Wanting Christianity Without Christ

When we live in our own cultural setting, with little real exposure to other cultures, it is easy to miss how we got to where we are. When we live in our own microcosm of time and ignore the centuries it took to get to this moment, it is inevitable that we will have blinders on. We will fail to understand and appreciate the foundational ideas and events that our current values are built upon. In the western cultural world of Europe, North America, and Australia, among others, there is an existing set of cultural values that want certain trappings of Christianity, but without the Christ who is at the heart of Christianity. They are values that find their roots in the biblical teachings of Jesus.

We want kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, love, compassion, and respect for others. These things have become ingrained in our culture to the point that most people simply take at face value that it has always been so and always will be so. The problem is, that most people don’t realize those values are the natural by-products of a culture shaped by and infused with, the teachings of Jesus, over many centuries. They are not things that are naturally found in the human psyche and are not typically found in cultures outside those impacted by Christianity. Values like kindness, care for the poor, compassion, and respect for others, are the flowers of the teachings of Jesus. They have bloomed and blossomed because of their connection to Jesus. Sadly, in today’s cultural climate, they are like cut flowers in a vase. They look lovely in the vase on the table and smell wonderful. But they have been severed from their roots, in this case, Jesus, and because they are no longer rooted, they will eventually wither and die, no matter how much plant preservative we add to the vase. And you can begin to see the withering when you look at the vitriol that has become part and parcel of our current disagreements in society.

This idea that our western values are actually based on biblical values has been brilliantly demonstrated by author Tom Holland, no not Spider-Man Tom Holland. This Tom Holland is a graduate of Cambridge University and author of the landmark book Dominion. In that massive 640-page book, Holland details how the values that we take for granted in the west as enlightened and desirable, are historically, uniquely, Christian values. Don’t get the idea that Holland is some on-fire Christian conservative. He is actually something of a religious skeptic when it comes to God. But he is enough of a historian to recognize that so much of what western culture values, comes right out of a Counter-cultural, biblical Christianity.

For instance, contrary to current perceptions of the past, the rights of women were non-existent in ancient Rome. Until the teachings of Jesus took hold, women were little more than property who had no say in the direction of their own lives. Their husbands could treat them with contempt and abuse and that was considered normal. They could be tossed aside on the whim of the husband. The teaching of the New Testament actually leveled the playing field, even if Christians have not been great at following that teaching. Care for the sick, unless they were extremely wealthy, was non-existent, until followers of Jesus began to care for them. People with power could force those without, to have sex and there was no #METOO movement to say otherwise. Why? Because it was a normal, cultural value for the powerful to force sex from the weak. Respect for all people of every socio-economic class was considered outrageous until Christians taught a message of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-racial family, all united by a common faith in Jesus. Even the basic idea that we are all to be treated with respect and dignity only came to be a cultural value because of the biblical teaching that all people are made in God’s image. In ancient Rome and most of the world, power was the prime value and people without it were considered expendable and useable. Any objective look at history will show that where we are today in terms of our values of human dignity, care for the downtrodden, compassion for the poor, respect for others, and so much more, all find their roots in the life and teachings of Jesus.

If you are a religious skeptic and reading this, it would be worth your while to ask, why do I hold the values I do? Where do they come from? Holland’s book may be a bit much to dive into. Another option would be Glen Scrivener’s book, The Air We Breath, How We All Came To Beleive In Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, is a must-read. It makes a very strong case that our current western values are uniquely the values of Jesus.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the unraveling of those values and teachings before our very eyes. The more we hear secular voices cry out for tolerance and acceptance, without being connected to the author of those teachings, the less tolerant and accepting we actually become. When there is no foundation to the message, no spiritual or intellectual weight to back up those values, the method of trying to achieve them is to yell louder, become more shrill, and block out anyone who disagrees. Why? Because deep down inside there is a gnawing fear that we don’t have good reasons for our values. We can’t make a defense for them. So we emotionally react and those emotional reactions come from the baser portions of our personality, the very things Jesus taught against and that all other values are ultimately built upon. The fact is, without being rooted in Jesus, we humans are ultimately incapable of living out the values of love, compassion, kindness, and sacrifice for others, that He taught. Oh to be sure, we can have short bursts of those things. But we can’t sustain them.

The popular culture wants Christians to tone it down, to become more blended into the rest of the culture, to privatize their faith. What we actually need is for Christians to double down on being more Christian not less. You see, as the culture has lost its Christian roots, sadly, so have many Christians. The more secular society becomes, the more likely it is for many Christians to also become cut off from their roots that are found in the person and teachings of Jesus. Being cut off from those roots leads to the kind of insipid Christianity we have in our culture. Or worse, it leads to Christians who are arrogant and self-righteous while they try to bolster a faith that no longer resembles Jesus, through the exercise of political power. The answer to both the insipid and power-hungry expression of Christianity is to become more like Jesus, not less.

Becoming more like Jesus means following the radical teaching that he laid out, and not just a little bit. Culture wants us to be tolerant of our neighbors. (If you want to read why I think tolerance is not an option read this post, Why I Refuse to Be Tolerant) Jesus doesn’t want tolerance. He wants us to love our neighbors and not only them but our enemies as well. Culture wants us to make a small donation to some charitable cause. Jesus wants us to live sacrificially and give extravagantly as He did. Culture wants us to respect people of other races and religions. Jesus wants us to throw open the doors of our own homes and invite them in, showing radical, biblical hospitality and inviting them to be our brothers and sisters.

Why does He want us to be so different? So that people will be drawn to Him. The greatest good we can do for anyone is to live in such a way that they come to know the deep love of Jesus and put their lives in His hands. They will not experience that if followers of Christ are not kind, loving, and respectful in their relationships with people who are not followers of Jesus. In other words, if we are not living an even more radical Jesus-like lifestyle then people are not going to see the real Jesus and will ultimately end up with Christianity without Christ. They will have a cut-flower religion that looks good for a time but will eventually wither and decay.

The Sanity of Belief: Why Faith Makes Sense

By Simon Edwards

Lately, I have been spending a vast amount of time on the subject of apologetics. If you don’t know what apologetics is, don’t feel bad. It’s one of those almost insider words that theology nerds throw around. However, it is a terribly important subject. It comes from the Greek word, Apologia, which simply means to make a case for or give a defense. Apologetics is looking at how one can make a case for the validity of Christianity. In a sense, that is what The Provocative Christian site is all about.

As part of my studies in apologetics, I had the privilege recently of attending a conference at The Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics on the campus of Merton College at Oxford University. Simon Edwards, the author of The Sanity of Belief, was one of the presenters. He was as engaging in person as he is in print.

This is an easily accessible read on a topic of vital importance that often gets dealt with by way of a load of philosophical language that leaves people cold and unconvinced. This book is winsome, insightful, compelling, and uplifting. As a result, I decided that a little blurb about the book would be a good idea so more people would pick it up and read it.

The title fits the content. Edwards makes a case for a Christian faith that makes sense, that doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door. He does so by first looking at six topics under the heading, Things That Matter. These are issues that are important to most people; life’s meaning, your value, goodness, truth, love, and suffering. But it is not just about making the case that Christianity makes sense. He also makes the powerfully strong case that Christianity makes a difference, provides answers, and is extremely relevant. Consider this quote from chapter 2 on value;

If you have ever been told that you are a failure or told yourself that you are, it is not true. It’s a lie. Because failure is an event, it is not a person. To equate failing with being a failure is to make the mistake of conflating what you do with who you are. But they are not the same thing. 1

The whole question of self-worth, finding your value in life, is one that plagues people in our current culture.

Edwards shows what the Bible has to say about how valuable you are, not because of what you do but because God has made you with dignity, in His image, and no matter what successes or failures you have in life, they do not change the fact of how valuable you are to God. He contrasts that with current ways we unsuccessfully try to make ourselves feel valuable. The first six chapters are loaded with points like this that will make you reconsider how you are approaching life and give you tools for doing so with greater confidence and answers that make sense.

The second half of the book, under the heading Weighing Up the Evidence, does just that. First, Edwards deals with what a thinking faith looks like and then weighs the evidence from the world around us, the evidence within ourselves, and the evidence from history. Of particular importance is the question of truth and how we can know it. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book and the discussions it should lead to, especially in a world in which the whole idea of truth is up for grabs.

Edwards packs all of this into just over 200 pages that move quickly. You never get bogged down and in fact, if you are like me, will find yourself excited by what you are reading and want more.

This is a fantastic book if you are exploring faith, wondering what to believe or if you are already a Christian but sense the need for a more intellectually robust faith.

The book is available in paperback and on Kindle. You can go there by clicking on the image below.

Footnotes:

1 Edwards, Simon. The Sanity of Belief (p. 41). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

Stop Whining!

For several years I have been hearing and reading lots of Christians, many of them leaders in churches, talk about the persecution that Christians are under in the United States and how it is going to get worse. In the last few days I have read and heard numerous doom and gloom scenarios about the future of persecution in the USA. Let me be clear from the outset, this drives me nuts. You would be hard pressed to find another country in the world where it is so easy to be a follower of Christ. I should know, I have been to more than 40 of them.

There are two main points I want to make. First, Christians in this country are NOT being persecuted. Second, if you are, PRAISE GOD! That’s wonderful!

As to the first point, it is without a doubt, that serious followers of Jesus face pushback, and opposition, and at times ridicule. There are often times when that ridicule is deserved, so I hardly would count that as persecution. Even still, the kind of pushback many Christians face in The United States does not rise anywhere even close to the level of any definition of persecution. If you want to see persecution, let me take you to some places I have been. Let’s go to China where pastors are regularly arrested and held in jail for undetermined amounts of time, while their churches get bulldozed, and their people arrested. Let me take you to Iran, where the church is growing faster than in just about any other country in the world, yet under one of the harshest regimes and life threatening persecutions. I could go on and on. You see, by comparison, it is a cake walk following Jesus in the USA. Yet, ironically, this is one of just a handful of countries in the world were the church is in decline.

Maybe it is not persecution that threatens the church so much as it is the fact that we have idolized personal comfort, physical safety, and financial security, above being loving witnesses to the glory of Jesus. How else do you explain that in a country where the constitution guarantees the freedom to worship, and practice our faith, and tell other people about Jesus, in a country with more Bibles than people, how is it in that country, the church is in decline? Yet in places with none of that and only facing hardship, the church flourishes and people are coming to faith in Jesus everyday?

The second point, to praise God of you are getting pushback and even persecution for your faith, simply comes from the words of Jesus…..

“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

Jesus told his first followers that they are blessed when their lives so reflect who Jesus is that people persecute them and slander them. Those first Christians took that to heart. When they were arrested and beaten for preaching Jesus, they didn’t whine and complain and take someone to court. They walked away, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name”. Acts 5:41.

You see, the life mission of a follower of Jesus doesn’t change because their environment makes it more difficult. It doesn’t matter who is in the White House, what executive orders they sign, who controls the Senate or the House of Representatives, or who gets nominated to the Supreme Court. The mission of the follower of Jesus remains to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, to love your neighbor, even your enemy, as yourself, and to go and make disciples of all ethnicities. Maybe if we focused more on that Great Commandment and Great Commission, we would have less time to whine about it being a little harder to be a Christian than it used to be.

If you are getting some serious heat for following Jesus, before you start screaming about persecution, it would be a good idea to ask if you have been loving your neighbor and your enemy as Jesus commands. Maybe they revile you and say all sorts of slanderous things about you, not because you are living like Jesus, but because you are being a jerk. In that case, it’s not persecution, it’s probably closer to justice.

Have We Lost Our Way?

ON JANUARY 13, 2021 BY DAN LACICH

There is a line from The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins is perplexed, and alone, and unsure of where to go, or what to do. In that moment he says, “I have lost my dwarves, my wizard, and my way”. The dwarves were his traveling companions on a mission to restore the dwarves’ homeland and he has become separated from them. The wizard was Gandalf, the wise one who called them together, but Gandalf had left with a promise to return. The way, was the direction to the kingdom that they were trying to restore. I see striking parallels in where the church is today.

Dare I say we have become separated from one another in ways we have not seen since the 16th century when the church, during the Reformation, exploded into countless, fractured pieces. We have lost our connection to Jesus, the all wise one who has called us together. We have lost the way to build the Kingdom of God that Jesus called us to. The recent storming of the Capitol is the stark and tragic evidence of how lost we have become.

I don’t intend to address the politics of it all. Jesus rarely talked politics and when he did it was about paying to Caesar what was his due in the form of taxes. Paul rarely talked politics and when he did it was all about submitting to the governing authorities, even when that governing authority was the Emperor Nero who would eventually have Paul beheaded, and use Christians as human Tiki Torches to light the streets of Rome. I am absolutely certain that Jesus would never have called for his followers to storm the Roman Senate with banners declaring “Jesus Saves”, like we saw last week in Washington D.C.

That kind of use of force and demonstration of human anger and power is not what followers of Christ are called to do and be. Some might object, “what about when Jesus cracked the whip in the Temple of Jerusalem and threw out the money changers who were robbing people?” Fine, let’s be about the task of getting our house in order in the church. That is what Jesus was doing. When it came to his relationship with the secular government it was always about submitting to that government, even if it was corrupt like that of Pontius Pilate that got Him crucified.

Christians in The United States of America need to understand that our task is NOT to usher in the Kingdom of God by controlling the government or through political power. Should we be involved and campaign and vote as part of our responsibility as citizens? Of course we should. But we must do that with the attitude and demeanor of Jesus. The Great Commandment was not, “Love your country with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and make sure to control your neighbor”. It was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The hate that was demonstrated at the Capitol, and that has been demonstrated over the last decade or more, is not what Jesus has called followers of Christ to exhibit. Sadly it has been demonstrated from both the political right and left within the church at large.

The debates and arguments that I have seen Christians engage in over the last thirty years, have rarely been grounded in Scripture. In the last decade it has been even less so. There is the occasional verse yanked completely out of context, but rarely is there a deep dive into the heart of what Jesus calls us to, especially when that deep dive conflicts with our political, or economic, or social ideology. Arguments about justice are rarely based on what Biblical justice looks like. Arguments about corrupt government rarely address what the Bible says about living under such rule. Instead the debate turns to how to take power and control.

Why are we in this position? In part because we have believed the lie that this is a Christian nation and we are afraid we are losing that and are trying to take it back. When you are afraid you are losing something you can be led to do desperate things that are out of character. When your team loses it is all too common to blame the refs. They made bad calls. It is the other teams fault. They cheated. Rarely do we ever say, our team sucked and that is why we lost. Does this sound familiar?

America was never “A Christian Nation”. It was a nation founded on principles of The Enlightenment. That meant it was all about freedom, especially freedom of religion any religion, not just Christianity.

“But the founders of this nation were Christians.” So what? Yes, some of them were. Some of them were not. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” was not a Christian. I mean after all, you can look at his personal Bible and see that he took a razor to countless passages he did not like. He cut out anything supernatural, any miracles, any mention of the resurrection of Jesus, and more. Sorry, not a Christian. “But the Declaration of Independence talks about God, the Creator.” Of course it does, a very nebulous God, somewhere out there, who created everything but has left it to run on it’s own. It is called Deism. Nowhere is there mention of Jesus or Christianity. They were actually rebelling against a Christian nation. King George III was not only King of England but head of the Church of England as Elizabeth II is today. Our country was built to avoid that entanglement of “official” religion. Why? Because so many of them fled England in order to have freedom of religion and wanted to make sure others had it too.

So where does this leave us? How do we find our dwarves, our wizard, and our way?

First, we need to remember that other followers of Jesus are not the enemy when they have a different opinion of things. The fracturing that is happening in the Body of Christ over political ideology must be breaking the heart of Jesus. Imagine being a parent and having your kids at one another’s throats over petty differences. It is far worse than that for Jesus.

Most of my formal theological education has been at institutions were I was not in the majority. In fact I was in a decided minority. For my bachelors in theology, I was the only non-Roman Catholic in the program in a Roman Catholic university. For my Masters of Divinity, I was one of two non-Episcopalians in an Episcopal seminary. Guess what happened. I learned to have dialogues with people I disagreed with and as a result I learned a ton more than if I had been in my own theological echo chamber. One of the main things I learned was how to love and respect people I disagreed with and who disagreed with me.

Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. What are you doing to make that prayer a reality? What are you doing that is inhibiting the fulfillment of that prayer?

Second, be more like Jesus, even when it hurts and goes against your political, social, or economic ideology. The whole point of being a disciple of Jesus is to become more like him. In order to do that you have to become a student of the life and teachings of Jesus found in the Bible. Then we have to submit to that teaching even when it runs against the grain of what we have previously thought and done. That requires humility not hubris.

Third, make God’s Kingdom, not an American Kingdom, the goal you are striving towards. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love America. I have been to more than 30 other countries around the world and there is no other place I would rather live, by far. But America is not the New Jerusalem come down from Heaven. Followers of Jesus are to be citizens of God’s Kingdom first and foremost. We are to be the best possible citizens we can be in this world, honoring those in authority and doing all we can to make their job easier. But we are more than that. We are to be pointing people to the love of Jesus more than anything, because He is Lord, not Caesar. If your political ideology is getting in the way of loving your neighbor as Jesus called you to, then I ask you, what needs to give, your political ideology, or the command of your Lord?

The bottom line is simple. Ask yourself this question, “Am I being who and what Jesus wants me to be so that he is honored and glorified and my neighbor is loved with the love of Christ?” It is all about following Scripture and not our cultural, political, social, or economic ideology. Loving them does not mean ignoring disagreements by covering over everything to avoid conflict. It does mean treating people with the dignity that comes with being made in the image of God. It means being willing to admit your own errors while giving them the benefit of the doubt and being willing to actually serve them as Jesus serves you. It means trusting that God is sovereign and there is no need for a follower of Jesus to fear conspiracy theories or give in to hate.

Keep the Great Commandment always before your eyes, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Anything that leads you away from that is leading you to lose your way.

Three Cultural Values that are Suffocating Your Faith: Part 2, Comfort.

Safety, comfort, and security. They sound like wonderful, worthy goals that no one would take issue with. After all, who would willingly seek out and embrace their opposite numbers, danger, suffering, and turmoil? Yet in a previous post I began to make the case that these three nearly universally accepted values of the western world are in fact slowly suffocating and choking the life out of the faith of most Christians. In that post the focus was on our obsession with safety and its negative impact on a faith that trusts God enough to move into circumstances that on the outside appear risky, even dangerous, when remaining in place is actually more dangerous to your soul.

This post is about comfort. On the surface you would think who could possibly have an issue with comfort. The Bible itself is full of references to comfort and how God promises to comfort His people. Not all comfort is created equal. When God offers to comfort His people it generally is in the context of a people who are suffering and God wants to strengthen them in the midst of hardship. That is what comfort is really about. It is the combination of two Latin root words, com, meaning with or alongside and forte meaning strength. So to comfort someone in a classic sense is to be alongside them providing strength. I will take kind of comfort whenever I can get it, especially when it is God who offers it.

Far from a comfort that brings strength in time of need is the 21st century variety. Our value of comfort is more about making life free from all struggle, all hassle and all minor irritation. It is about making a nice life as soft and plush as possible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating pain and suffering as a virtue to be pursued. Last year I put in nearly 175,000 miles in an airplane seat as I traveled the world helping train pastors and leaders to plant churches. That level of frequent flyer miles means that on rare occasions I get bumped up from economy to business or first class. Trust me, it has never crossed my mind to turn down that upgrade to a more comfortable seat in the name of some misguided love of discomfort. When you have a fourteen hour flight ahead of you and someone offers you a bigger, softer reclining seat with a meal served on real plates, you take it. There is nothing “holy” about bumping elbows with your neighbor as you try to eat bad food with the seatback in front of you nearly in your lap. Yes, I will take the upgrade when I get it. What I try hard to do is take it as a blessing so that when I don’t get upgraded flying overseas, which is 90% of the time, I don’t get annoyed and put out by the experience.

When I speak of our obsession with comfort I am talking about what I see as a value that no one should ever be physically, emotionally or socially uncomfortable. Take some time to watch ads on television and you will quickly see that Madison Avenue is selling, among other things, the life of comfort. Anything that makes life easier, more plush, softer, is good. It doesn’t matter if the product is a car or toilet paper. Conversely, anything that is difficult, hard or stressful is intrinsically bad. Parents want their children to never ever feel uncomfortable so to the delight of makers of sports trophies, even the worst player on the worst soccer or Little League Baseball team gets a trophy at the end of the year because Lord forbid that a child should be forced to deal with the painful reality that some people are better at kicking or hitting a ball than they are. 

So what does this have to do with your Christian faith? Simply this, I have found that my faith often grows stronger when I am forced outside my “comfort zone” and it grows weaker and softer the more comfortable my situation and surroundings. Our cultural value that seeks out comfort at nearly any cost is in direct conflict with one of the most important ways God uses to deepen our faith and relationship with Him. Imagine for a moment that you are faced with two possibilities. You can take a two-week vacation to that favorite relaxing spot you’ve always dreamed about. Be it a tropical beach resort or a lush mountain getaway, it doesn’t much matter. The point is it is a place of comfort, beauty, special service, fantastic food, huge soft beds and wonderful hot tubs. You enjoy the comfort of servants who cater to your every need. Each night you go to bed stuffed from the abundance and variety of the food you feasted on. At the end of it all you drag yourselves to the airport and go home to face the work week. You love the time you had in comfort but somehow feel like you need a vacation to rest from your vacation, yet you cannot of the life of you think of what you did that really mattered and will last.

Your other option is two weeks in a third world country caring for AIDS orphans. The food will be the same everyday, something along the lines of pasty grits with some beans on top. You will bath out of a bucket after a night of sleeping on a very hard bed under a mosquito net. But everyday you will be challenged by the smiles and laughter of children who have nothing but feel they have everything because you came to love them for the briefest of days. You will find yourself praying for strength and feeling guilty that you complain about the food knowing that these kids eat the same thing everyday. Well actually only Monday through Friday when they have school. On weekends there is no food at home. You will find yourself reading your Bible every morning AND evening because you need it like never before. Incredibly the words jump off the pages and into your heart as never before. When it is finally time to go home the tears flow as children rush to hug you and say goodbye and it takes all you have to peel them away and not smuggle one or two into the van.

Which was the more comfortable two weeks? Which was the more difficult, challenging and uncomfortable? Which one did nothing to strengthen your faith and as a result actually weakened it? Which one changed you forever and drew you nearer to the heart of Jesus as never before? That answers are obvious, yet most people will never, ever consider the uncomfortable two weeks because it is just that, uncomfortable. They dismiss it out of hand without realizing they have made a decision based on a deeply held cultural value and not a call from God to change the world. It is not just the decisions on what to do with two weeks of vacation that is in play here. It is the decisions we make every day to select comfort over challenge, ease over effort, soft over sacrifice. Those daily decisions add up over time to suck the life out of the Christian faith.

Why Sharing the Gospel is Not Enough

In recent weeks my quiet time of prayer and Bible reading has included an in-depth study of Paul’s 1st and 2nd Letters to the Thessalonians. As Paul writes to the young Christians in that Greek city he makes a curious and profound statement in chapter 2 verse 8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us”. This verse strikes me as the perfect balance in an ongoing debate over the relationship between evangelism that focuses on speaking and preaching the Gospel and that which focuses on serving people at their point of need.

Why is it that so many of us in the Christian community are unable to hold things in tension and balance. We so quickly go to extremes. We want to make so much of following Jesus into an either or proposition when much of following Jesus is “both/and”. We have been doing that when it comes to preaching the Gospel or living the Gospel and doing so for generations. This is not an either or proposition.

Clearly Paul preached the Gospel. He verbally shared that wherever he went. He lived out what he says in Romans 10:14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” We cannot get caught in the serious error that downplays the necessity of people actually hearing the truth of Jesus. The famous quote attributed to St Francis, “At all times preach the Gospel, when necessary use words”, may have been a great corrective for those who only used words, but to somehow use that to make preaching the words of the Gospel into a last resort tactic, is wrong-headed in the extreme. Paul makes it clear, we must, absolutely must, tell people the Good News that Jesus came and died and rose again so that by trusting and following Him as Lord we can have eternal life. That is non-negotiable.

Yet just as clearly Paul believed it was not enough to only preach the Gospel verbally. He was compelled to share his very self, his life, with the Thessalonians. The way that played out was that Paul served them, loved them, lived with them as a brother. He was open, transparent, and vulnerable. As a result his life became another way to demonstrate the Gospel. When that life was coupled with the preached Word, then you had a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ.

It shouldn’t be at all surprising that our message is to come in the form of BOTH the spoken, preached Word, AND the shared life of Christ followers. The is exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t send a message from on high, a voice coming out of the clouds, with the truth of trusting in Him. He actually came into the world and shared in our lives. It is what the incarnation is all about. Jesus came into the world and took on flesh, He lived among us, shared our joys, griefs, temptations, and victories. He became like us in all things with the exception of succumbing to sin. Jesus lived a both/and life. He spoke the Gospel and He shared His life.

For some of us the speaking part is easy, the sharing life is hard. For others the sharing life is easy but the speaking part is hard. Let me propose that followers of Christ embrace both in their lives. We must, absolutely must develop a culture in which we both speak the truths of the Gospel, hard as they may be, and share our lives with those around us, both those following Jesus already and those not yet, as hard as that may be.

The result of people like Paul sharing their very lives and speaking the truth of the Gospel was that the early church became of community of people who did the same. As they did so, others on the outside of the community wanted to be included on the inside. Some wanted in because they resonated with the preached word. Others wanted in because they resonated with the love they received. Some wanted in for both.

Are you more a speaker than a life sharer? Is it the other way around? What do you need to do to become better and speaking the Gospel? What do you need to do to become better at sharing the Gospel through sharing your very life?

Being a Person of Hospitality

This sermon was preached on November 3-5th at Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood Florida.

The link includes the whole worship service which I hope you will find uplifting. The sermon starts at the 39 minute mark.

Being a Person of Hospitality

We have lost something in our culture. It is the practice of valuing the newcomer, the stranger, the outsider, and welcoming them into our world. If you are a follower of Christ this make no sense since you were once the stranger, outsider, who Jesus welcomed into His sphere.

“Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be” by Cornelius Plantinga

Make no mistake, this is a book about sin. It is about the hideous nature of sin, the way it corrupts, destroys, and slowly sucks the life out of people. It is not the kind of thing most people want to talk about these days. Sin has been replaced with “dysfunction”, “addiction”, “syndrome” and a host of other terms that remove any responsibility from us, all in a vain effort to alleviate our guilt and shame. Plantinga pulls no punches when he discusses the nature of sin and the motivators behind it.

Crucial to Plantinga’s approach is a biblical understanding of Shalom, or Peace. When talking about Shalom, he dreams, along with the writers of the Bible, of a time when true peace would reign. Shalom is more than an absence of war, rather it is the presence of so much that is good and desirable; “a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people would go to sleep without weapons in their laps”. pg 9

Sin destroys peace. It destroys the Shalom between God and man and within humanity. According to Plantinga, sin is not just the breaking of some arbitrary law. It is the breaking of a covenant relationship with our creator and a breaking of relationship with our fellow human beings. “Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God” pg 13 For people who chafe against rules for rules sake and want to claim that we should have the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, this definition of sin should cause them pause. In a very real way at least two someones are alway hurt by our rebellion, us and God. We violate and vandalize the peace we have with God when we sin.

Among the many ways Plantinga talks about sin, perhaps the two that most took hold of me were sin as a parasite and sin as self-swindling. As a parasite sin has no life of its own. It must attach itself to me in order to feed itself. In the process it slowly sucks the life out of me. It is a tick that you don’t even acknowledge until it has begun to bury its head under your skin and chew its way deeper into you. You can remove the visible part on the surface but risk leaving the head inside to continue its damage. The picture of sin as a self-swindler brings out how easily we fool ourselves into thinking this will be something good, something harmless, something meaningless. In the end we find that the swindler has raided our personal accounts and walked off with everything leaving us destitute and guilty of self-destruction.

As harsh as this book may sound it is in fact a very encouraging book. Not in the sense that you will walk away from it filled with delight, but rather you will walk away from it with courage and conviction. There is something about the way Plantinga portrays sin with such honesty and visceral clarity that is actually refreshing. I had the feeling that finally someone was talking sense about sin and even though it was painful to see myself in so many of his examples, there was hope in the honesty. The way sin has been mostly dealt with in our day is to down play its impact, try to convince us that it is not as serious as we think it is and to just relax. Yet I feel that most of us, if we are honest, have long had a sense that as Plantinga says, this is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. Something is seriously wrong and we are being told, don’t worry you will be fine. It’s like going to a doctor because you have this nagging sense that something is desperately wrong with your heart, you can feel it, sense it, it pains you. You go to the doctor, he does a less than cursory exam and says, “Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it. Everyone has this”. It bugs you and nags you for years until one day another doctor looks at you and says, “This is serious. You have a condition that could kill you at any moment. That anxiety you have been experiencing is well placed. We need to correct this now”. As hard as it would be to hear that doctor’s diagnosis there would be a sense of relief that finally you have someone being honest with you about the deadly nature of your disease. That is exactly what Plantinga does. And like any good doctor he provides a treatment, through Christ, to deal with that sin and bring true Shalom into your life.

At under 200 pages and with the honor of being the 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year, there is no excuse for not reading this book.

Three MUST HAVE Relationships in Your Life (pt. 1 of 3)

John Maxwell wrote the book 360 Degree Leadership. The title is from the idea that in any organization you can and should provide leadership to those above you, below you, and around you on the org chart. We need to think of 360 degree relationships as followers of Christ. I see a model for this in the biblical relationships of Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy. In looking at what the Bible tells us about these three men and the experience of my own life I am forced to ask myself some very important questions. First, who are the people in my life to whom I play the role of Paul, and Barnabas, and Timothy. The second is the other side of the coin. Who are the people in my life who play the role of Paul, and Barnabas, and Timothy for me?

You may be wondering just what those roles are? I think each can be summarized fairly easily. Paul is the spiritual leader/mentor who helps another become all that Christ has for them. Barnabas is the encouraging co-laborer with whom you share life and who strengthens you along the way. Timothy is the follower who is looking to a Paul for guidance and direction in what it means to live this life for Jesus.

Now before we get to far into this I know there will be some people who immediately respond by saying, “Don’t look to men! Only look to Jesus” or some variation on that theme. As highly spiritual as that may sound it is actually a violation of what Jesus Himself said. So I am left to wonder if such folks are actually even looking to Jesus. You see Jesus commanded that we are to go and make disciples. We are to follow the pattern He set by investing ourselves in the lives of other people so they begin to follow Jesus and grow to maturity. That is why Paul did what he did with someone like Timothy. Jesus was also the one who sent people out in pairs to do ministry. He followed the time-honored Biblical principle that it is not good for people to be alone, work alone, even walk alone. As the Bible says, “when one falls down the other is there to pick them up”. Clearly Jesus thinks we are to be in relationships in which we encourage one another, care for one another, challenge one another and in general share life together in order to become more like Him. In fact that is what is at the root of the Biblical word for fellowship. It is KOINONIA and has its roots in the Greek word for “common”. Fellowship is sharing our common lives together in order to exhibit what the Body of Christ is all about. It is about breathing the same air, facing the same challenges, exalting in the same joys and living life, together.

Let’s take a look at the examples of Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy and see what we can learn. First, what about Paul? Here is the big question. Who are you pouring your life into so that they become more like Christ? Who are you guiding into Christian maturity so they can use their life and gifts in service to God and others? That is what Paul did with Timothy. Most people shrink back from this thinking that they are not worthy enough, smart enough, or holy enough to lead someone else in following Christ. Well I agree. None of us are. Yet Jesus expects us to do just that. Actually Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us to do that as He lives through us. We are ALL called to make disciples. We are all called to lead someone else closer to Jesus. If you are a parent then you are called by God to disciple your children so they become more like Jesus and serve Him in whatever they do. If you are married you have that same responsibility towards your spouse. If you know someone who is not a Christian, you are called to be Paul to them by living out your Christian faith in such a way that they want to also follow Jesus. No one is exempt from this. If you have been following Jesus for two weeks and you meet someone who has been following Him for two days, guess what. You are twelve days further down the road than they are and you can and should be a Paul who helps them navigate their next twelve days. Of course you should still be growing in your relationship to Christ so in theory you are always twelve days ahead. The reality is, if you really invest yourself in being Paul to someone else, your growth in Christ will accelerate even faster. The call to make disciples is for all followers of Jesus. So in a sense we are all called to be Paul to someone else.

But that also brings up the question of who you are looking to as that Paul in your life. Who is your role model? Who is the person who is following Jesus in a way that you think you should? Who could help you go to the next level in your relationship with Jesus? You see, in addition to being a Paul to someone else, you need a Paul or two in your own life. When I first came to faith in Christ a guy named Scott Jones was the local Young Life leader. He was my first Paul. During my Senior year in High School, Scott would meet with me and a handful of other guys once a week before school. We read and studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans together. But that was not where Scott made the biggest impact as my “Paul”. Every few weeks he would pick me up before school and we grabbed a couple donuts and a cup of coffee at a local donut shop. We talked about life, both of our lives. We talked about how following Jesus applied to our lives, both the easy and the hard parts. Scott also spoke into my life with all the wisdom a 25 year had to give a 17-year-old. It was huge for me.

I am convinced that one of the most glaring weaknesses in the church today and in the lives of individual followers of Jesus is the stark absence of “Paul” relationships. When you take seriously the call to invest your life in another, there is a huge payback in terms of your own spiritual growth and maturity. When we fail to make that investment, the payback is nil.

At the end of part three I will share some practical tips and resources for developing not only healthy Paul relationships but also the Barnabas and Timothy ones as well. In the meantime I would encourage you to be praying for God to show you the people to whom you are already supposed to be “Paul” and look back on your life and see who has been Paul to you then and now. If you don’t have anyone who fills the role of the Apostle Paul, then in your prayer time start asking God now to show you to that person.

Killing Me Softly

The cultural quest for comfort and convenience is killing American Christianity. Following Jesus is not something done from the ease of a lazy boy chair, with television clicker in hand, waiting for the microwave to ding. Following Jesus is not a walk in the park with butterflies fluttering and sunshine beaming. Jesus made it clear that following him can be an arduous task. After all if they crucified him, the master, then what can we expect our treatment to be like. Following him requires that we be ready and willing to pick up our own cross. That kind of thinking puts followers of Jesus on a collision course with western culture.

Far from embracing struggle and hardship as valuable, our culture has as one of it’s highest values that life should be as comfortable and pleasant as possible. Any hint of struggle, hardship, disappointment, stress, or grief, is taken for evidence that something is seriously wrong. Hardship is to be avoided, pain is to be masked, strain and stress must to be alleviated. Need examples? When did we start giving every child on every Little League or Youth Soccer team a trophy at the end of the season, so that nobody would have their feelings hurt? How about school districts that outlaw the use of red pens by teachers when correcting papers because the color is too traumatizing to students? Are you kidding me?

My point is, we have become soft and that softness of culture has infected the church. In fact, I believe that the Church at large has become so immersed in this cultural value that abhors struggle and hardship that we are literally the proverbial frog in the kettle. Put a frog in comfortable water and ever so slowly raise the temperature and the frog will never notice that it is slowly going to die from the heat. Christians have been having the cultural water of comfort ever so slowly consume us and we are at risk of having any real semblance of the lifestyle of Jesus disappear from our midst altogether.

It all reminds me of the Roberta Flack hit from the 70’s, “Killing Me Softly”. That’s what is happening. We are not dying from a vicious assault that is pummeling us to death. We are not being worn down and traumatized by violent persecution and a daily struggle to live our faith in the face of unrelenting anger. Instead, Christianity in the west is dying from a slow softening of our resolve, strength, courage, and willingness to face the hard realities of life for a greater good.

This cultural value of comfort has been spiritualized in the Church. If anything becomes a struggle or hardship or strain, many will immediately start looking for some Satanic opposition behind the hardship. Why? Because if God was involved wouldn’t it be a huge success, no opposition, only pleasant and joyous? The airwaves are full of preachers telling you that Jesus wants you only to be healthy and wealthy and problem free. Anything less than that is an attack from Satan or a lack of faith on your part.
Even if you don’t buy into the false Gospel of prosperity you may well have been taken in by more subtle ideas. How often have you heard any sense of discomfort getting translated into “not having a peace” about the thing and that God must not be in it. God’s blessing is often evaluated in terms that are borrowed directly from the culture. Peace, comfort, ease, and numerical success, become sure signs that you are one the right track and in Christian terms, that God is blessing you.

I recently returned from a trip overseas where I gathered with 180 church planters who came primarily from countries that are closed to the Gospel and hostile to Christians and Christianity. What a contrast to the softness and comfort seeking of the west. These are people who have lost their jobs because they converted to Christianity. In the west we would be outraged and start suing someone. In their context they took it as a sign of honor that they were truly following Jesus and now had the privilege of trusting him everyday for their needs. I sat and listened to people tell about being arrested and beaten, on multiple occasions, simply because they were following Jesus. How did they respond? With delight that the experience gave them other opportunities to share Jesus with their captors. I heard tales of people having their houses burned down because they followed Jesus and of the blessing it was to the rest of the church because it gave them a chance to demonstrate the love of Christ by helping a brother rebuild. I have shared a meal with one pastor who had to hide in the woods for a month, with people bringing him food, while hoodlums looked for him in order to kill him. We ate at his church to which he returned once things quieted down. Why did he go back? So he could continue to share the Gospel in his village and with the people who hated him.

Have you ever wondered how the generation that Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation” was able to endure and overcome during World War 2? I think a big part of the answer is that generation was coming of age during the Great Depression. They grew up learning that life was a struggle and you had to embrace the hardship and let it shape you. They had survived the Great Depression and when it came time for a bigger challenge, saving the world, even if it meant laying down their lives, they embraced it. Oh to have a church in the west that embraced that kind of mind set. What impact could we have if we sought first, not our comfort, ease, and convenience but instead the Kingdom of God and all it entails, hardship, struggle and all? How different might your life and witness be if you did not always seek your comfort and safety but rather the Glory of God found in carrying your Cross?

Things God Hates

Recently a friend told me of a conversation he had about God. When the person found out that he followed Jesus she told him she had a list of questions for God. One of them was, “why does God hate Halloween?” My first thought was “wow, I didn’t see that coming”. My next thought was, I am not so sure God hates kids dressing up and getting candy from folks. In fact I wonder if it doesn’t amuse Him on some level. Certainly there are other aspects of Halloween that are not pleasing to God but that’s not the point of this post. It is just to let you know how I got thinking about the question, what does God hate?

It is a very important question if for no other reason than “hate” has become a huge topic in our western culture. We now have a whole category of crimes in which we have ratcheted up the punishment because they involve “hate”. So if a black man kills another black man or a white woman kills another white woman, or a gay man kills another gay man, then it is just plain old murder. But if the black man kills a white man, or white woman kills a black woman, or straight person kills a gay person then we immediately start looking for a hate crime motive. Apparently killing someone you hate is more hideous than killing someone you only dislike or have no feelings about what-so-ever. It is also clear that you can only hate people who are part of some other category of person than yourself, at least as far as hate crime law is concerned. Additionally we have added hate “speech” to the list of crimes. And here is where we really are on a slippery slope. More and more we are seeing people use the “hate” card whenever someone disagrees with the lifestyle, political position, or ideas of someone who is different from them. So now the political discourse is filled with accusations of people being “hate mongers” simply because they disagree with a policy or practice. So if someone speaks about having tougher immigration laws then obviously they are a bigot and hate people from other countries. Or if someone wants to promote what they consider to be a biblical standard of marriage as being between one man and one woman, then they must hate gays and lesbians. Are there people who hold to such positions and do it out of hate? Of course there are. But not everyone who disagrees with someone or something is motivated by hate. Let’s go back to basic logic. Take this line of thinking; People from Boston are Red Sox fans; you are a Red Sox Fan; you must be from Boston. NOT! Similarly, people who hate gays are opposed to gay marriage, you are opposed to gay marriage, you must hate gay people. NOT!

What we see is the hate on any level has become taboo in western culture. Any notion of hate is seen as being barbaric. It is seen to be part of some primitive nature that truly civilized, enlightened people have outgrown. Surely, the thinking goes,we should have progressed beyond hate by now. If we are talking about hating people then yes, certainly as a follower of Jesus I would say that we need to get beyond the hate of people and learn to love people as Jesus has loved us. Both the Old and New Testaments are clear in their instructions to us to love others, even our enemies. But in typical mentally lazy fashion we have taken the injunction to not hate others and have applied it to everything in life. Where as the Bible is clear that hating other people, just because they are different from us, is wrong, we have made it morally repugnant to hate anything. That goes light-years beyond what the Bible teaches and what God does.

The fact of the matter is, there are some things in life that God hates and if we don’t hate them also, then we are not the people Jesus wants us to be. There are enough places in the Bible that speak of things God hates that it is not an obscure concept. Rather, it is central to His very character as God. There are some things that are so odious to God that He hates them. Consider this direct and unambiguous passage from Proverbs 6:16-19,

16 There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him:

17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,

18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil,

19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

So let me ask you, Is there anything wrong with hating those things? What would be the opposite of hating them? Surely we don’t want to say that we love “hands that shed innocent blood” or “a false witness that breathes out lies”. Ok so maybe we wouldn’t love them but does that mean we have to hate them? What is the other alternative? I suppose we could be neutral about them, which is simply another way of saying, indifferent, uncaring, unmoved. In some respects that may be worse. Do we really want to be indifferent to the deaths of innocent people? Do we really want to remain unmoved by the death and destruction caused by people who are devise evil in their hearts and are quick to run off and implement those evil plans?  Do we want to be so hard-hearted as to not have the least bit of inkling in our chest that this should not be? Being neutral, uncaring, unmoved, about such things is tantamount to approving of them, but without the guts to actually own such feelings. It is the weaklings way out, the rationalization of the moral coward.

God hates such things. He hates them because of what they do to people. He hates them because they violate his very character of being a God of justice and righteousness who cares for the broken and the downtrodden. He hates them because He is a God who loves those made in His image and to see them wrecked and destroyed by people who love evil causes a righteous indignation to rise up within Him. God hates such things because they are evil. Maybe that is the crux of the problem. We have so diluted our understanding of evil that we have lost the ability to be truly angry over it and the human devastation it leaves in its wake. How can you read about Gaddafi’s family pouring scalding hot water on a nanny because the nanny refused to beat a child and NOT get angry? How can you hear about a family denying water and food to a 10-year-old boy for days until he died of dehydration and not hate such evil? How can you hear of the tens of thousands or more of young girls trapped in the sex-slave industry and not hate what you hear? To not hate such things is to treat the people who suffer under them as less that worthy of our love and concern. We can understand having our hearts break over such things but we need to go a step further. We need to hate such things. Because God hates them too.

But here is the trick. We need to hate such things and at the same time not be consumed by our hate. We need to be people who point to redemption and forgiveness and restoration. Our hatred of evil must become a motivator for good. Our tendency when we hate is to become destructive and vindictive ourselves. We become that which we hate. Maybe that is why so many of us try to avoid any hint of hate. But in God’s case, when He looked at the destruction that sin brought upon humanity, He turned to a plan of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration. He did it by way of the Cross of Calvary. Jesus came and died in order to defeat the things God hates. He did it because He loves those who are caught in the bondage of such evil. In an irony of all ironies, he suffered that death at the hands of people who hated him and for people who hated him. That truly is hating the sin and loving the sinner.

Trapped in a Suburban Twilight Zone

“As a Christian there is stuff I know we should be doing, and really want to be doing, but in our lives right now there just isn’t enough time.” Does that sound like something you have said? If you haven’t said it, is it at least how you have felt, yet you never dared speak those words out loud for fear that doing so would somehow force you to deal with the reality of what your own ears heard your mouth say?  In a recent conversation a friend relayed just those words to me. They had been speaking to someone who has a longing, a deep yearning, to do something more, something significant for the kingdom of God. They even have a sense of what that would be. But they just don’t have the time. Now we are not talking about starting a ministry that will end world hunger in forty days, or bring the Gospel to every person on the planet in their own language by next year. We are talking about things like, “I need to be in community with other followers of Christ in a way that we really do life together”. It is about the yearning “To live in such a way that I know my neighbors better and am serving them as Jesus serves”. It’s about “having a more devoted time of prayer and reading God’s Word so that it shapes me into who Jesus wants me to be”. It is about stuff that every follower of Christ can and should do, but so often says, “I just don’t have time”. Something is seriously wrong.

Think about this for a moment. There is stuff you know you should be doing and even want to be doing, but there is just not enough time. WOW! How is that possible? How can you not have time to do something you know God wants you to do and you have a desire to do? Is God playing some kind of cosmic joke on you? He gives you a desire and longing to do something and then makes the days too short for it to be possible? He gives you a desire and a command to spend more time with your children but at the end of the day He arranges your priorities so it is impossible. As a result you are left feeling frustrated, disappointed, and guilty. All because you haven’t done what you are sure God wants you to do? All the while, deep in the recesses of your soul is this feeling that God is just not being fair. He asks something of you then seems to make it impossible to accomplish. It sounds like an episode out of the Twilight Zone, where some unseen entity is running experiments on a person to see how long it takes for them to go nuts when faced with a crucial task that just can’t be completed, no matter how hard they try.

What makes this especially surreal is the explosion of modern time-saving devices. Devices that were supposed to free us up for all kinds of noble pursuits have completely failed. It took my grandmother a couple of hours everyday just to make dinner. Now we can pop it in the microwave or order take out and save hundreds of hours a year. It used to take the better part of an afternoon to cut and rake the yard with a rotary, manual push mower and a rake. Now the whole thing gets done in 30 minutes with a direct drive mower with bag attachment. We don’t even need to waste the 5 minutes it takes to make a hard-boiled egg. You can buy them from the grocery store by the half-dozen. And they are already peeled for crying out loud! So what is the deal?

The deal is, we have allowed a picture of a suburban American lifestyle and the upward push of economic advancement to compete with the good that God has for us. At worst I have seen this drive for the nicer house, newer car, advancement of the career and social status, literally rip families apart. At best it has people living a life with a veneer of respectability, rushing to soccer games, participating in church events, attending social functions, but underneath, no one is happy. The parents are at odds over money, time, and other priorities, and the kids have a nagging sense of insecurity because there never seems to be any sense of contentment or peace or tranquility. There is a constant striving for something more and an underlying angst that if we get that “something more” we will still be left feeling unsatisfied.

Some may think that the problem is in our yearning, our appetite for things. It is because we want so much stuff so strongly that we are left hungering for more of the respectable, comfortable, suburban dream. I was reminded recently that C. S. Lewis maintained that the problem we have is not that our appetites are too strong, but that they are too weak. Our appetites for things like comfort, respectability, social standing, and the like, are actually very small appetites. They are but unfulfilling morsels that have the allure of greatness but the substance of vapor. Yet we are made for much more. We have placed within us a longing and yearning for the eternal, the holy, the majestic. We have a hunger for true meaning and significance. We have been created by God to be His image bearers in the world, to be vice-regents over creation, to reflect the glory of a holy, eternal, all-powerful, gracious, loving God. Our hearts ache to fulfill our created purpose. Stupidly we think we will fulfill that purpose by filling our lives with middle-class morality, respectability, and comfort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with running the kids to soccer games, having a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and working at a job that demands much but pays well. What is wrong is when those things become our means to fulfillment, when they become badges of our right relationship with God. We are fooling ourselves when we think so. At that point they are merely idols we worship. And like all idols they over promise and under deliver. And we are still left unfulfilled, frustrated, and yearning for something more. It is only when we take the radical and provocative step of laying down those idols and looking to find our fulfillment in a full on, sold out relationship with Jesus that we find our purpose. Do you want to be in real community with others but have no time? Then dump an idol and replace it with opening your home in hospitality to others. Do you want to make an impact in the life of someone in need? Then forget about your gym membership and spend the time tutoring an inner city child. Do you want to leave a lasting legacy of God’s grace and mercy, then bag your vacation and spend two weeks every summer for the next ten years serving orphans in Haiti or Africa. You see, there is time to fulfill those yearnings God has placed within you. The question is, are you willing to break out of the suburban twilight zone and lay down your idols?

Why I Bonsai

People often ask me about my hobby of doing Bonsai. What got you interested? Why do you do it? There are a couple of reasons that all merged together one day several years ago.

First of all there is the plane fact that Bonsai trees are flat-out amazing. When you see a three-foot tall pine tree that under normal circumstances would tower 60 feet over your head, who doesn’t stand in a little bit of awe. So ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the science and the beauty of Bonsai.

Second, as I was doing a year-end inventory of my life and character I really sensed that one of the things I needed to work on was patience combined with perseverance. By that I mean that willingness to wait on something that would a long time and the drive to stick with it for years if need be. I have had far too many 80% finished and sensed that the next step God wanted me to take in the development of my character could be learned through Bonsai. It actually fits far better than I ever imagined. One of the things I have learned about Bonsai is that no tree is ever finished till it is dead. Now I have “finished” several trees, especially in the early days. At one point my wife asked if I was growing trees or collecting empty pots. She asked this as she looked at the collection of a half-dozen pots, that sat like ceramic grave stones, in honor of the trees that once lived in them. But once I learned to keep them alive and thriving it became apparent that you never finish with a Bonsai. It is always growing till it dies.

That idea, that you are never finished with it, it is always growing till it dies, is one of the many lessons of the Christian walk that I have seen paralleled in growing my trees. As a follower of Jesus, I will never be a finished product until the day the Lord calls me home and completes the transformation of my character in one dazzling moment. Any Christian who is not regularly working on his or her growth in Christ does not understand that in this life we are never a finished product. We are always being pruned and shaped by the Lord.

Another aspect of Bonsai that I find wonderful is that you can Bonsai any type of tree. Lots of people think that Bonsai is a particular type of plant. They think of a pine or juniper and The Karate Kid snipping a piece of one of Mr. Miagi’s trees. The fact is, Bonsai is the art of making a tree small enough to grow in a pot. Bonsai literally means, “tree tray” or tree in a tray or pot. So I have pines. junipers, Ficus, azalea’s, elms, boxwood, and holly trees all of which have been “bonsaid” and are growing in pots on even on slabs of marble. That brings up another lesson in faith. There is no one single picture of what I Christian is. There is amazing variety in the material that God works with. Christians come in all sorts of colors, ethnic and language groups and from every conceivable culture.

This is usually a 40 foot tree. It is about 3 ft now and planning on getting smaller

The Chinese Elm to the left is usually a 40-60 foot tree. It is about 30 inches tall and I    may even make it a bit shorter. It loves colder climates and drops all it’s leaves in the    winter. Six weeks ago it looked like a dead stick. With Spring arriving I have to trim the  leaves back every week.

The landscape to the right is a group of Ficus. It stays green year round and when we get a frost I have to bring it inside. The marble slab that it sits on is about three feet wide.

This is my newest project. It is a holly that I dug out of our yard after working with it from   time to time for about three years. Eventually it will move out of the training pot and into     a shallow ceramic Japanese pot. I love the windswept look and plan to make it even more   dramatic.

What should be the same about all Christians and is true of all Bonsai, is that ideally  they look like smaller replicas of the original. The ultimate goal for me when someone  looks at one of my trees is not that they say, “oh a Bonsai”, but that they say, “that looks  just like a real tree”. The ultimate goal for me when someone looks at  my life as a  Christian is not that the say, “oh a Christian”, but that they say, “that looks  just like  Jesus”

When I cut a branch off a tree, or wire the trunk to move in a certain direction, or cut off a  bunch of leaves, it always has the purpose of conforming that tree into the ideal, full-grown, mature tree. Paul says in Romans 8:29 that we are being conformed into the  image  of Christ. That is  the reason for the struggles, hardships and joys we have. It is to  make  us more like Jesus. When the Lord cuts something out of your life, when he forces you to grow in a certain direction, when he cuts a bunch of unnecessary decoration from your life, it is always with one goal in mind. It is to conform you to the ideal of a full- grown, mature follower of Christ. One who people will look at and say, “that looks just like Jesus”.

Alabama Governor Says, “You’re Not My Brother”

Alabama Governor, Robert Bentley has people in an outrage over comments he recently made at a church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor. Politics Daily is reporting that Bentley was making the point that as Governor he is color blind and serves all the people of the state equally. But he went on to make the distinction that only people with a faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are truly his brothers and sisters. Bentley is being attacked as bigoted and divisive for holding such a view. What is fascinating is that all he was doing was affirming exactly what Jesus said. People who are followers of Jesus are “family” in the faith. The New Testament refers to followers of Christ as brothers and sisters so often that in many churches that is exactly how people address one another. Brother so and so, Sister so and so can be heard in the halls of numerous churches around the world.

I can understand that some people may not really get what Bentley is saying. I remember walking up to an African-American member of my church in Pittsburgh one Sunday morning and saying, “Hey brother, how you been?” He looked at me very puzzled and said, “What did you say?” So I repeated, “Hey brother, how you been?” The continued puzzled look clicked with me and I said, “Brother in the faith, I’m not trying some, white guy being urban thing”. At which point he laughed and said, “Oh, sorry, I’m doing great. How you been?” Being called a brother by a white guy was something that as a new Christian he just was not used to. But he quickly made the transition in his mind and was totally cool with it. I was not his “brother” in a racial sense, but was in a “Christian” sense. Now if he had referred to some African-American friends, who did not follow Jesus, as “brothers”, I would have understood he was talking in a racial/cultural sense and not been upset that he didn’t include me in the mix. In that context I am NOT his brother. In the Biblical/Spiritual context I am. Having read excerpts of the governors speech at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, I suspect that the people in the church understood and appreciated the statement of solidarity in the faith. They knew exactly what was meant by brother and sister. It is simply a way of expressing the common bond that crosses all cultural and racial lines for people who follow Jesus. Nothing bigoted or divisive about it.

What seems to be the issue other people have with this, notably the American Hindu Foundation, and The Anti-Defamation League, is a concern that a governor with such strong religious views is not able to treat other people fairly. Two things come to mind. First, does that mean we can only have elected officials with weakly held religious views or no religious views at all? That would be so contrary to the spirit of our Constitution as to be laughable to those who wrote it.

The second thought is that if someone is truly following Christ as Governor Bentley seems intent on doing, then his fair treatment of others, no matter their religious views, should end up being a model for every politician to follow.  I think this is actually the point that Christians should be most concerned about. The reputation that we should have with those outside the family should be one in which they say, “Oh, they are a Christian. Good, at least I know I will be treated fairly, honestly and justly because they want to serve people just like Jesus did”. The time when Jesus treated the Samaritan Woman at The Well with dignity and respect, in spite of the fact that most other Jews, especially Jewish males at the time, would have treated her with disdain, should be the kind of example we set for those outside the Christian family.

You may not be my brother or sister in the faith. But that does not mean I treat you with anything less than honor and respect for two very basic reasons. One, you are also made in the image of God and how I treat the image should track with how I treat God. Two, Jesus told me that I must love you as I love myself, plane and simple.

In the early centuries of the Christian faith, Christians were often reviled for the close, exclusive relationships that they had with one another. But over time that attitude changed. It changed because people began to realize that Christians took care of their own sick as well as the non-Christian sick. And they did it better than the non-Christians. They took care of their own orphans and widows, and the non-Christians orphans and widows. And they did it better. Eventually people decided that they would rather deal with Christians than people of their own group because they would be treated with dignity. It happened because Christians were committed to loving others as Jesus commanded, and serving them in His name.

I wonder, what would it take to recapture that kind of reputation?