Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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Do You Believe in Miracles?

BURNING CHURCHOne of my favorite “true” stories is certifiably true.  I had wondered about it over the years but  I never managed to find any evidence for or against.  Then recently it was confirmed by Snopes.com.  How do you explain this?

The choir at West Side Baptist Church met religiously for rehearsal on Wednesday evenings at 7:20.  So of course, shock and terror spread quickly across little Beatrice, Nebraska, one Wednesday night when the church furnace exploded at 7:25 PM.  The blast quickly leveled the church building, with flames leaping everywhere.  The force of the explosion knocked a nearby radio station off the air and shattered windows in neighboring homes.

Fire rescue workers and stunned neighbors descended on the scene expecting the worst. Weren’t there fifteen regular members in the choir?  How many charred corpses would they be forced to unearth from the ashes and despair?  Much to everyone’s astonishment and relief, the answer was 0.

No one was killed in the tragic blast because on that chill February evening, all fifteen members of the West Side Choir arrived late for rehearsal!

  • Royena Estes had planned to leave on time, but her car wouldn’t start.  She called and asked her sister Ladona for a ride, but the high school sophomore needed a few more minutes to solve a geometry problem in her homework. They ran late.
  • Pastor Klempel and his wife were about to leave at their usual time when she noticed her dress was badly wrinkled.  She went back inside to press it, so they left home late.
  • Harvey Ahl was nearly always early for rehearsal, but on this evening his wife was out-of-town and he was having fun playing with his two young sons.  When he finally glanced at his watch, he was already running behind.
  • Marilyn, the pianist, had planned to arrive half an hour early to rehearse a difficult section in one of the songs, but she nodded off for just a moment and over napped. Because she was late, her mother, the choir director, was also slow to arrive.
  • And so it went on February 1.  One choir member took a nap and overslept. Another felt lazy and decided to steal just five more minutes wrapped up in her blanket. Two were frustrated when their automobiles wouldn’t crank.

So on the night when West Side Baptist Church exploded, not a single choir member was inside the building.  All had been providentially hindered by completely unrelated distractions, and everyone was uncharacteristically late.

Some would say they were all just lucky.  But the odds of all 15 faithful choir members being late on the very same night would surely be one in a million.  It calls to mind the promise from Ephesians 3:20 that our God can do more than we ask or imagine.

Lift up the Cross!

5 Ways to Help the Less Fortunate

HOMELESS SIGN

One particular verse of Scripture has been pinging around in my brain for weeks now.  Proverbs 19:17 promises, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”

This verse is figurative, of course, because no one can literally loan money to God. He already owns it all, and has simply entrusted it to you and me for a while.  So the “loaning” part is just an expression that conveys one point: God has extra blessings for people who are kind and compassionate to others in need.

But the idea of helping the poor always creates a certain amount of tension.  We worry that the money we give to some stranger on the street may be used for drugs or other addictive substances.  We suppose it would be better to actually accompany this person to a restaurant and pay for his meal. But who has time for all that? So what are some easy ways wealthy Americans like you and me can share with our fellow man?

  1. If the person looks like he might be hungry, give him some money for a meal. Sure, you’re taking a chance he may just blow it on liquor, but that’s more Christ-like than possibly leaving a hungry person to spend another long night with an empty belly. If you can help a stranger, lean in to intervene and offer some help.
  2. Locate the homeless shelter in your area and ask if you could bring over some winter coats.  If they agree- and they probably will- collect some used or new coats from friends and neighbors, and deliver them before the weather gets colder.
  3. Buy a bag full of groceries and deliver them to a food bank in your town.  You can generally visit a website to determine the kinds and sizes of food items that particular food bank is looking for. If you don’t like shopping, just mail them a check.
  4. Find a charitable ministry you’d enjoy being a part of and volunteer to spearhead that ministry for your local church. Operation Christmas Child (Samaritans Purse) sends gift boxes to children around the world in the name of Jesus. Feed My Starving Children enlists congregations is packing thousands of special meal packs to be distributed to desperate communities around the globe. The possibilities for being kind to the poor are endless.
  5. Look around at the people within your own circle of acquaintances.  Quite often, the people most in need to are unwilling to ask.  They don’t want to impose on others or seem like a slacker.  If you suspect someone you know might need some help, show some interest and ask if everything’s okay.  If you are convinced that person needs food or some other essential item, ask for the privilege or sharing or simply mail a gift card anonymously.

It’s always nice to be the recipient of God’s blessings.  But it’s also very satisfying to know that you have genuinely helped another human being; and that in the process, you have made God smile.

Lift up the cross!

WWJND

Jesus never went to political demonstrations.  Protests happened all the time in Jerusalem and many of the causes were just; but Jesus never marched against anything.

Spiritual leaders I highly respect are calling on churches across the USA to organize civil disobedience if Rome- I mean, the Supreme Court- decrees that same-sex marriage is the law of the land.  Should that happen, we all know that the first amendment civil rights of Christians will be among the first casualties. There’s no doubt that the abandonment of conjugal marriage has been and will continue to be an historic disaster.  But is this the hill the Church should be ready to die upon?

When Jesus lived in Jerusalem, pagan Roman influences encroached further into religious life every day.  Roman Emperors were famous for their sexual escapades- not only with multiple women, but with young men and even children. It was not a tightly held secret.  Jews despised the Roman obsession with sports and the gambling that accompanied it.  They hated the fact that a pagan Roman living in a foreign land could order the arrest and death of faithful Jews is Israel.

The gospels mention some Galileans who launched a protest to assert that God alone is sovereign.  Pilate had some of them slaughtered and mixed their blood with a sacrifice he offered to the gods.  Jesus could have easily followed their example and might have been crucified a lot sooner. Two of his apostles were zealots, activists who supported the violent overthrow of Rome; but He influenced their priorities, and never allowed their passions to divert His focus.  When over-taxed Jews tried to bait Him to denounce local money going to Rome as taxes, the Lord defused the issue. He replied that some things bear the image of Rome while others bear the image of God: never confuse what matters most to Heaven.

Jesus never led the charge against human trafficking or corrupt taxation or multiple marriage or forcing boys and men to become palace eunuchs.  The Movement he launched would eventually make all of these evils look as inhumane and undesirable as they are. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t demand political relief: he changed hearts and families.

I’m open to persuasion here.  Maybe I’ve missed something.  But all these calls for demonstrations and civil disobedience remind me of the time years ago when American education began to decline but the PTA pivoted to address dirty movies and vulgar rock music.  They surrendered in the war for education and marched off to lose a culture war as well.  Was that really smart?

At a time when Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention are both shrinking, it’s useful to note that non-denominational churches and the Assemblies of God are still growing. Their members are just as conservative as we are, but they aren’t identified with politics. They are identified with Jesus.

It strikes me that American saints have every right to vote their convictions and even march in Washington DC, if necessary.  But why not do that as Americans and build bridges, rather than doing it as Christians and build walls?  Perhaps political action should be rooted in individual convictions- not in church strategies. Is that crazy?

American warriors have always known it’s important to fight strategic battles on good ground. Part of military strategy is choosing a hill to die on.  The same should be true of spiritual strategy, I would think.  Which is the hill we should be prepared to die on?

What would Jesus NOT do?  I don’t think he would sacrifice saving souls for defending marriage.  Am I wrong?  What do you think?

Lift up the Cross!

Five Reasons it’s Not an Apology

SORRY

I have a friend who insists, “An apology is generally nothing more than a way to make an offender feel better!’  In 21st Century America that may be true more often than not.  But a genuine apology can serve a useful purpose: it’s the first step in resolving a conflict and correcting a destructive habit. Even so, it’s only a baby step- not a long jump!

If you need to repent and you’re trying to begin a relationship repair, there are simple principles to keep in mind.  For instance, don’t let any of these Apology Assassins creep into your statement of regret:

1. A genuine apology cannot be conditional.  Never tell someone you love, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”  If someone just told you he’s offended, you’re questioning his sincerity.  Caring people want to know for sure if they’ve offended another human being, and they are intentional about finding out.  So when you add an “if” to your statement of regret, you’re suggesting that either your friend is dishonest or you are uncaring.  Don’t do it.

2. Real apologies don’t offer excuses.  When you add an excuse to your apology, “I’m so sorry but I was just trying to be helpful,” you minimize your guilt.  When a guy hurts someone he loves, he wants to minimize the victim’s pain and sorrow- not his own culpability.  Just say “I’m so sorry I behaved so thoughtlessly and hurt you.”

3. A heartfelt apology doesn’t blame the victim.  I just hate it when I hear people say, “I’m so sorry you misunderstood.”  Statements like that suggest that someone got hurt only because he wasn’t thinking clearly or had a error of judgment.  When you truly regret what you’ve done, you focus on your offensive behavior, not the victim’s intellect or abilities.

4. An apology cannot pass the blame.  Don’t ever try, “It’s not really my fault, but I’m sorry for my role in this.” Even if other people are to blame for 75% of the injury, you are 100% responsible for your 25%.  Just tell the one you’ve hurt, “I completely understand why you are upset.  I am so very sorry for letting this happen.”

5. True sorrow cannot be sarcastic.  You can interject, “Okay!  I’m sorry! Enough already!”  But it won’t help.  Sarcasm and forced humor are inappropriate when you have injured someone you love.  One part of repentance is the willingness to sit quietly and allow the injured party to share her pain.  Say “Let’s sit down and start over. Tell me what I’ve done, because I would never want to hurt you.  I’m truly sorry.”

Lift up the Cross!

Drowned Out by the Thundering Herd

FOLLOW THE CROWD

Have you noticed nobody ever mentions peer pressure anymore?  Not that long ago, people worried that “bad company corrupts good morals,” and hoped to find some positive peer pressure for their kids.  Negative peer pressure was blamed for all kinds of bad behavior, particularly among adolescents.  But I don’t think that’s true anymore.  These days, there are so many forms of evil beckoning at every turn that there may not be enough bad peer pressure to go around. People don’t generally surrender to sin under pressure anymore.

Today’s challenge is peer erosion.  There is absolutely no pressure to live an upright life or behave in a wholesome and responsible manner.  Not only does it seem like bad behavior pays dividends (i.e. the Kardashians,) but it feels like there is nobody left who really cares about goodness.  Quite often I find myself recoiling from some popular, public form of behavior, and wondering, “Am I the only person in the world who thinks this is shameful and degrading?”

I recall the moment from Elijah’s life, when God finds the prophet hiding in a cave and asks for an explanation.  Elijah replies, “Lord, I have been diligent in serving you but everybody else in the country has turned away from you! They’ve abandoned the faith, toppled your altars and killed your prophets.  Now I’m the last one left and they’re trying to kill me!” (1 Kings 20:14)

Elijah isn’t the last true believer left in Israel.  In fact, God assures him there are 7,000 other people of faith scattered all across the land who have never bowed to a pagan idol, and who worship the one true God.  Sometimes it just feels like you’re the last surviving saint!  For Elijah, it was miles of arid landscape that separated him from others who shared his faith in God. For you and me it’s the the overwhelming tide of the media that isolates us in the illusion that decadence is awesome and everybody else is making the most of it.  The anonymity of living in urban settings and not knowing our neighbors makes us feel alone, unnoticed, insignificant; a minority of one.

There’s nothing wrong with being the minority.  Minority status served the first century church pretty well.  It’s not suppressing the influence of the church in places like China where Christians are a real minority, but a growing one.  And before we begin to enjoy more influence and more positive peer pressure here in the USA, the saints will need to dig deep and come up with some courage. We are not on the wrong side of history. To the contrary, the history of the world is on our side.

We are simply on the bottom of a world turned upside down.  When God prevails and the world rebounds, we will realize we were always on top.  And we were never really outnumbered; we had simply been shouted down.  Peer erosion is corrected when people like you and me begin to speak up and stand tall once again.  We are not alone.  God is with us, and He has lots of friends.

Lift up the cross!

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

COUNSELING

We’re told that large numbers of Americans refuse to consider the claims of Christ because they believe churches are unloving or unscientific.  For a long time, I didn’t really challenge that idea.  There’s no doubt many Americans seem disinterested in the Christian Faith, and so I thought that reason might be as good as any.  But quite recently, my experience has convinced me that’s a lie.

As a pastor, I spend several hours every week counseling, mentoring and advising people who are dealing with problems. To stay current, I devote additional time reading about counseling and listening to the experiences of others in the field. One of the recurring themes from  all my experience and research is this: human beings naturally resist change- even when they are unhappy with their status quo.

One of the most common questions that counselors face goes something like this: “How can I get him/her to change?”  The people who ask questions like this- and their number is legion– are usually inquiring about other troublesome adults.  For example, imagine a young woman in a live-in relationship with a man who has no interest in marrying her.  She loves him: he berates and humiliates her, and occasionally sleeps with other women.  So having tried every weapon in her emotional arsenal, she finally comes to you for help.  Tell her this man is obviously a tool; that she cannot change another adult; that she has no obligation to remain with him; that she should move on and look for a good man. Guess what she’ll say in reply?  “I’ve thought of that, but I love him.”

The roadblock here is not that she’s so happy in this relationship that she cannot imagine ever being happier.  To the contrary, she has come to you because she is very unhappy. The obstacle is that this painful situation has become familiar to her. She knows what to expect here and she’s fearful there’s nothing much better out there. She’d rather be an unhappy woman who has a guy at her side than roll the dice and aspire to a real man who has character and inner strength.

The same syndrome explains that majority of divorcees who jettison one marriage only to fall for someone with the same negative attitudes they just walked away from.  Why would anyone abandon one troubled spouse only to pair off with a second partner remarkably like the first?  The answer is simple: familiarity.  The new love interest has a certain familiarity that feels comfortable- negative energy bubbling just below the surface. 

I am convinced this is why so many secular men and women are unwilling to investigate the life of faith.  They may well be frustrated with life, hungry for hope, desperate for answers, but it is fairly well known that Jesus Christ is about life change- not just going to heaven! Eternal Life does not lock us into familiar habits and bad attitudes forever.  Rather, Christ comes to bring new values, new attitudes, along with a new heart.  The joy of faith follows the power to make important changes!

So human beings who are reluctant to change reach for PC reasons to remain in the pain.  It’s trendy to say “Churches are so mean,” even though I may never have experienced a ‘mean’ church- or any church at all.  It sounds intellectual to reply, “Christians are unscientific,” even though the most scientific thought I ever had was how to sink that five ball in the corner pocket. But either excuse sounds better than saying, “Nah!  I’m just too afraid to change.”  People in counseling almost never utter statements like that, but you hear it in their answers and see it in their eyes.

So I’m done trying to convince unbelieving friends that most churches are really nice or that many cutting edge scientists are also devout followers of Christ.  Their familiar but lame excuses are mostly convenient boilerplate.  My strategy will be more simple now: first, show them the positive difference Christ makes in a life.Then challenge them to be brave and risk something for a change.

Lift up the Cross!

Something’s Got to Give

TOILET PAPER

There’s a mad dash to soften the Christian Faith for our very sensitive generation, and the pace keeps getting faster.  Our historic faith can seem rigid, anti-scientific, even intolerant; but everywhere you turn there are experts, authors and theologians who know just how to fix this.

  • Many believe the faith is a turn-off because so many Americans believe in an ancient earth.  They’re looking for ways to read a few million years into Genesis 1, and perhaps they can.  We’ll see.
  • Others insist we are way too dogmatic. We need to stop pushing moral categories, and welcome sinners just as they are.  That depends on what you really mean by the word welcome.
  • Another segment of church marketers argue that our structures are all out of date.  Everything has to change: the way we communicate, the way we advertise, the way we approach ministry.  We are still far too 1950’s.  It’s a given.

There’s surely some truth in all those ideas and many others like them.  In fact, I have said some of those things myself in recent years.  Churches can drift into empty tradition, angry morality, and narrow mindedness .  It’s easy to fall out of step with a generation on the move, particularly when they are running away from you as fast as they can.  But it has finally become to dawn on me that the ultimate ministry challenge facing the US church in 2014  is broader and deeper than ministry style or communication techniques.

Genesis is emphatic that God created the universe, and that he did this with specific standards in mind. Forget about the hours in a day for a minute.  He concluded that everything was “good,” until the sixth day when he evaluated it as “very good.”  God has the authority to measure by those standards because he created everything for his purposes.  That means he has the authority to critique us, correct us, and even condemn us when we fail to live up to those original purposes.  We are the pinnacle of creation, and the Creator put us there for his own reasons.

And that’s the problem the Gospel will face in these United States even if we all joyfully embrace evolutionary theory, interactive sermons,  gay marriage, and pot smoking.  We would still be promoting a God of authority to a generation of people who reject all authority except their own.  Twenty-first Century Americans want the freedom to do our own thing; write our own values statement; be our own gods.  It’s not new, of course. That’s all Eve wanted way back at the dawn of time– to be like God.  It’s what Americans want once again today- and not just the secular ones.  Many churches are SRO with New Age consumers who want it their way- not The Way.

Only God can make hearts like these receptive to a Truth like his.  We will never be able to make the true church cozy enough for humanists who utterly reject the authority of a Holy God.  And that is the Spirit of our Age.  Pray that the Creator will make our generation desperate enough that his holy fire can soften our hardened hearts. It is proud hearts that need to be softened.

And lift up the Cross!

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