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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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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False Profits

Deuteronomy 13 gives us a pretty clear warning,

If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Understand, this is not some normal, everyday person.  We are being warned about one who is considered a prophet, a man who performs miracles, someone able to work “signs and wonders.”  I think if some guy showed up and performed a miracle, most of us would believe that he must be speaking with God’s blessing.  I know if I saw some prophet work a supernatural sign, I would tend to believe what he says.

Yet this scripture tells us that even the one who works miracles is a false prophet if he entices us away from serving the Lord and obeying His commands.

We live in a pragmatic world.

The church today is often ruled by the mentality of “if it works, it must be right.”  Have thousands of people attending your church?  You must be on the right track.  Getting attention from the world around you?  You must be saying the right thing.  Getting the desired results?  You must be doing God’s work.

We have been told we can expect financial prosperity as though Jesus didn’t spend a great deal of His ministry warning those who are rich.  We have been told we can expect happiness and fulfillment, as though the gospel were some sort of self-help technique.  We have been told it’s okay to engage in the materialism around us when half the world’s population lives in poverty.  And because those who have told us these things are considered “Christian leaders” with successful ministries, we have believed them without question.

But no matter how good they sound, they are false prophets.

Scripture is full of stories of those who were called by God, yet suffered lack and defeat.   Prophets were murdered.  Even Jesus was forsaken by all but a few.  Modern day saints endure torture and persecution for the sake of Christ.  Others live in extreme poverty.  Others get sick and die.  Things do not always work out the way we want them to.  Christians are not always healthy, wealthy, and wise.

That’s not what the gospel is about.  In fact, the gospel is the polar opposite of those things.  The gospel that Jesus brought is about releasing us from the need for riches and success.  It is about being content.  It is about putting the needs of others before ourselves.  It is about suffering so that others may be blessed.

So how do we know who to believe?

How do we know who is truly speaking the words of God?  Here are 3 suggestions:

1. Get into God’s word for yourself.  Read and study and find out what God’s plan is.  When I started reading my Bible faithfully, I couldn’t believe how far modern Christianity is from what I saw in scripture.

2.  Pray.  Not just a little bit, either.  Pray a lot.  Put down your entertainment, lay aside the things that take up your time and attention and earnestly seek God.  Press through the ADD and wandering mind and get down to business with God.  He will speak to you, He wants to speak to you.  In the process you will find that you need the words of man less and less.

3.  Judge their words based on the truth of what you hear from God and read in His word.  Don’t just take the words of man at face value, even if that man (or woman) is a respected and well known Christian leader.

Even if they run a big church.  Even if they are on television or wrote a book.  Even if they have the title Dr. or Rev. in front of their name.  Even if they work a miracle, if they entice you away from the simplicity of the gospel, do not listen.

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The Path to Freedom

Think about it.

Each of us, like the Jewish people of old, can point to idolatry in our lives.  We have made idols of our bodies.  We have made idols of money and possessions.  We have made idols of family, friends, time and entertainment.  We have even turned our own religion into an idol.  All of us have those things to which we turn for fulfillment or validation that exist outside of God and His will for us.

And because of our idolatry, like Israel, we are surrounded by Babylon.  The Babylonian king was a tool used by God to punish His people and break them from their idolatry.  And, like Nebuchadnezzar, the pressures of this life are used by God to bring an end to our idolatry.

Maybe we have idolized a lifestyle we cannot afford, and God is using financial crisis to turn our heart back to Him.  Perhaps we’ve made an idol of food or substances , and God is using health problems to call us away from our dependence and back to a place of health.  A failed relationship, a lost job, or any number of things could be that Nebuchadnezzar besieging our lives, putting pressure on us to give that area over to God.

I understand this is not always the case.  I’m not saying all sickness or financial trouble is a result of sin in our lives.  Jesus made that clear in Luke 13. Sometimes things happen for reasons we do not understand, and we cannot walk in a constant state of guilt, like we have brought all our own problems on ourselves.

But what if it is?

What if it is our fault?  What if God is using our own private Nebuchadnezzar to bring us back to where we need to be?  Isn’t it worth exploring?  If so, we would be wise to listen to Jeremiah’s advice to the people of Judah,

Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him.  For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the LORD. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.”

God has laid out that same choice to you and I as well.  If you stay entrenched in your idolatry and worldliness, you will die.  Failed marriages, broken lives, lost opportunities, and addictions are but a few examples of the death that comes from refusing to let go of our idols. Our churches and families are littered with the destruction that comes from Christian people refusing to lay down their idols.

But if you humble yourself and accept the destruction of your false gods, you will live.  Accept His correction and repent of our idolatry, and watch as His healing power begins to transform our lives.  I’m not saying we are guaranteed all our problems will disappear when we submit to God (in fact, they most likely will not.)  But I am saying the path to spiritual and emotional healing begins with giving in to God’s call to forsake ourselves and follow Him completely.

Like Israel, it might take 70 years of captivity.

It might be humiliating and uncomfortable to confess our idolatry.  It will be scary to let go of the gods to which we have clung so tightly in false security. To lay down our arms and stop fighting God will take incredible faith and trust in a loving Father who ultimately is using crisis to prove His love for us.  Think about that for a minute.  God ultimately allowed Israel to be destroyed because He loved His people enough to not allow them to continue in their wayward state.  Are we willing to trust that same love in our lives as well?

In the end, do we have a choice?

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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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Futile Lords

In 2 Chronicles 25 Amaziah, the king of Judah, went to battle against the people of Edom.  God gave him a decisive victory over his enemy, and he returned home in triumph.  But Amaziah did something strange and unexplainable.  He took the idol gods of the people of Edom back to Jerusalem, set up altars to them and bowed down to worship them.

The scripture tells us that God’s anger was aroused against Amaziah.  He sent a prophet to the king to rebuke him.  “Why have you sought the gods of the people, which could not rescue their own people from your hand?” asked the prophet.

Seems kind of silly doesn’t it?  Amaziah won a great victory over the people of Edom through the power of the one true God.  Yet in his arrogant foolishness, he immediately turned away to other gods.  Gods that could not even save their own people.  Gods that were exposed as powerless frauds.  Yet here was King Amaziah bowing before them.

Actually, it’s not that silly at all.

We do the same, don’t we?  The modern idols of money, fame, sex, power, and entertainment have been proven powerless to bring lasting happiness.  Those who seek after these fraudulent gods find themselves living meaningless, empty lives.  Yet we keep following after them, hoping somehow they will finally come through for us.

We, as followers of Christ, should know better.  We serve a God who have proven over and over again that He is the one true God.  We follow after a Savior who gave His own life for us.  We trust in a Father who gave His own Son for us, promising to freely give us all things.

Yet we bow to the idols of this world.  We drown in materialism while the poor suffer.  We turn to marketing and scheming because we lack the power of the Holy Spirit.  We watch a 3 hour football game, but couldn’t imagine spending 3 hours in prayer.  We waste our time with meaningless entertainment when He has called us to so much more.  We have settled for the futile lords of this world, while the God of the Universe patiently waits for our wayward hearts.

Hosea 2 is a message from a jealous Husband to His unfaithful wife.  In spite of our wanderings, God speaks words of mercy to us,

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
      Will bring her into the wilderness,
      And speak comfort to her.
      I will give her her vineyards from there,
      And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope;
      She shall sing there,
      As in the days of her youth,
      As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.

God is calling to us.

He is calling us to get off our knees and to stop bowing to the gods of this world, gods that cannot satisfy, gods that cannot save.  These worldly gods have never kept their promise to anyone who has followed after them, and they have let us down as well.  But our jealous Husband is calling.  He is alluring each of us to that wilderness place where He will speak words of comfort and words of hope.

I’m not much for quotes, but I think C.S. Lewis said it best in my favorite quote from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

This is not some guilt trip.  This is not a call to do more or be more for God out of religious obligation.  That’s just more of the same.  This is a call to lay down our idols and fall in love with the one who paid for our hearts with His life.  This is a call to stop settling for too little.  This is a call from a jealous Husband to His bride to come away and know the joy of His presence.

Will we answer His call?

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