Friday, December 14, 2012

On A Day When All The Questions Begin With "Why?"

More details will no doubt emerge about the latest mass killing.  And the questions are being asked today, like they do every time we hear of something like this - whether at a high school, a movie theater, a shopping mall, a post office, or wherever - are the same, despite the "new" level of evil that involved shooting up elementary school children - and the questions invariably start with "why?"

And we fail, every time, to point out the real problem - a culture that is thoroughly morally depraved in every way imaginable.  Further, most of us who do recognize the real problem most often do so without taking responsibility for our own contributions.  It is much too easy for most people to point fingers and pin blame on everything and everyone else except themselves.

Now let me be clear:  As is always the case, the "blame" if you will is to be placed on those responsible - apparently, the actions of 1 or maybe 2 individuals.  You and I are not responsible for this cruel killer's actions, nor is any other individual except the one who took the lives of so many innocent people, mostly very young children (and possibly any accomplices who assisted and/or knew what was about to take place).  Only the killer is ultimately responsible.  Not the culture, not the people killed, not gun control laws, not guns themselves, not even people who could have or should have recognized warning signs in such a person.   It is the individual and their choices to take evil actions that are responsible.

Yet why is it that every time this happens, the general public, the media, and so on, refuse to accept this truth?  Because it means that we would have to acknowledge that there really is an incredible, terrible, awful, destructive, disgusting, horrid, totally depraved power at work in our world - we call it evil.  We don't want to face it.  We'd rather play the deflect-and-blame-game.  And the biggest reason why we don't want to face it, is because while few of us would call ourselves evil, we know, deep inside, that evil has another name - sin.  And all of us know we have sinned.  And there is no way we are going to connect our sin with the abhorrent evil that we see around us.

But the trouble is, they are very much connected.  This kind of unfathomable evil (or is it really unfathomable anymore, the more and more we see of it?) is the work of the devil, who is the one who introduced sin and evil into our world (and we - humanity - opened the door wide open and invited him inside), and we must name that evil power for what and for who it is.

You may not believe there is a devil.  You may not believe there is a God.  But I defy you to believe there is no such thing as evil.  If you can't see that on a day like today, with news like this, and with the increasing frequency of such horrible, tragic events, then there is simply no getting through to you at all.

We *must* defeat evil - defeat *sin.*

And yet we live in a culture which has wholeheartedly accepted and endorsed virtually any and every kind of sin as good, right, and perfectly acceptable.  Further, many churches and Christians do the same.  Even many of those churches and Christians who don't appear outwardly to endorse the sins and evils of our culture and who "stand" for "truth" preach a gospel in which it is understood that all of us, without question, without exception, and without the ability to choose, must sin "every day in word, thought, and deed."  The blood of Jesus, the gospel of the Kingdom, effectively does nothing for us except to give us an excuse for our sins that "those other people" don't have - and oh yes, it punched a ticket to heaven for us.

The killer is responsible for the killings.

But we all are responsible for the culture and environment in which such a horrific display of evil is allowed to ferment in someone's heart until the point where it overflows and claims the lives of so many innocent children, permanently scarring so many others, and breaking the hearts of parents  and families all over a community and a nation.

So the questions being asked today that all begin with "why..." can be answered.  The real question is, do we want to answer them?  Because ultimately we are the answer, if we submit our lives to the one true God, Jesus Christ, and allow Holy Spirit to be fully in control of them.  It is called holiness.  Or said another way, love.  Love is the answer to defeat such evil - such sin.  And love is most clearly expressed through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

It is this time of year that we focus on Jesus' birth.  My prayer is that a new spirit will be birthed in all of us - in individuals, in families, in communities, in churches, in our governments, in our culture - a spirit that fights the powers of evil and sin instead of acquiescing to them, a spirit that will transform the culture on every level, so much so that it would no longer be possible for such evil-hearted people who commit such devastatingly sinful actions to incubate, finally arriving at the place where the overflow of their hearts destroys the lives of so many.  But instead it would be a culture of self-sacrificing love where God's will is our first priority, where the Kingdom of God becomes more and more a reality, and where forgiveness and love triumph over darkness and evil.  That is Jesus' way, and it is the only way we will triumph in the end.

"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one."

--Matthew 6:9-13

Thursday, November 15, 2012

It's All Meaningless

"Ekklesia" is the Greek word used in the New Testament of the Christian Scriptures that we translate into English as "Church."

At the point I've lost 90% of the audience because I dared to use a Greek word, much less attempt to delve into its meaning, history, etymology, etc.

And this bothers me.  It should bother you, too.

You cannot uncover the truth in sound-bytes.  Especially highly edited, twisted-to-fit-whatever-the-editor-wants-them-to-mean, 10-second-or-less, sound-bytes.

Today I would like to make a post about the significance of the meaning of the word "Ekklesia" and the nature of "the Church."  I'd like to explore the roots of the words, the Old and New Testament uses, the development of "ekklesia" and "church" in the Christian history, and more.  I'd like to connect this with the book of Ecclesiastes and it's message and meaning (or lack thereof depending on how you look at it), the title of which shares the same root as "ekklesia" and can also be translated as "the preacher."

But I am not going to.  Because no one cares.  It's all meaningless, anyway. 

Which in fact could actually be precisely the point.  If you choose to dig deep and follow through to figure it out.  Which 99.9% are surely not going to do.  It's a shame, really.  But it is the new-old reality with which we are now directly faced.

In keeping with my purposes here, this is not a personal rant (thought it *is* deeply personal for me in many ways).  Rather it is a wake up call for all who may read it.

The truth is you don't really know what I am saying, and you don't really care, either.

And this bothers me.  It should bother you, too. 


Q - Is it all meaningless?  Why or why not?  How do you preach, teach, or share the truth in a sound-byte world?  Or is it even possible to do so?  Are you bothered that people no longer care to know - and then *live* - what's true?  Are you bothered that you no longer care, either?  Finally...does this offend you?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

No Offense, But...

Have you ever had someone say something to you that began with this line: "No offense, but..."

You are just about guaranteed in that situation that the person speaking to you is about to say something, well...offensive...

It's the same thing when someone follows a statement with, "nothing personal, of course."  You can be rest assured that what came previous was probably highly personal...and also, a bit offensive...

I used to have a personal blog for many years, in several different "incarnations."  I don't anymore.  And even though there are still times where things happen in life and I start thinking about how I could write about it, I put my personal blog in my personal archives for a reason.  

This web site is here for different reasons.  And although I will occasionally relate a personal story for illustrative purposes, and my goal is not to have a site that is im-personal, you won't find much here that is of a me-focused or relationally personal nature in terms of the author baring his soul or anything like that.  I am pretty good at that (probably too good), but that's not my purpose here.  

My first purpose here is to have a central resource for those who might be interested in my "services" as a pastor, teacher, speaker, and spiritual director - either because you want and need my services in one of these areas or you would like to help support my services - ministries - to others.  

My second purpose is as an author/writer/pastor/spiritual director who would like to share that which God has taught and is teaching him, with the rest of the world - be it my friends and neighbors from down the street, previous places I've lived, classmates, or people I've met only on line.  So...let me move on to my point for today.   Nothing personal, of course.

There is a story in the gospels about Jesus preaching in his hometown.  It goes like this:

"Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.  But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith" (Matthew 13:54-58).

People get "offended" today at the drop of a hat, at almost anything.  It is to to the point that we have almost created a "culture of offense."  Offending someone is seen as one of the great sins of our time.  People don't typically call it sin (sin is not a word that gets used much today, primarily, I think, because most people don't know what it is...and if they did know, they would reject it as a concept, much less as a reality)...but they do treat it as such. 

I am not in favor of swinging the pendulum way too far the other way and suggesting that we should all start going around and purposefully trying to offend each other.  I have know people who call themselves Christians who say "I don't care if this offends you, I'm saying (or doing) it anyway."  I don't believe that such an attitude fits in well with Paul's words to us that "your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). 

There is a balance that is needed.  Certainly, people should speak (and act out) what they believe the truth to be.  And sometimes...that is going to offend someone...maybe even a lot of someones.  But that is not an excuse to act like a jerk towards people because of what you believe to be true.  Again, Paul tells us that Jesus disciples must learn to "speak the truth in love" so that we can "grow up" and "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (see Ephesians chapter 4).

And although the old cliche that "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" has some truth to it, there is a growing tendency in today's world for people to neither care about how much you know nor care about how much you care if what you say (what you know) and what you do (how you care) still "offends" them.  People never have liked to have their sins pointed out to them, especially if you know them personally.  Just ask Jesus.

So no offense, but...stop being "offended" and grow up.  At some point the sins in all of our lives will be dealt with, so why not begin to deal with them today in the context of a loving, spiritual friendship that can help you overcome the darkness by stepping into the light. 
"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known" (Jesus, in Matthew 10:26).  

Nothing personal, of course.


Q - What if anything keeps you from stepping into the light?  Are you easily offended?  Are you able to call sin for what it is?  Do you want to overcome, or are you just looking for someone to help you feel better about yourself?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Speaking In Tongues

The Parable of the Talents

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

(Matthew 25:14-30)

There is a lot that could be unpacked from Jesus' parable above.  But I am going to skip over (not gloss over!) most of that and key in on the servant who was given the one talent.  He didn't have what the other had - perhaps you might say it wasn't "fair" - but he had what he had.  His problem wasn't that he only had one talent whereas the other servants had much more than he.  It was that he didn't do anything - at least, not what he had been called to do, with the talent that he did have.

So...what on earth does this have to do with the title of this post, "speaking in tongues?"

Ah...a parable-within-a-parable!

There are segments of the Christian church, and individual Christians as well, that believe in "speaking in tongues."  This is the phenomena of speaking in a language one does not either natively know or have learned and studied, either expressing prayer or praise to God.  The concept of speaking in tongues is mentioned several times in the New Testament, the first time being in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes and empowers the 120 in the upper room to be Jesus' witnesses and to go on mission for God, seeking the lost and serving the world.  The followers of Jesus begin to speak in other languages that other people in the city can speak but they themselves do not know.  Thus they are able to supernaturally give their testimonies about Jesus to all those in the city who can hear them but speak in other languages.

There is not time here to go into all of the theories about tongues speaking, and whether or not it was something special for only a few occasions and for specific followers in specific situations, or something that should be applied more broadly for many or even all Christians of all times and in every culture.  Suffice it to say that the Church as a whole is divided on this issue, with a full range of beliefs and opinions on the matter, all the way from speaking-in-tongues-is-evil-and-should-never-be-accepted-again, to speaking-in-tongues-is-the-only-proof-that-you-really-a-Christian.  Some believe tongues are always in an existing, known-to-someone language, while other believe in the more mysterious, unknown-to-anyone, "prayer language" version. 

There is a lot of diversity on this issue, and while my own branch of the Christian tree does not generally believe in or practice tongues speaking in today's world, and I myself have never had such an experience (and don't expect to!), I don't dismiss or judge my brothers and sisters in Christ who have (although I have been known to gently tease from time to time!  Jesus disciples should be allowed to poke a little fun at each other now and then, don't you think?).

Still waiting for the tie-in with the parable of the talents?  In the spirit of the parables, it's not direct, but here goes:

We all have "talents" - and although of a different type than the parable, we can make the connection and learn something about the use of our talents just the same.  Some of us have enormous talents, yet like the servant in the parable who only had one talent, we waste them because we don't use them.  Others seemingly have only one talent, and perhaps what most people would consider not a very "worthwhile" one at that - yet do incredible things with that which God has gifted them.

But all of us - every one of us - regardless of the talents we have or don't have, can speak the languages of those around us, just like the first followers of Jesus did as recorded in the book of Acts.  But here I do not mean Portuguese, Spanish, English, Arabic, German, or whatever other language the people around you may speak.  In fact, many of us only interact with, supposedly, one or at best two languages in our daily lives. 

However...there are many more languages spoken today then what we might first assume.  The language of your toddler in much different than that of your great aunt.  The languages spoken by men and women have been reported to be quite, quite different!  The language of the recent immigrant is substantially different than that of indigenous person, even if the immigrant has learned the indigenous official language quite well.  The language of Lutherans, Nazarenes, Baptists, and Catholics are often very different.  Postmodern and modern cultures and philosophies speak vastly differing languages.  And there are many, many more examples.

No matter how many or how great our talents are, we'll never effectively learn from and help each other, and for the Jesus disciple, you will never be an effective witness of the living Jesus, unless you learn to speak the languages of those around you.  It can be quite difficult work.  But it is worth it; and truthfully, it is the only way to do what we are called to do, whatever the particulars of your specific calling may be.

We all need to learn to "speak in tongues."  It is an essential and necessary ability, and even if it isn't our strongest talent, we all can, and should, become at least competent in exercising this ability.

You do not have to be limited in your ability to help others, do good, and bear witness to the living Jesus and the in-breaking Kingdom of God, just because you may or may not have the greatest "talents."  If you faithfully do what God has called you to do, with whatever resources and talents God has given you, and learn to at least competently "speak in tongues" (90% of which is simply listening to the languages others around you are speaking), you can make a difference in our world and an impact on the advancement of the Kingdom. 

I'm hoping, planning, and praying to use my talent and "speak in tongues" myself more and more in the days ahead.

Just don't expect me to break out in any unintelligible babbling anytime soon.


Friday, October 19, 2012


Recently my wife and I went on what is commonly known as a "retreat."  While there are a number of kinds of "retreats,"  in Christian history, ever since Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century, Christian retreats are specifically meant to be a time of deepening spirituality and closeness to Christ.  In our particular context this was for pastors and their spouses in our branch of the faith (the Church of the Nazarene) from around our district.

Len Sweet (an author, theologian, and "futurist" in the Wesleyan-Holiness faith tradition) doesn't like to use the word "retreats."  Instead, he calls them "advances" (he himself runs several of these per year and indeed calls them just that, i.e., "fall advance").  I think there is good reason for changing to the word advance.

According to Webster's dictionary, the first definition of retreat is "an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable" or "the usually forced withdrawal of troops from an enemy or from an advanced position."

That same dictionary gives several definitions for advance including "to accelerate the growth or progress of"; "to raise to a higher rank"; and "to bring forward in time."

Jesus comes to us teaching and preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God - that God's Kingdom is here, breaking into the darkness, right now, because God's presence is with us; and, when we choose to repent (turn away from sin and our way of living and doing things and turn towards Jesus and His way of living and doing things), God's presence is not only with us, but within us.  Jesus promises Holy Spirit will live inside us, leading and guiding Jesus disciples into all truth.

It seems to me that Len Sweet's semantics change in this is a good one.  Jesus disciples must be moving forward, not drawing back; growing in grace, not returning to a former way of life; bringing the time of the fullness of God's Kingdom closer, not living in the past.

Now there is a place for withdrawal, especially for times of prayer and seeking God's will - Jesus did this frequently, and He is our example of how to live.  But I think this is a different concept than "retreat."  A withdrawal can be a strategic move in a battle plan that ultimately strengthens one's abilities, position, and the chances of victory.  A retreat generally means you are on the run, on the verge of defeat, and just trying to take cover anywhere you can in order to regroup.  Which one sounds more like this verse of Scripture that comes from the passage that one of our General Superintendents preached to us from yesterday morning at the end of our "retreat"?:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him" (2 Corinthians 2:14).

But my purpose here isn't really to make the case for dumping the use of the word "retreat" in favor of the words "withdrawal" and "advance."  I understand that sometimes what people mean isn't always best expressed by the semantics they choose to express it, and I don't want to be critical here, at all.

What I do want to do is call your attention to the manner in which you might be living your life.   Are you living in such a way that your life is advancing - growing, making progress, becoming more of who you are created and called to be?  Are you living in such a way that you purposefully make time to withdraw so that you can pray and seek God's will?  Or are you living in retreat, running from the difficulties and problems of life or worse burying your head in the sand and hoping they will all just go away?

We cannot advance if we do not confront what we are faced with head on.  It can be scary.  Or frustrating.  Maybe emotionally draining; spiritually depleting; financially crippling.  And it might seem impossible.

But God has been known to be pretty good with that 'impossible' stuff. 

And God is with you.  

For the Jesus disciple, God is also within you.  Are you trusting Holy Spirit to guide you through whatever you are facing?  It's the thing you can do, even if seemingly everything else is the thing you can't do.



P.S. - Do the words we use to describe things matter?  How can Jesus disciples advance in their relationship with God, self, and others? 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sound Doctrine

"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Timothy 4:3).

If you are reading this and believe that the Christian Scriptures are the inspired written words of God, you'll probably have a very different opinion of what I am about to say than if for you the Christian Scriptures are simply a collection of writings which have no special divine inspiration.  That, of course, will always be true of "quoting scripture" of any kind, from the sacred texts of any religion.  What you believe about these things influences your point of view.

I am fairly certain that most Christians interpret this verse in the following 5 points:

*Sound doctrine = what I/my branch of Christianity believes.

*"Men" who "suit their own desires" refers to either "the world" (those who are not Christians) or to people who say they are Christians but don't believe in the sound doctrine that I/my branch of Christianity believes.

*The "great number of teachers" are clearly heretics with evil desires intent on destroying the sound doctrine that I/my branch of Christianity believes.

*The things these teachers "say" that are "what [the people's] itching ears want to hear" are false doctrines that do not line up with what I/my branch of Christianity believes.

*"The time" has clearly come.

Would you allow me to challenge that interpretation for a moment?

How many people do you know - actually know - in real life - who seek out doctrines?  Look, I have been around churches long enough to know that even most church people could care less about doctrine (even though they know theirs is the only one that is right (despite the fact they do not know what theirs really is) and therefore their doctrine is what Paul means when he writes about "sound doctrine").  And I have plenty of friends outside the church who don't care about doctrine either (but at least they are not hypocritical about it).

So, doesn't it seem a little odd to you that people would reject Paul's "sound doctrine" and run off in search of their own doctrines?  Who does this?  Those who reject sound doctrine (however so defined) typically don't do so because they desire a false doctrine.  They do it because they don't care about doctrine, at all.

May I suggest that it is possible that Paul is not referring, primarily or necessarily, to "the world" or to Christians who have differing doctrinal stances, but simply to church people who do not care about doctrine or theology?  Church people who gather around themselves teachers (who may actually have quite good intentions rather than nefarious ones) who do not teach doctrine or theology (whether sound or false) but rather, something else altogether?

Outside of my own church (something different than the norms, altogether), I have attended the gatherings of two kinds of churches recently:  Those who "follow the Bible" and whose teaching centers on the very literal interpretations thereof; and those who "engage the culture" and whose teaching centers on how to live a better, more personally fulfilling life.

Neither kind of church seems to care for my preaching and teaching much.  Ah, the tyranny of the both/and.  But I will not get off the Via Bothandia.  However, I will get off point if I don't return to it.

The one part of the standard interpretation that I think makes sense and is right is this:  The time has come. 

We are living in a time where people, at least in the culture I find myself in, will not put up with sound doctrine.  Except, we still haven't defined what that means to Paul, have we?

As always, context matters.  Let's look at the verses around this one and the person to whom Paul is writing:

"In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." (2 Timothy 4:1-6).

Paul is writing to Timothy, a younger pastor/minister/preacher/teacher he has trained and mentored.  The context here is Paul's charge to Timothy to preach the Word in view of Jesus' Kingdom. In fact this line "preach the Word" is a key component of the liturgy that my branch of faith, the Church of the Nazarene, uses when she ordains her pastor/minister/preacher/teachers.

The Word is Jesus.  Jesus' message is repentance (turn away from sin, turn toward Jesus) and a new, transformed life of following Him and answering His calling in the Kingdom of God that is here, now.

This is sound doctrine.  But since it is sound doctrine, you'll have to listen in order to hear it.  For this Jesus disciple, I hear very little of it being preached or taught today, from either the right or the left, the conservative or the liberal, the Bible-followers or the culture-engagers, the big church or the little one, the old church or the new one.

And I can testify from experience that it is most definitely not in high demand in any of those places or with any of those people, either.

But alas, since this post is about sound doctrine, chances are, no one's listening anyway.


P.S. - For the sake of brevity (and maybe knowing what's good for me, too!), I have left unsaid much more than I have said, here.  So, what do you think (if I am not writing to an empty room in cyberspace)?  Too cynical?  Accurate interpretations?  Something to chew on?  Don't get it?  Want to know more of that left-unsaid stuff?  Think I'm off the deep end?  Leave a comment!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Blessed Be The TIE That Binds

Wednesday, while writing about money, tithe, giving, and love I said "blessed be the tithe that binds."  This is a play on words from an old hymn titled "Blessed Be The Tie That Binds," originally written by John Fawcett in the late 18th century.  A singing group known as "Sisters" did a rendition - actually, several renditions - of this song a couple of years ago at the Dove Awards (these are the major awards for "Christian" music held yearly in Nashville, Tennessee).  Watch the video, as I think it is instructive and illustrative for people today - not only in church or contexts, but in our society as a whole:

Same song.  Four different styles.  I like them all for different reasons, but mostly because they were well sung.  Truthfully, none of these four styles really "fit" what *I* would choose, if say, my church were to sing this song together in a gathering.  We also don't feature songs by southern gospel groups or even old hymns - though we like the best of them and aren't opposed to them at all.

In churches across the country and around the world, be it what we sing, or how we preach, or what we teach, there are a great many variations is both style and substance.  But at the core of who we are is that the Church, as Paul writes in the New Testament, the body of Christ.  In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says it this way:

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:2-6).

That is what the Church is supposed to look like - and it is what Jesus disciples should look like, too.  All too often, however, neither Church nor individual has reflected this teaching nor many of the other teaching of both Jesus and the Scriptures.  Instead they have been prideful, arrogant, impetuous, hurried, close-minded, and divisive.  Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that many people have chosen to go elsewhere when they desire to grow in their spiritual formation?

We see this every day in our culture as well.  Just last night I watched a very contentious political debate between two people who, in all likelihood, surely believe that they have the best interests of the country at heart, the right plans to bring those interests to fruition, the correct philosophies of governance, and the most helpful styles of leadership to get the job done.  These two men and their styles and even their beliefs could not have been more different.  But there should be a place at the table for both of them and their ideas, even though only one of them will be elected a few weeks from now. 

How tragic that in many churches, there is no place at the table, no room in the inn, for people who may differ in their views, because the songs of each one can be so beautiful when they are well sung.

I am not saying that all views on everything are equal, that truth is relative, or we should water down the wine of our spiritual formation until it is completely tasteless.  I am saying that there are core ideas that we should agree on and be united in, and that we should stick to those core ideas and build our unity on them - be that the unity within an individual, a local church, the larger Church, or in a culture, government, society or country.

I also recognize that there are certain ties that cannot be bound.  If I believe in Jesus and that He is God (and I do), and another person chooses non-belief or that there is no God...or that someone else is a god...or that there are multiple gods...we are going to have a big difference in our core ideas that will probably preclude us from say, being a part of the same religion.

But even such major differences as these do not have to preclude us from being friends, getting along, and loving one another.

In fact, that is a core idea that I am convinced everyone can and should be able to not only agree on (belief) but to also live by (practice).

Love.  Scripture says that "God is love" (I John 4:16, emphasis mine).  I pray that people everywhere will unite in this universal truth.

Blessed be the tie that binds.


P.S. - Do you think it is possible for people in our world to unite in love?  Why or why not?  What about in the Church?  Can we sing the same song, even if the way we sing it is quite different? What about in your own heart and life - are you inwardly united by love?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blessed Be The Tithe That Binds

Money.  We all need it, in some form or another, to survive, much less thrive.

I think most people know instinctively that money is not, in fact, the solutions to all of one's problems; nor can it but you happiness.  Now, I don't know that most people act on this instinctive belief; but I do think most people acknowledge that money isn't everything in life. 

We do live in a consumer culture and it can be problematic for us an individuals as well as in our families, places we live, and faith communities.  In fact, it's popular right now to rip on our society for how obsessively materialistic we have all become.

Except I am not so sure that is always the case; I'd like to think that we could be a little more positive, and believe in people a little bit more than to just dump everyone into the same consumer-driven-materialistic-obsessive-compulsive-money-and-stuff-is-everything category.

Nevertheless, it does seem true, at least in my own local community, that people are very, very sensitive about their money (or as is increasingly the case, their benefits).

I think I understand that, barring a pretty substantial and radical cultural shift (always possible...but in this case, seemingly not likely) most people are never just going to broadcast how much money they make (or don't make), and what level of benefits they are receiving from either working, government assistance, or charities.  Money tends to be a "private matter" in our culture. 

Even in my own household my wife and I have separate checking accounts, payment means, budgets, etc.  We kind of know where the other is at (sort of like two people stuck in a deep, dark hole!), and if we really wanted to find out, we could ask (or snoop); yet we usually don't.  I have great hope that this is because we trust each other to do the best we can and make the best decisions we can; however, I am realistic enough to know that there is probably at least an element of cultural-financial-privacy going on there, too.

So when pastors or other spiritual or ministry leaders begin to talk about money, there is often an automatic culturally-conditioned defense mechanism that goes up.  This is only enhanced when the words "tithe" or "tithing" are brought up.  Now not only are we talking about my money, but we are talking about someone else laying claim to it.

If there is one thing I have heard consistently from people across all different socio-economic conditions in the town I have lived in for the last five years, it is this:  People hate it when churches are always asking for money; and they do have the perception, justified or not, that churches are always asking for money.  

For example, this fact has made me extremely reticent to ask people to directly contribute money to the work of our local organic-based church plant, even those directly benefiting from her ministries.  We don't want to turn anyone off, or turn anyone away, so...we just don't ask.  That is about to change, but that's not the point of this post, either.

I think the problem is two-fold:

First, many people in our community hide behind the "money is a private matter" facade and then spend their money frivolously only to ask for hand outs later, all the while condemning churches and other charitable organizations for always asking for money.  I don't think I need to explain the hypocrisy and lack of transparency or accountability here.  It's pervasive, and I wonder just how pervasive it is in other communities around our country, particularly in these extremely difficult economic conditions of the last four years.

Second, churches and other charitable organizations do focus on the wrong thing:  Money, rather than giving.  They are not one and the same, even if one combines them to form the phrase, "give money."

While Jesus talks about both quite a bit, He always focuses on giving, rather than money.

Again, the Kingdom of God is like...
I have read a number of Christian writers and pastors who have claimed that Jesus never talked about or advocated tithing (giving 10% of one's income and/or possessions to the work of the ministry).  It always surprises me, because it simply isn't true.  In Matthew's gospel, in the middle of a long discourse chewing the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the religious leaders of Jesus' day) up one side and down the other, Jesus says this:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:23-24).

I am not sure what part about "without neglecting the former" these writers and pastors are missing, but whatever part it is, they are indeed missing it.  And it is consistent with Jesus' other practices and teachings.  But what is interesting here is what Jesus says are the more important matters of the law that he juxtaposes with tithing:  Justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

I'd like to point out that all three of these are intricately related to what Jesus focused on rather than money specifically, and that is, giving.

There are an incredible amount of injustices in our world.  Jesus disciples are called to help Jesus set right that which is wrong - this is the essence of redemption, restoration, and re-creation.  In order to do that we must give of ourselves.

Our world is not a very merciful place.  Whether it is the crushing weight of dictatorial rule or the much-too-heavy-burden of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps unbridled capitalist systems, we shouldn't expect much mercy to be shown by the powers that rule the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus disciples, however, are called to live in and share the power of the Ruler of the Kingdom of God, and because of this, they should be the first to show mercy, compassion, kindness, selflessness, and inspire hope.  All this comes only when we give of ourselves.

Our consumption-based, materialistic, tell-me-what's-the-latest-and-greatest-so-I-can-have-it-right-now cultural values do not lend themselves well to faithfulness - a steady, daily, long-term, stick-with-it-to-the-very-end-come-what-may commitment to the others in our lives.   But Jesus disciples are called to such a faithfulness, and such a steady commitment will always mean steadily giving ourselves away.

Because ultimately, giving ourselves away is what love really is.  And for Jesus, the greatest commandment is love.  When we love, we give.  And when we give, we love.  That's why giving is so incredibly important to Jesus - much more important than any amount of money.

It's also why tithing (not necessarily a legalistic 10%, but a consistent giving of a specific amount (percentage or otherwise) of our money, possessions, time, and talents) is a foundational practice of faith for Jesus disciples.  It grounds us in faithfulness, giving, and love.

Jesus disciples always practice the latter, without neglecting the former.

Blessed be the tithe that binds. 

And blessed be the just, merciful, faithful, love-giver.

So if you are reading this and happen to be one of those people-in-my-community I was talking about earlier...don't worry, this is not another desperate appeal for more money. 

Instead, it is a call to love and give much more fully, practicing the latter, without neglecting the former.

This is no private matter - rather it is faithful action that must be lived out in the context of community.

In the end that is much more costly than any appeal for money.  And much more rewarding, too.


P.S. - What's your reaction?  Comments are open, below...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sacrifice Flies

What does baseball have to do with a person's spiritual formation?

Apparently a lot, if you are Don Kelly. who is Don Kelly?

My guess is that "Don Kelly" is not a household name.  Never has been, isn't now, and never will be.

Although some who read this know exactly who I am talking about, the majority probably do not.  Years from now it is doubtful if that fact will have changed.

Don Kelly is a professional baseball player for the Detroit Tigers.  He has been with the team since 2009.  He also played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007.

Don is what is known in baseball as a "utility player" - basically, you can plug him in at just about any position on the field, at any time, and he will be able to at least adequately field his position.  In other words, Don Kelly isn't really great at anything as it pertains to baseball (if he was, he'd be a full time player), but he is decent at just about everything.

Don Kelly will never do the really big things for the Tigers that say, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera does, or last year's Most Valuable Player and Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander does (although last year, Mr. Kelly did make a successful appearance as a pitcher, getting an out from the only batter he faced).  But he will do the little things for the Tigers that they need, wherever and whenever he is called upon.

Earlier this season Don had to be "designated for assignment" (meaning he was essentially cut from the team and any other major league could claim him for themselves if they wanted him) when the Tigers made some trades and roster moves that their General Manager felt necessary in order to help the team make the playoffs (which they did). 

Fortunately for the Tigers, no one claimed Mr. Kelly and so he was assigned to the Tigers minor league team in Toledo, and called back up to Tigers in September when the rosters expand and teams can have more than 25 players at one time.  When the playoffs started, Don was included on the playoff roster because of his versatility and ability to do all the little things, anywhere on the field, at least adequately.  He is the definition of the "last guy on the roster" or "25th man."

Yesterday afternoon in a playoff game, Don Kelly stepped up to the plate, having been earlier put in the game as pinch runner, in the bottom of the 9th inning, with one out and the bases loaded, and the game tied 4-4.  Miguel Cabrera was already on base, getting a hit earlier in the inning.  Omar Infante, a big acquisition the Tigers traded for a couple of months ago, was also already on base.  And Prince Fielder, the Tigers' big off season acquisition and second best hitter, was intentionally walked to load the bases.  The Athletics, whom the Tigers are playing, wanted no part of Fielder.  They would take their chances with last-guy-on-the-roster-Don-Kelly. 

What happened next?

Don Kelly failed.

He made an out.

In baseball, success for an individual is pretty simple.  You either get on base via a hit, a walk (or even being hit by the pitch!), or you make an out.  The former is success, the latter is failure.  It's not very complicated, really.

Don Kelly hit a fly ball to right center field, and he was out.  He did not get on base.  He failed.

Except, he didn't fail.

Because Don Kelly did exactly what he needed to do, given the situation.

Because there was only one out, all the team needed was a fly ball to the outfield that was deep enough for the runner at third base to "tag up" when the ball was caught (which would only be the second out), and run home to score the winning run before the Athletics could throw the ball to home plate for a third out.  In baseball, this is known as a "sacrifice fly."  And that is exactly what Don Kelly did, knocking in the game winning run... making an out...

The Kingdom of God is like.......

We don't know yet if this win will propel the Tigers to a World Series victory, although it does give them a 2 games to none lead in their best of 5 Division Series.  But for Don Kelly and the Tigers, today, that is not what is important.  What is important is that Don's sacrifice of individual success has given his team the opportunity to further succeed.

Often, determining success and failure is more complicated than what they appear on the surface.

When Don was interviewed after the on field "walk off" celebration, the first thing he said was this:

"First of all I would like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving me the opportunity."

There are those who tire of sports figures thanking God for their achievements (as if to say, God picks or "roots for" the winners and "roots against" the losers), the same way other celebrity figures do for many things that may have nothing to do with what God desires, or the way politicians and governments go to war in the name of God, or even the way some so-called-Christian-pastors thank God for how rich he is making them, because that is what God wants for everyone, right?  

I can't really blame people for tiring of such things.  I know I do.

But here's the thing:  Don Kelly is no celebrity.  He's last-guy-on-the-roster-Don.  He's I-got-cut-two-months-ago-and-am-lucky-to-just-be-here-Don.

And one more thing that I think is really important for application here:  Don thanked Jesus, not for success (or in this case, success-by-failure), but for the opportunity.What opportunities is Jesus giving you?  Not to become 'rich' or 'successful' or a 'winner' - but to become more like Him and to give witness to the world of how Jesus has transformed your heart and life?  Or maybe, for the first time, to give your heart and life to Jesus so that He can transform you? 

Have you thought about this?  Have you thought about the fact that in order to take full advantage of the opportunities Jesus gives you, it is going to require sacrifice?  Sacrifice is not always a word with which we are very well acquainted.  But it is a necessary and critically important word in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus sacrifices Himself for us, and then asks us to become like Him.  Sacrifice isn't optional, friends - it's a requirement for following Jesus.

What do you think?  Comments are open.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Which Bible is the Right One?

I heard today that there is a new product out called "The Founder's Bible."  Apparently this is a regular NASB (New American Standard Bible) stuffed with all kinds of "supplementary material" regarding the "founding fathers" of the United States of America including artwork, articles by David Barton, quotes, embedded commentary, and full color insert pages.  The cost?  $60 hardcover, $80 soft leather, $100 genuine leather.  And that's just talking about the money...

So when I say "product," that is exactly what I mean.  You can go to Bible Gateway and read the full text of the NASB from anywhere you have an internet connection for free.  Or you can purchase a paper copy for as little as $2 at places such as Christian Book Distributors.  What you are paying for, then, is $58-$98 worth of binding, covers, and "supplementary material."

Now to be fair this is certainly not the first "specialty Bible."  There are literally hundreds of them, and it has been this way for decades.  I even own one or two for which I have had particular uses in life and ministry (although they didn't cost anywhere near $100).  In general, though, I am not a fan of the trend, and think it has gone much too far.  I'd much rather see this kind of material released separately, and then sold alongside the Biblical text - rather than packaged together with it as if the Biblical text and the product being sold are one-and-the-same.  *I* know they aren't; I am not so sure that others, though, do not simply come to view the "supplemental material" as equivalent in authority to the text.  I also recognize there isn't a whole lot I can do about this - it is what it is.

So rather than get mired down in the pros and cons and value or lack thereof of "specialty Bibles," let me ask this:  Should the Bible be a "product" at all?  Something off of which people and businesses make money?

Obviously there is some cost associated with producing the paper editions, and will vary according to he materials used and the version of Scripture being produced.  Even the electronic "free" versions such as Bible Gateway aren't really "free" - ever try to own and maintain a web site that gets tens of thousands of hits every day?  It's not cheap.

It's unavoidable in contemporary life that there will be some monetary cost associated with the distribution of the Christian Scriptures.  I don't have any problem with that, at all, especially when and if churches and individual Christians are willing to make the Scriptures available to anyone who desires to have them at very low or no cost.  I have been on staff at several churches who have decided to do this when I brought up the idea to them, and certainly in our Illuminate Peru community, if you need a copy of the Bible and cannot afford to purchase one, we make sure to get you one.  

For those who can afford them, the higher priced Bibles may well help companies earn enough money from their sales to invest in projects that help further the distribution of the Scriptures or other worthy projects that help advance the Kingdom - at least, I hope that is what they do with the profits.  Profit is not inherently evil, and it is a huge motivation for any business - obviously, people go into business to make money to support their family as well as the causes they believe in, and as the business grows, the families and causes of their employees, their investors, and so on.  That is all well and good, and right.  Even so, I would hope that anything above what is needed to achieve these necessary goals would go into goal of further distributing the Scriptures and advancing the Kingdom.

But does distribution of the Scriptures alone - whether given away for free or purchased for $100-a-pop- mean that people will be getting the "right" Bible?  Which Bible *is* the "right" Bible?  More to the point, which Bible is the "right" Bible for you?

Some people believe only free Bibles are the right ones.  Some people believe the ones that interweave faith and politics are the right ones.  For others, only the 1611-King-James-Authorized-Version will do.  Still others believe the NIV is the best (was that the 1984 or the 2011 version?); and yet still others are sold on paraphrases such as the Living Bible.

I have my well-reasoned thoughts on which are the best translation versions, my carefully considered theological beliefs about the role of Scripture and the nature of the Bible, and  my personal opinions about the validity or lack thereof of "specialty Bibles."  But all of those I'll save for another day (although I've touched on that last one quite a bit, today).

My question for today is:  "Which Bible is the right one?"

And here is my answer for today:  "The one you read."

Some of my readers may not be convinced at all that the Bible is even worth reading.  That, too, is a topic worth considering; but also a topic for another day. 

For today I am driving at this, for those who do recognize the value of the Scriptures or are interested in investigating them further:

Have you read the Bible today?  Have you studied it much lately?  Have you memorized any Scriptures recently?  And most importantly - is the Scripture informing and shaping the way you live?  In what ways?

Comments are open.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Randomly Intentional (...or was that, Intentionally Random?)

This site has been in the works for quite some time.  Probably too long (as in, I should have launched this quite some time ago).  But life has a funny way of getting ahead of us (or simply out of control altogether), sometimes.  And so, today is the day.

Today also happens to be my Dad's 68th birthday.  I don't know that there is any real significance to that - you would have to ask him how he feels about it.  It is kind of one of those random ages, I guess.  I cannot think of a single thing that happens, in particular, when you are 68 - anymore than I can think of anything that happens when you are 37, which I will be on my next birthday.  Just a random age.

Today also so happens to be the first Democrat-vs-Republican Presidential debate (they don't allow any other parties or independents on stage...I guess because you need to meet a certain "threshold" in the "polls"...I think it would be amusing and much more entertaining if they did, though...) for 2012 here in the United States.  And again, I cannot say there is any significance to that, either, insofar as it relates to launching this site.  Just a random event.

And here's a random video you might enjoy:

I've heard that John Wesley, having learned the practice from the Moravians, would sometimes flip open his Bible to a random page and verse/passage for devotions.  I have done this before myself, if nothing else, for a bit of "spiritual entertainment" - and believe me, it can be quite entertaining...just try it sometime... 

Actually, many years ago I put this in my bag of tricks for youth ministry (being a youth pastor actually has an incredible number of things in common with being a magician, trust me - this may be why I did my disappearing act from that particular kind of specialized ministry!) was pretty successful the first time I tried it (uh...out of time to write up teaching for youth group...uh...'hey everyone, let's pick a random verse from Scripture and we'll talk about it!')...although you can only do it once or twice at most with any one group before they start to get suspicious ('hey...does this guy have any clue what he is doing???')...

Some people would attribute all this to the phenomena known as "apophenia."  I think it has much more to do with underpaid, overworked staff pastors.  Personal experience, I guess.  Well anyway, believe it or not, there is actually a web site that will randomly generate Bible verses for you, found at, of all places, "" (really?)

I went to this site out of pure curiosity (you do believe that, right?), and randomly generated a Scripture.  Here is what I got:

"For the needy shall not always be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever" (Psalm 9:18)

The first thing I noticed was that apparently randomly generated Bible verses come out in the King James Version.  I wondered if this was random as well, or if all randomly generated verses are in the King James.

My second thought was, "Hey, I feel needy today.  My checkbook, compared to my budget, says I am quite poor today, and things aren't getting any better."

Which could have led me to proclaim, "God wants me to be rich!"

But since I am not Joel Osteen (thank you, Lord, thank you...I could have been Joel Osteen, but you made me Phil Michaels instead!)...

...I will say this instead:  God is with us in our suffering.  God sees it, God knows it, God experiences it, God feels it.  And God is with us.  Not by random chance, but with great purpose and intentionality.

Today is a random day, given to us by God that we might fulfill God's great purposes with intentionality.  It might not be the day you expected...anticipated...or desired...but it is the day you have.  What will you do with it?

Comments are open.


P.S. - I don't recommend random Bible verse generation as your primary means for spiritual formation.  However, once-in-a-while, it can be something different and fun, and I don't think God is above using it if we will carefully listen, look at the context of both the Scriptures and our lives, and seek further counsel (especially if you get something like "finally the woman died" followed by "go and do likewise") - context always matters!  But what do you think?

PS2 - The context of the randomly generated verse above can be found here...this time in the Message version.

PS3 - I do own one, and enjoy it very much.