Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reply to the Paper: “Do not be conformed”

I wrote the following essay in replay to a paper a good friend of mine wrote.

Why do people who claim to be Christians decide to participate and support things that seem to be contradictory to the lifestyle they profess? The answer, from the paper, suggests that you believe it is because our society is becoming more and more tolerant. I would agree with this in some regards. We are defiantly living in a Post-Modern Era, which means that people, as the Newsweek article you quote suggests, are more concerned that people have freedom than they are about enforcing moral values. Freedom has become the most important moral value and the only value that is enforced across the board. This means that our generation is becoming more tolerant. This impacts Christians greatly because the Christian faith has traditionally taught that God is concerned with moral behaviors.

It seems to me that Christians have adapted to Post Modernism in two ways. (1) On one extreme, we have decided that the best way to address this problem is to put people in places where they can force people to "be moral." If we can change laws and put new laws in place that represent Christianity and the morals that we teach, society will be better off. An example of this would be to support legislation that outlawed Homosexual unions or banned certain television shows from being aired because they were outside the bounds of Christian morality. (2) On the other extreme, we have decided that the Bible speaks less about moral issues and more about social justice issues, so the thought is that we need to stop pushing our morals down other people's throat and make sure that we fight for "justice for all." An example of this would be that we ought to legalize Homosexual Marriage because by preventing gay couples from marrying, we are infringing on their human right to be happy.

In both cases, I think we are taking away from the impact and influence the church has on society. In both views, faith becomes irrelevant. In the first perspective, we isolate outsiders from the grace that God offers to all persons. In the second perspective, our faith becomes so watered down, that Christianity and the views expressed by society become one in the same.

I truly believe the solution comes when we address the moral failures with the grace and love of Jesus. The church will become relevant again when we rediscover God's desire is to reach every person with love and grace though Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. We do not need to change legislation for the church to be relevant, we must show that Jesus is enough to change hearts and lives. In saying this, Jesus does teach us that there are some ways of living that are harmful and destructive. Following the way that Jesus taught us to live will be what brings true "life" to our lives.





Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Review “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile” by Rob Bell and Don Golden

Rob Bell is a very popular writer and speaker. He is well known for his Pneuma videos and his two books, Velvet Elvis and Sex God. I have not watched many of the Pneuma videos, but his other two books are worth reading. For some Christians, Rob Bell boarders on heresy and for others, he is a true prophet. I am not familiar with Don Golden except that he was the lead pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church, which is the church Rob Bell started.

Jesus Wants to Save Christians is an intriguing title and makes us ask the question, "From what?" Bell and Golden to a good job of not answering the question in the first chapter and making the reader wait to the epilogue. They do a nice job of presenting "Biblical Theology" in which they draw on some themes that they see woven throughout the whole Bible, beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation. The gist of the book, without giving too much away, is that the Exodus story of exile, redemption, and covenant play itself out over and over again in the bible. The Israelites were in slavery in Egypt to a foreign power and they cried out. God heard their cry and delivered them from slavery so that they could be God's representatives in the world. Several hundred years later, Israel begins to be the new Egypt and when God hears the cry of the people, Israel goes into exile. You can see the cyclical pattern. Bell and Golden use this as a way of saying America has become an empire, like Egypt because we have failed to hear the cry of the needy around the world. Christians are called to be Christ's representative in the world and we need to listen and respond. We need to be saved from exile and be what God intended us to be.

I think the topics expressed in this book have been beaten to death in the last few years. Brian McLaren wrote a similar book called Everything Must Change which I felt was a little better and much more in depth. However, I do believe this book and Rob Bell are important to Christianity today. Rob Bell reaches a unique group of people and I find that he "hits the nail on the head" so many times. It is great that someone of his caliber is being read by such a diverse group of people. If you read his end notes, you will notice that he reads good books, which makes his book worth while. I highly recommend this book and I hope it will be eye opening for those who read it.


Monday, May 11, 2009

“A Different View of Heaven”

After reading my book review of Surprised by Hope, a church member sent me an article from "Time Magazine" entitled, "Christians are Wrong About Heaven"
The article is very good
and does a great job of giving a summery of the book. If you are struggling with the question, "What happens when we die" this is a great article. Click on the article title to read it!

Sermon 5/10/09 “Jesus’ Last Words of Wisdom Part One: Don’t Just Talk the Talk, but Walk the Walk”

Jesus begins the "Farewell Discourse" by telling them that he will only be with them for a short time, but that he has a new commandment for them. By the way, this is where we get the term Maundy, which is Latin for the word "Mandate." In other words, Jesus is giving a "New Mandate" to the disciples. We celebrate this on 'Maundy Thursday" during holy week. The new command, which is repeated throughout these discourses, is "love one another and I have loved you."(John 13:34)


Let's pick us the story after Peter asks Jesus where he is going in John 14.


"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going."

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."

Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (NRSV John 14:1-13


The Way, the Truth, and the Life: More than a Litmus Test:


If anyone knows what "snipe hunting" is, you will immediately find humor in this story. One weekend, I went to northeaster Tennessee to preach one Sunday. On Saturday night they kept telling me all about "snipe hunting" and how I needed to try it. When it got dark outside, they took me out in the middle of this field and gave me a bag. They told me that the way to catch a snipe was to wait until they blew a loud horn and then I was supposed to hold a bag on the ground and wait for it to run inside. After they had taken me out in the middle of this field, with no flash light, they all walked off. After about 10 minutes I realized I was in the middle of a huge field with no flashlight, all alone. They were all back at the house, amused that I fell for their joke.


You should know that this is no way to treat a visiting preacher. I couldn't count the number of cow patties I stepped in on the way back to the house. When I arrived back at the house, they were still laughing. I should have asked been more specific with my questions about "snipe hunting" because I didn't get the joke. I think some of the disciples thought Jesus was playing a practical joke on them as he continually told them that he was leaving.


Jesus begins chapter 14 by answering the question, "Where are you going?" This is a no-nonsense kind of question. If I told my wife "in a little while, I am going to be gone" she would natural ask, "Where are you going?" Peter is just asking this same question of Jesus. His explanation is fourfold: (1) I am going to a place that has many dwellings (2) I am going to this place to prepare a place for you (3) I will come back and get you (4) And.. by the way, you already know the place I am going.


Thomas is still confused about Jesus' answer and says, "We do not know where you are going, so how can we get their?" Jesus answers with one of the most famous lines from the Bible, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me." In this verse, Jesus answers two questions. (1) Where is he going? Answer: To the Father. (2) How do they get there? Answer: Through Jesus. In the next verse he answers the Why question: Because if you know Jesus, you also know the Father and have seen him. In verses 8 and 9 Jesus says that he is in the father and the father is in him.


Christians today use John 14:6 as a litmus test to see if people really believe the right things about Jesus. The question is normally asked like this: Do you believe Jesus is the Way, the truth, and the life and that no one can get to the Father except through him?" Or, is Jesus the only way to God? I want to be clear about this: I do believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I also believe that Jesus is the only way to God because I believe that Jesus reveals to us who God is. When we read about Jesus, we read about God.


HOWEVER… most of the time, we miss the whole point of Jesus' sermon because we fail to move below John 14:6. I wish following Jesus was as easy as believing this to be true and answering yes to the question, but Jesus is not finished with what he wants the disciples to know. Notice in verse 11 he tells the disciples to believe in him because he is telling them this, but if they do not, then they should believe in him because of the WORKS THAT HE DOES.


Jesus then sums up the material for us thus far. He says in verse 12, "The one who believes in me will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." WOW. Jesus is saying that if we believe in him, we will do even greater things than he did. Believing that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life means more than having to acknowledge the truth of the statement, it means that those of us who believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and life are the ones who will do greater things that Jesus did because he goes to the Father.


Live the Jesus Life


Our former senior minister by the name of Charles Neal used to have a saying that I liked. He would say, "Life the way Jesus lived so that others would see the truth of his life." I liked this because if we are to do greater things than Jesus and we do them the way Jesus taught us to do them, then others should see the truth of his life lived out in ours.


I remember in high school I wore a tee shirt around all the time with the logo, "Don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk." I thought this was the coolest shirt that had ever been made. Some people believe this saying originated from the Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates. It was said that when he would discuss such topics as ethics and politics, he would do it while walking around, hence the call to not just talk the talk, but to walk the walk.


In the first part of Jesus' "Farewell Discourse", he does not come out and tell those listening, "Don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk" but he does say some things that leads one to this conclusion. He does tell us that believing in him means we will do great things in his name. He is clear that following him means walking in his footsteps and living the way he taught us to. Let us be people who 'Walk the Talk"



Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Book Review: Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches by Christian Schwarz

I chose to read NCD
because our church will be using some of the principles as we set out some strategic goals for our future. Schwarz sells this program as being distinct from other church growth models in that NCD is not a method to be followed that will guarantee church growth, but rather NCD points out eight essential qualities that healthy churches possess. After Schwarz identifies the eight characteristics of healthy churches, he talks about six strategies for helping churches achieve these characteristics. In essence, he believes churches should identify both their strengths and weaknesses in these areas and then churches should use their strengths to sharpen their weaknesses.

I really found these eight characteristics helpful and I would agree with all of them. I am sure nobody will be shocked when they read through the list. I also agree with Schwarz that we ought to use the strengths that God gave the church to help the church be healthier. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book when he compared the church to a living organism and stated that God supplies everything the church needs for growth. Our role is to use what God has already given the church in order to allow the church to be all that God has for it.

I found that the major weakness of the book was not the principles that were taught, but that Schwarz spent most of the 127 pages trying to sell me a program rather than teach me about these eight principles. He spent less than two pages for each principle and two whole sections telling his readers why NCD was better than other church growth models. I have to admit, I was over it by the end of the book.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Every Member in Ministry Sermon May 3rd: “Redefining Greatness”


Mark 9:30-34


One day, a little girl is sitting and watching her mother do the dishes at the kitchen sink. She suddenly notices that her mother has several strands of white hair sticking out in contrast on her brunette head. She looks at her mother and inquisitively asks, "Why are some of your hairs white, mom?"

Her mother replied, "Well, every time that you do something wrong and make me cry or unhappy, one of my hairs turns white." The little girl thought about this revelation for a while, and then said, "Momma, how come *all* of grandma's hairs are white?"

Children can come up with the funniest things sometimes. There brutal honesty has to be admired. It is no wonder Jesus uses children as examples so much. In Mark's gospel, Jesus uses children as examples three times in Mark 9-10 as he teaches the disciples how to follow him.

This morning is EMIM (Every Member in Ministry) Sunday in which we will have the opportunity to commit to being in ministry together. As we allow prepare ourselves for this time of commitment, I want to walk you through this a passage of Scripture in Mark 9 where Jesus gives us as example of how to live by using a child.

Jesus has just come back from the mountain top with Peter, James and John to find the disciples trying unsuccessfully to cast out a demon. Mark begins the story by saying,

30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered over to human hands. He will be killed, and after three days he will rise." 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

    33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

This is the second time Jesus has predicted his own death. After the first occasion, Peter argues with him. This time the disciples still don't get what Jesus is saying, but they are afraid to ask each other. Mark gives us a clue as to why they may not be getting the message Jesus is giving to them because when they arrive in Capernaum Jesus asks them about their conversation, which was about which one of them was the greatest.


Missing the Point about Ministry

The reason I suspect the disciples did not understand what Jesus was trying to say is that they had a completely different agenda. He was trying to tell them that he was going to die, while they were in hopes that Jesus would be the new King and they would be great in his new kingdom. Even after this episode, in chapter ten, when Jesus has predicted his death a third time, James and John are arguing about which one of them will sit at Jesus right and left hand sides, meaning which one will be seated in the greatest seat. Again, the disciples seem to be completely missing the point.

Just as the disciples seem to be missing the point about what Jesus' ministry is all about, the church has been missing the point about ministry for decades. We have traditionally held that there are two ranking of people in the church. There are pastors and there are people who attend church. Traditionally the pastors are seen as being in ministry to the people who attend church. This is fueled by both pastors and church members.

Pastors, like me, sometimes get it in our head that we are the ones trained and called by God so we can do the ministry better than anyone else. So, instead of allowing church member to be in ministry, we have done it all ourselves. Church members on the other hand, have become quite content to "be served" and allow the pastors to do all the work, thus missing the point.

Everyone is Welcome

Jesus sets out in this passage to help the disciples understand the point of it all. He says,

    35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."

    36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

Jesus sits down, which is the position a rabbi would take when teaching in Jesus' day. He explains to the disciples how someone will "become great" in his kingdom. He says that if someone wants to be great, they must be last and a servant of all. Jesus then uses a child to illustrate his point.

To understand what Jesus is saying, it is important to understand the status of a child in his day. Children, until a certain age, had no social status and their role was to bring honor to their father. Jesus says that if we welcome a child, we will be welcoming God himself. What did Jesus mean with this illustration?

One way of looking at this passage is to suggest that welcoming a child is like welcoming one without status so that in Jesus' kingdom, everyone has equal status and no one is greater than anyone else. (NT Wright Mark for Everyone)

If we were to apply this teaching to our own misunderstanding of ministry it would be to say that all persons, pastors and church members are equal before God. In other words, pastors may be called to work in the local church, but every person is valuable to God. God calls us to except the ministry of every person.

I have been reading a book called Natural Church Devolvement as our church prepares to put together some strategic goals for our future. In this book, it is suggested that one sign of a healthy growing church is that they are engaged in "gift oriented ministry." This means that all the people in the church are aware of their spiritual gifts and are actively involved in the ministry of the church.

Greatness is in Service

I believe Jesus is also making the point that accepting a child, who has no social standing, is what it means to be "the last and a servant of them all." In serving a child, there would have been no social benefits in Jesus day. Jesus is telling the disciples to serve without expecting greatness in return by the world's standards. However, by the standards in his kingdom, they will be great. Jesus is redefining greatness as being in service. Every person is called to be in ministry and service.

One lesson that I have learned from my 11 week old son Caleb is that he is totally dependant upon Melanie and I to care for his needs. Just in the course of writing this sermon, he woke up from his sleep crying which caused me to stop writing and as I write these words, he is crying to get out of his swing. He can't get out of it on his own, so I have to listen to his squeals and get him out. He depends on Melanie to eat, on both of us to get him dressed and change his diapers. He is totally dependant upon us. (I am going to get him out of the swing now.)

It is neat to compare my relationship with Caleb to that of my parents. The older I have gotten, the more I become a partner in life with my parents. In a sense we are dependant on each other.

I know this illustration will break down some, but I think there is an underlying truth behind it. When we are infant Christians, we are Christians for what Jesus offers us. We receive forgiveness, grace, etc. As we grow in our faith, God begins to call us to be in ministry. We will always be dependant upon God, but as we mature we become partners with God in ministry to those around us. We move from selfishness to selflessness, thus redefining what it means to be great.