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Category Archives: Discipleship

What Are We Promising?

I saw this on the home page of a church website today.

Is this really an accurate representation of what the church is supposed to be?

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You are welcome here.

lisa-engel-church

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who will make you feel and know that you are wanted and welcomed.

You may want to dress casual or be dressed up.

You may be hurting or praise filled.

You may come for yourself or for your family.

The Lord and His people are ready to embrace and welcome you.

———————-

Paraphrase. You are all that matters. You feeling wanted, welcome, comfortable, free to let your emotional state go unchallenged … that’s why we exist. Come, because God is ready to be your servant.

I feel compelled to offer an alternative.

You are welcome here.

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who does want to know you and love you.

But you need to know that your personal feelings of warmth and comfort are not our goal.

You see, God is glorious and good … and we are not. Like everyone else in our church, your life falls out of alignment with the way God wants us to live. So, there are issues to be addressed in seeking (re)connection with Him.

So, if you are new to seeking out a relationship with God, you will likely not feel warm and fuzzy at first. Those feelings may come at some time, but we don’t promise them, and certainly don’t want them to be your expectation. 

If ultimately your willingness to attend a church depends on your choice of clothing or the music mix, we’re off to a bad start. If it depends on the people of the church affirming you to the point that there is no call for repentance or life change, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re a religious consumer, looking for spiritual goods that meet your expectations, you need to know that we’re not in that business.

If you’re interested in seeking out God on His terms, and seeing your sins forgiven, your life healed, and your eternity squared, and are ready to take God’s directives in order to experience these blessings …

Then know that the Lord and His people are ready to embrace, welcome and walk with you you into life lived extraordinarily well.

I would want to attend this church.

– 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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False Teaching – God’s Truth Isn’t Relative

There are so many warnings against false teaching in the scriptures.

false_360_189_90“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15).

“At [the end times] many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:10-13)

“False messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard” (Mark 13:22-23).

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Rom. 16:17-18).

“Such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth (2 Tim. 2:15-18)

“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

ear tickleIn the presence of God and of Christ Jesus … I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:1-4)

“There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3). 

This is “a thing”. A big thing! We can tell, because it’s repeated over and over in scripture. It’s like the incessant nature of gravitational pull – for some reason (I would say the fall), we have this inclination to drift from the pure truths laid out by Christ. And the consequences are fatal.

Pillar and FoundationOur cities, littered with denominational church institutions of numerous stripes, stands as a testimony to this reality in our day. Clearly, all “truths” are not created equal. In a culture where truth is relative, and everyone’s truth “ought to be honored”, it may be politically incorrect to insist on doctrinal purity … but it is no less important, and perhaps never more urgent. Churches need to be more effective at being the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in our world (1 Tim. 3:15). But individual believers also need to be relentlessly thorough in their knowledge about God. 

(To be continued…)

-EO

 

 

 

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Why People Don’t Like Christians – Part 1

Christians aren’t very popular these days. Never have been, really. This is no mystery, for people who have called themselves Christians have given the world plenty of reasons for a less than favorable review.

ghandi-quoteOne of primary reasons people don’t like Christians is because they think us to be hypocrites. We regularly fail to live up to the high standards to which we aspire, and about which we preach. We compound the world’s frustration when we lobby to see those standards embraced by everyone (e.g., championing “family values”, even political legislation) when we do such a poor job of living them out ourselves.

Genuine Christianity, however, is not hypocritical. In fact, it is the only faith that isn’t.

You see, all other religions are built on the idea that we must muster up a righteous life in order to please God. In all other faiths, the assumption is a) we are good enough to live right, and b) we are committed to living right. I can, and will. If you truly can, then claim you will, and then don’t … that’s being a hypocrite.

(And some people think this is what Christianity is: A group of people who have decided to live as the Bible describes, and who tell others they should, too. Sunday services, then, are a combination ethics class/pep rally, designed to motivate people to get it together. Then, when they go out and live poorly yet again during the next week, the world brands this approach to religion as a failure. And they’re right.)

But genuine Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the other manning-quoteBiblical writers,is totally different.

We believe that man is not good enough to live right. God describes right living in the scriptures, and affirms in those same scriptures that it’s unattainable. Sadly (for us), He also said that only the righteous are compatible with heaven. We can’t, and won’t. Wait … we can’t do what we need to to get to heaven? What hope do we have?

This is where Jesus comes in: He lived among us as the one and only man Who lived a righteous life. (Have you ever heard someone say something bad about Jesus?) He then told us how if would be possible for us to be righteous (and get to heaven), too. Quite simply, He has to do it … in us. This is what Christianity refers to as the Holy Spirit – God Himself, living in us, being righteous through us. Jesus refers to this phenomenon as being born again in the Spirit. He can, and will. It’s the only way. And this is totally different than any other religion.

You may say, “so, if Christians have God living in them to be righteous through them, why are they still so lame?” You’ve got us there. We ought to be living our lives at a very high quality, but often look no better than our neighbor, and sometimes even worse. A few reasons why:

  1. Counterfeit Christianity abounds. As I already mentioned, there are many people practicing “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Sadly, they claim to be able to live well, but can’t. They’re hypocrites. I’m afraid this group makes up the majority of Christians in our churches today.
  2. Appropriating divine empowerment is a discipline. Theologian J. I. Packer says this: “The agent of [making us live well] is the Holy Spirit who works in us to make us will and act according to God’s good pleasure. Again and again we need to go down on our knees and admit our helplessness and ask to be empowered … If this sounds easy, it shouldn’t, because [it] is a battle. We never have our hearts entirely set on the things of God, so that even if our actions are right by external standards, our hearts are never quite right. It is struggle and conflict all the way.” The Spirit is available and willing, but we must “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff) in order to experience Him at work in us. And we often don’t.

This is why we are supposed to gather as a church. It isn’t primarily get a coffee, get emotionally “fired up” through faux rock-concert experience, and to recommit our hearts and minds to a series of best-intention propositions dispensed by a life coach. This approach to church will never fail to produce hypocrites.

No, church is so much more than that! We gather in the presence of God to recalibrate our spiritual relationship with the God Who can lead and empower us to live well. That’s why we confess our sins (primarily the sin of not living in the Spirit in the days prior), hear His Word (Heb. 4:12), receive empowering grace through His ordained sacraments, and experience the Holy Spirit through the yes-x-no-bettergiftings all our brothers and sisters around us.

People who practice this type of Christianity (e.g., real Christianity) are still fickle, still bumble, and will still likely disappoint the non-believing world by their less-than-Jesus-like lifestyles. But they’re not hypocrites — at least in the traditional sense. They know that they’re in a battle (“struggle and conflict all the way”), and they make no claims that they’ll bat 1,000%. They are not too surprised when they fail. Still, they forget yesterday, and press into today, prayerfully clinging to the God Who can bear the fruit of righteousness in them now.

On behalf of Christians everywhere, I apologize for the poor examples given by people who call themselves Christians, but are simply powerless moralists. I don’t like them either.

dont-like-selvesMy encouragement is for all to look beyond those poor representations of an incredible faith. See instead the real deal, the substance of genuine, classical Christian living. I am sure that, if our churches were full of these humble, prayerful, fruitful people, that Christianity would have a much better name in our world. You might even be interested in joining their ranks.

– EO

 

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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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Are We Crying Out to God Enough?

What is the appropriate response for believers to the chaos that is escalating all around us?

  • Turn off the news and isolate from the bad news
  • Lobby for a political candidate who will fix things
  • Complain about the situation on social media
  • Distract ourselves with entertainment
  • Move to Costa Rica

The prophet Jeremiah points us to the one thing needful (Lamentations 2:16-19):

  • (16) “All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: ‘We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it.'” This feels like our day. Every time we experience an “uncivilized” attack against the West, it is accompanied by maddening, vitriolic claims to victory.
  • (17)”The Lord has done what He purposed, He has carried out His threat; as He ordained long ago, He has demolished without pity; He has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes.” This is happening under God’s control? Not only that, but by God’s initiative! “He has made” them gloat, and has “exalted the might” of their tactics? He is behind it all. Startling? But this means He can, and only He can, change its course.
  • (18-19) “Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tearkneeling-man-bears-witness1s stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite! Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children.”  When facing times of inordinate calamity, the call of God to His people is to pray. But this is so much more than saying a quick prayer before the evening meal, or listing “world peace” as you go down your prayer list. Jeremiah describes a brand of prayer that rends ones mind, heart and body to the Lord. Hands lifted, hearts poured out, from the rising of the sun to the late hours of the night. “Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite.”

Hope for our world rests in the sovereign God, Who is at the helm of all of our circumstances, pouring out His mercy and grace on the nations. He answers to prayers of His people. So, we know that this is the one thing most needful in our day.

The world doesn’t know, believe or understand this … and will therefore never ask it of us. But they desperately need those who believe in the Most High God to pray, and to pray hard. We’re the ones who know the way out of our tragic international condition. Do we love the nations, our country, our families, and even ourselves enough to hit our knees?

May Lamentations 2:18-19 be a description of the church’s collective prayer life. And may God pour out fresh mercies on us, and on the nations.

– EO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • I’m not praying like this. I need to.
  • And what if the Lord answers this type of collective wailing with an outpouring of His mercy and grace?
  • so commit themselves to intercessory prayer that they are physically spent –
 

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Well, Well … If It Isn’t the Truth Teller …

Let’s face it: We live in an age in which people want their understanding of truth to be affirmed, not challenged. They want their opinion to be honored, not corrected. A preferred truth reigns over actual truth. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” and it is heresy for that man to capitulate to the words of another.

Jeremiah 38: God’s prophet has a word for the people: Surrender to Babylon. You’ll live, and the city will be saved.  But, if you try to defend yourselves from Babylon, you’ll lose, and the city will be burned to the ground (38:17-18).

Jeremiah didn’t make this up. It’s the word of God. Hejeremiah_pit‘s just doing his job – hear from God, and tell the people. All he wants to do it help. And he’s right.

But the self-confident and hawkish military leaders under King Zedekiah say, “This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers … he is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (38:4). Their answer? Get royal permission to have Jeremiah killed. Their method? Throw him into a muddy well to die … “and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (38:6).

Well … Jeremiah gets saved by a very nice eunuch from the palace, and gets another audience with Zedekiah. Despite his near-death experience in the cistern, Jeremiah’s prophetic word remains the same. Zedekiah hears them, and believes them … but knows the political ramifications of accepting Jeremiah’s version of the truth, and putting it into practice. So he charges Jeremiah: “Do not let anyone else know of this conversation, or you will die” (38:24).

Well, well … Jeremiah and Zedekiah are now in cahoots. They want to bless the people by leading them according to truth. But they both know that they are on a slippery slope that may well take them from unpopularity to assassination.

Such is life as a spokesman for God’s truth.

Parents experience this every day. All good parents want to do is bless their children. Good parents know truths that their children don’t. But the kids don’t see it that way. When parents insist on what’s best for a child, they will often be met with pouts, tantrums, slammed doors and withheld affection. Parents are then tempted to toss their convictions into the well … to keep the peace, and stay liked.

Pastors deal with this, too. Steeped in the study of the scriptures, pastors have good ideas about lives can be lived within the blessing of God. They often see trouble coming in people’s sin-bent lives, and want to see them saved from self-destruction. But God forbid that they challenge people with those truths! It’s far easier, in the name of “love” and “inclusivity” to affirm the “way that seems right to a man,” and let the chips fall where they may. People’s lives may fail, but at least they’ll like their church.

Christian citizens are in a similar cultural predicament. We love our neighbors … we really do! We know that living according to God’s truths spells blessing for them. And we know that the wages of disobedience to those truths (a.k.a., “sin”) is death. So we proclaim. We warn. We try to persuade. We only want to help. But, no. We’re judgmental. We’re intolerant. We’re “haters”.

They threw Jeremiah in a well. Kids will try to run away from home. Parishioners will leave for other churches. And the world will blast and censor our Word-of-God-shaped cultural commentary.

Oh … and they crucified Jesus. Just before that Good Friday, He told his disciples, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A
Mud People (2)servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours”
(John 15:20). 

Well … I sense it’s only going to get muddier.

 

 

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