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).

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.

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.

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.

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

Prison Bars…

I used to correspond through the mail with an inmate named Lowell.  I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a more biblically literate person.  Perhaps this was because he had come to know his desperate need for God and was given plenty of time to find him in solitary confinement.  As a former member of a white supremacist prison gang, he had been placed in solitary for violent acts (I don’t know what) against blacks in the prison.  Of course this was just the last in a long list of crimes committed by this relatively young man.

As his story unfolded through our year or so of correspondence, the most shocking revelation dawned on me – Lowell and I were not all that different.  Had I encountered the same life circumstances which he had, I probably would have ended up in the same place.  My heart reflected the selfishness, malice, and prejudice which landed Lowell in solitary.  Conversely, he demonstrated genuine remorse and a desire for redemption.  The last vestiges of my childish notion that humanity can be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” melted as I figuratively gazed into the mirror of Lowell’s heart.

As a human being at the bottom of society’s dumpster, Lowell sits upon an anthropological dilemma.  Should Lowell not have to “pay” for what he did?  If so, who determines when the debt is paid?  If not, what of his victims?  During our correspondence, Lowell petitioned to be released from solitary after he had spent a year there.  He was denied.  The prospect of another year cut off from human contact in the name of justice nearly destroyed this man who had made so many positive changes.

So, how can we maintain the worth of an individual yet decry his evil deeds?  Is such a thing even possible?  The answer is yes and no.  Humans will never solve this dilemma because we are incapable of separating the essence of a person from their behavior.  We will never have instrumentation that precise.  God, however, does have an implement which can do the job.  The cross of Christ in one moment categorically condemns human evil (including mine and Lowell’s) and unequivocally declares human worth.  From the cross, God in voice clear and loud declares, “I hate your murder, theft, prejudice, selfishness, and lust and I love you more than words can say.”

Lowell is probably still in prison but Lowell has found a freedom while incarcerated that he never had before.  Lowell continues to suffer the consequences of his past actions but he is not defined by them.  God’s scalpel, the cross has removed the sin which was entangled around the heart of a man created after the divine image.  Praise God for the wonderful, horrible, crucial cross!

Mixed Motives and Methadone

I just read a blog from an atheist who took exception with street preachers who hung out in the pub district and offered aid to the revelers there.  He made some great points.  One of his problems with these folks was that they did good out of mixed motives.  They offered physical assistance to people in crisis but they also wanted to spread the gospel.  So my question is, “What’s wrong with that?”

Consider a non-profit organization whose goal is to help heroine addicts.  They open a methadone clinic hoping to attract addicts seeking relief from withdrawals.  At the clinic they also offer rehab services.  Should we fault them for having mixed motives?

As believers in Christ, we believe that humanity suffers from one problem, sin.  That disease manifests itself through a myriad of symptoms.  Whether we’re addressing symptoms or offering a cure the mission and the motive remain the same.