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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Christopher Yuan's "Out of a Far Country" - One Gay Man's Journey

I think the best endorsement I can give for Christopher Yuan's book Out of a Far Country is that I based a sermon on the book.  The sermon text is below.  I consider Out of a Far Country to be a must read for Christians in our country right now.  With all that is happening in the news regarding marriage, homosexuality, and Christian response, Yuan's book is essential.

            Christopher Yuan is the son of Chinese immigrants.  His parents Angela and Leon were born in mainland China and then lived in Taiwan before immigrating to the United States.  Angela worked and supported Leon as he went through dental school.  After his graduation, with two young sons, Christopher the younger, the Yuans set up their dental practice in Chicago.  Theirs was an American success story – hard working people making the most of their opportunity.

            The plan was for the sons to follow their father in business, becoming dentists and working in his practice.  Cracks began to form when Christopher was in dental school.  He was home from break.  The relationships in the family were thoroughly icy – husband and wife barely talked to each other.  Christopher seemed distant and utterly annoyed by his parents. 

            Things came to a head.  Leon had been checking the insulation in the crawl space off Christopher’s bedroom and found a VHS tape (this was the early ‘90’s).  It was hidden, not to be found.  It was a gay pornography video.  When Christopher was confronted by his parents he proudly admitted his homosexuality.  For him, it was a rite of passage among his gay friends.  For his family, it was utter scandal and they did not know what to do. 

His horrified mother told him he had to choose.  He could be gay or he could be in the family.  He responded that he had no choice.  He was gay.  It was who he was and his real friends accepted him for who he was.  He told his parents he knew they’d react that way.  He left them in Chicago and headed back to Louisville. 

One thing to know is at this point in the story, no one in the Yuan family was a believer.  They were agnostic or atheist, but definitely not Christian.

Christopher’s announcement filled Angel with utter horror, but her husband, Christopher’s dad Leon, was nonresponsive.  He continued on in his dental practice like he did every other day, not even acknowledging what their son had said.  In despair at Christopher’s announcement and Leon’s indifference, Angela decided to take her own life.

But, she wanted to see Christopher one more time.  So she got a train ticket to Louisville.  She would go from Chicago to Louisville, see Christopher, and then end her life.  She doesn’t know why, but before leaving Chicago, she went to see a priest.  He listened to her story, shared with her some religious literature, and gave her the number of someone she could call if she wanted to talk more. 

She read the book the priest had given her while on the train.  It was written to tell gay people that they are loved by God, but Angela felt it was written for her.  She had never heard that God loved her.  Many people haven’t.  Wheaton College theology professor Gary Burge reports that 90% of his students – kids from evangelical families – are for more afraid of God’s wrath than comforted by God’s love. 

I wonder what would happen if we surveyed the people of HillSong Church?  Are we (a) more fearful of God’s angry wrath or (b) more comforted by God’s grace-filled love?  Angela Yuan had never thought about God, but after boarding the southbound train intent on killing herself, she arrived with a new discovery.  God loved her. 

She ran to tell Christopher, but he wasn’t interested in what she had to say.  He gave her an indifferent “whatever.”  Such a dismissive, cutting response previously would have injured her heart, but she was on a path of discovery – learning for the first time of God’s love.  She didn’t take her life.  And she didn’t go back to Chicago.  She called the number the priest gave her and the guy who talked to her knew a woman in Louisville she could meet.  That woman discipled Angela Yuan in her early life as a Christian.  First John 4:8 says “God is love.”  She was learning that truth in her own life.

Meanwhile, Chris was going wild.  He had multiple partners including countless strangers.  He constantly exposed himself to the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.  Worse, drugs had become a part of his life.  In a short time, he went from marijuana to ecstasy, and from user to dealer to distributer.  His life consisted of parties, drugs, and sex. 

Obviously, it’s hard to keep up the academic rigors of dental school in such a life, and he didn’t make it.  Just a month short of his graduation, he was kicked out of the program, but he didn’t care.  He was making load of money and having unending fun.  As his family was shamed, he drifted even further away.  He moved to Atlanta, bought an expensive condo, and set up shop. 

Then, the unending fun ended.  The knock at the door was not another customer, but a dozen DEA and FBI agents.  He could have gotten 10 years or even life in prison, but he cooperated by testifying against an even bigger dealer than himself.  So, he got off with six years in prison. 

During that time, adjusting to prison life, he was summoned by the prison nurse.  All convicted drug users had to submit to regular blood tests.  This time he was positive for HIV.  He was pretty sure his life was over.  As he lay in the prison bunk, he saw that someone had scribbled on the wall, “If you’re bored, read Jeremiah 29:11.”  So, in his absolute despair, he found a Bible and read, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.”  Just as his mother was astounded to learn that God loved her, Chris couldn’t believe God had plans for him. 

That scripture and a group of Latino prisoners brought Chris to Jesus.  He wandered into their prison worship service, and on the spot, they decided their Spanish worship would be bilingual so their English-speaking Chinese guest could understand.  He kept going to the services and pretty soon, they had him preaching.  He was blown away.  He was gay.  He was an addict.  He was in prison.  And a bunch of Hispanics loved him and showed him that God had gifted him as a preacher.

Eventually Christopher Yuan surrendered completely to Jesus just like his mother.  So too did his Father Leon.  Leon and Angela’s dead marriage came to life when they met Jesus and gave themselves to him.  The details of Christopher Yuan’s story are told in a book I highly recommend, Out of a Far Country.  It’s one of the most compelling stories I have read this year.

And, the timing of reading is, I believe providential.  We are in First John 4.  First Corinthians 13 is often called “the Love Chapter,” but 1st John 4 could certainly compete for that title.  “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God (v7).”  “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (v.12).  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v.8).

That last verse rings in my ears.  On CNN’s website, two North Carolina pastors were mentioned both for saying hateful, awful things about gay people.  One suggested that all gay people be locked behind an electric fence and left there the rest of their lives.  Such a preposterous idea would not happen, but what’s disturbing is that someone claiming to be a follower of Christ suggested such hate while preaching a sermon in a Baptist church here in North Carolina.  I am sure that pastor would call himself a Bible literalist.  And I am equally sure he would proudly admit he does not love gay people.  So, I guess he doesn’t know God at all.  Chapter four, verse 8, “Whoever does not love does not know God.”

This especially sensitive issue has been front-page news since the election three weeks ago when our state joined 30 others in banning same-sex marriage.  I struggled then because I really thought God was telling me it was time to deal with this issue at HillSong, but I didn’t know exactly how.  Too often in life, when I don’t know what to say, I blurt something out.  I am glad in this case I waited.

When Chris Yuan’s parents became followers of Jesus Christ, their one prayer was that they would get to see Chris come to believe in Jesus.  They didn’t ask that he receive a shortened prison sentence.  They did not ask that his HIV be cured.  They did not ask God to take away his homosexuality.  They asked that they get to see Him come to follow Jesus.

In one account in the story, one of Chris’s friends was dying of AIDS.  This man had been a magazine cover-model and movie star.  He had been rich, famous, and popular.  Yet, when AIDS ravaged his life, the only people to visit his hospital room were Chris, Angela, and Leon Yuan.  They embraced this man and showered the love of Jesus on him.  They did not preach on him.  They did not throw Bible verses in his face.  They dealt heavy doses of compassion, mercy, and love. 

At HillSong, our philosophy is three-part.  We want you to come, whether you are a first-timer or have come for decades.  We want all to feel safe coming into this place.  This must be a place of love where people can come, be welcomed, embraced, and loved no matter who they are or what they have done.  This has to be a safe place  and it will be when we all conspire to love everyone who walks through that door extravagantly and generously. 

First John 4;10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  The minute we want to condemn someone else, we remember Jesus did his love-work for us while we were condemning him in our sin.  We have to be a safe place for sinners.  Whether the sin is deception, gossip, pride, greed, gluttony, or a sin of a sexual nature (and as many are hetero as are homosexual), we are all sinners.  HilllSong must be a safe place for sinners.

Second, sinners must come into this safe place and meet Jesus here.  And once someone meets Jesus, he will never be the same again.  Chris Yuan has not become heterosexual.  He describes his life as a life of holy sexuality.  When the yearnings for drugs and homosexual temptation arise, and for him these temptations are still there, he turns to Jesus.  His holy sexuality is commitment to a single life in which he glorifies Jesus with his words and actions.  He is now a Bible professor at Moody Bible Institute.  He has achieved a master’s degree from Wheaton and is almost done with a doctorate in theology from Bethel Seminary.  He met Jesus and changed.  He did not go from homo to heterosexuality.  He went from prodigal lost in a far country to son of God.

HillSong must be a safe place.

HillSong must be a place where people meet Jesus and are transformed by the encounter – changed from lost to adopted, from purposeless to living on mission for God.

Finally, having been transformed by Jesus, we are sent.  We are sent on mission trips.  When people move, we send them into the world to follow God’s mission for their lives.  And today, we are all sent into the world to love.  Verse 11, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”  Having been refreshed in this safe place, made new by Jesus, we are sent by Him, with the Holy Spirit to love.

Who is it you find impossible to love? 

I think the evangelical church in America has done an awful job of loving homosexual people.  Loving does not mean approving a life style.  Jesus loved tax collectors and sinners.  The Gospel does not say he approved of corruption.  He did not say illicit sex was OK.  Nor does it say he loved sinners as long as they changed their ways.  Jesus loved regardless, and we must too. 

Holy sexuality involves a man and woman who are husband and wife; and it equally involves single individuals who remain celibate.  Anyone who has been involved in other forms of sexuality, hetero, homo, or other can be made new and reborn in Jesus Christ. 

Our First John 4 calling is to love whether or not people turn to Jesus.  They won’t hear our words about the gospel until they feel they can trust us.  They won’t listen until we have invested a lot of time listening to and loving them.  They won’t hear our words about Jesus until they know we are safe.

Who do you find it impossible to love?  Homosexuals?  Arch conservatives who hatefully condemn homosexuals?  Who can you simply not love because the enmity and hate is too deep?  Communists?  The father who abused you?  The husband who left you?  The person who threatened your child?  Democrats?  Republicans? 

Safe – New – Sent; we are sent out into a fallen, sin-stained world, and we are sent to love. 

As we pray, in your mind, see the person you find it impossible to love.  Ask God to show you how you will actively love that person this week.


Monday, May 21, 2012

A Trip to Ethiopia

Presentation of Kombolcha, Ethiopia Mission Trip

Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, May 20, 2012

(1)        LEAD UP TO THE TRIP

In December 2009 my wife Candy Tennant and a dozen others traveled to Ethiopia and visited “care points” run by Children’s Hope Chest.  One of those sites was Grace Baptist Church in the city of Kombolcha. 

In March 2010, Peter Abera, an Ethiopian man from Kombolcha visited here and told his story to HillSong Church. He was born Ethiopian Orthodox, a form of Christianity and the most prominent faith in Ethiopia.  During the famine, he worked at a World Vision feeding center run out of Grace Baptist Church in Kombolcha.  There, he accepted Jesus as his Savior.  I am not suggesting the Orthodox Church does not preach the Gospel.  But Peter did not learn to be a Jesus follower in the Orthodox Church.  He didn’t come to Christ until he was mentored by a World Vision worker who shared both food and the Gospel. 

Word traveled to Peter’s father who came to the Grace Baptist Church with a gun, intent on killing his son for leaving Ethiopian Orthodoxy.  Peter was terrified, but the man who had discipled told him to go into the building.  That man brought out a table and poured some coffee. 

Peter’s father set his gun on the table. The man who himself had grown up Muslim and then turned to Jesus at Grace Baptist Church, explained the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Peter’s Father listened.  His heart softened.  They called Peter.  His father put the gun away and embraced his son.

These events took place in the 1990’s.  Peter toured the United States in 2010.  One of his stops was here, HillSong Church.  He shared his story, which I just told.  That day, we invited people to support Grace Baptist Church by supporting the Children’s Hope Chest Care Point there. 

Support is rendered by sponsoring a child.  You send $34/month and you begin a relationship with a child who is educated at the school run by Grace Baptist.  The child gets a uniform, school supplies, and a meal every day.  Some of these kids live with their parents who are extremely sick.  Some have lost one parent and live with the surviving parent; these kids are called single orphans.  Some children lost both parents and live with a relative or guardian.  These are double orphans.  Whether the child is a single orphan, a double orphan, or a kid whose parents are alive but very poor, their needs are tremendous.  We have poverty in America, but in most cases, even our poor would be relatively well off compared to the poor in Kombolcha.

When Peter spoke at HillSong, people signed up to be sponsors.  Today, there are over 160 children in the program at Grace Baptist Church and about 90 are sponsored.  Over 40% of those sponsors come from HillSong church. 

What if we went to visit these kids?  What if we did that every year?


       In 2011, Candy and I went to Ethiopia to adopt our daughter Merone.  While there, we went to Kombolcha, an 8-hour bus ride from the capital city, Addis Ababa.  We saw children who have great potential but are shackled by poverty.  The kids embraced us and loved us.  All we did was pass out care packages and take pictures.  And give hugs.  Lots of hugs. 

       I met with the leaders because I wanted HillSong to visit but only if that would be a good thing for them.  Maybe hosting a bunch of Americans would put an unneeded burden on them.  They assured me that a visit would be most welcome. 


When Candy and I returned to the United States, we began planning.  There was enthusiasm for the trip here at HillSong.  I imagined us as a church visiting Kombolcha every year.  That’s still my vision, but now that we have been on the firs trip, the vision is expanding. 

       Last year, May to November, many at HillSong attended the initial meetings.  Then, the interest waned.  Conflicting schedules, health, family obligations and other things got in the way.  For various reasons, autumn was passing and we had me and Sara Timmons and Laura Driggers.  Candy has also advertised the trip to sponsors outside our church, and they began signing up.  Soon, we had a team of 15, people from Michigan, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina.

We began preparing through conference calls.  I asked team members to share their Christian testimonies, on the calls.  In addition to that time of sharing, we planned our Bible camp.  Essentially what we would do in Ethiopia is go to the Grace Baptist Church every day and put on a 3-hour Bible camp for some of the kids in the morning.   The camp consisted of Bible lesson, arts/crafts, recreation/parachute games, and the distribution of care packages.  We also had several donations to pass out – balls, backpacks, water bottles, etc.  And, each day, we fed the kids a snack.  We’d take one group through in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

       As our team took shape, I thought, “This is not what I had in mind.”  I envisioned a HillSong team.  This team was a collection from all over with only three HillSong members.  But God was in it.  I was affirmed in the calling that yes, we were to go to Ethiopia.  At the same time, God showed me it wouldn’t look exactly as I thought. 

The time for the trip was getting closer, and I got a phone call.  “Rob, I need to come and talk to you.”  That usually means something is wrong, which is OK.  Christians walk with each other in life when something is wrong.   “Rob, I need to come and talk.”  Heidi Soden called and said those words, but it was because deep inside her, something was very right.  Even though all the deadlines had passed, she felt compelled by God to go on this trip. So, she came to see if there was any way.  I called the organization handling the logistics of our trip, the One Child Campaign.  Thy made it happen.  Our team of 15 was now 16, four from HillSong. 

Then March 21st came – the day of our departure.  I learned that Sara Timmons can sleep anywhere – plane, floor of the airport, uncomfortable, crowded van.  Because she can do this, she is rested.  When the team is groggy and tired, she is awake, smiling.  We were working with 160 kids who speak Amharic.  A bright smile goes a long way.

I learned that nothing seems to faze Heidi.  She handles it all – the travel, the jetlag, the moments of scheduling uncertainty – she handles it with grace.  And she steps right in to any situation.

I learned that it is important to have a physician like Laura on the trip.  I also learned if you sit next to her for 13 hours on a plane, you won’t get bored.  She is extremely committed to Jesus and she is a conversationalist. 

We all learned that the Ethiopian airlines feeds a lot of meals and when it is meal time, they wake you up no matter how much your seatmate urges them to let you sleep.  Every time poor Laura would talk herself tired and drift off to sleep, they’d come with more food.  I would say, “Just let her sleep.”  Ignoring me, the flight attendant would shake her and say, “Chicken or fish.”  Half the time, I think she was so tired she wasn’t sure what she ordered even after she ate it.

I learned (again) what a fantastic my wife is.  With Merone only being with us 10 months, it wasn’t right for Candy to leave for 9 days.  But the entire time we were in Ethiopia, her fingerprints were all over the trip.  She was the conference calls in on all the planning. 

Here’s an example.  At the guest house, when we checked in, I was given a cell-phone.  Then I looked at the rather detailed notes Candy had put in a folder for me.  It said, “When you get to the guest house, a woman named Mercy will give you a cell phone.”  I looked at the woman and said, “Um, is your name, Mercy?”  She smiled and said, “Uh huh.”  I thought to myself, “I better read this folder carefully, every day.”  And, by the way, four members of the team used that phone to call back home throughout the week.

Our team was truly brought together by God.  We had a teenager, a nurse, a waitress, two pastors, a physician assistant, a school principle, a special ed teacher, a university professor, an office manager, a groundskeeper, and five stay-at-home moms.  There are super-Christians or sophisticated world-class travelers.  Some are over 50 years old, and one is 14.  Some are have a lot of formal education.  Some do blue-collar work.  One team member is a diabetic and she did fine.  One is a vegetarian, a vegan in fact, and she had some food challenges, but also did fine.  Look at these people.  YOU can sponsor a child and you can go on one of these trips.  You can be spectacularly used by God just by making yourself available. 

       At the Bible camp, the kids loved the games and the care packages.  They threw themselves into the crafts time.  They listened and participated when I taught the Bible lesson.  As we did our camp, in the distance, over a loud speaker, we would hear the Muslim call to prayer.  Many Muslims live in Kombolcha.  Among the children and within the Grace Baptist Church Family, some come to Jesus from a Muslim background.


(3) WHY

       This trip is about telling Jesus’ salvation, sharing basic needs of food and education and love with extremely poor children, and establishing relationships with those kids and the adults who care for them daily.  With the sounds of Islam filling the air, we told these kids that Jesus is God come in the flesh to take the sins of the world.  We went to Ethiopia to share this, to meet material needs, and to love the children in person.

       The most emotional portion of the trip for most of us came when we got to visit the homes of the children we sponsor.   We got to see 3rd world poverty up close.  This wasn’t a CNN report.  With our bags of gifts –fruit, coffee, sugar – we went and visited the children.  The child Candy and I sponsor lives with 5 others in a home that’s not bigger than my office here at the church. 

       There is a reality about who Jesus is and some of us cannot see that reality until we step out of our familiar surroundings and into another world.  We go to help the kids yes, but also because we need to.  In order for us to become who Jesus is calling us to be, we need to go.


       Next year’s trip is March 9-18.  That corresponds with UNC’s spring break.  MY hope is that we double or triple the number of HillSong people who go.  I’d love to see five from the Encounter small group on next year’s trip.  Already, 17 people have signed up.  I now know this trip is God’s, not Hillsong’s.   The people in Ethiopia were so enthused with our time with them, they are eager for us to come back.  They cried when we left, and we did too – a lot.  Many have already signed up to go back. 

I am convinced God is calling Hillsong to be part of this. I urge you to pray and ask God if you are being called to sponsor or to go. 


       I see this as the beginning of a long-term relationship:  HillSong Church, Children’s Hope Chest, Once Child (the organization handling logistics), and Grace Baptist Church in Kombolcha.  In 2013, our Bible camp there will be during UNC’s spring break March 9-18. 

       We might plan other 2013 trips to Kombolcha.  I am exploring the possibility of a medical team going in the Fall. 


       What does this mean here, now?  We invite you to be part it.  Sign up now, so we can begin preparing.  See Candy or me if you’d like to go.  All you need to is be available.  Teachers, waitresses, maintenance workers, nurses have all gone – these aren’t extraordinarily wealthy folks.  They are folks who hear God’s call, trust in his help, and sacrifice things so they can go where He is at work.  Teens, people over 50, diabetics – all are happy they went and plan to go back.  You can do this too. 

       Or, maybe you’re called somewhere else.  Laura Shrewsbury goes to Ukraine nearly every year where she is a part of a Bible camp for Gypsy children.  Uganda, South Africa, Haiti – we have people who have been or are going to these places.  There is the potential for a future trip to the Dominican Republic. 

       Maybe you are called locally.  Jonathan has the youth on mission every summer.  It’s home repair work and has been done in downtown Roanoke and on an Indian reservation.  We have numerous ministries right here in Carrboro-Chapel Hill and right in our own church.  Personally, I want everyone to go to Ethiopia.  But more than that, for the sake of your growth in Christ, I want you – every one of us – to answer God’s call to step out of comfortable places and into uncertain places where trusting Him is essential.  We don’t live in Faith until we truly give up control. 


       As we move into a time of prayer, singing, and invitation, let this also be a time of considering.  God is calling you, maybe to Ethiopia.  Maybe to something else.  As we sing during this time, I invite to come to the front and pray, asking God where He is calling you.  Or come and ask God, if you already have an idea, to clarify the call on your life.  This isn’t only for young people.  This isn’t only for travelers or people with a certain skill set.  God has a call on every life here.  I am asking today that all of us come and kneel and pray and ask God to reveal the call, clarify the call, and solidify the call.  Maybe coming to the front to pray is not what you usually do.  Maybe that’s the first step in being willing to say to God, “I’ll do as you command.  As the worship team leads, come and pray and ask God to show you the way to the live of service in Jesus’ name he is preparing for you.  Come.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The People Jesus Misses (Jim Henderson)

I am reading Evangelism without Additives, a book about sharing Christian faith by pastor/author/thinker Jim Henderson.  I am not yet finished, but I am thoroughly intrigued by the 85% of the book I have read to this point.  I am going to share a few of my evangelism encounters over the years and after each encounter, I will give myself one of five grades (2 thumbs down, 1 thumb down, incomplete, 1 thumb up, 2 thumbs up).

(1) About 15 years ago, I spent time with my dad and a couple of his brothers on a vacation.  I was pretty convinced that one of my uncles on that trip gave lip service to Christianity, but his life involved minimal church attendance and Jesus had no presence in his life that I could see.  So after our vacation, we were all in back in our homes and I emailed my uncle.  My email was pretty direct with things like "without a relationship with Jesus, you aren't saved and are cut off from God."  I don't think I told him he was going to Hell.  That's never been my style.  But it was an in-your-face attempt through the safety of email. 
Grade - 2 thumbs down; I did not talk to him face-to-face, and I did not show concern for him or try to hear his perspectiv at all.

(2) Twenty years ago, in my first full-time ministry position, I was trying to encourage the teens in the church where I was the youth pastor to evangelize their friends.  I felt it unfair to ask them to do something I wouldn't.  So the next time my best buddy and I sat down for a little video game football, I said, "Hey, I want you to read something."  I talked him through a tract, a standard gospel tract that talked about going to Hell if one died apart from Jesus.  He said, "Oh, this is interesting."  And after I talked him through it, he read it again on his own.  The whole portion of the conversation took about 15 minutes.  Then, we went back to the computer football game.  My friend was not a regular in church and did not ever mention Jesus or faith.  After that day, our friendship continued and continued in conversations about sports and surface-level type stuff.  We never again discussed the gospel tract.
Grade - 1 thumb down; again, I did not ask his thoughts.  I tried to show something missing in him.  At least this was face-to-face and in the context of a relationship.

(3) Sometimes between 2002-2005, when I was a pastor in Virginia (1997-2006), we were doing a furniture give-away to the community.  A woman came for a coffee table and her daughter (23 years old), asked if we could give a Bible?  "Sure," I said.  In the ensuing conversation, she learned that we were in need of secretary.  I discerned from our conversation that she had not committed her life to Christ, but she was interested - a classic "seeker."  Our little church didn't attract many seekers like her.  I hired her as secretary.  I  know some members were appalled that an unbeliever was hired onto the church staff. But, I also knew it would afford me daily conversation with this young woman.  I told her when we hired her that church attendance would be a good idea for a church secretary.  She didn't have to attend our church.  However, my wife and I would be glad to give her a ride, and since she had some transportation problems, she gladly accepted our offer.  After about 10 months of typing newsletters with the pastor's articles, riding to church with the pastor and his wife, and being exposed to young people in our church who were passionate Christ-followers, she gave her life to Jesus.
Grade - 2 thumbs up; I give myself a good grade on this one not because it ended in her becoming a Christ follower, but in how we got there, in the context of real relationship that involved time, personal investment, and a lot of give and take.

Maybe as I go along, I'll write another blog like this one - grading my past evangelistic endeavors.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Life of Children of God

If you really need good news, read Revelation 21-22.  Throughout the New Testament, the permanent joining in love of God and God’s people is described using marriage as a metaphor, and the bride is mentioned in Revelation 21.  After the final confrontation between God and Satan is concluded resoundingly in God’s favor, and Satan is gone, the bride and groom are joined. All who follow Jesus are invited into perfect fellowship with God. 

            He wipes away every tear.  Death is no more.  Mourning and crying and pain – each are gone (21:4).  The home of God is with human beings (21:3b).  At the end of Revelation 21 we see in the Heavenly city, there is no temple; God is the temple.  There is no sun.  God is the light (21:22-23).  All whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life see the face of God (22:4).

            That is coming.  Anyone need hopeful words today?  We’re 1st John 3, but if you need to, linger at the end of Revelation.    John of Patmos received that vision.  We read his accounting of it and we imagine …

            What about today?  We have a lot to deal with now before that future vision comes to fruition.  How does it help to know that we will one day be in God’s physical presence in unbroken fellowship and in pure joy?  It’s something to look forward to.  But what about right now?

            First John 3:2.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”  Though we cannot see God with our eyes, our relationship with God is made possible by His Holy Spirit.  In God’s view, His love and the death and resurrection of Jesus are what is needed to make us sons and daughters of God.  That’s how God see all people who receive Jesus.  Right now, not sometime later, we are children of God. 

            This week I was working on this message just before the voting on Tuesday and then right after it.  Outside the site where I vote, I saw some friends who were demonstrating with a placard.  They were peaceful and did not do anything unacceptable or unkind.  They definitively declared their position with the message on their board.  As we talked some who voted opposite them were visibly upset as they walked by and they voiced their displeasure. 

            The tension made me uncomfortable, but my conversation with my friends turned my mind to other thoughts.  The two women are committed Christ followers, and soon, one of them is going to live in an extremely repressive country where one can be imprisoned or killed for criticizing the government.  She’s going there as a visiting professor.  Secretly, she will meet with Christians and try to establish a small group or even, God-willing, an underground church. 

Overt Christianity in this totalitarian state leads to imprisonment.  If one of the citizens tries to escape the country, the government will kill his wife, his kids, and his parents.  Here we were in America openly expressing our views with our in conversation and with our votes.  And this woman I met will soon be voluntarily headed to one of the most repressive places on earth.

            How can she willingly do that, and do it with a joyful smile?  She is beloved.  She knows that she is a child of God.  It’s not sometime later.  It’s right now.

            Our nation’s political dialogue is locked in catch phrases.  People called my house repeatedly with recorded messages.  Their entire platform was “Get Obama out of Washington.”  None of the would-be congressmen offered a plan for affordable healthcare or job creation or any other pressing issue.  It was just a series of different voices repeating the same, tired, attack-dog lines with no positive alternative to offer.  I received the exact same calls in 2004: “Anybody but Bush.”  Really?  That’s the platform.  I am not saying this as a pro-Obama or pro-Bush stance.  The whole system is sick, and we voters act like lemmings, mindlessly following politicians completely void of conviction or honesty off an ideological cliff.

I was down about all of it.  Then I received some criticism on things I had written and said.  I became defensive and wrote words as mean-spirited and meaningless as those I hear from politicians.  I became what I hate. 

I had to remember the woman headed off to risk her life for the opportunity to share the Gospel.  I had to remember the spirit of volunteers from our church who go to Habitat for Humanity projects and similar works like A Brush with Kindness.  Why do these folks spend Saturdays helping people they don’t even know?  They do it because they are beloved children of God.  I had to remember just two weeks ago, I was with 15 amazing people in Ethiopia and we spent time with 160 incredible children sharing the love of Jesus. 

Being a child of God means something.  It give definition to our lives.  We live a certain way and our values are different than the world’s values.  Life is an incredible adventure when we live into our inheritance.

Verse 1 – “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.”  The Gospel of John, chapter 1 – “To all who received his name, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God who were born not of blood or of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (v.12-13). 

Malaise settled on my spirit as I depressingly mulled over the political state of things.  My melancholy spilled over and I fell into ridiculous arguments online.  Then the sense of purpose of being God’s child snapped me out of it – both the fact that I am God’s child and that I witnessed that sense of call and joy and meaning in others.  First John 3:2 establishes a certainty we can stand on and live from – we are children of God.

Then we read, “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”  First John three moves from “We are children of God” to sin, mentioned 10 times in verses 4-10.  First John is among the most positive, hopeful writings in scripture, but in the midst of all this good news, sin is present.  In our lives – the lives of people who have put their trust in Jesus – sin lurks. 

In chapter 1, those who minimized or denied sin were called liars.  Chapter 2, the possibility of born-again persons sinning is accepted, and Jesus is named as the one who advocates for us.  He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (2:2).  Now in chapter 3, Jesus was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (3:5).

And there rises a problem.  We’ve already read that denial of sin is a lie.  We are all sinners.  But here we read “everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  If we sin, does that negate our status as sons and daughters of God?  If we sin … what a thought!  Of course we sin.  The sins of our entire political system dropped me into an existential funk.  The sins of a nation under the heel of a megalomaniac make me fear for the lives of the people who live there.  All of us suffer pain because of the sins of those around us, many of whom are Christians.  We suffer because of our own sins. 

The literal definition of sin is to miss the mark. Disobedience is sin.  Foul language and mean-spirited words and deceit are ways we sin.  First John 3:8.  “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  First John 3:10.  “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers or sisters.”  Failure to do right and failure to love lead us into sin, all of us.

First John doesn’t mince words.  Have you heard of the antichrist?  First John 2:18 says many antichrists have come and more are on the way, and First and Second John are the only books of scripture that even use the Greek word, Antixristos ’antichrist.’ Child of the devil; antichrist; how do we reconcile such straightforward teaching with equally definitive words that say we are children of God?  Can we have two Fathers – God and the devil?

First John 3:9 says “Those who have been born of God do not sin.  Because God’s seed abides in them they cannot sin.”  When we live into the gift we’ve been given, the gift of new life in Christ, we have no inclination to sin.  We are new creations.  But the old self, the one in constant rebellion, is at war with the spirit of God who resides in us.  The old self is egged on by the evil of Satan.  The old self is tempted by demons and spirits and antichrists all around.  The old self is satisfied by the flesh most clearly seen in greed, lust for power, and sins of a sexual nature, but also manifest in a 1000 other ways. 

First John 3 implies this tension of sin for children of God.  In Romans 7, it is stated directly.

I am made out of flesh,[f] sold into sin’s power. 15 For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 So now I am no longer the one doing it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. 19 For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me. 21

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord![k] So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, to the law of sin.

            Where do we go from here? 

A few faithful Christ-followers are called to put their lives on the line in faraway countries.  They go where the Gospel is violently opposed because they are children of God and He has sent them.  But what about us, living for Jesus in Chapel Hill, going about our everyday lives.  Are we children of God, living with purpose, or slaves to sin and children of the devil?  If we don’t attend to our relationship with God, the enemy will have great sway in our lives and we’ll easily fall to his temptations.

            What about the seed of God, planted us, as verse 9 says?  I believe that seed is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is the difference maker.  We go back to verse 2.  Now we are children of God.  What we will be – people of purpose or slaves of satan – has not been revealed.  Next it says, “What we do know is this:  when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see Him as He is.” 

            No, sin doesn’t win.  Satan does not reign.  The antichrist does not come out on top.  Jesus does.  We know he will return and be revealed and that will be the most wonderful day of history.  We can bank on that

Between now and then, we worship, pray, and stay in the Bible.  In these activities we meet God and stay connected to God’s church.  None of these activities save us, but, in worship, prayer, and Bible reading, we set ourselves so that we are receptive and ready when God enters and begins transforming us.

            With worship, prayer, and Bible-reading as regular life practices, we serve.  Mission trips, work in the church, volunteering in the community, sharing Jesus with friends and inviting them to church – these things make up our lives.  We heap love on hurting, discouraged people around us.  We walk through trials with people.  Good works do not save us any more than prayer, worship, and Bible study.  Jesus saves.  We work out of response to grace.  We love hurting people because that’s where Jesus is.  We’re likely to meet Jesus when visiting a hospital or a prison to give encouragement.  We’re likely to come face-to-face with Jesus while helping the poor, teaching kids, and doing acts of Christian service.  When we do for the “least of these” as Jesus say in Matthew, we do for Him.  Being where He is puts us in touch with the Holy Spirit who takes sin from us. 

            When He is revealed, He says to us, “Welcome, good and faithful one, enter into the joy of your master.”

            First John 3:2: “We will see Him as he is.”  Revelation 22:4: we will see his face and his name will be on us.  That hope gives us something to look forward to and something to live into today.  As we close, may each one of us imagine that day … and also imagine this coming week, how we will live with purpose as children of God.