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?

Why Being Thankful Just Doesn’t Cut It.

I know that this week is all about being thankful. I know that the Bible is clear that we are to give thanks in all things. I wrote a blog on that very topic sometime back. Give Thanks in All Things. In spite of that I have to admit that I am having second thoughts about all this thanksgiving spirit. Maybe I am just getting more contrary or maybe there really is something to be said here. The point is, it seems that much of our “thanksgiving” runs shallow and is extremely self-centered. Most of the time, our giving thanks stops short of making a real impact.

Here is my point. My recent trip to India got me thinking a great deal about the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48 “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” What has continued to run through my mind is the realization that I and almost every follower of Christ in America, have been given immeasurably more than Christians in almost every other place on the planet. So it has me wondering, What will you require of me Lord, in light of all I have been given and for which I am thankful?

All around America on Thanksgiving Day, people will stop and give thanks for the many blessings in their life. Followers of Christ will be thankful for the freedom they have to worship, their home, jobs, food, family, the list goes on. Once we are done giving thanks for all these we will dig into the turkey and mashed potatoes then fall into a turkey induced stupor in front of a football game. At least that is usually my routine. When that happens we fall woefully short of what God has for us. We need to ask a question on the heels of all our thanksgiving. The question is simple. Jesus, what do you want me to do with all I have been given in order to bring you glory and lead others into a relationship with you?

You see we have not been given all our blessings just so we can have a wonderful life. We have not been showered with good stuff just so we can be comfortable. We have been given all the blessings we are so thankful for in order to use those things to make a difference in the lives of others. So here is the deal. When you run through the litany of things that you thank God for, don’t stop there. Continue the conversation with Him and ask, what do you want me to do with this? How can I use all this for the advancement of your Kingdom. That is how we can truly say thank you to God for all His good gifts in our lives.

Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst

What do you long for, yearn for, lay awake at night dreaming about? What do you hunger for? Much of what we yearn and hunger for never becomes reality. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to go to the moon. I could have told you everything about the space program, including every man who walked on the moon and each Command Module Pilot who circled the moon while two of his buddies played Rat Patrol in the Lunar Rover. I had a hunger to go to the moon. Sadly the program was killed long before I ever had a chance to go. Today I am pretty certain that NASA won’t be starting up a shuttle service to Tranquility Base anytime soon so that hunger will never be satisfied.
Jesus says that there is a hunger that can be satisfied but it is not something that most people really care much about. In Matthew 5:6 he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” At first blush it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as a chance to hit golf balls on the moon. But the more I think about having a hunger for righteousness, the more appetizing it sounds. Think about it for a moment. What would be different in the world if life was characterized by righteousness? What if people actually did the right thing, treated each other with dignity, watched out for the hurting and weak and generally loved God and their neighbor above all else? We are coming up on an election day here in The States. How different might things be if political leaders actually cared about doing the right thing more than getting elected again and again. For that matter how different would it be if the voters hungered more for leaders who did the right thing than for those who seem to promise the most perks for us? How different would it be if people so longed for righteousness that we would no longer put up with a world in which children starve to death while others grow fat? How different would it be if we thirsted like a dying man in the desert, for a world in which women need never fear being raped?  How different would it be if we yearned for a world in which the color of ones skin was seen as a beautiful example of God’s love of variety instead of a reason to exclude, reject or attack?
Jesus hungers for such a world. It is a world in which human beings fulfill the requirements of our relationship with God and with one another. We are to hunger and thirst for “right relationships” that are characterized by loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must never be satisfied with anything less.
But in order to be truly satisfied we must long for a righteousness that is worthy of heaven. For it is only there that we will ultimately experience a relationship with God and one another as it was intended. We must hunger for that heavenly righteousness as a starving man hungers for a crust of bread or thirsting man a moistening of his lips.
That kind of hunger will lead inevitably to the foot of the cross. At the cross I am reminded again and again that I have no righteousness in myself. I can do nothing to satisfy my need for righteousness. I am spiritually bankrupt. Jesus made that clear in the first Beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit. But it is also at that cross that I receive my one true hope. I find that Jesus has gone to that cross on my behalf so that I may indeed be in a right relationship with the Father. And that is at the heart of righteousness. It is being made right with God, being in a right relationship with him because my sin has been forgiven. Jesus promises that if I hunger for that kind of righteousness that I will be filled.
As much as I may look at the world and the appalling lack of righteousness in it, I have to look deep into my own heart first. It is there that I must hunger for righteousness before anywhere else. It is in my own heart and my own relationship with God that I must thirst for right things. It is in my heart of hearts that I must yearn for a love for those around me that knows no bounds.
It is a humbling thing to admit that in our hearts we are just not right with God and others as we need to be. But it is also a very freeing thing. It frees me to become the person I know Jesus wants me to be and to look with expectation and hope to the day when all my hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Provocative Bible Verses: Being The Biggest Loser for Jesus

There is a television program called “The Biggest Loser”. The premise of the show is a group of extremely overweight people compete to see which one of them will loose the most weight over the course of several weeks. It may be the only time in western culture in which the winner is actually the one who lost the most. Yet even in this show the winner is really the one who did better than everyone else in reaching the goal. The folks who did not “win” because they had not “lost” enough weight are still considered “losers”.

We only cheer for the winner. No one wants to be on the losing end. In the open to the movie “Patton”, George C. Scott is playing World War 2 General George S. Patton and he is giving a speech that is pure “Patton”. A line in that speech says “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in Hell for a man who lost and laughed.” I suspect that what is true for Americans in Patton’s speech is true for people around the world. Just look at how people react to things like the Olympics or better yet, The World Cup. We go crazy for winners and are embarrassed by losers.

So how crazy and provocative is it that the Bible encourages us to be on the losing end of things? In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul was dealing with a situation in the church in which fellow Christians were taking one another to court and filing law suits against each other. Paul was outraged by this. How in the world was it possible that people who were supposed to be family in Christ were unable to be reconciled and allowed issues of money to divide the body? He puts it this way: The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.” 1 Corinthians 6:7

What Paul is saying is that the unity of the Body of Christ as well as our witness to the world, is far more important that any monetary victory or any emotional victory that we might achieve by taking another Christian to court. It would be far better to be cheated out of something that you rightfully deserve than to ask the secular court to settle a dispute between two Christians. It would be better for you to be cheated out of something than for Christ to be cheated out of the glory that He is due. Whenever Christians are unwilling to reconcile, whenever we are unwilling to suffer wrong for the sake of Jesus, then we are the cheaters. We have cheated Jesus out of His glory and honor. We have defiled His name for our own benefit. That is scandalous in the eyes of Paul. It would be far better for us to be seen by the world as being a big loser, then for Jesus to be discredited.

That is a hard pill for us to swallow. The reason being is that our pride gets in the way. We become overly concerned about our reputation and forget about the reputation of Jesus. I have been in the position of having to decide to be a loser for the sake of Jesus. Years ago I was on the staff of a church where I eventually became the pastor. While I was on staff the vast majority of the congregation, over 95%, decided that they needed to leave the denomination they were connected to and align with another group. The decision was based on some serious theological differences. The group that voted to change was certain that they had every legal right to keep the building and property of the church. The 5% who disagreed filed a lawsuit to keep the building for themselves. In obedience to 1 Corinthians 6:7, we handed over the keys of the building and walked away from a church building that was only 10 years old. It was a very difficult decision for many people. But it is one that had to be made if we were going to be faithful to God’s Word. The short version of the rest of the story is that God honored that decision and made it possible for that church to eventually purchase 12 acres in a better location and see the ministry grow from under 200 people to over 700 in just a few years.

Not every case of being a loser for Jesus will result in such tangible blessings from God. But that is not the point. The reason for being willing to be wronged for Jesus is so that His name is not defiled for the sake of our pride.

I Went to Jail Last Night

There is a certain sense in which I am glad that most people I know have never been inside a jail. After all, people usually end up there because they have done something that in hind sight they really wish they had never even considered doing. It usually means someone was hurt in some way and often becomes one more chapter in a lifetime of sad and tragic events. But on a completely different level I wish that most people I know had spent at least some time in jail. I did that last night and it wasn’t my first time.

Fortunately for me, my few times being in a jail were my own choice and they were in service to someone who was forced to be there. Their time in jail was always the result of some terrible choices they made. My time there has always been the result of a choice I made many years ago to follow Jesus to any place he led. Last nights visit was my second to the Seminole County Jail. The first was a year ago in order to make arrangements for the worship services from Northland Church to be made available, via a web-stream, for inmates who wished to gather for worship. I went to jail last night so I could actually worship with those men and a dozen volunteers who go to the jail every week to serve them. It was an amazing experience and one that I wish every follower of Jesus could have.

The main reason I would hope that every Christ-follower would visit people in jail is because Jesus said that we should. In Matthew 25:36 Jesus said, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came and visited me.” He said those words in a parable that was intended to show us that whenever we serve the outcast, the downtrodden, the sick, even the person in jail, we are really serving Jesus. He made it clear that these are the kinds of things that are to mark the life of His followers. It should also be noted that what Jesus asks of us is a very intimate, personal involvement. He does not say, “I needed clothes and you donated your extras to the Salvation Army”. He does not say “I was hungry and you gave to the local food bank”. He does not say, “I was a prisoner and you gave money to Prison Fellowship”. He says, “You clothed me, you cared for me, you visited me”. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Giving to organizations and ministries that care for the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, and the rest of societies outcasts and downtrodden is a good thing. But it is only a part. The real deal is giving yourself, getting close enough to touch, to smell, to feel, close enough to be uncomfortable. It is what Jesus showed us when he touched the leper, the blind man, the bleeding woman.

The reason behind this need to make it personal is that God is personal and intimate and he makes his ministry to us personal, and intimate. He does not sit on high looking down on our plight, refusing to engage us. Rather, he emptied himself and came into the world, taking on the form of a servant, being made in likeness as we are, serving us to the point of death on a cross. Jesus took on flesh, became one of us. He got up close and personal with humanity in order to demonstrate the powerful and intimate love of God for lost people. If we are going to be like Jesus, then our ministry to others must get up close and personal. It requires an investment of ourselves, not just our check book.

Such an investment can be costly and scary. It is costly because it takes a piece of who you are. It means giving of yourself from the heart, maybe from a place that you have never wanted to give. It is scary because it means dealing with people who are unknown and apparently unlike you. But such fears are not coming from God. They are not the voice of prudence coming from God for our protection. They are more often than not the voice of the enemy disguised as light and reasonableness. Jesus never calls us to take council of our fears but rather to “fear not”.

I mentioned that a reason for our fear is that these are people who are unknown and unlike us. But that is not true. They are not really unknown and they are certainly not unlike us. Last night in the jail, I saw and spoke to one young man who I already knew. I didn’t know he was in jail. He is 22 years old and I have known him since he was 8. There were others there who I had never met, but in just a few minutes of conversation it was clear that I “knew” them. I knew enough of their story to know what they faced, the pain they have, the mistakes they made, the regrets covered over with bravado. In those brief conversations and in observing these men worship Jesus, I also learned that they are not unlike me. They are in fact just like me. Their sins may be different but they are still sinners like me. And as we stood before a holy God worshiping him last night, I knew that God saw no difference. I knew it, because I knew that He saw all of us through the lens of the Cross on which Jesus died.

The reason Jesus came into the world was made clear in the earliest days of his ministry and it is what we have been called to in His name. Jesus said in Luke 4:8 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed”

You’re Already Dead if You are Following Jesus

One of my favorite books of all time is Band of Brothers written by Stephen Ambrose. It was turned into an award-winning mini-series on HBO. The story followers Easy Company of the 506th Battalion of the 101st Airborne division from their time in training in Georgia, to D-Day in Normandy, all the way to the capture of Hitler’s mountain retreat, The Eagles Nest. One of the threads in this true story follows a young private by the name of Albert Blithe. Following D-Day private Blithe is clearly shaken by the death and destruction that is taking place around him. He becomes very tentative and uncertain. He is clearly dealing with the fear of death. A somewhat cold and harden lieutenant by the name of Spears tells Blythe that his problem is, “You don’t know that your already dead. Once you accept the fact that you are a dead man, there is nothing to fear”. The private considers those words and eventually comes to grips with that reality and begins to do his job as a soldier with confidence that can only come from having nothing left to lose.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in Europe during World War 2. He was a pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler and was eventually arrested. Just a month before the end of the war Hitler personally ordered the execution of Bonhoeffer. Prior to that execution Bonhoeffer is quoted as saying that Jesus “Bids us to come and die”. Bonhoeffer, like private Blythe learned an important lesson. It is the lesson found in these words of Jesus in Matthew 16:24-26

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

So much of what we do in life seems designed to protect our lives or enhance them in some way. I am speaking not just of our physical lives though that is true enough. Instead I am speaking of our lives even in the less tangible sense of our dreams, hopes, image, comfort, reputation, and pleasures. We spend so much time and effort trying to acquire and hold on to the things that we think make life worth living. Some of those things are tangible, our house, car, corner office, trophies, or relationships. Some of them are less tangible but no less real and alluring. They include things like fame, respect, power, security, or a host of things that are in our “bucket list” that we feel we must do before we die in order to make life complete.

In the face of this massive effort to hold on to our lives Jesus makes it shockingly clear that when we try to acquire and protect such things in our life, even our life itself, what we really end up doing is loosing our life. We can spend eighty years chasing after such things but as Solomon said it is chasing after the wind. The way Jesus put it is that we can gain those things and end up loosing our soul. In the end we will have neither the life we chased nor the life He offers.

There is another option. That is to consider that we have already died. The life that seeks after all the things of this world must be put to death. The sign of such a death is that we have decided to follow Jesus and have hefted our cross onto our shoulders. In the first century, any man seen carrying a cross was a dead man walking. His life was already forfeit. He was breathing and moving but he was a dead man. Jesus is calling us to carry our cross everyday. He wants us to consider this life as dead, to give it up, to release it. It is only in such a posture, that of a follower slumped under the weight of the cross, that we will find the freedom to truly live. In such a position we have nothing to lose.

Private Blithe learned this and it freed him to become the soldier he needed to be. The irony for Blythe is that shortly after embracing the truth that he was already dead, he volunteered to be on point, the first man out front on patrol. It was the most dangerous place to be. He was shot and that was the last any of his comrades saw of him. The book and mini-series report that he died of his wounds a few days later. Private Blithe’s family was rather surprised to hear this, considering that he in fact survived and eventually became Master Sargent Blithe who twice signed up to reenlist in the Army, made over 600 parachute jumps, was awarded a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. Today he is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Once he accepted that he was already dead, Albert Blithe lived more than more people ever hope to.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this and it freed him to serve Jesus no matter what. Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler and Nazism from the beginning. He was part of the underground church that worked hard to follow Jesus even as the Nazis tried to restrict and even kill some of them. In 1938 he was back in America and urged by friends to stay there and not go back to Germany. Perhaps the most famous quote of Bonhoeffer is this, “Jesus bids a man to come and die”. Bonhoeffer know that he had to go back to the people of Germany and serve them, even if he die. On April 9th, 1945 Adolf Hitler had Bonhoeffer hung. But in the years between 1938 and April of 1945, Bonhoeffer had the freedom in Christ to live a life that became a legacy and inspiration for millions. He could only have done that if he had already considered his life forfeit for Jesus.

What are you holding on too? What in your life are you clinging to in fear and desperation? The sooner you are willing to release that and give it up to God the sooner you will be free to experience life as never before. In some way, by considering ourselves dead we become truly alive in Christ. The angst that hovers over so many people, the backdrop of uncertainty and discomfort over life, death, and the future, is torn away when we truly take up our cross and become dead men walking. Jesus said that the grain of wheat only truly comes to life when it first falls to the ground and dies. How ironic that we only truly experience life when we first die to ourselves and take up the cross of Christ.

Learning to Live as a Minority

Two weeks ago I was at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. There were over 300 people there for the African Forum on Religion and Government. Now you may be wondering what in the world I was doing there. I suspect that some people at the conference wondered that as well. I was invited because the person who was responsible for putting on the conference actually worships at Northland’s Oviedo Campus. Since I am Northland’s Partner Coordinator for our work in South Africa I received an invitation.

Delegates were there from 32 different African nations. They included a President, a Vice President, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Justice Minister, a Minister of Information, and a host of other political and religious leaders from across the continent. There were also several folks from the United States, most of whom were helping with logistics for the conference. You can also pretty well guess that there were not many white faces around. In fact I think I was one of maybe a half dozen white people in the conference. And that might be an overestimate.

For three days I was keenly aware of being in a minority. I felt as if no matter what I did, I stood out and was visible. If anyone was looking for me, all they needed to say to anyone else was, “he is the white guy about six feet tall with broad shoulders”. That would have been enough to set me apart from the few other white people. When I first entered the conference I took a seat near the back. Our host then made sure that I was moved to the second row along with some dignitaries and special guests. I felt like you could have put a neon sign on me and I would not have stood out any more. Now granted some of my sense of sticking out can be attributed to the human propensity for thinking that things are about us far more than they really are. But without a doubt, as such an obvious minority, anything I did was made more visible than if I was one more of the 300 black delegates.

During the entire conference I was acutely aware of my color. And even though I was in the midst of some of the most loving and gracious followers of Jesus that I have ever met, I wanted to make sure that I was not, “that guy”. You know, “that guy” who reinforces all the negative stereotypes. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t do or say anything that could be misconstrued, be offensive or just flat out make me and all white people look like idiots. When you are a minority I think it has to impact your behavior. We know that when people are in the majority it definitely impacts their behavior, usually for the worse. Just think of a mob that is out of control.

For a long time, we followers of Jesus in the western hemisphere were able to live like the majority. There were simply more Christians than anyone else and the culture was also “Christianized”. In that position we had the opportunity to be gracious and kind to the non-Christian minority. We had the ability to love them as Jesus called us to. Or we had the ability to bully them, or ridicule them, or simply ostracize them. Sadly we usually did the later and the non-Christian minority learned to fly under the radar and avoid our judgmentalism and damnation of them and their behavior. But over time that kind of behavior on our part caused us to go from being the majority to the minority in just a few generations. The culture barely has any remaining vestiges of Christendom and people pretty much do whatever is right in their own eyes, to the point of flaunting sin and now calling it virtue. Tragically many Christians have been compelled to be even more judgmental and cry out even harsher sentences on the unbelievers. In other cases Christians have gone mute, saying nothing that would draw attention and living no differently from the culture. We do this in order to avoid conflict and ridicule and stay safe.

There was a time in our past when being the minority was the lot of every follower of Jesus. For the for the first few centuries we were the minority. But instead of heaping judgment or hiding our light under a basket, our ancestors in the faith learned to be careful about everything they did or said, not to be safe, but to point to Jesus. They understood that their every action spoke volumes. None of them wanted to be “that guy” who brought disgrace to the name of Jesus by behaving in the wrong way. They understood that they were the salt of the earth and if they lost their saltiness, then what good where they to the Lord or the world? They knew that people were watching and so every move they made needed to bring glory to Jesus and show love and grace to others.

One of my sons is regularly involved in a sports ministry that reaches out to Muslim teenagers. He told me one day, “Dad, I don’t ever need to say anything about my faith. They all know that I follow Jesus because I am not a Muslim, and so they watch everything I do to see what it means to be a Christian”. When you are a minority that is the way it is. If you are a follower of Jesus, do you know you are a minority? Even if you live in the Bible belt of America if you are following Jesus you are in the minority. The problem is, many of us are living like we are still a super-majority and we are oblivious to what our actions say to people around us. Some of us who realize that we are a minority are freaked out by that and have become shrill voices of accusation against the world. That is not what Jesus wants. Rather, I think He wants us to remember that being the minority is an incredible opportunity to demonstrate the love, grace, mercy, determination, integrity, winsomeness, and I will say it again, the love that Jesus calls us to.

Trust me, there are some people around you who know you are a Christian. They are watching you to see if it is real. They are watching you because you are a minority, you are different, you are unusual. On top of that, the hope against hope that what you have is real and might work for them. You may not know who they are but they are there. And if you live a life of grace, peace, forgiveness, contentment, self-sacrifice, and love, they will be drawn to you and will want to know the Jesus who your life glorifies.

Provocative Contentment: Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His TV Show?

Woke up this mornin’ turned on my TV set
There in livin’ color was something’ I can’t forget
This man was preachin’ at me, yeah, layin’ on the charm
Asking me for 20 with 10,000 on his arm

He wore designer clothing and a big smile on his face
Selling me salvation while they sang Amazing Grace
Asking me for money when he had all the signs of wealth
Almost wrote a check out, yeah, but then I asked myself

Would He wear a pinky ring, would he drive a fancy car
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would his dressing room have a star
If He came back tomorrow there’s something I’d like to know
Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show?

A singer of satire named Ray Stevens did that song back in 1987 at a time when Christians in America were rocked by the televangelist scandals involving people like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. You would have hoped that given the damage that era did to the reputation of Christ’s church that we would have learned. Sadly we have not.

I recently returned from a conference in Nairobi, Kenya and found that the image of the preacher or evangelist as a man of wealth and fame has been transported to Africa from America. I heard from numerous godly pastors who are embarrassed by the growing numbers of preachers who have adopted an image of gold and glitter. They have an entourage around them that keeps people at bay. In some cases these preachers have men who take off their coat for them as a vale’ and then stand by holding it while another attendant stands ready to wipe his brow if he gets sweaty as he preaches. Tragically this is not an isolated thing but a growing phenomenon. Without fail they pointed to recent American preachers who visited the continent and modeled this behavior. The African pastors are picking it up as a model for having a growing church. What ever happened to preaching the Gospel?

The mindset behind the TV preachers “styling” is rooted in a cultural value of success and pride. The thinking is that if you are wealthy and sharp then you are a success and people will want to be like you. We marry that mindset with a twisting of scripture saying that if you are a financial success then God has blessed you. We transfer that into the ministry and say that if we appear to be wealthy and successful then people will want to follow Jesus. That leads back to the question posed by Ray Stevens. Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? Is wearing a Rolex what following Jesus is all about? The answer is so obvious as to make the question seem ridiculous. Of course not!

Jesus never wanted people to follow Him because he was flashy or wealthy or appeared to be a human success. If anything he appeared as the polar opposite. We are told that there was nothing in His appearance that would have attracted us to Him. He was plain looking at best. He was blue-collar working class. His father wasn’t Joe the plumber he was Joe the carpenter. In fact it was his very simplicity and contentment that was part of what attracted people to Him. They wanted to be like him in character and demeanor. When we see a person with lots of material stuff we don’t want to be like them. What we really want is to have the stuff they have. There is a huge difference. Wanting to be like a person is wanting to have the character traits they exhibit. Wanting someone’s stuff is to be guilty of the sin of coveting. It leads to envy and bitterness and sometimes dishonesty in order to get “stuff”.

Such desires for “stuff” are rooted in a failure to be content with our circumstances. The Apostle Paul talked a great deal about being content.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. 1 Timothy 6:6-10

That kind of contentment is appealing to people. When people see that you are able to be content with what you have then you give off an aura of satisfaction and peace that people long for. The world says that life is better if you have the Rolex and the pinky ring. Even though we say we don’t believe that, too many Christians live as if it is true. But deep down inside people realize that the stuff does not really satisfy. If we really wanted to be like Jesus then we would learn to be content no matter if we are rich or poor, hungry or well fed, clothed in splendor or homespun simplicity. I suspect that people who don’t yet know Jesus also suspect in their heart of hearts that the stuff is not what matters. But they have never seen anyone live a contented life in Christ that proves that following Jesus, really following Jesus, is the only truly blessed way to live.

Provocative Bible Verses: When it’s Good to be Mad

There is a perception that to be a follower of Jesus means that you are never angry, always have a smile on your face, never get mad, and always say things like, “Bless your heart” when you really want to say something far different. It seems to stem from an idea about Jesus that looks at him as some very quiet, meek, introspective wise-man. It also seems to come from an idea that if God is love it means that he is more of a sweet grandfather who never corrects us or challenges us.

Many people think that to get angry is a sin. The fact is, the Bible has a very different view of anger. There are times when it is not only appropriate to be angry but in fact there are situations that if we were not angry it would be tantamount to sin. Our example comes from the oft misunderstood event in the life of Jesus when he cleared the money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem.

14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” John 2:14-16 (ESV)

The Temple in Jerusalem was intended to be a place in which all people could come and pray and worship God. What the religious leaders had done was turn it into a place to rip off people. In order to make your offering you had to use the Temple coins and no other. So you had to exchange the common currency for theirs. If you have ever had to do a foreign currency exchange you have dealt with the fees involved. In this case the fees that got charged were outrageous and tantamount to robbing people. If you brought your sheep for the sacrifice it had to be inspected and approved. People learned quickly that their own sheep would be rejected thus forcing you to by a pre-approved sheep from the Temple stock at highway robbery prices. Jesus was furious that people had taken something God intended as a blessing and turned it into their own little money-making rip off of the common man. He was mad because such sinful practices actually turned people away from God when they most wanted to get closer to Him.

There are other times when the Bible is clear that anger is justified. God’s repeated calls for justice for the oppressed, the care of widows and orphans, the feeding of the hungry, and hospitality for the foreigner should tell us something of God’s character. When these things are not done, God is not happy. When there is injustice and oppression we should be angry. How can you not get angry when you learn that there are more people in slavery today that at any time in the worlds history? How can you not get angry when you find out that millions of children are victims of the global sex-slave industry?  How can you not get angry when you are confronted with blatant racism or barbaric cruelty? Yes there are times when anger is what is called for; righteous anger, just anger, biblically based Christ-like anger.

But there must be a word of caution. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 4:26 & 27 “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (ESV) We are told by Paul that there are times to be angry. But we need to make sure that in our anger we do not sin. You may be justly angry over oppression and cruelty. But the answer is not to become cruel and oppressive in response. There is also a clear warning to not marinate in your anger. Don’t continue to focus on your anger letting it infect every cell of your being. Not letting the sun go down on your anger is a way of saying “Do not be consumed by it”. Make sure you deal with it in a healthy and constructive way. Find a way to constructively work against the injustice. Otherwise it will build and build and come out in sinful ways. That, Paul says, is what gives room to the the devil. It gives him opportunity to take a righteous anger and twist it into unrighteous action.

Jesus was flat out mad in the Temple. But he did not sin. Even in turning over the tables of the money changers and driving them out with a whip, he did not sin. If your picture of Jesus is one who is always quiet, with head bowed, never causing a stir, then your picture of Jesus is woefully incomplete. When it came to being persecuted and beaten, he certainly took the punishment, unjust as it was. But when it came to injustice and cruelty being inflicted on others, he acted decisively and boldly.

There is a lesson in there for us. We Christians are so quick to call foul when we are personally inconvenienced or even slightly persecuted. Yet we are silent when others are facing death and torture. It must be the other way around. We need to be much more willing to accept the persecution that comes our way for following Jesus and completely unwilling to accept what is done to the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the prisoner, the sick, and the poor.

Why Be Good if I am Forgiven?

If we are forgiven by Jesus as a free gift of grace and our salvation does not depend on being good enough to get to heaven, then what is our motivation for doing the things God commands? It is an understandable question. The answer that is usually given is that when you have been forgiven you should live a life of obedience out of gratitude to God. It is your way of saying thank you.
Now there is a certain logical and even emotional appeal to that response. When someone does something wonderful for you, you should want to thank them in some way. If someone has given their life for you, dedicating your life to one of showing gratitude for their sacrifice is certainly understandable and honorable.

One problem with that answer is that for us as human beings that kind of motivation doesn’t last. We are notorious for keeping score. Buried deep down inside every one of us is a “fairness accountant”. That little accountant is always keeping score. You see it in children when one of them gets a larger piece of cake or one more present or even a longer more exuberant hug. The shouts of “That’s not fair!” can be heard across the land. Of course that doesn’t even take into account that tendency we have to always be trying to maneuver things to our best advantage.

As true as that human tendency may be in making the motivation of gratitude problematic, it is not the real problem with that answer to the question why be good. The problem is, it is not the answer Jesus gave and thus not the complete biblical picture. Jesus was clear. The motivation for a life of obedience to all that God has commanded us is that we love Him. “If you love me you will obey what I command”. (John 14:15) The ultimate motivator for obeying Jesus is not gratitude for being forgiven, as important as that is. The real motivator is that we love Jesus Christ with a reckless abandon that compels us to obey him, even when it hurts!

What does the voice in your head sound like when you read, “If you love me, you will obey me”? Think about it for a moment. Whenever we read something we have a tendency to give those words a voice in our head. When I am reading something from an author I have heard speak many time, I can hear their voice when I read their words. When I read The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin, I hear Grahams wonderful British accent and understated humor. When I read anything by R.C. Sproul I hear the very familiar Pittsburgh accent and his distinctive inflections.

When you hear Jesus say these words, what voice do you hear? The words themselves can often dictate the voice and thus the interpretation without us even realizing it. If the words you hear are similar to a manipulative parent who used those words to force submission out of you then all you will hear in the words of Jesus is a sense of duty and obligation. You have to obey because you are forced to by a manipulation of love. In that instance the obedience becomes a burden that lacks all joy. It will result in either a lifeless obedience with no joy or an obedience marked but grumbling and discord. Either way there will eventually be an end to that behavior and a break in the relationship.

Some of you might hear a similar yet different voice. It is the voice of that person you dated who made it clear that if you loved them, you would have sex with them. That voice put you in a position of having to give up yourself or give up them. It was a voice that underneath was saying, “I don’t really love you. I just want something from you”. It was a voice that told you rejection was coming if you did not comply. It differs from that manipulative parent in that you are pretty certain they won’t go away if you refuse, much as you might want them to. This voice is more sweet and urging yet underneath more sinister.
Either way, you may very well hear a voice in the words of Jesus that has some sense of obligation to it. “If you love me, prove it. Do what I say”. It is a voice of earning something from God. It is a voice that says you are not good enough and you need to make it clear that you are by doing something above and beyond.

Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. The kind of love motivated obedience that Jesus is speaking of has nothing to do with proving your worth or value or even proving your love for him. The kind of obedience that Jesus speaks of is one that overflows out of a heart that is head over heals, crazy nuts, in love with him. It is something that you don’t need to be forced or manipulated or pressured into. It is a love that comes rushing out of you looking for a way to express itself in obedience to all that Jesus expects or asks.

So how do we get that kind of love? Part of the answer has to do with really understanding the depths of our sin and the magnitude of our forgiveness. In the early days of this blog I did a four part series on that.

The context of John 14:15 gives us further clues one how to develop that kind of love. It has everything to do with abiding in a relationship with Christ throught the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship of love, the more we live in fellowship with someone, share life together, serve them, care for them, hear their heart, we will grow to love them more and more. You love for Jesus will only be as great as your heart knowledge of him.

A Very Scary Saturday

What do you do the day after the person you have surrendered everything for, followed night and day for three years, were convinced would be the liberator and savior of your nation, is brutally executed like a common criminal? Between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, there was Saturday. We are told next to nothing about what happened that day and what went through the minds of the disciples of Jesus.

We know that when Jesus was arrested, most of the disciples scattered in fear. John the youngest, followed after the crowd as they took Jesus away and he was able to get into the court yard where Jesus had been taken. Because he knew someone in the High Priests house, he was also able to get Peter inside, just in time for Peter to deny even knowing Jesus. By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross later that day Peter is hiding in shame. Only John along with a group of women, including Jesus mother Mary, are there to watch Jesus die.

Somehow the disciples manage to gather together for the next forty hours. We know that they are together because on Sunday morning the women who found the tomb empty, rush to the place were the Apostles were gathered to give them the news. Peter and John run to the tomb and from that point on the whole mood changes. But until then, during that seemingly endless forty hours, it had to have been the longest, loneliest, and most frightening time of their lives. They were certain that the religious officials would come for them next. After all, didn’t Jesus tell them that if they persecuted Him, the Master, how much more would they do to them, the followers.

As they huddled behind the locked door of the upper room the memories of the meal just hours before would have been fresh in their minds. They would have been running through their minds the memories of Jesus words around the table, looking for some clue as to what had happened and why. Accusations would have flown as to who was to blame. Anger at Judas Iscariot would have been at a fever pitch. Off in the corner, Peter would have been silent for maybe the first time in all the years they had known one another. From time to time, moans and sobbing from a man racked by guilt would be heard coming from his direction. The bewilderment of having lost Jesus, Judas being a betrayer, and Peter the second in command in an emotional puddle on the floor would have been nearly impossible to deal with. Every bit of security and familiarity that they might cling to had been rocked and crumbled.

I wonder how many of them thought, “I should have never left my fishing boat”. Were some of them even now trying to find a way to slip back home unnoticed and try to take up their anonymous life hoping that no one remembered them being with Jesus? Were they in such shock that such plans and ideas were still beyond their capability? Were they paralyzed by the possibility of finding themselves on a cross at any moment? Were they like the proverbial deer caught in the onrushing headlights just before being crushed to death?

For us, that Saturday before Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection is almost a spiritual pause. It is a day of anticipation of celebrating the victory over death that Jesus achieved and has promised for all who love and follow Him. It is a day of looking forward with expectant hope. For that first band of followers, it was a day of dread. They had no grasp of the promises of new life that Jesus had given them. His statements of being raised after three days made no sense to them prior to Easter morning. This day for them was a day of fear, hiding, shame, bewilderment, and recrimination. It was a day when each one looked deep inside himself and felt very alone, in spite of being in a room crammed full of other people who were in exactly the same emotional and spiritual state.

After the reality of the Resurrection sunk in, they were a completely different group. Their boldness in the face of opposition became legendary. Their willingness to sacrifice for Jesus and one another is a model for all who would come after them. Their joy even in the face of hardship would become something at which we marvel. It seems to me that in many ways we are the complete opposite of that hardy little band. On the day before Easter we are relaxed and anticipating the Resurrection. They were in hiding, fearful and uncertain. On most of the days following Easter, we can quickly become Christians in hiding, not letting our faith shine before others. We become afraid of what we will loose if we to openly follow Jesus. We live with doubts and uncertainty about the truth of who Jesus is and our own future resurrection. On the days following Easter, they lived and loved boldly. They had no fear. They refused to hide. They were as certain of their own future resurrection as they were of that of Jesus whom they had seen and spoken to and eaten with.

It is odd that it works that way. One would think that living in the light of the Resurrection, living Post-Easter, we would be much more like those early followers were on Easter Monday, Post-Easter. Instead we are often more like they were the day before that first Easter morning.

What is the Direction of Your Relationship With Jesus?

Think of it this way. Right now is your relationship with Jesus characterized more by Him coming towards you, or you going towards Him? Is Jesus pursuing the relationship with you or are you pursuing the relationship with Him?

My contention is that most people would have to answer that the direction of the relationship is one of Jesus coming to them. It is best described as Jesus heading in their direction and not them going towards Jesus in His direction. I think our language about our relationship with Jesus shows this and the passive state of most Western Christianity proves it.

Certainly the initial direction is that Jesus comes towards us. He begins it all by becoming one of us. The Incarnation is the Biblical doctrine that Jesus being fully equal with the Father according to Philippians 2, was willing to come into the world in order to make salvation available to us. He came to us. He came seeking the lost in order to rescue them. But we need to see that a shift takes place. Jesus comes to us, comes in our direction and then says, “Come follow me”. He says, I have come near to you, come in your direction, so that you can come in my direction. It is a crucial pivot point in our relationship with Him. We all are running away from God, going in a direction opposite Him. Jesus comes chasing after us and calls out for us to turn around, (read repent here), and follow Him. We are to be actively striving after Jesus, doing all we can to follow after Him and be like Him.

Much of our language about our relationship with Jesus demonstrates that we really don’t think in terms of actively following Jesus. We certainly don’t think of actively pursuing Jesus with a burning passion to be like Him. Think about it. When we call people into a relationship with Jesus how often do we say that you are to “invite Jesus into your heart” or “ask Jesus into your life”. The image is of us being where we are and letting Jesus have a place in our lives. We give Him some room. We accommodate Him where we are. The only thought of going in another direction is that now you can be assured of going to heaven when you die instead of hell. Even our language of believing in Jesus can be nothing more than an intellectual assent that doesn’t bring about any real change in life. Lot’s of people “believe” in Jesus. Even the demons believe that He is the Lord. But they certainly don’t follow Him. They are not heading in a direction of pursuing a deeper relationship with Him.

Most if the time when Jesus comes to someone in the Gospels the language He uses to call them to a new life is the language of following. It is an active thing. We are to be taking steps towards Him. He initially comes to us but then says, “Hey, start walking in a new way. Start walking in the direction I am going. Follow me”. That following is intended to give us a new purpose, a new meaning for life. Asking Him into our hearts and staying passive seems to have the purpose of making our life more comfortable and secure. We pray a prayer of salvation and think life is complete because now we have Jesus in our hearts. Jesus said that He will make our life complete if we follow Him. He gives us purpose. Follow Him and He will make you a fisher of men. He will make you a changer of lives, a restorer of justice, a comforter of the poor, a visitor of the prisoner, a healer of the sick, a chef to the hungry, a clothier to the naked, and a host to the homeless.

If the relationship is simply one of believing in Jesus and having Him in your heart then there is really very little about your life that needs to change. He came and now hangs out like a polite guest. You like having Him there because it is a comfort and He really doesn’t ask much of you. Life goes on. You just feel better about yourself because you have Jesus with you. But if the relationship is of following Him, then it is a matter of become more and more like Him everyday. Romans 8:29 says that we are to be conformed into the image of Christ. In other words, we are to become more and more like Jesus all the time. In order for that to happen we must be heading in His direction, pursuing becoming like Him.

In the corporate world you are either moving up or moving down the corporate ladder. There is no sitting still. The people who supervise you see you either heading up, or not. If you are not, then you are already on your way down. You just may not know it yet. With Jesus you are either heading towards Him or away from Him. If you think you are simply maintaining then you are sadly mistaken because like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, “Jesus is on the move”. That is why He says, follow me.

Paul says to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. The great comfort is that God has you in His grip and is working diligently in your life. The great challenge is that we are to do everything we can to pursue Jesus and become more like Him. Look to Jesus and run after Him with all your might. Don’t just sit and give Him space in your life. Run to Him and give Him your whole life as a follower, becoming like Him in all ways.

Provocative Bible Verses: Working at Your Salvation

The Bible is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. Yet, what I have learned is that it is simple enough that the least astute child can understand it’s depths and deep enough that the most skilled of scholars can never fully grasp it’s implications. This verse from Philippians comes to mind as one of the verses that so perfectly fits that reality.

12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:12-13

On numerous occasions I have had people ask me about this verse and wondering if there is a contradiction here. People think that Paul is saying our salvation depends on our good works. They get the fear and trembling part because they usually start trembling when they realize they are not doing a very good job of it. But Paul is not saying that our good works, or being a good person is was gets you into heaven. The problem is, people usually read verse 12 and forget to read verse 13. The verse divisions are great for finding places in the Bible but terrible as a guide to understanding it. Verses 12 and 13 are a complete sentence. To read verse 12 by itself is to only read one half of the thought. We would never do that with any other piece of literature yet we do it with the Bible all the time. Not a good idea.

What Paul is saying is simply this, “When I was with you, you did a great job of living for Jesus. Keep doing this even though I am not there. Work hard at living out the salvation you have been given by God. Why, Because God is working in you and that should be made evident in the way you live.” Paul is NOT saying that you are saved by being a good person. He is perfectly clear in many other places that we are saved by God’s grace and the faith/trust we have in Jesus Christ. The life we live as followers of Christ does not save us, but it should be a life that is consistent with being a follower of Jesus who is saved by God’s grace.

Paul does not say, “work FOR your salvation” or “work AT your salvation” or “work TOWARD your salvation”. All of those would mean that in some way it is your efforts that gain you admission into eternal life. He says “work OUT your salvation”. In other words, live it out. Plan out your life, live out your life, work out your life in such a way that your salvation is obvious. And you need to be so committed to living out the Christ-like life that you are driven to it with an urgency that makes you tremble.

But why such urgency? Why such desperation to live out your salvation? Paul gives the reason, “For God is at work in you”. Why work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Because God is working in you, giving you the will to follow and obey Him. To fail to live out your life as a radical follower of Jesus is to actually work against what God is doing in you. That should cause fear and trembling in us. When we fail to love others in Jesus name, when we fail to be content with what God has given us, when we long for someone who is not our spouse, when we fail to love God with our entire being, we are not simply ignoring something that God has told us. We are actively opposing God and what He is doing.

To simply ignore God could be seen as a passive thing. It is like failing to exercise. We view that as passive. We are not actively trying to hurt our body, we are just not doing anything to actively help it. I think we often look at our Christian life that way. We are passive in it and think that this is somehow acceptable to God because at least we are not actively opposing God. What Paul is saying is that by NOT actively working at living for Jesus, we are by default, actively opposing what God is doing in our lives. In reality, failing to exercise means that you are actually actively working at getting fatter, weaker, and sicker. You have made a decision to do something that harms you. That something is whatever takes the place of healthy physical activity. The same is true of your spiritual well being. To fail to live a life that is committed to a radical love for God and neighbor is to actively oppose the work that God is doing in you. Every time I fail to love God with all I have and my neighbor as myself, I am actively fighting against what God is doing in me as He works to shape me into a more Christ-like follower.

The fact that God has worked in me to grant me grace and faith should motivate me to live for Him with all I am. The fact that God has worked in such as way as to pay the penalty for my sin should cause me to tremble before Him. The recognition that my sin is great but God’s love for me is greater, should cause me to work at living for Him like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I do it, not to earn salvation, but because I have salvation.