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?

Honoring Obama Even When You Disagree With Him: The Sequel

This piece was first posted four years ago today. I find that it is just as relevant now as it was then and can only hope that people who claim to follow Christ will exhibit Christ-like character no matter what their political position may be. It is deeply concerning to me that I see many Christians, politically right and left and theologically right and left, who have made their political ideology superior to their Biblical commands. By that I mean, many people are interpreting Scripture in light of their politics and not their politics in light of Scripture. I think this because the vitriol that I see in the Christian on Christian attacks and ad hominem arguments are only possible if we are setting aside the things that Jesus taught us about our relationships and responding to one another out of human pride, bitterness, and anger.

With that said, I trust that the following will speak to you and that you will be encouraged to trust in an almighty God who has been running the universe very well, long before you and I ever showed up on the scene to tell Him how to do it.

First published in November of 2008

“This morning I was confronted with one of those Bible passages with which we like to do one of two things. It is a passage that we either try to ignore altogether or explain it away so that we become convinced that it could never apply to our situation. The passage deals with giving honor to leaders, even bad leaders, even if you vehemently disagree with what they are doing. The words come from the Apostle Peter in 1st Peter 2:13, 14 and 17. “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good…17 Honor everyone. Love the Brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” Peter goes on to talk about also honoring your boss as well as being willing to suffer for doing good. Those are not easy things to put into practice.

Now before I go any further let me make it clear, in the last election I voted for the other guy so this is not coming from an apologist for the current administration. Rather, I am trying to look at this from the standpoint of making Christian witness a priority over political ideology. What I have seen in recent months, in terms of political rancor and vitriol is not new, at least not in my eyes. One advantage of being a child of the sixties is I have seen demonstrations against the government that make the G-20 demonstrators look like a Sunday school class out for an ice cream social. So I am not concerned about the general population getting all angry and nasty in politics. That is nothing new no matter what the media says. What does concern me is the level ridicule, bitterness, and anger bordering on hatred that is being poured out by many claiming to follow Christ. Instead of attacking the issues that we disagree over, many are falling into the time-honored tradition of attacking the person expressing the ideas.

I always find it humbling to the extreme that the first century Christians continued to honor the Emperor with the exception of worshiping him as a god, even as he was having some of them put to death for their faith. Peter makes it clear why this was to be the practice of Christ-followers. 1st Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” That is the kind of life that we as Christ-followers are to demonstrate to the world around us.

But what is the purpose in it? Peter also makes that clear. We are to live this way, honoring those in authority even when they make us suffer so that they will glorify God. “Keep your conduct honorable among the gentiles so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1st peter 2:12 This is why I say I am more concerned with our Christian witness than I am with political ideology. Peter says that the ultimate goal is NOT for us to shape the government. Certainly we are to be involved in the process but if we get the public policy we want and do not live in such a way that leads people to people glorify God, then we have failed. It would be better to have lost the policy debate and have won people to Jesus than to have won the debate and lost our witness and our souls.

This is why Peter says that we are to honor others. We are to treat them with respect and dignity, even serving them while we disagree with their policy or their methods. We debate the issues. We don’t attack the person. We should be involved in the public debate in order to demonstrate what a Christ-follower is really like, not just what we think, but how we love and honor others. So disagree all you want with President Obama, with your governor, mayor, town dog catcher. If you are in another country the same applies to you. Disagree with policy but honor the office and the person in it. It may mean that you will suffer for disagreeing, because we should never be surprised when unbelievers don’t play by our rules. But that is never an excuse for us to do anything differently from how Jesus did it.”

Chick-fil-a and Wondering “Where Have All the Liberals Gone”?

I had a seminary professor who was what I call a true liberal. By that I mean, she really believed in and lived according to the idea that we all have the liberty to hold our own opinion of things, live by them, and express them. Our differing opinions, when shared and engaged, make us wiser and stronger. To her, disagreement was an opportunity for learning and growth. Being a true liberal she was always open to hearing what others said and even when she disagreed with them it was as a learning experience, characterized by respect in the midst of disagreement. The disagreements could at times be serious and important, from the nature of God, to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, or even if the crucifixion was necessary for the forgiveness of sin. In a seminary those are hot topics and could at times produce a shower of sparks in debates between liberals and conservatives. But not with this professor. She had the respect of the conservatives because she would engage in serious dialogue and treat others as people made in God’s image and worthy of being treated with dignity.

During this latest cultural tempest over Chick-fil-a, their position on homosexual marriage, the protests and counter protests, I have often thought of that professor and wondered to myself, “where have all the liberals gone”. You may think that I am just not paying attention because clearly there are lots of them. Many of them are planning a kiss-in protest at Chick-fil-a stores across the country today. But that is not what I am talking about. I don’t mean people who are morally liberal as opposed to conservatives or evangelicals. I am talking about true, philosophical liberals who really do believe that everyone has the right to their own opinion, expression of it, and their version of truth. Those liberals are few and far between today. What I find in their place are people who are morally liberal but philosophically conservative. What do I mean by that? Simply this, a true liberal would not attack you telling you that your position is wrong and you are a hateful person for holding it. They would simply tell you that they disagree, and then tell you what is true for them and works for them. They would simply acknowledge that it is different from what you think or believe. What I see in the outrage against Chick-fil-a is a philosophical conservatism that says, your position is wrong, it is untrue, incorrect, and in fact dangerous, and hateful. In a rather obvious twist, obvious to me at least, I find many liberals engaging in the exact hate speech that they accuse Dan Cathy of spouting. Just this morning I read the report of on Arizona CFO getting fired after he posted a YouTube video of himself berating a Chick-fil-a drive through attendant over the company’s position on gay marriage.  So my request to liberals everywhere is simply this, be a true liberal. Be consistent. If you really want to live as if there are no, or few moral absolutes, as if people should have the liberty to do as they want, then you must allow the conservative the liberty to hold their positions just as you do. You have no philosophical grounds on which to tell them they are wrong for the positions they hold. Liberalism is about liberty, the liberty to think and believe and express whatever you want. Dan Cathy should have that liberty as should anyone else. It even gives mayors of major cities the liberty to say things that they later regret and realize they need to clarify or retract.

But I also want to say a few things to my conservative and evangelical friends. If you truly think that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and that there are moral laws we should follow, then follow them. Start with what Jesus said was the most important, love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Such love is not confined to feeling all warm and fuzzy about someone. The biblical kind of love, the Jesus kind of love, is the kind that acts lovingly, even when you don’t feel like it. If you are a conservative or evangelical then ask yourself these questions. Is there a LGBT person who considers you a friend? Is there an atheist who knows that they can talk to you about anything and that if they were in trouble at two in the morning they could call you without hesitation? Is there a Muslim or Buddhist who respects you because you first respected them? Is there anyone who is of a radically different lifestyle from you who knows that you love them because you have consistently served, encouraged. prayed for them, and treated them with respect and friendship? If the answer is no or you are not sure, then I suggest you skip waiting in line for your chicken sandwich and go do something that builds a bridge and demonstrates the love of Christ. I am pretty sure that Dan Cathy would gladly give up the profit on the sandwich if he knew you were investing in the life of someone who desperately needs to know that Jesus and you, love them.

You see, as much as it makes us feel triumphant that people needed to wait in long lines for a piece of chicken on Wednesday, such triumphalism will not bring people closer to Jesus. Our love and kindness will. That’s not my idea. That’s what the Bible says. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. It is the love of the Lord that draws us to him. It must be noted that this word kindness is part of Paul’s’ argument against sin in the early verses of Romans. The particular focus of the end of Romans 1 is on homosexual practice and sin. Many Christians trot out those verses and use them to beat over the heads of proponents of same-sex marriage. Yet Paul, for all his strident words against sin, reminds us that kindness is what God most often uses to call us to him. That kindness is first and foremost to be made evident though followers of Christ as we treat others with kindness. That doesn’t mean we say everything is acceptable. It means that we graciously, humbly, lovingly hold to what we believe, including that we believe Jesus calls us to serve and love even our perceived enemies.

We conservatives and evangelicals need to take a page out of the playbook of that liberal seminary professor. We need to treat people, no matter how much we disagree with them, with kindness and respect. We need to demonstrate that we love them and will serve them and sacrifice for them in order to show them the love of Christ. I suspect that if more of us lived that way, there would be a true dialogue and not a parade of useless protests, counter protests, showing support by buying sandwiches or showing disdain by boycotting sandwiches.

I bring this all back to the point of this blog site, provoking a response to the sake of Christ. According to 1 Peter 3:15, Christians should be living life so differently, so hopefully, faithfully, and lovingly, that people who are not following Christ become intrigued by our faith, hope, and love and want to know the reason for it. It is then that we can point people to Jesus and say, “He loves me and because of that, I love you, and He wants you to know that He loves you too”.

The Pain Possibilities of Africa

I am coming to the end of a week in Burundi in Eastern Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to Africa in the last 6 years. It is probably approaching twenty. I do know that I have been to eleven different countries from Egypt to South Africa. Without fail I am struck by the extreme contrasts one finds in Africa. It doesn’t matter which country I visit, or what leaders or everyday folk I speak with, the story is the same. This is a continent of incredible beauty and massive ugliness, abundant resources and crippling poverty, gracious hospitality and violent division, widespread Christianity and rampant paganism, sacrificial generosity and selfish corruption beyond measure. It is not unusual in the least to one minute be in awe of the natural beauty of Africa and the next be heartbroken at the ugliness of civil war and genocide that often overtakes parts of Africa. I regularly meet people who are eager to serve a guest and give the best of what they have but also hear unending tales of politicians and other leaders who stuff their pockets to overflowing, siphoning off foreign aid meant for their people, only to put it in off shore bank accounts.

More than once I have been asked what the answer is to the problems of Africa. My answer is the same time and again. Everything depends on leadership, and for Africa to realize its true potential everything depends of leadership from the church. As I see it, only an African Church that has leaders who live the radical faith of a follower of Christ, can begin to point the way out of the current state of affairs. With corruption being at the heart of economic problems in Africa, there is a desperate need for leaders in the church to first live above that corruption themselves and then be in a position to model and call for a new way of doing business. But if pastors can be bought off by politicians then they lose their credibility and their power to bring about change. Pastors and other church leaders must become servant leaders, serving others as Jesus did, not living as the chief who expects others to serve him. That kind of servant leadership then gives them the standing to be able to call other leaders, business, academic, and political, to also be servants of the people.

On a more corporate level, pastors need to begin to work together and not care who gets credit, or benefit from the work. The division among pastors in Africa is epidemic. I suspect that some of it is left over from the days of colonial missionaries who did not always cooperate with one another. But there has been fifty years of independence in most of Africa and it is time for Africans to work together, along with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world, so that together we can do more. The need for schools, hospitals, businesses that provide jobs and job training are beyond what any one or a few churches can do. But if pastors begin to set aside their own ego and pride and fear, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide leadership that results in a partnership and synergy that really does begin to tackle the problems of Africa on a large-scale.

I realize that I am writing this as a westerner, and a white American to be specific. As such there are some who will immediately discount what I have to say or even react against it. I can live with that, in the hope that there are some, both in the west and in Africa, who will read this first with eyes of faith and not eyes of culture and colonialism. What I would hope is that what any follower of Christ says will be taken on its merits by any other follower of Christ and not cast aside because of cultural or ethnic bias. You see, we followers of Christ need each other. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, and then somewhere further down the list of importance we are American or Burundian or Egyptian, or Kenyan, or white or black or any of the other distinctions we use to separate one from another. We need to see those distinctions not as things that divide us, but as blessings that together make us more than we could ever be apart from one another. That is the lesson of 1st Corinthians 12. We are all different by the will of God and those differences should make us stronger and more dependent on one another, not weaker and divided from one another.

I look for the day when Christian leaders, not only in Africa, but from every continent will rise above division and self-promotion and instead live for the sake of others and work together for the Glory of God.

Obama, the Bible, and Same Sex Marriage

It is impossible to turn on the news today or go to the internet without being confronted by the news of President Obama’s statement that he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married. While I can certainly appreciate his compassionate heart for people who feel they are unfairly being denied the possibility of a marriage to their same-sex partner, and I can even affirm that I believe the President to be my brother in Christ, I have to disagree with his position on clear biblical grounds.

At the heart of the issue is this, who determines what a marriage is and who can get married and who cannot? In the last 200 years or so, governments have played an increasingly large role in that decision and the religious community has played a smaller and smaller role. But for the entire period of human history prior, that was not the case. Prior to that time, certainly in western civilization, it has been the church, and I mean that in the broadest terms, that has defined marriage and informed the government on what is and is not a marriage. Clearly the tables have been turned. Now instead of the faith communities informing society and the government on what is and is not marriage, it is western philosophical, post-enlightenment philosophy that shapes the our understanding of marriage. We have gone from marriage being a sacred union between man and woman, to being a contractually based relationship between two people who want certain benefits of accorded such couples by the government and society. That is founded on faith in philosophy not faith in God.

But where does the church get its understanding of marriage? On what basis does it take a stand. Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a blog dealing primarily with homosexuality. That is only secondarily the issue here. What I am talking about is marriage and its roots. In the Christian community we look to the Bible as our revealed source of God’s truth. That is a given. You can debate the wisdom of that all you want but the fact is, the Bible is what Christians hold to as their depository of God’s will and wisdom. I say that as strongly as I do, so that it becomes clear, if you want to affirm same-sex marriage you are doing so with full knowledge that the Bible teaches otherwise. That may not matter to you, but it matters to millions of Christians in America and a billion world-wide. First let’s be clear on what the Bible does not say. The Bible does not say “same-sex marriages are sinful”. You won’t find those words. Why? Because rather than take a negative approach full of “thou shalt nots”, the Bible takes a positive approach and holds up the ideal that we are to strive for. The positive teaching of the Bible on marriage is that it is designed by God to be between a man and a woman. That teaching is so clear and so taken for granted that there were no same-sex marriages and thus no need to say anything against them. That doesn’t mean there was no homosexual behavior. There was. But same-sex marriage was unheard of so there was no need to speak against it. Rather the Bible says what marriage is, why it is and who is eligible for marriage.

To understand what the Bible teaches, we have to start with Genesis 2 and the account of the creation of man and woman.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-24

It doesn’t matter whether you think this actually happened as a literal event or that it is somehow a myth handed down to make a point. For Christians, and incidentally, Jews AND Muslims, this is something revealed to us by God to teach us about our origins, purpose, and destiny. As it speaks about marriage it is crystal clear that God made it to be a union between a man and a woman and that it has spiritual significance. They are somehow joined together as one. They are not just two people signing a contract detailing how they will share property rights or designating who can visit them in the hospital or any other such important issues. Those are the issues of the contractual understanding of marriage in the post-enlightenment west. The Bible is saying there is more, there is a binding together of man and woman in marriage that is instituted and blessed by God.

Some will say that the Genesis passage is Old Testament and therefore culturally irrelevant. For that reason it also needs to be recognized that Jesus affirmed this teaching in the clearest possible ways.  In Matthew 19 he repeats and expands on the teaching from Genesis 2 as a way of affirming the sanctity of marriage and the exclusive nature of the relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus does not deal with this as a cultural issue but rather as an issue of theological truth that is founded in the very character of God. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he also affirms that there is a spiritual component to the physical relationship that is supposed to be reserved for husband and wife. A biblical understanding of marriage must include the recognition that it is more than two people agreeing to live together and be partners in some domestic limited partnership. There is a third-party involved. The Bible says that God joins together a man and woman in marriage. That is why it is primarily a spiritual and not a civil matter.

In making any decisions about our view of marriage we must, or at least confessing Christians must, look to what the Bible says about marriage and seek to understand it and implement it as best we can. Some people may come to a different interpretation of what the BIble teaches. I understand that and can work with that. At least from there we can discuss the meaning of the passage and its application based on mutually agreed methods of literary interpretation. What we cannot do is simply ignore what the Bible says because we are trying to be compassionate, modern, or even fair.

What are the concerns in all this? Some who support same-sex marriage might simply say, “why don’t you just live your way and let them live their way?” That sounds so nice and reasonable and fair. But here is the problem. Because government now has the primary role in determining who can get married and what a legitimate marriage is, they also have the power to determine who can perform such marriages and who cannot. Given the nature of government to spread its power and authority rather than limit it, as an evangelical pastor I have a legitimate concern that the day may soon come when the government says, in order to have the authority to perform any wedding, I must be willing to perform all weddings, same-sex or not. You think that is far-fetched? Think the government would never do such a thing? Look at recent history. Religious hospitals are being faced with regulations requiring them to perform medical procedures they find to be immoral. Religious schools and other institutions are being faced with the possibility of being required to provide insurance coverage for those same procedures. Clearly the government has shown a willingness to ignore the conscience of people of faith and require them to do things that violate their religious beliefs. How ironic is that, when one of the foundational principles of our culture today is to respect the beliefs of others and not force anyone to adhere to your beliefs. It seems that only flows one way.

Let me make one final point. I place the blame for where we are, squarely on the shoulders of Christians and the Church, though probably not for the reasons you may think. It is not because we have failed to oppose such culture shifts vehemently enough with protests and indignation. Rather, it is because we have failed to teach and uphold the positive Biblical ideals on marriage, sex, and human relationships. Far too much of our teaching and preaching is moralistic do’s and dont’s without any solid foundation based on the character of God. Such moralism quickly gives way to what is expedient, easiest, or “most reasonable”. In other cases our teaching too closely represents the latest self-help steps to a better marriage or relationship. It is teaching, full of practical tips, void of Biblical power. We need to get back to a Biblical understand of the purpose of marriage, the oneness between man, woman, and God that is the glue that holds the marriage together. We need to be captured by the holy mystery of man and woman becoming one, and that being more than sexual intimacy but a binding of soul on soul that is for the benefit of society and the glory of God. Let’s live out the glory of a Biblical marriage that makes it so attractive and compelling that people would yearn for that ideal and accept no substitute for the blessings God has for them.

 

The Trayvon Martin Case: What Would Jesus Say to Sanford Florida, You, and Me?

I have done all I could to avoid writing about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It seemed obvious that there was no need for one more voice to be put into the cacophony of anger, confusion, and dismay over what is at the bottom line an unbelievably  painful tragedy for two families. But two things have led me to the conclusion that it was time. One is a book I have been reading called Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a psychological study that, among other things, details the universal human reaction to not having all the information. We are notorious at jumping to conclusions and filling in the gaps of information and we usually do it in the worst possible ways. I found myself constantly reflecting on the various reactions to each tidbit of news that comes out in this case and felt I was watching a real-time display of Kahneman’s work. People have jumped to conclusions about both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The second reason it became clear that I needed to address this issue is that I have heard very little from the Christian community, with the notable exception of an amazing presentation on racism by Tim Keller and John Piper. If anyone should be speaking to issues of racism, violence, and a community in turmoil, it is followers of Christ, because we should understand better than anyone, that ultimately when we all stand at the foot of the Cross, the savior who bled on it and died, did so for black, white, yellow, European, Asian, African, Latino, and all the other possible delineations of people. Jesus bled equally for you and me, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

If anyone should be speaking out it is the Christian community because this tragedy has the potential to either tear us apart or motivate us to come together and finally defeat this ugly beast called racism. The only way I know to defeat racism is through the power of God that comes only through a life changing relationship with Christ. And be certain that when I speak of racism I am speaking of how people of every race are to some degree racist. I am not saying that everyone is a racist. I am saying that no race, creed, ethnic group or gender is without people in it who treat those outside their group with disdain, hatred, or even violence. The sinners that we are means that we all battle with the propensity to trust our own kind and be suspicious of those we think are different. Racism has its roots in our sin which is why only a relationship with Jesus, the one who washes away our sin, can ultimately defeat our racist attitudes.

In processing all that is swirling around us I was taken back to a series of sermons I preached years ago. The basic idea for them came from John Ortberg who did a series of “What Would Jesus Say To…” messages. As Sanford Florida has come into an unwanted spotlight   I wondered what would Jesus say to Sanford, and all of us, about what we are experiencing. A few things came to mind:

Jesus would surely say, “weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) True compassion must in some way impact your heart in the same way it impacts those who are in pain. Trayvon Martin’s family is feeling incredible pain and they are weeping. But George Zimmerman and his family are also in pain and weeping. Certainly the pain is different but it is no less real. And Jesus didn’t say to weep with certain people who weep, and don’t weep with other people because you have a problem with them. As followers of Christ we don’t have the option of being selective about to whom we show compassion and mercy. You don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with Trayvon’s family because you think he first struck George Zimmerman causing George to shoot in self-defense. You also don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with George Zimmerman because you think he hunted down Trayvon because he racially profiled him and forced a confrontation. First of all, none of us know what really happened in that fateful 60 seconds. We may have some idea. We certainly have lots of people filling in the blanks with speculation, usually speculation based on their preconceived notions and not objectively on the evidence. Secondly, even if we did know, we are still not given the freedom to opt out of weeping for and praying for, both families.

Jesus would say, “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) That wonderful saying was part of Jesus telling us that before you start trying to get a speck of dust out of another person’s eye you need to deal with the huge log protruding from your own eye. In other words, we all have this propensity to be able to point out the slightest flaw in another person while being completely blind to our own huge shortcomings and faults. So before you start blaming Trayvon for being a hoodlum or George for being a racist (of which you have no real knowledge to base either conclusion, so I refer you back to the jumping to conclusions presented in Kahneman’s book) take a long and deep look into your own soul. What kind of anger, hatred, bitterness, and even latent or not so latent racism resides there? What are your issues that are driving your reaction to all of this? Do you have a general distrust of all white people? Are you immediately cautious around black teenage males? Do you tend to blame problems on “those people” whoever “they” are? Even the best of us are still tainted by sin and have to be vigilant in guarding our own hearts and subsequent reactions.

Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) When Jesus first said this, people tried to manage the expectations by limiting who qualified as “neighbor”. Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is whoever happens to be around you at any given moment. For those who wondered what it meant to actually love your neighbor Jesus made it clear that sacrificing for them and serving them in their need is loving your neighbor. At this moment, Trayvon Martin’s family and George Zimmerman and his family are our neighbors. They each are in a time of need. The needs are somewhat different, yet very similar. They need to know they are loved and that people who love them will stand with them to give comfort and strength. It has nothing to do with what version of the story you believe or who you believe. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with the fact that while you and I were still enemies of God, Jesus loved us enough to go to the Cross in our place. That love from God compels us to love one another, even when it hurts.

There is much more that I am sure Jesus would say to Sanford and to all of us, especially His followers. I suspect He would be calling for us to take steps in our own lives to knock down barriers, open up dialogue, reach across the racial divide and find out that “those” people are in the end, people. People like you. They hurt, they fear, they laugh, they weep, they dream. They do all the things you do and experience life just as you do. I think Jesus might also say that when the Trayvon Martin case fades from public prominence, and it will, followers of Christ must not let issues of racism, equality, love for neighbor no matter their color, fade from prominence in how we live. Check your heart and then check your actions. What are you doing to show the love of Christ to people who are unlike you? What are you doing to show that following Christ really does make a radical difference in how we relate to one another. What are you doing to show that we all stand as equals before the Cross of Christ?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

Three Must Have Relationships in Your Life. (Pt 2 of 3)

His name was Joseph. Yet everyone called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”. That name became such a part of his identity that today few people remember that his given name was Joseph and we refer to him only as Barnabas. So how did Joseph become Barnabas for the rest of history? There are two events in the Bible that stand out. The first comes in Acts Chapter 4:32-37. In the early church Barnabas is noted as one of the people who gave a large sum of money in order to insure that the poor were feed and had their needs met. That act of sacrifice was a huge encouragement to the first generation of Christians.

Later in Acts 11:19-26 we find Barnabas seeking out a young convert to Christianity and including him in the leadership of the new church at Antioch. That convert was the Pharisee named Saul, who we come to know as The Apostle Paul. In an incredible irony, that is only possible in a faith in which love and forgiveness are core values, Paul ends up leading a church that was begun by refugees who fled the persecution that he instigated before he came to faith in Christ. Imagine the kind of person Barnabas had to be that he insisted on reaching out and including the very guy who started the persecution that resulted in torture and even death for some followers of Jesus. Paul had already been rejected by the leaders in Jerusalem after his conversion. They didn’t trust him. They basically said, “great to know you are not killing us any more. We will call if we need anything”. So Paul ends up hundreds of miles away doing next to nothing for the expansion of Christianity, until Barnabas, The Son of Encouragement” takes a journey to find him and include him in the leadership of the Church at Antioch.

So what can we learn about being an encourager when we look at Barnabas? For one, he was willing to sacrifice for the sake of others so that they would be built up, strengthened, encouraged. He was willing to sacrifice financial resources so that people in need could have hope. He was willing to sacrifice his reputation when he brought in Paul for leadership. In both cases Barnabas thought more about the needs of someone else than he did about his own. But it wasn’t only the needs of the one he encouraged that he thought about. In bringing Paul into a leadership role, Barnabas was also thinking about the people Paul would impact with his ministry. He saw a gifting in Paul that needed to be encouraged to the surface in order to help others.

An encourager sees the positive impact another person does make, and can make, and comes alongside them to help it happen. What Barnabas did was come along side people to empower them, when nobody else would. That is what an encourager does. Far too many people are willing to point out the negative, where people are lacking, what can go wrong. Barnabas looked for what could go right and did what he could to make that happen.

Encouragers don’t care if someone else gets the limelight and credit. I think one reason why we don’t encourage one another more is that we are self-centered and worry that there is only so much credit and encouragement to go around. So in order to rise up above other people, we put them down or at the very least, withhold encouragement that might give them the strength they need to succeed. We see the opposite in Barnabas. He didn’t care if someone else received recognition and credit. In fact he seems to have been very happy when the one he encouraged had success. Very quickly in his relationship with Paul, he takes second place. Paul moves to the forefront as spokesman and leader. Lesser people would have been jealous, not Barnabas. An encourager does not worry about that. In fact an encourager finds delight in the success of those they encourage.

I have got to believe that over time, Barnabas rubbed off on Paul. Paul who was so encouraged by Barnabas, eventually became committed to a ministry of encouragement. Just one example comes from First Thessalonians 5:11-14 where Paul writes;

11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

How different might your life be if you had someone who encouraged you instead of discouraged you, built you up instead of tore you down, respected you instead of denigrated you? We all need people like that in our life. But we also need to be that person to others. If you are around people who are encouragers, it will rub off on you like it did with Paul. I learned this from a wonderful guy I meet as part of the coaching staff at North Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. His name was John Ross. John was the quarterback coach on that team and he was the consumate encourager. He always had positive feedback for players and friends. That does not mean he didn’t correct errors. Any coach has to do that. But he did it in a way that you knew he was on your side. John was quick to point out to other people how great someone was. I remember the first time one of my young sons met John. One of the first things he did was tell my son how lucky he was to have such a great dad. That is an encourager. What did it do for me? For one thing it motivated me to be an even better dad. Far from making people rest on their laurels, encouragement does the opposite. It gives people the motivation to live up to the words of encouragement and do even better.

Here is another thing I have learned about encouragers. When you give out encouragement to others it has a funny way of coming back to you. If you are always negative, the attitude that comes back to you will be negative. But if you encourage others, come along side them and build them up, you quickly find yourself in an environment of encouragement and others will encourage you. You will be paid back in kind. Dish out negativity and you will be paid back in negativity. Hand out praise and encouragement and you will find yourself rich in encouragement.

A very practical first step is this, look for someone who could use some praise, some encouragement, some positive reinforcement and give it to them. It could be as simple as telling someone how much their friendship means to you. It could be telling someone at work what a great job they did on a project, or what a wonderful idea they had. Find a character trait in someone that you admire and let them know you wish you could be as good at that as they are. The point is, build up people, encourage them. When you do that consistently, you will find that your life becomes filled with people who act as Barnabas in your life and encourage you.

Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.

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”.

Blessed are the Merciful: The Irony of Angry Christians

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I continue to be perplexed at the anger and rejection that so many Christians heap on people whose sin is obvious and public. What befuddles me is that this is about as far from doing what Jesus did as you can get. I look at how Jesus treats the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or the drunks and prostitutes. What I see in Jesus is a savior who was completely committed to holiness and glorifying God in all he did. Yet, He did not allow that commitment on His part to result in condemnation of those who consistently wrestled with sin and lost. Rather Jesus showed great mercy to those people. He certainly called out their sin and challenged them to live a holy life. But at the same time He empathized with their weakness and sought to lift them to higher things. And He did this even though He never sinned and therefore never needed that kind of mercy.
In the beatitudes Jesus has made it clear that we are spiritually bankrupt and in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy. If you are a follower of Christ you have received that mercy, countless times over. Knowing that we have received such wonderful mercy, how can we do other than to pass that mercy on to others?
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. It is about a man who was forgiven a monstrous debt by his master. The debt was so large that it would take the average worker in Jesus day, 200,000 years to earn that much. He was forgiven something he could never pay. The servant later comes upon a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of about three months wages. That fellow servant asks for time to pay the debt. The man refuses to give him time and in great anger, throws him in debtors prison along with his wife and children. Later, the master hears of this and in his just anger, throws the servant in prison for the rest of his days. Jesus makes the point that He is the master and we are the servants who, because of the cross and resurrection, have been forgiven a debt we could never pay. In light of that, how dare we spout vitriol and anger at people who have sinned against us in significantly smaller ways. How dare we not show mercy to a fellow debtor.
Giving people mercy simply means to not push on them the punishment that they deserve for what they have done. If you throw yourself on the “mercy of the court” you are saying, yes I am guilty but please do not punish me to the extent I deserve”. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have thrown yourself on the mercy of His cosmic court. And you have received mercy. Having freely received, we are to freely give. It doesn’t mean that we fail to call sin what it is. It means that we call it what it is, but we let a person know, we will not heap anger, rejection, punishment or suffering on them, because we have received a far great mercy from the Lord.
There is a symbiotic relationship at work here. We have received mercy from the Lord so we give mercy to others. When we do, we will continue to receive mercy. When we don’t give that mercy, we can be assured that we will not be receiving it. The unforgiving servant learned that sad lesson.

President Obama: Christian or Muslim?

One thing you have to love about people, is the way we can refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good preconceived notion, conspiracy theory, or deeply held conviction. Depending on which poll you read in the past several months, anywhere from 18 to 24% of Americans still think that the President is a Muslim. When asked why they thought that, a significant number point to his name and say it sounds Muslim. Given that logic I guess my name, Lacich, makes me Croatian Eastern Orthodox.

Today at a prayer breakfast in the White House, President Obama spoke as clearly of his Christian faith as anyone could be expected to speak. In fact, he was more clear than a lot of people I have talked to who claimed to be Christians and are regular church goers. In an article in the Examiner, author Christine Priest Stiegemeyer, (hmm sounds like a Nazi name to me) details what the president said about his own faith and religious practice. He goes so far as to pinpoint the events that led to him embracing Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior twenty years ago. According to what I read in my Bible, that pretty much makes you a Christian, no matter what your name is. So if you are a Christian then I think it is time to recognize that the President is a brother in Christ, with you, me, and the Governor of Alabama. If you are wondering why I mention the governor then read this post from a few weeks ago. That means you need to treat the President with the same respect you would any other member of the family. After all, you just might find that you are seated across from him at the eternal banquet feast in Heaven. Talk about awkward!

But what if he was not a Christian. What if in fact he really was a Muslim? Then what? First, according to our Constitution, it is irrelevant what his faith is or is not. America was founded on lots of principles, one of them being that a person’s faith or lack there of, has no bearing on their rights as a citizen. Further more, if you are a Christian let me suggest that you are still required by Scripture to pray for him, to respect and honor him, as well as to love him so that one day he would come to faith in Christ. Christians can disagree with policy. We can express our opinions on issues. We can work, march, debate, and struggle for what we think is the right direction for the country. What we cannot do is attack the person who holds different views. We cannot raise the issue of their faith as being somehow the deciding factor of what is right or wrong.

But the fact is, the president has identified himself as a follower of Jesus Christ. Every morning he reads scripture and a devotional on that passage. He prays and asks the Lord to give him wisdom and strength as he seeks to lead. At night he prays again and asks the Lord to forgive him. Maybe we can all get past this silly notion that he is a Muslim and instead spend our time reading the Scriptures, praying for strength and wisdom and asking for forgiveness.

Why You Need to Pray for Sudan: NOW!

In 1989 Sudanese Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a coup against the president of Sudan. Shortly after he began to institute Islamic Sharia law and took his armies into the largely Christian Sudanese south in order to enforce his will. War raged for the next fifteen years. One of the effects was the suffering in Darfur, western Sudan. A peace accord was finally reached in 2005 that allowed for a referendum to take place in the south so that they could vote to become an independent country. On January 9th that vote will take place. It is a vote that has huge global implications as well as great implications for the Christians in northern and southern Sudan.

I have some friends who live in Sudan. They are wonderful followers of Christ who have put everything on the line in order to honor the Lord. They and other Christians in Sudan have been asking Christians around the world to pray for their country. They are asking for safety. They are asking that the outcome of the vote be honored by the north. They are asking that Christians who live in the north will be safe after the vote.

Colonel al-Bashir eventually made himself the President of Sudan and has systematically persecuted Christians. He has already said that once the vote takes place and the south becomes it’s own nation, he will institute a radical version of Sharia in the north. Omar al-Bashir is a bad dude. Last year The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes for genocide, rape and a host of other crimes related to Darfur. It is the first time ever that the court issued such a warrant for a sitting head of state.

What may seem amazing to many is that in spite of, or maybe because of, the persecution by al-Bashir, the church in southern Sudan has grown larger and more vibrant. Christians have been involved in major ministries of mercy in Darfur. Pastors have been geting more training and churches are getting planted with more people coming to Christ. No one really knows what will happen. That is all the more reason to pray.

I hope you will join with me and take time over the next few days to pray for Sudan. Pray for a safe day of voting. Pray that the results will be honored by everyone involved. Pray that Christians will be a light of Christ-like love and respect for the world to see. Pray for Omar al-Bashir to come to faith in Jesus.

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 the Pure in Heart

Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I have wondered why this is my least favorite of the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it has a lot to do with the fact that of the group this is the one that I a clearly do not exemplify in my own life. The simple truth is, the more I look into my heart of hearts the further from God I realize that I am. I keep getting reminded of the somewhat creepy sounding statement from the old radio show, The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” You see the issue is, the more I get to know Jesus, the more I see the evil that lurks in my heart. Not only does the Shadow know, but I know and there is no psychological trick of denial that is strong enough or effective enough to cover over that fact and hide that truth.
The closer I get to Jesus the more I realize I am a despicable, sinful, self-centered, egotistical, covetous person. At this point you are all supposed to say, “oh no Dan, you’re wonderful, awesome, and godly, don’t be so hard on yourself, we love you”. Thanks. I appreciate the gesture but that is exactly how our world tries to deal with the sinfulness of our hearts and it just doesn’t cut it. Denying that one has cancer will not get rid of the cancer. A correct diagnosis and surgery can. Denying the sin in my heart will not make my heart pure anymore than painting over the X-ray of the tumor will make it go away.
Now here is the huge irony in all of this. It rests in the statement “the closer I get to Jesus the more I realize how sinful I am”.  As the sin in our life gets dealt with and we grow to be more like Jesus, our heart is getting more pure. As a result we see who God is with greater clarity than ever. BUT, we also see the sin that remains with that same clarity. I may have been able to effectively deal with a mouth that swore like a drunken trucker before I came to Jesus. But as I get closer to Him I realize that sins of the heart like envy, or jealousy are harder to deal with. And as long as I don’t to something too overt to let that sin out, nobody else knows about. I look good on the outside, but the inside is not what it should be.
So what’s the answer? I found it in a 4th century book by St. Augustine titled, “Confessions”. In it I saw a man who learned to be honest about the sin in His heart. He exposed it to the light of truth. And just like a vampire from a Hollywood science fiction movie, it looses all power and crumbles to dust when exposed to the light. Sadly, Christians have learned to paint over and hide their heartfelt sins. We have learned not to expose them and make them known because we so quickly get rejected by other Christians who are threatened by the possibility have having to expose their own sin.
Jesus has a very different approach. It is called confession, repentance, and forgiveness. He deals with our sin and urges us to move on and get even closer to Him. But I want to warn you. When you do that you will find out even more of the things that lurk in your heart. A further part of the irony here is that the closer you get to God, the more you realize that you are farther from Him than you thought. As you see the glory and holiness of God more clearly, because your heartfelt sins are being dealt with, the more you see that you are not nearly as close to Him as you hoped. You are more sinful than you knew, and he is more holy than you ever imagined. But there is hope. Jesus makes a promise in this verse that if you continue to pursue a pure heart and are honest with Him about your sin, the day will come when you will stand before Him, face to face. You will be welcomed into His eternal kingdom. As Paul says, “now we see as if dimly in a mirror, but then we will see face to face.”