Doing Church

IMG20031Myopia is the medical condition of only being able to see things up close. It is the condition many churches fall into when they only look at themselves and their own needs for too long. A church can become myopic when it only focuses on the needs of a few, instead of the whole, or its members, instead of a community. For a church, this can be fatal. For example, if ministry is offered only to the offended, the blessed are ignored, and no one else notices when they leave, and vice versa.

We need to pull back and take a larger view of the controversies going on among our brethren so that we can biblically navigate through them ourselves. We are not the only church, and what goes on among them affects us as well. This month our churches celebrate together at the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis. I won’t be attending very simply because I cannot justify the expense. I have been waiting for some kind of workshop schedule where I might find a seminar or two to brush up my skills for Chaplaincy. No such luck. The last schedule I saw was directed primary for those in churches doing church work, largely according to a large church model, or telling you how to get a large church. It seems like I’ve been hearing that rhetoric for the two decades of my pastoral ministry. It’s easy to see why.

The balance of influence in our brotherhood has shifted. It used to be that all the churches supported the Bible Colleges more or less equally, because the colleges’ needs were modest. But as they have grown, their needs have grown, as their need for church support. Churches who are larger contribute more, and as a result, have a greater stake in the graduates they produce. The colleges, now universities, have produced graduates more suited to the specialized ministries of the large church. Ministry graduates are now being trained in one or two things, not the many roles demanded by the small church, who can only pay part-time wages despite full-time expectations. Yet these ministry specialists bring hefty college debt and narrow training, like youth, counseling, or pulpit ministry. It is a recipe for frequent minister burnout, short pastorates, and vacant small-church pulpits.

And this is where we find ourselves today. We have hundred of small churches asking for a guy who can preach and change the light bulbs, while the graduates are continually frustrated by the small-minded of the small church. All they can think about (and I include myself in that bunch, once upon a time) is how to grow that church into a mega-church, just like Bob Russell did at Southeast Christian Church. Many of the men I trained with, and now myself included, have come out of the ministry with an overwhelming sense of frustration and guilt that we couldn’t do it. It is guilt and failure. It is also doubt. Has the Lord said? Did the Lord call me to ministry? Somewhere, somehow, there has been a disconnect between the average church and the average Christian University. And the smaller churches are turning to lay preachers, men who have little formal education in Bible, because they simply cannot afford the high-priced graduates (who have decades of college loans to pay off).

What can be done? It seems to me that two things needs to happen. First, the small church needs to wake up and and realize their ship is sinking and that all hands need to be on deck. There is no room for pew-sitters anymore. If a small church is going to survive, everyone, no matter the age, needs to be about the business of ministry, because they cannot afford someone to do it for them.

Second, The Colleges and universities need to wake up, and train more men for small church ministry. If colleges depend on donations, they need to realize their donation pool is drying up. The more often they have to compromise for funding, the more the small churches are going to bail on them. The Universities need to realize that its not all about the specialists. There needs to be a call for the generalists, those who can do a little of everything. This is a role that needs to be marketed and pushed, because that is the world their graduates are going back into. There needs to be a course on church politics, and how to do spine surgery on spineless elders. There needs to be a backbone clinic to speak truth to the powerful in the small churches and deliver the word of God without compromise, but with tact and respect.

Ok, soap box aside, I’ve been in enough small churches to see the same personalities with different faces. I love the small church, and I love the way small churches do things, how they impact their communities, and most of their people are honest, hard-working, down-to-earth folks. I miss it, just like I miss the quiet of Christmas Eve Communion and the strains of Silent Night, the Easter Choir and the Sunrise Service (followed by breakfast, of course). I miss the sense of belonging, of family in the small church. That’s why I think God made so many of them, because He loves them too.

Let’s stop playing church, and let’s be the church, and let’s do it together.

The Master’s School of Prayer

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One of our great and sacred privileges as Christians is that we can pray to God directly, without having a priest to mediate for us. We already have a high priest, Jesus Christ, whose blood opens the way for us unto God, a way through the Holy of Holies so that we can boldly enter the throne room of God and speak to Him. “Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.” (Heb 4:16) We don’t take this privilege lightly, for many of us know exactly how important this is, and know right away that we don’t know enough about it to do it the right way. We are afraid we will do it wrong, and thus our spiritual lips are silent, for fear we might offend God trying to do the right thing.

However, using that logic, we undoubtedly were offended when our children first started to talk to us, and used sounds and parts of words, rather than fully conjugated verbs and proper nouns. Surely our children were afraid to speak in our presence because of our insistence on the proper declension of pronouns and the proper use of adverbs and adjectives. OF COURSE NOT! We were delighted that our children began to speak at all! We wanted them to speak, even to use “dada” and “mama” to get our attention. We craved to hear their voice.

So it is with God. God does not expect us to pray like the prophets or the apostles, because we are neither. We are His children, and He yearns to hear us speak His name in prayer. He yearns to hear the voice He made speak back to Him in worship.

And prayer is exactly that: it is a time of worship where we speak back to God. Prayer is our opportunity to speak to the One who made us.We are turn to the Master Teacher to teach us what prayer is all about. We not only look at the prayers He suggested to us as a model, but also the prayers He offered as examples of what our prayers should be like.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
(Mat 6:5-15)

Money Matters

When it’s tax time, that means its time to focus on the one thing that comes third in our lives, after God and family, and that’s money. Did you know that the Bible has more to say about money and money management than any other single topic? It’s no wonder, since many of our decisions often factor in 1) how much will this cost? 2) will I be able to pay this off, and 3) does my insurance cover this? Whether we are thinking about a house, a car, a new job, or surgery, money often becomes a deciding factor in our decision. Thankfully the Bible gives us solid guidelines on the use and saving of money, because money often represents time, as often as it represents assets.

Converting time and assets into money is nothing new. Ancient Israelites would convert their livestock into money, making it easier for them to travel to Jerusalem and there buy the proper sacrifices for the Temple. A person’s time working in another man’s field was considered a “day’s wage”. When you collect a paycheck, you are agreeing to the exchange of time (and skill), your invaluable, irreplaceable commodity, for the benefit of someone else’s profit margin. But this is a willing surrender, since compensation means a house payment, a car payment, and food on the table.

The Bible also speaks to the ownership of private property when it commands “thou shalt not steal”. God is very concerned about fairness, but not income inequality. Though the idea of equal pay for equal work is to be commended, income inequality is about envy, contrary to another commandment, “thou shalt not covet . . .”.

The Bible gives us rules and ethics for honest work, and what it means to provide for our families, but it also teaches about the proper use of debt, the payment of taxes, giving back to God, and saving for retirement. Just a cursory glance at the Bible’s principles of spending and saving money is enough to make me wonder if I’m honoring God with my money.

Principle of Work

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
(2Th 3:10)
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that even though he was apostle, he did not ignore the fact that he needed to work, with his own hands, to take care of his own needs. He argues that he had the right to expect compensation, but their sake, did not demand it. As long as we are able, we should be willing to work with our hands hands to care for our daily needs.

Principles of Debt and Repayment

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
(Rom 13:7)

In this section on respecting and honoring government (even when its hostile), Paul also reminds them that just because you are now a new man in Christ doesn’t erase financial and legal obligations to the state and others whose privileges you enjoy.

Principles of Giving

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
(2Co 9:7)
Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about giving go far beyond tithing to the idea that we give as as we believe, according to our dependence on God. God lays no strict tithing program upon the Christian, but to give as he is cheerfully able.

Warning about Retirement and Planning for the Future

And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
(Luk 12:19-20)

Jesus’ warning to the Jews of his day include this short story about  a man whose barns weren’t big enough to store his crop. It is a this point that the man decides to retire. This is exactly when God warns him that his life has come to an end, and what does he have to show for it? When it comes to retirement planning, Jesus is is calling us to give greater thought to how we plan for ourselves and our families.

Source Code

I had the opportunity to watch “I Can Only Imagine” last night, the biographical movie about Bart Millard’s journey to stardom in the band MercyMe. If you are familiar with his story, you know he grew up in a abusive home and left as soon as he could, only to discover he couldn’t be “authentic” until he resolved his issues with his father. In the meantime, his father had turned to Christ and became a different person. Their reconciliation becomes the impetus for Bart’s own transformation. His father’s death prompts him to write the eponymous song. The shining point of the movie is Bart’s moment in Nashville, having sung his song, seeing his father clapping for him. In an interview, Bart explained that he believed he sang to two people that night, both his father, and His Lord. It moment worthy of the Kleenex.

That moment also got me to thinking about father-son issues, in which this movie traded heavily. Even if our parents, mothers or fathers, treat us horribly, even if we hate every fiber of their being, every breath of their body, there is still a part of us that cares. There is still a part that longs for reconciliation, even if it’s no longer possible. That’s why this moment is so powerful in the movie, because it resonates. Everyone has a father, and everyone desires approval from that father. We all want our fathers to be proud of us because it is built into us to care what our father’s think of us.

We can’t explain it, because it isn’t part of the intellect. In fact, it defies the intellect. It is part of what I liken to “source code”, or more exactly, that code that a computer has burned in to its motherboard that tells it how to read a hard disk, before it ever loads the first bit of the operating system and everything its ever learned. It’s the BIOS of the human psyche. It is built into us as human beings to have a relationship with our parents. When that relationship isn’t “right” it leads to a host of other problems, “daddy issues”, psychological syndromes and traumas later on. As described in the movie, Bart couldn’t have a close relationship with his girlfriend until he resolved his relationship with his father. How many people labor today in horrible marriages, live-in situations even same-sex relationships because that one aspect of their being was wrong?

We are all built with this source code, called a conscience. The Bible recognizes this:

They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
(Rom 2:15)

Written on our hearts, our BIOS if you will, is the law of human beings. As sentient, rational beings, we are built with a set a laws of interaction (not unlike Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics) that direct the “rightness” and “wrongness” of our actions. Our conscience (C.S. Lewis’ moral law argument) is universal. Every human being has one, and they are all coded with a set of unwritten laws of human interaction. One of those laws is that relationship between parents and children. And when we willingly violate those laws, that’s when we run into problems,from simple (in the form of fractured relationships) to complex (in the form of mental illness). I believe that a person who consistently violates his own moral code, deterred by his “conflicting thoughts” in his conscience, is well on the road to insanity. He is trying to reconcile a world of his own creation with the real world as written in his source code. A logical being (which we are, to a fault) cannot hold two diametrically opposed points of view simultaneously, and still have a hold on reality.

So how do we address this innate moral code so that we can correct ourselves for error? Can we correct ourselves?  Let me re-introduce you to the most succinct explanation of our innate moral code ever written, complete with correctives for repair. You may know it as the Ten Commandments.

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  3. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
  5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
  6. “You shall not murder.
  7. “You shall not commit adultery.
  8. “You shall not steal.
  9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
    (Exo 20:3-17)

I will come back to this issue of parents and children, but to do so, I need to look at the Ten, the underlying principles that each describe, and how they affect us when they are broken. These commandments are so well written, that if you know how to read them, you can discover both the underlying moral code that we were built with, and the correction for applying that moral code to life. The manner in which God sends these ten is I believe one of the most dramatic in history (He wrote them down with His own finger so we wouldn’t miss how important they are). He doesn’t do anything like this until Daniel 5 (where he writes again, saying, “you have been measured and found wanting”). These ten, though immediately applicable to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, describe the innate moral code of all human beings, which is why they affect people every time they are posted. This is why many want them taken down.

For the next several posts, I will be taking and looking at each commandment individually, and its parallels in Deuteronomy 6, with other passages in tow. I can’t wait to dive into these things with you. Thank you for reading and I hope this is an encouragement to you.

Gender and Identity

In this culture where gender seems to be optional, perhaps it would help us to answer the question: Does God have a gender? This may seem silly, since God is God, but in the vast majority of occasions in the Bible, God identifies as male. “I am He” Is this simply because the masculine gender was the one created with such authority. God himself is not a man (Nu 23:19; Hos 11:9) but He identifies Himself to men as a Male authority figure. When we approach God, it is always appropriate to identify Him as the Father, or He.

However, on some occasions, God employs feminine images to illustrate His point (Is 66:13; Job 38:29) A few years ago you might remember the Shack, a novel about one man’s struggle with his daughter’s violent death. The story received a lot of flack from Christian circles because in the Trinity was represented by three characters: God the Father as a large black woman, God the Son and the traditional male Carpenter from Nazareth, and God the Holy Spirit as a lithe and mysterious Asian woman. This untraditional depiction seemed to touch a lot of people, but its theology was grossly unbiblical.

God does not have gender, for He is God, not man. God is spirit, and spirits have no gender (implied in Matthew 22:30). God also created gender, thus He Himself is not subject to the characteristics of a particular gender.

Only when Jesus walked the earth was God subject to the characteristics of a gender, but the gender He chose was male, for much the same reasons as above. Being male was more appropriate to His mission as Teacher and Savior.

Ask yourself if it would have made a difference if Jesus was a woman. A woman was subject to her father’s household, and would not be free from him unless she married a man outside that household, and then be subject to him. He would have had to get married, subject to His father’s and family’s wishes, borne children for the provision of His house, all of which would have at least delayed if not derailed His mission. He would not be able to travel as He pleased, much less expected 12 men to gather around Him without suspicion. Later, He would more likely be stoned for heresy than crucified.

We can be confident that the One who created genders knew exactly what He was doing, and didn’t make mistakes as the gender-confused culture today would have us believe. “God created them male and female” (Gen 1:27) and nothing else.

Nuggets from Nahum

Nahum? Who is Nahum? I remember Nahum usually when I am trying to put the books of the Old Testament in order, or remembering those twelve minor prophets. Nahum is not a book even dedicated Christians regularly frequent, let alone study. We usually find ourselves in the New Testament, or some stirring accounts in the Old.

But it is with Nahum we read, because Nahum is about justice. This is not the kind of justice that people are shouting for on the street corners, but real, genuine, fire and brimstone justice. Our culture has softened the original by turning it into some distant form of equality, of making the rich poorer and the poor richer. That is not justice. Nor is making some “races” pay for imagined slights against other “races”. Our culture has so totally ignored the real purpose of justice that we would actually see real justice as cruelty.

The justice that Nahum has in mind is for the kingdom of Assyria, a nation that had been on God’s radar for some time (remember Jonah?) and had at one point responded positively to a message of repentance. But that time had passed. Now Assyria had ransacked the northern tribes of Israel and had its sights set on southern Judah. They were a nation reknowned for their cruelty and destruction, and God had now sent a word through Nahum of judgment and justice against their crimes against His people.

As Christians we are surrounded by this culture of cruelty, and we are calling out to God for justice against it. They have slaughtered children in the name of convenience, allowed perversion to become normal, and the time-honored marriage tradition to become sullied by the same. We see honorable men and women maligned in public and our hopes dashed for Christian men to be our new political leaders. We cry out to God for justice because we see none. Does God still answer out prayers?

Nahum has much to say about God, justice, and judgment. As he writes, “The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of distress; He cares for those who take refuge in Him.” (Nah 1:7) The call from this letter is to take refuge in God, not in parties or platforms, not in labels or associations, but in the only the sure and strong refuge of the Lord.

The Enemy at the Gate

In 597 BC the enemy was Babylon, and the gate opened to Jerusalem. King Jeconiah, who had only been on the throne a few months at age 18 knew the end was coming. The Babylonians had warned them, but Jeconiah’s defiance would now be the ruin of his kingdom. Even the prophet Jeremiah had given him a personal warning from the Almighty, “You will have no sons on this throne” (Jeremiah 52:31-34)

Jeconiah (also known as Jehoiachin) was a wicked king. Like many of the kings who preceded him he had no love for God. Yet his grandfather Josiah had been the spearhead of religious reforms that were short-lived. His example still resonated in the mind of his grandson. Though Jeconiah was not good, he was smart, which is almost as good. He realized that if he resisted Nebuchadnezzar’s will again, he would die. He chose life. He surrendered his household to Babylon. Years later in 2 Kings 25:27-30 we find that Jeconiah was released from prison with his family and treated like royalty at the King’s table.

Jeconiah’s story is significant because he stands on a hinge of history. Matthew 1:1 and 17 recall that Abraham, David, and the exiles to Babylon are the three important hinges of the history of the Messiah. Abraham was called to an unknown country. David was called to be King. Jeconiah was called into exile. While not glamorous, Jeconiah’s decision to surrender preserved the people of Judah, and the line of the Messiah to come. Even in his defeat, God still worked through him.

I want to remind you of this. Right now, you may feel defeated. You may even see your enemies gathered at your gates. But this may be exactly where God wants you to be. Because God wants you to surrender, not to the whims and desires of the enemy, but to himself. God wants you to surrender to His will, power, and His best for your life. The same prophet who pronounced doom on Jeconiah pronounces hope for you. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:11-13, ESV)