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My way or the highway

Have you ever noticed how the church talks about the concept of “absolute truth?”  For the most part, we use that term as a weapon.  We wield it like a giant spiritual baseball bat to bludgeon anyone who does not agree with us.  If you think differently than what our doctrine clearly states, you are wrong.  And we wast no time or effort in quickly convincing you of that fact.

The funny thing is, I always think of what I believe as absolute truth, not what you believe.

I never stop to consider that those who disagree with me feel as strongly about the “absoluteness” of their truth as I do of mine.  So we let something that should unite us divide us instead.  Instead of rallying around what should be obvious to all, we instead polarize, demonize, and politicize.

It seems we Christians love to look backwards.  We look at the way things have always been done and elevate our traditions to the level of absolute.  Then when anyone dares disagree with us, they become an enemy who must be silenced.  Our truth is better than yours, so we protect ours by eliminating yours.

Why do we have to proclaim truth in such a negative way?

The good news seems more like bad news when it makes you right and me wrong all the time.

In John 14:6 Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the “…way, the TRUTH, and the life…”  So, as His follower, my definition of truth must begin and end with Jesus.  His words, His actions, His example gives me a road-map to follow in my pursuit of truth.  If it looks and sounds like Jesus, then it is truth.

Jesus certainly didn’t beat people over the head with doctrine or dogma.  He didn’t use the truth of who He was as a weapon against the infidels.  The Pharisees did that.  They were the ones excluding and judging, condemning and executing.  They were the ones enforcing every letter of the law, while forgetting mercy.  The Pharisee’s concept of absolute truth said the woman caught in adultery should be stoned.  But Jesus – the truth in human form – said, “neither do I condemn you.” 

So what am I saying?  Am I saying we are wrong to believe in absolutes?  Have I become some sort of relativist?  Some postmodern who believes that all truths are equally valid?  No, I believe in absolutes.  I believe in the absolutes Jesus taught, and they are not that complicated:

I believe that love overcomes evil.
I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment.
I believe we will be judged by how we treat the poor, the oppressed, and the helpless.
I believe “love your neighbor” transcends race, creed, nationality, and bigotry.
I believe loving our enemies is better than hating them.
I believe in returning good for evil, love for hatred, mercy for wrongdoing.
I believe we are never so tall as when we stoop to embrace a leper.

Yes, I believe in absolute truth.

I believe we are all absolutely depraved, and that Jesus came to absolutely redeem all of us to Himself.  And I absolutely don’t get to decide what that looks like.  He is the Redeemer, He gets to decide.  He has redeemed even people I might not like, agree with, or understand.  He is more than capable of revealing the truth of His love to the world He came to redeem.  He doesn’t need me to swing Him around like a blunt object used to beat sinners into submission.

Besides, love is a much more effective weapon anyway, and that’s the truth.

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I am a failure at Christianity

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago called “What if you feel like quitting?”  I wrote it after I saw someone arrive at my blog after typing these words into a search engine: “what to do when you feel like turning away from Christianity?”

Well, the other night I noticed another search that resulted in a visit to this blog.  This time the search was this: “I am a failure at Christianity.” 

The emotion and hopelessness of those words have haunted me for three days now.  Someone, somewhere sat down at their computer in a moment of despair and typed those words, hoping to find some solace or comfort.  I have tried to imagine what prompted their resignation.  What failure or sin caused this sad admission?  I have prayed for that person in the days following, and I feel like I must respond.

There are two emotions that hit me as I think about that sentence, “I am a failure at Christianity.”

The first is compassion on the precious person who wrote it.  I pray you will find hope and forgiveness.  I hope you will find a way through Christ to get back up and keep going.

The second emotion I feel is anger.  I am angry at a church culture that has made it possible for someone to feel like a failure at Christianity.  I am angry that we have reduced the incredible grace of God, his undeserved favor, into a set of rules to keep and sins to avoid.  I am angry that we have created an atmosphere where those who have trouble keeping our rules feel less than worthy of Christ and less than deserving of His grace.

You see, it’s actually impossible to fail at Christianity.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean we have something to do with our own redemption.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean there is something more than the cross that is necessary for salvation.  If it were possible to fail, that would mean my salvation has more to do with me than it does with God.

None of those things are true.  We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ.  We most definitely do not deserve it.  God has acted completely out of His own love for us.  He has offered us forgiveness completely apart from anything we can do to earn or deserve it.  The Bible tells us in Romans 5 that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners.”  That’s the good news, plain and simple.  And the love and grace that saved you once is the same love and grace that continues to save you every minute of every day.

The only way we could ever fail at Christianity would be to not accept it. It’s a free gift, and the only way to fail with a gift is if we will not take it.

So to the person who wrote those words, I encourage you to believe.  You are actually at the very place God wants you to be.  We are all failures, and it’s only when we are finally able to admit that fact that we are able to receive His mercy.  When you confess your failure and cry out to God, that’s when forgiveness starts to flow.

And to the rest of us, I encourage us to evaluate what we believe.  Do we really believe in grace?  Do we really believe salvation is a free gift from God, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it?  I think many of us in the church see the sin and degradation around us and feel like we need to take a stand against it.  But look at how Jesus treated sinners.  It was always with love, mercy and compassion.

Unfortunately those things seem to be in short supply to far too many “sinners” today.

For further reading, check out this post as well:  Being disillusioned is a good thing

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Who is calling the shots?

There is a principle in the U.S. legal system called “precedent.”  It’s a rule of law where a court defines a set of principles in deciding a case that can be referred to by other courts in deciding similar cases in the future.  Its official name is the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere – “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled.”

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me to be a bit of a legal shortcut. Jurists standing on the work of others instead of thinking things through for themselves.  And I’m not the only one.  Justice McHugh of the High Court of Australia once remarked about precedence, “That is the way of the common law, the judges preferring to go from case to case, like the ancient Mediterranean mariners, hugging the coast from point to point, and avoiding the dangers of the open sea of system or science.”

My question is this: What if the precedent, the original decision, is wrong?  What if subsequent courts are basing decisions based on erroneous reasoning?  I wondering how many courts upheld the legality of slavery simply based on the principle of precedent?

I wonder also, how much of the faith we call Christianity is based on precedent? How much of what we practice has little or no basis in scripture, but instead in “how it’s always been done?”

Christianity is not like the court system. Precedence doesn’t exist. Just because something has been practiced for centuries doesn’t make it right, permanent or holy.  Just because you’ve been told something is a certain way for your whole life doesn’t make it so.

The only precedent that is absolutely essential to the follower of Christ is Scripture.  The Bible.  The words of God’s prophets.  The doctrine of the Jesus and His Apostles.  And that Scripture is clear: the Holy Spirit is able to lead YOU into all truth.  You don’t need centuries of popes and preachers telling you what the Bible says.  You only need the Bible and a willingness to hear the voice of God for yourself.  There is only one head of the church, and that is Jesus.  He said, “My sheep hear MY voice, and they know me.”

Let me be clear.  I am not telling you that everything you have ever been taught is wrong.  I am not telling you that all the doctrine of the church is wrong.  Tradition and doctrine are an important part of our faith.  But they are meant to guide us, not dominate us.  They are meant to provide a blueprint, not a mandate.  Doctrine is not the end, it’s the means.  All too often doctrine has been used as a club to beat people into submission or eliminate those who disagree.

Too many of us are like those ancient mariners, clinging to the coast, hopping from port to port, too afraid to launch out to the danger of the open sea.  It has been easier to let others tell us what to believe than to search the scriptures for ourselves.  It has been easier to allow traditions, rules and dogmas dominate us than to strike out into uncharted territory, following the words of Jesus as heard by our own ears and not by the ears of others.  Religion doesn’t like rebels.  It prefers those who are willing to accept the box into which God has been neatly placed.

But the Bible is full of examples of men and women who broke with tradition to follow God:  Abraham leaving his father’s house, Gideon tearing down and burning his father’s idols, the prophets who spoke against corruption in the house of God.  All were called to abandon the safety of the status quo in favor of a new thing God wanted to do through them.  There are many heroes of church history, like Martin Luther, Jan Hus and George Fox, who were willing to break off from the pack in favor of God’s truth.  Our Lord Himself is our greatest example of one who had the courage to stand against tradition when it was immoral, arrogant and destructive.

Do we have the fortitude to follow their example?

In these days, God is looking for a people who are willing to strike out with boldness for His kingdom. He is looking for those with the courage to reject the selfishness and materialism that has gripped so much of modern Christianity.  He is looking for men and women who are willing to follow His lead and show mercy instead of judgment, love instead of hatred, grace instead of condemnation.

There’s a vast ocean out there, but you have to be willing to leave the shore to explore it.

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It’s not about the dollar

I live in Nashville, TN.  Over the last couple of years, I have noticed a new development.  We have homeless people at many intersections selling a “homeless newspaper” called The Contributor.  I don’t know much about this newspaper, who puts it out, what the purpose is, or where the money goes.  Frankly, I’ve never bothered to find out.

I must admit my reaction to these guys has been, “Well, they found a new way to panhandle.”  I have given them a dollar a couple of times, but most of the time I just look the other way or drive on by.  Why?  I ask myself, “How do I know where the money goes?” or “How do I know the guy isn’t just going to buy booze or drugs with the money?”  And I guess on the surface those are legitimate questions.  I don’t want to be guilty of blindly supporting something that is only enabling their dysfunction and addiction.  I generally do want to give money to a place where I know it’s going to be used wisely, and that’s why I support my local rescue mission.

But I’ve been thinking and questioning my heart lately.  It’s only a dollar.  I won’t really miss it.  And what if the money is going to something legit?  What if the money is really helping to develop productive work in those who would otherwise be standing on a corner with a “will work for food” sign?  What if it’s really helping homeless people overcome their dysfunction and return to society?  I wouldn’t know because I’ve never bothered to ask.  It’s been easier to just look the other way and be safe in my assumptions.

You see, it’s not really about that homeless guy selling The Contributor.  It’s not about the principle, and it’s not even about the dollar.  It’s about me.  It’s about how easy it is for me to write something and someone off that I don’t know anything about.  It’s about my safe zone.  I’m willing to live with my preconceptions because they protect me from having to climb into the world of a homeless guy and find out what he and his newspaper are all about.  It’s easier to drive on by than to recognize that it’s not just a homeless guy holding that newspaper, it’s a human being.  A human being Jesus died for.

Maybe I’m right.  Maybe The Contributor is just another clever cover for panhandling in 2011.  Maybe the guy is going to take my dollar and go buy something cheap and numbing.  And maybe I’ve been hiding behind words like responsibility and accountability so I just don’t have to get involved.  Maybe this is what God told Israel in Zechariah 7,

Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion, everyone to his brother.

So I’m not going to stop making excuses.  I’m going to give the guy a dollar any time I have one in my wallet, then I’m going to pray for that guy and trust that God will use my dollar to make an impact in his life.  If I’m going to be wrong, I’m at least going to do it with my eyes and heart open, my head upright and not buried in the sand.

After all, maybe it’s Jesus standing on that corner.

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Those pesky motives!

Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?  When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?  ~ Zechariah 7:5-6

In these verses, God is rebuking a people who seemed to follow the letter of their religious tradition, but they did it for all the wrong reasons.  They didn’t fast because they were seeking God, but to appear holy.  They didn’t feast as a way of giving thanks and glory to Him, but for their own benefit.

So let me ask you a question:  Do you serve God for your benefit, or for His?

It’s a hard question, but a necessary one.  I’m thinking about my own life, and how often my relationship with God is more about me than Him.  It’s about what He’s going to do for me; about how often I’m looking to Him to meet my needs.  It’s very easy to slip into self-focused Christianity, a brand of religion that resembles a self-help seminar.  It’s a faith that encourages me to follow God because it promises me peace and contentment.  There is very little challenge to my status quo in self-help Christianity.  This type of religion is rampant in the church today.  And, unfortunately, it’s rampant in my heart too much of the time.

It’s pitiful really, how self-centered we have become.  A friend sent me an email advertisement the other day about a new book promising to  show you “how to unleash the power of faith as your greatest professional advantage.”  I wanted to weep.

But there is an antidote to our narcissism, and it’s in verses 9-10 of Zechariah 7:

Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.  Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.

Notice how it’s all outwardly focused?  Justice, mercy, compassion. They are all shown to others.  When we are looking to meet the needs of the fatherless, the oppressed, the immigrants and the poor we don’t have time to self-obsess.  When we are looking for ways to bless our brother instead of take from him, we are loosed from our selfishness.  My worship of God becomes less about myself and more about Him.  I’m no longer looking for affirmation or fulfillment, because those things are natural outgrowths of doing His work.  I no longer seek to have my own needs met because my mind and heart or so focused on meeting the needs of others.

Until we get to that point, all our church services, worship bands, sermons, books, cd’s and everything else are meaningless.  If our worship ends when the song is over and we walk out of the building on Sunday, it has accomplished nothing.  It’s nothing more than a self-centered emotional high meant to give me a good feeling.  It only takes on meaning when it moves me to do His work: showing justice, mercy and compassion on others; caring for the orphans, aliens and poor.

Our Lord came, not to be served, but to serve.  He calls us to walk in His steps.  He came to “preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to those in prison,” and He calls us to follow His lead.

He came to give His life for those who didn’t deserve it, and He calls us to join Him.

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An open letter to Christian leaders

I want to start this post by saying, right up front, I say these words with fear and trembling. Who am I? I don’t have the right to say this. But it burns in my heart, and I must.

Not long ago, my family and I were in a restaurant where we received excellent service. A mistake was made on our order and the manager immediately corrected it with his apologies. I made the comment to my son that, good or bad, service starts with management. There’s no such thing as an employee problem, it’s always a management problem.

I think the same can be said with the church today. I look around and see so much worldliness, so much narcissism and selfishness, so much “me-ology” instead of theology. Yet I don’t think the problem begins with the body. I believe we have a leadership problem.

I’m being challenged by the words of Paul in Colossians 1:24 where he says,

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.”

I’m wondering how many of our leaders today are willing to “fill up their flesh” with the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the body? I’m wondering how many leaders today are willing to lay down everything and literally become servants to the body? To suffer and travail for the good of the church of Jesus Christ.

I see a lot of leaders for whom “ministry” has become a career. I see a ministry class that has become separate from the body, in many cases above the body. I don’t see a lot of leaders who are willing to suffer on behalf of the body. I don’t see a lot of leaders who are willing, like John the Baptist, to live in the wilderness with no comforts of home in order to challenge the people of God to repentance and obedience.

Jesus warned His followers of the “leaven of the Pharisees” and how that leaven can leaven a whole lump of dough. He warned His followers about the pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who held the rank and file to a standard they themselves did not keep. He warned them about a ruling class that would exert power over God’s people for their own personal gain.

And He said that leaven would leaven the whole lump. If there is a problem with worldliness in the church, follow it back to the leadership. If there is a problem with hypocrisy in the church, follow it back to the leadership. If the church has failed in its job of taking care of the orphans and widows, follow it back to the leadership.

I’m begging our church leadership. Please consider whose kingdom you are building, Christ’s or yours. Please consider whose money you are spending. Please consider how we could have come to this: multi-million dollar buildings while so many suffer, meaningless programs meant to suck up to donors while the world is careening out of control, and a form of Godliness, but no power of the Holy Spirit.

Please know my heart. I know there are a lot of wonderful men and women who are in leadership in the body of Christ. But the church is sick, the temple of the Holy Spirit – the people of God – lies in ruins. And the rebuilding of that temple begins with repentance at the highest levels. It begins with leaders who are willing to step down from the pedestal and suffer and travail for the body of Christ. It begins with leaders who are willing to fill themselves up with the sufferings of Christ, that His body might be nourished and replenished.

Until the head finds its healing, the whole body will remain in its sickness.


The problem with Easter

Yes, I’m writing a post on why I don’t like Easter.  I’ve tried to be quiet and keep my feelings to myself, but I can’t any longer.

Put down the pitchforks and torches.  I don’t have anything against celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection.  His love and sacrifice is the reason I’m even alive today.  I thank Him every day for what He did for me.

And that’s my problem with Easter.  God never told us to create a holiday in honor of Christ’s resurrection (or birth, for that matter).  The Jews had a festal celebration of Passover.   The pagans had a festal celebration for the vernal equinox.  We just couldn’t be left out, could we?  “I know, Easter!” someone said.  The problem is that Jesus death and resurrection – the very thing we celebrate – put an end to the need for religious observation.  The veil that separated God and man was torn, and we no longer needed religious ritual to serve God.

Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 4,

But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?  You observe days and months and seasons and years.

Jesus freed us from the need for religious ritual, but we went running right back to it.  They weren’t sufficient to bring man to God then, and they are not now.  We no longer need a “Holy Week,” Jesus died to make every day holy.  We no longer need a festal celebration to honor Him, we honor Him every day in how we live our lives.

And if it’s a celebration of His death and resurrection you want, Jesus already gave us two, and commanded us to keep them: baptism and communion.  These can be celebrated every time we get together, every day of our lives.

“But what’s wrong with a holiday?” you ask. I’ll give you three reasons it’s wrong”

  • It lessens the importance of every other day.  Instead of celebrating Christ’s sacrifice by changing the way I live, Easter gives me an “easy out”.
  • It gives unbelievers and incorrect view of what following Christ is all about.  They see our emphasis on religious tradition and not on the call to “die daily.”
  • All those good people wearing their fancy Easter outfits further divides us from the poor, the outcasts and the sinners.  They already feel out of place among us, and the elaborate dress and ritual further serves to drive a wedge between “us” and “them.”

We are losing the battle, my friends.  Look around.  Christianity is not growing, it’s shrinking.  The world knows most of what we call Christianity has become a weak and powerless bunch of religious ritual, and we have played right into their hands.  We serve a Savior who scorned the religious elite in favor of the meek and humble.  We serve a Savior who hangs on a cross and asks us to join Him.  We serve a Savior who has promised the same power that raised Him from the dead to empower us to change the world.

Instead we have traded it for a holiday and a chocolate bunny.


Time to change our Vocabulary

As we head into 2011, there are a few words I would like to see stricken from our Christian lexicon.  These are words that have lost their meaning, are full of preconceptions and prejudices.  If anyone can think of a decent replacement for these words, I’m game.

Here’s the list:

Christian (and Christianity)

Ok…I already broke my own rule in the first sentence of this post.  The word “Christian” is so full of baggage that it no longer effectively communicates the heart of what it means to be a true follower of Christ.  Just bearing the name itself automatically makes it and “us against them” proposition.  “I’m a Christian and you’re not!”  Even if we don’t mean it like that, it’s what everyone else hears.

Mega-church (or “mega” anything)

This one simultaneously makes me want to laugh, cry, and stab myself in the eye.  The very thought that the body of Christ has been reduced to a corporate institution makes my blood boil.  The fact that we think numbers automatically make it better or effective or right runs counter to everything scripture teaches.

Mega does not care for the insignificant.  Mega does not care for the individual.  That’s why mega-churches are always trying to “deconstruct” themselves to smaller working parts like small groups, core groups, or whatever.  The truth is, those smaller groups…that’s where church really happens.


Ok, I’m treading on thin ice with this one.  I don’t mean to knock those who are serving the body of Christ, and I know there are a lot of sincere pastors out there who do.  It’s just that the word “pastor” as it used in the Bible has, for the most part, been lost on us.  Today many pastors are CEO’s, administrators, teachers, managers, marketers, fundraisers and more.

The word “pastor” in the New Testament means “shepherd”.  God’s people are desperate for shepherds.  They are desperate for a pastor who can walk through life with them and give them the love, encouragement, and accountability they need to have a successful relationship with God.  Oh, that we would deconstruct our churches down to the organic level of small groups of people, walking in intimate love with one another…shepherded, loved, and built up by pastors who are not too busy doing the “business” of “Christianity”!


The word, as it is used in the New Testament, means “to serve, as in one who waits tables.”  Yeah, ministry is not starting a 501(c)(3) or building a building.  It’s about serving.  It’s not a thing…it’s an action.  And it doesn’t mean you wear a fancy suit and drive a nice car and have everybody treat you like a rock star.  The role of “ministry” is one of serving, it is one of being lower than everyone else, not higher.  Those in ministry exist to serve the body, not the other way around.

I’m highly suspect of anyone who tells me they are called to the ministry, who is not so scared of what that means that they want to run in the other direction as fast as they can.  Today, there are many who see ministry as a career or a way to earn a living.  Actually, those in ministry are the spiritual equivalent of a waiter in a restaurant, making sure the body has everything it needs to carry out the call of Christ.

And finally…


We think a church is a place you go.  We think church is an institution you become a member of.  And those who are not of the faith think a church is probably the last place they’d go for healing, love, acceptance, or love.

Is that true of all churches?  Absolutely not.  But that the perception out there.  We have to change the lexicon, we have to change the paradigm.  Church must become what Christ (you know…the One who started the church) intended it to be:  people who have been radically transformed by the grace of God, sharing their lives together with the common goal of encouraging one another to holy living and care for the poor.

Nothing more, nothing less.  Beyond that it’s an institution of man, and it’s actually in direct conflict with the true work of the kingdom of God.  Did you hear that?  The anything beyond that is an enemy of the kingdom of God.

Ok, that’s my working list.  It’s not complete, but it’s a start.

Can you think of any others?