All posts by admin

Wrong Made Right

In Galatians 1:13-16, Paul speaks of being a persecutor of the church. He violently attacked the church, seeking to destroy it. But in verse 15 he speaks of God setting him “apart before birth” to be saved by and preach grace to the Gentiles. It’s easy to overlook one simple fact here. The temporal element of this statement is quite profound and should not be ignored. When Paul was attacking the church, imprisoning followers of Christ and sending them to their deaths, he was already elect of God’s to be saved by Christ and used for his purposes.

So, why did God choose to use such a zealous persecutor? It’s not my place to speculate about why God does anything—at least not beyond any explanations that he himself gives. However, Paul does give us a clue if we look. Paul says that he was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.” As a Pharisee, he would have held to a very specific and conservative view of covenant observance. So, why would God send such a person to preach to the Gentiles?

The church very quickly faced several issues: circumcision, law observance, dietary limitations and many other requirements that set Jews apart from Gentiles. Judaism had been debating these issues for well over a century. Many Jews felt they should reject practices which made it hard for those living in Gentile communities, making it hard to live and do business. The dietary restrictions alone could make it hard to find appropriate food in many communities—the issue of eating meat offered in pagan sacrifice had been debated by the Jews long before Paul and Church. It could even be hard to find something considered so essential as wine—since much of the wine produced in pagan communities was clarified or blended with substances considered unclean. Circumcision made it hard to do business when most large contracts were negotiated in the bath houses. Many Hellenistic Jews had already rejected these practices; therefore, they were not seen as sufficiently Jewish by the religious leaders. When Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he means that he had taken a very traditional view of these. He would have opposed any rejection of circumcision or relaxing of dietary restrictions. Now, imagine God choosing to use such a man for a mission to the Gentiles. Imagine this man teaching that a Gentile not only need not, but must not, be circumcised. Imagine such a man telling people to eat whatever they purchase in the market without raising moral issues (1 Cor 10:25). His prior zealotry would force one to wonder what changed.

Paul, in Galatians 1, tells us what changed. He was called by God to preach grace to the Gentiles. But he was already elected to this before he was born. So, even when he was persecuting Christians, God was preparing him for the work he was to do. One who did not observe the traditional practices closely would have been questioned. “You say one need not keep these, but this is only because you do not want to keep them yourself.” Paul could testify, “I am telling you that these are not needed for salvation, and I can say this because I have kept them all.”

But this raises a question: Wasn’t Paul wrong when he zealously persecuted Christians and demanded strict covenant keeping? Of course, he was wrong. But this brings us to something interesting. God does not only use the areas in which we are right. He often allows us to be wrong, and still uses us. He had to change Paul. I am sure he did not immediately become a person of grace. He probably held on to his view of the Old Covenant observances for some time. He speaks of going into Arabia for years and having these truths given to him by divine revelation. God had to do a great work to change him—to correct him. This is important for us to consider when dealing with Christians we believe to be wrong. We should still be gracious. It is possible that God is going to use their wrong beliefs to prepare them for teaching, sharing and living the truth. Once he changes their wrong beliefs, it is possible they will be better fitted to serve God than one who never had a wrong belief—if such a person ever existed, other than Christ. Be patient. He is not done with them—any more than he is done with you.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

Building the Kingdom with Kingdom Tools

Isaiah 30:1-2 (ESV):

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We as a church want to reach our community. We want to draw people in and disciple them to be followers of Jesus who truly live like him, demonstrating his character in our community. Only in this way will we transform our community and bring peace to those around us suffering under the weight of sin. However, this passage reminds me of an error that is far too easy to fall into. It’s easy to default to the ways and methods of the world and overlook reliance upon the Spirit of God.

In the geopolitical setting of Isaiah, it was natural when threatened by one country to approach another country for protection. If a small weak people could find protection in stronger people most would see this as common sense. God is warning his people about seeking security using the ways of the world. They should turn to him for protection. They should repent of their sins and trust in his Spirit. Instead they found it easier to trust in Pharaoh.

The reason this so struck me is the knowledge that we as a church can easily be tempted to neglect prayer and dependence upon God by replacing these with the world’s tools. Marketing and branding are a part of our world today. They are also important considerations for the church. In a way they are just secular terms for essential spiritual practices. We want a positive name and testimony so the world thinks of us positively. This, the world calls ‘branding.’ We also want the community to know we exist, where to find us and what we have to offer. This, the world calls ‘marketing.’

Such terms are not evil. Neither are the methods they describe—so long as they are honest, giving an accurate portrayal of Christ. What is wrong is leaning upon these worldly tools while neglecting the spiritual tools: prayer, witnessing, loving. We can create radio and print ads, for example. Yes, they are outreach tools and can draw in people. Some will be believers seeking a church home; others will be nonbelievers, giving us a chance to reach them. However, we must remember limits of these. They must be kept in their proper place.

We do this through prayer. Everything we do as a church must be bathed in personal and corporate prayer. Prayer can give power and impetus to the tools we use, even those of the world. However, if the tools of the world replace prayer we should expect the world’s results—and the world can deliver no one from sin.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Prayer is only part of our communication with God. We must expect God to answer. His way of answering is to speak to us through his Word. We must be a people who seek God’s direction coming to him in prayer and then digging into his Word expecting him to speak to us. Both sides of the equation are necessary.

By keeping both in our focus we communicate with God, seeking his will and receiving guidance.

We also must keep the tools we use in their proper place. We must remember the world’s efforts are meant to undergird not replace the more spiritual methods. Personal friendship evangelism is still the best tool for reaching the world. The best evangelist to reach a person is one who already loves them—one approaching without judgment, simply desiring to spend eternity with them. Personal sacrificial service is still the life which we are to model. Nothing touches the heart more than another human giving of themselves without expecting anything in return. No ad; no website; no social media post can replace this.

As we move forward, let’s remember to rely on God’s tools—without throwing away any worldly tools that can be effective. We must market and brand the church—these are important. However, we must first of all be a praying people. Second we must be people of the Word. Third, we must be a loving reaching people serving the hurting and seeking the lost. Finally, we must live out our testimony so the world sees an accurate image of Christ. When they see us, they must see Christ. It is only if built upon this foundation that the world’s methods will be of any use. Better to lay them aside than to build only upon them. But even better is to use whatever works to reach the lost and love them into the kingdom.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

When we Love Another

This morning I was struck by an article shared on Facebook by a friend. It was a letter from an emergency room doctor comparing the way we used to treat our elderly and the way we treat them today. article can be read here. I highly recommend everyone digest it.

Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The doctor was arguing we have not improved the lot of the aged by keeping them artificially alive long after their bodies have run their course. He paints a beautiful image of an elderly woman propped up and looking out a window, watching her grandchildren playing as her time approaches. She is permitted to pass among her loved ones in familiar surroundings. He then compares the modern tendency to warehouse the aged and artificially keep them alive, long after they have lost any semblance of quality life. Now, before you take this letter and build a new norm—declaring that all elderly should be allowed to stay home until they are quietly and peacefully shuffled off this mortal coil—keep in mind that replacing an imperfect system with another imperfect system is not an improvement. To make it somehow unloving to seek nursing home care for a parent whose daily needs are beyond what the family can provide is no better. And simplistically deciding it is best to allow nature to run its course may not be the solution either. Imagine a person who needs extreme care, burdening her family, but continuing to carry on for decades. What I am saying is that swapping the social burden and guilt which causes many families to extend a loved one’s life into an almost cruel existence is not improved by placing guilt upon them for being unable to provide extreme but appropriate care at home.

Instead, we need to understand something much deeper. We need to understand love and what it truly calls upon us to do. Recently I had a conversation with a family member. I explained that when I say “I love you” this does not mean I agree with what you are doing, or feel good about your situation. It may be true that I can love you and not even enjoy being around you because of what they are doing. You see, to love someone is to always act in keeping with that person’s best interest. It means I will do what is in your best interest, even when it may not be in mine.

One thing I’ve discovered, in my own experiences, with families making end of life decisions is that they too often make them based upon their own interests, instead of the interests of the one suffering. People may say:

“How will I go on without him?”

“But I don’t want her to die!”

“But I need him. We can’t make it without him.”

You see, to act in a loving way is to make the decision based on their interests. The sentiments above are natural and normal. But, depending upon the situation they are likely selfish. The loving version may be:

“Is it right to force him to go on like this?”

“Does she want to continue like this?”

“What does he need? Can he live like this?”

My point is that doing the loving thing, in this situation and many others, is often the hard thing. The loving person often must make the very choice they want least to make. When I was raising my children I had to do many things I did not want to do. I did them, not because they were good for me, but because they were good for my children. As a husband, I have to do things based upon my wife’s needs. As a son, I must do things based upon my mother’s needs. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is far from needing such choices made. I hope to be as healthy as her when I am her age. It is the fact that I may someday face these choices that makes me think. I’ve already had to make many hard choices and do many hard things in love. When my son was young I had to hold him down while the doctors did a spinal tap. This was not easy. It hurt him and he screamed. My own nature said, “No!” But my duty as a father and my love for my son made me do what needed to be done.

What I am trying to do is get us to understand that love is doing what is right for the one loved. If this means it is time to pull the plug on a loved one, then do so without guilt and without any concern for what others might say. If the best care and quality of life for an elderly parent is in a nursing home, then don’t be ashamed of making that decision. But if it’s better to keep that parent at home and allow them to leave this earth from their own room, then don’t let anyone shame you into making a different decision.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This last part is another element of love. Love acts without fear. Others may misunderstand. Others may get angry. Others may attempt to cast aspersions and to shame the one upon whom the choice falls. But recognize these for what they are—manipulations. Love will not be manipulated. Love chooses based upon the needs of the one loved and then stands behind the choice.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

My Lottery Winnings

Image courtesy of James Barker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of James Barker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

With recent headlines and attention on the Lottery, I have been asked several times if it is a sin to take part in the Lottery. Many of us, myself included, have been brought up to believe: Gambling is a sin; the Lottery is gambling; therefore, taking part in the Lottery is sin. Actually there is one problem with this: nothing in scripture teaches gambling is a sin.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying one should gamble or that one should play the Lottery. If I trust in the Lottery or other gambling to make up for my own bad choices (“A winning ticket will wipe away all my errors of financial judgment”) then I am simply being a fool. If one plays the Lottery as entertainment, that is a very different story. Take scratch tickets as an example. If I enjoy the finer points of scratching foil off paper as an entertainment, and you created a set of such cards to sell me so I could enjoy scratching off the foil, would anyone think that to be sin? Of course not! That’s just paying for my fun, which is to be expected. Now, if I did the same thing hoping to uncover a pretty picture, would that be sin? No, again. The same would be true if I liked to see what numbers might be underneath. The only way any of these is sin is if I indulge my new entertainment to the point of taking money away from my family’s needs. That would be sin. But even then, it is not the purchasing and scratching of cards (the entertainment itself) that is a sin, but the overindulgence. Neither is it sin to buy a list of numbers to hang on my refrigerator, even in hopes of winning later.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many will say, but the difference is that you do it, not for entertainment, but for the chance to gain more money than the ticket cost. OK, is it sin to invest in the stock market? People don’t buy stocks because they like the pretty paper used to print stock certificates (does anyone even still receive stock certificates?). People invest in the stock market for the same reason, and no one calls it sin. Yes, I know some will say that one is investing and one is gambling. However, what is the true difference in these terms? The difference is risk. Gambling takes riskier chances promising a greater return. But funny, when you speak to the person who helps you with your retirement account she will usually asks about risk-aversion and how much risk you are willing to take, because a greater risk promises the possibility of greater returns (and greater losses). Now, I’m not saying investing in stocks is equivalent to buying Lottery tickets. But what I am saying is that once one begins to add rules to the words of scripture one quickly falls into the area of legalism, especially if striving for consistency in beliefs.

So, should a Christian buy Lottery tickets? The answer is far more complex and far more simple than it appears. If you can afford to spend a few dollars on Lottery tickets for entertainment purposes, then there is no sin. Is it foolish? Once again it depends on whether it is for entertainment or if this is making up for a lack of a retirement plan. If the latter, then it is the very definition of foolish.

My wife wanted me to buy a couple tickets this time. We could afford a few bucks, so I did. We had fun dreaming about all the things we would do if we won. Of course, there were the usual dreams: buy each of our children a home, pay off their debts, etc. But, we also dreamt of things many may not consider. I dreamt of endowing a chair of Theology at a seminary. I dreamt of using the funds to plant a Bible College in our city. We dreamt of gifting our church a nice new building. We dreamt of paying the salaries of several rural pastors in Montana, Wyoming and Texas as well as underwriting the costs of one or more mission fields. We also dreamt of being able to forgo any salary as a pastor of our church. Then we went to bed knowing we had already gotten all the value out of the tickets we would ever get—we were inspired to do some sanctified dreaming. Funny thing is, I was once asked by a class of young men, “How do we know what we are supposed to do with our lives?” I told them to find a career where they would still show up for work the next day after winning the Lottery. That is one way to know you are doing what you were meant to do. I know the Lord wants me to encourage biblical scholarship, to support local churches and missions. I already knew all of these things, but dreaming solidified them in my mind. We have our dreams and now to work at making them come true without the Lottery winnings. The tickets were an inspiration to holy dreaming. But these things will only be accomplished through faithful service.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share