Winners with Unmet Victory

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The men’s group at my church is currently working its way through a series of lessons on Leadership Skills for Men. The opening lesson was a study on “VISION.” Great leaders are supposed to have it. But very few instinctively know how to develop this quality, which is why an abundance of materials ranging from self-help books to an entire genre of podcast is dedicated to vision in leadership.

In this particular lesson from our men’s group, the fresh thought for me was the idea that David, despite being a man after the Lord’s heart (Acts 13:22), never actually received in this lifetime the thing he arguably desired the most – a dwelling place for God. An explanation given for why David would not build a temple for God was that, as a man of war, he had too much blood on his hands (1 Chron. 22:8).

So God, instead, would have David’s son, Solomon, be the one to construct the temple.

“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind…Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house as the sanctuary. Be strong and do the work.” (1 Chron. 28:9-10)

As I was considering this idea that David, mighty David, giant-slaying, world-beating, empire-expanding, psalm-writing DAVID never actually experienced in his life the thing that he desperately longed for most, it further struck me that the other heroes of faith had a nearly identical experience.

Moses longed to experience the culmination of his life’s work. And while he had a moment to survey the territory, he’d never truly dwell in the Promised Land.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (Numbers 20:12)

Likewise, Abraham was promised a family that would turn into a great nation (and a Savior who would come through that nation). While he was given a son, he never created anything that amounted to a nation, nor experienced blessing all nations, in his lifetime.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:2-3)

In summary, the three guys that first come to mind as “successes” amongst God’s people in the Old Testament Scriptures never actually experienced their deepest desire in this lifetime.

David didn’t get the Temple. Moses didn’t get the Promised Land. Abraham didn’t get the Nation.

THAT was a helpful revelation.

I’m sure they must have felt somewhat incomplete, dissatisfied, maybe even a little like failures.

What Does This Mean?

In all honesty, after ten years in public ministry, I’d be lying to you if I told you that I only sometimes feel like I’m spinning my wheels. The reality is that most days are spent feeling like the needle has not moved in any perceptible way. Every pastor gets into ministry wishing he’ll experience something as glamorous as the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. And there are indeed moments. But it always cracks me up that in that Pentecost account, the Apostle Peter defends the disciples’ speaking in tongues by saying, “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” (Acts 2:15) It’s amusing to me because I would very much like to be able to eventually say the same. Instead, I more often find myself concluding, “Nope. This guy asking for a handout is not speaking in tongues. He’s just drunk (or high). And yes, it’s only 9:00am in the morning.”

In this, my 250th post, I feel comfortable declaring that ministry is fairly unglamorous and shockingly non-triumphant in the immediate experience. By design. What’s easy to forget in a cursory reading of the Bible is that the flip of a page often constitutes days, or even years. Those who want Pentecost must realize that the disciples experienced nine rather non-miraculous days from Jesus’ Ascension till the Spirit came down. Why wouldn’t he just come down five minutes after Jesus ascends? Or why does Paul, after Jesus converts him, have to spend three years studying in Arabia (Gal. 1:17-18)? If he has this profound experience and spiritual gifting, why the need for time-consuming education? Again, design. The nature of seed sowing is a “trusting of the process,” a phrase that has popularly reentered the cultural vernacular because it speaks to our intuitive discordance with American instant gratification.

Now, seed sowing is certainly the nature of gospel ministry, but the analogy works across life – at least for anything that means anything. The monotony of feeding or changing a child has almost zero instant payoff.  Attending meeting after meeting in pursuit of kicking an addiction carries little glory. Lending an ear to a broken person with the express intent of simply commiserating with them doesn’t make you feel better. Just the opposite. This is all often painful, generally slow, subjectively empty labor. But this simply reaffirms the idea that a kingdom is built one tedious brick at a time.

In a broadband world, the idea of walking by faith and trusting the process is increasingly difficult. Not unlike Abraham, or Moses, or David, a Christian must come to accept that the greatest fruit of their labors will not be realized within this lifetime.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is our Lord himself. Jesus came into the world for the specific purpose of saving us (John 12:47). And yet, since that required his death, then his life’s pursuit, by definition, could not technically take place within his original life on earth. His heart’s deepest desire and his life’s work could only come to fruition after he died.

What this means is that we should fully anticipate that all of the grinding, all of our feelings of failure, and all of the minutiae of our daily attempts at obedience and worship will one day be revealed as essential movements in the construction of an eternal dynasty.

The gospel means that real life always comes on the far side of death. And real success can only come after this apparent ineffectiveness.

The monotony continues to matter. Press on.

Lebron and the Choices of Life

Lebron James, the premiere player in professional basketball, and arguably the most dominant, influential professional athlete in recent memory, after signing a contract with the LA Lakers, has again changed teams, for the fourth time in his 15-year career. That kind of superstar movement was unthinkable when I was growing up.

In the days of Jordan, Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, there existed faces so iconic of the franchise that the idea that they would either grow disenfranchised with their team or that the hometown would want to part ways with “their guy” never seemed like a possibility.

But the NBA and professional sports have changed. More accurately, life has changed. In the 21st century, being unnecessarily tethered, i.e. a lack of options, is considered nearly criminal. I mean, we all DESERVE to be able to pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, right? (Or something somewhat narcissistic, humanistic, and individualistic like that.)

Irrespective of what we say, few of us have any higher pursuits than our own personal comfort, pleasure, and happiness. Gone is duty, or loyalty, or fidelity. Why wouldn’t a professional athlete bounce to a different location if that team offered a marginally better chance at winning a championship? For that matter, why would I stay with a company that doesn’t offer me max salary, max corporate trajectory, max days off, and the chance to win immediately? Why would I stay with a wife who, three children later, can’t physically compete with that girl at the office 8 years younger? Why would I stay with a small, quaint church that is full of people whose lives look even more messed up than mine? Why would I stay with a God who isn’t delivering the goods on demand? What’s the point? Isn’t there a different team that will help me feel like a winner now?

In all of the articles and talk radio shows I’ve run across over the past few days discussing Lebron’s move, one thing that struck me is that not a single person (well, maybe a few homers in Cleveland) question Lebron’s decision to move to Los Angeles from a loyalty perspective. Some question it from a basketball perspective – whether or not it improves his odds of winning a championship. But virtually no commentators question the validity of him switching teams – i.e. whether or not a player has some sort of obligation to a fanbase that has embraced them warmly. No one questions this because we all know what it’s like to make decisions by effortlessly pushing the options through the filter of “Is this best FOR ME? Is this what I WANT?”

I’m really not sure even Lebron James is going to shift the balance of power in the NBA with his move. But he is exposing something sad about the state of this generation.

The following are a few related lessons about humanity Lebron has taught us:

1) Choices are Demonstrating the Worst in Us

In 1982 Buckminster Fuller coined something called the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, as the world has splintered into more specialized fields, it’s increasingly difficult to measure, but on average, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to an IBM report several years ago, universal internet availability will eventually cause the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

Too much information, too fast, means life is uncontrollably unpredictable. This fact leaves us feeling vulnerable. So humans today generally possesses a well-developed tentativeness. We’re afraid to make commitments, because we know we could never possibly have all the facts necessary to make the best decision.

This, to some extent anyways, explains the contemporary changing of college majors, careers, and spouses,…as well as professional athletes changing teams continuously. “How can I ever know if a choice is in MY best interest? Well, I guess I’d better try that option over there.”

When humans are given options, go figure, they opt. Furthermore, when we feel threatened or insecure, we’re more inclined to opt that much more selfishly. The availability and accessibility of options themselves don’t make us wicked, but they expose what’s deep inside.

So we’ve created a world with literally thousands of options at the coffee shop, fine-tuned to my personal taste buds, and then we perceive it as injustice if we don’t get things exactly the way we want in the rest of the coffee shop of life. Modern humans are remarkably disloyal, precisely because we’ve given ourselves the option to be “unfaithful” without deep consequence.

Dear Christian, the world is NOT your oyster. You and all the world’s oysters were redeemed by Jesus. Consequently every decision you make does not need to be run through the “Does this make me happy?” filter, but though the “Does this glorify the God who owns me?” filter.

Please notice that none of this, by the way, means that opting for something different is always wrong. Sometimes it’s totally necessary and right. But selfishness is always wrong no matter how it works out. And for sinful creatures, options can multiply temptations. The fallen nature hates patience, perseverance, and faithfulness and will always be tempted to opt out.

2) We Now Know Money is Not Enough

Shockingly, the Lebron James signing is arguably not the biggest story coming out of NBA free agency this summer. Rather, that would be the story of perennial All-Star Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins joining the Golden State Warriors on a 1-year, $5.3 million contract, which conforms to the NBA’s salary cap rules to create competitive parity in the league. The Warriors have won the NBA championship 3 of the last 4 years and were already primed to win several more over the next few seasons. The addition of Cousins, who is considered by many to be perhaps one of the best dozen or so players in the league, seems unfair to many who follow the NBA.

The head-scratching question to most is, “Why would Cousins sign such a small deal?”

Now, $5 million dollars is more money than many of us may ever see, but I want you to keep in mind that he apparently turned down an offer from his home team (New Orleans Pelicans) for $40 million over 2 years. When the NBA devised the current salary cap, rest assured they never dreamed superstars would consider playing for minimal contracts.

Some have suggested that perhaps Cousins took a smaller one-year contract thinking if he can perform well next season, he can prove he’s fully recovered from his injury last season, at which point he can command a higher offer. But that makes little sense, because his numbers are likely to be lower this coming year playing on such a talented team, where he’s not the go-to guy. It has to be something different.

And that difference very well could be the difference other veteran players accepted when they joined the Golden State Warriors – that they would make less money, play less, and receive less acclaim, but would be part of a proven winner. We already knew that once people hit $75,000 in annual income, they feel no significant shift in happiness with increases. But what Cousins’ signing, and Lebron’s bouncing around suggests is that money, in fact, doesn’t buy satisfaction. Humans want much more.

Which leads me to my final point…

3) We Long To Be Part of Something Powerfully Bigger Than Us

As selfish and me-first as fallen human nature is, due to the fact that we have an innate sense that we were created for something more than ourselves, we know deep down, ironically, that our greatest happiness cannot be found in our supremacy. There’s a bigger superstar than me, and there’s a team of “us” that we long for. Our only fear is the ego of a true superstar. Disproportionately talented humans almost invariably use their gifts for selfish gain, which hurts others.

And that’s one of the many reasons why the gospel of Jesus is so remarkable. The Apostle Paul writes:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

The teaching here is that a single building block is terribly unimpressive, because it was never meant to sit there alone. In fact, if it does remain alone, it accomplishes nothing – it can’t stand on its own, it can’t offer shelter, it benefits no one. Once fitted together on a firm foundation, guided by a perfect cornerstone, however, each building block becomes relevant by accomplishing what they were cut out to be.

Jesus, our cornerstone, is a superstar who doesn’t hog the spotlight, but who walks into darkness, alone, so that you can have the light. He won’t leave you for a better opportunity. In fact, he nailed himself to you. And now he invites you to be part of his team. Because of his resurrection, all who believe are guaranteed to end up on the winning side of history.

At some point you become tired of trying to make something of yourself, and the idea of simply being part of the winning team sounds wonderful. That’s what we were made for.

The talented players on the Golden State Warriors’ bench, who could all likely start on other teams, seem to understand this. But part of the essence of being a Christian is to really get this concept. “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) Whatever gift we’re given, whatever role we play, we’d humbly carry it out because we’re just overjoyed that our brother would invite us to be part of his eternally winning team, no matter how difficult this season of life.

Only when we lose ourselves in Him and in his Church will we find the selves we were cut out to be.

The New Christian Witness?

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In the days of Facebook’s waning influence, it’s odd to see virtually everyone in your feed post the same hot piece of news, say, the way they did way back in 2014. But the Christians in my feed saw something they really liked in Chris Pratt’s MTV Generation Award acceptance speech.

In the speech, Pratt is his usually quirky self, which shines through in every character he’s ever played, from the the lovable, dim-witted Andy Dwyer on Parks & Recreation, to the still quirky, but more deadpan hero hunk (not my type, but…) he’s played in the action blockbusters that have made him a huge Hollywood deal (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World).

But in this particular speech, aside from attempting to be entertaining, which many entertainers do, he also went where most don’t. Faith. Through a rambling, frenetic 3 minutes that he titled “9 Rules from Chris Pratt: Generation Award Winner,” he bounced around from lowbrow jokes about poop, and animals, and even breathing (Rules 1, 4, 7), to humanitarian encouragements to defend the weak and work hard to earn what you get (Rules 3, 5), to nebulous spiritual statements that could be identified as New Agey, e.g. “You have a soul. Be careful with it” (Rule 2) and “Learn to pray. It’s easy, and it’s good for your soul” (Rule 8), but which were actually clarified by more demonstrative doctrinal statements. And this is what I really wanted to touch upon – a unique cultural moment.

In Rule 6, Pratt said, “God is real. God loves you, God wants the best for you. Believe that. I do.” This is the comment that I saw most Christians pick up on. It’s a true statement. And it’s a sincere profession. The interesting thing is that he could have left it at that and arguably been no closer to salvation than an avowed atheist. Most people throughout world history have attested to belief in a real higher power. Many also assert his basic goodness.

But it was in Pratt’s last rule, Rule 9, that he actually got concrete in his beliefs. It was a brilliant maneuver, because everyone was so disoriented after the combination of disarming silliness, injunctions toward noble behavior, and general spiritual truths, that the audience was in a posture of applause before he even got to his culminating point.

And in Rule 9, Pratt stated:

“Nobody is perfect. People are gonna tell you you’re perfect just the way you are — you’re not. You are imperfect. You always will be. But, there is a powerful force that designed you that way. And if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. And like the freedom that we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood, do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.”

A Christian could possibly take issue with the “powerful force designed you that way” (i.e. imperfect) comment. But the spirit of what I hear Pratt quite cleverly saying here is, 1) despite what the world says, you and I are sinners who need to repent for that, and 2) there is hope in the undeserved love of God who paid for your liberation from those sins through his blood (i.e. in Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice).

Other celebrities have opened up as Christians in recent years. Kathie Lee Gifford and Ernie Johnson have been some public figures with very clear confessions of faith. Athletes like Tim Tebow, Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins, and Case Keenum have all been very open about their faith. But this is a slightly different community. The young creative entertainment field, which Pratt is now considered a leader in, is a different setting. Going into a population like the MTV Awards, where so much could be considered blatantly irreverent, and proclaiming that your freedom was paid for with God’s blood is HIGHLY unusual.

In fact, someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure the gospel has been proclaimed that unabashedly in mainstream media, with that much attention, in front of that many eyeballs, since Linus read the Christmas account from the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14 in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

For those who observe Linus’ speech carefully, you’ll notice the fascinating nuance that Linus drops his security blanket when he quotes the angels proclaiming, “Fear not!” (Luke 2:10) Similarly, it took a ton of guts for Pratt to go where he did in this speech. And the question now is what, if anything, we should we learn from it.

For me personally, two things jump out:

1) Proclaim Clearly and Without Reservation

The contemporary Christian witness has arguably become not much of a witness. IF you have indeed shared your faith with a non-believer in recent memory (which for some of us is an enormous IF), take note of how many times you’ve used expressions like “I think” or “I feel like” in your testimony. Expressions like “I think” and “I feel” can be used effectively, and they’re essential when discussing things that the Bible has not forbidden nor commanded. But, in a courtroom, no one really cares what you think or feel. What we desire from a witness is what they’re convinced is true. “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” – THAT is witness language. If you’re willing to stake your eternal future on it, then you believe it with conviction, so speak it with conviction. Pratt said, “God is real. God loves you, God wants the best for you. Believe that. I do.” Of course he thinks and feels strongly about that, but he’s convicted enough by the Spirit to simply state it as fact. That’s good witnessing.

2) Be Willing to Earn Your Platform and Walk Through the Door When It Opens

There’s ALWAYS a risk and a cost involved in doing evangelism. The risk could be as light as scoffing and rejection or as severe as death. The cost could be an expenditure of a few minutes or the forfeiture of comfort or working years in order to do mission work overseas. But there is ALWAYS risk and cost in a Christian’s witness.

Pratt knew why he was standing on that stage. People find him entertaining. It’s a gift. So what did he do? He entertained them (the quality of the material is up for debate). He provided the culture with the service it asked for. But in that opportunity he seamlessly wove in a few brief statements about what made him tick and who really deserves the glory. This isn’t completely unlike what the Apostle Paul does in Acts 17 in Athens. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were not necessarily desiring to believe in Jesus when the gave him a platform at the Areopagus. They were seeking truth. Paul then proceeded to give them a logical argument debunking their perception of truth, and he maneuvered it into a testimony about Christ. In other words, he gave them something of what they asked for, but more of what they needed. Chris Pratt followed suit.

As American society becomes increasingly post-Christian, our witness will need to become more COURAGEOUS (as it will become socially less desired) and CLEAR (as it will become socially less understood what the essence of Christianity is). Pratt taught us that when you’ve earned the stage, “God loves you. Believe it. I do.” and “God paid for your imperfection with his blood.” are useful phrases to guide your witness.

What do you think? Good witness? Lots to learn? Not clear enough? Too Crude?

Regardless of style, I’m just thankful someone’s putting it out there.

Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

We Bow To What We Worship

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In moments of crisis, people will rally behind points they already agree with, but pride prevents us from graciously appreciating the other side. When emotions are so high, public debate can become like trying to reason with a drunk at the bar or a child throwing a temper tantrum. True growth requires the fertile soil of both genuine curiosity and sober levelheadedness. I haven’t seen much of either in the national anthem protests. So I’ve waited to comment, hoping things would calm.

I’ve written about this before – i.e. the tendency of people to get religious about seemingly non-religious items. But the current national anthem debate seems to perfectly illustrate this.

The Debate

The argument from those who oppose kneeling during the national anthem is that the American flag is an obvious, revered symbol of the United States’ Armed Forces. Anyone who has ever been to the funeral of a fallen veteran recognizes the prestige attached to the American flag. The flag represents a unique freedom we possess as a nation, a freedom worth dying for. Many have. And it’s disrespectful to fail to recognize those who have fought so sacrificially.

The concession that’s made on this end of the debate is that ethnic inequality is totally inappropriate, but that this simply isn’t the venue to express that sentiment.

On the other side, the argument from those supportive of kneeling during the national anthem is that we are in a country that supposedly stands for equality, but that there are real and legitimate inequalities that are currently being perpetuated. We are conscience-bound to do something about human mistreatment and with the eyes of the country watching, it’s an important platform on which to say you’re not okay with it – functioning as a voice for the voiceless.

The concession that’s made on this end of the debate is that our armed forces are wonderful, but that they’ve risked (and sacrificed) their lives specifically so that we could live in a country where we were free to express our views. In other words, what’s the point in fighting to protect our country’s freedom of expression if, in fact, our country disallows free expression.

Everyone’s “Bowing” to Something

It seems like it should be simple, but it’s a rather complicated issue. And when we offer simplistic explanations, it’s perceived as dismissive by either one or both sides.

My take, as a Christian, is simply this: If humans were truly created by God to worship God as an essential act of our humanity, then when we societally lose consciousness of God, we don’t stop worshipping, we just start worshipping something other than God. By that, I simply mean that we look to something other than the true God to give us our meaning, our hope, and our identity.

I think a possible explanation of what we’re seeing right now is that some who are in favor of the athletes kneeling might be ascribing God-level value to their ethnic status. I’m all for celebrating cultural gifts. Working in an inner-city setting, I’ve had my eyes opened to issues of systemic injustice and unrecognized privilege in ways that I previously hadn’t understood. This is an issue worth fighting for because nothing is worth fighting for if not human well-being. But I also think it’s possible to elevate cultural identity to the position of a god. If so, it’d naturally lead you to think, say, and do things that contradict the will of the true God.

I think it’s also possible that right now some who are adamantly opposed to kneeling athletes might be ascribing God-level value to their nation. We have a lot to be thankful for in our country, including our armed forces. Our freedoms are virtually unmatched against another time and place in history. This debate, as ugly as it’s occasionally gotten, can only take place in a country with this much freedom. In a different state, someone might get beheaded. That, in itself, is something to be thankful for. But I also think the 20th century was very clear evidence that nationalism run amok, elevated to the position of god (which always took place in decidedly godless countries), is a disaster.

So, it’s possible that some impassioned souls right now are bowing to their culture and some are bowing to their nation.

The other item that would never get mentioned in the media is the fact that these demonstrations are taking place during America’s new pastime – professional football. NFL ratings have taken a slight hit in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that with the advent of fantasy football, the NFL has become the highest grossing sport and the most watched show on TV. And it mostly takes place…on Sunday. The irony better not get lost. We haven’t gotten less religious. We’ve just gotten less religious about the true God. This has left us to pour our religious fervor into issues of cultural identity, nationalism, and recreation.

Biblically Resisting the Crowd

While many Christians are vaguely familiar with the story of “The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace,” fewer are familiar with why they were thrown into that furnace. In Daniel 3, we’re told, “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold (Dan. 3:1)…Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do…you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up…Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” (Dan. 3:1-6)

Everyone complied except some of God’s people who “neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:12)

Some might say they were protesting, but keep in mind that they were protesting because they wouldn’t bow down to anything but the real God. They weren’t protesting for their Jewish culture or their Jewish nation. They weren’t considering their people victims nor were they feeling disrespected. As believers, they simply believed they should fall to their knees before no one but God.

What Does This Mean?

I’m not certain most of us would come down on the same spot on the national anthem debate, nor do we have to. We can/should love one another even as we disagree.

One thing I think most of us would likely agree upon, however, is that if you’re a Christian, while we might fold our hands to respect the flag or take a knee in silent protest for important issues, Jesus Christ is the only one worth truly bowing down before. Consequently, we must never insinuate that our ultimate cause is ethnicity or nation, because our ultimate citizenship is in heaven and our ultimate culture is the family of God. My assumption is that this may very likely lead us to simply keep our mouths shut when a secular world gets religious about things other than the true God.

The End of Consumer Christianity (Part II)

Last week we noted the Bible’s clear and consistent directive for believers to function together as one body, which is called a “church.” We anchored our understanding in Hebrews 10:25 “(Let us) not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”  We acknowledged that fallen humans have a natural resistance to this. We also noted that both modern churches and modern individual Christians probably bear some responsibility for the increasing infrequency in American church engagement.

This week we’re looking at the topic positively, i.e. what the church actually IS designed to be. And to do so, we’ll once again anchor our understanding in Hebrews 10. Here we find two very important things that the church is supposed to do, both products of love, which are essentially opposite sides of the same coin.

1) Spur On

“And let us consider how we may SPUR ONE ANOTHER ON toward love and good deeds.” (vs. 24)

The Greek word here for “spur on” is παροξυσμὸν. It means a “sharp encouragement.” Sharp. It’s like getting poked. Getting poked is not fun. But it does get your attention. And it can only be done when you’re in arm’s length of someone. To “spur one another on,” therefore, means you have to be close enough to someone to know in what areas they need accountability. And you have to be close enough that you actually give them access into your life too, so that they perceive your spurring as love, not control and judgment.

Some of us have been hurt in the past, now have real trouble letting people into our lives, and have a tendency to think “that’s none of your business.” A Christian community doesn’t function that way. There’s a level of openness, closeness, and  transparency by which we can reach out and spur one another on toward growth, i.e. “love and good deeds.” And we invite others to do the same for us.

Furthermore, a spur really isn’t used to direct a creature. That’s what the bridle is for. A spur prevents a stubborn, lazy horse from just standing there. The writer to the Hebrews seems to be suggesting that the nature of the sinful flesh is that, when left to ourselves, we get spiritually lazy. We need others to keep us moving. This is the power of accountability.

What’s embarrassing to me is that much of the modern secular world seems to understand this far better than the church today. Why do you think Weight Watchers is such an effective weight loss program? Why do you think Alcoholics Anonymous is such an effective rehab program? Why do you think CrossFit, explosively popular, is such an effective physical fitness program? With all due respect to CrossFit people, is CrossFit effective because people can’t, on their own, find boxes to jump up on for less than $250/month??? The power is in the peer accountability. The modern western world is increasingly rejecting individuality for the sake of communal accountability and guess who was telling us to do this 2000 years ago?

2) Encourage

But it’s not just intense and sometimes painful accountability that we need from fellow close Christians. We each need to be part of a body of believers because we also need gentle encouragement too. “(Let us) ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (vs. 25)

The Greek word here is παρακαλοῦντες – it means to come alongside someone and call out to them. It’s comforting. It’s tender. It’s actually the same word (Paraclete) used sometimes for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. But to really encourage someone you need to know them well enough to know what fears, guilt, etc., they’re really struggling with. Furthermore, to truly encourage someone, you have to be so close to Christ yourself that when you minister to your friend, you’re not merely offering your best advice, but it is the Spirit of Christ living inside you ministering to them.

What does this mean?

Modern western individualism is constantly driving us deeper into ourselves. The sinful nature in us also focuses us inward upon ourselves. This is the road to death. When left to ourselves, we fall apart. Literally. Sin is the human heart turned inward upon itself. And “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) Our bodies fall apart, i.e. decay, upon death as a physical manifestation of what sin does. Sin makes everything fall apart.

Our world is losing a consciousness, or at least a value, of God’s presence. Does anyone really need any convincing that the world in its present form falling apart right? Charlottesville and North Korea are not the result of too many people comprehending the glory of God. They’re the result of people completely lacking consciousness of a Creator (design), Redeemer (grace), and Judge (consequence).

Without God’s intervention, by his Spirit, in his people, i.e. without God’s presence, the world falls apart.

Without God’s intervention, we would have fallen apart – if Christ had not gotten involved with us, died and risen from the grave in our place, we would be left for dead in our sins. But Christ DID come for us. Christ DID rescue us from the sins that would’ve torn us apart. And now, in the era of the Spirit, God now lives in his Church. Consequently, if we don’t have other Christians interacting with us in meaningful ways, it’s basic logic that we should absolutely anticipate that our spiritual lives will fall apart.

And let me take it one step further. When Jesus calls believers the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) he’s saying that without Christians graciously working to his glory and for the city’s needs, a community will ultimately fall apart. And for anyone who would look to northern European “non-God-conscious” communities as near utopias to prove my point wrong, I’d simply direct you to some current thinking that I believe will inevitably rip a nation apart. Just give it time. Humanity minus God inevitably decays.

The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1 that in Christ, all things hold together. If the Bible is, in fact, inspired, then “ALL things” – our universe, our civilizations, our churches, and we as individuals – only get held together by Christ.

And here’s the irony: we get held together only because, for our sakes, Jesus loved us enough to get torn apart. An individual who stays just an individual will ultimately end up alone forever. That’s hell. Jesus was more than just a mere individual. He was an equal person in the relational Triune God, but he became hellishly alone on the cross, so that we who’ve tried to live as individuals would be held together as family forever. To the degree we understand that, we will start living with fellow believers more as a family each day…and we will work to adopt more and more brothers and sisters into this Christian family.

I understand that quite a few people have felt burned by their church before. This shouldn’t surprise us when we understand that churches are filled with sinners saved only by grace. If you’ve ever been hurt by “the church” before, I’m asking you to let that go – to forgive just as God, in Christ, has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32). And I’m asking you now to help create the church that you always hoped the church would be – Jesus as our head, believers living together as a fully functional, healthy, transparent, and interdependent body, showing a more beautiful way, the grace of God, and the Savior who is the only medicine for this world’s sickness.

The End of Consumer Christianity (Part I)

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Today, many self-identified Christians have largely stopped meeting together.

If you’ve listened to any church leadership podcasts or read any books/research on American worship patterns, you realize that we’ve encountered a “new normal” with church engagement over the past 20 years. Our society is opting out.

This isn’t a completely new issue for the Church. The writer to the Hebrews said, “(Let us) not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” (vs. 25) Somewhere around the mid-60s AD, what appears to have been happening is that some of the Hebrews were giving up on gathering for weekly worship. “Hebrews” is a New Testament term for Jewish converts to Christianity who had, by and large, maintained a lot of their Jewish cultural practices, but who were wrestling with how their new Christianity was different from their former Judaism. A big part of Jewish ceremony was the Sabbath Day regulations. The Sabbath Day was a day of rest and “meeting together” for worship. Consequently, when Jews converted to Christianity, there was this question of to what degree “meeting together” was still necessary since there was no longer officially a scheduled worship day. Some of them thought, “Great! No Sabbath day! That means free day. I get an extra day to work or vacation or whatever else I want.” So the writer of the Hebrews has to remind them, “No, God’s people, don’t stop meeting together!”

Millennials, by a pretty significant margin, attend worship less than any other generation. Only 27% attend religious services weekly. When you account for the fact that we know religious self-reporting is generally over-reported by double, this means that probably somewhere around 14 of every 100 Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 are engaged in church life on a weekly basis. The odd thing is that the research also shows that, according to their own self-attestation, Millennials are almost no less spiritual. In other words, just as many of them believe in God, almost as many pray regularly, and almost as many believe in heaven and hell according to the Pew Research Data. This tells us their reaction is NOT against the concept of God per se, or spiritual disciplines, or doctrine. Their reaction is against…the modern American Church.

Now, there’s probably several reasons for this. I don’t mean to oversimplify. But I also don’t want to allow stalwart churchgoers to miss the point by saying that younger adults are just “godless.” That’d be 1) statistically untrue, 2) condescendingly dismissive, 3) inopportunely missing the occasion for necessary self-reflection. In other words, to that last point, it’s probably time the Christian Church takes a good, long look in the mirror and asks whether or not we are presenting an accurate and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God – the one Christ designed his Church to be.

I would certainly suggest the American church itself shares some of the blame for young America’s spurning.

Church’s Fault

I’m afraid that the idea of “church” in the past 50-75 years has become the idea of a production and consumption of spiritual commodities. And if so, upon the dawn of the digital age, this has then rendered “meeting together” useless. Here’s what I mean. If “church” to you is listening to a message. Guess what? I can get great messages at home…online. Christians can find a preacher online smarter than their pastor, funnier than their pastor (well, mine can’t, but in general… 🙂 ), more insightful than their pastor, or more moral. If theological tradition is what is most important, it’s possible, for instance, to find a more “Lutheran-sounding” Lutheran. Point being, if you’re part of a church primarily to hear a message, there’s no reason to belong to a church. You can get that online. Furthermore, the exact same thing can be said about music. In other words, we’re a consumer-minded culture. And if church is merely a collection of commodities you consume, you don’t need to be a member anywhere for the same reason I don’t need to go to the mall anymore…I have Amazon Prime.

I think we pastors and worship leaders, for a long time, have believed that producing good commodities (sermons and songs and studies) has been the extent of our leadership, the measuring stick of whether or not we are quality ministers. In reality, I think we we’re supposed to be discipling and shepherding and compelling church members into a collective, church-wide local mission.

So, am I suggesting something like a sermon in a church service is worthless? Granted, I’m a little biased, but no, not at all. The blessing of a sermon by a local pastor is he knows you. You can find a smarter, more insightful preacher online, but you can’t find someone who BOTH 1) studies God’s Word intensely, AND 2) knows your struggles and applies it to your particular life circumstances. Sermons and worship music for the church are RELATIONAL proclamation of an objective Word. It speaks into your life directly. But that doesn’t change the fact that “church” is not primarily about consuming messages.

So, yes, the church should probably shoulder some of the blame for America’s declining interest in church. We’ve commoditized spiritual content, told people to consume it, and called it “church.” That’s an issue.

Individual’s Fault

On the other hand, I think every individual Christian probably shoulders some blame for simply mimicking the individualistic patterns of our culture. We’ve become a people so focused on self-comfort and self-convenience, that we treat our spiritual lives as though they’re simply one more aspect of our lives. What does this mean? Virtually every other aspect of my life I do at my own personal convenience. This generation doesn’t have to go away to school, it can go to school online when it wants. This generation doesn’t have to watch The Cosby Show at 8:00pm on Thursday evenings on NBC…when it comes on. We can binge watch shows online, when we want. On demand. We don’t have to shop when the stores are open, we shop online, it’s convenient for us.

So, understandably, modern believers have concluded that we can do our spiritual lives at our own personal convenience too. Here’s the problem: we’ve forgotten that we live in the New Testament Era, the Spirit Era, where God is met by interacting with the people he lives in by his Spirit. Post Pentecost, without knowing other Christians in deep and meaningful ways, you cannot really know God. (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; 2 Tim. 1:14; Eph. 5:18; Rom. 8:9,11; Gal. 4:6)

There Is No Christianity Outside of the Church

Not only can you not know God on your own, but you cannot obey God on your own. When someone gives up meeting together with the body of believers, when you try to foster a relationship with God on your own, it’s impossible to carry out one of the most common New Testament biblical directives, which is to “one another.”

In You and Me Forever, author Francis Chan puts it like this:

“Consider this: the phrase ‘one another’ is mentioned 59 times in the New Testament. Fifty-nine times, the writers of the New Testament give us commands that we cannot obey without turning to another member of the church and demonstrating the character of God. It’s impossible to ‘one another’ yourself; it’s impossible to ‘one another’ in your heart. These ‘one another’ commands require us to demonstrate the gospel with others.

While Jesus was on earth, HE revealed God to the world. But now He has formed the CHURCH, given us His mission, and empowered us through the Holy Spirit. It’s our job to reveal God to the world through the way we live together.” (You and Me Forever, pg. 56)

In The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark says this beautiful “one-anothering” was what created the platform for gospel proclamation and the explosion of the New Testament Church. He writes: “alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86) Stark is saying the unbelievers, the other-religious people of the New Testament Era, all thought you could appease your god(s) simply by having a personal relationship with that god(s) – making sacrifices, praying, and doing good moral acts. While the early Christians would have agreed with some of that, they knew that if we’re going to truly know God, we have to have a close relationship with the people He indwells.

If we want to be Christians, we cannot do it independently. We have to do this together. It’s not us about getting content we like at our own personal convenience – that’s my Netflix account. Church is about God’s people graciously functioning together with Jesus as their head to advance His Kingdom.

(This week I looked at the negative side – where churches have gone that I wish they hadn’t – namely, conditioning a consumer mindset. Next week I’ll tap into more of what Christ designed his Church, and therefore local churches, to be.)

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Structural Injustice and Why Christians are the Obvious Candidates to Help

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I received an email from our school superintendent the other day that read: “I am deeply saddened to report the passing of Dontrae Henning, a beloved member of the class of 2010. Dontrae was killed by gun violence while sitting in a car on Monday night.”

Now, very little is known about the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. But at intense moments like this, people understandably want to ask, “Whose fault was this?”

Traditional liberalism tends to say “It’s the corrupt system’s fault.” Traditional conservatism tends to say “It’s the broken family’s fault.” In other words, everyone always thinks it’s someone else’s fault. While there certainly is blame, I’m fairly confidant that sitting around and assigning blame is unproductive. What I do know is that, like every other 17 or 18 year-old, I made many foolish choices by that point in my life too. And yet I never once felt as though any of those foolish choices would lead to me sitting in a car one night and getting my life taken. What that means is that I was afforded a level of grace by God – a grace of safe living conditions, grace of a loving family unit, grace of a Christian upbringing, grace of quality education and abundant life opportunities – graces that many others are simply not afforded, at least to the same degree.

Now I have no reason to feel guilty about the blessings I received. But it’d also be inappropriate to fail to recognize those blessings for what they were, GRACE. The spiritual blindness of the human condition leads us to take more credit than we deserve. This is the reason why everyone who wins an award first remarks, “I worked really hard.” While they may have worked hard, it’s dismissive of the efforts of others to say you won simply because you worked the hardest. It ignores good fortune and positive circumstances. It ignores God’s interventions. Put differently, the Christian response to blessing would NOT be to say, “I earned this,” nor to throw my hands up and say, “I guess I got lucky!” Instead, the reborn response to good fortune would be to ask, “How do I bless others with the grace afforded me?”

So, for instance, in Milwaukee, we have thousands of kids who by the age of 17 or 18 have almost no marketable skills. They have almost no trajectory of healthy social productivity. Author Matthew Desmond did a remarkable job laying this out in his best-selling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Make no mistake, this is a Christian responsibility. Why is social brokenness a Christian responsibility, you ask? Everyone has gods, but Christians are the only ones with a God of grace. Consequently, Christians are the only ones who can who have the resource of grace themselves to apply grace, undeserved love.

Yes, secular people can throw money at stuff. Yes, secular people can demonstrate social activism. But only someone who has received Jesus Christ’s life for theirs, gifting them eternal life in paradise, will have the resource to say, “Okay, now my life for yours. I’m willing to be hurt in order to help bring your hurting to an end.” On the other hand, if you believe this life is all there is and that the highest goal of this life is your own personal comfort (the highest pursuit of the modern western person), you will never live like that.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of structural injustice I’ve ever heard was presented in Divided by Faith, written by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. They create a parable in the book that goes something like this: There are two guys, Guy A and Guy B, who both need to lose some weight. They both decide to go to a summer camp to lose weight. But let’s say at Guy A’s summer camp everyone is fit. Everyone encourages you to lose weight. All the stores are health food. And all the gyms are inexpensive and popular. Now, let’s say at Guy B’s summer camp the only place to get food is McDonald’s. The one gym there is lousy and super expensive and you have to wait in lines to use machines. And finally, most of the people there are pretty out-of-shape. Now, of course there are still some important individual choices to be made and personal ownership of those decisions. It’s still certainly possible for Guy B to lose weight through discipline and willpower. But you cannot deny that it’s going to be more difficult for Guy B to lose weight at his camp than Guy A. That’s structural inequality.

blog - injustice 1Now the reason God doesn’t just give everyone a basket with an equal amount of goods in it to provide for needs is because he doesn’t desire for us to be merely dependent upon him, but also interdependent upon one another. So, he might put two sets of goods in my basket and none in another, because he wants me to share with the one who has none. In that case, we’re not only both provided for, but we’ve built relationship together. And if you’re so bold as to think that God cares little about structural injustice, that anyone who encourages Christian humanitarian efforts is merely practicing a social gospel, I’d encourage you to re-read Jesus’ haunting warning in Matthew 25:31-46. On the Day of Judgment, Christ says the litmus test for true orthodoxy will not merely be accurate doctrinal confession (i.e. “Lord”), but active social compassion.

The reality with structural injustice is that you don’t have to be an overt racist or classist to perpetuate a system that favors some ahead of others. You can participate non-consciously, which is probably most participation. We rarely recognize clear advantages when we’re the one receiving those advantages.

So, to overturn social injustice, you must have two things: 1) Someone must call your attention to social injustice; 2) You must have a compelling reason to change, even inconvenience yourself along the way.

I think it’s worth noting that in the history of believers, despite clear warnings, God’s people have occasionally been completely unmotivated to enact social justice…with painful results.

The prophet Amos’ chief mission in his 8th century Northern Kingdom ministry was to call the wealthy Israelite elite to repentance over their structural injustices. Assyria and Egypt, the understood powers of the day, had become weakened for various reasons. This enabled Israel to overtake important trade routes, resulting in a rapid influx of cash into the empire. But the financial impact was only seen by the professional class, not the working class, which created a greater class disparity. Sound familiar?

The most obvious demonstration that the nation was becoming corrupted by this wealth was the injustices taking place in the court system. Bribes were commonplace. And the victims of a system like that, almost invariably, were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, and the poor (Zech. 7:10). By profiting off the poor, the wealthy were building their dream houses. God called them to repentance through Amos, but when they didn’t, he finally came down and said, Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” (Amos 5:11-12) The God who positions the stars in the sky, changes the seasons, causes the rains, etc. (Amos. 5:8), he’s the one that will have final say on wealth distribution, since it all belongs to him and he controls it anyways.

So our simple filter when it comes to making life decisions and managing blessings is this: Does this honor God? Is this me first or is this you first? The reason any structural injustice takes place is because you have a bunch of people who collectively, defying God, are saying, “Me first.”

Where are you at on this? I’ll be honest with you, there’s a strong part of me that has become convicted that if, for instance, I was born and raised in the 53206 zip code, there’s more than a small chance that I’d probably be in jail right now. In other words, if you put my exact same disposition and spirit into a young man in a geographic area and cultural circumstance of high violence, poor economics, poor education, family dysfunction, and social injustice, he might very well end up in jail. What that means is I was shown some grace and blessing in circumstances. And what that then means is that with the choices and management opportunities I’m given in life, I need to bless others.

Why? Not to earn my salvation, but because by grace I’ve already been blessed with salvation. Rather, here’s your motivation for social healing: Jesus is the one who was literally on the inside of God, safe and secure inside the Trinity, but voluntarily left that comfort to come to earth and be unjustly banished outside of the holy city. Worse yet, Jesus was brutally pushed out of God’s love upon the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46) But he willingly and graciously did it so that we who deserve to be cast outside for our injustices would instead be forever welcomed inside God’s family. To the degree I recognize that I am the beneficiary of his injustice, I will become a healer of injustice myself.

God now opens our eyes to injustice and to the outcasts (the victims of injustice). Don’t wait till you “feel led” to get involved. I think for many years I believed you had to feel compelled to do the things that were right in God’s sight or it would somehow be disingenuous. I’ve since learned that’s just not the way Christian maturity tends to work. Instead, a Christian walks by faith and does what is right in God’s sight, watches God work through him, and that generates the appropriate feelings.

As the Christian Church in the west continues to wane, I’m led to think that the believing communities that will last are those who best carry out fully what Jesus designed his church to be: His voice of truth, yes, but, no less, his hands and feet of compassion.

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