Thursday, October 22, 2009

Living the "get to" life

Deuteronomy 6:20-25: In the future, when your son asks you, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?" tell him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders--great and terrible--upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness."

Recently on the weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser, one of the personal trainers asked the contestants why they were participating in the show, and most gave a generic reply, "Because I want to get healthy." She replied, "That is not a goal or a motivation that is going to see you through. If you are going to turn down tasty, high-calorie foods and drinks, you have to have a more compelling reason than, 'To be healthy."

And so the contestants began to talk about their dreams: to break cycles of heart disease and obesity in their families; to see their children and grand-children grow up; to be married and have a family; to be confident in their appearance and to see themselves as beautiful. As their deeper motivations were revealed, their resolved was strengthened, and instead of saying, "Why do I have to turn down this fried food and this margarita," they instead said, "I am freely choosing to give this up in order to see a better thing come to pass."

Too often Christians seek to live a "good life" from motivations that will never sustain us. Fear of disappointing God, guilt over past mistakes, a desire to be liked by others - all of these motivations will eventually leave us dry and living under a system of rules designed to merely maintain life, rather than to push us to abundance in Christ.

Our mindset should not be "I have to follow God's rules." Instead, God's laws and instructions in Scripture guide us to the "get to life." We get to live in Christ, turning from the world and pressing toward the things of God. He has rescued us and recreated us in Christ to be His sons and daughters, our lives resonating with the life and voice of the Spirit. The "get to life" is a lasting motivation that frees us to embrace God's Kingdom growing within us, and it frees us to participate in building God's Kingdom in the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The good news and bad news about the kingdom

When Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is here, repent and believe the good news," there were was implicit in His pronouncement that there was also a king in charge of said Kingdom. That can be good news or bad news, depending on the King and depending on our desire to be ruled.

First, the character of the king shapes the kingdom. If the king is good, just, kind, and governs his people with their good in mind, it's good news that there is a king. It can be freeing to know that there is someone in charge who has your best interests in mind and also has the power and authority to do what is best. But if the king is a tyrant, bent on getting his own way, leading by fear and eager to prove his king-ness by pressing his thumb down on the people, it's bad news that there is a king. It can be paralyzing to know that there is someone in charge who sees you merely as a disposable component in his Me-Machine.

The movie "300" (and the book "Gates of Fire" by Stephen Pressfield) come to mind, as there is a great contrast between two kings during the battle of Thermopylae - King Xerxes of Persia and King Leonidas of Sparta . Xerxes is bent on his own name and he magnifies his name by crushing those who oppose him, by feeding the senses of those who will bow to his whims, and he will stop at nothing to extend his kingdom. He sends waves and waves of soldiers, sacrificing thousands while he stays far away from the battle lines. He leads with whips and chains. Leonidas is bent on the name of his country, desiring that Sparta be known as a great nation and that its people remain free. He does not send his men to fight and die alone, but instead he goes and lives with them, leading them from the front lines, steeling their courage with his own. He leads with freedom and by example. As I raed "Gates of Fire" years ago, I couldn't help but see Jesus in King Leonidas. Jesus did not stay far off from His people during the battle, but instead came to lead by example, to show courage and compassion and to reveal the face of the king to his subjects, eventually laying His life down for the freedom of the people.

Second, our desire to be the king instead of the kingdom member can affect how we hear the good news of the Kingdom of God. If we are eager to rule our own lives, it is bad news that there is a king, because our place on the throne is being challenged. And all of us start out in this place of rebellion against God's kingdom, thinking ourselves the masters of our own universe, and the world around us reinforces and encourages this thinking, telling us that we deserve to be the king and to have life our own way. If we're not careful, we can live our whole lives in the shadow of this lie, and that includes people who have trusted Christ for salvation, because all Christians (me included) struggle with giving lip service to God as King while maintaining our own kingdoms.

But to all of us, God gives us the gift of brokenness, if we will receive it as such. The brokenness in our lives is meant to show us the truth that we are not in charge, that there is a king and it's not us. If we are humble, we will see our failures and struggles and the failures of those around us as signposts pointing to the only One who is good. Looking at our world today, we truly need a king who will rule with justice and kindness, with righteousness and integrity. And that King exists, if we would receive Him. Sadly, we too often prefer the way of Psalm 2:1-3, seeing God's reign as confining and as something to be thrown off, forfeiting the grace that could be ours.

There is a King and we are not it - this truly is good news.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What is the gospel?

This morning my friend Wes asked me, "What is the gospel?" My first answer was going to involve the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for the salvation of all people. But then he clarified by quoting a Scripture that talked about the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God, and it jogged my memory. In recent weeks I have been reading a book about how to strategically help the poor and at the same time I have been studying the book of Mark. As I have read each of them, I have been struck by Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God, and how focused Jesus was on proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.

In Mark, Jesus begins His preaching by saying, "The Kingdom of God is here - repent and believe the good news." It seems that Jesus equates the good news with God's Kingdom advancing on earth, not merely with salvation. The Good News that Jesus speaks of is that healing and justice are coming forth, that righteousness is being lived out between people and wrongs are being bent back right.

As Wes and I talked about this, we realized that salvation is often preached in churches as the end but perhaps it is better understood as a means to an end, and that End is the Kingdom of God. No one can enter the Kingdom of God apart from salvation in Christ, but once we are "in", then what? Does our story with God end with our knowing more and more fully how much we are loved and how fully we have been saved? Surely not. We are brought into the Kingdom of God because of His love for us, certainly, but there is a greater purpose. We are called to participate in Kingdom building, not merely by inviting people to salvation through Christ's forgiveness and life, but by living lives that reflect the heart of the King we serve. The church in the West has emphasized the need for each individual to enter the Kingdom, but that has come at the expense of proclaiming the broader mission and heart of God.

Perhaps we have so many Christians struggling to live out their faith because the object of end of their faith is too small. If the best that we can aim at is to be less sinful, to be more devoted in worship, to occasionally share the message of salvation, no wonder our reach seems so short. There is a work of magnificent scale occurring, a work of healing and justice, of freedom and transformation, and our salvation in Christ allows us to be free to participate in this Kingdom work for the glory of God.

How might we use this in sharing the good news? This is one stab at it: . In general, I like where he is going with this idea, though I think that this particular diagram too quickly glosses over our own brokenness and our own contribution to the brokenness of the world. But it does point us to a bigger mission, a great story, and invites us into the End we are created for, the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Exhorted to Run the Race

In recent weeks I have struggled with fear and discouragement in regard to our church's dinner for the community. Now, these struggles come as no surprise to those who know me or who read this blog. But what has surprised me is who God has raised up to urge me forward. Sure, there are the usual folks - good friends on staff at church, my wife, ministry partners. But God has also been speaking truth and hope to me from prophets that I didn't expect.

People like John, a man who had been regularly attending our dinners, and each week he would speak to me and encourage me on my message. I asked him to start coming early to pray over the sanctuary, and now he arrives over an hour early to help set up and to pray. Recently, when I was close to being overwhelmed with doubt and fear, I sat down to talk with him (not telling him my struggles), and he began to speaking to me about the goodness and power of God. He began to speaking about the power of God's Word to change hearts and lives and about the presence of the Spirit in our church on Wednesday nights. He told me that even those who are opposed to our ministry are brought each Wednesday by God, because He is trying to reach them and love them, too. And that night John closed our volunteer meeting with a prayer that almost made the floor of the sanctuary shake. He was mentoring me in trusting in the Word of God, of putting my hope in His power and goodness, and as he talked to me, his eyes danced with confidence in the Lord.

People like Cleveland, who I met a few days after his son died. He needed gas money to go to the funeral, which our church was able to help with. We sat and prayed together, and he came once or twice to a Bible study that I lead, and then I didn't see him again. Until a recent Sunday when he walked into my office and said, "Surprise." He told me that he has a steady job and that he is thankful to God every day. And he said, "You keep doing what you are doing. You are speaking the Word, and this church has a powerful ministry. You keep at it and God is going to move. God has big things in store."

Many folks in our church know Bonnie and the power of God in her life, and I have long respected her as a mentor in how to love the addicted and hurting. I was lamenting to her that I didn't think what we were doing on Wednesday was effective. Lives weren't changing left and right. People seemed stuck, and I wanted to just restart the whole thing or scrap what we had been doing. She told me that the regular preaching of God's Word was no small thing, and that if we stayed the course, He would move in His own time. Preaching the Word is not insignificant, and only God brings the harvest. Her simple, quiet words set me free from so much of the pressure I was putting on myself to be bigger, better, stronger.

Each of these members of my "great cloud of witnesses" knows the struggles of the streets and the power of God to change any and all things. And their encouragement and trust of God's work in me has helped me move forward in confidence. I've not been an addict or homeless; I don't know the way forward for most of the people who sit with us and eat each Wednesday night. But I know the Lord God, and I believe that His word is true, not just for me but for all. And I am committed to proclaiming it. They have helped me to see that this "simple" thing would be enough, and I know that we are in this work together.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Snag a copy of The Naked Gospel

I have mentioned the book The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church a couple of times in recent posts, and I wanted to let you know that you can get a free e-book version (and also a Kindle version, for thos of you who are that techno-savvy, available on until October 15th at Please check it out (you will probably want to buy a paperback version once you start reading the e-version), but check it out. It clearly describe the Believer's position in Christ, the great exchange that has already occurred, Christ in you, the hope of glory. It will really challenge your ideas about the life God intends for you as a Believer, and I believe it will bring great freedom to your soul.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Tired of schozophrenic worship

Who am I really in Christ? The Scriptures tell me that I have been recreated in Him, a new creation that is holy and righteous. The Scriptures tell me that I have been given life, and that I have been once and for all reconciled to God. They tell me that I am no longer a slave but a son, no longer unrighteous but righteous. But I get mixed messages on this from the Church.

Often during musical worship and in prayers and sermons I am told that I am an unworthy sinner, that I am a sinful man, that I have no business being anywhere near the Lord. In the same song tonight at a Christian conference there were lyrics calling me to raise my filthy hands and then calling me to raise my holy hands. Which is it - am I an unworthy sinner or a holy saint (and don't tell me it is both)?

Tonight I was told that in order to be forgiven, I have to confess my sins, citing 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." What about the sins that I didn't know I committed, the ones that I never confessed? Are those covered, too, or are they held over me, God tsk-tsking me until I remember to say that I am sorry? (For an excellent take on what I think the answer to this is, check out chapter 22 of The Naked Gospel).

When I took communion tonight, the focus was solely on the cross and on forgiveness for what I had done in the past. Has Jesus not paid for my future sins yet, or do they get paid for when I commit them and then confess them? When I confess sin in my life, is to activate God's forgiveness or is it to expose the lie that I have fallen for and bring myself back in line with Truth? Is communion just about the cross and the blood (represented by the cup), or is it also about Christ's body being given that we might have life (represented by the bread)?

Sometimes it seems that modern-day Christianity thinks that we cannot really worship God apart from thinking about how rotten we are, like seeing our sin adds to His glory. And tonight as I wrestled with feeling prideful for not wanting to focus on being a sinner, I wondered if focusing on my sin would be just as prideful. Either way it is about me, isn't it?

The cross and forgiveness were not the end of God's plan - they were the means to the ultimate end, which was God's purpose of restoring life to our sin-dead souls. Romans 5:10 says, "For if, when were God's enemies, we were reconciled [already done!] to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life." God is holy, righteous, and good, free from sin, and the gift of God to all who receive Christ is that we become holy, righteous, and good, free from the power and enslavement of sin. This doesn't mean that we don't ever sin - I'm too aware of my weaknesses and failures to say anything that absurd. But sin no longer defines me or my relationship to God, and I don't have to keep going back over my failings again and again to have a worshipful appreciation of what God has done for me Christ. I have been taken from death to life, from light to dark, from enemy to son and friend. This has already happened. When I sin, it is an aberration inconsistent with the work of God in me, and my job is not to focus on that sin but instead to remember Who God is, thereby learning who I have been recreated in Christ to be. Seeing God for who He is and recognizing that life in me leads me to worship.

It's as though the Church is afraid to really teach the good news of our new life in Christ, because we can't believe it is really that free, that good, that we could have that little to do with any of it. But it wearies me to be taken back and forth, from sinner to saint, unholy to holy. I am who I am all the time, regardless of my actions or experiences, and this not of myself, it is the gift of God. That does not make me want to sin more but rather exhorts me to live in a manner consistent with the life that is at work in me.