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.

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.

The Need for Honesty about Who We Are

I’ve been slogging through the first three chapters of Romans with my fellow believers at Church of Monroe, and as we continue to work through the material, one thing keeps coming back to me.  We have spent several weeks now discussing the sinfulness of man.  As one person said during service “man, aren’t you a Debbie Downer!”  It was funny, but I couldn’t escape the feeling of discomfort of feeling like we were focusing so much on mankind and sinfulness.  Why did Paul take so much time dealing with this?  Couldn’t he have made it really simple, like “well, we are all screw-ups, so let’s all thank God for saving us?”

The short answer is this:  Sure, Paul could have made it a lot simpler, he could have given token ascent to the fact that we are all sinners and left us without all the guilt feeling.  And after all, isn’t that really what we want?  Don’t we want to experience the best God has to offer and still be left without all of the guilt that comes along with conviction?  I still remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, many pastors spoke against the movie, saying “we already have too much guilt.”

You know, I can understand where they may be coming from if the evidence supports the conclusion.  But really, let’s be honest.  Look at Christendom today.  If you take a long hard look, it doesn’t really seem like anyone feels all that guilty.  I mean, we have debates within the church over whether or not abortion should be a right for women.  We have churches that affirm the concept of gay marriage and practicing gay relationships.  We have churches and pastors who teach universalism.  I actually sat through a service at my parent’s Methodist church in their hometown where the pastor said she couldn’t really speak with any authority on the falsity of other religions.  Ultimately, I would like for someone, anyone, to show me these auto-flagellating Christians who are already too guilty from the realization of the depths of their sin to be able to function in the Holy Spirit.

I think I could probably wait for quite a while for one of these poor “guilty Christians” to show up.  Because the reality is that we, for the most part, are far too oblivious to the depths of our depravity to understand just how royally screwed-up we are!  Most of us are too busy telling ourselves we are ok to notice how really not ok we are, and until we see just how deep of a spiritual grave we are in, we will never… ever… ever be able to fully appreciate God’s grace.

That’s the reason Paul spends three chapters on a universal indictment of mankind for our sinfulness.  Any less than a full understanding of the depths of our guilt prevents us from experiencing the full measure of God’s grace.  Any goodness we can (falsely) ascribe to ourselves diminishes the real goodness of our God.  Paul is not trying to whip people to make himself feel better or to make himself seem morally superior.  He’s trying to point out that we are so far from God’s standards of holiness that we absolutely must lean on God’s grace.

Where are you at?  It’s a simple question, really.  Are you a sinner?  It’s ok to be honest, really.  I’m a sinner too.  I have to rely on God’s grace every day.  And really, you have to as well.  But, if you aren’t willing to be honest about it, you never really get to see just how deep God’s love runs.  Don’t miss out on that.

 

…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.

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.

Church of the Real

If I told someone that I cared about them, wanted what’s best for them, then behaved as though I never felt that way, what does that leave you thinking about me?  What words come to mind?  Hypocrite?  Liar?  Fake?  Charlatan?  I can assure you, those thoughts and more should probably come to mind!  We are able, only through our actions, to expose the reality of our thoughts and our soul.  Otherwise, our beliefs are empty words, as meaningless as the silence we break with our ill-advised lip service.

And I’m not saying that because I am not guilty at all of doing so.  In fact, I’ve done so many times.  It’s a fact that I’m not proud of in my life, as I have often paid lip service to God with my mouth, and then allowed my actions to bely the utter lack of trust and lack of love I have had for Him.  That’s why the second core value I see the need for is best summed up with the word “REAL.”

I wrote about authenticity yesterday, and authenticity is the idea of being genuine with others and oneself.  It is the value of not being duplicitous, of allowing oneself to be transparent with others and yourself with the intent to be open to allow God to work in our lives.  We often call this being real, kind of like when MTV had The Real World (I am aware that I may be totally dating myself here, and that’s ok).  It’s the idea of just you being you and being honest with who that “you” really is.

This is a different kind of being real.  This is the real of being “tangible,” or “concrete,” of making a real impact.  Our impact we make on the world around us is proof positive to the world outside of us what we believe and what we think.  If we live for Christ, then people know that we KNOW Christ.  If we live for ourselves, but profess Christ, we tend to demonstrate exactly what the world around us demonstrates:  a self-centered absorption that reduces the universe to 1 person:  yourself.  You see, if we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, then one would reason to believe that we, in appreciation for the love bestowed upon us, would reproduce that love towards others.  Hence, the reason why James said that faith without works was dead faith.  Because really, if you aren’t inspired by your faith to do God’s will, and you aren’t prepared to give Him your life and your all, where is your faith?  If we profess faith, but that faith doesn’t move us, what good is it?

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17 ESV

It’s kind of funny and sad at the same time, because you can literally see Captain Pompous there waving a hand at some poor guy and walking past him doing nothing.  I see it all the time.  I’ve BEEN Captain Pompous.  I have to admit, there have been many times that I have walked past someone in need thinking, “Man, I really wish someone would give this guy some money, or a ride or something.  Then I feel less guilty.”  But when we do that, we are taking the blessings God has given us and using them for something other than what they were intended for.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to have wealth, nor am I saying that to be wealthy is sinful.  What I’m saying is this:  If you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.  It’s not enough to just say “I sure wish someone would help you there, Mr. Poor Guy.”  We are to give as needs are there, we are to love others because we were first loved.  That’s the essence of this type of real I am talking about.  It’s the real that says

My belief in God is founded in who He is, and my faith is such that I can lovingly do His will because I know His word is good and that ultimately, my fate is in the hands of Him.  I can trust in that and relinquish myself from selfish worry, knowing that my Lord knows my needs and will not let me go without what I need. So, I’m going to ask God to lead me where He would have me, and do that which He has asked me to do, and do so with a loving heart.

 

 

Authenticity- A Core Value of Real Church

So, I’ve been thinking about the core values that I feel we should be seeking after in a church.  I’ve seen list upon list, with plenty of great values, like humility, obedience, excellence, love, faith, and all of these other spectacular words.  If I’m honest, I think that those are great values.  I would never look at anyone who practiced those and made them part of their life, and think they were somehow out of touch with the values that should be important to anyone who calls on the name of the Lord.  However, I also think that there is a deeper value that, when in place, can be a total help to us in expressing those values.  In it’s absence, it can be an utter hindrance in our ability to emulate our Lord.  That value is authenticity.

Authenticity is a big word for “being genuine.”  Authenticity is sadly lacking in the modern church.  Church seems to be the one place on earth that we should feel safe being ourselves.  I mean, when we consider the amazing truth behind the gospel (we are all tied for most evil person on earth, but God loves us regardless and desires to save and shape us), then it should be only reasonable for us to all feel safe and loved at church, right?  Right?

Sadly, that’s not the case.  If you want to see the one place on earth where people feel the need to play the game of spiritual oneupmanship, it is USUALLY the church.  I say usually to qualify that, but let’s be honest.  How many people ever walk into church and say something like “I don’t really feel close to God because I’ve been too busy doing drugs this week?”  Or, maybe, “Well, since my wife and I have been arguing like ogres for this week, I’ve been struggling sexually?”  I can honestly say, that I have never… ever… ever… ever ever ever ever heard anything even similar to the sort.  I mean, I’ve heard things like this:

“Well, we all have our struggles.”

“I’m a fallen sinner saved by God’s grace.”

“I’ve had my sins and shortcomings in the past, sure.”

Loosely translated, this means “I can’t say that I’m sinless, because we all know it isn’t true, but I’m afraid that if I have to open up and be real with people, someone’s going to look down on me, or I won’t be perfect anymore, and I’ll have to deal with my stuff.”  Or, “if I let someone know that I’m a complete screwball, they are going to look down on me and judge me.”  The very fact that these attitudes exist (and please don’t waste my time by telling me they don’t, I see it every Sunday I walk in a church), tells me something sad about the body that Christ died to give life to.  It’s this:

We live in a society, day, and age where our authenticity before God and others is overshadowed by our need to protect ourselves from our own fellow brethren either out of fear of judgment or fear of addressing our shortcomings.

There, I said it.  I feel better now.  It’s out there, so now we can all deal with it.  None of us are perfect.  Billy Graham is not perfect.  Mother Teresa was not perfect.  Pitchers who throw perfect games are not actually perfect.  Bowlers who bowl 300 games are not perfect (mostly because of the shoes).  And our fail rate in following God’s Law perfectly is hovering around 100%.  As a consequence, the death rate hovers around 100% as well.  But rather than allow God’s transforming gospel clean us and continuously wash us clean of our iniquity, we wish to cover them and turn them into proverbial white elephants, with everyone knowing they are there, but no one ever pulling back the cover on them.

I understand the reasons for it.  I’ve experienced it myself.  I had a particularly painful situation in a church where I came clean on some of my dirty laundry, and when I encouraged others to do the same, my wife and I were completely ostracized.  It was one of the more painful experiences I have had in the church, but it taught me a valuable lesson.  Two of the most common ways for people to react to sin is to either judge harshly, or hide.  Both are based in a game of spiritual “King of the Hill.”  People judge harshly against our sins (and we against other people’s sins) because they(we) view the downfalls of others as a way of building themselves(ourselves) up.  As a consequence, we tend to hide our sins so as not to be pushed from our perches.  We also hide our sins in order to save our own skin.  If we are open and confessing of sins, we open ourselves to the judgment of others, and we also put ourselves in a place where we have to deal with our own sins.

Why does any of this matter?  Because the power of transformation in the gospel is unleashed when we are honest with ourselves and each other.  If we are open with our own sins, we can become reliant upon God and the accountability of our fellow brethren in Christ to free us from our sins and our depraved nature.  If we are open with our own sinfulness, we are less able to stand in judgment against others, as we realize that the line of separation between us and our fellow brother’s sin is nonexistent, and we can begin the move towards helping one another grow and develop in the love of God to become the people God calls us to be.

Authenticity:  it’s the key to developing real relationships with God and with our brothers.  Without it, we wander through life surrounded by our own illusions and those of others, never allowing truth to see the light of day in our lives and never fully realizing the power of God’s truth.  With it, we are able to finally begin to see ourselves as we have been seen, and allow ourselves to grow in the way in which God intended us to.

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