bigger than all his problems.  Nation taken captive?  Being deported to a foreign land to be indoctrinated into a godless system?  No problem, my God is bigger than these problems!  I don’t know about you, but I hate the emotional roller coaster my emotions are capable of.  As I walk with God and come to know Him with greater intimacy, the less moved I am by the ups and downs of life.  I pray that we all would walk in a way that brings true grounding like Daniel had with God.

Daniel was most concerned with his own relationship with God.  As he was faced with an opportunity to go with the flow of his culture, he faced a critical decision.  Daniel could have very easily slipped into the things that would have led him away from God, but he stayed focus on the priority of his relationship with God.  This internal focus ultimately led to others noticing that Daniel was different.  God honors Daniel over and over again because his passion for God was second to none.  I believe revival starts with the individual, with you right where you are.

Daniel was a gracious as he could be when the outworking of his faith was infringed upon.  In the first chapter Daniel was faced with his first dilemma–eat the food that went against his convictions, or rebel against his captors.  What would he do?  How would I handle this if I was in the same situation?  I love the graciousness and trust in God as Daniel makes his request to honor his convictions.  True class.  I love that God granted Daniel favor and compassion as he live at peace with all men so much as it depended on him (Rom. 12:18).

No Compromise.  Daniel 3 develops into a intense story about Daniel’s close friends.  Daniel was not here.  We don’t know where he was, but I am convinced that Daniel would have been right there with them.  Daniel’s friends would not bend at the threat of their lives to bow down and worship an idol.  They stood firm.  There comes a place where the believer must draw the line.  I’m not sure where this is in today’s context, but clearly they would not bow down to worship anything other than God.  I see no rebellion in Scripture like this that relates to taxes or other things that bug us.  This sort of rebellion seems limited to the place of comprising true worship or a restricting of the Gospel (Acts 4:19-20), or possibly in the defense of another.

Daniel fervently prayed for his nation.  I would encourage you to pause your reading of this blog and read Daniel 9.  The heart of Daniel’s prayer is humbling.  Did you notice his heart?  Full of awe for God.  Sensitivity and responsibility for both his sin and the sin of his nation.  Confession and cries for God’s intervention.  Daniel poured himself out so completely in prayer that he describes his state as being in “extreme weariness” (Dan. 9:21).  I don’t think I have ever prayed for my nation like this before.  What would our land look light if we as Christians prayed for our nation with this intensity instead of complaining about how bad things have become, or are going to get?  Maybe we should give this a shot?

A final word.  In looking at Daniel’s life, I believe these points should help us get back on track.  If you are not a Christian, and you find yourself deeply concerned about where we are and where we are heading as a nation, I would encourage you to turn to Christ.  He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  He is not asleep at the wheel and He will take care of you if you turn to Him by faith.  To those of us who believe, I would encourage you to examine your thoughts and the words that come out of your mouth.  What do they say about your God?  I would encourage you to turn your hope to the creator and sustainer of the universe.  He is moved by prayer and has commanded us to pray.  Let us turn our hearts and prayers to Him as our country faces difficult times ahead.  May we reflect His light in the midst of a world that is so dark.

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God Voted Obama

As I lay down to go to sleep last night I thought to myself, “What is the best way to respond to those I lead this week regarding the electoral decisions of our nation in this 2012 campaign.” A couple of hours earlier a member of the church had texted me asking, “Well, any words of encouragement, pastor?” My immediate thought and response was, “Jesus is the King of kings!” So as I faded into unconsciousness a reoccurring thought swirled in my mind, “God Voted Obama.”

I received an email this evening with the subject, “THE SADDEST DAY IN THE HISTORY OF THE U.S.” The email happens to be from someone I do not know who somehow had placed me on their distribution list many months ago and instead of actually unsubscribing I’ve consistently just delete his messages, but this one caught my attention. After reading the opening sentence (that’s as much as I could handle), I once again began thinking “God Voted Obama.” The failure of the author to recognize God’s active involvement in the affairs of men is startling to me, but gives me some further insight into his theology.

I realize that what I’m about to say will not be popular with the largely evangelical, center-right crowd that will likely read this post, but I’m convinced it’s scripturally supported and worthy of consideration.

In the 6th century B.C. the Nation of Judah was led into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. There are a number of contributing reasons for Judah’s captivity, but one of the major ones was Israel’s unwillingness to obey God’s command for sabbath rest. Every seven years the land was to lay fallow, but in Israel’s greedy desire for ever increasing yields, they disobeyed the sabbath rest for 490 years. Thus God required 70 years of rest for His land, which translated into 70 years of captivity for disobedient Israel, as they worked as slaves under the taskmasters of Babylon. This is just one of several such instances in the Old Testament. God is very serious about righteousness and justice. He does not take lightly disobedience. The blessings and curses of the commands still apply and are, I believe, generally applicable to all humanity.

For many years our nation has greedily pursued ever increasing yields. We’ve selfishly sought for extravagant abundance and idolized the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Our bent toward instant gratification has, in recent times, pushed us to do so with little thought for the long-term costs and consequences. After more than a generation and a half of such pursuit we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that “tomorrow will be as today and much more abundant” (Isaiah 56:12).

Furthermore, as of December 23, 2011, a staggering 78% of Americans self-identify as Christians (Gallup). Obviously there are a number of cultural guilt factors that play into people identifying as Christians when asked. Be that as it may, there is good reason to believe that the 78% have at least some connection to Christianity in their past. Yet the scriptural exhortations to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31), do justly, love mercy and walk in humility (Micah 6:8) have done little to stir our social engagement and curb our indolent pride.

With these things in mind I wonder; is it not possible that we’ve been given the government that will reprove and correct — even if it be by taxation — our unroghteous behavior? Is it possible that the church’s abdication of social responsibility has created a vacuum that someone or something must fill? The government being the logical “something?”

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t like taxes per se. Nor am I a fan of individual mandates or social safety-nets hung upon deficits and debt. I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility and think loving charity is far more noble than begrudging taxation any day of the week. But if we indeed believe that promotion comes from The Lord (Psalm 75:6-7) and that there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1), then perhaps we should consider why God has given us the leaders we’ve elected? Before we tune in to Foxnews and Glenn Beck, maybe we should hearken the Prayer of Daniel…

1 In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, which was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans;
2 In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.
3 And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:
4 And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;
5 We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments:
6 Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
7 O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee.
8 O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee.
9 To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him;
10 Neither have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.
11 Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him.
12 And he hath confirmed his words, which he spake against us, and against our judges that judged us, by bringing upon us a great evil: for under the whole heaven hath not been done as hath been done upon Jerusalem.
13 As it is written in the law of Moses, all this evil is come upon us: yet made we not our prayer before the LORD our God, that we might turn from our iniquities, and understand thy truth.
14 Therefore hath the LORD watched upon the evil, and brought it upon us: for the LORD our God is righteous in all his works which he doeth: for we obeyed not his voice.
15 And now, O Lord our God, that hast brought thy people forth out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and hast gotten thee renown, as at this day; we have sinned, we have done wickedly.
16 O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us.
17 Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of thy servant, and his supplications, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake.
18 O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies.
19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city and thy people are called by thy name.

Daniel 9:1-19

Let me end by affirming my heartfelt prayer for President Obama; for the president he defeated a mere 24 hours ago has left him with one heck of an economic mess.

 

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You’re on a Need to Know Basis

Do you ever just wish you knew exactly how God was going to accomplish everything He’s promised to do in your life? Do you ever wish that in addition to the big picture of where He’s leading you He’d also show you each twist and turn in the stream which will take you to that ultimate destination? I definitely do! I find myself banging my head, getting discouraged, getting frustrated, and even scared at times over the things I DON’T know and understand, instead of enjoying what I DO know and understand. In times like these what God uses to minister to me is the subjective work of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of the Scriptures. The Scriptures remind me that I am on a need to know basis when it comes to God’s plans and direction for my days. He tells me what I need to know to follow Him and enjoy what He’s doing today, and He calls me to trust Him with the other details. Check out some verses that have blown my mind and also comforted me lately.

 

“The secret [things belong] to the LORD our God, but those [things which are] revealed [belong] to us and to our children forever, that [we] may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“Look among the nations and watch–Be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days Which you would not believe, though it were told you.” (Habakkuk 1:5)

“Then He said, “Take now your son, your only [son] Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable [are] His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him? For of Him and through Him and to Him [are] all things, to whom [be] glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)

The truth is there are sections in the Bible we just don’t want to think about. As I read I see God doing things like telling Abraham to sacrifice his son through which God brings a portrait of redemption. I see God telling Hosea to marry a pagan prostitute and have children and deal with all of the hardship of such a situation, and yet God brought through that uncommon (dare I say sinful in the normative sense) to paint a picture of redemption, turn many people to Himself, and grant encouragement to us. We see God call Abraham in Genesis 12 to leave his father, mother, and family to go to a land “I WILL” show you.

Most of us don’t want to think too deeply on passages like this. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand how they vibe with the normal ways God does thing.s Or maybe we aren’t interested in experiencing extraordinary kinds of assignments from Him because we like our comfort or rhythm of life. But these kinds of things remain staring at us in the Bible.

So I conclude God is loving enough and has the freedom to call me to do things that are totally out of the box. He can call me to do things that make me scratch my head. He may call me into seasons in which the only thing He can tell me is “if it were told you, you wouldn’t believe” how I’m going to do what I’ve promised. And my part is simply to trust, walk forward, and see what He does. I am on a need to know basis. The rest belongs to Him. I can rest in that because I know He is good, and that even if His plan leads me through hard situations and suffering, He will restore one hundred fold any loss accrued.

Why does He call us to such times? One reason is that the life of faith is all that pleases Him (Hebrews 11:1 and 6). So is God leading you through perplexing times? Strange times? Out of the box times? Don’t panic. That’s just what God does. Focus on what He HAS shown you, and trust Him to work out the rest.

Right Direction

On Course as an Acts Church

Last week in our elder’s meeting one of our pastors posed the question, “Do you think all the churches in our area are dealing with the same kinds of opposition and crazy issues we are?” He was referencing the intense nature of both the blessings and buffetings our church and pastoral team seem to be receiving these days. We know that the spiritual war is always real, but there truly are seasons in which it feels more tangible and fierce. In some ways we feel like we are in that kind of season right now.

But as we thought about my friend’s question we believe the Holy Spirit reminded us that whether or not our experience as a church parallels the experience of other Christ-professing churches in the area isn’t what’s important to discern. The important thing to discern is whether or not our experience as a church parallels the experiences of the church in the book of Acts. The important thing to discern is whether or not the ministry dynamics displayed in Christ’s life in the gospels continues on in the body life of our local church. Only when those things are true can we be sure that we’re pursuing what God actually has for us as believers.

I believe we can discern a three-fold pattern  that unfolds when Jesus is at work in our midst by looking at the gospels and Acts. You could call these “The Three O’s of the Acts Church” if you’re a cool seeker pastor, but I’m not, so I won’t. :)

But here’s what I want to see in our church because I see it in the life of Christ in the gospels and continuing in the life of the early church in Acts:

1. Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

The first part of the process is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus heals, saves, and transforms somebody physically or spiritually by His grace and power. This often occurs both in the gospels through Christ directly, and in Acts through Christ indirectly through the agents of His people. People get set free from the power or sin, satan, demons, death and hell.

2. Opposition from the Enemy

The second part of the process is reactionary to the first. In it, the spiritual enemies of God and His people bring opposition to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. One example of this is depicted in Acts 3 and 4. In Acts 3 Peter and John experience an outpouring of the Spirit as God heals a lame man through them and gives Peter a subsequent opportunity to preach the gospel in light of the miracle. And while some worshiped God in light of the miracle and the gospel, the sadducees and religious people didn’t. They threw them in jail, persecuted them, and put them on trial (4:1-22).

3. Opportunity for Redemption

And yet, God didn’t let that bring discouragement to His people or thwart the work of the gospel. Instead, He used the opposition they faced due to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and seized it as an opportunity for redemption. He used the testimony of the apostles and God’s work of salvation, preservation, and healing accomplished through and in spite of the opposition to produce worship, unity, compassion, and boldness amongst His people (4:23-37).

So these are the three things we’re looking for at Refuge to make sure the life of Jesus and ministry of the early church is continuing in our midst. Are we experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Is that outpouring being met with opposition from the enemy? Is that opposition being hijacked by God and transformed into an opportunity for redemption? If so, we’re content we’re on the right track no matter what’s going on in the midst of other Christ-professing churches around us.

Sound Off

What would you add or take away from the things noted above that demonstrate the work, power, and presence of Jesus in a local church?

 

 

How Do I

For Me, a Real Game-Changer

Ten days ago I was really struggling. That Wednesday night Bible study had been a real chore, a heavy task. Emotionally, I can say that I was a real mess.

Background: my wife and I are taking a step of faith that for me is probably the biggest step I’ve taken since I left Southern California 34½ years ago for the Monterey Peninsula (with two Volkswagen Bugs, some clothes, furniture, and $125 in the bank;  no job and no certainty about where we’d be living beyond the first few weeks.)

This current step is in that same category, albeit the circumstances differ.

In my August 18 journal entry I wrote: “I’ve been hugely busy/preoccupied/worried about all the changes—the new house, all the work involved, the transition, provision for the future… yet, I have strongly sensed that this next season is of the Lord.”

In view of my calling, the Lord then began to remind me that I need to draw near to Him, that I need to be more a man of prayer and meditation (upon His word). My “doing” must and will proceed from my “being.”

Then I read and prayed through Jeremiah 32, part of that morning’s reading. This passage was a game-changer for me. As He always has whenever big things are in the works, He spoke to me through His word.

Perhaps you may need a bit of re-familiarization with its story line … but basically the story of Jeremiah 32 concerns the last days of Judah before the Babylonian captivity and destruction of Jerusalem. The armies of Babylon had been laying siege against the holy city, and things were desperate. Jeremiah himself was held under guard by the wicked king Zedekiah.

It was at that time that the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, telling him to purchase a field from his cousin Hanamel, a field which Jeremiah had the right to redeem. The message of this purchase was that once again, even though Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people taken captive, the Israelites would purchase properties and vineyards in the land.

Jeremiah was perplexed by this prophecy. He didn’t understand how this would happen, though he didn’t doubt God’s power to make it happen.

In his prayer, the prophet acknowledged that the LORD:

  • Created everything and is omnipotent.
  • Is merciful and gracious and just (the meaning of God’s name, Exodus 34:6-7).
  • Did great things in the past (reviewing their history coming out of Egypt and into the land).

Yet, the people had sinned greatly, and thus the Babylonians had surrounded the city. The inevitable was happening! So Jeremiah says to the LORD as he concludes his prayer “See how the siege ramps are built up to take the city. Because of the sword, famine and plague, the city will be handed over to the Babylonians who are attacking it. What you said has happened, as you now see. {25} And though the city will be handed over to the Babylonians, you, O Sovereign LORD, say to me, ‘Buy the field with silver and have the transaction witnessed.’”

Again, Jeremiah was stumped by the “how.” How will these things happen? How will it work out that Israel will once again be in the land to buy, sell, and live? Graciously, the LORD answered Jeremiah’s concerns.

As I realized the depth of Jeremiah’s implied question, peace began to flood my soul. I was able to let go of all my “how are You going to do this?” questions, and leave the how to the Lord. I was able to rid my very busy mind of things that are too wonderful for me.

The words of one of David’s psalms came into my mind: “My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. {2} But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalms 131:1-2).

Now I’ve got my work cut out for me, but now it’s a work of faith, springing forth from faith. It’s no longer the work of self-effort or independence. It’s the work of a child trusting in His Father.

I’m not so naïve as to think that what I’ve re-realized will not be tested, but I’m sure happy that the Lord has spoken!

God bless you. May He direct you into His peace and hope (Romans 15:13).

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A Wineskin in the Smoke

Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your statutes”, Psalm 119:83

I have been preaching through Psalm 119 over recent weeks.  I love the Psalms and the refreshment they bring to my soul.  I don’t think I could preach straight through them as a whole, but I love covering them in random order in between breaks of other books.  A couple of weeks ago the above verse gripped me with its imagery.

A wineskin in smoke would become brittle and unusable for in practical purposes.  This is how the psalmist describes  his condition.  I love being a preaching pastor.  It is what I have been called to do.  I cannot imagine not preaching the Word of God on a week-by-week basis.  With this being said, I have to admit preaching every week and leading a church can be draining as it demands much from the individual.

I’m not in this for the short-term.  As I have studied other pastors that are many years ahead of me, I have discovered that it takes a lot of P.M.S. (I couldn’t resist but to through a Navy term in here…”Preventative Maintenance Service” for you you non-sailors out there) to insure that we do not dry out spiritually and loose our passion for the ministry.

What can we do to keep our freshness and passion for serving in this capacity?

Take time off each day.

I read a book somewhere where the pastor understood each day to have only three parts–morning, afternoon, and evening.  He attempted to only work two of the three parts each day.  I don’t always succeed at this, but the thought has been very helpful to me in governing my days.

Take a Day off.

Once a week…if you can.  Well, you can see that this is a tough one for me.  It is just so hard to disengage.  I know it is good for me, for my family, and for the church.  I shoot for Thursdays, but I don’t always make the mark.  In my short coming in this area, my family and I adopted a new strategy about three years ago.  My grandfather-in-law lives outside of San Luis Obisbo on a 40-acre ranch.  We head up there once a month for a two-day (Sunday evening through Tuesday) getaway.  I love this time and has been very fruitful for my family.

Vacation.

Take an extended period of time of each year.  I am learning to open up this time more and more.  I think taking 3-4 Sundays off is ideal.  This year we had a baby and didn’t go anywhere so I don’t feel like I relaxed as much as I could have, but I did manage to read about 3 books that had nothing to do with the ministry which was very rewarding!  That being said, I am already looking forward to a vacation next year.

Read Biographies and non-studying type books.

I was recently reminded of the importance of reading books outside of our field of study.  We should be reading a ton in preparation for our preaching.  I believe in digging deep.  There is no way to short cut study time for good preaching.  That being said, reading on top of that can be difficult, but it is good for us to read “non-study” books and biographies.  It is okay, and beneficial, to read books for fun.  They will have a greater impact on you that you realize.

Exercise.

Pastors and exercise shouldn’t be an oxymoron.  Getting your blood-flowing won’t kill you, go on…give it a shot!  Some of my best sermon prep happens on runs, in the gym, or during a soccer match!  I refer you to my previous blog Spiritually Fit, Spiritually Flabby if you want to know more of my thoughts on this subject.

Pick up a hobby.

I’m not much of a “hobby guy.”  But in many respects I think my wife and kids are sort of a hobby for me during this time of my life.  I love spending time in the pool, going to the zoo, watching ballet, practicing Spanish, going for walks, or simply hanging out.  Probably the closest thing I have to a hobby is being a chaplain to law enforcement…yes, ministry you’d say, but the reality is that it is fun for me and helps me do things like shoot and blow up stuff which is hobbyish!  This being said, I do think having something fun that is not ministry related is great for your soul over the long-haul.

How do you stay fresh?

 

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Kingdom Minded

During the London 2012 Olympics, the road race passed right through our area of greater London. It was exciting to stand at the sidelines and cheer the cyclists on.

I loved the strategy of Team GB, which was made up of five men. Their goal was simple. Each member of the team would take turns pushing through the wind to allow Mark Cavendish the opportunity to sprint the final length to win a gold medal for Great Britain (the United Kingdom). Only Cavendish would have won the medal, but all of Team GB would have rejoiced in their participation in the victory. This post would have been cooler had Team GB won, yet it still got me thinking.

I was reminded of the importance of being Kingdom Minded by their strategy, which was for each person to do his part so that the United Kingdom could get the glory of the gold. It didn’t matter who was thrust centre stage in the triumph. They had a common goal, and were willing to work hard and do their part. Even cyclists such as Brad Wiggins would give his all in the road race, possibly hampering his own chances of a gold in the time trials two days later (btw, Wiggins did get his gold in the time trials).

It is important for us as pastors to be Kingdom Minded. Are we more concerned for the glory of our particular church or the glory of God’s Kingdom? During the race, a few churches (all gospel-preaching, including ours) were reaching out with the gospel. There was an understanding that in the Body of Christ, some of us together on Christ’s mission was better than all of us on our own mission. This ought to emphasise our unity in Jesus and the great truth that gospel unity in the midst of diversity magnifies Jesus the Lord of the Church rather than one expression of it. Surprisingly some Christians compared our giving out the gospel as a competition between the churches. Yet, if someone came to Christ and went to a different church (as long as that church was gospel-centred), We should rejoice. Why? Because God’s Kingdom is furthered!

We must be careful that we don’t become like the mistaken disciples in Mark 9:38-40, who thought that they were the only show in town. If it’s Jesus’ Kingdom that we race for, then as long as he is glorified, we are victorious.

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Hope for the Guilty

“A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not quench, until He brings forth justice to victory.” Matthew 12:20 ESV

 

Something that I’ve been deeply struck with afresh lately is compassion for the broken. Lately I’ve had the privilege of walking with some people who’ve seen the dark side of sin from the side of the victim. Sexual abuse, rape, verbal abuse, and the like are, unfortunately, far too common occurrences in the lives of people I know and serve.

Interestingly, the state of Utah is always in the top two or three percent in the nation of states with the most amount of cases of clinical depression and suicide. The county in which I live is the county with the highest depression and suicide rates in our state. People around here know they are guilty. And I believe one reason this is true is because we live under the overarching shadow of a religious system that is heavily performance oriented- the LDS church.

Like all religion outside biblical christianity, Mormonism is all about doing all you can, as much as you can, so that perhaps God might save you by his grace at the end of your life, after all that you can contribute to your self-salvation project. And in our culture many people live under this system knowing they just don’t quite measure up to the expectations laid on their shoulders by “the church” the community, or by the status quo. As a result they feel guilty and self-medicate prescription drug abuse, or they end the pain by committing suicide.

The guilt-conscious culture I live in has really caused me to think hard about how we communicate the gospel in such a context. What I’ve come to believe at this point is that I don’t have to spend much time convincing people they’re sinners who don’t measure up because they know. Instead, while I use the law enough in preaching and talking with people to make sure they’re aware of their guilt, I usually spend most of my time in sermons and conversations emphasizing the hope of Christ for broken, hurting, guilty people. And that message of hope tends to be the drink of water to the soul that depressed, guilty, and broken people need to hear. In a way I think people in my context need more of the Jesus of the gospels who heals, teaches, and touches rather than the Jesus of Revelation who opens a can on His enemies, though both are appropriate and glorious images of Christ.

If you live in a culture that has no conscience such as a liberal culture, you may need to bring the law a bunch so as to help people see their sin. But if you live in a culture crippled by guilt and already aware of their sin, I’d encourage you to emphasize the hope of Jesus in light of the guilt they already feel. But what do you think?

 

chick_fil_a1

Chick-Fil-A-Melee

Last week, pictures circulated Facebook encouraging people to support Chick-Fil-A on August 1.  Initially, I didn’t notice the cause because it doesn’t take much to convince me to eat tasty food!  With this attitude, I shared one of the pictures with this statement: “This sounds like a great excuse to eat Chick-Fil-A to me!”  I had no idea the firestorm I was about to walk into.  I was blindsided by the outrage and attacks that came from some of my friends who hold values different than my own.

So much has been published about last week’s event that I wonder if I can actually contribute any new or pertinent ideas to this discussion.  Joe Dallas wrote “To My Angry Gay Friend” which I believe is the best Christian response to the LGBT community I have read.  I however have no intention of composing an apologetic post to last week’s event, but will attempt to express some thoughts that I think are particularly important to pastors and Christians as we navigate these interesting times.

Christ Crucified.

In this discussion, along with other hot buttons in our culture, I have seen Christian leaders opt out of the conversation for the sake keeping Christ crucified as the only message.  I agree with this position at first glance.  I certainly don’t want to minimize the Gospel—the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is the jugular vein of Christianity.  It is the message of hope to a dead world whom God loves and has called us to reach.  The stance of preaching Christ crucified alone has been my response to a number issues in the past, but in all honesty I question my motives sometimes as I feel like I am hiding behind the Gospel for the sake of not having to take a controversial stance on a particular issue that is critical, sensitive, or divisive.

I guess the ultimate question at hand is does the Bible call Christians to be Switzerland (i.e. neutral and passive) on all issues outside of our message Christ crucified, or does Christ call the redeemed person to challenge the fallen culture in which they live as they proclaim Christ crucified?  In seeking to answer this question an article in Time Magazine (go figure) helped me square this issue as it relates to my calling as a pastor.  The article essentially asked Jerry Falwell how he dealt with Billy Graham’s criticisms of his political involvement.  His response was something along the lines of, “Billy Graham is an evangelist called to lead people to Christ.  I am a pastor called to lead people to maturity in Christ.”  I found this response to be helpful and insightful as it shows Billy Graham’s goal was to remove all barriers outside of the Cross.  Jerry Falwell’s goal was to lead people to Christ and then equip them to live out their faith in Christ.

There is a story in Acts 19 that I find particularly relevant to the debate in our land today.  If you don’t remember this story, let me refresh your memory here.  Paul had entered into Ephesus, and ministered there for about two years (Acts 19:10).  God used Paul’s ministry in a mighty way.  Many came to Christ and lives were transformed.  Their lifestyles changed and it affected the local economy radically.  One of the local businessmen was financially devastated because so many of his clients accepted Jesus as Lord.  He pulled the “silversmith union” together try to stop the Gospel because it had utterly destroyed his industry and livelihood (Acts 19:27) as the Christians essentially boycotted their services.  This is a story that clearly demonstrates the Gospel penetrates further than the soul of the individual it saved, but to everything touched by the saved individual.  The Bible seems to encourage believers to give preference of doing good to those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).  Maybe it isn’t even an intentional action by a group of believers, but rather an organic byproduct of a group of people living according to Kingdom standards as revealed in the Scriptures?  Nonetheless, it seems to me the whole August 1 event was a display of support and blessing a corporation that stands for Biblical values.  Quite frankly, I was pleased to see Christians stand united for something they were for instead of the rallying against a particular cause that Christians have deemed inappropriate.

History records that the majority of people are silent as their culture is making a shift in a bad direction or towards evil.  I love what Bonhoeffer said in his context of Nazi Germany, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  The most difficult thing for me is determining which things are worth standing for and what things are not.  But I am certain that the majority of people choose silence instead of doing the right thing in the face of opposition.  Cowardice is not a Biblical virtue.  Christ instructs His followers “not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.” (Ephesians 5:11-12)

Our Citizenship.

In Philippians 3:20, Paul teaches that believers in Christ are citizens of heaven.  The lesson is clear that we live in a world filled with pain and sorrow and we are pilgrims passing through a foreign land.  I became a Christian while serving as a US Navy SEAL.  To say that I saw myself as a patriot would be an understatement.  During those early years God began to challenge my confusion, or syncretism, with my American citizenship and my new Christian citizenship.  God used the above passage to help me shape my new identity in Christ.  Does our new identity in Christ negate our earthly citizenship?  I don’t think so. Paul wrote this letter while under house arrest in Rome.  He was in Rome because he used the benefits of his Roman citizenship, as he did in a number of other places, to appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11).  Clearly Paul was okay using his Roman citizenship for the sake of the Gospel.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he instructs believers to be in “subjection to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1)  American Christians, in large part, have had the easiest job in obeying this command in comparison to other believers throughout history.  The United States is a governing authority that is of the people, by the people, for the people, and was born out of strong Judeo-Christian values.  One of our greatest privileges as Americans is the right to vote.  It saddens me that so few people who are eligible to vote actually register to vote and very few of those who are registered to vote actually exercise that right.  I do believe that we as pastors should encourage believers to register and to prayerfully consider who to cast their vote toward.

Clarity Beats Agreement.

As a final word, I’ve been going crazy over statements made in the midst of this whole Chick-Fil-A discussion.  I am shocked by the attacks against Christians and even more shocked by the Biblical illiteracy of the average believer as the Bible is clear concerning God’s position on homosexuality.  I would like to end with a quote from Rick Warren as it helps untangle some of the false accusations and assumptions made in this discussion.  He said, “I am not allowed by Jesus to hate anyone. Our culture has accepted two huge lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

Large Service

Jesus, Big Church, & Small Church

The Training of the Twelve as Local Church Model?

This morning I listened to an interesting discussion between some pastors and missiologists on whether or not we should emphasize large gatherings or smaller gatherings in seeking to do the best job at discipleship. The conversation intrigued me because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to do a good job with discipleship in the context of the church I lead.

One of the center-pieces of the conversation was the idea that Jesus’ relationship to the twelve disciples as portrayed in the gospels should serve as our template for how we function as the local church. I’ve heard this kind of thinking from people who contend that the local church should operate according to a house church model. The house church model often includes:

  • Little to no emphasis on large gatherings (15 or more)
  • Dialogue learning (discussion) versus monologue (preaching)
  • Informality versus formality
  • Group prayer/spiritual gift manifestation versus worship led by an individual

Support for modeling the local church in such a way is often claimed by pointing to how Jesus related to the twelve. People will note that “Jesus spent most of His time with twelve people.” This is true. He spent lots of time eating with, instructing, and training twelve disciples. And thus, as they say, we shouldn’t have local churches made up of hundreds or thousands, but of tens.

 

 The Real Focus of Jesus’ Small Group: Leadership Training

But can we really look to Jesus’ relationship to the twelve as depicted in the gospels as a template for the local church? Did Jesus really intend for us to do so? I would contend that this is not the case. First of all, the truth is that while the gospels spend much time describing Jesus’ interactions with the twelve, they do not exclusively do so. They also portray Jesus teaching and sending the seventy as well as often speaking to what the Bible calls the multitudes. Jesus is seen in some cases preaching to thousands of people at one time.

 As opposed to serving as a template for how the local church should be organized, I would contend that Jesus’ relationship to the twelve is more of a template for how we should do leadership training for the local church. The men Jesus spent so much time with ultimately became the first pastors and church-planters for the local church. He spent time instructing them formally and allowing them to participate in the ministry He was doing. He would send them out to do ministry and bring them back to the huddle and explain where they needed to grow. And at the end of His physical stay on earth He sent them out in the power of the Spirit to establish and lead local churches.

And yet, the local churches these men led were in many cases anything but small groups or what many have in mind today when they talk about house churches. The church in Jerusalem was thousands strong, and they had no problem with that. The church in Antioch was also a huge church and they saw no problem with that. The early church met both “publically and house to house.” (Acts 2:46; Acts 20:20) It wasn’t just house to house, but publically that they met. They met in the large gathering areas of the temple. (Acts 2:46) What’s more is that archaeological excavation projects have revealed that many of the so-called house churches described in Acts met in huge courtyard and banquet halls of wealthy homes that could seat hundreds of people.

Besides the large numbers of Christians coming together in large gatherings, Acts also shows us the continuation of Jesus’ practice of training leaders of God’s people in smaller apprentice-styled ministry groups. Acts 20 reveals Paul traveling with a group of ministry trainees (verses 2-4) and also gives us a glimpse into how he related to a group of pastors he’d trained according to the pattern of Jesus’ training of the twelve as seen in the gospels (verses 17-38).

We get another clue as to where the apostles stood on having large gatherings by taking a look at the New Testament epistles. It is worth noting that in most cases the epistles are addressed to entire churches, and were intended to be read and taught in the presence of all believers living in the city to which the letter came. In Ephesians 6:1-3 the exhortations addressed directly to children show that even the kids were assumed to be present for the reading and teaching of the New Testament letters when they were originally written and delivered. Also, nowhere do the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) exhort pastors to keep the numbers of local churches down to small group sizes for the purpose of discipleship, but rather imply the multiplication of leadership, numbers of believers, and the open preaching of the Word to all under their charge. What’s more, the exhortations to the seven churches of Revelation (Rev. 2-3) are addressed to entire churches.

Conclusion

So what’s the point? Am I against house churches, small groups, community groups, and so on? Absolutely not! They are invaluable. There is a type of discipleship and community that can only be nurtured in a smaller context that happens in smaller groups. The pastors of the church I lead are right now praying with our church about starting ten more house church style fellowships in addition to those we already have going before the end of 2012.

But small gatherings are only one aspect of how we should seek to facilitate discipleship. They are not the template for us to follow in establishing principles for local church size, dynamics, and overall structure. I don’t believe that Jesus’ training of the twelve serves as a template for how we should do church, but how we should train leaders for the broader church. Look to Acts and the epistles for a template for doing church. Look to the gospels as a template for leadership training