LeBron James “decision” and the responses: Mining the cultural nuggets

As a “missions-guy”, pastor, and church planting connoisseur, I’m absolutely convinced that if we  want to be the most effective tool possible in the hands of our Missionary God, we MUST have a working knowledge of the culture that we are trying to reach with the truth of the Kingdom and then present that truth in a culturally acceptable and understandable form for maximum impact.  At the same time, I’ve also learned by experience that there are numerous sub-cultures within each culture that if understood, will equip us a little further for accomplishing the task and just might prepare us for the future.  Lebron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat and the two primary reactions it produced are two gold nuggets from the American cultural goldmine that most U.S. church planters work within.

Representing the majority culture’s perspective, was the reaction of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird,  many other retired NBA players, myself, and the majority of people over the age of 30.  Heads were shaken in disbelief and genuine bewilderment was expressed by raised eyebrows and tightened lips.  But, the response of the majority of teenagers and “twentysomethings”, (including my 24 year old daughter and her friends,) was overwhelmingly positive and thus provided an amazing insight into a growing sub-culture within our country.  These younger folks by and large think Lebron and Bosh should be commended for joining the Heat, and they believe they’ve been given a pattern that they themselves would follow if they ever had the opportunity to be in that position.

Here’s a very brief summary of a few of the things that might be worth considering:

1.  The widely accepted and thus predominant American cultural characteristics of individualism and independence are losing their appeal to those under the age of 30.

2.  With few exceptions, those over 30 have an extremely difficult time understanding why these younger people aren’t motivated by the same things they are.  To play alongside a few other elite players rather than against them and to do it for less money than you are capable of making and then to be willing to be just one of the reasons your team wins a championship rather than the main reason is well….as the Sicilian from “The Princess Bride” said, “Inconceivable!”

3.  Like it or not, because of their experience growing up in a world shaped by individualism and independence, generally speaking, those under 30 are  rejecting these two key American cultural traits, either consciously or unconsciously.

4.  This provides another opportunity for us old timers to examine ourselves and our ministries to see how much of what we accept as bible-based culture is actually just the acceptance of the culture of our country and upbringing and thus believed to be biblical.  We certainly come to Jesus as individuals, but the immediate result of our new birth is the reality that we are now one part of His body and thus an integral part of our spiritual brothers and sisters lives, which is best expressed by the local church.  His design for His body is clearly inter-dependence and our true identity is found first and foremost in Him and our identity is found in Him and being a part of His body contributing the uniqueness that He is has placed within us.  (1 Cor 12:12-26 etc.)

5.  I’m convinced that similar to the other cultures I’ve lived among over the years and especially the refugees I serve on a daily basis here in Phoenix, these young people’s rejection of those two key American cultural traits actually makes them much more open to the “Kingdom of God” culture and life that is presented in the New Testament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inclining Ourselves to the Will of God

Col 1:9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding

Summertime means camping for a lot of families like ours. It also produces one of the funniest and most frustrating scenes in all of life, putting up a tent. If you are like me you have spent many hours trying to erect a contraption made out of nylon and plastic that your family is supposed to sleep in. There is an exact way to do it and I know every way how not to do it. We can often get frustrated when things don’t fit exactly and easily give up, often using God as a culprit as to why it didn’t pan out.

One thing I am often asked as a pastor is the question “What is the will of God for my life?” People desperately want to know what God wants them to do with their life. Usually people are in a desperate situation like a loss of job or a potential move and really need some discernment in their life. I often feel helpless in these situations but try my best to help them wade through the process by praying and showing them scripture.

The problem we run into is that we try to turn God’s will into our to do list. For those of us who are task driven this gives us great comfort when we can check off acts of obedience. When we are uncertain it can throw our whole day. Let me suggest to you that knowing the will of God has little to do with what we are to do with our life but instead how we are to please Him.

In Colossian 1:9 Paul is praying that the Colossians will be filled with the knowledge of His will. From our first look this sounds great, someone else is praying that we will know what to do with our life. That isn’t what Paul is praying for. He is praying that the Colossians will know what pleases God and brings him joy. That is what the word “will” means here.

If we go from that definition then this frees us in so many ways. It is no longer about me but about what is important to God. What pleases God? I can safely guess it has little to do with where I live or where I work but in how I live. The first and foremost thing that we can do to please God is to worship Him. By this I mean true worship where we give him verbal praise and submit under his authority. If we were to focus on this I believe everything else would fall into place.

Here is the difficulty: to be filled with the knowledge of what please God means that we must incline ourselves to His will (Josh 24:23). To incline means to stretch a piece of material over the framework of a tent. If you have ever put a tent up you know this isn’t easy. Tentmakers purposely make the fabric smaller than the frame so that you have to stretch it. This produces a tight fit and helps it stand better. If we are going to please God it means that we need to stretch our lives over God’s framework. We aren’t big enough to do that but God is able to stretch us so that we fit. If we are inflexible we run into problems. Brings new meaning to the phrase “being conformed to His image.”

So doing the will of God means that we must seek out those things that please God. This doesn’t come natural to us so we must allow Him to stretch us into that framework. When we do this we start to understand what God sees and are drawn towards the things on His heart. Incline your heart to the will of God today and discover the wonderful world of pleasing Him.

Gay Marriage and the Failure of the Church

Quite often I encounter the charge that the legalizing of gay marriage represents a failure of the church.  This charge has a couple of versions.

#1  We are failures because we weren’t able to prevent it.

If the church only prayed more/fasted more/voted as a bloc/were filled with the Spirit/boldly declared the gospel/cast down demonic strongholds – gay marriage would never have gained a foothold in American civic life.  Version 2 strikes the opposite note –

#2  We are failures in that we even tried to prevent it.

We should know better than this, we are scolded.  How can we expect Christian behavior from non-Christian people?  The goal of the church is not behavior modification, but heart transformation.  In that the attempt was even undertaken to prevent this form of behavior demonstrates that the church doesn’t understand spiritual reality.  The very act of taking into hand the political power of the voting booth is a denial of the spiritual power of the Spirit and clearly exposes our lack of love toward the gay community.

So, has the church failed?  Consider the legalization of gay marriage in the light of the abortion wars.  Is the availability of abortion a failure of the church?  What more could the church have done to prevent the millions of abortions that have polluted our land?  We voted/picketed/prayed/pleaded/reasoned/raged/provided alternatives.  The death of millions of babies cannot be laid at the door of the church.  We were/are not complicit.  This blood is not on the hands of the church.  These take place against our will/our vote/our cooperation/our permission/our blessing.  The church flexed all its might and still the nation turned to an abomination that had never even entered the mind of God.  The blood of millions of human beings is to be laid at the feet of a corrupt culture in moral free fall, not at the feet of a weeping church.

Was the idolatry of Israel the fault of God who sent His Word, prophet after prophet, calamity after calamity? The Lord cries through Isaiah, “What more could I have done…?”

Preventing gay marriage may indeed be the church fighting a losing battle, but even if we lose this battle it is a battle worth waging – we do not fail even if we lose.  The church only fails if the church fails to be the church.  And this is true whether you contend that this is a battle the church should be involved in or not.  (And, for the sake of clarity, the battle was not against gay marriage, but against a redefinition of the Biblical concept of marriage that would have/is having/will have significant repercussions on American life).

For 8.5 years our church was located across the street from the  L ’amour Shoppe – an adult book store.  A couple of times during those years there was the suggestion that the existence of that store represented a failure of the church (not just CC Fremont, but the entire church in Fremont).  If the church had a greater spiritual presence in the city, it was reasoned, the Shoppe would not exist.  I disagreed with them.  The existence of that store does not represent the failure of the church, instead it is to be traced to the moral and spiritual failure of its owners, operators, and clientele.  They sinned against conscience and the gospel to open that place and to keep it open.

The moral/spiritual collapse of the culture is not the church’s failure.  I cannot think of a Scripturally based, textually developed and derived argument that faults the church for the failure of the culture.  The church has her own failure…

What is the failure of the church?  The church’s failure is the moral/spiritual collapse of the church.  The failure of the church isn’t that the culture is looking less and less like the church, but that the church is looking more and more like the culture.  Their degeneration is not our failure, our degeneration is our failure.  We can’t expect the world to act like the church – but we can and should expect the church to act like the church.  The problem isn’t that the culture is departing from the Scripture, but that the church is departing from the Scripture.

Gay marriage/abortion availability/the prevalence of pornography/etc., is not the failure of the church.  It is the failure of those who sin against creation/conscience/Christ.  It is the failure of those who know that there is a God and that they are morally accountable to Him and yet suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  The moral and spiritual collapse of the culture is not the church’s failure, the church has enough failure of her own.

Taking Care of Loose Ends

Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” 2 Timothy 2:3-4, NASB

God uses the picture of a soldier to teach spiritual truths to His followers throughout the Bible. This is especially true concerning Paul’s mentoring of the young pastor Timothy in the above passage.  Whenever I stumble across these illustrations I feel like I have a distinct advantage in uderstanding them after serving as a Navy SEAL for 12 years.   The phrase “good soldier of Christ Jesus” surges adrenaline through my veins as I realize the similarities my new life as a pastor has to my old life as a SEAL.  Pastoring is a serious endeavor not for the faint of heart.

“Get your loose ends taken care of boys” is a phase that would circulate my SEAL platoons in the months leading up to deployment.  As the day approached and the reality of combat was setting in, teammates were reminded to insure their personal lives were in order before we left.  Having  “loose ends taken care of” was a critical element to the success of the mission.  Having your bills paid and family relations in order are far less glamorous than tasks like making explosives, jumping out of planes and other job requirements of the SEAL, but the consequences of these areas being “loose” often resulted in dire consequences.  I believe this truth is the same in the pastoral ministry—whether you are a seasoned pastor or an aspiring church-planter or missionary.

I entered the vocational ministry full time a little over six years ago.  In this time, I have come to see that many pastors have “loose ends” that hinder, if not destroy, the work of the ministry they have been called to. I would like to suggest a two big items that every pastor, church-planter, or missionary should take care of before launching into the ministry and maintain with vigilance while in the ministry if they desire to
serve over the long haul.

Family life.

He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to  manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)”, 1 Timothy 3:4-5 NASB.  Please read that verse again.  What does your family have to do with your qualifications for serving as a pastor?  Everything! The pastor’s family is a main qualifier in determining if a man should be serving in the ministry, yet it seems that this area is neglected by many “gurus” in church growth, planting, etc. circles.

I went to a very good Bible College and Seminary and am grateful for the preparation I received, yet I don’t remember taking a single class on “Strengthening Your Family as a Pastor.”  It breaks my heart to see pastor after pastor fall out because they have neglected to shepherd their family along the way.  Men, we tow a hard road as pastors.  Please, invest in your family consistently.  You are your wife’s husband and pastor—she needs you.  You are your kid’s dad and pastor—they need you.

There is no substitute for time together.  I heard someone once say that, “Quality time comes with quantity of time.”  This is so true.  You must make a habit of scheduling family time daily, taking a day off every week, and planning annual get aways. The life of a pastor is unlike any other job.  We don’t really have “hours” as we are truly 24/7.  I am not sure how some pastors are able to keep regular office hours and respond to the many and diverse crisis’ that come within the life of the church.  I am thankful that my church supports me working out of home.  I have a detached office that gives me the ability to spend time with the family when I am on study breaks.  This time at home allows me to respond to the
variation of needs 24/7 without neglecting my family.

Men, take it to heart—if you house is in order, your ability to serve greatly increases.   Every family is different.  The ministry is a calling on the whole family.  Take the time to determine what works for your family and make midcourse corrections continually along the way.

Financial Freedom!

Jesus said it best, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13, NASB).  Paul continues this thread as he grooms the young pastor Timothy, “An  overseer, then, must be…free from the love of money” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3, NASB).

Are you familiar with this shout, “I’M DEBT FREE!!!”?  You should be.  I am a huge fan of Dave Ramsey’s message to Christians to get debt free, to live like no other so you can LIVE like no other.  Are you aware that most mission agencies will not consider a candidate for the mission field until they are debt free?  I think this should be policy for every pastor who wants to run the course well.

We live in a country where huge amounts of debt are normative—Christians are no different.  If you are in debt, I highly encourage you to make it a priority to get out of debt.  This is challenging, but the rewards of the freedom to serve are amazing when you are living without debt crushing down upon you.  The journey out of debt is a hard road that takes discipline and commitment to get to the end of.  Get a plan together through resources like Dave Ramsey’s books or others out there.

The Rewards Ahead!

We pastors entered this race with great intentions.  The course before us is not a sprint it is a marathon.  The author of Hebrews exhorts believers to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1b, NASB).  Is financial debt entangling and choking the life out of you?  Get rid of it.  Pay it off.  Stop charging and spend less than you make.  Have you left your family in the dust?  As a Navy SEAL instructor leading runs, I would often have to circle back and pick up the “stragglers” (those who couldn’t keep up).  You may have to circle back to your family.  You may owe your wife and kids an apology.  You may need to have a hard talk with your family about how you can give them more of your time.

If you’re like me, you get goose bumps reading Paul’s final words to Timothy to finish strong.  At the end of my life I want to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7, NASB).  Running this race free of debt is so much easier than running with debt weighting you down.  On my death bed I pray that my wife, kids, and future grandkids will be there as brothers and sisters in Christ running their race strong.  Who’s with me?

Moving Sand Around On The Beach

Recently, the college ministry from our church went to Stinson Beach, and my wife, daughter, son in law, and their two kids (2 of my 3 grandchildren) also went.

Our oldest grandchild is Isabella, or Bella, for short.  She’s 2 years old, and as smart and alive as they come.  She came equipped with a variety of tools for moving sand from one place to another, and soon after we arrived, she went to work on re-arranging the contours of the beach.

I thought it would be the grandfatherly thing to do, so I took her by the hand and walked her down near the water where the sand is wet, all with the mindset of helping her build a sand castle.  That’s when the God lesson began.

Apparently Bella didn’t understand my superior plans for building a sand castle, and instead, chose her inferior plan of just moving sand from here to there. With each shovel full of sand that she moved, I began to lose interest.  I looked south down the beach, wondering what was “over there”.  I drifted off into thinking about the books I had brought.  I went from being an active, interested participant to being a passive, somewhat indifferent, duty bound bystander.

I looked back to where our group was seated, and saw my wife and daughter relaxing.  “They deserve a break”, I said to myself.  I instinctively knew the rightness of watching Bella so that they could relax longer. I knew that I ought to give my complete attention to Bella.  I knew it was the “right” thing to do.

Being the godly man that I am, Wink I caught myself, and with deliberate intentionality, I re-focused.  “Get down to her level” I told myself, so I plopped down into the sand and got eye level with Bella.  With renewed purpose, I forced myself to pay attention, and it helped.  I reconnected with Bella, and it got more interesting.  Each time my mind drifted, I purposed to stay on task, and enjoyed some wonderful moments with my granddaughter.

God began to speak to me.  What I was doing was good, but it wasn’t natural.  As with every Christian on Earth, we have a divided nature.  There is my “flesh” of which the Apostle Paul declares “in which dwells no good thing”.  (Romans 7:18)  Also within me is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, conforming me into the image of Christ.  (Romans 8:29)

On a positive note, I realized that God was leading me to be selfless, and to pay attention to my granddaughter.  (I am a bit ashamed to even confess that I needed help with that.)  On a negative note, I once again realized how absolutely absent agape love is within my heart, apart from God’s Spirit.  I thank God that I struggled through it, but I was suddenly re-amazed at God.

God never struggles to pay attention to me and love me when I am “moving sand around on the beach”.  When I am doing something relatively unproductive for His kingdom, He isn’t thinking more of himself than me.  He doesn’t wait until I am doing valuable Kingdom work to turn His eyes toward me. He doesn’t ignore me until I am doing something that he is interested in. Whether I am preaching the Gospel, or “moving sand around on the beach”, His heart consistently and perfectly loves me.

I often have to struggle to extend agape love for others, but God’s nature IS love.  (1 John 4:8, 16) He cannot do anything other than love me selflessly, regardless of how insignificant my thoughts, words, or deeds are.

I sometimes struggle to “do” the right thing, but agape love is also often “feeling” the right thing.  I know that agape isn’t just about feelings, and that it can be extended even when the flesh fights against it, but this beach episode reminded me that God always “feels it”.  His heart towards all of humanity is always full of love, ready to give, and paying attention.  He never drifts off into selfishness, or has to talk Himself back into a right frame of mind.

Only God can say, “I have loved you with an everlasting love”.  (Jeremiah 31:3)  There is never a time when God doesn’t love us.

“God, help me to love like You do.  Deliver me from my natural instinct to focus upon myself.  Help me to see the value of people, even when they are doing nothing more than ‘moving sand around on the beach’.  Thank You for Your perfect love for me”.

Virtues & Victories of Christian Love – Part 2

Pastor Miles DeBenedictis

1 Corinthians 13:5-6
“Virtues & Victories of Christian Love – Part 2”

 

 

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Sunday Tunes – John Coltrane “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”

Since we don’t have anyone scheduled to post on Sundays, I figured that I would share a tune with you.

 

Saturday Reflection – Christian Social Responsibility in the Lausanne Covenant

Something to reflect upon this Saturday

Here is the paragraph on “Christian Social Responsibility” in the Lausanne Covenant (Paragraph 5):

We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all men. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men from every kind of oppression. Because mankind is made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.

Culture Shift – Part 1

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”

Candidate Barack Obama, June 2007

The conservative [especially] evangelical community was stirred into a frenzy by the above quote. Political opponents from coast to coast sought to use it as a rallying point for their base. While four years later I find few statements that I can heartily agree with from our now president Barack Obama, this is definitely one of them.

Cultural shifts are difficult. They are not always sudden and jarring like a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. They tend rather to change landscapes like the slow crushing move of a glacier. The cold hard reality is that culture is never static, which poses a significant problem, as we [humans] don’t much like change.

The Christian, more than any other, must be flexible and ready to adapt to the realities of cultural evolution. We are to be men and women, on mission; a mission which involves a commission to “go.” So, like culture, we are also not static. Our default however, is to tend toward inflexibility. This means that the life for the Christian will [almost] always involve some level of discomfort. As strangers and pilgrims in this world we will never truly find home, in this life. It is this truth that Jesus identified when he said to a potential seeker,  “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:20)

Acts chapter 11 highlights for us a major cultural shift for the early church, one which I’m convinced mirrors what the 21st century evangelical church is now facing in the US and western Europe.

Briefly, Acts 11 brings the church face to face with the fulfillment of one of Jesus’ prophetic promises. Jesus prophesied saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

For roughly the first 10 years of the church’s existence, it found its base among Jews and Samaritans, primarily. Those who filled her ranks came from a theistic worldview; they were religious. Gospel uptake among those of a theistic persuasion was pretty good. At the birth of the church during Pentecost we witness something akin to the crusade evangelism of the 20th century as 3,000 were converted. Shortly after that there came another 5,000 (depending on how you read it). But a decade in, at Acts chapter 10, we witness the gospel’s advance into a paganistic, pluralistic, polytheistic, somewhat secularistic environment. Acts 11 reveals the apostolic reaction to what we could call “culture shock.”

Culture shock is what happens when you wake-up one day to find the culture around you has changed, and you have not. The evangelical church in America is experiencing a culture shock similar to that of the church in Acts 11. President Obama’s quote exposes the cultural shift, which the church is beginning to wake-up to. How we (the church) react to this shift will shape much of our evangelistic efforts in 21st century America.