No Yeah-But’s

561789-taekwondo-wallpapers-2500x1667-mobileI had a Taekwondo teacher who used to say that he didn’t want to hear any “yeah-but’s.” If he told a student to do something, he expected them to do it without delay or excuse. He claimed the right to unquestioning obedience by virtue of his superiority in his field.

In the gospel, we see a God who will accept no “yeah-but’s.” By his scandalous arrest, abuse, and execution, Christ declared for all time that the will of the Father must be obeyed. God isn’t just superior to us. He’s transcendent. We can’t speak of him in superlative terms. He’s primary and ultimate. His very essence creates a field of moral gravity calling for the unquestioning surrender which the Bible calls, “fear.” When we fear God, we simply give him his due. When we offer him, “yeah-but’s,” we take in hand to cast for ourselves a lesser god and give it his name.

Selective obedience not only perverts the idea of God in our minds, it also distorts our nature. We were made to fear God, not overthrow him. Our “yeah-but’s” twist our souls into beastly, ghastly, overgrown egos which stomp around this earth, blaming God for the destruction in our wake. Christ became human to restore our humanity by restoring our estimation of God’s holiness.

As believers in Christ, we’re called each day to die with Christ in small ways. We tell the truth when we know it will make us look bad or cost us relationships or opportunities. We don’t respond to the tension to speak truth with, “Yeah, God, but you know that if I do that, I’ll get fired.” Rather we confess that God is more to be feared than any consequence of obeying him.

Through his suffering, Christ demonstrated the fear of God. But he’s more than just our exemplar; he’s our savior. By his resurrection, Christ Jesus announced for all time that such abject trust in God will receive eternal reward. We can go to our own cross both figuratively and literally if necessary because God can be trusted. Not only are “yeah-buts” an affront to the very nature of God, not only do they mutilate our souls, they’re just foolish.

If God calls us to move to a high crime neighborhood and we respond, “Yeah, God, but I’m concerned that my children will come under bad influences or be attacked or even killed,” we forfeit his reward for whatever scraps we can forage and horde through this very short day which we call life.

Far from being the offer of a free ticket to heaven, the gospel calls us heavenward as it demands that we relinquish this earth. Some have suggested that faith in the gospel presents and easy alternative to conformity to a system of legal requirements. Maybe that’s true of a truncated gospel, but not the true one. The message of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming return pulses with unrelenting blessed requirement.

Because of God’s mercy and patience, it might be easy for us to think that’s he’s accepted our “yeah-but’s.” He hasn’t. Every “yeah-but” that we offer God assails his holiness, corrupts our souls, and mires us in a world rolling ever faster toward the conflagration waiting at the end.

The good news is that as long as we have breath we can repent of our “yeah-but’s” and all will be forgiven. Our humanity will be restored. We can long for the coming day of his return.

 

 

Grin and Bear It

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One day at my old job I was assigned to load an “Over 70” trailer. For four hours I pulled packages that weighed at least 70lbs from a belt and loaded them onto a trailer. The next day, I came into work and lifted an ordinary package. My back immediately seized and my body locked in a half-erect stance. Following policy, I immediately reported the incident and was sent to Scotty, the center manager.

When I got to his office, he spoke first, “Are you sure you hurt yourself here?”

“Well, I spent all day yesterday lifting Over 70’s and first thing this morning my back went out, so I think I can guess what caused it.” I shot back.

“But you don’t know that it was an on-the-job injury. I’ve pulled my back leaning over in the shower or rolling over in bed.” He affirmed.

“Oh, come on…really?” I rebutted.

“I don’t think we can count this as an on the job injury. You can go home unpaid or take light duty today if you think you’re hurt too bad to do your regular work. That’s about the best I can do.” Was his definitive reply.

At this point, I’d worked for the company for thirteen years. I had been an exemplary worker (no, literally, they once punished a guy for laziness by making him watch me work). Now, after requiring me to work under unsafe conditions for an entire shift, they were going to make me take the fall for being hurt. At that moment I realized that to the company and to my superiors I didn’t matter. Nothing I’d given to company accrued the least bit of credit in their minds. At this moment they only saw me as a potential workers’ comp claim.

I opted for light duty still fuming over Scotty’s response. I shared the whole exchange with a coworker who became as livid as I was over it. Then, I remembered 1 Peter 2:18-25:

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

I shared with my coworker that in obedience to the example of Christ I planned to work even harder for the company and not take any kind of retaliatory action. He protested, “What?! You’re just going to roll over and take it?”

He was dumbfounded and a little disgusted.

The gospel of Christ teaches us how to deal with bad bosses.

If we’ll let it, the gospel will calibrate our expectations to insulate us from those moments of confusion and outrage.

The cross of Christ indicts humanity as sinners in need of a savior. Bosses are sinners and that sinful drive will determine their actions, especially if they haven’t been regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. This gospel awareness will arm us for the barbs hurled at us from the sinful hearts of others. When our boss makes a decision that benefits him and harms us, we won’t get rattled, because we knew he was a sinner to begin with.

The acknowledgement of human sinfulness doesn’t stop with our boss, though. His actions remind us of the person we were when Christ found us and who we still are should he not hold us up every minute. Seeing our boss as a sinner doesn’t mean that we judge him as inferior to us but as just like us. Christ’s indictment on sin from the cross takes away any pretention to superiority for all time.

Paul directed Titus to coach the church in Crete along these same lines:

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. – Titus 3:1-3

 

Christ died on the cross to save us from a sinful world which is alienated from the life of God. The gospel will teach us that when we go into our workplaces, we shouldn’t expect pleasant experiences or fair treatment. We go every day into a fallen hellscape. We go not to be successful, happy, effective, recognized or any other career goal we might set for ourselves. We go to work to do battle with the forces of evil by blessing those who curse us, doing good to those who injure us. That’s the job. The rest of it is just context. If we get called out in front of everyone and face vocational consequences for just doing our best, we’ve just received a new assignment to show the world what gospel-shaped living looks like.

In addition to setting our expectations for our workday experiences and interactions, the gospel also empowers us to serve joyfully for the long haul.

Going to a toxic or unproductive work environment every day can crush our souls over time. According to the gospel, Christ, our Lord, was treated like a criminal even though he was the only innocent person to ever live. By his passion, he has forever sanctified unfair suffering as a sanctuary where his devotees can meet with him. Standing on the carpet before our boss can become an opportunity to experience Christ in a very real way. Injustice becomes a door to the divine.

Not only do we experience the grace of Christ through unfair treatment, our serene response will testify to the truth of our message. What more unnerving evidence of the truth of the gospel could their be than joyful acceptance in the midst of a tongue lashing?

Beyond the grace that flows from the cross into our difficult work relationships, the resurrection provides power to endure for the long haul. It’s one thing to withstand periodic unfair treatment. It’s quite another to pour our energies into a toxic work environment for years. Bad bosses kill careers. That’s the way it is. They often place unqualified people in positions of influence for their own personal reasons rather than based on merit or for the sake of the overall good of the business.

Christians who continually get passed over for promotions or have their achievements ignored because they refuse to join the “good ole boys” club feel the pain of passing time and the futility of their efforts. Some might suggest a job change, but that’s often not the best solution. At UPS, I was paid way more than the market mandated. I just had a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and I had a family to support. Leaving wasn’t an option. I’ve also watched people hop from job to job and every time the story was exactly the same. They left one “unfair” situation to land in another one which they would subsequently leave. After a while, people start to look side eye at your resumé if you do that long enough. Potential employers will begin to infer that you are the common denominator.

In a sinful world every workplace will feature some injustice, but the resurrection tells us that this world isn’t our destination. We don’t need to accomplish anything here. When Jesus told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to get crucified, Peter objected. I think he saw the potential in Jesus and couldn’t fathom that potential being taken from the earth. That’s what murderers take from people – their potential.

I sympathize with Peter, but I shouldn’t. Jesus called him, “Satan” for his concern (Matthew 16:21-23). God doesn’t need our accomplishments; just our complete trust. Only three years into his career, at the zenith of his influence, he willingly laid down his potential on the cross. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us why he did it:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1b-2)

Jesus didn’t need to protect his own interests. He could completely abandon them to his Father and relinquish his very life for the joy set before him. What’s more, he calls us to follow him along that path.

We can overcome a world run by self-interested jerks through daily abandonment of our own interests into the hands of God, our faithful Father. As the difficulty of the daily grind begins to wear on us, we can find new strength in contemplating the gospel. According to the author of Hebrews, we should, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:3)”

Pessoptimism

I’m a bit of a critic. At times I’ve felt guilty for failing to be more positive. After reading Oman this morning, I feel a little less so.

A half and half morality always means a hopeless view of humanity; whereas a view of man as involved in a widely organised and radical corruption, always means a high estimate of his possibilities and a universal sense of the moral significance of life. –Grace and Personality

The gospel teaches that we live in a world infested with evil which permeates the hearts of every person. We were made to reflect the very glory of God, but have chosen instead to make our own destiny to our own destruction. These truths hardly call us to “accentuate the positive.”

That last phrase reminds me of a story which Bani, my friend from Albania, told me about living under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha. Bani said that under communism the least mention of a fault in their society could get a person incarcerated. He spoke of a man who went to the store for potatoes to discover that they had run out. Later, that man met a friend for coffee and mentioned that there had been no potatoes at the store. An informant at the next table reported the man and he was thrown into prison. Apparently, the correct response to the question, “Why didn’t you get potatoes?” was, “I changed my mind.”

There is an optimism which hides corruption and a pessimism which reveals glory.

Most pessimistic of all is the teaching of Jesus. The highest morality turns out to be mere respectability, the purest religion mere formalism, and the insincerity is such that the Prince of this world is the Father of Lies. Nowhere, nevertheless, is the Kingdom so real or so near.

Jesus came to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and a judgement to come. He passed that call on to us (John 16:1-11).

Churched to Death

funny-church-signWhy do simple church? Because Jesus told us to make disciples. ” But,” someone might respond, “aren’t sermons, Sunday School, VBS, mission trips, weekend seminars,small groups, and a myriad of other programs carried on by institutional churches just methods for making disciples?”

From what I’ve observed after a couple of years of attempting to make reproducing disciples, not only are these initiatives not discipleship, they actually have become counterproductive toward fulfilling the Great Commission.  How can this be?  The answer can be found within the Great Commission itself:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt. 28:19-20 NIV emphasis mine

The difference comes down to one word, “accountability.”  All the programs which I mentioned at least as they are most often administered, teach people what Jesus commanded but they do not teach them to obey everything he commanded.  Without obedience the entire culture of a church can become one of quiet disregard for the commands of Christ.  In time, we begin to excuse each other’s (little) sins so they will excuse ours.  By teaching what Jesus said without expecting that a disciple obey, we actually teach disobedience.  So, we all come together regularly to carry out empty religious activity which we substitute for obedience.  Sadly, the church-goers are the only ones who are fooled into thinking that those observances matter.

Discipleship requires loving, mutual accountability.  As a believing community we must ask each other, “What is Jesus calling you to do and when will you do it?”  Then we must expect that everyone who claims to follow Jesus will carry those things out.  We ought to expect that everyone will expect us to be “doers” rather than just “hearers.”  When this happens we go from an irrelevant religious society to the counter-culture expression of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of real lives.

Some have called that form of religion which has supplanted discipleship “churchianity.”  That word fits this discussion.  In the Bible belt where I live, we’re sick with it.  I’m sick with it.  Last year, while having dinner with church planter, Neil Cole, I recognized the degree to which I had succumbed .  As we discussed the challenges of facilitating spiritual growth in recently redeemed people, I remember saying, “Yeah, those guys got drunk the other night but I overeat sometimes.  I guess we all sin.”  I expected Neil to nod and agree.  That’s how we do it in the church of church.  He didn’t.  He just gave me a puzzled look.  In that moment I felt the Spirit convict me that if I, a professed disciple of Jesus, consider something to be outside his will, I shouldn’t do it.  I also shouldn’t excuse other people when they do things they know to be wrong.

Making disciples is hard because it calls us to go beyond spiritual feelings and scriptural insights to personal obedience and interpersonal confrontation.  For those who are tired of gathering attenders and want to join Jesus in building an army, it’s the only way.

Learning to Learn

I have some friends who’ve recently come to faith. They’re from a subculture very disparate from mine. They’ve drawn me into conversations I’ve never had with other church members. Since they’re new believers and I’m a pastor, I usually see our interactions as an opportunity for me to assist their spiritual growth. I find myself defaulting to asking what about their worldview needs correcting. Today, it dawned on me that they are changing my worldview as much as I am changing theirs. By receiving Christ, they have brought their unique perspective on the gospel to bear on the church’s mission in the world.  Today I had to admit to my friend that he was right about something over which we had disagreed.

His response was, “It’s like this turn signal thing on my van.  If I find the short I can fix it.  You needed a fix to the short.  Its me.”

He’s right. I can get all energized by God’s grace but that energy won’t reach certain people in the world unless I have a bridge like my friend.  I can study the Bible for the rest of my life but the gaps in my perspective will always hinder my understanding.  I need a fix like my friend.

In the New Testament, Cornelius the centurion served as a bridge. He was a gentile who came to faith in Christ without having to convert to Judaism. His conversion not only catalyzed the a new gentile church in Caesarea it also sent theological shock waves through a church which saw itself largely as an extension of Judaism. Cornelius’ conversion converted the mindset of the church leaders of the day. We need to reach people from all backgrounds not only because they need Jesus but also because we need their idiosyncrasies to better understand and communicate our own message. (Acts 10-11; 15)

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?

Life Transformation Groups – A Testimonial

I have a friend who is also an elder at our church.  In the past couple of years I’ve watched him grow into a spiritual leader who inspires and challenges me every time we talk.  God has done many things in his life to effect this season of growth but much of it started with his participation in a Life Transformation Group or LTGRead his testimonial below –

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:16a NIV

For many years I struggled with a particular sin that was very stubborn. Try as I might, I could not get mastery over this shortcoming. I pleaded with God to take it from me but I was unable to get any lasting relief. Last summer I started an LTG with another guy. To my amazement the sin I had struggled with became a footnote. It is not to say that there has been no struggle whatsoever, but knowing that I am going to be asked about it every week is a strong deterrent.  I have been able to move on and work on other areas where God is prodding me.

An LTG is formally called a Life Transformation Group, but it could also be called a laughing together group or a learning together group because those things happen as well.  An LTG has three parts to it: scripture reading, accountability questions and praying for the lost.  The scripture reading is done at home. You come together once a week and ask each other the scripted accountability questions, discuss the scripture reading and pray for three people you know who are lost.

It is interesting that James says to confess your sins and pray for each other and you will be healed. Sin does a powerful amount of damage to ones soul. Spiritual progress cannot happen until the wound of sin is healed. An LTG with another committed believer can be a vehicle of healing that allows your relationship with God to go to a much deeper level. Won’t you consider joining one?

For more information, click the picture below:

LTG

Strategic Planning

I just reblogged a post on Islamophobia.  I agree with the facts related in the post and with the contention that many people fail to call out the misdeeds of Muslims out of fear of backlash or worse.  However, I would not say that Islam is ultimately to blame for the evils committed by some Muslims around the world.  Islam just provides a convenient palate upon which the sinful hearts of humans mix the blood-red hues of their hatred.  Other convenient ideologies have been churchianity, Communism (rational atheism applied), nationalism, and racism to name a few. For the real issue check this sermon I delivered on November 11th.

Strategic Planning

Testimony

In Bill Hybels’ book, Just Walk Across the Room, he challenges his readers to write out their faith story in 100 words or less.  Here is my 105-word attempt:

As a young person I dreamed of growing up to become a doctor.  Then, I saw a “20/20” special on successful people who had attempted suicide.  Their reason: Once they had reached their goal in life, they still felt empty.  I projected myself into their shoes.  I thought, “If this is all there is then life is meaningless.”  So, I began reading the New Testament.  Within those pages I met a man who transcended the vanity of this mortal coil.  His name is Jesus.  He invited me to train under him and so to become like him.  I accepted and have never regretted that decision.