Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Five Keys to Reviving a Dying Church

This was my latest post for Charis. It's an online resource produced by the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University.


Click, read & share. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Few Thoughts about Race Relations in the United States

Given all the trouble with police shootings and subsequent protests & counter-protests, I put together a few quick thoughts on the country's current situation (in no particular order):

1. Every gun death (or other violent death) is a tragedy and ought to be viewed that way.

2. We have WAY too many tragedies in our country.

3. Most folks jump to conclusions about what happened & why way too quickly.

4. Folks in law enforcement are typically outstanding people who have a tough job to do.

5. Being uncivil and rude to your fellow humans is rarely if ever helpful.

6. While protests might seem distasteful to many of us, the reality is that most hard changes would never have occurred without protest.

7. There are major, systemic problems in many of our African-American communities that don't run parallel to problems in other ethnic/racial groups.

8. The question to ask is not "Do these problems exist?" but rather "Why do these problems exist?" or perhaps better yet "What responsibility do we all have to make things better?"

9. Racism exists. Those who deny it are living a fantasy.

10. Christians ought to be leading the way in building peaceable communities that reflect the self-sacrificing love of Jesus.

(I actually wrote this a week ago. Just now posting it on my blog.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

When Emptying Out Isn't Enough

According to the Four Noble Truths, the goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment by emptying yourself of the things that cause desire and that thereby lead to suffering. In other words, you must detach or empty yourself in order to reach Nirvana. And what is Nirvana? It is emptiness, "nothingness" or ceasing to exist. That is the goal of Buddhism—to totally empty oneself out into the universe.

Perhaps that sounds attractive to you. In all honesty, there are days when emptying yourself out into nothingness might be a nice alternative to the feelings of stress, exhaustion & pessimism that you might go through. For folks who feel constant pain and who sense the pain of others, there’s likely to be a recurring desire to shake free from these feelings.

The Christian faith also teaches the importance of emptying. But there are significant differences in this regard between Christianity and Buddhism. Emptying oneself is not the goal of being a Christian. The objective of the Christian life is to be filled with God's goodness. Emptying occurs not for the sake of emptying but for the sake of being filled.

Jesus told a short parable in Matthew 12:43-45, "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation."

Cleansing your life from "bad stuff" is a great step. When you are able to stop smoking or end an addiction, that's a fantastic stride we can all cheer for. If you finally say goodbye to a dysfunctional and abusive relationship that was destroying you inside and out, we can all celebrate your decision to get rid of something that was killing you. Emptying is good!

But emptying is just one step for a Christian in the bigger process of spiritual formation. Paul writes, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph 2:18). A Christian should definitely allow God to clean up and clean out the messes in your life. But emptying out isn't enough. You also need to be filled with good things from God. Otherwise, the lingering emptiness will be an invitation for bad things to come storming back into your life in an even greater way.

Do you think the Christian life is one of emptying? If you think following Jesus is just about getting rid of things, then you will eventually fall back into your old life. In one sense, the battle against evil was won when you turned to Christ. In that moment God drove out Satan and filled you with his Spirit. The sign of this change is your place in the people of God. Yet this emptying and filling also takes place gradually over a long period of time. The old life will still haunt you well into your Christian life. Your past mistakes and shortcomings can still cause problems in your new life as you allow God to slowly empty you of the old and fill you with the new. But don't give up. Because emptying out isn't enough; it's just a part of the process.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Do You Understand God's Forgiveness?

How we view forgiveness shapes our understanding of everything in the Christian faith. To be more specific, our view of God's forgiveness impacts the way we forgive.

For a long time, many folks believed that God only forgave sin if he could punish before offering his act of forgiveness. This is a punitive or transactional view of forgiveness.

The standard storyline went something like this: God can't stand sin. Even though God loves you, God can't stand to be with you if you sin. God wants to forgive you but has to take out his disgust with sin by punishing you somehow until you get it right.

Since we're all sinners & repeat offenders, this creates quite a problem. According to the traditional story, Jesus came along and lived without ever sinning. Finally, here was someone God didn't have to punish. But in order to forgive you of your sins, God punished Jesus instead of you.

This standard version of the story of forgiveness is mostly rubbish in my book—and not very biblical. There are slivers of truth within it. But the key problem is the belief that God's forgiveness is always punitive, that he must always punish before he can forgive. This simply isn't what scripture teaches. God forgives out of his great love. It's true that those who sin sometimes experience sin's ugly consequences. At other times, God must punish in order to get people to wake up and seek forgiveness.

But if you can begin to understand that forgiveness is a free gift, then it will transform your view of faith.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Forgiveness vs. Transactional Forgiveness

Do you practice transactional forgiveness or just plain forgiveness? Here's the difference:

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but you have to grovel and be in the doghouse for a long time."
Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but I'm going to hold this over your head as long as I like."
Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I forgive you, but from now on you'll never be equal to me."
Forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness says, "I'll forgive you if you somehow do enough to prove to me that you've earned it."
Plain forgiveness says, "I forgive you."

Transactional forgiveness flows out of fury & rage.
Forgiveness flows out of love.

Transactional forgiveness comes from a heart filled with the fear of deprivation.
Forgiveness comes from a heart filled with gratitude for God's abundant provision.

Which one do you most often practice ... with your spouse? with your kids? with your brothers & sisters? with your friends? with those who hurt you?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Biblical Age of Kings #13: God's Love Endures

Here's a short meditation on Lamentations 5:19-22:

It's good to praise God and to remember his love. This is especially easy when we experience the majesty and wonder of creation. It's also equally simple when you can witness the deliverance of God, either first-hand or through the stories of those who lived it.

For example, Psalm 136 is a hymn of hope. In it, the psalmist tells the history of creation and redemption—how God made the heavens and the earth, and how God redeemed his people from slavery and brought them to a good and prosperous land. After each affirmation in this psalm (26 times), we hear the same refrain, "For his steadfast love endures forever."

But can you testify to the goodness of God's love when your world has collapsed and when your enemies are having their way with you? Can you sing the praises of God's enduring love when it feels as if God is looking the other way? How can you declare, "God's love endures forever," when you feel forgotten, mistreated and unloved?

The story of Lamentations is a sad one. Lament is its obvious focus. The poetic lines point toward loss, agony and despair: "God shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver. . . He has filled me with bitterness . . . my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is."

This story of bitter endings is the story of God's people. It's the story of Israel told in several volumes, ending at the cliff of Babylonian exile. It's where the narrators leave us as readers when 2 Kings comes to its unsatisfying conclusion: "So Judah went into exile out of its land."

In the midst of the pain, Lamentations tells the story of a people who still proclaim God’s love. "But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." This is the plight and the hope of God's people. We see how bleak our reality is. We do not pretend to be living a fairy tale or try to fool others into thinking that we are the invincible kings of our own destiny. Our eyes are open to our hopeless situation.

As people of faith we speak with the words of the lamenting prophet, "Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—even if you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (Lam 5:21-22).

This is what God always wants from his people—that you would turn to him and trust with all your heart no matter the outward circumstances. Will you join me in praying this prayer? Will you honestly admit that you fall short of the glory of God? And will you turn to God for renewal, restoration and love?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Biblical Age of Kings #12: The Day of the Lord

Lord, come quickly!

It's a prayer that many people utter every day. When folks grow weary of life's struggles, they cry out to God for help. Especially in light of tragedies like the Orlando mass shooting, believing people pray to God, "Lord, come quickly."

This prayer or a variation of it goes back before time of Christ. God-fearing Jews apparently longed for God to come and save them. They coined the phrase Day of the Lord to refer to this hopeful concept. This was apparently an important turn of phrase, a way of signifying their special status as God's chosen people and of expressing their need for God's deliverance.

We don't know the total weight of this term. But we know this. They thought the Day of Lord was good news. They assumed that the Lord’s coming would protect them and crush their enemies in the process.

Onto this scene marches the prophet Zephaniah. Referring to the Day of the Lord, he tells his listeners, "Be silent before the Lord God. For the Day of the Lord is at hand!"

We know enough to guess what Zephaniah's Jerusalem audience might have thought when they heard those words. Their initial reaction might have been, "Woohoo! The Lord God is coming. Won't that be nice!?" They were almost certainly thrilled at the prospect of the coming Day of the Lord.

But then Zephaniah, truth-teller and prophet of God that he was, broke the bad news. The Lord wasn't coming for the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Edomites or the Babylonians. God was coming for the people of Judah! The Lord’s wrath would pour out on God’s own people and on God’s own holy city.

You might be able dismiss such talk as the mad ravings of a lone prophet—if these exact sentiments didn't repeat elsewhere in the mouths of other prophets. The Lord's spokesman Joel says, "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!" (Joel 2:1-2). The prophet Amos declares, "Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the Day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18-20). When the Lord finally did come, it meant the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity in Babylon. It was not good news for God's people who were relying on their name rather than their piety.

What does this mean? What's the message for us? Let me quickly break down with the prophets are saying—even to us today: When you wish for the Lord to come, be very careful what you wish for. Is your life in the right shape? Are you truly ready for the Lord’s coming?

Christians today must carefully and humbly take on the prophetic task. Our job today isn't necessarily to announce to the world that the Lord is coming. Our task is to remind and demonstrate what it looks like to be truly ready for the Day of the Lord. And among those who mistakenly think that the color of their skin or the nationality on their passport somehow garners them special favor with the Lord, our job is to announce that they're badly mistaken.