Praying For Blessing Without Jabez Prayers, Circle Making and Suns Standing Still

prayerBack in 2010, I was asked to preach at a small, traditional church in Virginia that was considering to call me as their pastor. I had a well-rehearsed and “tried-and-true” sermon all planned out to preach, and was decked out in my best “preaching suit” (yes, that’s a thing). My wife even made sure that my socks matched that day. I was ready to knock it out of the park, and wow the audience with my adept preaching. I was meditating on my sermon when interim pastor stood up to conduct the “prayer time” of the worship service. He asked the audience for requests. After each request, the interim pastor took down a written note in his bulletin. I was so focused on rehearsing the sermon that I tuned out the 20 or so requests that seemed to drone on forever.

So to my surprise, the interim pastor turned to me and politely asked me: “Pastor Higgins, would you be willing to specifically pray for each of these requests?” And the emphasis was on the word “specifically.” As in pray for each one of these requests that I hadn’t been paying attention to whosoever. What followed was probably the most awkward (and shortest) prayer in the history of pastoral prayers:

“Oh Lord … um … You’ve heard everything these people have said … um … Please answer their requests … um … Yeah … Amen.”

Lots of awkward looks at the end of that prayer. So much for my well-rehearsed sermon.

That worship service was really my first initiation with a sacred cow entrenched in many traditional churches: The mid-week “prayer meeting.” Why so many Christians have such an inexplicable warm sensation about these crazy leviathans I’ll never know, because most of these meetings seem to have a rather loose connection to Biblical prayer. Many meetings seem to devolve into “organ recitals,” where the emphasis of prayer is healing so-and-so’s hearts, belly buttons, appendixes and other remarkably vital organs. At other times, prayer meetings can devolve into glorified opportunities for gossip: “I know you haven’t seen sister Suzie around church in years, and I know you’re all really, really concerned and need to know what happened … So I really need to tell the church to really pray hard because she’s run off to Paris with a Swedish romance novel model … At least, that’s what I heard at the hair salon.” And then when the act of prayer actually begins, there’s always one or two people keen to pray long-winded Shakespearean prayers laced with 1611 KJV “thees” and “thous” that seem more attuned to impressing the congregation than moving the heart of God. Now, I’m all in favor in bodies of believers gathering to corporately pray, but much of the perfunctory of the traditional “prayer meeting” is a theological headache.

So let me get to another related admission (and the point of this blog): I don’t really pray for myself much. That might like a strange admission for a pastor, but go with me here. I think that response has been a knee-jerk reaction to what prayer has become in many churches: Unadulterated selfishness.

The biggest proof of the church’s obsession with the selfishness of prayer is found on the shelves of our Christian bookstores. Over the past twenty years, some of the biggest sellers in the Christian book genre have been books that (supposedly) inform believers how to get stuff out of God in three simple steps. The easiest target is Bruce Wilkinson’s 2000 book The Prayer of Jabez, which transformed an obscure prayer for 1 Chronicles 4:10 into a best-selling formula for getting consumer goods out of God. For other popular books on prayer, the teaching is often clumsily grounded in obscure Bible passages (i.e. and Stephen Furtick’s Sun Stand Still) or extra-Biblical stories (i.e. Mark Patterson’s The Circle Maker), but these books continue to be gobbled up by Christians. Similarly, prosperity Gospel books claiming you can have $60 million dollar jets or have “every day a Friday” (whatever that means) if you simply have faith or “claim God’s promises” sell outrageously. But don’t blame the writer … Blame the readers buying these $20 hardcovers. Such works only tap into and legitimize our sinful desire to infuse selfishness and consumerism into our prayer lives.

Back in 2006, Derek Webb wrote a scathing song, entitled “Wedding Dress,” about the church’s warm embrace of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. The song is based on Ezekiel 16, which describes the people of God as engaging in prostitution against her honorable husband, God. It’s a common theme of Scripture (see Hosea 1-3). The accusation was that the church tends to pursue material possessions through prayer instead of simply seeking the treasure of Christ alone. Honestly, the controversy over the song had more to do with Derek’s use of the provocative (but Biblical) words “whore” and “bastard” to describe the church. Frankly, I love the honesty and sound discernment of the song. The interview below featuring Derek about the writing of this song (and the actual song) is compelling:

Convicted by the Gospel and own human depravity, I identify with the faithless bride of Ezekiel 16 and “The Wedding Dress” song. I often desire earthly treasures and personal comfort in prayer over the simplicity of having the love of Christ. So I must repent of my faithlessness to God.

But there’s also a danger in unwittingly believing the oddly equal inverse of The Prayer of Jabez: As an unrighteous sinner, I should not ask anything from God in prayer. It’s one thing to believe that our own faith and righteousness merits a response from God in prayer … But the inadvertent polar opposite is believing that our lack of faith and unrighteousness merits no response from God in prayer. In both circumstances, the false belief is that the heart of God is moved simply by our belief, doubt, righteousness, sinfulness or works. Both circumstances are wrong … But the inverse deceptively seems Gospel-centered, because it emphasizes the remnant of our sinful nature. Either way, God simply becomes a glorified vending machine: If we have the right change (or behavior), out pops whatever we desire.

I think I often fall into this second category of false belief whether I admit it or not. Sure God is my Father in Heaven … But why bother to ask the Father for anything if His child has messed up in so many ways?!? As an abject failure of a pastor, husband and father, I have no right to stand before God until I get my act together. I’m not worthy.

Essentially, I do not ask because I don’t deserve to ask for anything.

That belief is wrong too. Because it represents only “bad news” portion of the Gospel. The Gospel is incomplete in this view of prayer.

Here’s why it’s wrong: Yes, we are unrighteous and unworthy sinners apart from Christ (Romans 3). But our standing before God is based on Christ, who is our meditator and advocate in Heaven (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). Because of the work of Christ, we have been also adopted as the children of God (Galatians 3:26-4:7). So our adopted Father in Heaven longs to hear from His children, because He cares for them like a perfect Father (Matthew 6:5-6, 7:7-11). Our Father listens to His prodigal kids, and never gives them snakes, stones or destructive presents. Therefore, God does not act like a crabby neighbor at midnight who won’t get out of bed to answer the door when his children knock on the door of Heaven (Luke 11:1-13). All because of Christ, we now have a new relationship with God.

And so the effectiveness of our prayer is based on what Christ has already done and not what we do. In his fantastic book about prayer It Happens After Prayer, H.B. Charles Jr. declares:

I believe in the exhaustive sovereignty of God, which is just a fancy way of saying that God is God. That is, God is God alone. This means that our prayers do not God under obligation to do whatever we ask. It does not matter how long you pray. It does not matter how loud you cry. It does not matter how many verses you quote or promises you claim. It does not matter how many so-called positive confessions you make. As you pray, you must remember who God is.

So much of modern Christian teaching about prayer is wrong because Christ is not the foundation. Instead, the foundation is whether we behave … Whether we get the words right … Whether we have enough faith … Whether we claim promises … Whether we hold onto our special double-blessed “prayer shawl” … Whether we financially give … Whether we spend 3+ hours in a “prayer closet” … Whether we say “thee” and “thou” … Whether we can “pray well” (whatever that means) … Whether we’re fervent and get our “prayer sweats” on … Whether the kids would just shut up enough for us to think … Whether we jump up and down and dance the Watusi … Whether I stubbornly and petulantly draw a circle around what I desire … Whether we’re our “prayer posture” is correct. As a result, our church members tend to be more focused on the gory sausage-making mechanics of prayer instead of the person of Christ. If the process of prayer is more dependent on our persona than Christ’s performance, we make a mockery of prayer. As with all of the Christ-life, prayer is truly dependent on Christ alone.

Sure, some might argue from James 5:16 (“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”) that our righteousness leads to the efficacy of prayer. However, the Gospel argues that our righteousness is wholly founded the work of Christ on the cross. If prayer were answered apart from Christ and solely based on my filthy rags of unrighteousness, I’d be doomed … And so would you. But Christ brings hope to our prayer.

Getting the whole Gospel message correct is the solid foundation of prayer. Yes, we don’t merit asking anything from God due to our own unrighteousness … But we can freely ask from God because of Christ’s imputed righteousness. The efficacy of prayer is based on Christ. Therein lies the checks and balances of prayer. Knowing that you are unworthy to approach the throne of grace but being still bid to come is thoroughly humbling (Hebrews 4:16). And so we humbly genuflect to God’s kingdom and His perfect will in prayer while still being bold enough to ask in prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for blessing as a prodigal child so beautifully loved and forgiven by His faithful Father in Heaven.

So come let us approach the throne. Our Father is waiting there to listen to us and love us.

All because of what Christ has already accomplished.

Discernment Blogging and Other Internet Witch Hunts Christians Should Repent Of

heresyDuring my first semester in Seminary, our class was discussing Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written five New York Times bestsellers on the topic of the Bible. For those unfamiliar with Ehrman, his works in a nutshell espouse that the Bible has been corrupted by Christian orthodoxy and the Bible should not be trusted. For those uninitiated to his personal life, Ehrman began his career as an Evangelical Christian but drifted towards agnosticism due to concerns regarding the nature of evil and human suffering. In the midst of our discussion, one young lady (and I say “young lady” because I went to Seminary in my late 30s) who had never uttered a word in class before stubbornly raised her hand with a twisted face of disgust. She boldly proclaimed to the class:

“Bart Ehrman was never saved. He’s going to Hell. And furthermore he’s a false teacher and heretic.”

She casually pulled out the mother of all Christian derogatory terms … the dreaded “h” word: “Heretic.” As I recall, the professor was mortified and attempted to spend the next few minutes vainly attempting to explain that she had absolutely no idea what the “h” word meant.

So exactly what does “heresy” mean? In his recent book on heresy (simply entitled Heresy), Alistair McGrath defines “heresy” as “a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it.” Leaning on Galatians 1:8 and 2 Corinthians 11:4, I would argue more specifically that “heresy” boils down to a false doctrine that espouses a different Gospel, a different Jesus or a different Holy Spirit than presented in Scripture. The history of Christianity is littered with such false teachers that the Christian body gathered to determine were out of step with the clear teaching of Scripture. The poster boy for Christian heresy is the 3rd century priest, Arius, who infamously (and quite incorrectly) espoused that Jesus was not eternal. In 325AD, a group of church leaders met in Nicaea, heard arguments for and against Arius’ doctrine and overwhelmingly ruled against Arius’ doctrine. The end result was the Nicene Creed, which is a basic statement of faith about the divinity of Jesus.

And who exactly determines what is “heresy”? Or a “false teacher”? Well … that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Denny Burk does a fantastic job discussing the Biblical marks of a “false teacher” on his blog, so there’s no use in rehashing good work already done: http://www.dennyburk.com/how-to-identify-false-teachers/

At the same time, Jude 3 adjures Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” The treasure of the Gospel message has been entrusted to all believers for safe-keeping. But how we put this principle in practice in the age of the Internet is downright ridiculous. Any believer with a dialup modem has the accessibility to start up a blog. Social media makes the world infinitely smaller, whereby any believer can directly interact with pastors and Bible teachers around the world. The anonymity of the Internet also allows believers the ability to troll, snark and shame other Christians without any accountability or filter. The combination of the accessibility, anonymity and globalization of the Internet has turned Christianity into a circular firing squad. We all shoot each other and no one gets out alive.

This week, Beth Moore posted on her blog that a twenty-two year old woman recently tweeted on her Twitter feed: “false teacher @BethMooreLPM.” Regardless of your opinion about Beth Moore’s theology, simply tweeting that someone is a “false teacher” without expressing any justifiable reasoning is pretty reckless behavior.

Unfortunately, such impetuous behavior is far from uncommon. A whole genre of Christian blogs (called discernment blogs) exist simply to root out false teachers and expose heresy within the church. I love the name “discernment blogs,” because the name actually insinuates that the bloggers are Biblically discerning and the reader really needs to get more informed. Many of these discernment bloggers pour through hours of online sermon podcasts and youtube videos from various pastors to root out false teaching. Other bloggers write thinly veiled book reviews that are really just an excuse to attack pastors that they never liked in the first place. (For example, I recently read a book review of Alistair McGrath’s book on heresy that actually argues that McGrath’s definition of heresy makes him a heretic.) Like the Mystery Incorporated gang from Scooby Doo, bloggers and podcasters are loading traps and searching for clues to sniff out the monsters lurking in the closets. The conclusion is predictably an emphatic call by that blogger for that pastor to resign from Christian ministry.

But let me re-emphasize one of these last points to let it fully sink in: Bloggers are intentionally listening to pastors’ sermons with the expressed purpose of demonizing and destroying pastors. The whole idea is really “the tail wagging the dog” … If your sole purpose is to destroy pastors, you’ll find some evidence to destroy them. If you comb through the thousands of sermons that some long-running preacher has presented over the years, you’ll probably find something with which you can disagree.

Here’s an easy challenge to prove how insane Christian discernment blogging has gotten: Search on google.com (or whatever your search engine of choice) for the name of any famous (or marginally famous) pastor or Bible teacher and the word “heretic.” I guarantee that you find some attack blog questioning that pastor’s allegiance to the Gospel or flat-out calling that pastor a “false teacher” or “heretic.” The ease which we use the term “heresy” has made the Christian blogosphere a parody of discernment.

With all of these major-league heretics out there preaching false Gospels, who is out there preaching the truth? Of course, the attack bloggers would say they’re defending the true Gospel. They’re the REALLY discerning ones. The one thing that the discernment blogs have in common is that the blogger happens to be infallibly correct and most popular Christian teachers are indefensibly wrong. It must be an incredibly paranoid and depressing world to live in where no one can see the truth as clearly as you can.

The free-for-all wrestling match of the Internet is no Council of Nicaea. Where the Council of Nicaea brought clarity and consensus, the discernment blogosphere and attack podcasts of our post-modern age only bring confusion and division. Everyone is barking, attacking and tweeting to support their own ideological camps but no one is really listening or learning anymore. The same mouths that are blessing Christ are cursing His followers and that recklessness should not be (James 3:10).

Furthermore, Jude’s commendation to “contend for the faith” was given to believers in the context of a local church body … Not to shameless busybodies hiding behind a computer screen. Whenever the New Testament epistles call for discernment of false teachers, the context is always the local church body. The book of Jude was written as a call for the local church to defend the faith against false teachers that were infiltrating the local church body (Jude 1:4). The books of 1 John and 2 Corinthians also have the same local church context (1 John 2:18-27; 2 Corinthians 11:1-6). The message is that churches should be concerned with proper doctrine in their own body of believers. Similar to the busybodies condemned in 1 Timothy 5:13, anyone more concerned about the affairs of another local church than their own congregation should be condemned. Why are you going to church to church sticking your nose in other churches’ business when your own local church body probably could use your gift of discernment?

If a local church body has an issue with false doctrine, let that church handle the matter through Biblical church discipline in the local church. Case in point: Pastor and author Perry Noble recently preached a controversial Christmas sermon that the 10 Commandments were not technically commandments. Blog after blog pounced on Noble like vultures on a fresh carcass. An apology was issued by Noble, who admitted errors in his original sermon. The blogosphere refuses to surrender and continues to parse Noble’s apology and huff and puff and puff and huff until Noble is forcibly axed from the ministry. I think Noble’s main error is that his apology statement even admits that there’s pressure for his removal from the blogosphere. Pastors have no Biblical need to answer to blogs or podcasts. Pastors are responsible to Christ and Scripture. No one appointed the blogosphere to the protector of orthodoxy in Christendom. The local church is the protector of orthodoxy.

More importantly, the main thing solely missing from all this supposed discernment is love. When we write to attack and destroy, we wind up sounding like the annoyance of noisy cymbals and crashing gongs (1 Corinthians 13:1). It doesn’t matter whether you can understand all mysteries or have all knowledge, discernment and wisdom … If you don’t have love, you are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). It’s easy to hide in virtual anonymity and attack pastors with no accountability or repercussions for the accusations made. When you have no personal relationship with and scant factual evidence about a pastor, it’s easy to issue a fatwa on their ministry, family and church. It’s harder to pray for our enemies … To look someone in the eye and have a meaningful personal interaction with those we disagree with … To be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger … To forgive as Christ has forgiven us.

To my fellow pastors, let’s ignore this garbage. Don’t write it. Don’t respond it. Don’t forward it. Don’t re-tweet it. Don’t listen to those podcasts. Don’t acknowledge it exists. God has not made you responsible to every rigid theological puritan located across the country with an axe to grind.

Update (12/31/15): I had originally offered up some links to different “discernment blogs” in this article. As my beef is with the genre of discernment blogging and not with specific bloggers, I chose to remove those links.

The Jesus Birthday Season: Why Christians Need Less War And More Worship At Christmastime

christmastimeA couple weeks ago, our church hosted a Christmas program targeted to families. As I was mingling with the numerous guests, I shook hands an exceedingly hyperactive (possibly sugar addicted) grandchild and his righteously perturbed grandmother. The furled brow, red face and scowl gave the whole dilemma away. All of a sudden, a twinkling glow came over grandma’s face as the wheels started turning in her head. She whispered in the grandchild’s ear just loud enough so that I could overhear: “You better behave … Because Santa’s watching you right now.” Then she winked at me and chuckled.

She winked. Because I’m “in on the joke.”

As a pastor, I wasn’t sure how to respond: Do I pop this kid’s Santa bubble in the middle of a church Christmas program? … Do I call out grandma to the carpet? … Do I bang my head against the wall and pull out the remainder of my hair? Alas, I went with another response instead: “Maybe we should talk more about Jesus to our kids.” Grandma gave me a shrug in response.

It’s that time of year again. And I’m not talking about Christmas (although that’s almost upon us). I’m talking about the non-stop talk radio and blogosphere diatribe about the “war on Christmas.” It’s Bill O’Reilly and other talking heads chattering on FoxNews about how it’s offensive to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There’s always sensationalistic and provocative news stories about manger scenes being removed from public property or public schools removing Jesus from music programs. This year, the hot topic on the Christian blogosphere is the New Jersey group posting atheist billboards about Christ-less Christmas across the country. So Christians pine away for the days of Linus reciting the Christmas story to Charlie Brown instead of Jesus being portrayed as the 2,000 year old virgin on the Family Guy. We’re told that we’re in the midst of a cultural war … And Christians are conceding ground to the nameless atheist horde out to maim and destroy sweet baby Jesus. Now Kirk Cameron has swooped in to save the day with his movie “Saving Christmas.” Like modern-day Don Quixotes, we’re charging at windmills with all of the bluster we can muster.

The “war on Christmas” amounts to Christians pursuing the wrong target. Sure, there are some atheist groups are out there invoking provocative lawsuits to remove manger scenes from public property and posting intentionally antagonistic billboards. However, Christ and Christmas have largely become uncoupled because of a growing lack of religious belief in our culture. The number of persons self-identifying as having no religious belief is the #2 form of “religious belief” in America … And is rapidly growing. The “nones” (as they have been dubbed by the statisticians) are a label-less sector of society: Neither formally atheistic or agnostic … Just not having any religious belief in particular. According to 2002 Pew Forum research, 19.6% of the U.S. population identified themselves as having no religious belief. And the shift is generational. One in three “millennials” (a/k/a young adults) have no religious affiliation whatsoever. And so the “war on Christmas” really is more of a collective shrugging of the shoulders of a growing non-religious generation than an actual organized military campaign with generals and infantry. Christmas is becoming less religious simply because people are becoming less religious.

The bigger problem with the “war on Christmas” is that the manner that Christians celebrate Christmas is largely no different than an increasingly irreligious culture. In 2014, U.S. consumers are projected to spend $602 billion dollars in holiday retail sales. 2014 Gallup projections indicate that average U.S. adult will spent $720 during the 2014 Christmas season. And I can assure you that Christians are out there fighting for Walmart Black Friday televisions and Old Navy $2 gift scarves alongside the “nones” and the pagans. While I understand that the tradition of gift giving might possibly have begun as an homage to the account of the magi and Christ from Matthew 2, those dudes were offering an act of worship to the newborn king, Jesus. In contrast, we’re just giving overpriced tchatchkies to grandma, sparkle embellished holiday greeting cards to friends we routinely contact on Facebook and stomach pain inducing fruitcake to our next door neighbors because … Well … I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? We’re not magi, people.

In his hilariously (and surprisingly) on-point SNL monologue, Chris Rock recently ripped the so-called “Jesus birthday season” in America: “It’s America, we commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas … Christmas is Jesus’ birthday! Now I don’t know Jesus, but from what I’ve read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth. … Jesus kept a low profile and we turned his birthday to the most materialistic day of the year … Matter of fact, we have the Jesus birthday season. It’s a whole season of materialism.” See Rock’s comments at the 5 minute mark in the video below:

In 2013, Pew Research conducted a poll regarding cultural beliefs about Christians, including Evangelicals. Here are the findings:

  • 90% of Evangelicals stated that they were gathering with family and/or friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
  • 90% of Evangelicals stated that they were exchanging Christmas gifts.
  • 87% of Evangelicals stated that they were putting up a Christmas tree.
  • 72% of Evangelicals stated that they were exchanging Christmas cards.
  • 71% of Evangelicals stated that they would attend a worship service on Christmas.

If you’re a “half glass full” person, the positive is that nearly 3/4 of Evangelicals stated to a research that they’re planning on attending worship. (And the key word there is “planning.”) The negative is that more Evangelicals place more emphasis on family gatherings, Christmas gifts, Christmas trees and even Christmas cards than corporate worship. To add insult to injury, the same poll asked Americans what they look forward to most about the Christmas season. The number one answer (at 69%) was spending time with family and friends. Religious reflection / church was a far, far distant number two (at 11%).

The truth is that Christians are generally the most hypocritical at Christmastime. We bark and whine about a couple hard-hearted atheists putting up billboards but fail to consider how our obsession with Black Friday shopping at Target is just as harmful. Wearing our finest ugly Christmas sweaters, we frenetically crisscross Christmas parties while dressing naked trees, swilling fresh eggnog and choking down gingerbread men. We’ve got on our track shoes to pick up a hot deal on the flatscreen at Wal-Mart. And we often skip worship services during December because “we’re just too crazy busy.” And so the question is begged: Do Christians really look at different from a culture obsessed with rampant consumerism between Halloween and New Years Eve?!? In the end, atheists are right to point out the inherent inconsistency of our dogmatic political correctness regarding the words “Merry Christmas” while we are snorting our addiction to materialism like cocaine. We are quick to point out the speck in non-religious folks’ eyes while we have a massive pre-light Christmas tree lodged in our own eyes.

So does this mean that we should burn our ugly Christmas sweaters, dump out our eggnog, stomp on the gingerbread men and form an occupy Target movement? No … Frankly, I love eggnog too much. Here’s the point: Christians are so quick to pounce and mug anyone daring to utter the ghastly words “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” … But our consumerism betrays our own troubling heart condition as followers of non-materialistic Jesus. We’ve fully bought into the “Jesus birthday season,” and we use Jesus’ birthday as a smokescreen for our love of the gods of Samsung, Keurig and Abercrombie. We might even love the shopping head rush of the Jesus holiday season more than we love worshipping Jesus. If Christmas is about worshipping the incarnate Jesus, then worship.

Last year, I proposed having a Christmas eve service for the first time, and received an awkwardly odd question from a senior church member in response: “Why do we have to have a worship service on Christmas Eve?” I struggled with how to respond to a question from a Christian on why we should worship Jesus on Christmas Eve. I can’t even remember what response I fumbled through. But I do remember that the church member replied: “Well … I hope the service isn’t that long.”

Right. Don’t spend too much time worshipping Jesus around Christmas. Got it … Worship less.

If you really want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, here’s a humble suggestion: Don’t neglect the church …. worship Jesus (Hebrews 10:24-25). Read the Biblical story of Jesus’ incarnation to your family. Humbly and lovingly share why you trust in Jesus with a non-believer, because Christmas is actually one time of year when people are most receptive to the Gospel message. Go participate in “genuine religion” like helping widows, orphans and the poor in their distress (James 1:27). Forgive your neighbor (Matthew 6:14-15). Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). Give to the needy without drawing attention to yourself (Matthew 6:1-4). And store up some treasure in Heaven instead of the Old Navy sweaters that moths eat and the Black and Decker tools that rust destroys (Matthew 6:19-24).

Church, you have one job at Christmas time … Let’s get it right. If Christians really want to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” we could use a lot less war and a lot more worship of the incarnate Christ.

11AM On Sunday: The Intersection of Ferguson and Church

injustice-filesI can remember the first time I heard the “n-word.”

Our family would take regular road trips to visit relatives in the “low country” of South Carolina just past the Francis Marion National Forest. I was just a young kid back then, but I remember hearing the “n-word” whispered from the mouths of older white folks at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The word seemed more shocking when it rolled effortlessly off the tongue of a church-going white Southern belle. Regardless of who said that word, the tone was always horrifyingly the same: Vulgar, condescending and hate fueled. Even as a child, I remember my breath being taken away by the venom and malice with which the word was applied: “Those (n-word) are ruining the town.” …. “I hate those (n-word) that moved in next door.” … “There was a (n-word) talking to me at the grocery store.” Segregation may have ended but the social circles remained unchanged as whites and blacks largely ate, shopped and worshipped at different places. Black BBQ joints and white BBQ joints. I vividly remember hearing several adults telling the story of a church splitting because a black family asked to join the church.

The recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri remind me that America hasn’t really progressed much over my lifetime in terms of racial reconciliation. If we need any evidence that we’re still largely segregated as a society, we need to look no further at our local churches. On March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, jr. famously preached at the National Cathedral that “we must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” Nearly 50 years later, our churches are no less segregated than during the civil rights movement. According to the 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, researcher Michael Emerson and Christian Smith determined that “ninety percent of all American churches are 90 percent racially homogenous.”

The segregation in our Christian worship is often tied to a dark denominational history. The dirty open secret of the Southern Baptist Convention (my denomination) is that its formation was largely based on a pro-slavery position in the 1840s. The SBC also held a pro-segregation position and opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The first steps of racial reconciliation amidst the SBC were only recently taken in 1995 when the SBC formally renounced slavery and segregation. Only 150 years too late. The Southern Baptist hope (including mine) is that the election of Rev. Fred Luter, Jr. as the first black SBC president represents a historic turnaround from its segregationist past. Nonetheless, a 2002 report of the SBC North American Mission Board determined that the typical Southern Baptist worshipper overwhelmingly remains a middle class white person. For all of the discussion of racial reconciliation in our denomination, our Southern Baptist churches are only 4% black. The same 2002 NAMB report takes the train to obvious town when it matter-of-factly states that “Southern Baptists are less diverse than worshipers as a whole and less diverse than the U.S. population.”

Even worse, our churches die over issues of race. In Thom Rainer’s recent book on church death, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, the researchers determined that one of the principal reasons why churches die is “the church refused to look like the community.” As a pastor, I’ve heard this tale more times than I can count: A formerly suburban white church becomes surrounded by a racially diverse community and struggles to survive. When I lived in Fort Worth, TX, I served on staff of a church wrestling with this very issue. A church split served as the impetus for the church’s formation. The largely white church bought an empty field in the suburbs to erect a church building. Over time, the other empty fields around the church were filled with largely hispanic neighborhoods, middle schools and multi-lingual shopping centers. One by one, the older white founders of the church began to leave the church. After hitting rock bottom, the church began to make a turnaround by reaching out to the multi-racial middle class families surrounding the church. Unfortunately, the church ultimately died for a variety of reasons. This church is not an oddity … And the fact that churches are shuttering the doors and turning off the lights simply because the racial composition of the community changes is telling.

Our consumer attitude towards church life only reinforces the racial divide in our churches. Most reliable SBC research will tell us that the unchurched choose things like the pastor, doctrine and church friendliness when picking out a new church to attend. But most research doesn’t ask what we already intuitively know: Most people choose to live in neighborhoods and worship at churches that racially look exactly like them (again, see the 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America). People want churches that reflect their neighborhoods and personal preferences. In the end, that’s what the recent “worship wars” that plagued our Southern Baptist churches were really all about. “Worship wars” was really about homogeneity in tradition and not really about music.

To a large extent, I think that most white Christians are comfortably numb to how racially segregated our churches are. We don’t bat an eye at the notion of separate black and white churches, because that’s just how things are. We don’t find it odd that our church pews look exactly like us. Or that two different worship services two blocks away look completely different. Or that we even use different terminology about worship. When I was called to serve at my current church, an African American friend told my wife: “That’s great! You’re going to be the ‘first lady’!” Neither one of us had any idea what she was talking about. We discovered that we even had two completely different vocabularies for Christian worship.

I ran across an article yesterday on AL.com discussing how a predominantly white Southern Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama had hired a black pastor to lead them. The headline of the article was (and I quote): “A black preacher at a white Southern Baptist Church — surprising, but God’s leading, Southside leaders say.” The word “surprising” made me cringe. The fact that the content of this article is even newsworthy seems crazy.

As long as we are planting, revitalizing, re-planting and attending churches that are racially homogeneous, I wonder whether we are really mirroring Paul’s mindset in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And if we’re taking Galatians 3:28 to heart, racial diversity in our churches should not be treated like a curiosity piece that we press our noses to the glass to take a good look at. Just thinking out loud here: If we really believe that we are one in Christ Jesus, do our churches reflect that belief? If the Heavenly choir will be composed of members of every tribe and every tongue, maybe our churches should reflect that Heavenly reality. As long as “all are precious in His sight” is treated as the juvenile lyric of a children’s song instead of a core Biblical truth, our churches have more work to do.

In 2010, I was called to pastor a church in Martinsville, Indiana. When I was called to service, I had no idea that the town had a reputation for being a “sundown town,” meaning a town unwelcome to blacks after dark. The reputation was largely reinforced by the 1968 death of Carol Jenkins, a black door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman murdered on the streets of Martinsville with a screwdriver. In 1998, ugly racial epithets and violence in a local basketball game between Bloomington and Martinsville received national attention in Sports Illustrated. In 2002, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote an extensive report of the legacy of racism in our town. Most residents balk at the “sundown town” label as an unfair stereotype. If it’s simply a bad reputation, somewhere in time the reputation stuck. Our town of 11,500 people only had 24 black residents according to the 2010 U.S. census. We are an island in the midst of a sea of growing racial diversity in Indiana.

I don’t want our community to be an island. And I’m proud that our church has racial diversity in its attendance. But I’m not satisfied. My hope and prayer is for more racial diversity in our congregation. And my prayer is that believers throughout Martinsville will stand up to oppose any known racism in our community:

Too often, I think that white churches take the passive approach to racial reconciliation: “If a black person walked through the doors of the church, we’d treat him no differently than anyone else.” Well, that’s swell. How are we actively seeking to promote racial diversity in our churches? If we’re just waiting for diversity to walk through our foyer and blend in to our stale pipe organ hymns, diversity in our white churches will probably never happen. But if we seriously consider Christ’s commands to go out of our literal and figurative sanctuaries to make disciples and to lay down our man-made worship traditions at the foot of the cross, diversity will flourish because the heart of every man needs Christ.

My prayer is a new discourse about race will lead to a renewed burden for racial diversity to begin in our local churches. I am burdened for mine.

Things Might Get Worse

antique-brickOld homes needs a lot of work.

When I first moved to Martinsville, IN to serve as pastor of Calvary Heights Baptist Church, I bought a beautiful home built in the 1930s. My wife and I had always wanted to live in a historic home, and the wrought iron fixtures, ornate woodwork, Greek Revival architecture and whirlpool jet bathtub seemed to call us home. We gleefully took selfies as we got the keys to our “dream home.” Fools rush in.

And then the second floor shower collapsed. We found black mold in a ceiling crawlspace. I had to file my 1st homeowners insurance claim. The plaster walls began to crack throughout the house. The tile floors became cracked and unglued. All of the windows needed to be replaced to alleviate astronomical heating bills. It was like an expensive game of whack-a-mole. Goodbye dream home … Hello money pit. The growing list of problems left us worried, stressed and frayed around the edges.

Even worse: Just when we thought everything was fixed, things always seemed to get worse.

This week, I’ve sat across a dinner table from a ton of hurting and stressed church members with a similar life story: Everything seemed to be perfect … Then things progressively got worse and worse. The stories are varied but the pain is vividly similar: Children have rebelled against their parents and their faith … Personal finances have estranged family members … Christ-like hospitality resulted in a repeated kick in the teeth … Long dormant disease has returned … The joy of pregnancy gave way to the sorry of tragedy. Over time, the overwhelming discouragement leads to estrangement from faith in God and the community of faith. And the pertinent questions get asked: Where is God in the midst of all this mess? How long until God brings me up from out of the pit? Why is God allowing my suffering?

So here’s my pastoral encouragement to those who are hurting: Things might get worse.

Let me explain …

The prophet Habakkuk lived in a time of tremendous violence and corruption. His king (Jehoiakim) was a puppet ruler, who heavily taxed the people to pray tribute in gold and silver to a foreign country (2 Kings 23:31-37). The king killed one of God’s prophets, Uriah, and threatened to kill anyone else speaking out on behalf of the Lord (Jeremiah 26:20-23). The religious leaders were largely corrupted and adulterous. Virtually no one sought God. Habakkuk’s world was horrible beyond imagination.

In the midst of this tumult, Habakkuk complains to God, seeking answers from the Almighty: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). In a fit of tremendous boldness and honesty, Habakkuk asks God how long he’s got to wait for help. The wicked are getting rich and building fancy new homes while God’s people are murdered. He’s drowning in a sea of sorrow and waiting for the Lord to stick out a hand of rescue.

Here’s where Habakkuk’s story gets interesting. God’s reply to Habakkuk was thus: “Buckle up … Things are about to get worse.” God was going to send the Babylonians to conquer Judah and send God’s people into exile.

Probably not the answer that Habakkuk was expecting.

For those of us crying out to God for help, we don’t expect the renewal or continuation of suffering either. God sends cancer into remission … Then the disease reappears without warning. God rescues a pregnancy … Then sends the next one into a world of trouble. Our relationship with our kids is healed … Then another fallout implodes the reconciliation. Marriages get renewed … Then vows crumble. The truism of life is that sometimes things do get worse … Evil seems to have the upper hand … Violent and wicked people seem to prosper … Righteous people suffer. In Job 20, the suffering Job tells his petulant “friends” that plenty of wicked people tell God to buzz off and wind up building mansions … And plenty of Godly people wind up wallowing in pain after losing it all. Our suffering and our morality often have no intimate relationship.

But back to Habakkuk … God also reminds Habakkuk that our hope is found over the long distance marathon of faith instead of the short sprints of personal fulfillment. God declares in Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous will live by faith.” God may allow our earthly suffering to get worse, but – in faith – we believe that God will not allow our suffering to last forever. Our faith and hope lies in the eternal riches of Christ, who is renewing and restoring the brokenness of His creation and will one day return to set all of creation beautiful again. We set our eyes to the distant horizon, where our help, Christ, has not forgotten about our pain and is coming to rescue His people. No more pain, sorrow, tears, death, cancer, disease, sin or pain is coming but is not yet here. God is healing us but our healing is not yet complete. So we tie ourselves to mast of hope and ride out the storms until the calm of eternity calls us home.

Things might get worse … But God will not allow our suffering to last forever.

The problem of pain in this life is thorny and often over-simplified in an offensive manner. But the question is valid and must be cried out to the gates of Heaven: “Why pain?” Well … Why not? God never promises perfection in this broken lifetime, so it’s strange to expect to find it here. Once we accept that this life might get immeasurably worse, we can then turn to fix our eyes on true eternal hope in Christ. Our conclusion of the matter must be similar to Habakkuk’s: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of the deer; He enables me to go on the heights” (Habakkuk 3:19). In the minefield of suffering, our hope in Christ and the brilliant light of eternity give us strength to carry on. Even if our situations and circumstances get immeasurably worse, the eternal hope of Christ cannot be stolen away from us. Joy and peace are only found in trusting God regardless of the circumstances (Philippians 4). God will enable us to go to the heights of Heaven.

This week, we sold our “dream home.” As I drove away from our home for the last time, I felt like a pallet of bricks was being lifted from my chest and I could finally inflate my lungs fully. The burden was lifted. I was instantly reminded of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Friend, find hope in the day when every weight will be lifted from our lives. One day, these temporary weights and afflictions that burden us will be cast aside in the light of eternity. You might feel like you’re trapped in a burning building crumbling quickly to the ground … But God is in the process of building up our inner selves daily preparing us for glory. We look not to the horror, confusion and consternation that blur our vision around us … We look to the hope in Christ unseen and not fully realized. I look forward to that day when Christ lifts every brick and burden from my chest and I can truly breathe for the first time. And my first words will be a shout for joy to the Lord because He has overcome.

Whatever is weighting you down right now, it’s momentous and should not be minimized … But know that it’s only momentary in light of eternity. When we’ve been there 10,000 upon 10,000 years worshipping the risen Christ, whatever pain we endured during these 100 years will seem like the blinking of an eye or the flapping of hummingbird wings.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

#preacherfail: When Your Preacher Fails … And You’re The Preacher

epicfailThe highlight of yesterday’s worship service was a toddler farting during prayer time. A toddler dropping an accidental boom-boom during worship is always hilarious.

The lowlight of yesterday’s worship service was definitely the awful preaching. The pastor’s delivery was bad … The illustrations were non-existent … The knowledge of the source material was laughable. Even worse, the pastor even forgot to give an invitation at the end of the sermon!

Unfortunately, I was the one doing the preaching.

One toddler stunk up the auditorium … I stunk up the pulpit.

Sunday morning was a total #preacherfail. It’s been one of those crazy busy weeks in the life of the pastor that they don’t train you for in Seminary: Hospital and nursing home visits on Monday … Applying for church loan on Tuesday … Leading a training session on Wednesday … Plastering and painting my house in preparation of small group in my house on Thursday AM … Small group in my home on Thursday PM … Church yard sale on Friday … Family time planned months in advance on Saturday … Multiple crises and mega interpersonal church drama in between. A new conflict in the church kept me awake half the night on Friday. My daughter is asking to spend more time with me, and I worry about how to make her a priority instead of “squeezing her in.” The sermon wasn’t quite a “Saturday night special” (which is an unfortunate pastoral euphemism for hastily slapped together sermon written in the wee hours of Saturday night / Sunday morning), but it was about as close as I’ve ever come. In the midst of everything else, I’m having somewhat of an existential crisis about the quality of my preaching and why virtually no one responds to it. So the perfect storm of anxiety, stress, exhaustion and lack of confidence blew across the bow of the pulpit like a hurricane force wind.

Like many fresh-out-the-Seminary-bubble pastors, I bought into the false notion that a successful response to a sermon is to have a magical Billy Graham / Acts 2 moment where the masses rush to the altar in repentance after a good rhetorical drubbing from the Word. When you’ve bought into this measure of success, zero response to your preaching on a regular basis can be heartbreaking. And then the Monday morning quarterbacking questions inevitably ensue: “What am I doing wrong? … Did I not pray hard enough? … Was my delivery bad? … Maybe I wasn’t explicit enough with the main idea.” You wind up pulling all of your self-help preaching books off the shelf to highlight things to fix next week. Worst of all, I tend to get caught up in the sin of comparison, where I glance at other pastor’s successes and start to think I’m a failure. And so my wife winds up spending her Sunday afternoon talking me off the ledge a couple times a year. The great pastoral hope of early Sunday morning usually gives way to the Sunday afternoon desire to enter the witness protection program. You wind up like the guy in the suit from the Talking Heads video asking over and over: “How did I get here?”

 

talkingheadsAn extremely famous unknown person once said: “There is only one God. You are not Him.”

As a pastor, the subtle temptation is to attempt to take on the divine eternal attributes of God. If only I had the proper rhetorical skill, verbal hook and three points that alliterate, then sinners would be moved to repentance. If only I had edited my sermon better and been clear in the main idea, then my church would moved to evangelize their neighborhoods. If only I hadn’t whiffed that illustration, then that couple might finally start thinking seriously about joining a small group. If only I had a really moving conclusion, then that family might be moved to join the church. I know it’s complete foolishness but I find myself thinking in these insane manners sometimes. In the process, I put a lot of pressure on myself foolishly attempting to be God and to do only what God can do. Only the intersection of the Holy Spirit and the Word can move sinners to true repentance … Only God can move believers to grow in obedience to the Word … Only God can stimulate spiritual growth.

Honestly, I hate making the admission that I cannot accomplish what God can. I am a total perfectionist and pride myself in being able to solve my own problems without anyone else’s help, thank you very much. My default response is “What can I do to fix things?” … Instead of “How can I surrender this problem over to God and trust that He will provide?” Instinctively, I know this streak of self-reliance is sinful / wrong, but it’s my fall back position. The whole “Be faithful and let God take care the results” thing is far easier said than done.

I am often reminded that the original disciples fantastically failed in ministry too. In Matthew 17:14-21, we witness Jesus succeeding where the disciples failed in exorcising a demon from a child. When the group had gotten away from the crowds, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast (the demon) out?” The implication of the question is that the disciples are asking what they did wrong: “Do we need to work harder? … Do we need to do better preparation? … Do we need to play some quiet worship jams to set the mood for the exorcism? … Did we not read the correct church growth manual? … Do we need three points and a poem next time?” Interestingly, Jesus replies: “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

The answer is faith.

The answer is trusting that God can accomplish what is seemingly impossible and relying less on your own power and ability.

I once served under a pastor who burned out fast and imploded in slow motion over a course of several months. From a public blow-up over a baptismal unfilled to a cussing out of the worship leader mid-service, the signs were on display for the everyone for all to see. Sermons become more spiteful and hateful and less loving and caring. Everyone in the congregation knew that the end was near, but no one really know what to say. The problem was the pastor put all of the pressure of the success or failure of the church on himself. And no one – including me – had the guts to tell the pastor that it’s OK to fail. I wonder how much healthier that church (and all of our churches) would be if the congregation just spoke up and told the pastor that they don’t expect him to be perfect. Ironically, I now find myself in similar shoes, blaming myself for every failure, and not giving myself permission to fail. Similar to the disciples in Matthew 17, I need to understand the answer is more faith and less methodology and minutia. Success is simply faithfulness.

There will be more #preacherfail.

If you are reading this blog and serve in any capacity in ministry from ministry leader to Sunday School teacher to deacon to worship leader, you will have your Sundays of #leaderfail, #teacherfail, #deaconfail and #worshipleaderfail too.

We’re not God and we have to accept it. We cannot accomplish what only God can do under His own power. We simply have to plan, prepare and give God our best, and trust God to accomplish the things of God. I don’t particularly like this concept, but – like broccoli – I’m working on it becoming more palatable.

I also need to remind myself of the following:

I am still a child of the King.

I am still more loved by Christ more than I possibly understand or deserve.

I still have the riches of a glorious hope and inheritance in Christ.

And when I fail, nothing will change these immutable facts.

So it’s Monday morning. It’s time to start preparing for next Sunday.

 

Open Letter From A Pastor

Easter is coming. The day now primarily known for faux-grass filled baskets of rabbit and egg shaped chocolates … fresh-off-the-rack kids suits and pastel-colored dresses that lead to awkward family photos … and Discovery Channel documentary marathons debunking the Bible. It’s also the day that many people get up the courage to make an obligatory annual appearance at church. Many of you reading this post might be preparing your family for the annual church visit … maybe even my church. And I know that many of you are nervous. Some of you are concerned that you’ll be so bored that you’ll count the ceiling tiles. Some of you might be worried that some holier-than-thou SuperChristian might poke you in the chest and tell you that you’re a rotten sinner. You might just be frightened about “fitting in” at church (like making sure you’re not standing when you’re supposed to be sitting down or being the only person wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt). Some of you are dreading the whole experience because you think that Christianity is as dead as a dinosaur.

Before you come to church on Easter Sunday, I’d like to share with you a couple things you might want to know.

First, we desperately want you to be there. We want every one of you to experience the joy that comes from having a true relationship with Christ. In Jesus Christ, we experience what it means to be truly loved and accepted. Our faults, failures and sins have been fully forgiven once for all through Jesus’ death on the cross. We’re adopted into a close knit family of believers who support one another and carry one another’s burdens. We serve alongside one another … rejoice with one another … weep and mourn with one another. We want you to experience the same grace, love, forgiveness and family that we’ve experienced. We’re disappointed and discouraged when you reject that opportunity, because we know that the joy and hope found in Christ will improve your life not only now … but for all of eternity. We don’t hate you for sleeping in on Sunday mornings or watching football and NASCAR instead. But we do believe that it’s your incredible loss.

Second, we’re not perfect. In fact, our church is a bunch of sinners. Literally. Our church is hospital where Christ is healing the wounded … our church not a wax museum for saints. The only perfect person that ever lived was Jesus Christ … and we’re not Him. Unfortunately, you might catch us accidentally cussing in public, getting angry with others, failing to forgive or committing any number of other sins. At times, we may fail to display the gospel by failing to feed the poor, withholding goods from the needy or being unwilling to share the gospel message of grace. We’re sorry for these things and ask your forgiveness. Don’t walk in the door of the church building believing that anyone in the room is perfect … including the pastor or church leadership. We’re called to imitate Christ, disciple others and walk with the Holy Spirit. We love Jesus and we’re following the example of our Savior. But this side of Heaven, no one in our church will ever be perfect. Please don’t put unrealistic expectations on any of us.

Third, our goal is to worship Jesus and proclaim the gospel. We believe that all people are sinful and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Based on our rebellion against God, we believe that every single person on earth deserves the punishment of death and the wrath of God (Romans 6:23). While we were still rebellious sinners, God demonstrated His love for us by sending Jesus to bear the punishment for our sins (instead of us) (Romans 5:8). If anyone turns away from their sins and believes that Jesus is Lord, they will receive the gracious gift of eternal life from God (Romans 10:13). Because of this grace, you will see us unabashedly worshipping Jesus Christ, who defeated death forevermore and rose from the grave. If our worship (i.e. singing; raising hands; hooping and hollering) seems goofy and foolish to you, I will warn you … we can and will get even more undignified. If the core message of the gospel offends or challenges you, we will offer no apologies … we believe that Jesus has shown us the truth, which has set us free. We’re not ashamed of the gospel – the message of our salvation – and Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who offers that message of hope to all … including you.

Most importantly, we want you to live like Christ has been risen from the grave. If Jesus really did rise from the grave and conquer death itself, then everything in your life must change.  If Christ is risen from the grave, we can no longer eat, drink and be merry with a carpe diem attitude … thinking that the only thing that awaits us at the end of this life is a giant dirt nap. We must live for the eternity that God promises to us instead of petty idols that used to consume us. We must lay our sins, pride, faults and failures at the foot of the cross. The grandeur of His desires, His needs and His wants will quickly surpass every little thing troubling us. If Christ is risen from the grave, then believers have the blessed assurance that He will rise us from the grave as well. We no longer fear death. We long for the day that we’ll lay our crowns at the feet of Christ and worship Him crying out: “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the Lord God almighty!”

But here’s one more item: If Christ is risen from the grave, then we cannot simply give Him lip service one day a year and ignore Him the rest of the year.

Imagine you’re walking across a crosswalk with your spouse (or boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other). A fully-loaded 16-wheeler comes barreling through the intersection … ignoring all stop signs. While you don’t fully catch sight of the runaway vehicle, your spouse boldly pushes you out of the way and gets crushed by the vehicle … instantaneously dying. Out of love, your spouse saved you from a horrible fate and paid for it with her life. How would you honor your spouse? Would you commemorate that sacrifice one day per year and ignore that gift the remaining 364 days of the year? Or would you spend every moment thanking that person for the gracious gift of life that they have given to you?

How do you honor Jesus Christ … the one who has saved you from sin, wrath and death? Do you honor him with one day? Or every day? I choose to spend the rest of my life loving, honoring and serving my Jesus, who demonstrated how much he loved me by being brutally executed on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago. I hope you will too. As the great Isaac Watts hymn proclaims: “Love so amazing … so divine … demands my soul, my life, my all!”

Live like Christ has been risen from the grave. Not just one day … but every day.

See you Sunday …

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Oddities

I love to watch the TV show Oddities, which follows the Obscura Antiques & Oddities store in Manhattan. The store specializes in unique and downright bizarre merchandise: Art made out of nail clippings … Teddy bears made of belly button lint … Paintings made entirely out of human hair … Taxidermy fighting cats …Mummified cats … Exploded human skulls … Electric chairs. Weird stuff that folks with quirky tastes find perfectly wonderful … And shell out lots of money to obtain.

Based on the way that Christians tend to describe John the Baptist, you’d think that he’d fit right in as an “oddity” … on the same shelf with teddy bears made of belly button lint. Let’s face it … most sermons and Bible studies on John the Baptist tend to start with: “That John the Baptist was one seriously weird dude!” Case in point, Mark Driscoll’s Vintage Jesus study describes John the Baptist as Jesus’ home school cousin complete with an afro and jedi robes. Seriously. It seems you can’t have a sermon or Bible Study on John without beginning with one of the following jokes:

  1. You wouldn’t bring John the Baptist home to have dinner your mother!
  2. John the Baptist is so crazy he makes pi seems rational.
  3. Couldn’t you just picture all those bug legs getting stuck in John’s teeth?!?
  4. I bet that camel hair isn’t itchy as my 3-piece polyester suit.

Based on the way that we tend to describe John the Baptist, you would think that Clark Griswald’s Cousin Eddie was based on the life of John. And – yes – I’ve been guilty of describing John as being one straightjacket away from the looney bin in the past. And I need to repent of it.

Haven’t we done a disservice to focus so much on John’s more “eccentric” aspects? Who is to say what is “normal,” “eccentric” or “weird” in the eyes of God anyway?

God called plenty of Old Testament prophets to do out-of-the ordinary stuff and they aren’t automatically slapped with the “weird” label. Take Ezekiel for example. In Ezekiel 4, God called the prophet to lie on his side for 390 days and cook with human poop. Another case in point: God called Hosea to marry a prostitute and give his three children offensive names (who wouldn’t want to name their child “No More Mercy” or “Not My People”). How about Jeremiah? … God told Jeremiah to walk around with a yoke meant for two large oxen. Jonah? … You know the bit about the large fish. Daniel and Zechariah had some pretty trippy visions.

Yes … God often called His prophets to do extreme things to demonstrate to hard-hearted, unrepentant people that they needed to repent and turn to God. Sharp tools are often needed to pierce hard hearts. And John was one of God’s sharp (and effective) tools.

There is also practical motivation behind why John did the things that he did. Namely that John was impoverished and lived off the land. Being an itinerant mega church preacher didn’t make much money in John’s time. John was serious about preaching a message of repentance to the nation of Israel and preparing the way for the Messiah and His kingdom. That didn’t leave much time for that bi-vocational plumbing career. So John (and probably John’s followers) did what they needed to do to survive. When you’re doing what it takes to survive, camel hair clothes might be delightful and locusts might be delicious. To this point, many modern bedouins who live where John preached still eat locusts as a common cuisine. When you’re hungry, you eat what’s available.

If anything, John’s diet and personal habits reflected his dedication to the kingdom of God. His personal needs took a backseat to the elevation of God’s glory. Unfortunately, living in poverty and forsaking worldly possessions for the sake of God’s calling also seems strange to many Christians.

Our view of what it means to follow Christ has become way too safe and average. In Luke 9:23, Jesus describes the discipleship process as follows: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We’ve minimized the punch of this verse. The cross was one of the most horrific means of execution and torture ever devised. Taking up one’s cross means a willingness to deny one’s personal needs and suffer as Christ suffered. The language of discipleship is always couched in the language of servitude and sacrifice for the sake of Jesus. Instead, we throw around phrases like “everyone’s got their cross to bear” (which is not true) and identify our minor personal issues (ranging from tolerating difficult people to sitting through boring worship services) as sacrifices for the calling of Christ.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve lost all connection to having an extraordinary faith. In fact, we’ve lowered the bar as far as what is extraordinary. I recently read a church growth article where the suggestion that church members actually take the time to greet one visitor in a worship service was proclaimed as a “radical idea.” What is the standard for being “radical”? When “doing something crazy for God” now means posting “I love Jesus!” on Facebook, then the concepts of “crazy” and “normal” in our church culture have seriously gotten out of hand. The sad fact is that everyone’s up for “doing something crazy for God” when sacrifice isn’t really required. When the sign-up sheet for living in abject poverty in a different culture for the sake of Jesus goes around in church, very few people are signing up anymore.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that everyone is called to preach or be a missionary. Not everyone is called to vocational ministry. What I’m saying is this: The standard for attempting extraordinary things for God with extraordinary faith needs to be raised from the current dregs of mediocrity. In the words of the great Baptist missionary William Carey, we need more Christians willing to “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

Have you ever passed up the “weird” to keep being “normal”? I certainly have. Back in college, I had the opportunity to join a Christian club. I was excited about the potential for fellowship with this group … Until I learned that a requirement of the club was going to door-to-door in my dorm to share with people about Jesus. When I found that out, I went incommunicado with the club. I avoided the club members like they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re probably still wondering why I never showed up to the meetings. But my fear was being perceived as “abnormal” or “weird” by my peers. I let my desire to fit in overwhelm my desire to be obedient Christ. As I reflect back on this event, I’m sorrowful in thinking about who didn’t hear about Jesus because I was merely worried about being “normal.”

John’s lifestyle wasn’t “weird” … It reflected his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God. It should be criminal to label someone who is willing to sacrifice everything for Jesus as a nutcase! To follow Christ means that His needs are greater than my needs, His desires are greater than my desire and His plans are greater than my plans. To follow Christ means minimizing us and maximizing the glory of God. To follow Christ means taking up your cross and imitating our Savior … Even if it means we surrender our lives.

Maybe John the Baptist – this guy who sacrificed it all for the Messiah – would look at us in our Starbucks-friendly, rock and roll driven, theatre seating, 10-minute message, comfy worship services and say: “You guys are the weird ones.”

Stop trying to be so normal and do something weird for Jesus.

 

The 2012 No Smack Talk Challenge

I bet you couldn’t guess what my New Year’s Resolution is. No … it’s not somehow contorting and twisting our pre-lit Christmas tree back into its original box (my wife already did that … thanks, honey!). No … It’s not playing another off-the-hook game of Mouse Trap with my daughter. No … It’s not seeing the reunited Van Halen in concert in 2012 (Sammy Hagar is a better lead singer for Van Halen than David Lee Roth … discuss). That right … Getting back to blogging and doing it consistently.

But here’s the deal: The purpose of the blog is to encourage my church as well as other Christ-followers and share how Jesus continues to work in my life. If you’re reading this blog in the hopes of starting some esoteric theological debate with a real, live pastor, go to another website. There’s plenty of websites clogging the Internet for folks who want to strictly argue for arguments’ sake about the merits of neo-Calvinism or mid-tribulation, pre-wrath, postmodern, post-partum, pre-millenniallism (if that’s what you’re into).

Everybody ready for blog #1? OK … Here we go …

It’s already three days past New Years so probably most of you have already given up on your New Year’s Resolutions by now. The gym is so overrated anyway. So here’s a new resolution for 2012 that I want to challenge you to do with me this year.

I’ve been convicted lately about the number of New Testament passages about wholesome speech and thinking about how they apply to social media. Normally, most of us think about speech and immediately think about the words that come out of our mouths. But vocal speech is just one form of communication that we use. Sign language, facial expressions and the offensive gesture someone made to the driver who cut him off on the Interstate are also communication (yes … I saw you). Most importantly, our tweets, status updates, likes and comments are just another form of communication spoken into the somewhat empty void of cyberspace.

The source of bad communication is our rotten hearts. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus states: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, rotten communication comes from a rotten heart. If social media is just another form of speech or communication, then couldn’t we also hear Jesus also saying: “Out of the abundance of the heart, your fingers tweet.” The first step to better communication is having a relationship with Jesus Christ and having Him change your heart and life. Hopefully you’ve taken that step. If not, contact me at the church … I’d love to share with you how Jesus can change your heart.

To those Christ-followers seeking to better imitate Christ, let me offer to you a unique challenge for 2012. Let’s try to transform our use of social media to be more Christ-like this year. We’re going to do it by applying several Bible verses about speech to our use of social media:

1.     Stop The Smack: Ephesians 4:29 begins, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths …” So many status updates and tweets sound like smack talk from a really bad WWE match. For example … “That guy at Wal-Mart was such an irrational jerk” … “So sick and tired of stupid people that drive so slow” … “Someday someone will get you for all the wrong you’ve done to me. It’s karma! One day you’ll have to meet Jesus!” Would Jesus tear others down to make Himself look better? (Or for that matter, would Jesus really endorse karma or revenge?)

The Challenge #1: Stop all posts or status updates that insult or tear others down. Don’t encourage others to do the same, so don’t press the “like” button on any posts or status updates that insult or tear others down.

2.     Encourage Others: Have you noticed how many verses talk about building up other believers through encouragement? Check out the aforementioned Ephesians 4:29 then proceed to Romans 14:19, Romans 15:2 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. I’ll wait … Look them up …

The Challenge #2: Write an e-mail, message or status update of encouragement to others on a weekly basis.

3.     Give Thanks Instead of Cussing: Ephesians 5:4 states, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” This is a serious problem for many of us who remember using a “swear jar” back in college. The sophomoric communal nature of social media somehow corrupts us into sinking back into the darkness instead rejoicing in the light of Christ. We wind up sharing and liking that crude joke or image on Facebook. We cuss in text-speak. (Are you really fooling anyone by typing the abbreviated “wtf” or “btfu” instead of the full words?) Most importantly, hours and weeks of our limited time are wasted and procrastinated instead of giving glory back to God.

The Challenge #3: Write a post or status update of thanks to God on a weekly basis. Think about whether Jesus Christ and His church are edified by a post or status update before you type it, share it or like it.

4.     Stop Grumbling: Here’s the big, bad wolf of all social media problems for believers. Philippians 2:14 states, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” The reprimand for believers to quit “grumbling” again shows up again in James 5:9 and 1 Peter 4:9. The Greek word for “grumbling” means to murmur or mutter in a form of secret debate. Grumbling means to secretly complain to whoever will listen about your issues instead of directly speaking to the source of your issues. In John 6:61, the disciples “grumble” secretly about Jesus instead of directly talking to Jesus about their disagreement. The culture of social media practically thrives upon grumbling, and many believers fall into this trap. For example … “People should learn how to drive better” … “That woman in the grocery store should learn how to manage her kids” … “My co-workers are so annoying” … “My life stinks so bad right now.” Many grumblers flock to social media to get a quick dose of sympathy/empathy, BUT … grumbling does not address the source of your issues and does nada to further the cause of Christ. Grumbling may make you emotionally feel better in the short run but doesn’t solve any of your problems in the long run.

The Challenge #4: Quit using Facebook and Twitter as sounding boards for grumbling. If you’ve got a problem with someone, speak the truth in love directly to that person without getting other random people involved throughout the Internet.

I hope you’ll take this four-part challenge with me this year (and beyond). If you’re interested in taking this challenge, please contact me to let me know. I’d love to keep you accountable as you also hold me accountable. Let’s redeem Facebook and Twitter (and myspace if you’ve mysteriously been caught in some sort of black hole / time warp thing back to 2005) to the cause of Christ this year!

By His grace alone,

Pastor Matt Higgins

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