Archive for category Commentary

Planks and splinters

I got a question from someone who read one of my recent posts called “I’m going AWOL.” I thought his question was a good one, it made me think a little and pray a lot about my answer. And I think it’s an important enough issue to answer his question publicly and give all the readers of this blog a chance to be in on the conversation. (By the way, he actually agrees with me, so I’m not “calling him out” publicly or anything.)

Here’s his question:

In the epistle to the Ephesians is written: “and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of the darkness, but rather reprove them.” (Ephesians 5:11 KJV) That “reprove them” could mean that we as God’s children are entitled and exhorted to confront the ungodly in his/her unrighteousness? 

I gave him my short answer on the blog post, but here is the more complete answer. As always, I’d love to hear from anyone on your thoughts as well.

It’s the sin, not the sinner

The first thing that strikes me about this scripture in Ephesians is that it refers to the “unfruitful works of darkness,” not the “unfruitful workers of darkness.” The focus is on the sinful acts, not those who commit them. It seems to me, our focus these days is more on the sinners around us than the grace of God that has freed us from the bondage to sin.  This idea of “taking a stand for God” has consumed us, and has only served to erect a wall between God and those who need Him most.

It’s me that has to change

The next thing about this scripture is that word “fellowship.” My study shows it would probably be better translated as “participate in.”  This is an encouragement to believers not to participate in the works of darkness that are practiced by those in the world around them. “Don’t live like them, don’t behave like them. You have been redeemed by Christ, everything should have changed. Desires, focus, passions should be directed toward Christ and not pleasing yourself.”

This is not a fight

Then there’s that word “reprove.” Again, I think a better translation would be “expose.” I don’t think this is an invitation to do what we’ve done many times. It’s not permission for us to fight and picket and protest those with whom we disagree. It’s not an encouragement for us to point our bony fingers of judgment at others. Rather, I think it is a challenge for us to live our lives in such a way that, by contrast, the works of darkness around us will be exposed for the evil they are.  By doing so, we earn the right to speak into the lives of others.  When we live lives ruled by love, not judgment, those around us become much more receptive to what we have to say.

The bottom line

Look, I know we are called to “come out from among them and do not touch the unclean thing.”  But that command has nothing to do with “them”, it has everything to do with me.  I do not have to shake my fist at the world.  I just stop acting like them.  I don’t have to point out the sin in those around me, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

The weapons of our warfare are not of this earth.  Our enemy is not of this earth.  Our battle is not with the sinners, the gays, the atheists or anyone else.  We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s a Kingdom that has no end.  And it’s a Kingdom that aims to change me first.  It’s a Kingdom that requires me to lay down my life, my dreams, and my hopes before its King.  It requires me to start with my own planks, not their splinters.

The path of love is a slower, more deliberate pace.  It’s a journey, not a sprint.  It’s a lifestyle, not a marketing ploy.  It takes commitment, patience, and…well…love.

If it is a battle, and we’re going to fight against the sin around us, I think love and mercy are much more effective weapons anyway.

Maybe that’s why Jesus used them.

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Death to Jesus

Jesus met a man on the Sabbath who needed healing.  The Pharisees gathered around Him to see if He would dare violate their rules in order to have mercy on a poor, suffering soul.  He looked with sadness at the hardness of their hearts, then healed the man.  He dared.

“Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.” Mark 3:6

There are two institutions that are directly opposed to the work of Jesus and His kingdom: Religion and government.  The kingdom of God is the most subversive movement in the history of mankind, because it stands as a threat to both.  

Most of us know the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  These leaders were so immersed in their own religion, so intoxicated by their own power over others, that Jesus’ work was viewed by them as a direct threat.  Why?  Because He operated outside of the neat little box in which they had placed God.  THEY were the experts in who God was and how He worked.  THEY were the voice of right and wrong, based on their own interpretation of the rules.  Jesus didn’t operate with deference to their authority.  He healed on the Sabbath, spoke words of mercy to the sinners, and had the audacity to forgive sins.

Many of us may not know the Herodians.  Little is know of this group, other than the fact that they were a religious sect and political party.  It is thought that they used support of Herod as a means to usher in theocracy.  Some scholars think they even presented Herod as the Messiah in order to establish his political power.  Jesus’ pure teaching about the Kingdom of God would have stood in direct opposition to their political aspirations.

The Kingdom, it turns out, is a threat to just about everyone.

Those who operate in the Kingdom seek humility and not power.  Those who live in the kingdom serve the poor instead of sucking up to the rich.  Those who live in the Kingdom experience the freedom of the Spirit instead of the rules of religion.  Those whose hearts are consumed by Jesus seek His glory and not their own.  The Sermon on the Mount is the most religiously and politically revolutionary teaching in history because it places the Kingdom of God directly in my heart, and outside the influence of religion or political authority.

Both religion and politics are threatened by Christ’s teaching.  But there is nothing more dangerous to the Kingdom than when the two combine together.  There can only be one end to the mixing of politics and religion, and that is death to Jesus.  Entanglement with religion, politics, or both simply chokes out the true work of Christ.  And just like the Pharisees and Herodians, those who choose His Kingdom choose to operate outside the scope of either, and dissidents must be eliminated. In the early days of the church, these two groups joined forces to kill the followers of Jesus, just like they did Him.  Jesus’ warning, “They hated Me and they will hate you too” turned out to be deadly accurate.

And so it is today.  

Those who choose not to submit to religion are deemed troublemakers.  Those who choose to ignore the political climate of the day are labeled as liberals.  Those who seek the Kingdom instead of earthly power or wealth are viewed as irresponsible.

The problem with the world today will not be fixed by more religion or more law.  It won’t be fixed by a political or Herodian messiah. And it certainly won’t be fixed by a mixture of the two.  The problems that surround us will only be repaired when those who follow Christ understand that the Kingdom He established transcends religion, government, and any other contrivance of man.  His Kingdom on earth is not established at His return.  It was established at His resurrection, then turned over to His body the church to fill the whole earth. 

How could a Kingdom whose sole commandment was to love on another become so filled with condemnation and judgment? How could a Kingdom whose sole duty is care for the poor so abdicate our calling?  It is because we have forsaken that Kingdom for our own.

Until His people abandon the ways of religion and government in favor of the personal, simple, revolutionary life of the Kingdom, we’ll just see more of the same.  And the church of Jesus Christ will continue its slide into irrelevance and contempt in the world around us.


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I’m going AWOL

In case you hadn’t heard, there is a culture war raging around us these days.  Orthodox vs. Secular.  Conservative vs. Progressive.  Call it what you will, we see two distinct world views battling it out in the court of public opinion.  And this culture war has tainted almost every area of our society: our news media, politics and, yes, Christianity.

There are certainly elements of the Christian world who feel it is their God-ordained duty to fight the culture war.  They see America abandoning the “Christian values” they believe have guided our nation since its inception, and are committed to fighting to preserve those values.  They organize and protest, criticize and argue with those whom they feel are leading the nation astray.  I say these words with great care, because for most of my life I have belonged to this group.

On the other side of the table are Christians who equally love God, yet equally fight the culture war in a different way.  They too have a list of morals and ideals they see as eroding, and they blame the “religious right” for leading America down a path of destruction.  Again, I say this with caution and respect, because I have good friends who fall into this group.

Sure, my descriptions are over-simplified and excessively broad.  But they are sufficient for me to make my point.  Actually, it’s more of a question (or series of questions.)

When did God ever call us to fight a culture war?

When did He ever ask us to defend Him to the world around us?  When did God tell us to argue and protest and defend our position?  When did He tell us to marginalize and demonize those with whom we disagree?

Even if we think they are ruining our culture and even if we are convinced the other side is destroying America, where did we ever get the idea that we were to engage in a culture war to defend our beliefs, morals, and traditions?  Have we become so engulfed in politics that we cannot separate them from our faith in Christ?

And since when was Christianity ever intended to become a culture in the first place?  It seems to me it happened about the same time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.  Since that day Christianity has enjoyed a place of cultural and political power that has been relatively unchallenged. And even when questioned, it wielded enough influence to quickly eliminate its detractors.  This marriage of politics and religion has been a long time in the making.

So here we are.  The gospel of our Lord Jesus has been reduced to a series of rules and regulations.  The good news of God’s grace on sinful man has been tarnished by our lack of grace for one another.  The One who spent His whole life on earth criticizing religion has become the foundation of yet another religion.  We fight and argue, criticize and divide.  And we do it all in the name of the One who said, “they will know you are my disciples by your love.”

If there is any culture at all to Christianity, it is love.

If there is any moral ethic which we should strive to uphold, it is love.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness…all can be summed up in that one word, love.  Yet our culture war is the antithesis of love. It’s hard to love someone when you are telling them they are ruining the world.  It’s hard to love someone when you constantly criticize their deeply held values.  It’s hard for them to feel loved when they are always wrong and you are always right.

What have we gained?  Have we really changed anything?  It seems to me all we have accomplished is driving a wedge between God and those we think need Him most.  Most people probably wouldn’t have a problem with Jesus if they didn’t feel so beaten down by His followers.

So I quit. I’m going AWOL.  I’m resigning my post in the culture war.  I will no longer fight against flesh and blood, doing battle with those who are not my enemies.  If there is warfare to be waged, I will fight it in prayer.  And I will love those with whom I disagree. I will be merciful to those who I think have gone astray.  I will leave the culture up to the one who transcends nationality, creed, culture and tradition.

He is big enough to defend Himself anyway.

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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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