One resolution for 2011

After the 365 days of 2010, here are the seven things that make it a “good” year:

#1 I love Jesus more

#2 I love my beautiful bride more

#3 I love my four kids more.

#4 I love my friends, and especially my “brothers” more.

#5 I love my church more.

#6 I love my life more.

#7 I love the world less.

And I have one resolution for 2011, to glorify God and enjoy Him more as a Son, Husband, Father, Pastor, Brother, Neighbor, and Friend.

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IN or just AT church?

All of us are guilty of talking a lot about what we don’t like about the church, but we don’t often talk about what the church actually is. A common definition in the dictionary describes the church as “a building for Christian worship”.  It’s a wonder how anyone might come to this conclusion reading the New Testament description of churches who seem to be without buildings for the most part.   It goes without saying that the church is more than a building, but what “more” means is rarely asked because we assume understanding when we shouldn’t .   And even if someone offers an answer,  it’s often colored by  traumatic Sunday school experiences, mean people, weird people,  cliquey people, juvenile legalisms, cheesy music, deathly boring sermons, terrible leaders, and/or meaningless traditions. It ends up being more of a diatribe than a definition.

These negative experiences have led to an increasing number of disgruntled, disillusioned, and the disconnected believers are hopping from church to church OR leaving the local church all together, searching for a new version of “church” that they hope will provide a more fulfilling spiritual (read emotional) experience. Some have launched their own “spiritual communities” in all shapes and sizes.  Some start with warped authoritative structures and become productive cults, while others reject all authority and become unproductive communes. Others reject all sense of organization and structure, twist one verse to justify their gatherings at Starbucks or the golf course: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18.20) And because most of these searches start with man at the center (What satisfies me), and not Jesus (What glorifies Him)  their pursuit ends in participating or building all kinds of new “spiritual” communities that are the furthest thing from a church, most of which are unbiblical and emotionally charged, and where everything becomes redefined by their desires, even Scripture itself.

BUT…I’m not writing about those who leave church, those who launch their “spiritual communities”, or those who go the church of “wherever” on the golf course.  Despite the fact that many don’t know for certain what the church is (though many seem to know exactly what they don’t like it about it), a lot of them still stay.  And “stay” is all that many people do believing they are a part of it simply because they attend it.  But attending church doesn’t make you a part of it, anymore than owning a gym membership makes you a triathlete.   There is a difference between staying IN the church and staying AT the church. One is truly invested in gospel community living out all of the “one another” commandments Jesus gave.  The other takes pride in their perfect attendance or membership covenant while failing to actually understand the nature of church all together.  Are you truly a sibling in a local family of God or just carrying the “family name” around like some sort of cool piety badge?

Here are seven ways to know that you are in fact IN the church, and not just AT it.

1.  You know the family. Do you know the names of your pastors?  Can you name five other people in this one family you are a part of, excluding those already know?  This isn’t a measure of spirituality, rather, it’s a simple question.  And while you can’t be expected to know the names of everyone…do you know someone?  Why or why not?  And then…do you know anything more than their names?

2.  You are known by the family.  Does anyone know your name?  Why not?  Obviously, getting to know people takes time, so those who are new to a church don’t feel bad.  But how much time does it take..really?  1 month? 6 months?  What about you who have been a church for several years and still are relatively unknown–not because of what you have done…simply for who you are? This isn’t a popularity contest, rather, a great indicator as to whether you work hard NOT to engage and to hide away.  Are there even five other people who know you and your family?  That know your story? Have you confessed your sins to them, shared your struggles, asked for prayer, or otherwise exposed your heart…to anyone?

3.  You serve the family.  Every family has chores, things to make sure that the family is protected and productive.  Have you every shared in the family chores?  Again, this is not a guilt trip but a question about whether or not you’ve ever taken ownership in the family?  I’m not talking about doing the things everyone likes to do, the things that come easy for you.  Are you helping out with the needs of the church, the routine things, the practical things, the things that no one wants to do, but the things that must be done.  Have you positioned yourself in such a way to sacrifice as little as possible assuming that someone else will get it done? Are you serving the family or taking it for granted?

4.  You fulfill your role in the family.  The church is the body of Christ with many parts.  God has given the body different parts for a reason.  They are all uniquely designed and equally necessary.  The body can function without some parts, but it ends up being slower, weaker, and uglier.  While there are chores for everyone to do, there are also specialized roles based on time, gifting, resources, and experience that only YOU can fill.  Ask yourself, whether your absence makes the body less; and whether your presence makes the body more.  If the church disappeared from the community tomorrow, would it be felt?  If YOU disappeared from the church tomorrow, would it be felt?

5.  You spend time with the family. There isn’t a hall monitor marking tardies, and there are not gold stars for perfect attendance.  But consider, how much your view of a “successful” of a Sunday morning is derived from simply connecting relationally with the family (as opposed to good music, good sermon, good coffee, etc.).  Are you the one who is late to arrive and quick to leave?  Why?  How much time (if any) you meet with your brothers and sisters outside of Sunday morning?  Do ever gather with the church when it’s not “church?”

6.  You support the family. Are you sharing in the work…really sharing?  Are you supporting with all that God has given you–your time, your energy, your resources, your money?  Are you supporting with intention or is it always spontaneous? Are you supporting generously or sparingly?  Are you supporting sacrificially or comfortably?  Are you supporting cheerfully or bitterly? If the mission of the church is a journey, are you carrying your load and helping others with their burdens?

7.  You enjoy the family. Quite simply, is the church a weekly event you attend (unless something better comes along) OR a weekly reunion you look forward to all week (that you’d wouldn’t miss for the world)!  Despite the dysfunction, the weird uncles and crazy cousins, do you enjoy your family so much you want to know more about it?  Do desire to pray for your brothers and sisters?   Do you hurt when the family hurts? Do you laugh when it laughs? Do desire to speak of the family with pride?  Do you want others to be a part of it? Are you enjoying this family of families?

Obviously, this is an incomplete list and is NOT intended as some sort of piety rubric for church involvement.  My hope is that we will all consider whether we are truly a part of a family or pretending to be.  I realize that there are many who have been hurt by other “families” in the past and, as a result, you’ve made personal covenants to protect yourself from ever being hurt again.  The result is you are AT church for a long time..  Know that, with all its dysfunction, it is God’s will for you to be more than a warm body, but to be IN a healthy biblical gospel-centered church.

Idle about Idols

We are all addicts.  We are all addicted to various idols that captivate us, allure us, and lie to us.  Instead of holding to the promises of God and/or heeding His warnings, we believe the promises of sin.  Their lies patterned after the first lie, telling us we will be happier apart from God’s Word.  Idols never sleep.

As a recovering-moralist, for years I wrongly believed that if I just avoided idols (and their sinful followers) I would be safe from their sinful influences.  If the devil really was prowling about “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”, then I’d just work hard to avoid his hunting grounds.   For extra protection, I’d build big walls, not so I could fight better, but so that I could sit in my bomb shelter and not fight at all.  It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that this is a woeful misunderstanding of sin.  Sin is not an external problem that you can hide from.   There was time when I believed that it was, that every time I sinned I had an enemy, situation, or reason outside of myself to blame.  Many people still live this way–they call themselves “victims”…perpetually.  Personally, I preferred blaming the “big bad guy”, buying into the saying, “The devil made me do it.”  Until, that is, I read the Bible.  The brother of Jesus, James, wrote:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1.14-15).

James doesn’t blame the devil or anything else outside of our own hearts, and seeing that the he is writing God’s Words, neither should we.  John Calvin agreed with James, describing men’s hearts as ‘idol factories.’ I don’t know about you, but my “factory” is coming out with new models every week, each one better than the last.  The fact that my heart is so easily drawn away by a pint or a picture proves that I/we have a serious worship disorder.  The enemy we fight comes from within and our broken hearts are constantly drawing us away from God–we cannot afford to be idle about idols.  Waging war against the idol is foolish and futile.  The idol is usually some part of creation God declared “good” that my heart made bad.  It is not, to paraphrase Tim Keller, that I want bad things, it is that I want things  (even good ones) so badly.

We fight against satisfaction in an idol by fighting for satisfaction in the one true God.  This is not easy.  Paul described it as physical training–a spiritual form of P90X (I guess that makes Paul our Tony Horton).  Did you know that you can become out of shape within 72 hours physically?  Spiritually, I have found it is much faster…like within minutes some times.   The moment we become idle is the moment we stop working like farmers, running like athletes , and/or fighting like soldiers.  Spiritually speaking, we develop soft hands, get fat on “sin-twinkies”, and lose every battle that catches us. Idleness, and the idolatry that accompanies it, is resisted through an active pursuit of godliness.

We pursue idols because we were made creatures designed to worship.  SOMETHING will captivate our affections, give us meaning, and fill us with joy.   Invariably, without exception or fail, idleness will result in idolatry. We cannot afford to be idle about idols.  If you feel defeated or allured by something that is not Jesus, ask yourself whether your heart has been taken away by the idol or given away through your idleness.

Jesus is a Prince…but He’s not “Princey”

Our church is going through the Advent this year for the first time.  Different traditions organize and preach this series differently, but they all celebrate the Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy that first arrived with Jesus first coming as we look forward to His Second.

In Isaiah 9.6-7, a prophecy about the coming Redeemer, this young child (Jesus) is described as the “Prince of Peace.”  I don’ t know about you, but when I hear “Prince of Peace”, I don’t think of some manly-manimal ready to conquer the world with all His might.  Perhaps that is because my concept of what a “Prince” is has been perverted by the almighty gods of this world named Disney and Mattel.   As a Father of a girly-girl daughter, I have watched every Disney &  Barbie Princess movie there is at least 10 times each.  What my daughter views as a “Prince”, sadly, is the emasculated blonde-haired, spray tanned, hairless wonder who refuses to get his hands dirty for fear of  breaking a nail or dirtying his designer clothes.  If that is the ideal picture of a Son of the King, then the image my daughter gets seeing me, her wookie-like Father who wears flannel, is a probably a bit of a disappointment.

While Jesus is the Prince of Peace, he is not “princey”. In fact, He doesn’t bring “peace” at all as much as make and keep the peace as Kings are supposed to do when dealing with injustice and unrighteousness (Psalm 72).  Isaiah helps destroy the idea that Jesus would be little more than just a Birkenstock wearing, tree-hugging, flower child with a weird glowing ring around his head.  On the contrary, this Prince would be a powerful leader with the authority and power of a just ruler. Isaiah says this King would have the government upon his shoulders, he would be wise, strong, everlasting, and ultimately lead a kingdom that was peaceful because his Kingdom would be established and upheld by righteous judgment.

Baby Jesus can be called the Prince of Peace because, though he comes in love, he comes to lead, judge, and conquer.   Not only is Jesus not “princey”, he does not make peace in a “princey” way.  This baby comes as the King, righteously judging the sin of those he loves, and then taking all of the punishment it deserves upon himself demonstrating his mercy and grace.  Accepting Jesus as King, isn’t just celebrating Him as a little baby that proves God loves me, it means worshiping Him as the baby who judges the self-centered kingdom I have tried to build apart from Him–and continue to build.  He does all of this that he might make peace with the Father for me, despite me.  As Romans 5.1 says, we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The King came, the King conquered, and the King reigns, and the King will return to bring everything fully to and end–a final restful peace.  But for those who put their faith in Jesus, in some sense, the war is over now.  Through Jesus, we have peace with God. With that peace comes, RIGHT NOW, a sense of love having been adopted’ into the royal family; with that peace comes a hope that this world is temporal and one day you’ll be with the King; with that peace comes a security that the King is always going before you to protect you; and with that peace comes a joy inexpressible because you know that God is pleased with you because he is pleased with Jesus–he is never disappointed.

Peace is not manufactured through MORE kindness, tolerance, and education.  True peace, SHALOM, true contentment, wholeness, prosperity, satisfaction, and rest comes through accepting and worshipping Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords–and believing He is ruling and returning.

Jesus and Christmas “Green”

I recently read that Holiday shoppers will spend an average of $1,044 on gifts this year, up nearly 92% from 2009.  As a nation, that translates into several billion dollars.  There is no denying that Americans spend a lot of money during the Christmas Season.  So how am I supposed to respond to this as a Christian or a pastor?  I appreciate what Doug Wilson recently wrote about a right orientation toward Christmas and gifts.  Conversely, a normal knee-jerk response for many evangelicals is to rage against the idols of consumerism and demonize all things Santa.  Sadly, the children are left confused and Christians are dismissed as uptight penny-pinchers competing for piety points by giving their Christmas money to more “worthy” causes.

As a pastor, I don’t know if I am concerned about my kids learning about materialism from the world as much as I am about them learning it from a bad church.  I ask the question somewhat jokingly, but I do find it curious how many pastors preach money-focused sermon series during the holidays.  Now, I understand the importance of preaching “generous” giving as a response to the gospel all the time.  I also understand the pragmatic strategy behind the timeliness of such sermons during the holidays.  And  I understand the need to challenge people to love their neighbor in material terms to compete with the natural inclinations of men’s hearts towards greed.  But I also recognize that the pulpit doesn’t protect someone from sin, and churches can cover their sinful motivations with gospel-centered wrapping paper.

Simply stated, I hope the message they think they’re preaching is actually being received how they think it is.  This is not to say pastors should avoid talking about money during the Christmas Season–this is one of the most powerful idols we wrongly worship.  It is to admit that, historically, the church (all mankind) has had a few little problems with money.  People give during the “season” for all kinds of reasons–good and bad (some just because it is the end of Tax season).  So call people to give, but let pastors never cease to over-emphasize giving as a response our acceptance by God and His people and not as a means to buy either.

Joshua, Jingle Bells, and Jehovah’s Witnesses

Last week I preached a sermon on the second half of Joshua 8 Like all of my sermons, the point of it can be summed up by saying, confess your sin, go to church, read your Bible, and enjoy God.  The text of Joshua 8 describes Israel renewing their commitment to God.  Joshua leads what amounts to a worship service by copying the entire law on rocks and reading every word of God’s Law aloud to entire congregation.  As he publicly reads the promises and warnings of God and the people, young and old, respond with a resounding, “Amen”–affirming every word.  Sadly, as I charged people to renew their own commitment to God’s Word, I realized that the majority of people listening to me probably didn’t even have their own Bibles with them.

Inspired by the mountain top worship service in Joshua (not really), after church our family with some friends journeyed out into the wilderness to find our Christmas Tree.  After finding the best looking “Charlie Brown Tree” we could find, we played in the snow, and eventually returned home in the dark–too late to set up the tree.  On Monday, I proceeded to trim the tree in my garage, preparing for the next evening’s decorating festivities.  As I did, two women walked up with a small magazine called “The Watchtower” in their hand–Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Most people I know do one of two things when Mormon’s, JW’s, or those guys selling meat at 7:00pm come knocking on their door: 1) Pretend they are not home 2) Answer the door, say “Go Away”, and close it again.  Me?  I usually invite them in for cookies, milk, and a theology lesson.

This day was no exception.  They immediately launched into their treatise on the end of the world and I immediately steered them back toward Jesus.   While they wanted to talk about economy, the war in Afghanistan, and global warming, I wanted to talk about God.   When I didn’t slam on the door on their face they appeared surprised and when I started talking Bible, they were visibly excited.   I doubted that they often get the unrestrained freedom, even an invitation, to talk about Jehovah God (the Father). Of course, I also doubted that they would be willing to spend most of our time speaking about Jehovah Jesus or Jehovah Holy Spirit.

In the past, my apologetic approach was usually dripping with arrogance–looking for the first opportunity to destroy the cultist with a verse or passage.  I don’t do that anymore  because, well, it is sinful.  But I do talk about Bible.  And what impressed me is how much Bible these women knew.  As I shared about the identity of Jesus, I took them all over the New and Old Testaments, John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, John 8, John 10, even into Isaiah 42-45.   And though they did not have very convincing answers to many of the challenges I posed, they had answers.  Though they did not handle the word of God rightly (2Tim. 2.15), they did swing the sword a bit.  They never gave up, threw up a white flag of surrender, or got angry. They listened, engaged with the Scriptures I brought up, even responded with others.

These two women impressed and saddened me.  Here they were, walking around in 20 degree whether, going door to door to share about something they believed.  However deceived I may believe them to be, they really believed it with.  Though they study a jacked-up translation of the Bible (New World Translation), they study it.  Though they may not have every answer, they have answers (false ones).  As I thought about my own people, my own friends and family, I couldn’t help but be saddened by what I experienced on Sunday.  These ladies walked around with their Bibles open, evangelizing and arguing for a lie; many in our church don’t even bring their Bibles on Sunday morning let alone engage anyone else with God’s truth during the week. As the late Walter Martin used to say…” it is amazing what many people will do for a LIE, that we are not willing to do for the TRUTH.”

We would all do well to read God’s law regarding future Kings in Israel.  And though we are not kings, and not legally obligated to follow the Mosaic Law, I wonder if morally we can learn something here that would help guide our commitment to God’s Word, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 –

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved bythe Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.