Truth and Irony

Behind the frowns of life there is a smile of grace

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Crumbling Foundations in Christian Community: Recovering What’s Primary

Community is not built on the backs of dynamic personalities. It does however seem that way by much of what is practiced. It is the basic assumption of much of Christendom that if we find the right person, people will come in droves to hear him. Certainly having a recognizable name will draw a crowd, but that is not how community is built. The whole “name game” fosters too much competition and dissatisfaction at the local church level. Men who are not as gifted as our more popular brethren are judged by a standard that they are not gifted to meet. Spurgeons and Pipers only come once in a life time, and even those men would confess that true Christian community is not founded on them personally, but rather on specific Biblical principles.

There is no passage of Scripture more clear on true Christian community than what Dr. Luke writes in Acts 2:42-47. What we find in this passage of Scripture is relatively simple to follow and understand. There is a clear indication that these people weren’t simply involved in the lives of one another nominally, rather they had an intimate fellowship. This was not merely a fellowship that was defined by a 1 to 2 hour meeting on Sundays, it was defined by an involvement in one another’s lives at every level. They prayed together. They shared material resources when one had need. They ate meals together. As you look at the passage, a general theme presents itself: they participated in each other’s lives on every front.

Naturally, its not that hard to connect the last sentence in verse 47, And the Lord added to their number, day by day those who were being saved, with the rest of what we read. They grew because they understood the call to be communal. It would be easy however to focus on all the obvious examples of fellowship and miss the very thing that undergirded the community: they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. Luke tells us plainly that they were devoted to teaching first, and fellowship second; and the rest of this short passage fleshes out exactly what their fellowship looked like.

The concept of fellowship (as stated in Acts 2) is couched between two decidedly worship-centered ideas: teaching and prayer. The foundation upon which true fellowship is built is the apostolic teaching that comes from the Word of God. If we are not devoted to good teaching, that is, teaching founded upon the Word of God, community simply cannot happen. Programs and events cannot be the basis for true Christian community because Jesus designed His community to be founded upon the faithful proclamation of His Word. Pastors are not expendable, but neither should we build the church around their name. We must come to understand the balance of appreciating their call and role in our lives and not make too much or too little of them. True community is the result of the Word of God driving us to love others more deeply. Genuine love is the result of the Word of God penetrating our own hearts and compelling us to act. God raises up men to preach and pastor His people, not simply to exercise control, but rather to build the glorious body of Christ into a rich community.  

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Crumbling Foundations in Christian Community: The Not So Great Exchange

It is no longer uncommon to hear of pastors who have faithfully labored among local congregations, to be asked to step aside. Sometimes those men have labored for more than twenty or thirty years, and yet, their faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion are rewarded with a rather unceremonious  encouragement to resign or retire. There are always two sides to a story, and we can never assume that just because a pastor has been somewhere for a long time that it is right that he continue there. It is disconcerting however, when a pastor has faithfully labored in a gospel-centered ministry, and is told that he is no longer what the church needs because his “success ratio” is not meeting the standard.

Now, sometimes pastors need to be dismissed (or at the very least, strongly admonished and rebuked). No congregation should have to endure a man who is not faithful to lead Biblically in worship, word, and witness. Yet, a grievous trend has become entrenched in the life of the church here in America, and it is deeply affecting our ability to have strong, Bible-centered community.

If you examine the Bible and early church history, you can see that the pastor was charged with the duty of teaching and preaching, caring for the spiritual needs of the flock, and to some degree, making sure that some physical needs were met. Part of his pastoral duty was to encourage the body, but also to instruct and correct it. The pastor would address issues of sin in his people and apply the Scriptures to their lives where they had departed from clear, Biblical ethic. Of course, sin and pride still made this an unpleasant experience, but it was broadly understood that that was part of the pastoral office. People largely submitted to it, and expected it when they strayed from the path of Biblical fidelity.There are documented cases of men like Charles Simeon, who stayed in his call for 54 years, with many of those years being extremely difficult because he was hated. Many of the Puritans remained in their pulpits decades not because they tickled their people’s ears, but rather because there was a different view of the pastoral office.

A great shift took place in the thinking of man, and while we can see traces of it before the Enlightenment, I think the Enlightenment really established the modern view of pastoral ministry. The pastor gradually ceased being a man called by God to proclaim truth to a local body and became a business man, whose task was to build a successful organization by “recharging the batteries” of those who came to hear him in a given week. The tables were quickly turned. No longer was it the pastor who was in the homes of his people examining them with the word of God, he became the examined. It was the pastor who now sat under the scrutiny of the people and if he did not give them what they wanted, he would be dismissed and pronounced, “unsuccessful”, “without a good vision”, or even, “unloving and unconcerned about growth and community.”

Why is Christian community a glimmer of what it once was, or what it was intended to be? Well, it seems that we needn’t look very far to see one of the major issues. The voice of the pulpit has almost been hushed to a whisper because the shepherds whom God has gifted and sent out are expendable. The pastor is often the target of much criticism, but it is understood that he is to offer none in return. Failure is largely laid on the shoulders of the pastor, regardless of the fact that few have sought to support him in ministry. Pastors don’t personally build the church, but as we examine Scripture, the church is not built without them. What must the church do? How must she respond?      

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Caution, Narrow Ahead

A sure conversation stopper, an ace in the hole, something that will give one an advantage over another in conversation is to play the narrowness card. When the narrowness card is played, it spells almost certain defeat in debate for the opponent. I have always found that critique a bit unsettling. What is it that actually makes a person narrow in his or her views? Who gets to decide what is narrow and intolerant or what is broad and accepting? Narrowness in reality seems to be a subjective judgment. That is, one is narrow by the standard of the accuser because there is no objective standard of narrowness by which to measure narrowness.

As it is often defined, being narrow means that one is not open to other views. Typically, associated with the idea of narrowness is intolerance. Of course, my first question when I hear accusations of narrowness and intolerance is, by what standard is the narrow person being judged? My second question is, what does that say about the accuser, that he/she is accusing someone of being narrow for not accepting all beliefs equally? For as is plain, the accuser is also not accepting all beliefs as valid. It seems a bit hypocritical. By definition, being narrow is having a very focused system of belief. Wouldn’t it be correct then to say that we are all narrow to some degree or another?

Whatever the popular opinion might be, Jesus absolutely intended us to be narrow in our system of belief. Consider what He said in John 14:6, I Am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me. Consider what the apostles affirmed in Acts 4:12, speaking of Jesus, they said, And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. The Bible is filled with the idea that the God of the Bible is the only hope of salvation. Now, does believing this make a person more narrow than the person who pushes the belief that to believe in the Bible is wrong? Absolutely not! The person who accuses the Biblical Christian of narrowness is just as narrow because they are assuming that their own form of belief is right.

Now, to be fair, our belief must be a one-way street, but the manifestation of that belief must be a six lane interstate. That is, the object of our faith and hope must be Christ alone, but the love of Christ, that redemptive love that we have been shown, must be extended to the world. Our minds must be singularly focused on Jesus Christ, and our hearts must be open to love His church and the people of this world through sacrificial service. Having a singular commitment to Christ can never be devoid of a commitment to love our neighbor. The most loving thing we can do for our neighbor is to share the gospel with them both in how we live, and the message that we speak. The most damaging thing we can do to our neighbor is to abandon the simple truth of the gospel in an attempt to make the Christian life more palatable. This world needs the abosolute Truth to conquer the lie, it needs the Redeemer of souls to deliver it from sin, and it needs the Resurrection and the Life to restore life. The world needs the narrow truth to conquer a broad dominion.   

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Rearview Beauty

Most have heard the old cliche, hindsight is 20/20. There is no great mystery as to what that means. Simply stated, when we have the advantage of experience and the ability to look back over what has been done, we can see clearly how things should have transpired. That is one of the richest gifts of recorded history. History gives humanity that gift and affords us the opportunity of concentrated observation. Now, we must always wade through the biases and incongruities of the historians, but history gives us a chance to examine life and with some measure of accuracy, to appreciate things that were not readily apparent in the moment they happened.

One example of this is seen in the life of the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams. I am currently reading David McCullough’s, John Adams, and I confess, in my American History classes, I was taught very little about Adams. In all candor, it was exactly as John Adams predicted in his lifetime: when the Revolution is mentioned, it would be accredited to Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. Now however, having had the opportunity to read about John Adams, we can clearly see how integral his role was in seeing the United States formed and nurtured. He was criticized and hated by many in the moment, yet his role in the establishment of the nation is second to none.

Adams was a man of many imperfections, which he readily acknowledged, but he was also a man of principle. In fact, even those who disliked him complimented him on his unwavering steadfastness to what was right. Principle is one of those qualities that we typically revere and cherish in retrospect. That is, we love to look back over history and admire the men and woman who stood upon principle, but often times in the moment they are the target of disdain. At this very point, we must appreciate history. John Adams once said that facts are very stubborn things because eventually they reveal the truth. I wonder, how many present “villains” will be justified in the annals of history as men and women who were steadfast in their stance for what is right…

Principle is a costly endeavor, hence, not very many are willing to stand there. Principle cost Adams another term in office. Principle cost Adams friends and relationships. Yet, the principle of John Adams preserved our foreign policy without war with France, and the principle of John Adams made America a better place. Now he is venerated, but once he was vilified. Similarly, the church is at the precipice of transformation. We have sacrificed much principle for the sake of appealing to the masses, and to what end? We don’t need academics and scholars to sort out all the issues, although, their work in the church is helpful. What we need is simple. To put it in Pauline terms, we need men and women who are steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord because we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain. We are not living for the present, we are living for eternity with Christ and should He tarry, we are living for posterity. History will rectify the the principled; God’s justice demands it. May we stand as our forebears did! May principle and steadfastness define us and not the vain glory that has captured much of humanity.        

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Ordinary is Great

It is inevitable. When you begin discussing sports, music, or a litany of other things, the question that is often posed and answered is, who is the greatest? Of course, the answer to that question is somewhat subjective, because we tend to measure greatness by different criteria depending on the person. The greatness that is attributed to these people however is usually indicative of the measured success they enjoyed. That is, they won championships, produced hit records, or produced gaudy stats that make their success an incontrovertible fact. We call them great because they were successful. We call them great because they managed to exceed the ordinary.

Credit must always be given where credit is due, but is there really one universal standard that determines success and greatness? An excellent chef who produces great food will most likely be successful. The greatness and the success are really adjectives that describe the chef, not just his food. In other words, he is at the center of the greatness and success. Now, if we think of this in Biblical terms, can we honestly measure greatness and success the way a chef does? I think not. Sadly though, that is how we in the church have grown to think of greatness and success. You can hear it in conversation, “Pastor X is great, he is speaking at 4 different conferences this year. Yeah, he has like 10,000 members at his church.” You see it on retreat and conferences, “Join us this year for X conference. Pastor X who pastors the really big and successful church will be our speaker.” Implicit in this logic is, he is great because he is successful and we all need to do what he does.

The most troubling thing for me is, often times, these leaders who are constantly being stroked begin to think they are indeed the cream of the crop. They see their success as a true mark of greatness and an infallible proof that they somehow occupy a small elite. I suppose that by modern, consumer standards, they are great. They are drawing crowds, writing books, and selling out conferences. But, are they great by the standard of Christ?

The disciples had a similar question for Jesus in Matthew 18:1-5. They asked Jesus, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The answer that Jesus gives is convicting and even a little shocking. Jesus summoned a child over and had him stand in the midst of them and said, Whoever humbles himself like this little child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say, He doesn’t equate greatness with missional success, books written and sold, preaching to thousands, or any other external thing. Being great is being humble. Being great is being unassuming and willing to learn. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is often considered the least in the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of God, greatness is for those who are quite ordinary people, but extraordinarily dependent upon Christ. Greatness is not a fruit of success, greatness is a fruit of constant, faithful dependence upon the Lord.  

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A Neglected Treasure

One of the more neglected exercises in Christendom is, ironically, one of the most needed—prayer. I confess, I rarely pray as I ought because often there is no immediate result, the fruit of my prayers is seemingly not the fruit I desired, or I am so enslaved to the tyranny of the urgent that I assume that I simply don’t have time to stop and fellowship with the Lord. Honestly, when I read of the prayer habits of our forefathers in the faith, I often wonder how they managed to write, preach, and pastor as effectively as they did while praying multiple hours in a day. If you read the prayers of many of these men, you will not find perfunctory, mindless prayers that were prayed to pass time. Rather, we find men whose life flowed from careful study of the Word and countless hours praying through it.

“I don’t pray much because I am not really sure what or how to pray” is something I often hear as a pastor. Legions of books have been written and sold on the subject of prayer and yet, we are still largely not a praying people. It is easier to do Bible studies on prayer than it is to actually pray. Authors give us insight and scratch our itch to know things, but at the end of the day, how is all the literature on prayer really changing our lives? If the the state of the church is any indication of how much we are praying, I would say that we are being puffed up by much literature, but not built up because we are not praying.

There is no greater prayer found in the Bible than the one found in Jonah 2. It is a rich prayer for numerous reasons, but there are 2 in particular that teach us how and what to pray. As simple as it may sound, Jonah teaches the ‘how’ of prayer and it is confidence. In verse 1 Jonah says, I called out to the Lord out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of sheol I cried and you heard my voice. Prayer is made here, not out of joy or even celebration, but out of distress and despair. Jonah was broken and afflicted and yet, what is he telling us? He is saying when I was in need, I was confident that the Lord would answer me. We will often not pray because we don’t want to risk disappointment. We want to make sure we give God an out. Prayer is not for the self-confident and strong. Prayer is for the weak and helpless. Prayer is meant to be a confident cry depending upon the Lord to answer.

Jonah also gives us the ‘what’ of prayer and it is confession. The confessions in this prayer abound. Jonah says, He answered me, You heard my voice, You brought my life up from the pit, Salvation is the Lord’s. Foundational to Jonah’s confessions is the grace of God. Jonah was confident that God would hear him and He confessed God’s grace in the midst of affliction. What prompted Jonah’s confession in the belly of the fish? It was none other than God’s continued grace extended to the prophet in rescue and redemption. Prayer is an opportunity to place our full confidence in the Lord and to bear witness (confess) to the wonders of His grace. The more confident we grow in prayer, the more we confess the goodness of the Lord. Prayer is not a perfunctory exercise to be ‘spiritual’, it is an opportunity to approach God in weakness and find help in His strength. It is an opportunity to die to self and find life in Christ. 

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The Striking Simplicity of Social Justice pt. 2

It is an inescapable Biblical reality that God is deeply concerned with how we treat one another.  In many different places in the New Testament, Jesus equates ill treatment of His people as ill treatment of Him and likewise good treatment.  No where is that more clear than when Saul is prostrated on the road to Damascus and Jesus asks him the piercing question, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me (cf. Acts 9:4)?  Paul had never seen Jesus before that moment and the persecution mentioned was against the church.  In the gospel of Matthew, in the context of serving the people of Jesus, Jesus says, Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).  God has so deeply intertwined our treatment of His people together with our treatment of Him, that it is inseparable.  

So, social justice is more than a fleeting thought of simple human charity, at least for the Christian.  We must however be quick to recognize (especially in the passages listed above) that there is a unique relationship between God and His people.  It is not true of all men and women equally that all that is done to them is done to God, and yet, that does not excuse Christians from acting justly toward  those outside the community of Christ.  As in all things, the key is finding balance.  Social justice is not the message of the gospel, it is an outworking of the message of the gospel.  In other words, the gospel doesn’t hinge on that one issue.  What the gospel does do however is liberate us from the tyranny of sin that we might seek to love others well.  

Jesus made it plain in John 13, By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  The defining mark of the follower of Jesus is love.  We must understand the subtly of the statement.  A follower of Christ is a follower because he/she is first loved by God.  As we reflect God’s love by loving the covenant community, we show ourselves to be sons and daughters of the God who is Love.  But, what does this mean for those outside the community?

The call is no different.  The general ethic of the Old Testament regarding the obligation of humanity in general is charity.  The Old Testament is filled with passages concerning the obligation of the covenant community to do good to everyone.  The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) makes clear that God’s people are to be charitable to all.  Micah, a prophet of God, says He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love steadfastly, and to walk circumspectly with your God.  To do what is good, is to do that which is a reflection of God.  In other words, we do justice to people not because it is the gospel, but rather that we might reflect the glory of God to a watching world.  We show goodness and steadfast love because it was shown to us in Christ.  In the end, social justice is nothing more than one more opportunity to answer the call of Christ, Follow Me!         

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The Striking Simplicity of Social Justice

It is somewhat intriguing to me to see ideas take shape in the public forum and then catch fire and become the new, driving purpose for whomever wants to be on the correct side of the issue de jour.  We really are sheep, and we latch on to whatever those whom we perceive to be leaders tell us is important.  Certainly, leadership is a God ordained principle and it is wise to follow leaders as long as they are leading in the right direction.  It seems to me however that we have forgotten how to think and weigh out issues.  Currently, the issue is social justice.  That is, the current litmus test of Biblical fidelity in the public forum is social justice, and how it ought to be central to the mission of the church.  It is espoused by many (wittingly and unwittingly) that the gospel is the message that seeks to dispel all the social injustices that take place on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, this reveals a very grave misunderstanding of the gospel proclamation.

Let me go ahead and clear up one thing: I hate racism, oppression of the weak, mass poverty, and the mistreatment of any human being.  I certainly don’t think those are small issues, nor do I think the church should overlook them.  I do feel however that at the behest of secular culture, we have given social justice a place that it was not intended to hold.  The gospel has never in its history equalled having a “fair” life that is without problems.  As a matter of fact, those who hold onto the Biblical gospel will be discriminated against, despised, oppressed, and made to suffer.  The gospel does not eliminate human suffering, on the contrary, in many instances, it actually intensifies it.  This therefore begs the question, does the gospel have anything to say to the issue of social justice?  To that we must answer an emphatic yes, the gospel does indeed speak to the issue of social justice albeit indirectly.

In the gospel of John, Jesus gave some very important instructions to those who would follow Him.  In John 15:4, Jesus said, Abide in me, and I in you.  Now, one might ask, what does that have to do with social justice?  Fair question, let me answer.  Abiding in Christ is essentially loving Him by following His Word, and loving one another as He has loved us.  Consider this for a moment.  If my consuming passion is to love Jesus by keeping His Word and to love others as He has loved me, my attitude toward Christian and non-Christian alike is going to be radically different.  Christians don’t need to be inundated with literature, we need to recapture the essence of what it means to follow Christ.

The easiest thing to do is go on tirades concerning how this or that group is not concerned with social justice, but that only avoids doing the hard, necessary thing.  We are called to self examine and expose our own sins and shortcomings to the power of the gospel.  If each disciple of Christ took his/her personal call to follow Jesus more seriously, we would see a social justice revolution.  We don’t have to rewrite the gospel to achieve social justice, we simply need to follow the command given by Jesus, “follow me!” 

To be continued…  

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The Tyranny of the Habitual

Urgency.  We know it all to well because it presses us from day to day.  We are driven by it.  Our lives are essentially mastered by the whip of urgency.  We have been fostered on the milk of busyness.  Kids are over scheduled and under rested.  Parents are busy balancing work, home, and all the other extracurricular activities that come with being a family.  I have often observed the frantic pace of life, and have come to realize that one of the greatest allies to complacency, spiritual lethargy, and apathy is the tyranny of the urgent.  Similarly, I have come to see another great force in the stagnation of the heart, and often it is subtle and hard to detect: the force of habit can be a serious stumbling block in our path.

Habit? Besides the obvious bad habits that can work death in a person, what is so dangerous about habits?  Habits have a funny way of asserting themselves even when they are not consciously called upon.  Habits help to form the basis of our routines.  Even people who claim to have no habitual practices make a habit of having no habits.  Routine is not a bad thing because it adds structure to a person’s life, but there is a point where habit and routine can seriously hinder our personal growth.  Take for example the addict.  They have made a habit of substance abuse.  A series of daily choices (habit) causes them to live a life that will most certainly end in death.  Often, it is not that they don’t desire change, it’s that they don’t know how.  A force of habit blinds them from taking steps toward recovery.

Habitual chemical abuse is somewhat obvious.  Much more subtle however are the spiritual habits that cause us to be more resistant to transformation.  Consider the man in Mark 9:24 who had a son  plagued by demonic torment.  The demon often led the boy harm to himself. The father of the boy approached Jesus and asked Him to heal his son, that is, if Jesus was able.  When Jesus corrected the man for his lack of faith, the man cried, I believe; help my unbelief.  Can you see the overarching problem?  The man believed in God and even believed that God was able—I believe—but his habit was a general failure to actively trust God—help my unbelief.  He could appreciate the philosophy of God’s intervention, but practically, he lived as if God would/could not intervene.

It seems so simple.  I am not praying enough, I am gossiping too much, or I am not seeking personal holiness, I will work harder to do those things.  Well, we know from experience, it doesn’t work that way.  We are not robots, and our walk with Christ is not a mechanism that can simply be adjusted.  Transformation must start at the heart level.  That means, before actions can change, the seat of our habits (the heart) must change.  The object of our hope and trust must change.  If we are failing in personal holiness, what is the idol that has captured our hearts and drawn us away?  If we are failing to pray, what other relationship are we giving more priority?  Changed actions are the result of changed hearts.  We can’t ignore habits that lead us away from the cross, but we can’t simply “fix” them either.  As Jesus said in Mark 9, All things are possible for one who believes.  Transformation comes through actively hoping in the gospel.  It is not about us fixing ourselves.  It is about us exposing our sin to the gospel and submitting to the One who can transform us into His image.