Love Your Opponent

I read a story today that made me weep tears of joy.

Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Almost Christian, urges the church to reclaim the unmixed gospel as the basis for teen discipleship. Why? Because of an ESPN article on high school football, that’s why!

Grapevine, Texas—one of Money Magazine’s top 100 “best places to live” in 20072—is almost 90% white, has a $90,000 median family income, and award-winning schools like Faith Christian School. Like most towns in Texas, Grapevine takes its high school football seriously. Faith’s football team, for example, has seventy players, eleven coaches, the latest equipment, and hordes of involved parents. In November 2008, the Faith Lions were 7–2 going into the game with the Gainesville State Tornados.

Gainesville State, on the other hand, headed into the game 0–8, having scored only two touchdowns all year. Gainesville’s fourteen players wore seven-year-old pads and dilapidated helmets and were escorted by twelve security guards who took off the players’ handcuffs before the game. Gainesville State, a maximum security prison north of Dallas, gets its students by court order. Many Tornados have convictions for drugs, assaults, and robberies. Many of their families have disowned them. They play every game on the road.

Before the game, Faith’s head coach Kris Hogan had an idea. What if, just for one night, half of the Faith fans cheered for the kids on the opposing team? “Here is the message I want you to send,” Hogan wrote in an email to Faith’s faithful. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Planet Earth.” The Faith fans agreed.

When the Gainesville Tornados took the field, they crashed through a banner made by Faith fans that read “Go Tornados!” The Gainesville players were surprised to find themselves running through a forty-foot spirit line made up of cheering fans. From their benches at the side of the field, the Gainesville team heard two hundred fans on the bleachers behind them, cheering for them by name, led by real cheerleaders (Hogan had recruited the JV squad to cheer for the opposing team). “I thought maybe they were confused,” said Alex, a Gainesville lineman. Another lineman, Gerald, said: “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games. . . . But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!” Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker Isaiah shook his head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d hear people cheering for us to hit their kids. . . . But they wanted us to!”

At the end of the game (Faith won, 33–14), the losing team practically danced off the field with their fingers pointing #1 in the air. They gave Gainesville’s head coach Mark Williams what ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly described as the first Gatorade bath in history for a 0–9 coach. When the teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray, Isaiah surprised everybody by asking to lead. (“We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” remembers Coach Hogan.) This was Isaiah’s prayer: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

As guards escorted the Tornados back to their bus, each player received a bag filled with burgers, fries, candy, a Bible, and an encouraging letter from a Faith player. Before he stepped onto the bus, Williams turned and grabbed Hogan hard by the shoulders: “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.” The Gainesville players crowded onto one side of the bus, peering out the windows at an unbelievable sight—people they had never met before smiling at them, waving goodbye, as the bus drove into the night.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (pp. 85-87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Our younger son, Jadon, is on a football team with a public junior high in “the hood.” I read the story to him and his sister this morning. As I read about the Gainesville team, he said, “That sounds familiar.”

I choked up as I read about the families from Faith Christian giving out the goody bags. Then, I looked up at Jadon and Lydia to say, “That’s the gospel. That’s the new thing that Jesus brought to the earth.”

On the way to school, Jadon told me that his “sketchy” friend Brandon got kicked off the team for lashing out at the opposing team after last week’s game. Jadon had previously told me some about Brandon’s home life. His dad’s out of the picture and his mother at least appears to be a meth addict. One time, when Brandon’s mom pulled to the curb to pick him up after practice, Jadon and some of his friends yelled after him, “We love you, Brandon!”

Brandon’s mom pointed at him through the car window and yelled, “Ha! I knew you were a f@ggot!”

It’s little wonder why Brandon flew off the handle last week.

I told Jadon that we should pray for Brandon and look for ways to remind him that he matters to God. By his quick agreement, I could tell that Jadon’s mind had already arrived there.

As believers in Christ, we’re called to live out the gospel. That simple story about how the Son of God came to live among us, die for our sins, rise again, and ascend to heaven to reign until his coming in judgment is pregnant with practical significance for every facet of human existence.

As a former legalist, I’ve learned that following a list of external rules, even an inspired one, leads to the fractured and frustrated disposition which the Bible calls, “death.” God didn’t nail the Torah requirements to the cross just to give us new written code in Matthew through Revelation. If he did, that would suggest that he had given Israel something faulty previously. The problem wasn’t with the specific commands, but with the very idea that commands could restore fallen rebels to a loving relationship with God and other people.

In Galatians 3:23-24, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a schoolmaster which superintended God’s people until the coming of “this faith.” Whatever “this faith” is, it made law obsolete. “This faith” can’t refer simply to belief in invisible realities since people living under the law possessed faith of that generic sort. “This faith” must be of such a quality that it can serve to direct human behavior in a way that the law prescribed but couldn’t accomplish in our rebellious hearts. So, what is “this faith”? Paul tells us several verses earlier:

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by (the faith of -NAW) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

I’ve changed the phrase in the parenthetical to more accurately reflect the original Greek from the NIV’s translation “faith in.” Paul’s original intent seems to be to convey that Christ’s faith by which he offered himself on the cross had been transferred to Paul through that very act. Because Christ died for Paul, Paul was now beholden live by the faith of Christ.

On the cross, Jesus fully revealed both the heart of God and the obligation of every human. Now, we look to the gospel to know in any situation how we should live. By faith we perceive the instructions of the gospel. By faith we obey them. This, and only this, is the Christian life.

The gospel proclaims the intrinsic worth of even the most vile offender. On that evening in Grapevine, TX, Coach Kris and the families of Faith Christian School obeyed the gospel. As my kids go to school and encounter punks, freaks, geeks, jocks, and goths, the gospel will tell them what to do. I pray they will listen and obey.

As we go into this week, we’ll run into people that we’d rather ignore. Will we live by some minimum standard or will we live by the faith of Christ?

 

 

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Double Jeopardy

We’re often told that Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for their sins and yet so many do it. Maybe that’s because the advice has been understated. Maybe we should go one step further to say that Christians mustn’t beat themselves up for their sins.

I’m reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life for the umpteenth time. This quote reminded me today why this book is a classic:

What then of our attitude to Satan? This is important, for he accuses us not only before God but in our own conscience also. “You have sinned, and you keep on sinning. You are weak, and God can have nothing more to do with you.” This is his argument. And our temptation is to look within and in self-defense to try to find in ourselves, in our feelings or our behavior, some ground for believing that Satan is wrong. Alternatively we are tempted to admit our helplessness and, going to the other extreme, to yield to depression and despair. Thus, accusation becomes one of the greatest and most effective of Satan’s weapons. He points to our sins and seeks to charge us with them before God; and if we accept his accusations, we go down immediately.

Now the reason why we so readily accept his accusations is that we are still hoping to have some righteousness of our own. The ground of our expectation is wrong. Satan has succeeded in making us look in the wrong direction.

Our salvation lies in looking away to the Lord Jesus and in seeing that the blood of the Lamb has met the whole situation created by our sins and has answered it. That is the sure foundation on which we stand. Never should we try to answer Satan with our good conduct but always with the blood.

A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

By Faith Alone

What drives you? Are you working for the weekend (like everybody)? Do you run from fears of failure or inadequacy? Does social censure silence you? Are you paralyzed by worry? Does a need to please pull your strings? If you answered yes to any of these, then you are a sinner. In Romans 14:23, Paul declares that whatever is not of faith is sin. Now, you might say, “Wow, that’s a pretty stringent standard.” I’d agree. And yet, it’s not just a standard but a living reality with a definite experience.

I look at Paul’s indictment of most of my default motivation as stringent because I’m mired in a view of Christianity which just peers over the top of the hedonistic flood of our world. I am accustomed to the religiosity and moralism that masquerade as faith in Christ. The false religion that I’ve always taken for granted has given me ample excuses for my rejection of Christ. I’ve not seen any inconsistency in flailing about while elbow deep in “ministry.” I have been much like Peter, Christ’s most enthusiastic sycophant. But how did Peter deny his Lord or fall beneath the waves? Faithlessness will always produce unfaithfulness. The drive to survive will drown us every time.

Though Paul’s standard seems to border on impossible to the American Christian mind, he simply was describing a spiritual truth which could never be otherwise. Faith (implicit trust and loyalty) is the one thing that God requires of us. Through faith our ancient aspiration to supplant our creator reverses and creation begins to renew. In the garden, our native state was faith and to it there was but one alternative. Now, the alternatives have proliferated beyond number and there is but one place to find faith, at the foot of Christ’s cross. There the Son of Man (“adam” in Hebrew) rejected all other options and hung his fate on his God. Having been vindicated, he requires all who are his to accept his brand of faith.

God deserves our implicit trust but he doesn’t require it only for his satisfaction. Galatians 5:6 declares that the only thing that matters is faith working through love. Love is the goal and faith is the means. The eternal Godhead bound by self-giving love has poured out that love upon us inviting us into their fellowship. But we can’t give self without faith. Fear and worry, the antitheses of faith, pull all of my attention onto my own well being. Within that tunnel, the best I can do is damage control. I can feign love if it will advance my situation or forestall negative consequences. Without faith, I succumb to this world’s counterfeit for love, lust. As St. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

I want to ask you as I’ve been asking myself, can you abandon fear and worry? Can you abandon yourself to God’s faithfulness? Can we release back to Satan any version of Christianity that would excuse faithlessness and compensate with outward conformity? Can we confess that we’ve been no better than unbelievers as we’ve lobbied and campaigned against certain behaviors all in response to a fear mongering political machine? What if we did our best at work out of worship to our God rather than aspiration or intimidation? What if we loved our family rather than appeased them? We can. We must. It is the essence of our profession, not some state of super sainthood. To enter the experience of God’s kingdom under Christ, we must repent.  That is, we must turn away from our problem solving and pleasure seeking to hang our fate (both immediate and ultimate) on the faithfulness of our Abba Father. Go to the cross and once again be saved from this present evil age by the faith of Christ.

Faith and the Art of Motorcycle Maneuvering

I’m a new motorcycle rider.  As I’ve been learning to operate my new vehicle, I’m finding that it’s much like faith.  To ride a motorcycle, a person has to trust an invisible principle to keep him up.  He doesn’t have the visible certainty that comes from another two tires.  No one can test the principle until he actually begins to ride the motorcycle.  Such is faith.

Not only must a person launch out beyond his experience to ride a motorcycle, he must also at times violate his intuition in order to operate it properly.  Those who’ve ridden for very long have heard of counter-steering.  For those who’ve not ridden, counter-steering is a technique in which the operator of the motorcycle turns the handlebars in the opposite direction from the way he wants to go.  So, to go left, you’ve gotta turn right.  This is also like the faith which follows the counter intuitive message of Christ to find his apparent foolishness vindicated.  The last become first.  The humbled become exalted.  Those who give receive.  The one who loses his life finds it.

I never imagined I’d be riding a motorcycle.  Financial concerns first led me down this road.  What began as frugality has become just fun.  I came to Christ out of desperation.  I’ve found that following him is the ultimate thrill ride.  I think the risk is what makes it so exhilarating!

http://youtu.be/B8IdTq3_3WI

Holigram

Richard scowled at the framed poster displayed on an easel at the entrance to the gift store.  “What a sham!” he nearly shouted.

Startled by Richard’s outburst, a passerby named Peter asked, “What is?”

“This poster, it’s an utter sham!” Richard replied.  “These big gift store chains think they can dupe the public into buying overpriced junk by making ridiculous claims for their merchandise.  I mean, look at this thing; it’s just a mess of recurring jagged lines in shades of blue and they want $30 for it.  It’s not even original art.  It’s a poster for crying out loud!  I’m a realist and if I buy a poster, I want it to actually look like something.  I have a framed poster of the fjords of Norway that’s gorgeous and I only paid $15 for that one.  What are they trying to pull?”

“Well,” Peter began, “the caption at the bottom says, ‘Stalkers of the Deep.’  Perhaps all that blue and wavy lines is supposed to represent water or something.”

“Oh boy, I guess there really is one born every minute!” retorted Richard.  “It can’t be water, the lines are jagged, not wavy, and the patterns repeat at specific intervals.  Besides, even if it is supposed to be water, why would someone pay $30 for a print of a bad abstract of water when they could get an actual photo of the ocean for $15?”

Peter, now feeling a bit patronized and quite a bit curious said, “Alright then, if it bothers you so much, why don’t you just confront the manager of the store?  Maybe he can explain what makes this poster so special.  There must be some reason they think it’s worth that much.”

“Puh, go in there?  I don’t think so.” responded Richard in disdain.  “I don’t need their cock and bull explanation.  I’ve got two eyes and I can see what’s going on.  Besides, that little flunky in there won’t be able to do anything about it anyway.  I’m going to blog about it to warn others against these big conglomerates and the way they manipulate the public.”

Peter stood for a second looking at Richard and then at the store.  He said, “Well, now I’m curious, so I’m going to ask.”

“Suit yourself.”  Spat Richard as Peter entered the store.

Moments later Peter returned holding a piece of paper.

“What’s that?” Richard asked suspiciously.

“It’s a leaflet about the poster.  It says it’s a 3-D sea life scene which was generated by a computer.”

“Really?” Richard quipped.  “How gullible do they think we are?  3-D?  Maybe I’m nuts but it looks pretty 2-D to me.  And sea life…where?  Show me!  It’s not there.  I have eyes, you know.”

“I don’t see it either.” Peter admitted.  “The leaflet says you have to look at it the right way and that sometimes it takes a long time before some people can see it.”

Grabbing his head, Richard yelled, “Now they’re blaming me because I can’t see it!  Well isn’t that convenient!  I suppose they’re selling a beautiful suit inside which only the wisest people can see.  Can’t you see what they’re doing?  You can’t win with these people!”

“I don’t know,” replied Peter, “this is a reputable company and the people inside seem nice enough.  Maybe it’s like when you see a dragon in the clouds or your rug looks like an angry face.  I’m sure they are sincere.”

Crossing his arms and turning from the poster, Richard responded flatly, “That’s up to you.  Feel free to join the impressionable hoard.  I’ll go the way of reason and common sense.  Let me ask you just one more question: Would you put that thing on your wall?”

“Well, no.”  Peter answered sheepishly.

Richard began, “Okay, then, I rest my ca_”

“Oh, wow!” A voice from behind Richard interrupted him in his moment of triumph.  He spun around to see a young woman looking at the poster and pointing.

“Look at those sharks!  It’s like they’re coming right at me.  How much is this poster, $30?  What a steal!  I’m so putting this up in my room!” the young woman exclaimed.  With that, she took the poster inside and bought it.

As she walked out of the store with the poster under arm, Peter called out, “Did you really see all of that in that poster?”

“Of course.” the girl replied, “Didn’t you?”

“Uh, yeah, it was great.” was Peter’s tentative response.

Richard muttered under his breath, “Delusional.  So sad.”

Religious Unbelief

The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se.  How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism?  There weren’t any atheists.  I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists.  Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.”  However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God.  The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools.  He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.

So who are the fools?  The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down.  Such people by their actions deny God as their source.  They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth.  They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire.  Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions.  Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.

As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV)  These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus.  From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else.  They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth.  Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed.  “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)

Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept.  People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God.  Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence.  The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article.  Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived.  Beware religious unbelief.

Poker Face

“Something’s wrong with me?”, Jamie, my wife, said over the phone.  “I can’t straighten my legs.  What am I going to do?”

What was she going to do?  What was I going to do?  I was out on my route.  I couldn’t leave.  I felt helpless.  She was at home taking care of our two young children and she could barely walk.  Besides, I could hear the fear in her voice.  I worked extra hard to get home as quickly as possible.

When I got there, my concern turned to alarm.  Both of her legs were bent at a 75 degree angle.  She could neither sit nor stand comfortably.  I’ll never forget the sight of her hobbling up the five stairs ascending from our den into our kitchen.  As she ascended those stairs, I descended into despair.  “What could this be?  Some degenerative disease?  Why would it come on so suddenly?”  All of these questions raced through my mind.  I considered taking her to the doctor, but I had absolutely no faith that they would be able to help with such a strange problem.

We had plans that evening to eat at the home of our close friends and fellow believers, so I gingerly loaded her into the van and away we went.  After dinner, I related to my friend that I had been reading a book by Smith Wigglesworth on divine healing and I suggested that he and his wife join me in praying for Jamie.  We put her on the couch and I prayed like I had never prayed before.  Instead of asking that she would be comforted in this difficult time or that the doctors would discover the cause of the problem or even asking if God might be willing to heal her, I said, “We speak to these knees and in Jesus name we command them to be healed.”  When she stood up, she announced, “I’m better!”  The next day my family went for a hike at a local state park.  She’s not had any trouble in the eleven years since that evening.

That day I got to peer behind the veil of the material world to see what’s going on when we pray.  We’re involved in a high stakes poker game with the “father of lies.”  Jesus has told us that we have a winning hand, but as we look across the table at those mirrored glasses and that look of derision, our nerves can get rattled.  We push a few chips to the middle of the table – a five minute request qualified by lots of “if it be thy will.”

Satan responds, “It will take more than that if you want to see my cards.”

Our palms begin to sweat.  We wonder, “What if I stake all my faith on this hand and I’m beaten?  What will happen to all that I claim to believe?  What will happen to the faith of other people if they observe God’s promises fail?  Do I dare to stand?  Wouldn’t it just be safer to fold and cut my losses?”  So, we fold.  We walk away from the table with slightly less faith than we came with but at least we didn’t risk it all.  Meanwhile Satan sits at the table with a smug smile, holding a pair of deuces.

To all of us who too often fold in prayer, I commend the words of the apostle Paul, “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  (Eph. 6:10-11 ASV)

Less Debating; More Discipling

This is an amazing video with some great thoughts thrown in. Just a reminder about how easily we’re thrown off course from carrying out the Great Commission. If we make disciples (I mean Christ followers) we will combat abortion!

Ben Moushon

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  John 8:7

Like many of the Evangelical Political issues that have overtaken the presidential elections this year, the debate over contraception coverage in the healthcare  baffles me.  And like so most of those issues, it seems like a loud majority is making uninformed assumptions about and trying to control the vast majority.  When the truth is Christians aren’t statistically much different than the rest of society.  There are similar percentages of Christians having premarital sex, watching pornography, abusing alcohol, getting divorced, abusing their spouses, stealing, lying, murdering, committing adultery…

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Do You Know Jack?

I’ve recently been discussing the idea of truth with an acquaintance. Is it possible to know the truth? Where is truth to be found? We can discover truths by observations in nature or Scripture, but the challenge becomes assembling truths into a coherent model of reality or the truth. Of course, nobody knows how many truths there are to be discovered, so any claim to academic knowledge of the truth must be qualified.

But Jesus promises that those who persist in following him not only can but WILL know the truth. Look at what he says in this familiar passage:

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31-32

What could he mean? Was he wrong or naive? The answer lies in the definition of the Greek word for “to know” which is used here. Like many other languages, ancient Greek had two words for “to know.” The one used here refers to personal, experiential knowledge as in, “Do you know Jack?” So Jesus promises that those who follow him will know the truth like someone knows a good friend or their spouse.

Finding the truth then becomes a practical pursuit rather than an academic one. Truth becomes the property of the humble rather than the intellectual. Best of all, those who know the truth in this way have just begun an eternity of joyful discovery of limitless truths.