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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Indian Ocean Martyrs

When I first read about the latest pirate attack off the coast of Somalia, several thoughts raced through my mind.

Why would anybody go there? It makes me sad that criminal activity would utterly cut off a part of the world so beautiful as the Indian Ocean, but still, that's the case. It seems only a fool would venture into those waters on a pleasure yacht.

Another thought was ...

OK, so rich people in their yacht were killed. It's sad, but didn't they have anything more meaningful to do than just cruise around the world. Now, this was one of my initial thoughts, and it reveals a lot about me. I am a painfully judgmental person, and God never made me the judge of anything. So, my judgmental attitude is a manifestation of my sin nature. I am so wrong, deep in my soul, to have such thoughts. But, my honest confession is I have these thoughts and they came to surface upon first hearing about the tragic deaths of Jean Adam, Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay, and Robert Riggle. So, I have to repent of an unChristlike heart attitude toward wealthy people who enjoy their riches.

Preaching prophetically about the evils of excess is not the same thing as hating the wealthy. Jesus did not hate anyone, and he calls me and commands me to love my neighbor, both wealthy and poor. I say openly, I am sorry that those thoughts percolated in my mind.

And then my mind complete changed.

I read stories about the Adams and Macay and Riggle on the BBC website and on the New York Times site. I learned that they customized their yacht so that it could be haul hundreds of pounds of Bibles, which they distributed all over the world. Scott had received a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology Degree. He often preached in churches when they stopped. He probably preached on 4 different continents in his life. He and his wife were Christians.

Yes, they were wealthy. Yes, they enjoyed sailing the world on their yacht.

But, what strikes me is that they were people on mission for Jesus Christ. Friends of theirs quoted in the news stories earnestly insist they were not "proselytizing," just distributing Bibles as a conversation started. They weren't aggressive evangelists. I think the energetic assertion that they were not out aggressively witnessing is based on the reality that the Adams traveled in many parts of the world where Christian evangelism is severely frowned upon. It isn't wise to confront Hindus or Muslims with the Bible . Aggressive evangelism likely leads to violence, not people turning to Jesus.

On the other hand, engaging in an activity that is popular worldwide (like yachting), and sharing culture with people (learning about theirs, telling about yours) are ways of building new relationships. In new relationships, we often give gifts that of high value to us. For the Adams, they gave the word of God. In a way that made them accessible as people and did not turn others off, the Adams spread the word of God around the world.

I hope I am doing that. I hope I do it in a way that respects the Muslim, the Hindu, and anyone else I might meet. In sharing God's word, I hope I am sharing something of high, high value to me.

Again, I repent of my judgmental nature. And I admire Jean and Scott Adam. They were true martyrs. "Martyr" in Greek literally means witness. The Adams were witnesses to the power of God. They believed if they could get the word into peoples' hands, lives would be changed, individuals would turn to Jesus.

"Martyr" has come in vernacular to mean one who dies for his witness. The Adams didn't die for the sake of Christ. But they carried the word of God into dangerous waters. Who knows why they were where you shouldn't be - off the coast of Somalia in a yacht? What happened to the Bibles on board? Let's pray that some actually make it to the shores of that country that is locked in chaos. Who knows what God might do? One more witness from the Indian Ocean Martyrs, sailors, spreading the word of God.

Book Review - Mere Churchianity

I write this review as one very grateful that Michael Spencer was able to complete this book before he died in April, 2010. I also write as a pastor who has led a very small church (for 9 years), and currently leads a small-mid sized church (5 years). The reason that is important is Spencer writes as one looking through the scope of a gun. He takes aim and fires, and his target is church.

Spencer’s assault is refreshing because it is brazenly honest. He pulls no punches. Nor does his favor one flavor of Christianity over another. Books abound that criticize one form of church (whether that form is defined by theology, polity, or approach to out reach, or less often by denomination), and then turn around and impress upon the reader the rightness of the author’s form. Spencer does not do that. All forms of church are ripe for his critic’s pen.

Spencer doesn’t hesitate to continuously rip Joel Osteen’s approach to church. He is more muted in his critique of Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, but he does take his shots at Willow as well, even if that assault is implicit. Saddleback also falls into his sights, albeit subtly. Yet, Spencer is not only angry at the huge, famous, wealthy megachurches.

The suburban and country churches that dot America’s highways with their pithy church signs are also a favorite target. In fact any church, whether evangelical, mainline, liberal, Orthodox or Catholic, with 10,000 members or less than 100, any church that claims to be where Jesus is falls under Spencer’s wrath. This is because the churches seem more driven by institutional success than by what drove Jesus. This is because in the name of conformity, people who are hurting and lost go into these churches and they are immediately expected to put the very hurt that defines them into a locked closet. The church may say, “Come as you are,” but Spencer feels like the truer message is “come and act the way we say you should.” That disconnect (between the church and the lost the church is supposed to help and love) angers Spencer greatly. In fact based on his passion for the Gospel and his penchant for direct speech, my description of him being angry is understatement.

He says, behind the Jesus is Here church sign, “you don’t know if Jesus is there or not” (p.16). What’s galling is that you can’t tell either by the behavior of the members nor by the way they welcome new comers whether Jesus is among. But, Spencer would undoubtedly go further than that. Observing the conduct and more importantly the heart, he would say in most churches, it is not hard to discern. It can easily be seen that Jesus is absent and has been for some time.

As a pastor, I some times found myself saying, “Wait a minute. What he’s saying here is not fair and is not true, as least not at my church.” I definitely felt defensive moments where I wasn’t happy with Spencer’s writing. But it is clear Spencer was not himself happy as he wrote but rather he was distraught. He wants people to come to Jesus and his dire concern is that church most of the time drives people straight away from Jesus. And for each time I felt that defensive impulse there were two or three other times where I felt something quite different. In Spencer’s blitzkrieg on conventional 20th and 21st century American Evangelical culture, I had to stop reading and ask myself, “Am I doing that? At our church, are we guilty of confusing people and manipulating people the way Spencer suggests?”

Upon completion of the book, I cast aside my defensiveness. I instead felt provoked. The best word for Mere Churchianity is ‘provocative.’ What Spencer proposes is dramatically honest, close to home, and worthy of extended consideration by all who pastor in the United States.

That said, I do think the author is guilty of some unfair generalizations and some overstatement. He says, “American Christianity has evolved into a movement that Jesus would not recognize if he were to show up next Sunday” (p.24). Also, “possibly millions of people are walking away from any association with the religion known as traditional Christianity” (p.25). And also, “Stop by any number of evangelical churches on Sunday morning, and you’ll hear about all of these [popular life style type issues] in terms that seldom mention Jesus and totally miss what the Jesus movement is supposed to be about” (p.31).

It’s true that much of what passes for church is far removed from what Jesus taught and modeled. Some of the unintelligibility of today’s church can be accounted for my 1000’s of years and 1000’s of miles. The same Gospel message will be look different in a different time and culture. But Spencer is right, many evangelical churches (as well as churches of other flavors) have departed from Jesus and they need to repent and change so that they truly teach all comers that God loves them and that they are called to be Jesus-followers. Spencer is right that repentance is needed. But when he says millions are walking away, it is not only because of the failure of churches. It is partly because they leave one to try another. And it is partly because people have a good experience, but choose to chase the temptations of the sin or the allure of other religions. And while Spencer accurately cites the churches that totally miss the Jesus movement, his books is sorely lacking in examples of churches that truly understand the Gospel and try their best to live it. If he were still alive he might say, “That’s because there are no churches that truly get the Gospel.” If he said that, I’d respond, “Michael, I am glad you are alive. But you are partially wrong on this one.

There are numerous generalizations and overstatements throughout the book, and I have only quoted those from chapter 2. But, if the reader can appreciate how strongly Michael feels as he writes, it is easy to accept his position and not be distracted by it. And I admit, being an optimist by nature, that I assume the good in people, including that smiling megachurch pastor from Houston Michael lambastes more than once. I agree completely with just about all the faults Spencer points out throughout the book. I just don’t know if they are as widespread as he reports. I may be wrong.

Spencer’s refreshingly honest and comprehensive critique of American Christianity is the strength of the book along with two other important strengths. First, his explanation of how church fails in making disciples verses how Jesus made disciples is a very strong section. This comes in chapter 13, specifically pages 155-157. There he describes seven methods of Jesus in creating disciples. Second, at the end of chapter 15, Spencer does an outstanding job of articulating “Jesus-shaped” spirituality. His phrasing is descriptive and helpful, and worth any Christian’s attention.

In conclusion, I could sum up my review with two words: must read. For all pastors, this is a must read. For all Christians who are thinking about leaving the faith, this is a must read. For all church goers who have grown too complacent and too comfortable in their churches, this is a must read. For all on the outside who want an unfiltered look at an insider’s view of church, Mere Churchianity is a must read. I certainly will recommend it to people in the church where I am a pastor. I can’t think of a stronger way to endorse this book.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Who is Your Master?

My sermon from Sunday, February 20, 2011

In one of my small groups, we were sharing prayer concerns. I asked one of the group members and, “How’s it going? What’s up?”

He said, “There’s nothing new. I’m fine.”

When we prayed, I asked that God to bring “the new” into this man’s life. He had said, “Nothing is new.” So I asked God to do something new in him. By the way, I have his full permission to share this.

Our group nervously chuckled. How would you feel if someone prayed that God would crash into your life and do unexpected, new things? Radical change would come. Are we ready for that?

Maybe we don’t want the new. No matter how good or bad things are we know what to expect. We may be thrilled with life. We may complain all the time. But, we don’t seek change. The unknown is unsettling, and we fear it more than the pain we have come to accept and expect.

This is a problem. When we resist change we cut ourselves from Jesus. I am not saying ‘chase after every fad.’ Not all new things are sent from God. We must be prayerful and wise and we must seek. God consistently does new things. It is who God is. Teary-eyed Christians nostalgically long for the old hymns, and yearn for old ways. Such a rearview mirror perspective is foreign to the New Testament.

Beloved old hymns preserve our spiritual memory. We should sing those hymns. Seeking the new is not rejecting old. It is to recognize that our heritage is wonderful because it helps us see God. So does the new.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus promises to give each of his followers a “new name” in Heaven. We sing a new song (5:9; 14:3), and live with Jesus in the New Jerusalem, the capital of the new heaven and the new earth (21:1). Jesus says, “I make all things new” (21:5).

The Christian, who wrote Revelation, a man named John, came out of the church at Ephesus, the community that produced the Gospel of John. In the Gospel, we meet a man who had trouble with new things. His was stuck in a horrible life that he had come to accept.

As is often the case in the fourth gospel, it was festival time in Jerusalem,. There was a section of the city that was undesirable to decent people for two reasons. First, it was near the sheep gate. The shepherds who came and went had to touch the sheep and that made them unclean.

Second, this quarter was avoided because of the Bethesda pool. Legend had it that an angel would stir the water and the first one in would be healed. How cruel. The fastest among the lame and broken would have a chance at healing, but only fastest. Not the rest. These people had incurable debilitating ailments. There was chance of healing. Still, without hope from anywhere else, the afflicted and diseased crowded there and jockeyed to be first in the water when the surface rippled.

No respectable person would want to be around so many disgusting animals or their handlers. Worse, the upright and holy would avoid the disabled people because it was believed that they were in their wretched state because of sin. They were to blame for their suffering.

We disapprove of ancient superstitions that relegate the wounded to the fringe of society, and then blame them for their plight. How could they, we ask. But we aren’t exactly rushing to the sick and diseased so we can love and care for them. Visit a nursing home. There’s no line to get in, no waiting. It’s a place of death and we’ve given into it. Certainly, God will do no new thing there. The afflicted are as ignored as they were in Jesus’ day. But, I digress. Back to the story in John 5.

The healing pool by the sheep gate was avoided by upstanding people, so that’s naturally where we find Jesus. Stepping past the healthiest of the sick, he approached a man who for 38 years lay there staring at the Bethesda healing pool.

He was mastered by his illness. I have no choice.. My only hope is to get to the water when it is stirred up. But, I am not fast enough even for that. So this is my life.

He was mastered by his superstition.

I have to catch the angel in the waters as they are stirred.

Seriously? He couldn’t out maneuver the other lame people. How was he going to catch an angel for the divine being to heal him?

And in his heart, did he truly believe the legend? How many blind people has he seen regain their sight in those waters?

When Jesus performed miraculous healings, everyone whether it was in Galilee, Samaria, or Jerusalem was surprised. Why? They didn’t expect it. They had not seen it before. This paralyzed man stared at the pool - a legend that had become a lie he had chosen to believe.

He was mastered by the whole system. Where was his place? In the worst part of town. Society said he belonged there and he accepted it. He was not even in the healing in the pool. His place was the hopeless sidline, like a NC State basketball fan pretending his team might win, but really knowing the outcome. This man was depended on others to drop a coin in his beggar’s cup or place leftovers or more likely spoiling food on the pallet he called home. He lived at the level of street dust and did not for one minute believe that would ever change.

Then Jesus comes along.

“Do you want to be made well?” The most important verb in the sentence is “want.” “” in Greek. It can mean “desire” or “wish,” like a kid in a store, seeing the candy bar and wishing his mom could get it for him. Or, it can mean “wish” in the sense of resolve, like a student wishing for an ‘A’ and working three times harder to make the wish happen.

We do not get closer to Jesus by merit or extraordinary hard work. Healing only comes because Jesus gives it. What I think this passage does show is that with the healing, Jesus gives an invitation to an entirely new life. We walk with God and see and know God because we walk with the Son of God, Jesus, and we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

What evil stands over us and tells us what lives we can and cannot live? Who stands between us and abundant life in the Kingdom of God?

I want to share my faith, but I can’t. I’d lose my job. Secularism is the master that keeps us from the dynamic life Jesus has called us to live.

I’d lose my job and anyway, my coworkers all atheists, Muslims, or from other countries. They don’t want to hear of my experience with Jesus. Let’s add xenophobia (fear of the foreigner) to the list of masters. Our boss says we can’t live for Jesus, not at work anyway. Our fears say we can’t. The enormity of the task says we can’t. It’s too big. Too hard.

I want to pray and believe that my sister’s cancer will heal. But the best doctor in the world is right here, in the Triangle, has seen her, and says there’s no hope. Add technology and the voice of the experts to the list of forcess preventing us from being made well. Because we know her sister couldn’t be declared whole unless the cancer was gone. Her life couldn’t possibly be filled with meaning and joy and laughter and love and blessing in the final six months she has on this earth. A life lived with cancer and with Jesus couldn’t be consider a life that is well. Could it? Maybe our definitions need to be included – deceiving masters that limit our picture of Jesus and what Jesus can do.

I want a life of joy in which I see the blessings of God and share the blessings of God. But, I am bogged down with responsibility, and it’s an effort to get my kids to soccer, piano, church youth group, and the other 10 commitments they have; and to top it all off, my marriage has become, no spark. We’ll have to include the over-scheduled reality of 21st life in the roll call of masters that determine our fate.

I want to sacrifice for Jesus, and help others in need. But I can’t live that life. I am too busy and I don’t have money or time to spare.

Do we want, “” resolve to accept the life Jesus gives? Do we want to be made well? Do want what Jesus offers, or are we just fine with life as it is no matter how good or bad?

Jesus came to the disabled man and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Do we want to be made well?

My bosses, my school, my world won’t allow it.

Technology and experts and history and realistic thinking have declared it impossible.

I am too busy. I am too burdened. I am too depressed.

I can’t afford it. I don’t have space in my life to be made well.

The powers in my life, the things I’ve come to count on, the voices I listen to, the worldview that has shaped me, the systems I live, the rule makers over me … no Jesus, you don’t understand, I can’t be made well.

Jesus said, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” The man did so immediately. And then what?

Jesus says to us, I’ll take care of everything thing. He dies on a cross. Then he walks out of the grave, defeating sin in his death and defeating death in his resurrection. We’re forgiven and saved. Then what?

The man in John 5 was still handicapped because he still submitted to the powers of the system that said he had to live his life on a pallet in the worst part of town with no hope. He carried his mat because someone (Jesus) told him to. He stopped when someone else, the authorities tolf him to. They accused him of the sin of working on the Sabbath. He did not say to them, “I am healed! God is here!” He said, “Whoops” and quickly put down his pallet. You’re not supposed to carry it around on Sabbath. He accepted the chains they imposed.

Then Jesus found him – a second time because that’s what Jesus does, relentlessly pursues lost, broken people – and Jesus tells him sin is worse than sickness. He won’t be completely well until he changes his direction in life. But, the man fears the rule makers more than the healer. He turns reports Jesus to the authorities.

Do we fear the rule makers who set us in our fixed places in life more than we fear the power of God? Who tells us what our lives are going to be? The temple authorities? The illness that make life hard? To whom do we defer? The ones who govern us? The teachers of our children? The ones who advertise and then sell us products they’ve convinced us to buy? Who defines us and determines our course? Who are our masters?

Do we dare listen to the one who stood in the midst of disease and death brought the handicapped man, to his feet? Do we dare allow ourselves to be defined by the one who in the beginning was with God and who was God and who became flesh and lived among us? Do we find our ultimate meaning in the one who sees the very worst in us and says, “I’ll die for that?” Do we listen to the one who rose on Easter morning?

Jesus did not come to heal the sick. He does heal, but he came to seek out and save the lost. He came that we might believe in Him and have life and have it more abundantly. The abundant life is enjoyed in triumph and loss, illness and health, and when life is riding high and when life sinks into the shadow of death. In all times and in the unique stories of all people, Jesus gives the abundant life and does new things each day.

What are we to do?

We open our hearts that he might come in.

We say a resounding “NO” to any person, forces, system, or voice that would tell us God’s can’t do new things.

We seek God. We expect to see God everywhere. When we don’t see him, we assume His presence. No possibility of how life might go is ruled out because God is the initiator. We live with our minds oriented toward Heaven. We live in God’s kingdom and we do things the way Jesus does them. We want to made well and to live a future determined by Jesus.

That poor man didn’t know where to go after he was healed by the Bethesda pool. But we do. We know to go where Jesus leads. We know that after we are made well life is forever changed and forever changing. We are newly created, made to walk with Jesus.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Extravagant Generosity

I preaching this message on February 13, 2011 at HillSong

Growing up, my parents placed three jars on my dresser and then gave me my $1 weekly allowance – in dimes. One dime went in the jar marked “tithe,” one went in the jar marked “savings,” and the remaining $.80 was mine to spend. They were trying to instill in me the habit of saving some money, and they wanted me to know on that we give money to God’s church as a way of living our Christian faith.

The amount they advised me to give was 10% of my income. Christians all over, trying to honor God with their money give 10% of the paycheck to the church.

It’s a good spiritual discipline, but a curious one as well. We follow Jesus Christ. We commune God in the Holy Spirit and in the Bible. As Christ-followers, our starting point in is the New Testament. Giving 10%, tithing, is not a New Testament concept.

When Jesus talks about the tithe, he’s in the middle of a harsh critique of the religious practice of the Pharisees (see Matthew 23:23). They faithfully give their 10%, but fail to live out the grace of God. In tithing, they are fine examples, but in reflecting God’s love, they are terrible failures.

The tithe is based on the economy and liturgy of ancient Israel. Israel was an agricultural nation. Burnt offerings were the centerpiece in worship. So, people would harvest, and then bring in the best 10% of their harvest and offer it as thanksgiving to God, as praise to God. The animal offerings served as atonement for sins.

From Deuteronomy to the days of the second temple when Jesus ministered in Israel, the idea of tithe went through dramatic change as the society changed. Money became a part of their culture. The world became more mobile and travelers from the North, South, East, and West, came to Jerusalem. The travel, the commerce, and the shift from a barter economy to one that included money all came together to force the concept of the tithe to evolve.

Jesus never says, “Thou shall tithe.” So, why do we hang on to tithing? And if tithing is not exactly the New Testament formula for honoring God with our money, then what is? What does Jesus say? What does the New Testament teach?

The following is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verse 41-44.

41He [Jesus] sat down opposite the [temple] treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When the poor widow put her last coins in the temple treasury, she acknowledged that God is Lord of everything. The temple was extraordinary corrupt and she might have known that. So why give the last of her money to the temple? Whether she could articulate it or not, the widow entrusted the temple to God. God, you are Lord of this temple. You deal with the corruption here. I give all I have to you.

Furthermore, she acknowledged that God, and not her meager two coins and not her hunger, was her master. If she bought bread today with a coin, and again tomorrow with the second, she would be hungry the day after tomorrow. So, she gave it all to God trusting that God would take care of her today, tomorrow, and the day after.

To me that says that we middle class American Christians in 2011 is must count on God and not our money to provide for us. Jesus did not say because this woman deposited her final two coins, all disciples must divest themselves of all their holdings in order to be true believers. He did say her gift was blessed because of how valuable it was to her. It showed how much she trusted God.

Based on how much we make, do our gifts to God’s church and to evangelical ministries around the world show how much we (1) value God, and (2) how much we trust God? If I make $75,000, how much is my relationship with God worth if I give 5% of that $75,000 to God’s work in the world?

God doesn’t need any of my money, but, I need a relationship with God. I need it to become the person I was meant want to become. We need a relationship with God because we are made to be in relationship with Him – a relationship of trust, and forgiveness, and truth.

When we take up the morning offering, what we each put in is an indicator of the worth we put on the relationship we have with God. It makes no difference to God whether I give more than person next to me or less. It makes all the difference in how much I give related to how much I have.

Someone who gives away an amount that he doesn’t even notice missing is saying to God, you’re not worth money that matters to me. Someone who makes all his purchases and then considers the money that’s left and gives his offering out of that is not giving much. It doesn’t matter if it is $1 million. The priority for the true disciple is on the relationship with God. The way to know how much to give is to openly, honestly pray, and then give according to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

As I have talked about this most sensitive topic – money – I have talked about the relationship individual believers have with God. The New Testament doesn’t prescribe a 10% tithe, but the New Testament is full of teaching about qualities that must be present in the life of someone who is a follower of Jesus. In 1st and 2nd Corinthians the letter’s author, the Apostle Paul, illustrates one of the qualities.

The background for he writes here is a famine that hit Israel hard in the mid first century. Hunger spread. The Jewish people had to rely on one another to make it through this painful time. However, the Christians in Jerusalem, who were also Jews, had been cutoff from their neighbors because of their decision to follow Jesus Christ and proclaim him as Savior, Messiah, and Son of God. Because of their faith, they did not receive the help people needed to survive the period of famine. The very first Christians, the ones in the Jerusalem church, were starving.

Paul wanted the Jerusalem Church to endorse his mission to carry Gospel to gentiles throughout the Greco-Roman world. He fought for this evangelical mission his entire career. In the period of famine, he saw an opportunity. He encouraged the Philippian Christians in Macedonia and the Corinthian Christians to take up a monetary offering that he would then deliver to Jerusalem to alleviate the poverty that blanketed that church.

In doing this, he gave the new believers in the new churches an opportunity to express Christ-like generosity. Paul thought it would be good for the spiritual growth of the Corinthian Church if they gave abundantly to help the Jerusalem Church.

He was so convinced of the importance of this offering that he even challenged the Corinthians in a competitive manner. He told how the Macedonians joyfully overflowed with a wealth of generosity by giving out of extreme poverty (2 Cor 8:2). The Corinthians who read the letter knew they were quite wealthy compared to their poorer Macedonian neighbors. And Paul knew it too. He said the Corinthians would be humiliated if they failed to match and surpass the Macedonian gift (2 Cor. 9:5).

Paul was urgent in his desire to collect money for Jerusalem, but he didn’t plead. He framed his request as an opportunity. They, the Christians in Corinth, needed to give generously for the sake of their own walk with Jesus.

In Paul’s presentation we see that believers called to be extravagantly generous.

Listen to Paul’s words:

10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.

Consider this scenario. Imagine sitting down with Jesus in a one-on-0ne session where we go through our bank statements. Sitting with Jesus, you look at the checkbook, the credit card statement, and all the other holdings. Line by line, you explain each purchase, each gift, each donation, - how each transaction reflects how much or how little you value your relationship with God. What would that session be like? Would Jesus takes joy in how much He matters in our lives? Would it be a time of shame, as it becomes clear that he is less important than clothes or a car or a vacation?

The point of this exercise is not guilt. It is to inspire all of us to put God first, but also to invite us to go deeper in relationship with Jesus. Going through the checkbook with him shows how much He desires us. Jesus wants all of us, every part of our lives. He wants to bless, and the blessing may mean an increase – more money – but for some people it will be the opposite. For some, God’s blessing comes in giving it all away.

If upon hearing, someone says, not me! I want to be one of those blessed by wealth. I want to be a Christian, but an extremely wealthy one. That response does not understand blessing or true joy at all. Giving of our money is giving of ourselves. God blesses what we give. God will not bless what we hold back.

So then, how? How do we live in extravagant New Testament generosity? I said earlier the way to determine how much we ought to give is to openly, honestly pray, and then give according to the Holy Spirit’s leading. I believe it, but I also know from my experience that God answers prayer in God’s time.

Until the answer is clear, the Old Testament standard of a 10% tithe is a proper starting point. To begin living in generosity, understand how much money you will make in a year, and give 10% of it to the church. Along with that, be involved in the church family. Know what your church believes, preaches, teaches, and practices.

Know your elder and know what the elders are working on. Know your spiritual gifts and in mission and in ministry in the church and in the community, serve where you are gifted. Use your skills and your talents and your God-given personality to be involved in the life of the church. Be involved in music ministry, youth or children, grounds beautification, leadership, and in small groups. When church becomes something you are emotionally invested in, it won’t be hard to give your time, your heart, or your money to where God is working through the church.

So, start, by giving 10% off the top to the church, and invest your life in the church.

HillSong Church is a really great place. It can be twice what it is, even three times what it is in terms of quality worship and ministry, IF twice the number of people who currently come invest themselves – heart, money, time, talent, and passion. We have passionately devoted Christ followers here who are “all in.” And we have people yawning in their faith here, spiritually asleep, showing up week after week completely unaware of God’s activity in the world. Which category do you strive to be in? Which category would you put yourself in right now and why would you put yourself there?

Start with the 10% tithe; then, increase it. Discover how God will care for you when you give what you have away. Discover the joy of giving your money and your time and your heart to orphans. Discover the blessings you will receive volunteering locally in ministry, and on mission trips and contributing to food collections and giving with abandon to special offerings.

In his book Neither Poverty nor Riches, subtitled A Biblical Theology of Possessions, Craig Blomberg promotes a graduated tithe in which one begins at a certain level and over time increases financial giving.

I knew a school teacher who did this. When his family was running out of money fast, he decided he would trust God no matter what. So, no matter what, he gave 10% to the church that year. The next year, he gave 11%. By the time I was met him, he was up to 33%. And God did provide. He was able to raise three children, own a home and retire with his needs met. Of the 33%, he gave a lot to ministries outside the church, which is great and is something I completely agree with.

One more thought on giving. We invest ourselves completely in ministry in the church. We begin our financial giving with a 10% tithe. We expand that through a graduated tithe and through extravagantly generous gifts both to the church and to ministries outside the church, and we do this out of a love response to God, as a way to participate in missions, and to advance the Kingdom.

And finally, we make all giving connected to prayer.

Giving money to God should not be thought of as some duty which I do so I can check it off a spiritual “to-do” list. Giving is to be, for Christ-followers, an expression of our worship and of our love relationship with God. It’s not that Jesus needs our money. It’s that Jesus desires us. By giving the money to causes that advance His kingdom, the money doesn’t come between Him and us. The money is not an obstacle blocking us from Christ; when we give it, money is a servant advancing the cause of Christ. We aren’t locking Him out of some area of our lives. We’re asking Him to bless us completely and asking that through our gifts, we would be privileged to be a small part of how He blesses others.

Everything I have said in this message boils down to one thing - the relationship we have with God in Jesus Christ. I can’t imagine life without Jesus in it. We can’t hear His voice of love, forgiveness, and guidance, when out money is clogging up our ears and fogging up our minds. So, we open up. We pray, and in joy and generosity, we give extravagantly. We are part of the growth of the kingdom.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Review of "Soul Print" by Mark Batterson

Review of the Book Soul Print

Mark Batterson, Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2011

Mark Batterson follows the life of David the king of Israel whose story is told in the Old Testament Books of 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, and 1st Chronicles. Batterson uses David’s supremely strong sense of his own identity and his own calling to encourage readers to discover God’s calling in their lives. Furthermore, Batterson insists that each individual read has a special calling and will be miserable until he or she discovers his or her own calling. In one of the numerous instances in which he masterfully draws principles from David’s life and applies these principles to the readers’ lives, Batterson says, “There comes a point in all our lives when we need the courage to take off Saul’s armor” (p.15).

David succeeded when he decided not to be Saul, but to be who God made him to be, David. Preachers must not try to be Billy Graham, but to be who God made them to be. Leaders cannot try to be Vince Lombardi or Colin Powell. They have to be true to their own identities. Mark Batterson is brilliant in communicating the way one’s faithfulness to one’s own true self is an act of faithfulness to God. Batterson says to the reader, “You owe it to yourself to be yourself. But more important, you owe it to the one who designed and destined you” (p.2).

I don’t know if Batterson has any experience in Family Systems Theory or family therapy techniques and theories. What he’s writing about in Soul Print is the concept of differentiation, first described by family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen in the 1950’s. Bowen wrote about the differentiation of self, which is one’s ‘autonomy from others and separation of thought from feeling.’ When merged with faith in the Christian God, differentiation dictates that an individual be true first and foremost and only to God, and thus to whom God created the individual to be. David could not be who his father wanted him to be (the youngest, the unseen and unheard, the shepherd-boy), and he could not be who Saul wanted him to be (a typical, armored warrior in the 10th century BC Israelite fashion). As Batterson so aptly puts it, David had to shed Saul’s armor (see 1st Samuel 17:38-39).

Similarly, Batterson invites the reader to shed false identities lived in service to images of our age, and instead to put on the identity God formed when God made each of us. I found this to be a deeply challenging invitation from the author because my entire life has been plagued by the sin of comparison. In high school, I compared myself to the star of the team or to the guy with the prettiest girlfriend. In college and to a lesser degree in graduate school, I compared myself to the most academically gifted among my friends. As a pastor, I have compared myself to the most widely-published pastors or the pastors of 10,000-member churches, or to pastors who are often on television. In all these comparisons, I fail to consider my calling and the unique way God created me. Again, I don’t know if Batterson has studied Family Systems or is aware of Murray Bowen or of differentiation, but what he is encouraging is that one be a differentiated self.

So, I personally am very thankful for the book Soul Print. Batterson has reminded me of what I already know. I am special because I am God’s. I am a servant of Jesus Christ. Mark Batterson brings that truth to my mind. What helps are the many occasions throughout the book where Batterson expresses his own experiences of false self-expectations. He’s not afraid to share his own mistakes and his own shortcomings. I don’t know if I think the same way Batterson does about the redemptive quality of embarrassing moments (p.94-96), but I appreciate that he shares some of his own and I hope I can look my own embarrassments and in “die to self.” Batterson is on the mark when he writes about humility and how it is a holy quality that can be gleaned from embarrassing moments or experiences.

One aspect of the book that caught my attention in a slightly negative way comes in Batterson’s attempt to be emphatic at points. “The key to fulfilling your future destiny is hidden in your past memories” (p.6). “Character development is the key to your future” (p.32). The primary issue is who you become in the process” (p.69). The story of David disrobing (2nd Samuel 6:14) is “one key to discovering your soul print” (p.99). In each sentence, the italics are mine. I understand in these cases, Batterson wants to emphatically make his point. But, there is more than one key to a person’s future destiny, and there is more than one primary issue. I think authors sometimes use ultimate-type phrases (“the key to …”) too easily. The same point could be just as strongly made without such extremist terminology.

That critique aside, I heartily recommend Batterson’s book. In fact, in our church there is a group of 20-somethings, and I contacted the leader of that group and told her to have every one of her young grad students read Soul Print. In his last chapter, Batterson, wisely departing from his use of David as a metaphor for the differentiated life, turns to the final book of the Bible, Revelation. There, each believer is promised a white stone with a new name (Revelation 2:17). Batterson closes his wonderful book by encouraging the reader to begin a journey of discovery, a journey that ends when we know our new names, the name given by Jesus.

Thus, each person has two destinies according to Mark Batterson. We are to be like Jesus and unlike everyone else. [Jesus] “sets us free from who we’re not, so we can become who we were destined to be” (p.13). The author speaks the truth. I am grateful Mark Batterson has written Soul Print and I hope a lot of people read it.

Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

The Weekend My Wife was Away

"A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels" (Proverbs 31:10)

I am such a pathetic cliche.

My wife went a conference for adoptive moms this past weekend leaving me in charge of our two adopted children. OK, for my wife's conference, the word "adoptive" is appropriate. There are unique issues in parenting related to adoption that are different from issues faced by biological parents. Some of those issues relate to parenting kids that were institutionalized in orphanages for significant time before adoption. Some of those issues are related to adopting across racial lines. I am very, very glad she got to be with people experiencing some the things we've been through.

For me, "adoption" is a meaningless terms concerning this past weekend. It was Dad and the boys (8 & 4). A friend of mine, also a Dad of two boys, said to me, "Whenever our wives are away, we make a huge deal out of parenting by ourselves!" And he is right. I must have said, "Flying solo" this weekend to anyone who would offer me sympathy. So weak.

Not only was my way of describing myself kind of silly, but almost all discipline in our home went south in the car with my wife. It was cookies. It was ice cream. It was movies. It was eating dinner on the sofa while watching movies. We NEVER allow the TV to be one while eating, NEVER. Mommy leaves, and there's Igor, Henry, and Daddy watching animated Star Wars films for the second and third time.

And what did I do when my wife got home. "Hi honey, here are the kids. I'm going to a Super Bowl party."

Several times over the weekend, I really thought, "I have to start appreciating my wife as much when she's here as I do when she's gone." Whenever my wife leaves town for a couple of days, I am so, so thankful for her. She keeps all of us on track. She's a responsible, loving woman who shows her love by helping all of us in our family be so much better than we would be without her.

I think I kind of let the kids go crazy because I kind of wanted to go crazy. Now, as any story teller would do, I have embellished our weekend just a bit. I did get the kids to church (which is good since I am the pastor). We did get up off the couch and ride bikes and exercise. Even though read-a-thon is over, my older son did read a little bit over the weekend. Vegetables were consumed. My son who needs nutritional supplements received them, on schedule. I did take the kids to the family Bible study we attend twice a month. I even did all the dishes so there weren't any huge messes awaiting my dear, sweet wife. We three boys did not completely fall a part.

But, we sure did appreciate her. At least, I did. I think the boys were enjoying the good times a little bit, and the return of discipline might not be completely welcomed. They'll appreciate that when they are older. For now, I just thank God that I have such a true "Proverbs 31" wife. The things in my life that have been accomplished because of my dear wife are priceless and indescribable.

Two of those "things" are the two boys I "oreo-partied" with all weekend. Neither adoption would have happened without my wife's diligent attention to detail on filling out the paperwork. If you think I am exaggerating in any way, think again. Two weeks ago we went to consult with a couple that's considering adoption. When it came time to talk to them about how to fill out the reams and reams of paperwork and how to pay for an international adoption, I went silent. My wife Candy talked and talked because she knows this stuff. She's got it down pat. Not only has she guided us through our two adoptions (and pending third). She has guided many other families through as well.

I am proud of Candy. I thank God for her. She is incredible and my life is so much more than it would be without her. I could not ask for better, for there is none better out there.

PS - Did I mention the two dozen Krispy Kremes Henry and I and a few friends polished off Friday morning as the boys' weekend was getting started?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

John 7:1-13, Additional Thoughts

Jesus was not very impressive. In fact, he got it wrong much of the time. The whole resurrection was a big deal. It’s good that he pulled that off. But he could have been so much better overall if he had had a publicist, someone to make the most of his shining moments. He needed a top-quality PR person to get the most mileage out of the miracles, the wise and exceedingly counter-cultural teaching, and the relationships. Jesus was great, but could have been so much more.

This passage in John 7 is a case in point. He’s in Galilee, the northern part of Israel, and it is time for the Festival of Booths, which happens in what would be October on our calendar. Jews would go to Jerusalem in the south and re-enact the wilderness wanderings when Moses led the nation out of Egypt and into the Sinai desert for 40 years.

During the Festival of Booths, the nation converged on the capital city. Jesus’ miracles would gain no traction in Galilee. He needed to be seen where the people were.

His brothers told him as much. They probably heard Jesus when he gave the Sermon on the Mount. So they heard him say, “Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16). They knew no one was seeing his good works in Capernaum or Nazareth. Jesus needed to be in the south, in Judea, in Jerusalem.

Last week, I talked about the good relations between Jesus and his brothers, that seem to be a part of the story in John’s gospel that is missing in the others. That good family feeling started to break down when Jesus invaded the temple wildly as reported in the chapter two. Further erosion of his relations with his relations came as his brothers realized he wasn’t trying to make the family look good. Jesus’ mission was not to provide social success for his earthly family. His mission was to seek out and save the lost and to bring glory to God.

Turning the page to John 7, we see the relationship has become tense. His brothers confront him. “Go to Judea,” they say, “so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world” (v.4).

Maybe, they had a point. Jesus fed a crowd of thousands by the Sea of Galilee. His disciple, Philip, told him six months wages would not be enough to give each person in the crowd even a little bread. Jesus fed them all. The throng was so full of bread and fish, there were 12 baskets of leftovers (John 6:13).

The story of such a miracle would surely travel to Jerusalem. People would be talking about Jesus. They would remember the incident of a few years back where he turned over the money changing tables and drove animals out of the temple. Some might remember the miraculous healing in Jerusalem. A man had been a complete invalid for 38 years and Jesus gave him health, including the ability to walk. People remembered such stories and put two and two together. All over Israel people spoke about and wondered about Jesus.

If he could transport such a massive miracle, the feeding of 5000, from Galilee to Jerusalem; the talk of it would go all the way to Rome. People with real power notice Jesus. He’d be known everywhere. His brothers said, go to Jerusalem. Show yourself to the world.

“The world,” Jesus said in response, “hates me because I testify against it” (John 7:7).

Sometimes, it’s easy to see the rub. Where the tension lies is obvious. Jesus’ brothers say, “Show yourself to the world.” Work your miracles, impress people, do good, and gain a name. Jesus will have none of it. Not only he does not care about impressing the world, he sets him self in opposition to the world. The world hates him because he judges it.

We are drawn back to John chapter 1, where Jesus is the eternal word who leaves the eternal Heavens to enter the confines of our finite, time-locked world. “He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet, the world did not know him” (John 1:10).

His brothers, unnamed in John 7, don’t know anything about his pre-existence at the beginning. They know they have seen miracles. He’s unlike anyone else. But the miracles are not enough to inspire them to listen when he teaches about God. Even in Jesus’ presence, his brothers are still worried about what the world thinks. They want him to either conform or do something so massively impressive that the world will have to conform. When and more importantly if, Jesus does that – some super miracle – then his brothers will buy in and follow him. Until then, he needs to put up or shut up.

Jesus cares about what the world thinks, but not because he wants to be liked. Jesus cares about how wrongly the world thinks about God. When John says, ‘the world,’ here, he means the people of the world – people who are fallen, lost in sin, separated from God. Jesus testifies against the world, drawing the world’s hatred, because he tells the truth. He speaks judgment. People don’t want to hear that by their own choices, they are cut off from God, cut off from eternal life. It’s as true now as it was then.

At this point, we might be tempted to set the choices. Are we with Jesus’ brothers, seeking the accolades and acceptance of the world? Or are we with Jesus, affirming his judgment of sin? We nod approvingly when he says that the world hates him because he testifies against it. Are with Jesus or with his brothers?

This is church, the church of Jesus Christ. So the answer is obvious. We have to take Jesus’ side in this family dispute. The world really is a terribly corrupted place. With Jesus we testify against the it.

Of course that’s the answer, but we better make sure we understand everything before we jump on board with Jesus. His is a lonely path. He said as much to his brothers. “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me” (7:7).

So they went to Jerusalem without him. The Festival of Booths was incredibly important, especially for Jewish men. Jesus was cut-off from family. They were doing what brothers did together – traveling to the city and bonding as they walked the many miles, celebrating there together for many days, and coming home again - together. Jesus missed all that. He missed the relation-building that took place.

If we say, “Well, Jesus didn’t need them, he had his perfect relationship with the Father,” then we are missing Jesus’ humanity. The Word became flesh. Jesus was fully human and humans are at a loss when cut off from the most important relationships. In the garden before he was arrested, Jesus told his disciples how much he needed their companionship (Mark 15:33-34). To follow God’s lead and turn against his brothers was to accept social ostracism. It was very lonely for Jesus.

I have friends who follow Jesus and who are from non-Christian families. One friend, whose parents are Buddhist, has told me of lying in bed at night, weeping because he wanted his family to share the joy of Jesus and the celebration of baptism with him. But they will not and in fact they oppose his decision to express his love for God. For him to walk the way of Jesus is to walk a lonely path.

If we sit in church, together with 100 or so Christian friends, and courageously say, “Yes, the world is corrupt and with Jesus we testify against it,” we need to know there will be days ahead when our friends are not with us. The time comes when we are called to speak out against cruelty and injustice, and the time comes when we have to choose to not participate in something. Making a stand is a part of our testimony against sin. In those moments, we pass up something inviting, something fun, and something everyone else is into. We pass it up because we are following the Jesus who refused to work miracles for the sake of popularity. We speak Jesus’ words against sin and we become unpopular, unloved, and on the outside.

There’s more. When we join with Jesus in testifying against sin and against injustice in the world and against immorality in the world (and if we testify against one we better testify against both), it is crucial that we remember something else said about the world in the Gospel of John.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).

Why does the world need saving? Because it is a mess. I won’t go into specific examples. We could each pick our favorite sin set whether it be related to some immorality or injustice. There’s so much bad in the world it is quite easy for preachers to rail against it. There’s enough sin to preach against 52 Sundays out of the year. Overdoing it in damning sin ignores the good in the world both in God’s creation and in human culture, which does a lot of things right. The bottom line is John 3:17 says Jesus came to save the world because God loves the world. God’s plan for us is salvation, not condemnation.

When we come to John 7 and read Jesus saying “I testify against the world,” and we shout “O Me too,” we have to remember John 3. Following our Master we know our testimony against sin is for the sake of love that the world would come to see Jesus, believe in Him, and be saved.

Rejecting popularity and testifying against sin is the right thing to do. We are called to live a testimony of righteousness. We have to keep in mind that living in truth leads to very scary, very lonely moments far from the safe confines of church were we stand up for what’s right without support from anyone around us. The only thing bolstering us in those moments is the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. To follow Jesus is to walk a lonely path.

Followers of Jesus love the world. Our testimony is not a triumphant “I am bound for Heaven and you can go to Hell.” Our testimony is love and prayer for the meanest most criminal people we know because God loves them. Jesus came that they might believe in Him and be saved. His message of salvation is our counter-cultural, love-filled testimony and our dogged willingness to walk alongside people not that we might be accepted, but that we might show Jesus to them.

Ironically, after Jesus told his brothers he would not go and impress the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem with miracles, he went, secretly. Once there, his love for sinners spilled out. He said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).

Even more ironically, Jesus eventually did exactly what his brothers wanted him to do. He went to Jerusalem and performed a most spectacular miracle on the most public of stages. He was crucified on a Roman cross. He died for the very sins of the people of the world that he testified against. His judgment was for the sake of salvation.

And his brothers, James, Jude and the rest, believed.

He didn’t go in chapter 7 for the Festival of Booths because it wasn’t God’s time and he wasn’t out to impress anybody. Jesus consistently lived God’s plan for his life and Jesus consistently loved with the love of God.

We are called to do the same. We are called to reject popularity and acceptance and instead in Jesus’ name, speak the courageous truth about sin in the world. That call is tough to answer. But he walks with us. And only walking with Jesus can one meet God, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and receive peace that passes all understanding.

We are called to walk the lonely path. We are called to speak the Gospel truth that the world might see Jesus, believe, and be saved.