The Caricatured Christian

Ned-Flanders-003Hi there.  That’s Ned Flanders sitting beside this paragraph.  He’s Homer Simpson’s neighbor, and he hides a dark secret, though not necessarily very well. His secret?

He’s an absolute caricature of the Christian faith.

He’s what Hollywood and the mass media (and quite possibly some of your non-Christian friends) like to think of Christians as when they are being their most charitable.  This is the non-threatening version of Christianity.  It says funny things like “Okilly-dokilly!” or “Hey-Diddly-Ho!”  This version of Christianity suppresses anger, is timid, easy to push around, enjoyed for its charity, vilified for its strict morality, and ultimately used for comic relief.  It clings to the minutiae of Christianity, is ultimately toothless in nature, and can best be admired for it’s love of sweaters and cats.  Think “little old lady” Christianity.

This is the best you can be thought of as a Christian by a large majority of non-believers or adherents to other faith, and sometimes even within your own faith community by those who have been enlightened as to the reality hiding behind life, that Christianity can not be the religion of the lion-hearted, but it’s a crutch for the timid and well-meaning that can at best be seen as innocuous, at worst as simple minded, feeble, and dangerous in spite of its best intentions.

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002And this guy?  This is Fred Phelps.  you may know him as the late hate-mongering, sign carrying, funeral protesting pastor of the (in)famous Westboro Baptist Church, who for whatever reason, felt it better to spew hate even within their domain name.  I won’t print it here because it’s fairly detestable, but google it for yourself and make your own decisions.

See, if Ned-diddlely Flanderino up there is the best Hollywood/media/pop culture view Christianity as, this is the worst we’re viewed as.  We’re viewed as sharing in Phelp’s anti-gay, anti-islam, anti-darn-near-everything-ever inflammatory hatred.  When he did something stupid, or said something stupid, we’re viewed by everyone around as as at least equally culpable in the stupid.  So much the case that, people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins go so far to say that religions are dangerous and should be banned.  People say things like that partly because of the bad ole’ folks like Fred Phelps here who strangle out truth beneath an oppressive brand of hatred that causes everyone to see them, and you, and me, as Right Wing NutJobs.

 

Sam_Harris_01Speaking of Sam Harris, that’s this guy here.  See the smirk?  It’s permanently attached.  It comes because he is, in his own disturbing little opinion, far more intelligent than religious people.  He’s kind of your average militant atheist.  They like to do things like argue minutiae, the same kind of stuff that the Ned Flanders style Christians described above freak out over because they don’t have any answers to questions like the ones posted in this debate here: Sam Harris Vs. Bill Craig.  Watch it for the fun of watching Bill Craig semantically draw and quarter Sam Harris, but linger over it for the full effect of Christianity at it’s least Ned Flanders/Fred Phelps caricaturistic goofiness.  It’s pretty awesome to watch.

Why bring up Sam the Sneer?  Well, he’s one of the guys spearheading the new view of Christianity.  He’s one of the guys that takes guys like the late Pastor (using the term VERY loosely) Phelps and redraws each and every Christian in some shade of cruelty and heartlessness, and then makes the Ned Flanders Christians cower in horror because they can’t answer his questions.  And if you look very closely at his questions, they really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for a believer to answer.  But we don’t, for the most part, and ya know why?  Cause… you know… Christians.

For every Sam Harris, there are 1000 Sam Jrs who like to say things without any knowledge or wisdom whatsoever, who like to paint pictures of Christians that are dangerous, foolish, uninformed, and ultimately far too insipid or stupid or BOTH to occupy any useful space in the dialog. And for every 1000 Sam Jrs, there happen to be probably 10,000 Christians who are either too timid, too asleep, or too preoccupied with not providing an answer for the hope that lies within them with gentleness and love to actually be able to… well… provide an answer for the hope that lies within them with gentleness and love.

isis-army-700x430This is ISIS.  They’re just crazy.  But a lot of people like Sam Harris use their craziness as an analogy for Christians.  It doesn’t work really well because we’re not pyscho.

 

 

 

jesuskingofkings

See this guy?  Yeah, it’s an artist’s rendering, but this is Jesus.  He’s the King of Kings.  Ultimately, no matter what any of these other people think, see, or do, He’s the guy that’s in charge.  You can disagree all you want.  You can do whatever you want.  But, at some point, you’re going to be accountable to Him whether you find that pleasing or not.  So, really, if you’re a Christian, the Hollywood stereotypes aren’t really what applies to you.  Because you follow this guy.  And part of following this guy is being able to and willing to stand for truth, although the cost can be your life:

36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Did you catch that?  It’s not our job to be timid.  We’re supposed to be unashamed of the gospel.  We’re supposed to be willing to give our lives and our hearts.  Being a Christ follower doesn’t make you a pushover.  It makes you an obedient servant to the King of this universe.  The hard part for us to grasp is that that lies somewhere in between.  We can’t be pushovers and Ned Flanders, but we can’t spew hate and BE hateful to those who disagree with us like Fred Phelps. Because our fight is not with the Sam Harris’s and the Kathy Griffins and Bill Mahers of the world, but our fight is with powers and principalities outside of our realm.  Our job in that fight is to prepare ourselves to share truth, share our hearts and our compassion, and prepare for the imminent return of Jesus Christ!

So hey!  Don’t be THAT guy.  Don’t be Ned Flanders.  You can be offensive to others just by doing your job as a Christian because hey, the Gospel is offensive!  You can go find the answers to those hard questions, and you can be quick to share them without fear!  It’s more than just a right, it’s your duty!

And also.  Don’t be that OTHER guy.  You were saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not your own merit.  Jesus didn’t save you because you’re a special little snowflake.  He saved you because of His own love and grace.  So don’t assume that your salvation comes with the ability to spew hate.  It doesn’t.  It comes with the ability to marvel at your Maker, love others, be forthright in truth, and let your own life be a guidepost for others, that they might see the redemptive work being done in you.

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Eliminating the heart strings from the same-sex marriage debate

marriage_spaceshipThe Supreme Court on Friday ruled that Same Sex Marriage must be legalized in all 50 states across America, thus bringing to a close the country’s debate on the legality of Same Sex Marriage in America.

While many celebrated the ruling, others were less celebratory.  Several Christian leaders came forth to declare that they will engage in civil disobedience if necessary.  Mike Huckabee went so far as to say that he doesn’t see Christian leaders having much of a choice if they are going to be obedient to God.

While it would be easy to turn this into a religious forum, or tug at heart strings, which is typically what happens (if anyone would like to see this in action one need only read this statement from Justice Kennedy:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Awwww.  Pass the kleenex here, I’ve sprung a leak.

Ok, so I’m being sarcastic.  But there is a reason for my sarcasm.  It is essentially rooted in the nature of public policy and the welfare of the public versus the desires of the few.  And while this may sound particularly callous, it’s not coming from a place of callousness, but rather a deep concern for the future of our country.

Let me start with a few things about my own personal opinion.  I do not agree that homosexuality is congruent with a biblical worldview.  And while I say that openly and candidly, I also say that knowing that so are many other behaviors that people engage in frequently, such as adultery, bribery, theft, murder, slander, gossip, etc. and etc.  Since I don’t hold a special measure of condemnation for those people who engage in those behaviors, neither do I hold a special measure of condemnation for people who engage in homosexuality.  Instead I love them just like I would anyone else.  So this isn’t coming from a position of condemnation (If anyone is curious, I DO hold a special measure of condemnation in my heart for University of South Carolina fans, and it’s very real.  I don’t believe they actually have souls.  Kidding.  Mostly.)

That being said, I don’t believe there should even be a measure of religious view necessary in evaluating the Same Sex Marriage debate, because ultimately, we live in an environment that fosters the separation of church and state.  So while I have my own views as to why homosexuality is wrong, for the intents and purposes of the Same Sex Marriage debate, I don’t even want to lay them out as argument.  However, I do believe that the equality of Same Sex Marriage is a dangerous step towards destabilizing our country, and while I do believe those engaging in homosexuality should have access to certain marital benefits, I believe that extending all of the same rights to homosexual couples is simply a bad choice.  Here’s why.

Public policy is not meant to be rooted in our emotions.  It’s meant to be what’s rooted in the best for society.  For example, we have policies against drug use and the sale of drugs precisely because it’s not rooted in what’s best for society.  We have policies against drunk driving because it’s dangerous to society.  That being said, when we make decisions, especially unilaterally comprised decisions that eliminate the people’s right to autonomously decide, we trust our Supreme Court to make those decisions with what’s best in mind for society.  If it can reasonably be proven that Same Sex Marriage is best for society, then so be it.  I’m fine with it.  And while we have been given studies previously that would seem to support this concept, it’s been sufficiently called into question such that in my opinion, it is academically dishonest to claim that there are no substantive differences between homosexual and heterosexual couples for the purposes of child-rearing.  In fact, quite the opposite has been shown, that there are very substantive differences between the two.  It would be ridiculous to re-state what has already been stated, but here is the study for anyone interested that casts doubt on these aspersions of  “no differences” .

Ultimately the problem lies in the fact that, in declaring Same Sex Marriage as valid as Heterosexual Marriage, we have necessarily said that they can be equally successful in all facets of married life, including child-rearing.  As such, there is now no legitimate reason to exclude gay couples from the adoption process even though studies have shown a large and verifiable body of work that says that Same Sex couple situations do, in fact produce drastically inferior outcomes in parenting.  The very fact that children in lesbian couples were 11 TIMES more likely to experience sexual abuse should have given pause to our otherwise inexorable march towards same sex legalization.  The fact that both gay and lesbian couples produced children who were more likely to be involved in crime should have been enough to give us pause.  If those weren’t enough, surely the finding that the children of lesbian couples were 4 times more likely to have been forced to be involved in sex against their will should be a giant red light.  I’m ultimately not going to quote every statistic from the study because it’s pretty sobering and rather bludgeoning in its findings, but continuously, children of gay and lesbian children showed that they fared worse in society and in terms of being productive parts of society than children of their biological parents.

I do understand the same feelings that Justice Kennedy referred to in his speech.  But while those words tug suffocatingly at the heart strings, they do precious little to insure that the best outcome of society was on the minds of the five justices who desired to approve of Same Sex Marriage.  Rather, they reflect a disturbing trend in society where public policy is fueled by a public opinion that is far too concerned with our own narcissistic desires for life to be “our” way rather than how we integrate into society.  In this maelstrom of public policy fueled by “feelings,” we are slowly watching as the desires of the few now significantly outweigh the well-being of the many.  And while I do agree that homosexuals have every right to legitimize their relationship in a way that offers some relational benefits (the ability to share insurance, the ability to have access to health information, etc and etc) legalizing and normalizing Same Sex Marriage was a step in the wrong direction that now allows for the very real possibility that we are going to create a generation of adults who will never experience life in the fullest as it comes with being raised by a mother and a father.

How should a Christian view holidays?

So, we have passed Halloween and we are now entering the real meat of the holiday season.  Autumn will close out with a celebration of Thanksgiving, and winter will debut with silver bells, tinsel, and frustrated shoppers ushering in the Christmas season.  It’s this time of year when we as Christians are confronted with a bevy of questions about the proper way to approach holidays, particularly Halloween and Christmas.  What is the proper response we should give for holidays?  Are we supposed to avoid them?  Celebrate them?  Somewhere in between?  It’s enough to drive a person mad!

It’s helpful at first to remember this:  The Bible never speaks of a need to celebrate or not to celebrate these holidays.  First, neither existed at the time of the writing of scripture, so we don’t have any real references.  What we have are a few references that require some inductive reasoning into what we should do.  First, let’s look at the value of the Jewish holidays in light of the advent of Christ.  We can gain a lot of insight on how we are to look at holidays by what Paul says in his letter to the church in Rome:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

(Romans 14:1-6 ESV)

Paul is writing here in order to bring further clarification on a point he was making in Chapter 13, which was essentially, the Law of God is fulfilled through love.  To paraphrase Paul, he is saying that both the person who believes in celebrating a day (the Sabbath here, most likely, in this particular case, but applicable nonetheless by the basic principles at work) as well as the person who does not believe should welcome one another in love.  So, I think Paul’s point is this:  We don’t fulfill God’s law with our own piety towards a holiday or event.  God’s law is fulfilled only by our love for one another.  Now, let that sink in.

Should we celebrate Halloween?  Does it matter?

Should we celebrate Thanksgiving? Does it matter? (Ultimately, I’m going with celebrating this one just because of the twin celebration of turkey and football)

Should we celebrate Christmas?  Does it matter?

I think you probably get where I’m going with this.  You can come up with all of the reasons you want to celebrate or avoid the holidays, but are you doing so out of love for one another?  You can choose alternative celebrations such as Reformation Day, but are you doing so out of love for one another?  I feel that our motivations for doing what we do should be to fulfill God’s ultimate law for us, which is to love.  And yes, certainly there are some traditions and missteps in holidays that drive me mad.  I cringe when I see some parent that thinks there should be no problem dressing their six year old as a bar maid.  I hate to see people utterly RUIN Christmas by acting like fools on Black Friday, so much so that I believe Jesus will one day judge those who participate in Black Friday as pagans and heathens (I’m mostly just kidding there).  So, as a Christian, how do I respond to that?  Simple.  I tend to not do those stupid things, and tend to explain openly why I don’t.

Personally, I view the holidays like this, and please, don’t take my word as law.  One of the beautiful things about our faith, and one of the tenets we hold at Church of Monroe, is that if we haven’t figured it out in 2000 years of church history, we aren’t gonna suddenly stumble on it now. I look at holidays as a wonderful opportunity to spread the Gospel, to bring together a community of people, and to rejoice in the fact that we have a Creator that is so enamored with us that He even allows us to have celebrations like these.  I live in a small city that is burdened with spiritual hardness.  I have neighbors across the street that are skeptical of the Gospel but seem like they want to hear more.  I think that we, as Christians, can maturely celebrate holidays, or we can maturely decline to celebrate.  But, most importantly, it’s not our job to cram our views down someone else’s throat, or to lord it over someone that we believe the way we do.  That’s the meat of what Paul is trying to say.  These are peripheral issues that are absolutely impertinent to our salvation.  So, celebrate Halloween!  Eat candy, take your kids trick-or-treating in an innocuously cute costume (Our little daughter was the cupcake princess).  Celebrate Christmas!  Eat yummy foods, sit by the fire in the glow of a Christmas tree, give gifts.  Or, don’t celebrate Halloween.  Spend that night with your family.  Spend time witnessing to scores of children that come to your door.  You may be the only Christian witness they ever meet.  Make the most of it!  And whatever you do, look inside your heart.  Are you doing it out of love?  If not, you need to rethink your positions.

What’s so Amazing about Grace? Part 2

There’s nothing more enjoyable than the unexpected break. So, as I have one this morning, I wanted to go ahead and reflect on one of those three points I made on grace. I know there’s more to grace than just my three little points, but for the sake of having something to connect to grace, I came up with three.

Grace is Expensive

If you have ever read What’s So Amazing about Grace by Philip Yancey, you may be familiar with the story of Babette’s Feast. It’s featured prominently in the very beginning of the book, and it created an indelible impression in my mind as to the cost of grace. To paraphrase the story, a French woman escaping from the French Civil War makes her way to a small Danish fishing village populated by a very puritan sect of Christians. She serves diligently with the leaders of the village in the kitchen for her room and board. Her fortunes change when she is notified by some friends in Paris that her ticket has won the French lottery. She asks the leaders if she could finally prepare a real French meal for the village. She does so, and as the villagers eat her delicious meal, they begin to repair old wounds, and are able to come together in a way that would never have happened.

The finale of the story is touching. As the leaders thank Babette and express their sadness over Babette’s assumed departure (she did win the lottery after all :), Babette drops the bombshell that she had spent her entire lottery earnings of 12,000 Francs on the village feast!

The story reminded me very much of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. In both instances, someone gave up something very valuable in order to give an unmerited gift to another person. The point of both stories is the simple point of grace. And in much the same way, God gave a very precious price for us to experience His grace. The cost of His grace was the life of His only Son. So, what does that mean for us?

Well, I immediately think of the number of gifts I have received over the years, and I start to realize a few things. One, gifts that have been given to me that are very valuable and expensive (like my new ESP guitar) are highly precious to me, and I do everything I can to cherish those gifts. Likewise, the giver of the gift also makes the gift more important to me. My wife’s gifts to me (like the guitar, so you can imagine just how precious that guitar is to me 🙂 are held in MUCH higher esteem than gifts from places like the National Gardening club (like a set of Fiskar’s sheers). Finally, the longevity of the gift is important, as well. Someone giving me a box of Toffifay (don’t get me wrong, I love Toffifay) is not going to make the impact of someone giving me a study Bible, because the Toffifay will last about thirty seconds around me. The Bible will last far longer.

Now, what does all of this mean? Well, we have been given a gift from God (the ultimate being) that cost Him His Son (the ultimate price), that will affect us eternally (the ultimate in longevity). How does that affect your opinion of God’s grace? Is it something to treat like a tie from your kids? Or is it more important than that? I think it’s of infinite importance, and it is big enough that it should affect our way of seeing our entire lives. We should live out our lives in such a way that it says we are aware of the preciousness of God’s grace, unwilling to profane it by our silliness, and unwilling to hide it from the world that has not experienced God’s amazing grace.

What’s so Amazing about Grace? Part 1

We have been studying Romans at Church of Monroe for several weeks now, and we have kind of taken a mental beatdown for the past few Sundays.  See, Paul’s been really busy building an airtight case against all of humanity so that there is no wiggle room.  Like a seasoned attorney, Paul is systematically removing every possible objection that people can have to God’s justice in condemning each and every one of us to an eternity of separation from Him and His love.  We now are at a point where, if anyone is really paying attention to Paul here, we don’t stand a chance with God.  None of us are righteous.  None of us are good.  In fact, all of us stand rightfully convicted.  As it is, unless God has something really shocking up His sleeve, we are all spending an eternity separated from Him.

As it turns out, He DOES have a trick up His sleeve!  It’s called grace.  In non-theological speak, grace is basically something good that we totally don’t deserve.  Specifically, in this particular passage, God’s grace is unmerited forgiveness and accreditation of righteousness.  We call that justification.  So, God justifies us and considers us righteous, declaring us just before Him.  But, as we go through this passage, we are going to learn three things about grace that make it truly amazing.  I’m going to go ahead and list them, and then we can talk about them throughout the week.

Grace is EXPENSIVE.

Grace is EXTRAVAGANT.

Grace is UNDESERVED.

I’m hoping by the time this blog post series is over, you will see exactly what is so amazing about grace.

…only there Is, do.

Ok, so cryptic title there, isn’t it?  Well, it’s appropriate for our upcoming sermon in Romans 2 at Church of Monroe.  You see, Paul is continuing the process of taking hypocrites to the theological woodshed, and he’s driving at this point that is unmistakable.  You can hear it in the tone of his letter, because it’s the kind of tone you take when you want to drive a point home.  It’s kind of like that face Kobe Bryant gets when he’s going to take over a game and there’s nothing you can do about it.  He’s going to deliver a beatdown.  Paul’s kind of going at the same thing here, but he’s not taking on the Spurs.  He’s dealing with people who feel like they get a free pass to heaven because of who they are and what they know. Ultimately, his message to these people, to steal the words of master Yoda, is “only there is, do.”

You see, Paul saw his fair share of hypocrites, and laid eyes on more than a number of people who liked to think that just because of what they knew and who they were, they were safe from God’s judgment.  It’s not really that different today, really.  People think they can shove themselves in a seat at church, put the kids in a youth program, and slap a sticker in their window with “Insert cool, trendy name of a church here” Church on it, they get tickets to the big dance.  The only problem with that line of thought is that it is unbiblical, incorrect, and it’s gonna cause a lot of problems for  a lot of people.  Paul’s message, as we will see in this final stretch of Romans 2 is this:  Knowing and hearing the law means absolutely nothing if you aren’t applying it and doing it.  If you aren’t, then “Houston, we have a problem.”

We will keep visiting this over the next week, but it’s important to know that, as Christians, we can’t decide that just because we are on the “Jesus bandwagon” that we are going to the big dance.  If you are just a fringe guy, and you aren’t totally sold on God, and you aren’t giving him everything (except for a 2″ by 8″ section of your back window), there’s a passage in the Bible that you may want to consider:

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
(Revelation 3:15-18 ESV)

If that’s you, there’s time to fix it.  But, you have to stop resting on your bumper stickers, your trendy graphic-art church t-shirt, and get in the game!  You ARE NOT a follower of Jesus just because you go to church.  You are a follower of Jesus because you trust in Him, want to obey His will, and put His desires above all else.

Hypocrites ‘R’ Us…

So, my sermon today was on hypocrisy.  You can listen to the full sermon at this link.  Specifically, today’s message was on the first half of Romans 2.  Paul is addressing the Roman church, and specifically addressing a problem with hypocrisy.  For reference, here is the text:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

(Romans 2:1-11 ESV)

Last week I preached on God’s wrath from the end of the first chapter, and one of my fellow learners said “Man, this is a downer.  Is it going to be better next week?”  I started to look at the text from the same angle, especially when so much time is spent on God’s wrath and divine retribution, and started to question why Paul spent so much time on the subject.  A cursory glance at 20th century history, though, gives startling evidence as to why Paul spent so much time on wrath.  The combined regimes of Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Adolf Hitler combined for over 100 million dead.  Then, toss in various other genocidal tragedies such as Rwanda, and you start to get the picture.  Throw in the fact that we have 40 million fewer Americans than we should thanks to abortion, and you really see why this is so important to get.  Paul spends a lot of time on how evil we are and how wrathful God is because we, as a species, are just really … really … really BAD.  And look, I didn’t even get into our current post-modern quagmire of relative moralism, so I’m really cutting the common person a lot of slack here.  But, the point stands, that Paul spends a lot of time talking about evil because we ARE evil.

So how does that relate to this passage of Romans?  Well, the key to understanding here is that, in order to fully get the benefits of reading from this passage, we have to realize that, rather than being separate from the previous text, it is an admonition aimed at a particular group of people, namely, those who do not do God’s will, but judge others for the same sins they commit.  We like to call people like that hypocrites.

I posed this question today:  Do you know, or have you ever known, or have you yourself, ever felt like hypocrisy was a valuable trait? Of course, the answer was no.  Hypocrisy is without a doubt, universally condemned.  But, it runs rampant in our church today.  It’s one of the many reasons trotted out why people don’t have a personal relationship with God.  But, if any passage in the Bible should speak reassuringly to those who do not like hypocrisy, it should be this one.

The situation Paul is speaking into is this:  the common tendency in the time of Jesus (and ours as well) was to believe that those who were blessed with material/physical blessing were being blessed for their obedience to God.  So, the formula was simple:  wealth good, poverty bad.  blessings good, lack of blessings bad.  And when you think for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that our society still operates off of the same guidelines.  So, rather than evaluating their standing before God, people had a tendency to justify themselves based off of their blessings.  The result of that was this:  lots of people failing to follow God’s will, but feeling as though they were righteous simply because of their blessings, rationalizing with the idea that if they were outside of God’s will, He would not bless them. Hence, the root of hypocrisy.  Because it’s easy to judge others for their sins, then glaze over your own, because if you are living a “blessed” life, that’s all the proof you need that you are doing God’s will.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?  Don’t we still measure our own favor before God with our success?  I mean, I’ve heard many Christians say things like…

God has blessed us for our obedience with a big house for ministry…

God has blessed us for our faithfulness with a raise at work…

And don’t we do that with our churches?  Don’t we make the assumption that because our ministries are just so stinking successful, that we must be living right, doing right, and making God super happy?  The thrust of Romans 2 is this:  Don’t be so sure. For those of us who have been blessed by God, His blessing is not proof of our righteousness.  That’s sheer and utter foolishness.  It’s proof of nothing more than the fact that God is overflowing with kindness, and we have to be aware of that.  The only way we can accurately measure whether or not we are in relationship with God, and actively seeking His will, is to… be in relationship with God and actively seek His will.  I know plenty of folks that think they are in God’s graces because He has blessed them.  I know churches that operate in a way that is totally ungodly, who cover up their dirt under the nice fat blanket of “being successful.”  Paul’s warning is simple:

If you are being a hypocrite, judging others for your own sins, being a fan of Christ instead of a follower, using God’s kindness as carte blanche for your sins instead of humbling yourself before Him, you are going to experience the exact same wrath that will befall every pagan and sinner that you so ruthlessly judge!

Let me say that more clearly.  God’s response to hypocrisy is to lovingly try to steer you in the right direction.  If you are so proud and hard-hearted as to not humble yourself before God’s mercy and grace, He will justly deal with you in your sins.

Where is your heart?  If it’s set on yourself, and you view God’s blessing in your life as your own stamp of approval, BEWARE.  Your sins will find you.  If it’s set on God’s will, then God will be with you both in times of plenty and in times of little.  He will nurture you, initiate you into life with Him, and will conform you to the image of His Son Jesus.

God’s Wisdom, Man’s Lack of Perspective

I’m not much for ranting, but I felt the need to post this.  I make no bones about my recent calling to start a church in Monroe, NC called Church of Monroe. A small group of believers have been meeting with my family every Sunday in our home, studying the word, praying with one another, and looking to affect the community of Monroe in a positive way.  There are plenty of challenges here.  One is city zoning.  The city of Monroe will not allow churches to open inside the area they have zoned as the Central Business District.  The idea behind this area is that it is supposed to be an area for business and trade, and the city planning board feels that churches would make that difficult.  I would argue the lack of merit in that idea, but there’s really no point to that argument, as cities can’t legally zone to disallow religious gatherings in a business district.  It’s unconstitutional, so really there isn’t much to argue.

There’s a reason why I’m going there in this post.  It’s just one small part of a larger problem we have when we listen for God’s calling in our lives.  Part of this calling that I feel God has staked out on us is to reshape this downtown area.  It is very close to a lot of at-risk and down and out communities.  The area is literally crying out for some attention.  However, I know a lot of pastors locally who would think I was mad for wanting to open a church in Downtown Monroe.  Conventional wisdom to most pastors is that you open the church on US Highway 74, a very large thoroughfare that carries thousands of cars daily through Monroe.  It’s unfathomable to most people when you talk about planting a church that you would want to drop it in the middle of beat-up, broken-down, downtown Monroe when Highway 74 is just beckoning for you.

Therein lies the problem.  If you want to know what cripples most people in their quest to serve God, it’s this:  We hear God’s calling long enough for us to fill our brains with it, and then we proceed to use our own logic to make it happen.  Put another way, we get the very first part of the memo from God, and then throw out the rest of it in favor of using our own resources.  I had a pastoral acquaintance recommend a book for me, and after reading through parts of it, I started to get a feel for why church feels so staid, stale, and programmed.  It’s because it’s staid, stale, and programmed.  I mean, look, God does not need me and my bright ideas to grow a church.  He doesn’t need a very well thought out book on church planting, or a very good cell team to start a church.  He didn’t use any of these things the first time, so why does He need them now?

I’m saying all of these things because I’m tired of “connect-the-dots” spirituality.  I’ve gotten sick of the 12 step guide to planting a church, and I’ve grown weary of the idea that we just need to hit on the right formula to grow our very own mega-ginormous-humongo-monstrous church!!!!  God doesn’t move by formulas.  He doesn’t work by hitting the right points in Launch, and He sure doesn’t move by surrounding yourself with other people who helped grow a big church.  God doesn’t need your brilliance, or Nelson Searcy’s brilliance, or Rick Warren’s brilliance, to grow His church!

It started with 12 disciples, one of whom actually sold Jesus to be killed.  It was four fisherman, a political rebel, a tax collector, and a couple other nobodies.  Jesus was by far, according to our standards, the WORST church planner ever.  Yet, in all of this, He started a church that the gates of Hell would not prevail against.  So, why all the drama?  Why do we continue to lift up our own ways of doing this, while we tend to ignore the single… most… IMPORTANT part of planting a church, or doing ANYTHING for God, for that matter?

So, what is that most important part?  It’s listening to the Holy Spirit!!!  It’s not reading the right books.  It’s listening to the Holy Spirit!  It’s not doing what makes sense to men.  It’s … well, you get the picture.  So where am I going with this?

Here’s where.  Given the opportunity to listen to the “wisdom” of men, or the wisdom of God, take the second one.  The first has very limited perspective and is doomed to fail from the beginning.  The second is timeless and meant to prepare you for exactly what you need.

Calling

I’ve always found it a bit dramatic to say I’ve been “called” to something.  I have cousins who are pastors, and they say things like that.  I know other pastors who say things like that.  I’m not too far up the whole pastoral totem pole, so for me, it feels kind of foreign.  I’m called to… yeah, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue well for me.

But after my reading in Romans today, and in my desire to spend time with my super tiny congregation of fellow believers tomorrow, I want to re-examine that word “calling.”  Is it some super spiritual word that you only get to use whenever you’ve had some kind of mountaintop experience with God, or is it a simple word that is applicable to everyone who calls Christ their Lord and Savior?  Can we all be “called,” or do you need to have something special to be “called?”

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Romans 1:1-7 ESV)

Paul knows how to make an entrance.  In the opening of his letter to the church in Rome, he establishes why he’s doing what he’s doing and what he’s doing.  In short, Paul is describing his “calling.”  So, what really IS a calling? In it’s simplest definition, a calling is a summons from God.  It could be like Abram’s call in Genesis 12, or Jesus’ call for Peter to follow Him in John 21.  It’s a call to follow God, to trust Him, and to do His will.  It’s interesting, but often a calling will place us somewhere we have no business (at least in our own minds) of being in, and it forces us to rely on God in a way we aren’t normally accustomed to.  It disarms us, it unnerves us, and makes us uncomfortable.  Abram had never BEEN to the land God was calling him to.  Peter was basically being informed by the Lord that He was going to be crucified just like Jesus was.  Paul’s calling was equally unnerving and disturbing of his spiritual/lifestyle equilibrium.  In all of these circumstances, it would have been far more personally comfortable to NOT answer the calling.  But these men answered their callings, and were able to experience a life led with a closeness to God that we can only hope to come close to.  With every beating and calamity that befell Paul after his conversion to Christianity, Paul was able to steel himself for yet more, if only through his focusing of his attention and thoughts on the prize that awaited him; eternity with His Lord and Savior, the Lover of his soul.

When I read Paul’s letter, I realize that we, like he, have been called.  We have received a great, encompassing calling that surrounds us corporately:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

(Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

And we also are all called to places within that greater corporate calling.  We are all part of a body of believer, and just as our body is composed of various cells and tissues, so is the church composed of the sum totality of its members.  And just as each cell can have variations in form and function, so to do we have differences in form and function within the body of Christ.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 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.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 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? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-31 ESV)

I’m usually loathe to use a passage that large to illustrate a point, but Paul is so eloquent in his treatment of “believer as body part,” that I felt it was best to use the entire passage.  We, like Paul’s illustration, all have various callings to participate in, as we are called to perform God’s will in the capacity in which we have been called.

“Calling” isn’t such a bad word when you get used to it.  It’s just a statement of our summons by God into service to Him and love to our fellow brethren.  Our calling is what part God has determined we will play in this grand adventure of His that will finally culminate with our standing before Him, finally witnessing His labors coming to their full fruition, when tears will cease, love will abound, and we will know as we are known by our Lord.

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