Archive for category Commentary

Which One Are You?

Taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus are the most subversive, radical, counter-intuitive philosophy ever thrust upon the human condition.  The statement “Love your enemies” alone could inspire many volumes as we seek to apply its weight and gravity to all areas of life and civic interaction.

The same could be said for Jesus’ parable known as “The Good Samaritan”

I think it’s the most radical story ever told.  If you don’t know the story, read it here.

Most interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of characters.  There’s the Priest and Levite, men known for their strict adherence to religious rule and ritual.  Men who would have had more than sufficient means to take care of the injured man.  Men who, had they understood the teachings of which they so proudly considered themselves experts, would have been compelled to stop.  But they didn’t.

No explanation of why, no mention of prior engagements or work that was more important.  They simply didn’t stop  But Jesus took it one step further.  Not only did they not stop, but they passed by on the other side of the road.  They altered their path so as to avoid the suffering of the wounded man.  They went out of their way to ignore him.  It’s not simply that they didn’t stop, but that they knew they should stop and didn’t.

Then there’s the Samaritan.

That word “Samaritan” just doesn’t carry the emotional weight for us that it carried for those who heard it from Jesus’ lips.  I don’t think Jesus could have chosen a more controversial protagonist for His story than a Samaritan.  To say these people were hated would be a gross understatement.

There was a racial and religious hatred centuries old between the Jews and Samaritans, dating back to the Assyrian occupation of Israel during the 8th century BC. When the Assyrians conquered Israel, they settled conquered peoples from other lands in Samaria, Israel’s capitol.  These pagans over the years intermarried with the native Jews left in Samaria, creating a race of what the Jews considered to be “half-breeds.”  The hatred and antagonism was present when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity.  In fact, just thirty or so years prior to Jesus telling this story, Samaritans had entered the temple in Jerusalem during Passover and desecrated it by spreading human bones in the porches.

Jews hated Samaritans.  They were racially impure, their food was considered as unclean as swine flesh, their religion was illegitimate. In fact, when the Pharisees could think of no greater insult to hurl at Jesus, they called Him a Samaritan.  Even Jesus’ own followers couldn’t believe He was talking to the Samaritan “woman at the well.”

And so Jesus chose a Samaritan to stop and help the wounded man.  A Samaritan showed compassion on a Jew.  A Samaritan did what the “righteous” priest and Levite would not: he stopped and helped. He treated the man’s wounds, took him to a local inn and provided for his care and recovery.  He promised to return and make sure the man had recovered and the bill was paid.  He didn’t just stop and help, he committed himself to a man who hated him.

Jesus could have chosen anyone.  It was His story.  He could have made the man a fisherman, a commoner, even a leper.  But He chose a Samaritan.

His meaning couldn’t be any clearer. 

The Samaritan who stops is better than the Priest who doesn’t.  The half-breed, unclean, reject who has mercy is better than the morally righteous person who doesn’t.

Jesus is clear in His teaching, and the essence of that teaching boils down to one word: love.  And the outcast “sinner” who loves is, according to this parable, more a part of the Kingdom than those who appear to keep all the rules except one: to love.

There is no other rule in the Kingdom.  Jesus said all the law and the prophets could be boiled down to love. So any rule or moral obligation that does not result in love is not scriptural.  Any “religious” person who does not love is simply wearing a facade.  He’s a fake.  He who does not love is not a follower of Christ.

Everything is upside down in the Kingdom.  The last become first.  The poor become preferred.  The rejects get moved to the front of the line.  The sinner who deserves death gets life.  And the “Samaritan” who stops and helps is better than the “Priest” who doesn’t.

Which one are you?

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I’m Not Thankful

As we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. the big question that will be asked around most dinner tables is “what are you thankful for?” We might go around in a circle and each person list one thing for which they are thankful.  We might elaborate on special blessings, joyous occasions, or unexpected miracles that have happened during the last year.

But I’m willing to bet there won’t be one table in America that asks the question, “What are you NOT thankful for?”

You see, we tend to view life and it’s happenings in one of two categories, good and bad.  There are good things that happen, like getting a job or recovering from an illness.  And there are bad things that happen like losing a job or getting sick.  We tend to be thankful for the things we consider to be in the “good” category.  But those in the “bad” column?  Not so much.

Truth be told, despite the lip service we give it on days like Thanksgiving, we’re not really thankful for everything.  Just the good stuff.

My son Colin told me about an illustration he saw on the internet the other day, and I think it’s useful in making a point.  Take a look at the glass on the left.  Is it half-empty or is it half-full?  Stay with me, this isn’t some lame optimist/pessimist exercise.  Is it half-empty or half-full?

Actually, it’s a trick question because the glass is full.  It’s always full.  In this case, it’s half-full of water and half-full of air.  Even a glass that we consider to be empty is still full of air.  (Science geeks can take their discussion of vacuums elsewhere.)

Here’s the point:  Ephesians 1 tells us that all things in heaven and earth are made one in Jesus Christ, and that He fills all in all.  Hear that?  All things, good and bad, up or down, are brought together in Christ and He fills them all.

The glass is always full in Christ.

So even the things on my “bad” list are good because they are in Christ.  Even the things that bring us pain, the suffering, the lost job, the sickness, are filled by Christ.  And we are never closer to Him, we are never more filled with Him than when we suffer.  It’s the path of the true pilgrim, the lot of the sincere seeker.

Like the paradox that is the essence of the Christ experience, our “bad” list actually is our “good” list.  He has brought them both together and made them one in Him.  That’s why He so confidently tells us to “give thanks in everything.”

So this year, around the Thanksgiving table in our house, I’m going to be thanking God for the health problems I’ve been experiencing, because they’ve made me more dependent on Christ which is something I wrote about last week.  I’ll be encouraging our family to think about things they wouldn’t necessarily associate with Thanksgiving.  I’m going to make us think about the things we’d normally ignore, the things we wish would change, the things on our “bad” list.

Maybe, just maybe, instead of offering up the same tired answer to the same tired question, God will get glory as we begin to open up about the things that make us question God, the things that make us suffer, the things that make us say “Why?”  And maybe He’ll get glory when we admit the things we haven’t really been so thankful for, and we let Him change us more into His image as we lay down our selfish notion that everything should always go well and we get thankful for the things that draw us closer and make us more dependent on Him.

This Thanksgiving I dare you, ask the question, “What are you NOT thankful for?”

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Jesus Loves Jerry Sandusky

It’s not just a shocking title to get you to read this post.

It’s probably not something very popular to say these days.  The horrendous deeds of a sick man have rocked not only the Penn State football program, not only the sports world, but our entire culture.  They have brought down a legend and challenged to the core the institutional idolatry of entertainment and sports so rampant in our culture.

But God loves Jerry Sandusky.  Not just “kinda loves”.  He deeply, passionately, completely, and eternally loves Jerry Sandusky.  Thousands of years ago, when the world was without form and void, God new Jerry would fall into his trap of lust and darkness, and He moved heaven and earth to send His Son to die for Jerry.  And when Jerry was in that shower stall (and who knows where else) God’s heart broke with love and compassion for Him, just as it does over his victims.

But I’ll tell you what’s most shocking to me about this whole tragedy is the reaction I’ve seen from most of my Christian friends.  “Fry in hell” or some similar sentiment are words I’ve heard more than once, and those who didn’t say the words showed them on their faces.  I’m not being self-righteous here, I’ve thought it too.  We act as though we’d be happy to see Jerry Sandusky face eternal damnation for what He’s done.  And while we’re at it, throw in all the other perverts, drunkards, and sinners!

Why?

What do we have to gain by Jerry frying in hell?  Do you think that man hasn’t been living in hell every day of his life?  Will the world suddenly be free from pedophiles if we hang Jerry in the public square?  Or will it just make me feel better to see a sinner punished for his sin?

Guess what…I have skeletons in my closet too.  And so do you.  They might not rise to the level of Jerry’s, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want them exposed publicly.

And guess what…God loves you just as passionately, deeply, unconditionally and eternally as he does Jerry Sandusky.  He’s looked beyond your lust, my greed, our self-righteous pride and accepted us.  Yet somehow we take pleasure in the fact that we’re not like the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world.  We’re part of the secret club that gets a free pass.  But not him…not after what he’s done.

I think we’re all a lot more like the brother in the Prodigal Son story than we’d like to believe.  We’re the good kids, and it’s not fair that the rebels, sinners and losers are embraced by the Father just like we are.  We’re angry that they get a ring and a feast when they finally come to their senses and come home.  They get a free pass, and it’s not right, is it?

You can keep your accusations that I’m being soft on sin, or that I don’t care about the victims of his crimes.  You and I both know that’s not true.  It’s a horrible thing that’s happened, and lives have been ruined.  But if you want to think that about me, then so be it.  If you think I should burn in hell with Jerry, so be it.  If you want to obfuscate the issue with doctrinal arguments or politics, so be it.

But I’ve made my choice.

And just like Jesus I’m casting my lot with the sinners, losers and those who deserve His love the least.  I don’t know Jerry Sandusky, but I’m throwing open the door to him to experience the unconditional love and grace that can be found by falling on the mercy of a Jesus who died for people exactly like Jerry.

And while I’m at it, all the other prostitutes, pedophiles, porn addicts, adulterers and anyone else trapped in a darkness they feel like they can’t escape are welcome as well.  Fall at the feet of Jesus and experience what apparently most of His people aren’t willing to offer…love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

There was once a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, a sin punishable by death in Jesus’ day.  The religious leaders seemed to have the same reaction most Christians have today:  stone in hand, ready for action.  And I seem to remember Jesus staring down her self-righteous accusers until, one by one, they walked away.  Then Jesus said the same words He’s said to so many sinners since then…words that ring down through the ages to sinners like you and me and, yes, even Jerry Sandusky:  “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

So Jerry Sandusky, I don’t care what they say, you can be forgiven.  You can start over with a clean slate before God.  Sure, you’ll have to bear the consequences of your actions, whatever they may have been.  But you can be free of the guilt and shame and self-inflicted torture I’m sure you’re going through.

Even if nobody else does, Jesus loves you.

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But What If…?

Martin Luther dared to proclaim that God’s forgiveness for sins could not be purchased for money.  He also declared God’s grace as the only source of forgiveness, the Bible as the only source of divinely revealed knowledge, and that all believers are a priesthood before Christ, not a select few.  For these “heresies” he was excommunicated.

When Galileo suggested the radical notion that the earth was not the center of the solar system he was tried and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.”  He was not excommunicated, but was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” his opinions and was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

These actions seem silly as we look at them through the lens of our modern beliefs.  The selling of indulgences seems to us to be as foolish as believing the earth is flat.  But to the religious leaders of their day, the dangerous thoughts of liberals like Martin Luther and Galileo were a challenge to their belief system and a threat they could not endure.

What if beliefs we hold dear are just as silly?

I’m not saying they are.  But what if they are?  What if some future generation will look at ours with the same disbelief as we look back at Martin Luther or Galileo?  Those who persecuted them had the same Bible we possess.  What if, like then, our current understanding of the truth has been so clouded by our cultural, political and social prejudices that we cannot see any other way but ours?

Truth is real.  It is absolute.  It can be nothing less.  The truth that the sun is the center of the solar system did not change because the church leaders considered it heresy.  The truth is what it is, regardless of whether we acknowledge, believe, or follow it.  The truth exists regardless of opposition by politicians or popes.

But truth is not the problem, we are.

What if we have believed and taught things that are based on our own understanding of the truth, but in reality are far from it?  What if we have held others to standards they were never meant to follow?  What if, like in the days of Luther and Galileo, our own politics, preconceptions and prejudices have tainted our understanding and caused us to refuse to accept an alternate reality.  What if we are clinging to the earth being the center of the universe?

What if we have excommunicated others for less?  I’m not talking about some official, church sanctioned excommunication.  I’m talking about the millions who have been driven away from Christ by our lack of humility.  I have said in a previous post that truth must be handled delicately and with humility, otherwise it becomes a weapon.  Beliefs in the absence of love are dangerous things.  Wars are fought over beliefs.  People die when others become so defensive of their position that they feel the infidels must be eliminated.

The Apostle Paul recognized the danger of that arrogance when he said, “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  Love tempers us.  It softens our actions.  It creates a gentleness and patience with those who don’t believe as we do.  Jesus did not say men would know we are His disciples because of our correct doctrine, but by our love.

The gospel frees us from the need to always be right.  When I truly grasped the enormity of God’s grace shown to a worthless loser like me, it released me from my arrogant notion that it all depends on me.  My right beliefs or correct doctrine don’t make God love me more than He already does.

Put down the pitchforks.  I’m not telling you what you believe is wrong.  I’m not demanding that you accept the sun as the center of the solar system. I’m just asking you to have enough of an open mind to consider the possibility that it might be.

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Outdated and Irrelevant

Some think we are living in terrible times. I tend to think we are living in incredibly exciting times.

There can be no argument that things are changing around us. There is a societal shift happening that rivals some of the greatest cultural revolutions in history, as big as the invention of the printing press or the industrial revolution.

In America, we are in the midst of a transition to a post-industrial society. We no longer live in an assembly line world where the powerful few are in charge, while the masses show up, shut up, and do as they are told. Today’s world is an outsourced, work from home, iPod, unlimited choice, internet-driven culture where the individual is more in charge of their own destiny than ever before.

It’s a scary and exciting time.

Christianity was never meant to be anything else. Think about it: Jesus showed up on the scene challenging the authority and criticizing the top-down leadership of His day. He condemned the powerful few who swayed the masses through control and domination.

Through His death, Jesus released us from the need for the spiritual middle-man. He gave us direct access to God Himself. In an instant Jesus created a spiritual climate very similar to what we see going on culturally right now.

Yet the entirety of church history has been one long story of men trying to re-establish that control in the name of God. Popes and pulpits, denominations and doctrines all designed to tell God’s people what to do and how to do it, what to think and how to think it.

Jesus fought against it. The reformers fought against it. Brave warriors like William Tyndale and others gave their lives for it. For twenty centuries the battle has raged for the control of God’s people.

And for most of history we have played along. We have allowed others to tell us what to believe and what to think. We’ve been content to show up and shut up because it’s more comfortable that way. It’s easier to get spoon fed than it is to do the work of seeking God for ourselves.

But no more!

The world has changed, and as the church has failed to change with it we have become increasingly outdated and irrelevant. We are operating an old model in a new age. Factories are closing all around us, yet we are still operating church like it’s an assembly line. People are working from home or from Starbucks, yet we still want them to show up at a building at 9:00 on Sunday morning. We think they’re not interested in church, but the fact is they’re just tired of us trying to jam square pegs in round holes.

It’s time to let go of the control. It’s time to stop thinking of church as a top down institution, but rather a bottom up community. That’s the model taught by Jesus. Groups of believers coming together organically, directing their time and resources to doing the work of the kingdom instead of feeding the organizational beast. Yeah, not as many pastors earn salaries in the new model of church. When we all become the church, there might not be a need for a full time guy running the show.

Now is the time to win the battle once and for all. Christ’s coming was meant to be a radical shift in human consciousness. It’s a shift away from the control of the intermediaries between God and man. The curtain was torn. We are all face to face with the Father Himself.

If you have felt that something is not right, it’s for good reason. Things are not right. They are not even close to what God intended. I’m not suggesting that we change church to follow culture. I’m simply proposing that we get back to what it was intended to be all along.

It’s a shame it took 2,000 years and a cultural revolution to get us here.

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Pat Robertson is not the problem

Let me start by saying this:  I believe Pat Robertson is wrong.  I think his advice this week to a man whose wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease is totally out of sync with the spirit of our wedding vows and the sacrificial love to which we are called as Christians.  Should my wife ever contract this dreaded disease, it is not Mr. Robertson’s advice I will be following.

What I find interesting, however, is the marketing blitz the rest of Christendom has initiated in the few days since Pat’s remarks.  I’ve seen op-ed’s, blogs, commentaries, television appearances and more designed to show the world that the rest of we Christians are “not like Pat.”  We have criticized, excoriated, condemned and otherwise separated ourselves from Pat Robertson.  We have done everything we can to make it clear that Pat does not speak for the rest of the Christian community.

But Pat Robertson is not the problem.

You see, I don’t think his comments this week made the world think any more badly of Christians than they already do.  Pat’s comments didn’t ruin the image of Christianity in the eyes of the world. They just confirmed it.

I think the vast majority of the non-Christian community already thinks we are cold, uncaring, unloving, judgmental, and self-serving.  They have seen us picketing and protesting, judging and condemning.  They hear us tell homeless people to “get a job.”   They notice when we build expensive buildings for our own comfort when we are surrounded by poverty and need.  They hear us claim to be “pro-family”, and then have the same divorce rate as the general population. They hear us condemn the “God Hates Fags” mentality of Westboro Baptist Church, but have seen by our actions how we quietly agree with them.  We are quick to criticize and moralize, but slow to offer solutions, and the world knows it.

They’re not stupid.

In short, the world has already observed that we often do not follow the simplest commands of the Jesus we claim to serve.  He called us to serve the poor, we have ignored them.  He called us to love unconditionally, we have protested.  He called us to be the light of the world, instead we have become just like them.  Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we are more concerned with rules and law than we are about people who suffer.

Pat Robertson’s words this week didn’t cause that image, they just drove the nail deeper.

Yes, there are pockets of Christians following the commands of Christ.  There are the stirrings of those who want to awaken from our slumber and get it right.  But the church has an image problem.  And Pat Robertson didn’t cause it, we did.  I have caused it and you have caused it.  By our actions or lack thereof, by the things we have done and left undone, we have brought reproach on the name of Christ.  And until we all decide to die to self, follow Christ, and do His works, that image problem will continue.

The answer is to stop criticizing Pat and instead go love someone.  Let’s stop politicizing and polarizing and go humbly serve the poor.  Let’s stop trying to shape society and instead just follow Jesus.  When Christians decide to simply live like Christ, society can’t help but be changed.  If we had done this, then Pat’s comments would be nothing more than a blip on the radar.  If the world saw more of Jesus, they would hear less of Pat Robertson.

Until we get to the root of the disease, no amount of criticizing the symptoms will make it better.

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How much is enough?

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul gave Timothy a warning about the church,

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers”

You don’t have to look very far to see that happening these days.  Everywhere you look there is another book, another sermon, another song or message or article.  We have become a people who are addicted to encouragement.  In our fast paced society of the immediate, we become quickly bored with the familiar and are in constant search for something new and different.  It’s like we are constantly hitting “check mail” on our spiritual inbox, hoping for the next big thing to hit and excite us.

A recent study by the World Health Organization revealed that those from the richer countries were more likely to suffer depression.  Maybe our wealth and comfort have made us depressed, so we go searching for the next bit of good news, hoping it will lift our spirits.

The promise of “more” – more stuff, more money and more comfort – has left us with less.

We have less time, less connection, less happiness than ever.  One of the things that hits me hardest when I visit developing nations is their joy.  In spite of extreme poverty, they overflow with joy and love and generosity.  I believe this is because they know what is important.

In our pursuit of more we have forsaken our time with God.  We don’t pray that much and don’t study His word that much.  We have lost communication with Him and with one another.  And instead of getting our priorities straight  and reordering our lives, we have simply let others do the work.  We let the pastor study God’s word and bring the message on Sunday.  “Just give me my 3 points to a better life.”  We are just like the Israelites who saw the mountain burning and felt the earth tremble at the voice of Yahweh.  “Moses, you go hear from God and come back and tell us what He says,” was their response.

Look, I’m not bashing anyone.  I know life is hard and we all need help.  And I’m not saying we don’t need pastors and encouragement.  But the answers are not just around the corner in some new teaching.  The answers to life’s problems are where they have always been found.  They are in a deeper connection with Jesus and with each other.

You want 3 points?  Here they are:

1.  Spend whatever time with God you must.  Reorder your life.  Give some things up.  Your idols have promised you happiness and left you empty.  Only He can satisfy.  So take the time to drink deeply of His water and let it quench your thirst.  Other things will grow strangely dissatisfying when you taste of His goodness.  Like the late missionary Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

2.  Live in community with others.  Our modern church culture has made it possible for us to show up on Sunday morning, do our duty, and never have to make ourselves vulnerable to others.  Find a small community of believers and live life together.  Depression can be the only alternative when we are cut off from others and left to fend for ourselves.  You must be joined with others who know you, love you, challenge you, and accept you unconditionally.  It’s out there. Don’t give up until you find it.

3.  Stop searching for more.  I think this is a big reason Christians in poverty seem to have so much joy in spite of their situation.  They don’t expect more all the time.  They have learned to be content, even in extreme poverty.  They are thankful for what they have instead of always reaching for the “elusive next.”  Be content.  Be thankful.  Rejoice in what God has already done in your life, and submit the rest to Him.  He knows what is best, and your steps are ordered by Him.

These are just 3 points.  They are not the only 3 points.  They do not replace hearing directly from God about your life and your direction.  I’m not bringing the stone tablets down from the mountain here.  That’s your job.  That’s the whole point.  God wants to deal directly with you.  You don’t have to go through a preacher, an author or any other middleman.

Are you willing to listen?

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