Friday, December 25, 2015

Answers to the Christmas Story Trivia Challenge

If you haven't had a chance to try the trivia questions, see the previous post here.

1. What is the English translation of Jesus' Hebrew name?
Jesus' Hebrew name is Yeshua, a common alternative form of Yehoshuah which means "Yahweh is Salvation." English translates this name as Joshua. Jesus comes from the Greek translation. Since the New Testament was written in Greek and was translated into English, we use the Greek as the basis for Jesus' name.

2.  When does Joseph first speak in the narrative of Jesus' birth?
He never speaks.

3. What animal did Mary ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
The Bible does not tell us how Mary got to Bethlehem.

4. What did the angels sing to the Shepherds about Jesus?
They didn't sing. The Bible says they spoke.

5. What did the Shepherds do after they had seen Jesus?
Spread the word concerning him or praised God.

6. Which angel was there when Jesus was born?
None is mentioned.

7. How many wise men came to see Jesus?
No number is ever given. Three gifts are mentioned, but not the number of wise men. There could have been more than three or less than three.

8. What animals did the wise men ride?
No animals are mentioned.

9. Where did the star the wise men had been following stop?
Over the house or place where Jesus was. At this point, we assume that Mary and Joseph had taken up residence in Bethlehem, probably because they had a new baby and family in Bethlehem and elected not to make the trip back to Nazareth. Thus it makes sense why Herod wanted to kill all babies 2 years and younger as he had inquired when the wise men first saw the star.

10. How did the wise men know not to go back to Herod?
They were warned in a dream. The Bible does not say who warned them, whether God directly, an angel or just a simple dream.

Bonus Question: Where did the innkeeper say Mary and Joseph could stay?
Very tricky question. First, the Bible never mentions an innkeeper. Second, the term "inn" is most likely mistranslated in English. Mary and Joseph were probably traveling with other family members and stayed with family in Bethlehem. The term "inn" does not need to refer to a hotel like we think of. Luke used the term for a guest room. The image of Mary and Joseph alone as Mary gives birth is highly unlikely. Family and/or midwives were most certainly present. Why Jesus in a manger then? Check out this link for far more detail.

How did you do? Comment below!

Also, check out this fun video that points out the myths surrounding the story of Jesus' birth as well as the true meaning of his birth.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Story Trivia Challenge

How well do you know the story of Christ's birth? Test yourself with these questions! Answers revealed tomorrow.

1. You cannot look in a Bible
2. You cannot look on the internet.
3. You cannot look anywhere else. All answers must come from your brain only.
4. Be honest. If you look anywhere but in your brain, you can't count that as getting the answer correct.
5. You can pray :-)

Trivia Questions (All questions concern the Biblical account of Jesus' birth.)

1. What is the English translation of Jesus' Hebrew name?
2. When does Joseph first speak in the narrative of Jesus' birth?
3. What animal did Mary ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
4. What did the angels sing to the Shepherds about Jesus?
5. What did the Shepherds do after they had seen Jesus?
6. Which angel was there when Jesus was born?
7. How many wise men came to see Jesus?
8. What animals did the wise men ride?
9. Where did the star the wise men had been following stop?
10. How did the wise men know not to go back to Herod?

Bonus: Where did the innkeeper say Mary and Joseph could stay?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Love: Here With Us

"It's still a mystery to me
That the hands of God could be so small.
How tiny fingers reaching in the night
Were the very hands that measured the sky."

The story of Jesus sounds so impossible to uninitiated ears. God in a man? God as a baby? Impossible! But if an all powerful God exists, could he not accomplish such a feat? Once you accept the possibility of God, the possibility of a babe in a manger is a small step.

"It's still a mystery to me
How His infant eyes have seen the dawn of time.
How His ears have heard an angel's symphony,
But still Mary had to rock her Savior to sleep."

Man longs for rescue. Literature, media, our hearts testify to such a longing, the good defeating evil, the hero saving the world. Could it be this desire is created within us from the time we are born? What greater rescue could there be than God, creator of time, commander of angels. Peer at the sleeping baby--he is the answer to our longing for salvation.

"Hallelujah, hallelujah
Heaven's love reaching down to save the world.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, son of God, servant King
Here with us, You're here with us."
Praise the Lord! The world is not lost. Evil does not have to win. A real hero steps into the scene. God is more than powerful--he is love. He reaches down to man, gifting his son, a king and a servant, to walk with us and draw us up from the dust and mire of the world.

"Jesus, the Christ, born in Bethlehem.
A baby born to save, to save the souls of man."

Story heroes snatch us from the jaws of physical death; Jesus snatches us from ourselves. From the sin that entangles, the self suffering of our natures, a sick soul in need of release. In so doing, physical death is also defeated, its sting obliterated. Eternal life, yes, with an eternally perfectly restful soul. What better news can there be than this Christmas truth?

(Quotes come from the song "Here With Us" by Joy Williams. You can listen to it here.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

American Christians and Habakkuk

God's plan moving throughout time is the foundation of the Biblical worldview of history. This does not negate man's choices, but means that God will work sometimes with and sometimes in spite of man's actions: "The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). Recently, I have been confronted by this truth once again and its impact on the Christianity of my nation.

Violence, aggression and crime seem to be the circumstances of the day. But then, when have they not? Not an age in human history has passed where they were not active in some fashion. Yet now we seem to face a different time, a time where a certain group of people wish the end of America and Christians. How are we to respond to this?

To answer that question, I have been drawn back to one of my favorite minor prophets: Habakkuk. His book is written as a question and answer session with God. He wrote at a time when the Babylonians were the rising foreign power. The good king of his own nation, Josiah, had died and a sinful, wicked king had taken his place. The nation was beset by greed, fighting, injustice and moral decline. The citizens of Judah spent their time on themselves and their pleasures and mocked the God who supposedly had the power to judge them.

I cannot help but see a comparison between Habakkuk's time and my own. We live in a time of many rising powers that are as powerful or more than America. We face the corruption of our government system so tied to lobbyists and powerful donors. Our nation is focused on hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure regardless of moral implications. And like Habakkuk, I hear many American Christians warning, "God will judge this."

Will he? He, indeed, may. I hear some long for such. "When will you take care of this God?" Habakkuk asks the same: "How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, 'Violence!' yet You do not save. Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness?" (Habakkuk 3:1-3). Fed up with watching the injustice of his nation, Habakkuk longs for God's intervention. But God does not answer in a way that Habakkuk likes. God basically says, "I am going to take care of it. Babylon is going to rise up against Judah and invade." "Wait a second!" Habakkuk responds, "How can you use those horrible, immoral Babylonians against us?" What Habakkuk longed for suddenly doesn't seem so great.

American Christians are praying for revival, but we want it without suffering or trial or discomfort. We picture some spontaneous Holy Spirit descent that forces people to revive whether they like it or not. Our term revival comes from a time in history where this seemed to be the case. But we neglect the fact that revival, the awakening of the desire for the divine, often comes when people face pain, and I would suggest, even more so this way.

So what if God plans for America to face suffering and pain? Will you, American Christian, be okay with that? In her book, Smoke on the Mountain, Joy Davidman, wife of C.S. Lewis, speaks to this: "What, then, must we pray for? Nothing that we have not been told over and over again; nothing but 'Thy will be done,' even if his will is that we lose all that the last two hundred years have given us."

I find American Christians often act like God is obligated to keep them safe, to preserve their cushy way of life, their privileges, their benefits. When someone is elected they do not like, they do not understand how God would let this person reign. And even when wanting God's justice and praying for God's bringing down of evil, they want to be spared. "Discipline my country, God, but leave me intact."

Habakkuk knew he wouldn't be left intact. Yet even so, he trusted God in his plan. His trust resolved his fear:
"I heard and my inward parts trembled,
At the sound my lips quivered.
Decay enters my bones,
And in my place I tremble.
Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress,
For the people to arise who will invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom 
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places." (3:16-19).

Could God use foreign nations and those of different religions to judge America and bring it back to him? Yes. And if he does, what, American Christian, will be your response? Will you trust God's plan or wring your hands in fear? Are you willing to accept that which you have prayed for even if it comes in a different package than you desired? If you are, then be at peace. Let your trust in God no matter what banish the fear. Be a light on a hill to those who fear in uncertain times and in so doing, draw others to him.

Joy: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

"Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee."

Oh, the joy! Beset by sin, entrapped by fear, what release is there for us? A baby, a boy-child, unassuming in a manger, he is the source of freedom. Fear and sin find their defeat in this little one who offers a hand prepared for a nail. Will you take his hand and find rest for your weary soul?

"Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart."

Israel has led the way, its relationship with the mighty God a lesson for all: sin is impossible to defeat, a constant torture to failed humanity. Year after year, blood after blood, what release from such a system, from such a need? The hope of earth in the babe of the manger, sent for Israel, and more, for all nations. This is the source of joy, this the desire, this what we have longed for.

"Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring."

He delivers us from sin and our own fear, this child, this king. He enters in when invited to reign eternally on the throne of our hearts. A kingdom he has brought in my soul, a physical kingdom he has foretold to come. Take joy, O wounded heart! Take joy, of soul of trial! This king brings victory, now and forevermore.

"By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne."

Jesus rules. His righteousness conquers a heart dead in sin and brings life once more. I was once condemned, now I am lifted up to my God, before his throne, free, loved, holy. How can we not but take joy in such a truth? We praise the baby at Christmas because his advent is the declaration of sin's downfall. Take joy this day! Your Savior reigns!

(Quotes from the song "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" by Charles Wesley. You can listen to it here.)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Peace: I Heard the Bells

 "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

The world is in a rush these days, only rare moments spent in stillness, rest, relaxation, releasing the pent up pressure of daily life. Must go here, must do this. Must live up to expectation and obligation. Peace seems an illusion, something out of sight and too difficult to grasp.

"I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

God speaks into the hurry of the world, "Rest. Sit. Listen. Be with me." His cry echoes down through the ages, speaking from his Word and in hearts. "Come. My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Have we a moment to grasp this offered peace?

"And in despair I bowed my head:
'There is no peace on earth,' I said,'
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.'"

"What peace?" the world replies and we hasten to the argument. Where is peace in worldwide conflict, daily violence, hateful diatribes close to home? Where is peace in our personal lives, in the hustle bustle of the day to day? Peace is a mirage, a temporary, ethereal concept, too fleeting for much substance.

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.'"

Ah, but hope can spring from a despairing heart! God has not abandoned those He loves. He lives and he acts in the lives of men. The good exists because he is goodness. He is just. Wrong will face its penalty and righteousness its victory. God's peace to man will not fail.

"Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!"

Rest. Sit. Listen. Silence the cacophony of worldly chatter. Hear the peace extended to us from a gracious God. Be with him. Recall his words and truth. He will prevail. We can let go into his arms, trusting him to bring to pass our good. Peace is our reality, a moment here, but an eternity in the soul comforting realm of God's heaven.

("I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is a song drawn from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a man who suffered much and faced the doubt of peace on earth, yet held onto the truth and hope of God's peace. To hear the classic version of this song by Burl Ives, click here. To see Longfellow's story, click here.)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Hope: Welcome to Our World

"Tears are falling.
Hearts are breaking.
How we need to hear from God.
You've been promised,
we've been waiting.
Welcome holy child."

The first Sunday of Advent focuses on hope. I don't know about you, but the darkness of this world has been dimming my light for some time the last several months. Reports of so much evil and death take their toll. In my own life I have faced dark moments this year and I am still facing some. I need something to pierce the darkness: Hope.

"Hope that you don't mind our manger.
How I wish we would have known.
But long-awaited holy stranger,
Make yourself at home.
Please make yourself at home."

Where does hope come from? Is it something we can conjure up within us? Perhaps it is more of a yearning, a refusal to see darkness as all there is. Perhaps it has been crafted within us by our maker so we would seek that which breaks the darkness.

"Bring your peace into our violence.
Bid our hungry souls be filled.
Word now breaking heaven's silence,
Welcome to our world."

We can patch wounds, we can weep as one, we can pledge ourselves to service, but we cannot demolish sin. Sin is ever existent in our world. Darkness has been and is and will continue to be until it is swallowed in victory at the end of time. Where is our hope while we wait? What does heaven have for us who suffer below?

"Fragile finger sent to heal us.
Tender brow prepared for thorn.
Tiny heart whose blood will save us.
Unto us is born."

A baby enters our world. He is unassuming, seemingly simply human, yet his destiny invades the darkness. He alone will enter darkness to destroy what we cannot. Sin will meet its match through whip and thorn and nails.

"So wrap our injured flesh around you.
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect son of God."

He who is God-man takes on our own weakness and evil, walks among us and confronts the results of our submission to sin. He, perfect, lays down himself to bring us light. Sin is brought low, we are lifted up and his righteousness pours over us. This is hope. And I welcome it to our world.

(The quotes above come from the song "Welcome to our World" by Chris Rice. You can listen to it here.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Everyone Should Do What I Do...Or Not

Recently I read a familiar passage in Romans where Paul describes the body of Christ, saying that just as a person's body has many parts and they have different functions, so the body of Christ has many members, but not all have the same function. He goes on to give examples of different gifts: "if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:6-8). It's evident that not everyone has the same gift and that's okay.

But it's not okay in the eyes of some. I have noticed that some Christians get so excited about their particular gift they think it should apply to everyone. Or so excited about their particular ministry they think everyone should be involved in it. It's great to be excited about the gifts or ministry God has given you and share about them. The trouble is when we start thinking that others should be doing what we're doing and if they aren't, well, they certainly aren't doing what God really wants.

I guess it's just human nature to consider the things we do more important than what others do. After all, we see everything from our perspective. Some of us, however, get way too pushy about our particular ministries, so much so that some blogs I have read or books I have seen imply that others aren't really Christians if they aren't doing what the author is doing. You aren't a real Christian if you aren't going overseas on mission trips. You aren't a real Christian if you choose to live in the comfortable suburbs. You aren't a real Christian if you aren't helping the homeless. You aren't a real Christian if you aren't fostering children. And so on.

Now the blogs and books are the most vocal, but this attitude can often be found in a heart and not vocalized. We secretly wonder why all Christians don't see the vital need for our particular ministry. We rail about it in our minds, that if all Christians would just do what we do the world would be so much better. We imagine other Christians refusing to obey God and get involved in what matters (to us). We forget that we are a body.

Paul talks about the body in another passage, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20, 29-30: "If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body...Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?"

The answer to the last few rhetorical questions is "no." Everyone doesn't do everything. Everyone hasn't been gifted the same way. Everyone doesn't have the same ministries. Each person in the body of Christ can reach different people with the truth of Christ. If everyone went on mission trips overseas all the time, there wouldn't be ministry (or money for it) to local people. If everyone lived in the inner city, the suburbs wouldn't be reached. If everyone poured their efforts into the homeless, those who have a home would be neglected (yes, people with homes also have needs). If everyone put their resources into fostering children, they wouldn't have them for other outreaches like sponsoring children in other parts of the world.

I think the problem is that sometimes we think that there is just one real cause that matters to God. We tend to see the ministry we are involved in as the ministry that matters most to God. It might sound something like this in our minds: "Obviously, God wants missionaries to reach everyone in the world. People are dying and going to hell! We need to all be going out into the world." "The inner city is neglected. Its people are ignored and marginalized. God loves marginalized people all over the Bible. Obviously, God wants us to live in the inner city to reach them." "The Bible constantly shows God cares about those who are poor. The homeless have nothing. God obviously wants us to spend our time and efforts reaching them." "God considers true religion to be helping orphans. If the church would just get its act together there wouldn't be any orphans. Obviously, God wants everyone to foster and adopt children."

Before Paul launches into his discussion on the body in Romans 12, he says this: "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (v.3). It's a warning that our temptation in our gifts/ministry is to think more highly of what we have been given to do than what others have been given to do. What we need is humility. We need to take joy in what we have been given to do, share about it, get excited about it, yet at the same time appreciate what God has given others to do, too, without judgment that really, what we do is more important.

We are a body. We aren't all an ear or a hand or a foot. We're a mix. We reach the world with our varying gifts and ministries. So let's remember not to judge when others don't seem as on fire as we are for our ministry. Let's not guilt trip others for not having the same gifts we have. And let's all thank God for the part he has asked us to play in his body.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The BIG Mantra

My moms group is reading Jen Hatmaker's For the Love this term and I read one chapter yesterday that made me say out loud "Amen!" and "Yes!" at my daughter's gym/cheer practice. Seriously. What she wrote was so right on, I had to agree verbally no matter where I was.

One concept that so irks me in American Christianity is what I call "The Big Mantra." It's infected us like a disease, pretending to be what Christianity is not and making us believe a lie. The Big Mantra goes something like this: God wants you to get out of your comfort zone. Don't be content where you are. Do something big for God. Get out there and be radical. It often comes with suggestions, too: get out of the suburbs and live in the inner city. Go overseas. Start a service organization. Save the world. Do something big. And it also comes couched in terms of if you don't go big, you aren't living a Christian life. You're a comfortable, sorry excuse for a Christian who can't get off your butt for God.

Man, do I detest this mantra. I detest it because it is so biblically untrue. And it assumes that whoever is saying these things knows exactly what God wants you to do and God just never calls people to do "small things," things small in these people's eyes.

Jen Hatmaker takes on The Big Mantra in chapter 3 of her book. I wish I could quote the whole thing, but here are some snippets. She says it in a much better way than I can and is right on.

"It has taken me forty years to assess the difference between the gospel and the American evangelical version of the gospel. Those were one and the same for ages—no take-backs, no prisoners, no holds barred. I filtered the kingdom through my upper middle-class, white, advantaged, denominational lens, and by golly, I found a way to make most of it fit! (It was a complicated task, but I managed. Please be impressed.) But then God changed my life, and everything got weird. I discovered the rest of the world! And other cultures! And different Christian traditions! And people who were way, way different from me! And poverty! Then the system in which God operated according to my rules started disintegrating. I started hearing my gospel narrative through the ears of the Other, and a giant whole bunch of it didn’t even make sense. Some values and perspectives and promises I attributed to God’s own heart only worked in my context, and I’m no theologian, but surely that is problematic.

There is a biblical benchmark I now use. We will refer to this criterion for every hard question, big idea, topic, assessment of our own obedience, every 'should' or 'should not' and 'will' or 'will not' we ascribe to God, every theological sound bite. Here it is: If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true."  YES!!!!!

"Theology is either true everywhere or it isn’t true anywhere. This helps untangle us from the American God Narrative and sets God free to be God instead of the My-God-in-a-Pocket I carried for so long. It lends restraint when declaring what God does or does not think, because sometimes my portrayal of God’s ways sounds suspiciously like the American Dream and I had better check myself. Because of the Haitian single mom. Maybe I should speak less for God."

"Ah yes, 'The Calling.' This is certainly a favorite Christian concept over in these parts. Here is the trouble: Scripture barely confirms our elusive calling—the bull’s-eye, life purpose, individual mission every hardworking Protestant wants to discover."

"In many ways, the perception of calling is a luxury of the privileged. A life’s purpose need not be authenticated by a business plan, a 501c3, a website, a salary, or an audience. We get to labor over our 'calling' because we are educated and financially stable, so many of us eschew the honor of ordinary work and instead fret over the perception of wasting our lives. Our single mom in Haiti entertains none of this. She works hard because she has to. She isn’t attempting to discern an elusive calling. She is raising her babies, working for a living, doing the best she can with what she has. Her purpose may not venture outside the walls of her home. We will never know her name. She probably won’t step into leadership or innovation or advocacy or social revolution. Yet she is also worthy of the calling she has received. A worthy life involves loving as loved folks do, sharing the ridiculous mercy God spoiled us with first. (It really is ridiculous.) It means restoring people, in ordinary conversations and regular encounters. A worthy life means showing up when showing up is the only thing to do. Goodness bears itself out in millions of ordinary ways across the globe, for the rich and poor, the famous and unknown, in enormous measures and tiny, holy moments. It may involve a career and it may not. It may include traditional components and it may not."

"Maybe we can exit the self-imposed pressure cooker of 'calling' and instead just consider our 'gifts.'"

"Calling is virtually never big or famous work; that is rarely the way the kingdom comes. It shows up quietly, subversively, almost invisibly. Half the time, it is unplanned—just the stuff of life in which a precious human steps in, the good news personified."

Whenever I hear "The Big Mantra" I think of Tabitha from the Bible. Here's what the Bible says about her:  "Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, 'Please come to us without delay.' So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, 'Tabitha, arise.' And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord" (Acts 9:36-42).

Tabitha lived in a comfort zone: Joppa. As far as we know, she didn't go on a mission to other parts of the Roman Empire. As far as we know, she didn't start a social organization. Tabitha could make clothes. So she did. For widows. She took her gift and made garments for them. That is all that she is specifically credited with in this passage. She didn't do anything "big" for God. At least, in the eyes of many American Christians today. But let me tell you, what she did was big enough for God. She used what gifts she had for his glory right where she was. And when she died, people were so moved by her life of serving the Lord with her gifts that they wanted Peter to come and God to bring her back. And he did.

Do you feel you are somehow less of a Christian because you aren't doing anything "big"? Let the guilt go. There is nothing elusive out there waiting for you. If God wants you to do something, he'll let you know. Right now, right where you are, live. Use your gifts. Whether a mom, or businessman or laid off employee or homeless, you can use what God has given you now. Let's stop with "The Big Mantra" and just determine to live for God in any circumstance we are in. God will use us no matter what.

Friday, September 4, 2015

If You Check Your Phone First Thing in the Morning, You Don't Love God

Did that title catch your attention? Did it rub you the wrong way? I hope so, because it's absolutely false. One of the areas I find Christians often fall into the role of modern day Pharisees concerns the "quiet time" we are supposed to have with God. And recently, I have read in more than one place the idea in the title above. I'd like to confront in this post some of the works-based ideas we force onto "quiet time" and then give some out of the box ideas about how to communicate with God in our day and age and season.

I'd like to preface by explaining what I mean by works-based ideas. The ways of having quiet time below are not commanded in the Bible. In fact, the Bible never commands a quiet time at all (more on that later). The ways of having quiet time below are works-based when someone says that you must do these to be with God or someone looks down on those who do not do these or we think if we don't do these, we haven't been with God. The points below have often been turned into extra works we must do to really love God.

1. Checking your phone before reading your Bible shows God isn't a priority in your life.

I really want to see the scripture that says if you choose to do something before reading your Bible you don't care enough about God. If you wake up hungry and eat before reading your Bible, I guess that means you don't have a good relationship with God. If you wake up and finish a chapter from the non-Bible book you were reading last night, I guess that shows God means nothing to you.

This idea is so ridiculously Pharisaical. It reminds me of when the Pharisees chastised Jesus' disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath because the picking and rolling it to get the grains was working. I've always loved Jesus' response: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Jesus' point is that the Sabbath is not supposed to be some ruling over us works day. It is a day of rest and is made so man can relax. It is not supposed to be a day where we feel oppressed and controlled. The Pharisees had added all kinds of rules to the day, turning it into oppression. Saying that if you do anything else in the morning before reading your Bible you don't have a good relationship with God is just like the Pharisees. It's turning "quiet time" into something that should control and dominate, a work done for itself, not a work done to draw us closer to God.

It may be that you are a person who is being controlled by your technology. If that's the case, it might be beneficial to rearrange priorities to put God back in place above that which controls you. That said, if you check your phone before you read your Bible, that does not automatically mean you don't love God.

2. Journaling.

When I grew up in the 80s, journaling was pretty much synonymous with having a "quiet time." If you didn't write down what you were learning or what God was telling you, then how could you look back and know what God had done for you? And if you weren't journaling, you certainly weren't interacting with God's word.

Journaling is a tool. Journaling is not necessarily "quiet time" with God. It can be beneficial, but it is not a requirement. Confession: I rarely write down my thoughts when I read my Bible. I've tried journaling. I will for a while, then I stop. It's not for me. And that is perfectly alright. It doesn't mean God has stopped giving me Biblical insight because I don't write it down. Christians can become enslaved to their journals, feeling guilty if they can't think of anything to write or upset if they miss a day. If you are doing that, journaling has begun to rule over you and become a work in your life.

3. You must read this devotional!

There are certain Christians who are convinced that if other Christians read the devotionals they are reading, they will be closer to God. Even further, there are some Christians that think if another Christian has no desire to read the devotional they love, they are missing out on God. I have seriously seen some Christians look askance when they gushed about a devotional when someone said they were not interested. You can read the message in their eyes: "You are missing out. God would move so much more in your life if you read this."

Here's the thing: we are all different. God doesn't make carbon copies. What you might find inspiring in your spiritual walk might not be the way God speaks to someone else. For me, devotionals never work. I've tried to read so many of them, but I always quit in less than a week. These just don't do it for me. And that's fine. I am not somehow missing out on all God has to offer because I am not reading a certain someone else's thoughts on God. By all means, recommend a devotional, but be okay when someone says that isn't their thing.

4. If you don't meet with God in the morning, you aren't starting your day with God.

I guess if you don't have a "quiet time" in the morning, God looks down from heaven and says regretfully, "How sad. I guess I can't be present in so and so's life right now." Um, no. God is always with us. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. When you wake up, he is already with you. You don't have to conjure up God with a "quiet time."

This also ignores the fact that some people don't do their best thinking in the morning. Some people are afternoon or night people and if they find they interact with God's word better at those times, great.

But Jesus did it! The insistence on morning quiet time usually relies on this verse: "And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35). But there is no command here to have a "quiet time" in the morning. In fact, what about this verse: "And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone..." (Matthew 14:23). Jesus met with God all hours of the day and we can, too.

5. You aren't stronger than Jesus, are you?

I seriously read this online. Someone used this in a "quiet time" diatribe. The implication is if you are not having a "quiet time" then you think you're better than Jesus. This is silly. Jesus never commanded "quiet time." Never. Not one place in the Bible commands "quiet time." Not having a "quiet time" doesn't mean you look down on Jesus and you think you are better than he is. All it means is you are not having a "quiet time."

Jesus did go alone to places to pray. At the most, this is an example for us, but it is not a command. And Jesus did recognize the need for rest in his disciples: "And he said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.' For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat" (Mark 6:31). We need rest as well, but this doesn't say anything about a "quiet time."

Spending time with God is a good thing, even something to be desired. But not having a "quiet time" doesn't mean you are not interacting with God. And it is not a sin not to have it. Laying this idea on Christians, saying that if they are not having a "quiet time" they are not being good Christians, is awful for those in seasons where "quiet time" is next to an impossibility. There are times we may not be able to get away for time with God. And that is alright. He hasn't left us then and he doesn't abandon us because we don't have the ability to find a place of solitude.

6. Quiet time has to be quiet.

You might have noticed I've been putting quotes around the phrase "quiet time." That's because time with God doesn't have to be quiet. I hear all the time, "Our world is so noisy and distracted. If you want to get real with God, you've got to get to a quiet place" as if God can't make himself heard over our world. You can hear God in the midst of noise. You can hear him as you talk to your child about his stories. You can hear God in the car through a song. You can hear God in the middle of a busy street when you hold the hand of a needy person. God is not restricted to quiet. Yes, quiet can be beneficial. Tuning out the busyness of the day can be a relaxing moment with God. But it is not a requirement to meet with God.

We have to be careful not to turn Pharisaical and insist that Christians who are not doing the above six things are not meeting with God. We also shouldn't look down on Christians not doing the above. Looking down on them is tantamount to saying, "You aren't a good Christian like me." We then act like the Pharisees chastising Jesus' disciples for not following their own made up rules regarding the Sabbath.

Now I want to be clear, I think spending time interacting with God's word is vital to walking with him. You can't live the word if you don't know what it says. And I think we should take advantage of the fact that we live in an age where people can hold the Bible in their individual hands. But there are many ways to interact with God and we don't have to force people into a mold. When I hear Christians lament that they don't have time to read scripture, I advise thinking outside the box. Most of the time I find we think we don't have time for scripture because we have been told by Pharisaical Christians that meeting with God has to look a certain way and we've come to believe that ourselves.

If you are finding it difficult to meet with Jesus, consider some other ways to do so: download a devotional app, a Bible app or a verse of the day app. If you are more connected to your phone, this will make it easier to read scripture. One of my friends who is incredibly busy takes a picture of her verse of the day and makes it her screen saver so she reads it every time she turns on her phone. She doesn't have time for a whole chapter, but she can think about that one verse all day. I think that's great!

Listen to sermons or Christian music. There are radio stations that you can turn on and hear the word all hours of the day through sermons and music. There are apps for radio programs and Christian music. God speaks through pastors and through singers. Especially if you are an audio learner, these ways can work well for you. You can also, of course, listen to the Bible from an app or from a CD.

And of course, prayer is always available. You can pray at anytime, anywhere. You don't need an extended time. You can talk to God all throughout your day. Don't feel you have to limit talking to God to a particular time of the day.

The most important thing is that we interact with God. However you do that, it's okay. Don't fall into the trap that you have to meet with God a certain way. And if you are in a season where you cannot manage a "quiet time" at all, throw out the guilt trip. It's okay. God has not left you or abandoned you. He is always there no matter what.

Monday, August 24, 2015

God Owes Me!

I recently read a parable in Matthew 20 that if we are honest with ourselves probably exposes two things within us: our selfish natures and our tendency to rely on works. A summary of the parable is thus: In the morning, a landowner went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hired some workers and promised to pay them a denarius for the day. The third hour he hired more workers and said he would give them what was right if they worked in his vineyard. He does the same at the 6th, 9th and 11th hours. At the end of the day, the landowner has his foreman pay the wages from the last workers hired to the first workers hired. The 11th hour workers are paid a denarius. When the first hired are also paid a denarius, they get upset, saying, "These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day." The landowner responds, saying, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?"

Before Jesus told the above parable, Peter had basically said, "We left everything to follow you, Jesus. So what will we get?" Jesus tells him that the disciples will be rewarded, but also says that many who are first will be last and last first. He then tells this parable and concludes it, saying, "So the last shall be first, and the first last."

As I read the parable, it hit me that the workers hired at the beginning of the day do two things. First, they focus on themselves as they compare themselves with all the other workers. When generosity is given to the 11th hour workers, they are incensed. It is unfair, they think. Those workers have not done as much so they should receive little. I should get more. But the landowner has not treated them unfairly. He has given them what he promised to give them.

Second, the first workers are looking at their works to measure what they should get. We have been here all day in the heat! We have worked all day long. That means we should get more! They are measuring themselves and the other workers by the works they have done.

I asked myself how this applies to us. The obvious interpretation is that those who are saved early in their lives and those who are saved later will both receive heaven. Receiving the gift of salvation is not dependent on works, but on the generosity of the landowner, the Lord.

But I believe we can view this parable also in light of our earthly lives. Jesus starts this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." And he has been preaching that the kingdom of heaven is here. He has been telling the disciples all throughout Matthew that they should be humble servants in the kingdom.

If we are honest, we might admit that we often look at others, comparing what they have to what we have. And if we are even more honest, we might admit that this thinking can turn on God, accusing him of being unfair. "God, I have done this and this and this for you. I have given up this and this and this. But that Christian over there? She hasn't done this and this and this. And look at the way she lives her life. She doesn't act like a Christian. How could you give her this and so?"

Walking in works does not happen just in regards to salvation. We can make works the avenue through which God "owes" us something. We can grumble and whine and complain that God give us what we think is equal to our works. When we do so, we act in selfishness and what we are truly doing is getting upset at the generosity and grace of God towards others. Hear that again. We are upset that God is generous and gracious. We don't want him to be generous and gracious to those who are "worse then us." It isn't fair. But, Christian, grace is not fair. If grace were fair, you would not get it at all.

I think this parable can serve as a catalyst for us to scrutinize our own lives, to ask if there are people we are jealous of because God has given them so much. To ask if we have made our relationship with God quid pro quo. To ask if we are upset that God has kept his promise to us, but has not given us all the extras we think we deserve for being so faithful. To ask if we are angry at God's grace and generosity. And if we are, to expose our attitudes, repent and change.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Get Rid of the Stumbling Block!

Matthew 18 begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It's always been a little funny to me how concerned the disciples seemed to be over the status of everyone in God's kingdom. Jesus sets them straight each time, and in this instance uses a child as an object lesson, telling them that you need to be like a child or you will never get into the kingdom. It is the humble, Jesus says, that is the greatest in the kingdom.

He then goes on to say that anyone who causes "one such child" to stumble would be better off having a great millstone fastened to his neck and drowned. Contrary to the way this verse is used out of context, the "one such child" is not referring to literal children. The context of the passage makes it clear this refers to disciples of Christ. And why the millstone? The context is Jesus talking about receiving a disciple in his name. Someone who causes a disciple to stumble would be rejecting Jesus. In other words, the rejector is headed to somewhere worse than being drowned with a millstone: hell.

Next comes the verse that I read recently that made me think: "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!" (Matthew 18:7). Woe is a term that announces judgment. The gospels often talk of the world as broken and in need of salvation (John 3:16), but here Jesus announces woe to the world because of it causing people to stumble. To stumble means to sin. As Jesus notes, stumbling blocks, temptations to sin, are inevitable. But woe to those that lay them down in front of people!

We live in a world full of stumbling blocks. Often these stumbling blocks are not only laid down to fall over, but praised. Many stumbling blocks are called good and right and brave. I thought of Romans 1:29-32, which says of the unrighteous, "being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them." Sin is lauded and praised. Sin is declared good. Sin is called normal and right. And many stumble because they have been led to the stumbling block.

This begs the question, am I in any way placing a stumbling block in someone's path? Are you? Taking Romans 1:29-32 as our examples, we ask these questions:

Do we engage others in gossip? Do we eagerly join in and listen to gossip?
Do we slander others? Do we like statuses where people slander others?
Do we act prideful, looking down on others? Do we commiserate with other prideful people and put down those who aren't like us?
Do we disobey our parents? Do we encourage others to dishonor their parents?
Do we withhold love and mercy? Do we give a thumbs up to the harsh, unloving words and actions of others?

We need to evaluate our own lives. It's a hard question to ask, but one in light of Matthew 18:7 I believe must be asked. Do I hold a stumbling block in my hands? Have I set it in front of anyone? How can I remove it? Jesus was quite clear that we should do all we can to remove stumbling blocks. In hyperbole, Jesus says it would be better for us to cut off our hands or feet that cause us to sin or tear out our eyes than the be thrown in hell intact. I believe this is a call for us to evaluate ourselves and to do what it takes to remove sin from our lives. And to stop being a stumbling block causing others around us to sin.

Are you stumbling? Are you the source of the stumbling block? Today, throw it away. Today, get rid of the block. May it not be said of us that we are the source of someone's sin.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Being Hated

So an interesting thought occurred to me the other day: if you are alive and you identify with any kind of group, you are going to be hated. I started listing in my mind different groups of people and the other groups that hate them (Note I am definitely generalizing here. Not all people in these groups will hate the people in the other groups. But if any do, I counted it). Here's a partial list:

Christians: Atheists, Agnostics, Politicians
Atheists: Christians, Politicians
Agnostics: Christians, Atheists
Muslims: Christians, Atheists
African Americans: Any other race
White Americans: Any other race
Mexican Americans: Any other race
Those who breastfeed: Those who don't breastfeed
Those who formula feed: Those who breastfeed
Vegans: Meat eaters, Vegetarians
Vegetarians: Meat eaters, Vegans
Meat Eaters: Vegetarians, Vegans

You get the point. I could go on forever. This list is in no way exhaustive. Think of any group and there will be another group that hates them. And Christians, unfortunately, are not exempt from being on the hate bandwagon, whether on the giving or receiving end.

It's like somehow hate is part of human DNA, that we can't get away from it and are born hardwired to hate. Hum...Let's see. Perhaps that's because sin actually exists. Actually, there is no perhaps about it. Sin exists. And where sin exists, hate will, too.

When I teach about Genesis and the Fall, I have students list out what relationships broke down in the garden. We come up with five: God's relationship with man, man's relationship with man, man's relationship with himself, man's relationship with nature, nature's relationship with nature. When sin became entwined in the nature of man, man's relationship with man was broken. That means that hating each other is an inevitable result of sin. What is the next sin we see played out in the Bible after Adam and Eve disobeyed God? Cain getting jealous and killing Abel. In case we missed it, the Bible makes it clear: sin causes men to hate each other.

So what does this mean for Christians? Let's start with the receiving end. Christian, you will be hated. It shouldn't come as a shock that we are hated. Sin exists so we will be hated. Even Jesus made this fact clear: "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:18-20). Jesus was no stranger to being hated. Who hated him? Pharisees, Sadducees, Teachers of the Law, Romans, synagogue congregations, people of his hometown and more. We are not greater than our master. He was hated and we are hated.

So if we will be hated, what should we do about that? First, expect it. When the next news article denigrates Christians or that blog out there eviscerates us or a fellow believer is thrown in prison for belief or a martyr is murdered, don't be shocked. This is the way of the world. Peter says about being persecuted as Christians, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you" (1 Peter 4:12-14). Peter actually tells us to stop being surprised by the hate since it isn't in any way strange and instead rejoice. Rejoice! Rejoice because you have so identified with Christ that people can't stand you because they can't stand him.

Second, be careful how you respond to being hated. Christians should not respond to hate by hating back. Let's turn to our hated master again. Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?" (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Our response to being hated should be to love the haters. Pray for the haters. Treat them with kindness (Matthew 5:38-42). Answer them with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). The Bible doesn't say to rage and yell and burn inside with hate in response to being hated. In fact, it says that those who hate live in the dark: "But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes" (1 John 2:11).

Some people might challenge this saying that Jesus lectured the Pharisees or took a whip to the money changers in the temple. Then how do you reconcile these facts with Jesus' words above? Was he lying? He wasn't lying. Jesus did lecture the Pharisees. But to what purpose? First, if you read Matthew 23, it is clear Jesus is confronting the Pharisees' hypocrisy. Before he launches into his lecture, he says, "So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." When the Pharisees preached scripture, guess what? They were right. Thus, Jesus says to do what they tell you. But he says you should not do what they do because they don't practice the scripture. They were religious hypocrites. They were leading the people astray by being bad examples of living out scripture. Jesus is addressing their hypocrisy. Second, Jesus wants them to be saved! "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town." Jesus is sending prophets and sages and teachers to provide an escape for the Pharisees from hell. And sadly, the Pharisees will reject those sent to save their very souls. Jesus doesn't lecture the Pharisees because he hates them. Jesus loved them. He wanted them to be saved. But they would not hear. They would not change their hypocritical ways and they destroyed those sent to help them. Jesus laments, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." How his heart longs to gather the Pharisees lovingly into his protective arms!

Christian, is this what you long for in regards to the haters? Do you want to bring them into your arms as a brother or sister? Do you long for their salvation and escape from sin? Or are you just affronted and angry about being hated? Jesus longs for the reconciliation of those who hate him and our heart should reflect his heart.

What about the temple? "Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 'It is written,' he said to them, 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a den of robbers'" (Matthew 21:12-13). Nothing here says that Jesus hated the merchants. Nothing here says that the merchants hated Jesus and since they hated him he decided to hate them back. That is not what is happening here. This is Jesus in his own house. His house has been personally invaded. And interestingly, it's been invaded by hypocrisy, the same problem of the Pharisees. A place meant for prayer and worship had been turned into a place to make money. Money was being drained from worshippers in the guise of religious obedience. This is Jesus cleaning out his house and making it clear that the temple is not a place to worship money or to extort worshippers but a place to come to God Almighty no matter how rich or poor you are. Jesus cleaning out the temple is not about hating those who hated him.

Finally, 1 Peter 4 goes on to say, "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler." We are blessed when hated because we identify with Christ. We are not blessed if we suffer for being criminal--including meddling! Peter actually says we shouldn't consider suffering for getting involved in affairs not belonging to us to be suffering for Christ. We are not blessed if we suffer for ranting about the haters, insulting them, or laughing derisively at them. If these actions cause us suffering, it is suffering deserved. 

My favorite movie about Jesus is Ben-Hur. It's a unique movie because its subtitle is A Tale of the Christ. Yet we never see Jesus' face and the majority of the movie follows Ben-Hur. How is it about the Christ? Because it is a story of how Jesus transforms us. It's about how he takes our hate and replaces it with a heart of love. Ben-Hur is a man eaten up by hate. Esther, his love interest, laments this at one point saying, "It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy. Giving evil for evil. Hatred is turning you to stone." Christian, are you the very thing you claim to hate? Are you a hater hating your haters? Esther says as well, "I know there is a law in life, that blood begets more blood as dog begets dog. Death generates death, as the vulture breeds the vulture! But the voice I heard today on the hill said, 'Love your enemy. Do good to those who do spitefully use you.'" Hate begets hate. Hate doesn't turn into love. Hating your enemies will not expose them to the love of God.

What happens to Ben-Hur? He sees the cross and speaks a line that causes me to tear up every time: "Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'...And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." Let us look to our master, he who asked his father to forgive those who hated him, those who in their ignorance killed the one sent to save them. Let us let his voice take the swords out of our hands.

For more on this, including what we should hate, check out this link: What Does the Bible Say About Hate?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Christians, Social Media and the Loss of Grace

To begin, please take time to read this story from our Lord:

"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?'

Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

'Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

'But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

'Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

'This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.'"

My heart has been heavy for a long time. It's heavy because I see such a lack of grace from many Christians in our society. And where I see it most on display is in the realm of social media.

We live in a difficult time. We live in a time where it is so easy to fail publicly. Our sin isn't dealt with just between those we have hurt and God anymore; no, the whole world gets to weigh in on it.

We live in a time where people's sense of justice is often doled out on everyone they hate, even if the person they hate is someone they have never met, never talked to, never walked with.

I can take that kind of justice from secular people. I don't like it, but I get it. What I can't take is the absolute hate coming from Christians. Christians who seem to have forgotten how much debt they have been forgiven. In social media, we get the opportunity to not only make people pay who have personally offended us but people who have offended others. We insert ourselves into the issue and decide to make the lives of the offenders living hell so we feel a sense of personal justice.

Maybe that's the problem with social media. We somehow feel when someone is revealed to have committed a sin or made a mistake that this action was taken against us even though it wasn't.

Now before you think I am more holier than thou, I struggle with this tendency in myself. There are times I feel just like Jonah. I don't want Ninevah to repent. I don't want people to be forgiven because I can say right along with Jonah, "Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." Sometimes I want to see justice. I don't want God's grace to fall on sinners.

Think of someone who has done something you consider so awful, so heinous. Now, think of Jesus sitting down and eating with that person, getting to know them and treating them with respect. Now we know how the Pharisees felt. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

God's grace doesn't make sense to us. Our capacity for grace is so small. It doesn't matter that our large debt was paid, we want everyone else to pay their debts back to us. We even want people to pay debts back to us that never even offended us personally.

Perhaps we've forgotten who and what God forgives...

A prophet who runs away from a God-commissioned mission... 

A disciple who denies he knows the Messiah when he swore he wouldn't....
A patriarch who deceives his father to steal his brother's inheritance...

A king who gets another man's wife pregnant then kills him to cover it up...

And many more. God's capacity for grace is boundless. There is no one that is beyond his grace.

Christian, you know what, we can get that. Maybe we're okay with God's grace, probably because we have received it. But giving grace to others as a representation of Christ to the world, that is hard. Especially when the whole world is slamming someone else on social media. It's so easy to join the crowd throwing stones, or at the least hold their coats while they do it.

What was Jesus' response to the Pharisees? "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Mercy, not sacrifice. Not righteous, but sinners.

If we are ever to reflect our savior then we must desire mercy, not sacrifice. We must declare the grace of God for sinners. We must pray that our stone hearts become hearts of flesh. That our way would be the way of forgiveness.

Pray. Pray. Pray. Sometimes, that is all we can manage. Our anger may be so rich, our hearts so stirred up, we must pray if that is all we can do. Pray for hearts of mercy. Pray for hearts of grace. Pray for the ability to see sinners through his eyes. Pray that somehow forgiveness will take the place of anger. Pray for that person we cannot see but with hate. Pray. And sometime, somehow, in someway, forgive.

(Caveat: I have been working on this blog long before the Josh Duggar incident. I have never watched the Duggars. This blog is not a blog written in response to that incident. Although the issues may fall within the scope of this blog, it was not the impetus for writing this blog).

(Caveat the second: God gives governments the hand of justice. They can punish and do punish. Actions are punishable. But earthly punishment still does not negate forgiveness, whether from God or from man).

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Living Overseas Does to You

I recently had a conversation with a friend currently overseas and we discussed the fact that once you live for an extended time overseas you are ruined forever. That is, you can't belong to either your own culture or your adopted one anymore. You see the world from a unique perspective and you will often feel like a fish out of water wherever you go. As I thought more about our conversation I came up with a list of six things that living overseas does to you:

1. You realize the world is far bigger than you knew. When you live overseas you experience a larger world. When you lived in your home culture you heard about other cultures, but you didn't experience them (high school culture fairs don't count :-D). When you live overseas you all of a sudden come to understand that the world is really more than your home corner of it.

 2. You begin to see foreigners as complex instead of simplistic. It's easy to see foreign people as one dimensional when you don't get to know them. It's easy to paint a whole culture one way and assume you know exactly what the think and why they think it. But when you actually begin to make foreign friends and go deep, all your preconceptions are challenged. You find people really are individuals no matter what culture they are from.

3. You stop seeing America as the answer to all the world's problems. Not all, but a lot of Americans think Americans have all the answers. I get that. My guess is most cultures would claim their culture has all the answers since that is all they know. So since my culture is American, it was America I realized wasn't sovereign when I lived overseas. There were things the culture I lived in did better than America. There were ideas they had and ways they acted that showed me they had something to contribute to the world just as much as Americans did.

4. You appreciate some of your own culture more. The culture I lived in did do some things better than America, but America does some things better than the culture. I appreciated America had provided me with security and a freedom that was not necessarily apparent in my host culture.

5. You experience the universal nature of the church. Best of all, you get to worship with people of another culture. You get to see the Bible and God's word through their lens. You start to realize there are ways to see scripture that differ from yours and that's okay (I am not talking about fundamental basics here. I am talking about something like how the famine in the Joseph story impresses your students from poor farming families who farm with implements from the 1800s far more than you who never worked on a farm in your life). And as you view Christianity through a different lens you start to see the cultural trappings of the way you do Christianity, those things that are not biblical, but cultural. They aren't necessarily wrong either, but they aren't necessarily right. You learn Christianity is far broader than you knew and, indeed, is a religion for anyone.

6. When you come home, you struggle with your home culture and your home church. Because of #1-5, you feel odd in your home culture. You feel odd in church, too. It takes time to reorient and you'll never reorient completely. You'll think things no one else thinks. You'll say things people don't get. Maybe you'll be labeled as odd, not with it, wrong thinking. When I have friends coming back to the States, I often tell them to be patient with themselves and their home culture. Remember that people here haven't had your experience. There is now a gap in experience, but that is okay. Just as we went overseas with the desire to understand the people in our host culture, we need to desire to understand the people in our home culture. And hang in there. You'll meet people who have lived overseas, too, and then you can commiserate together :-D

Actually, I think you can have all the above experiences within your own culture, too. For example, the United States isn't uniform. If you ever live in another part of the country than you grew up in you will experience this. Even if you just minister to a different socioeconomic group in your own area you can experience this. I think it's good to experience people in other places whether overseas or at home. It helps us to see the world more broadly and to sympathize with those different from ourselves. And above all, it makes us appreciate the image of God in all people everywhere.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

When Christians Hate

If there is one thing that saddens me more than any other these days it is observing Christian hate. As I watch the flow of social media, I am depressed when I see Christians at the least insulting and at the worst slandering people they don't agree with. Before you read any further, let me clarify a couple things. I am not saying you can't make judgments about someone's policies or actions. Jesus said we know people by their fruit and we do. I am also not saying that we shouldn't take a stand on truth. We should. I'm not writing about taking a stance and arguing it cogently or combating lies with truth. I'm writing about the descent into angry pettiness.

Why are so many Christians so angry these days? Not all are. I think many Christians are very nice people that love others, even those they disagree with. But there are definitely some that seem to have rooted their identity in hating people they don't agree with. I see it in articles and websites, on social media sites and on TV. It is pervasive in our culture today.

What does this anger look like? These Christians seem to feel the need to jump on every aspect of a person and denigrate him. There is an assumption that this person they disagree with has no redeeming qualities and isn't worthy of kindness or love. Some make up taunting, juvenile names for the person they disagree with. Some, not content with going after the person, insult his spouse and children. But the worst thing of all? This is often done under the guise of "saving Christianity," as if God won't be able to stand against falsehood and needs us to do the insulting and undermining of a person's life and character to expose untruth. And sadly, I have found that Christians that do this are also ready and willing to take a lie about the person they disagree with and run with it, just because they don't like the person so much they'll believe anything about him.

Why does this make me sad? Because it isn't Christ to the world. Because if I weren't a Christian and I saw the petty attacks and the outrageous anger that come from some Christians, I'd probably pass on the Christian God, too. I am lucky that I have been a part of the body for a long time so that I know not all Christians are like this.

So why am I writing this? Because all Christians should be evaluating the way we approach those we disagree with. First, we should evaluate the way we relate to people we disagree with. We should ask: "Do my actions reveal I hate this person?" Because if we've done any of the pettiness above, we are hating. If so, we need to pray that we can live out Jesus' words, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). We should go to our knees in prayer, not go on social media with a clever hate-name and a tirade of spewing anger. Second, we should evaluate our words and attitudes. Peter admonishes us to, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Peter 3:15-16). People aren't going to be ashamed of their slander when we slander them back. We need to ask ourselves, "Are my words and actions done with gentleness and respect?" If not, we need to change. And finally, we should ask "Am I overreacting?" Sometimes we get so embroiled in our hate that we turn molehills into mountains. We hate everything about a person we disagree with and we huff and stomp any time anything positive is said or revealed about that person. Are we making a person worse than he really is? C. S. Lewis wisely wrote,

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred."

Christians are not meant to exist in a universe of pure hatred. If every time you see a certain person and hatred springs up in you, it is time to evaluate the state of your words and heart.

Jesus said Christians would be known by their love (John 13:35). If so, then we cannot turn disagreement into petty and hurtful insult. The world needs to see gentleness and respect towards those we consider enemies and hearts of love and prayer. That will draw the world to God, not the hypocrisy of Christian hate.