Ok, so it’s been a while yet again. Having a baby will do that to you.
So, as some people may or may not be aware, we are once again trying to fire up the engines on Church of Monroe. In doing so, I am hoping that we, as a family, are faithfully following God’s will for our lives, and I’m hoping to see a movement of God in our community.
Sometimes I feel like it will happen, but most of the time I’m pretty discouraged. Let me give a quick rundown of what Church of Monroe is all about. Church of Monroe is about being honest and open, about thirsting for God, about letting God change your life, and about letting your faith be something real and palpable, so palpable in fact that the changes God makes in you become contagious in those around you. It sounds reasonable enough, I think, and I would think that those goals seem pretty important.
But let’s be real. One of Church of Monroe’s goals is to promote Biblical literacy and a desire to know God and His Word. After all, the longest book in the Bible (Psalm 119, for anyone taking score at home) is an acrostic (a poem with each stanza starting with a letter of the alphabet) about God’s law (His Word). You would think that this is pretty important if the longest chapter in scripture is a God-inspired poem on His law and how good it is to know it. Sadly, we live in a culture where only 7% of Christians agree with all of the main tenets of orthodox Christianity (I would be happy to dig the article up upon request, it was sent to me in a Facebook post from a good friend of mine). How can 93% of Christians disagree with most of orthodox Christianity if they are consistently digging into the word of God? Simple. They aren’t.
I’ll give an example. This is a paraphrased conversation I had with someone who was a life group leader in a church my family attended…
me: “So, do you have like a Bible reading plan or something to help you stay on track reading scripture?”
life group leader: “You know, not really. I guess Bible reading just isn’t my thing.”
At first blush, maybe I’m being picky. Not everyone is a theologian. I get that. But here’s the deal, dude. Are you going to convince me that you love God when you aren’t interested in the slightest in what He has to say to you? I mean, I get it. Leviticus is not super exciting and you probably aren’t going to get a lot of practical application out of it. Unless of course you get the book’s implication that God is a force you don’t want to mess with and He’s so powerful that He can snuff out the universe with a less than conscious effort, and that there are a bunch of things that irritate Him because He’s perfectly holy so try your best not to be stupid and do the irritating things He hates. I mean, then yeah, even Leviticus is useful.
I’m not trying to smack people with Bibles here, but SERIOUSLY. How are you going to grow in your walk with God if you don’t care what He’s saying to you? I mean, if your wife wrote you a letter, would you read it? Or would you just kind of shove it in a bookcase somewhere and say “yeah, I love her, but reading’s just not my thing”? Give me a break! You are going to read the letter. Now, please realize that God is far more powerful, and loves you far more than your wife or husband ever will. It’s not that they are evil or anything, but please. Nobody loves like God loves.
Why am I ranting about this? Because it bothers me that the typical attitude in church nowadays is to shove people into the building, give them some stupid shirt with a trendy logo on it, and send them around greeting people because you aren’t willing to find out their spiritual gifting but you assume that if you force someone into action, they tend to conform to your values. It bothers me that people are sold on the idea that the Gospel is about being a good person, and people see how different you are from others and are so drawn into God by your sweetness and niceness and wholesomeness. It bothers me TO NO END that we are creating a church body that is a mile wide and an inch deep, and we are filling arenas and auditoriums with people who may never hear more of the gospel than a token “God loves you so much He died for you” and are left swimming in the moral theology that says God loves us because we are so good and do such good stuff.
Ultimately, I’m ranting about this because I want people to be in AWE of God. I want to be in awe of the God who formed the universe, who is magnificent beyond compare, who is the source of all goodness. I want to be ok with the fact that I am a failure, that I am nothing more than sinful man whose existence is but that of a blade of grass before the Lord God Almighty. I want this to be what Church of Monroe is about. I want Church of Monroe to be used to create an environment where we no longer spend our Sundays worshipping ourselves in vile displays of narcissism that pass for Sunday worship of the Lord of Hosts that are nothing more than sophisticated light shows to feed the ego of some Worship Pastor. I want to worship and meet in an environment where it’s ok that we aren’t perfect, but it’s not ok if we don’t love God with all of our heart.
I want an experience with God that makes me so uncomfortable that every fiber of my being resists being changed by the Lord of Heaven as He conforms us all to Christlikeness until it breaks under the weight of His love and mercy. I want to see the magnitude of God, the greatness of He whom the train of His Glory fills the temple of heaven. Ultimately, I want to be able to join David in saying
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2 ESV)
THAT is a life lived chasing after God. That is what it feels like to need God. That is what it feels like to say goodbye to your own selfish ego, your own selfish games and your own desires, and realize that only God will fill the hole left in your heart. It’s only living in that place where we are fully aware of our own smallness compared to the immenseness of God that we can let down our masks of pretentiousness and goodness, our own little faces we use to hide our imperfections from others, our acts that we try to sell to others and the most High God that say we are wealthy and well-clothed, when we are poor, blind, and naked. I SO HOPE that Church of Monroe brings that experience to my life and to others.
This is the third time we have tried to launch this church. Most of the time, it feels very demoralizing to try and make this happen. I have had my heart ripped right out of my chest by people I thought were my closest friends. I have worked with people who absolutely have no share in the vision of Church of Monroe because there’s no prestige in not being able to toot your own horn of goodness, so it isn’t attractive to people who aren’t attracted to rawness and honesty. But I am hoping, needing even, to find out that there are people in this community, maybe even outside of this community, that are truly desiring an encounter with God that is not just a few songs on Sunday morning, a life application sermon, and a monthly meeting with you life group. I’m really hoping that it’s still possible to meet people who are ok with not being perfect, who haven’t arrived, who are just wanting to allow God to work in their lives and change them.
I don’t mean to unload here. I’m just desperate to connect with a group of believers who both want God’s truth and appreciate God’s mercy, and who know that it’s not about them and how perfect they are or whether or not they have arrived, who don’t treat every sin in their life as if “we’ve dealt with that” and it’s all in the past so that they are just prim little proper Christians. I want to be a part of a body of believers who are ok with being honest about the dirt on their hands while sincerely chasing after the God who is able to clean those hands and bind their wounds, and adopt them as His own. I want to be around those who are ok with the “already, but not yet” nature of our conforming to Christ. Do those people exist? I hope so. I sure want to be one consistently, and I want to find others who are…
It’s hard to be the loner. I mean, yeah, we romanticize the loner (think Wolverine or Batman), but the reality is this: Given the choice, very few of us would ever choose to be the loner. In a society and culture that places an assumed value on individuality, nonconformity, and uniqueness, we want all of those traits; but only if we can have them while still being loved by the crowd! Even those aforementioned heroes, we would only find it appealing to be them because they tend to be appreciated in their solitude. Replace Wolverine with someone you consider to be uncool, and suddenly, it isn’t so fun to be the loner, right?
That’s the position Noah found himself in. The entire world around him desired anything but the pleasing of God. For everyone not in Noah’s family, their goals were to fulfill only their own desires…
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
(Genesis 6:5 ESV)
I don’t know about you, but the words “only evil continually” should raise concern. I mean, I couldn’t think about evil continually if I TRIED. Eventually, I would think about something good, like puppies, or my sweet kids, or my beautiful wife, none of which are evil. I would think about Clemson football, the Carolina Panthers, or the Charlotte Hornets (I’m being hopeful here). But the point is, I don’t think I could manage making every thought “only evil continually.”
With that in mind, think of what these people had to be like. Even conservatively, you have to think that if Noah had regular contact with them, he would constantly get his faith shoved in his face. I mean, we do today, and most people don’t think “only evil continually.” For Noah, it must have been extremely difficult to go through that. Let’s put it into Noah’s perspective here:
- You are 600 years old.
- You are NOT a shipwright.
- You live somewhere where there is no large body of water.
- You are building this giant boat because God told you to do so.
- Nobody else but you really likes God.
I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty daunting. I can’t say for certain how I would react, but my best guess is that it would get to me at some point, on some level. I look at my life now, without any of those things happening, and I find that sometimes I’m affected by the opinions of those around me. I tend to be less vocal in condemning abortion when I’m around someone who believes its ok, so that I will be less offensive to them and hopefully show them that I too, am intelligent, thought I am a fundamentalist. Or for a less hot button topic, I tend to be far less critical of people who I know are doing sinful things when they are friends, or if I want their approval. I’m saying this so that we can all see just how difficult this could have been for Noah. It’s hard to be the loner, much more so when being the loner is the uncool option. To put this in a better perspective, this would be like an alternate universe full of evil Wolverines and you are the lone nice person, like Professor Xavier without the cool mental powers. Not so fun, now, is it?
But, in spite of all of the difficulty, Noah stands for God! When I’m sure he had no support from his community, and no one to rally behind him, Noah did the right thing! How unlike what we are probably all used to! For Noah, being a man of God meant standing against the world.
See, without the benefit of scripture, Noah knew something. What he knew was this: Being a Man of God eventually requires you to stand against what the World wants from you, because your goals are entirely different from the World’s goals FOR YOU. And in order to drive the point home, Jesus felt the need to reiterate when speaking to His disciples…
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
(John 15:18-21 ESV)
Jesus’ words should serve two purposes. One, it should be an encouragement to us. When we are being persecuted for being a Man/Woman of God, it should remind us that we aren’t the first. As we have been hated for the truth, so has God Himself. And so, we can take comfort in the fact that our God knows our trials, has chosen us OUT of the world, and is there for us.
But, it should also serve another purpose. It should serve as a warning to us, as well. We aren’t SUPPOSED to fit with the world. The values that are of the world are not our values. We as Christ followers should not allow the culture to conform us, but we should be change agents in the culture. Too often, we are changed by the surroundings. Had Noah done the same thing, the story would have ended far differently. So, take a good look at your life. If it seems that the world is very agreeable to you, then that may be a warning sign. If you are getting the approval of the world, it may be time to make sure you are seeking the right approval. Because getting the popular vote here on earth is probably not the best strategy to put into place in regards to eternity. If we are going to be Men and Women of God, we have to see what Noah saw, which was something along this line:
Noah saw a promise in following God, a fulfillment in having relationship with the maker and lover of our souls that was so powerful, it was enough to give him the strength necessary to live as a man against the World.
So, we started talking about Noah this week at Church of Monroe. It’s our little church that anyone and everyone is casually invited to Sunday mornings at 10 AM at our home. We’ve spent about 6 months talking Romans, so it just felt like the time was right to move on.
So move on we did. And in our moving on, I felt like it would be a good idea to look at the lives of the men and women of the Bible. I mean, it’s one thing to be able to sit down and talk theology for a while, but it’s another thing to be able to practically see theology in action through the lives of these servants (sometimes that’s a really loose term) of God. In doing so, the first person I found interesting for this purpose was Noah.
One thing that we took away from Noah was this: Noah pleased God. Now of course, that goes without saying, since God chose Noah to repopulate earth. But we can see Noah’s obedience in action even in his actions explicitly recorded in scripture.
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
(Genesis 6:14-22 ESV)
It’s easy for us to miss the details, because most of our experience with Noah began on a flannel board in Sunday school, and has steadily progressed to boxes of animal crackers and Precious Moments figurines (man, I HATE those). But, we really miss the meat and potatoes of this story when we take such a “10,000 foot view” of Noah. These are the details I really want you to walk away with:
Noah was not exactly a shipwright (I actually looked that term up). Noah was a farmer. So, you can imagine first of all the shock of finding out that he was now a shipwright. Second, God didn’t exactly send him out to build a pontoon boat with the little cup holders and party tables on board. This boat was 440 feet long. To put that into perspective, took a football field (including end zone) and add another 25 yards. It was also 75 feet wide, and 43 feet tall. This was not an amateur boat building undertaking. In addition, God laid out very detailed wood needs (“Gopher wood”, whatever that was), and he also made Noah an amateur zoologist in charge of collecting animals. Now, any of these chores in and of themselves would be a gargantuan undertaking, but BOTH? And, keep in mind, whilst building his pleasure yacht and zoo, Noah was also involved with the daily process of feeding his family.
For me, I could understand if Noah were to try to circumvent God’s exact directives.
“Maybe we could make it 250 cubits instead of 300?”
“Do you really mean ‘ALL of the animals?’
“Hey, what IS gopher wood, anyway? Can’t I use something simpler? Can I use more than just gopher wood, because there are some other trees around here I COULD use.”
I could definitely see that happening if it were me instead of Noah. Instead, the Bible records Noah’s response to God’s commands…
Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
(Genesis 6:22 ESV)
How different is that from what we do? In today’s society, we like to cut corners with God’s commands. Things that God makes very clear, we tend to muddy the lines a bit. Take homosexuality, for instance. The Bible explicitly says that it’s wrong, and yet, we tend to figure out each and every way to circumvent that. Some people act as though we are far too cosmopolitan now to not figure out that homosexuality is fine, and the Bible is instead old and antiquated. Or, we misunderstood the meaning of it. Regardless, we find it difficult to take God at His word because we are such an educated bunch and no doubt no more than the being with infinite wisdom. You see where I’m going with this, right?
The lesson we need to learn from Noah is this: one of the essential keys to being a Man/Woman of God is to obey. Just obey. God does NOT need our wisdom, anymore than He would have needed Noah’s. God knows the situation, knows the outcome, and He is infinitely trustworthy in any and every situation. It’s just our job to obey. It is in the obedience to God that we are able to fully watch as His story unfolds, and understand the depth of His wisdom and love. Without that, we struggle against the circumstances, work around God’s wisdom, and never really get to see His hand at work. Let these last words of Genesis 6 sink in…
Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
(Genesis 6:22 ESV)
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.
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.
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.