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The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

I was reminded today that … well, the fastest growing churches in our land are producing guilt-ridden workaholics rather than a community of men and women who believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls!” (1 Pet. 1:9). Rather than the celebration of peace with God, I fear we promote a spiritual anxiety in people who feel like, if they are following God the way they should, their lives should be fixed by now. 

LCoachI was reminded of this tension as I read this Facebook post today. It’s from an old friend, talking about his church’s upcoming weekend services. Needless to say, the names are fictitious:

Tomorrow is going to be an epic day at our Midtown Campus! John Doe, Jim Doe and Josh Doe combining on a message about Lazarus. Jessie Doe narrating. Jen Doe communicating. Jeremy Doe leading music. Our bulletins to take notes on… they are toe tags that read: Deceased: Lazarus. Physician: Jesus. Funeral Director: Martha. Case #: John 11. We’ll be looking at overcoming obstacles, trusting for miracles, and removing entanglements. I’m so excited for how God is going to use this in my life and in the lives of others.

It sounds like quite a production. There was a day when I would have been proud to be a part of such an “epic day”.

Now, there are a few things about this enterprise that make me squirm a bit, but aren’t that big a deal. All of the terminology is strikingly not-church (campus, communicating, leading music, bulletins). Jesus being termed as “physician” (only?). Playing into our culture’s CSI-enflamed media passion for crime dramas. It’s obvious that this service has been designed with seekers in mind … so the gathering seems produced to capture the fancy of non-Christians, more than to engage its own membership in the Biblically-prescribed worship of God through Christ.

LAZWhat I find most disheartening, though, is the hermeneutic of the “message”. The story of Lazarus is a narrative story that speaks of the grandness and glory of God, the power of resurrection, and the beauty-for-ashes reality of salvation! It’s about how great God is, and how we should praise Him, be assured by Him, and believe in Him. That’s why “these things were written” (John 20:31).

But, in true contemporary Evangelical fashion (and I say this with great warmth, since I, too, have been an Evangelical for so many decades), they’ve taken this glorious story, and turned it into a self-help seminar. Jesus is the one who can help us overcome obstacles and remove entanglements … perhaps even perform a miracle if we trust in Him correctly. The “gospel” behind this version of the story is: Incorporate Jesus into your life, and He will make it run more smoothly. Your life is what matters, and Jesus is here to help.

Again, I have to admit that I would probably have taken the same tack on this passage a few years ago. That’s before I was introduced to the classical hermeneutic of “law and gospel”. Preaching the law (telling people what they should do to be pleasing to God) is a painful-yet-necessary word for those who aren’t Christians. They need to know why they should repent of their sins, and seek to be forgiven by God. But, for the truly repentant, broken soul – the Christian – what’s needed is not the law, the but comforting assuranceget to work of the gospel: God’s love overwhelms your sin, so that you are at absolute peace with God. This gospel also serves as the greatest motivator to righteous conduct.

John 11 is, as much as any passage in the New Testament, a celebration of the completed work of Jesus – the gospel! To turn this around and use this text to instruct people how they should do their faith (appropriate the life-helps offered by Jesus … not in this passage, but perhaps elsewhere) lays burdens on the lives of believers from which Jesus came to alleviate! And, as we baptize our services in the trappings of contemporary culture, affirming to our world that you aren’t supposed to be like God, but that we and God want to be just like them … we fail to tell unbelievers that what they need most is a repentant heart, not the instructions of a life coach.

I’m so thankful for those who have recently nurtured me in classical understandings of the gospel. I wish I had known these things earlier. I am genuinely sad for the lives I’ve stressed out over the years of overemphasizing “practical application” (the “so what” and “now what”). Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer of repentance, and continue to lead me to an authentically redemptive proclamation of the gospel.

– EO

 

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Christianity and Patriotism

Christianity and Patriotism

The 4th of July is coming. In the life of the church, there is often tension associated with the holiday.

In the U.S.A., most in our congregations are citizens (though there are also immigrants, aliens and sojourners among us). Most of these are proud of their country. In many churches, the expression of that national pride has become a part of Sunday worship celebrations, and even special programming centered around our pride in, love for, and allegiance to the U.S.A.

Some cry foul. Others are ready to tar-and-feather you if you don’t enter in.

Recently, John Piper shared his thoughts about Christianity and Patriotism in an online podcast. I’d like to share my thoughts in relation to Piper’s in an attempt to set an appropriate course for churches.*

Piper points out that, in many churches, our Fourth of July celebrations seem “uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” This is our big question: What is that relationship?

Piper: “We are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime. America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken.”

So far, so good. Unfortunately, for many church goers, it is their primary identity.  The Word of God does need to be spoken clearly into these idolatrous hearts, and a call to absolute allegiance to God needs to made. Still, being citizens of the U.S.A. is part of our identity. (I appreciate Piper using the the words “first” and “primary” above.)

Where I would veer away from Piper’s thinking is in his choosing to make such a vigorous demarcation between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state. “We swear absolute allegiance to him and to no one and nothing else. All other commitments are relativized … All of those authorities are subordinate and secondary to the authority of Christ and, therefore, all submission is qualified.” Piper draws a bold line between Christ as Lord and all other lordships.

ref-luthertours.jpgBut this approach and this rhetoric fails to give weight to the Biblical truth that the Kingdoms of this world are a divinely ordained extension of the rule and reign of God. For kingship belongs to the Lordand he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And, the extension of God’s rule on the planet is delivered through human governments. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … he is God’s servant for your good … he is the servant of God … the authorities are ministers of God … Pay to all what is owed to them … respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:1-7).

In short we have the tendency to pit God’s rule against the rule of governments — when the reality is that the state is an extension of God’s rule. This governance can and should be respected and honored by the church.

(I think it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway — this is true not just for the U.S.A., but for any believer in any country. This can be especially difficult when a government is plagued by dysfunction and injustice. Nonetheless, it is truth that calls all Christians to appropriate, faith-filled, disciple-like action.)

So, if I might take the liberty of reshaping Piper’s previous paragraph: “We swear absolute allegiance to him, and our allegiance to our country is an extension of our acknowledgement of His rule. All other commitments are contained in this over-arching commitment to God … All of those authorities, though subordinate, needn’t be considered “secondary” to the authority of Christ, but part of it. Therefore, all submission needn’t be qualified, except in instances when disobedience to Christ is mandated.

As to the question of patriotism in worship, I agree with Piper when he says “any pledge of allegiance –  like the one to the American flag – does not belong in a worship service.” But I disagree with his assessment that, when these emphases on country take place, “what is being highlighted and foregrounded is an earthly allegiance.” Again, this doesn’t need to be the case, and this hard line doesn’t need to be drawn. God’s rule through the Spirit/Word/gospel and His rule through governments can be celebrated together. But it’s God’s rule. And because it’s God we celebrate, the emblem of a particular state should not be the icon for our worship.

I had the privilege of serving as a pastor in The Netherlands. Needless to say, we didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July! More to the point, we didn’t celebrate specific national governances, not even that of the Dutch. You see, it was a strikingly international community. To celebrate one sister’s nation would make us feel obliged us to celebrate the nation of every brother and sister in the church. (Churches in the Southwest, where I live now, would probably not think of having a special September 16th service to celebrate Mexican Independence Day — even though many aliens and immigrants are a part of our number.)

Instead, we can take a day to focus on and celebrate the Lordship of Christ, which He exercises through all nations, including our own.

– EO

These thoughts are influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the two realms/kingdoms, and by a desire to see these ideas once again fleshed out in the life of local churches, particularly Lutheran churches.

 

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Wrestling with Fred: “Ministers”

Frederick Beuchner is one of my favorite authors. His insights into the spiritual life, with Christ at its center, have been very formative to me. I recently signed up for a daily Buechner quote – great!

Wrestling with today’s quote from Fred …

“Ministers have their heads in the clouds, which is just where you should have your head when your mind is on higher things … Ministers are as anachronistic as alchemists or chimney sweeps … The perspective of ministers is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.”

Hmmm…

1 Corinthians 2:13-15 comes to mind. Here, Paul says This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” 

So, to the world, we believers are perceived as “hopelessly distorted and biased” fools. It should come as no shock that people without the Spirit will not listen. Because the cannot listen. In Jesus’ terms, they don’t have “ears to hear”.

The simple, Biblical truth is that Spirit must precede the embrace of truth. We can’t make Spirit happen – only God can. But, we are promised that “the gospel … is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Gospel -> Spirit -> Truth. Any alteration or deletion from this process will prove impotent.

GospelSpiritTruthI’ve been a minister for decades. Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that I’m some kind of  divinely appointed DA for the Lord, guiding testimonies in the court of public opinion. If I do my job right, I’ll be able to lead the “jury” to my appointed conclusions. That’s why I’ve been lured into my share of (what I have found to be counter-productive) social media rants, thinking that my clear delineation of spiritual realities through Spirit-taught (Biblical) words will win the day.

Oops. Fred reminds me to embrace the spiritual, Spirit-taught realities: Don’t be surprised or angry when (not if) the Biblical truth you share is misunderstood and rejected. It will be – it’s written in stone.

Before we all resign our pulpits, let’s remember Paul’s other words in the same chapter: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Cor. 2:6-7). To this end we preach … head fixed in the clouds, rejoicing with the faithful, and experiencing the collective sanctification that will shape us into a community that first lives and then proclaims the gospel … through which the number of anachronistic fools will swell. 

– EO

 

 

 

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Advent Makeover? 3rd Tuesday of Advent – 14.12.16

It’s hard to see your own cultural idols when you’ve grown up with them. Sometimes you have to take a step back historically to see who you’ve become.

postcard-advertising-selfridge-s-grand-opening-harrty-gordon-selfridge-inset-99849581I have really enjoyed the PBS Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge. It chronicles the entrepreneurial activity of Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened a new kind of store in London in 1909. Selfridge, an American with uniquely American ideas, challenged the culture of his day – an example being the marketing of makeup. You see, in early-20th century England, if you wouldn’t wear makeup unless you were a stage actress or a prostitute. “Respectable” people didn’t use greasepaint to make themselves more attractive.

MR-SELFRIDGE-croppedSelfridge challenged the notion, and bet on the idea that most all women would, if it were acceptable, would use makeup. And he would sell it! So, rather than keep those goods hidden in the back of the store, he put them right out front, where everyone could see them. By doing so, he publicly hollered, “makeup is okay!” (and I’d be happy to sell it to you!). Well, since then, the tide has turned so far that, not only is makeup front-and-center in almost every major department store, but many “respectable” women today wouldn’t be seen without it. The culture has completely changed – not only with makeup, but with all the external trappings of fashion.

Culture drifts. The Word of God doesn’t. What gives? Does the Word of God get re-evaluated by cultural change? Or should it be the other way around?

“Wives … do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” (1 Pet. 3:3-5).

“Do not let your adorning be external.” That’s what it says. But, culturally, we can’t even hear this. Paraphrases abound … “what matters is not” (still, if it doesn’t matter, why the time and expense?) … “don’t be concerned about” … “don’t depend on things like” … but what it says is “let it not be”, present, imperative. “Don’t let it be.” Take a look at that Greek phrase in any other Biblical passage, and it will be translated as an absolute. But not here. Our culture won’t allow it.

mona made upMartin Luther…a little help? After all, you’re speaking from the 16th century! “Possibly one may ask whether that which Peter here says of ornaments is commanded or not (right!)… We say a wife should be so disposed as not to care for this adorning … a Christian wife should despise themChrist does not want you to adorn yourself to please others, to be called a handsome prostitute (literally, pretty mistress). It is good evidence that there is little of the spirit, where so much is expended on ornaments … Gold and fine stones are precious in the world’s esteem, but before God they are an ill-savor … the husband should draw and dissuade the wife from ornaments, so long as she is inclined to them.”

And that was Luther’s day. Today, it’s just crazy. The multi-billion-dollar fashion industry (U.S. women spend over $400 billion a year in beauty products alone) is based on lust, envy, and pride. And it is economically and emotionally oppressive. Can you imagine how much money, time and energy the first world puts into fashion that could be channeled elsewhere? How can anyone in their right mind spin this as “okay”?

Back to Advent: How do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus? Needless to say, external decorations, whether they be in our homes or on our bodies, are of little consequence. Instead, Peter calls us to “respectful and pure conduct” in “the hidden person of the heart”, and “a gentle and quiet spirit.” These should be central to our preparation. (All of these go for men, too, of course. )

orwellI dare say, if we prepared our souls each day with the same attention we prepare our bodies, the impact of believers on the world would be startlingly stronger.

But, honestly, I know … a little blog like this can’t compete with a powerful cultural wave like this. I believe our addiction to external adornment is idolatry. But it’s an idol that doesn’t appear to be coming down anytime soon. And it won’t go well for me to speak up about this issue. But, I pray that this very-real idol can be pulverized in my own heart, and that no traces of it will be found when Jesus comes again.

E   *     O

 

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Aside

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker, management consultant, educator and author

“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness … They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns; they have tired themselves out but profit nothing. They shall be ashamed of their harvests…” – Jeremiah 12:10,13

In Jeremiah’s day, the so-called leaders of the people of God had been big on saying religious things to the people – things like, “God isn’t upset with you” and “this exile won’t last long.” The problem was that they had forsaken the hard truths of God, and the hard place that God had them in, according to His will.

Likewise, during His final week in Jerusalem, Jesus found himself in an environment which featured a flurry of activity being done in the name of God. But that activity was full of falsehood, which yielded bad spiritual fruit. This left people unprepared for, and unwilling to receive, the truth of Messiah.

Nowadays, our churches are hives of incredible activity (with incredible budgets to fund it all). We sow…something, a lot of things. We exhaust ourselves with professional pursuits. But we are reaping thorns. Having spent decades making attenders instead of disciples, we now stand ashamed of our harvests.

Then I read the next lectionary piece of the morning: Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  [nice!]  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world  [gulp]  will keep it for eternal life … Now is my soul troubled  [yah, mine, too!] And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? [Or, Father, don’t make hating life in this world part of following you? Let my faith be all about me and my happiness? Bless me with prosperity, not self-sacrifice? Let me be just like everyone around me, only with a Christian glaze?]  But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:23-27)

And finally, a word from Paul: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his deaththat by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead … Brothers, join in imitating me!” (Phil. 3:8, 10-11, 17).

Our lives, and therefore our “harvests”, should be men and women who cling to the Words of the Lord, and by doing so glorify the Lord in their rejection — hatred for — this world … who delight in the loss [not procurement and retention of] all things, and joyfully participate in suffering, for the sake of the glory of God. This is life at a soul-troubling level. But what shall I say? For this purpose I am here.

There is nothing quite so useless as a church that runs with great efficiency, but isn’t producing genuine disciples.

(Thankful for my lectionary today.)

 

 

 

 

Wasted Energy vs. Genuine Glory

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in church, Discipleship, Lent

 

Ninth Day of Christmastide ’14

Number 9“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14-21).

sermon-on-the-mount-copenhagen

We celebrate the birth of Jesus because He is absolutely and wonderfully good. He never sinned. He never did anything to hurt anyone. He loved everyone, especially the unlovely. He provided food. He healed. He even raised people from the dead. A nicer person has never been known, and a more magnificent life has never been lived.

But, as we all know, Jesus’ life was marked by antagonism. From His rocky birth story (road trip, manger, refugees in Egypt, escaping infanticide) to His adult years (theological controversy, political disagreement, execution, abandonment, doubt), this good man was constantly dealing with bad responses.

V - ScroogeWhen Jesus began his teaching ministry, one of the first things He said was “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12).

V - PotterIn other words, this is no surprise. It’s written in stone. Good comes into our fallen world, and the natural reaction is that it gets beat up.

It should not surprise us that God’s entering His own world through the incarnation should end with conflict. It should also not surprise us that, in as much as God abides in and sanctifies us, we are destined for adversity, too.

V - BurgerSo, Paul’s words today are an appropriate Christmastide reminder. Life on the planet is full of fighting, much of it over limited resources which leave us hungry and thirsty. As the arrogant attack one another, it leaves us in tears. These are the conditions of Jesus’ coming to Bethlehem, and they remain the conditions of our day-to-day experience.

V - FarkusHow will we mange these conditions? Is there hope? For Jesus, it ended in death. Will it be the same for us? If so, is Christmas really a good thing, or is it just getting into a fight that we’re destined to lose? The last words of the verse give us our hope: “Overcome evil with good.” It’s possible.

V - GrinchIn fact, it’s promised. It won’t happen completely until Jesus returns. In the meantime, we attempt to live our lives well … as well as Jesus did, that’s the goal … knowing that, for now, we’ll experience Jesus-like reactions. But, like Jesus, along the way, there are moments of wonder, of redemption, of glory for the Father.

Merry Christmas! Christ has come. Now, put on your armor…it’s more dangerous out there than ever.

 

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Eighth Day of Christmastide ’14!

Number 8“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13)

If you’re like me, you’ve always hoped to be really prosperous so that you could give more to others. But that’s not the way prosperity plays out. One could make the argument that the U.S. has been the most materially prosperous culture in history. But statistics point out that our having more has not translated into giving more. In fact, statistics show that 30% of Americans don’t give … period. 80% of Americans give less than 2% of their income.

Verses like today’s are not new to us. We’ve been told all our lives that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We should give, it is good for us to give, and we can give. But we don’t give.

scrooge turkeyDickens’ Christmastide story A Christmas Carol speaks directly to this problem of our human condition. Scrooge is a miser – the opposite of generous – who is stirred to change his life. The story ends with Scrooge spending liberally to contribute to the needs of the poor, especially to the family of his employee, Bob Cratchit. Everyone ends up having a most happy Christmas because of his gifts. “God bless us, every one!” says Cratchit’s boy, Tiny Tim. Perhaps the “Scrooge Factor” is why giving does spike during the Christmastide season (or maybe it has more to do with year-end tax benefits to our giving). But, 171 years of Dickens’ tale, along thousands of years of Biblical influence, doesn’t seem to have moved our meter. We seem to be getting worse.

My heritage, then, is scrooge-like. I’m not generous, American culture is not generous, and the American Christian church is not generous. But it hasn’t always been like this. I have ancient relatives who were very generous. The first days of the church were marked by need-meeting and generosity. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Is there any chance I can become more like those people? Any chance our churches can become more like that early church?

Giving GuyThe Christmastide word today challenges us to be proactive. It doesn’t say be willing to respond if a need comes our way. It calls us to seek to show hospitality. We should be internally motivated to be generous, and do what we need to to find opportunities to express it. After all, getting gifts is wonderful! If it is truly more blessed to give than to receive, it must be really wonderful to be generous!

Have a wonderful, blessed new year!

 

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