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Outdated and Irrelevant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The world has changed, and as the church has failed to change with it we have become increasingly outdated and irrelevant.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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American Idols

In Deuteronomy 17:2-5 God lays out a clear plan to deal with idolatry among His people,

“If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.”

He’s pretty clear, idolatry was to be punished by death.  That way there would be no chance for the plague to spread from person to person.  Just like eliminating an epidemic of sickness, the source must be identified, isolated, and destroyed.  In order to get rid of idolatry from His people, God ordered death for anyone caught worshiping another god.

I believe one of the reasons believers struggle with sin today is because we have not eliminated idolatry.  We have allowed it to live and grow and be passed from person to person like a plague.  The idolatry in today’s church is covered over and ignored.  Pastors largely side-step it.  Christian culture has become a big pep rally, encouraging us but never challenging us.

And when idolatry isn’t killed, it spreads.

More than half of Christian marriages end in divorce.  Christian teenagers are indistinguishable from their non-Christian counterparts.  Half of Christian men are addicted to porn, and most of the other half are lying.  Materialism and selfishness are rampant.  It grows, thrives, and spreads because we do not kill it.

So what do we do about it?  How do we deal with the plague of sinful idolatry that has so engulfed the church?  The passage in Deuteronomy gives us a plan.  I’m going to shorten the three steps considerably for the sake of space, but you’ll get the point:

Step One: Identify.  When “…it is told you, and you hear of it”  We must be aware as the Holy Spirit identifies areas in our lives that are not like Christ.  We must be willing to listen to His voice when He speaks.  Truthfully, He probably has already spoken and we already know what needs to change, and we just don’t have the courage to admit it.

Step Two: Expose.  “…you shall bring out to your gates…”  This is where the breakdown begins.  In order to eliminate idolatry it must be publicly exposed.  We must allow it to come into the light, and for most of us that is a scary thing.  But as the old saying goes, we are only as sick as our secrets.  To find freedom from idolatry we must be open, transparent, and accountable.

Step Three: Kill.  “…stone to death that man or woman with stones.”  I’m not advocating a literal stoning, but those idolatrous and sinful habits must die.  They cannot be allowed to live in the least.  Death is final, complete, and irrevocable.  We must kill whatever feeds the sinful habits and attitudes.  Jesus was clear, “if your eye offends you, pluck it out.”  Get rid of whatever enables our sin.  Whatever excuses or justifies our sin must die.

Death? Really?

Most of us struggle simply because we don’t really want to die.  We don’t want to give things up.  We don’t want to change our lifestyle or our entertainment or our habits.  We are comfortable in our sin, and may have even covered over the voice of the Holy Spirit as He convicts us.  We have hidden behind grace as a justification for our sin.  But it is there, and we know it.  And it’s not going away until it dies.

It’s easy to blame the church.  Maybe in the beginning of this post you were agreeing with me, “Yeah, there’s too much sin in the church these days!”  But the church is us.  It is you and me.  If there’s too much sin in the church, it’s because there is too much sin in me.  I have allowed it to live.  I have looked the other way.  I have excused it and justified it.  And so have you.

The church won’t change until you and I change.  That’s the ultimate message behind my book, “The Church Must Die”  We have to die.  Our idolatry and sin and selfishness have to die.  And until they do, we’ll continually be held back from becoming who Christ redeemed us to become.

Freedom from sin is possible.  It’s just that it requires death.

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Feeling Good About Myself

Jesus knew it would happen.

He tried to warn His disciples.  He knew they would be the ones who would lead His church, and He wanted them to be aware of the danger.  He said, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.”  His disciples thought he was talking about bread.  He wasn’t discussing baking techniques.  He was talking about hypocrisy.

Jesus created us, and he knows how we operate.  He knew the tendency of His followers would be just the same as the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  They were the “enforcers of righteousness,” holding others to a standard of law they could not keep themselves.  That’s pretty much the definition of hypocrisy.

He knew we would be tempted to start feeling pretty good about ourselves, then feeling superior to others.  He knew that dreaded disease of hypocrisy would try to invade His church like yeast invades bread.  I think Jesus used the metaphor of yeast on purpose.  He wanted His followers to know how invasive it really is.  It’s a living organism that, once introduced into the lump of dough, grows, multiplies, and consumes.

I got a good question from a reader the other day:

I have found all too often that the more spiritual-minded I am, the more likely I am to be judgmental.  I mean the more time I spend in prayer and Bible reading, study & activities, the more I see wrong in other people’s lives.  Why is that?  Why do my spiritual practices serve to make me feel closer to God, yet more condemning of others?

I was glad to get her question.  Glad because I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one to struggle with this.  I too am tempted to start feeling superior; to start looking down my righteous nose at the sinners who surround me.

So what’s the answer?

How do we avoid the hypocrisy that seems so prevalent in today’s church?  Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.”   Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.

So if I judge and condemn others, what does that say about how I want to be treated?  I believe this is the fundamental problem most of us have.  We have not fully understood grace.  We give it lip service, but deep inside, we are still living under the law of sin and death.  We still think, no matter how much we deny it, that salvation is at least partially works based.  We still think we are going to be judged on our actions.  We still think God’s grace is too good to be true. There are millions of believers still walking around with a cloud of guilt hanging over their head, thinking, “God has just about had enough of me!”

So we work hard to get “closer to God.”  We work hard, thinking we can somehow improve on the perfection and righteousness he has already placed upon us in Christ.  We strive to be better people, to sin less, to bring ourselves in line.  And when we succeed in our own eyes, we start to feel pretty good about ourselves, and it’s hard to look around at all the miserable sinners who all of a sudden don’t measure up.

Ding Ding…we have another Pharisee!

Ever notice, when you go through a crisis in your life, how non-judgmental you become?  When we become acutely aware of our own need for grace and mercy, showing the same to others suddenly becomes very natural to us.  Once we quit holding ourselves to the standard of the law of works, we tend to stop holding others to that standard as well.

So here’s my suggestion.  Get up every day and remind yourself of what God’s grace means in your life.  Accept that you don’t measure up, and yet you are off the hook for your sins – past, present, and future.  Let the knowledge that God is not judging you based on your behavior, but on the righteousness of Christ, permeate your very being.  Thank Him for His sacrifice and let it once again become real to you.  Become that man Jesus talked about, on his face in the back of the temple.  He humbly cried out “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Don’t grit your teeth and “try a little harder” to stop being a Pharisee.  That only contributes to more of it, because it’s still about works.

The only way to escape the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is to experience more grace.

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The road more traveled

In the Mosaic law there are 613 laws.  613 things commanded by God, given to Moses, delivered to the people.  Do the things those 613 laws say to do, or don’t do what they forbid, and you’re in good shape with God.  Violate one of them, and you are in trouble.

I think sometimes we are under the impression Christianity operates in much the same way.  Do what God tells you to do, stay away from what He forbids and He’s happy with you.

I sometimes think we want it that way.  

That’s why we’ve created a religion called Christianity.  We’ve set up some rules, things to do and not do.  We’ve set up a set of requirements for how Christians act and talk and think.  Stay within the lines and you’re in good shape.  Stray from the way and you’re in trouble.  It’s cut and dried. It’s easy.

The only problem is that it’s not what the Bible teaches.  

In fact, it couldn’t be more opposite from what the Bible teaches. “Just tell me what to do. 1, 2, 3.  Give me the list.”  What makes us think God will fit in our little box?  What makes us think we can get away with that?

Romans 7 is Paul’s lament at his inability to live that way.  I think most of us see our ourselves in his struggle: doing the things we don’t want to do, not doing the things we should.  We find ourselves trapped by the requirements of religion and living in the guilt of our inability to measure up.  It turns out our “easy way” of rules and regulations is actually much harder than we think.  Religion is a harsh taskmaster.

But then there’s Romans 8.

Paul realizes that life of do’s and don’ts – the law of sin and death – in Romans 7 is a man trying to live by the old standard of the law, and is not the essence of the gospel.  In Romans 8 Paul comes to terms with what the gospel really brings to our lives.  It’s the good news that we are no longer judged by the old standard: those 613 things we should or should not do.  We are instead judged by the redemptive work of Christ.  We are now under the law of liberty in Christ.

Living in liberty is a little scary.  There is no roadmap.  There is no set of regulations meant to keep me between the lines and guide my decisions.   Living like a free man means having to seek the Holy Spirit and having to search the scriptures for myself.  There are no stone tablets being brought from the mountain.  I don’t have the comfort zone of my list of  rules to make me feel good about myself.

Living in the freedom of grace means I have to accept a God who works in ways I don’t always perceive, understand or (at times) agree with.  It means the standard by which I’ve always judged myself and others no longer applies.  But if I’m going to follow Christ, I have to do it His way.  Not my way.  Not the way of a religious system set up to alleviate me of my guilt.

We can’t have it both ways.  Do you have the courage to live in liberty?

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What’s that on your shoulder?

What does “carrying your cross” mean?

I have always thought Jesus’ command to “take up our cross” is about me.  I have thought it is about me bearing my burdens, my sins, my difficulties.  I’ve been more than willing to carry around the guilt and shame of all I have done in the past.  But Jesus already bore those. I need not bear them any longer.

Some would say carrying my cross is a reference to dying to myself, and that is partially true.

Think about what it meant for Jesus to “carry the cross”.  When that cross was laid upon His shoulders, all of my guilt and shame was laid upon Him.  In that moment He took upon himself the sin and punishment of the whole world. He bore the cross so others wouldn’t have to.  He carried His cross because we were unable to carry our own.

So perhaps carrying the cross is not really about me.  Yes, it is about dying to self, but Jesus takes it one step further.  It is about dying to myself so, like Jesus, I can bear the burdens of this around me.  It is about dying to myself so I can bring redemption and reconciliation to those who are estranged from the Father.  It is about giving my life to do for others what they cannot do for themselves.

As always, Jesus teaching doesn’t end with me, it always spills out into how I treat and serve others.

Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us we have been saved by grace, and not by any work of our own.  That grace is God’s free gift, purchased for me when Jesus bore His cross.  But don’t forget verse 10.  It takes that grace one step further,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Jesus bore His cross for me because He had plans for me.  In that moment when He died for me, I was then destined to die for others.  It’s the way the gospel works.  We cannot separate what Christ did for us from what He has now called us to do for others.  A lifestyle of caring for the poor, standing up for the oppressed, and strengthening the weak are all part of my new destiny in Christ.

And Jesus made it very clear that this new way of living for others is not optional.  He said if I don’t pick up the cross, I’m not worthy of Him.  I cannot accept His grace without showing it to others.

It’s just the way it works.

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The art of redirection

In Matthew 7, Jesus leads off with a fairly straightforward command, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  

Those words are deceptively simple, because they cut to the heart of what the gospel accomplishes in our lives.

Jesus continues, “for with the judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  Those are heavy words of warning for those of us who have recognized our own inability to make ourselves righteous.  Jesus is telling us that, if we condemn others, then the gospel that grants us forgiveness becomes pointless. We cannot accept God’s grace in our own lives while denying that same grace to others.

Yet why do we seem so eager to judge?

Why do we feel it necessary to point out all the faults of the world around us?  Why do we work so hard to make sure others know their faults, their failings, and their sins?  I believe it is a fundamental flaw in the way we see and understand the gospel.

Jesus, in this passage, has a word for those who pick out flaws in their neighbor while living in denial about their own flaws:  hypocrite.  That word, in the day when Jesus very carefully chose it, meant “an actor operating under an assumed character.”  I believe this word is at the heart of why we are so quick to judge. We do not fully understand God’s grace.

In spite of our outward acquiescence to the Gospel, inwardly it is still too good to be true for most of us.

We really don’t believe we are off the hook.  It’s hard to believe that God no longer holds us responsible for our sins.  We see our own failure and believe we deserve to be punished.  So we assume the character of one who has been forgiven and play the part of one who has been saved by grace, yet we have never let His grace change how we truly view ourselves.

In our own guilt and self-hatred we lash out at others.  In our inability to change ourselves, we have made it our life’s work to change others.  In pointing out their flaws, it makes us feel better about our own.  The plank in our own eye becomes more comfortable and bearable when we see an even bigger one in someone else.  Our own problem with lust becomes smaller when we compare it to what we consider to be the greater sin of homosexuality.  We feel better about our own pride or selfishness when we see it more evident in those around us.

Children do this all the time, don’t they?  I broke the lamp, so in my panic I point out something worse that my brother did, hoping to redirect mom’s wrath to him and make it easier on myself.

The cure is to understand the gospel.

God’s grace changes the playing field.  In His eyes we are all in the same place: hopelessly lost.  When I understand that, I can let down the facade and admit who I am.  And when I admit my own depravity, I suddenly lose the need to point it out in others.  Those who acknowledge their own utter failure become humble and gracious.  They become acutely aware of the plank in their own eye, and stop trying to cover it up by pointing out those of others.  When I realize I’m not going to be punished for breaking the lamp, I no longer feel the need to redirect and throw my brother under the bus.

Remember, it’s only the gospel that gives any of us hope.  And the same grace God has extended to me is extended to all those people out there that I find disagreeable and disgusting.  What a freedom can be found in letting go of my righteous act!  What liberty to step down from the judge’s bench and leave grace up to the One who offers it freely!  What peace can be found when I stop holding myself and those around me to a standard none of us can achieve.

That’s the freedom I find when I stop merely agreeing with the gospel, and instead allow it to change my heart and mind.

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It all begins with poverty

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, notice where Jesus leads off:

“ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

He started the Beatitudes – in fact He started the whole sermon – with those words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Jesus knew that everything else He would teach us begins there, with spiritual poverty.  That word “poverty” in the Greek means “beggarly.”

Jesus told us that the beginning of what it means to follow Him and to live in the Kingdom starts with spiritual poverty, to be an open-handed beggar before God.

None of what is to follow in the Beatitudes is possible without first becoming a spiritual beggar.  “Blessed are the merciful” is only possible for those who are poor.  When we recognize our own need for mercy, we are then able to show mercy to others.  Beggars have no right to judge and condemn others.  “Blessed are the meek” only happens in the context of spiritual poverty.  Beggars don’t think of themselves more highly than they ought.  Meekness and humility is a natural outcome of poverty.  Overcoming sin, finding peace, rest in Christ…it all begins with poverty.  I can’t experience any of those things until I realize how powerless I am to make them happen.

I think it is interesting that Jesus ends the Beatitudes with “blessed are you when men persecute you.”  When we become committed to living a life of spiritual poverty, we become a threat to the religious system that has become so confident in their own works. When we divest ourselves of the things that so corrupt our relationship with God and return to the simplicity of a beggar kneeling before Christ, that threatens the status quo.  Modern Christianity is not set up that way.

Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the spiritually poor.  What does that mean to people like me who have spent way too much time trying to be rich?

Luke’s gospel leaves out the “in spirit” part, it just says, “Blessed are the poor.”  What if God actually was calling me, not only to spiritual poverty, but physical poverty as well?  What if Jesus knew something I don’t seem to get: that material wealth is actually the enemy of truly knowing Him.  That all my stuff doesn’t make me closer to God, it actually pulls me away from Him.

What might happen if I had the courage to let go of everything I have built, treasured, stored, and grasped, and became that open-handed beggar before my God?  Maybe I would lose everything.  Then again, according to Jesus, it’s really the only way to gain everything.

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