Category Archives: Pastor’s Blog

Real Community

Today, while reading in Mary Moschella’s book Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice, I was reminded of too many experiences in local churches. She refers to Margaret Kornfeld[1] who differentiates between “real communities” and “pseudo-communities.”

A real community: “a place where people are free to be themselves and know that they will be accepted, a place where conflict can be expressed and resolved, and a place where diversity of opinion is offered.”

A pseudo-community: “may seem friendly at first, but it is really not a safe place in which to express an opinion that diverges from the group’s stated values. If you are different in a pseudo-community, you feel it immediately; you feel pressured, not safe. You sense that you do not fit in, that there is no room for difference of opinion, and you may ‘go into hiding.’”

Churches have for too long pretended to be real communities. Even our own church has a history in which we have actually been a pseudo-community. It is easy to be friendly with those who agree with you. It is easy to accept those who live like you do. The problem is that these are not the people we are supposed to be reaching with the gospel.

I hope our church will always strive to be a real genuine community where people, even different ones, are accepted. I know I have personally been guilty of causing some to feel uncomfortable, so my prayer begins for myself. I pray that Christ, in making us more like him, will make us more loving to those who are unlike us.

[1] Cultivating Wholeness: A guide to care and counseling in Faith Communities

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What will you withhold?

This morning, in my devotional time, I found myself asking a question that brought a great deal of reflection. Allow me to share, and I hope you will ask yourself the same question.

Consider this statement: “Lord, if [blank] is your will, I accept it.” Then ask yourself, is there anything you would not put in that blank? If so, then that’s an area of your life where you still remove Christ from the throne.

Truly submitting to the Lord means accepting whatever goes in that blank—no matter what it costs us or requires of us. Now, before you get too hard on yourself, this is not meant as an indictment. It’s a good exercise, because, until the day he has finished transforming you into the image of Christ, it is likely you will always have something (if you dig deep enough) which you would rather keep out of that statement.

I have to admit there are things I would rather not put there. I know this because I have found such things. Of course, this lets me know I have work to do with my Lord. This means I need to be broken by him. Of course, the Lord is very good at breaking. Funny, while there are things I still find myself holding back, being broken by God is something I no longer fear. I have learned that being broken hurts terribly (that is part of the definition of ‘broken’), but afterwards, there is such relief. As I write this, it just dawned on me that it’s similar to my visits to the chiropractor. When the doctor takes a hold of my head, I know that what he is about to do to my neck (a form of breaking it) will be painful.[1] It is even frightening—especially when a stiff neck is one of my regular complaints. Yet I willingly submit because I know that, afterwards, my neck will feel wonderful—the anticipated relief is greater than the fear which precedes it. While this is an overly simplistic illustration, it is not too unlike being broken by God. God often has to break who we are, to make us into whom he wants us to be. While this can be frightening, the relief is great. As you walk with the Lord over the years, and he regularly breaks you, in time you begin to see beyond the pain you will experience, anticipating the final relief.

So, when you look at that statement above and know there are things you would not place in that blank, get ready because those are the areas where he will break you. God shares his authority in your life with no one. He bought your life with the sacrifice of Christ, and he will play second fiddle to no one—not even you. The universe fits within that small blank and you can keep nothing from it.

[1] The first time the doctor adjusted my wife’s neck she screamed and cried so loud the entire office thought she was hurt. But within a second she was so happy to have relief.

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When a Fast is not a Fast

I have, for some time, been slowly making my way through Isaiah in my morning devotional reading. This morning I read Isaiah 58. In the first verse, God told the prophet to cry aloud with a “voice like a trumpet” declaring the transgressions of the people. In the second verse we see an interesting twist. The ESV even has the passage beginning with “Yet.” This shows that what is to follow is not what we would expect after the first verse. The passage goes on to say that the people seek God daily, delight to know his ways and delight to draw near to him. But this seems contradictory. How can they be condemned for their transgressions (in verse 1) and in the next breath (in verse 2) be described in a way which most would assume to be righteous. Actually, the passage implies they were not acting righteously. When it says, “as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (ESV) the implication is that they are unrighteousness and acting in a way contrary to God’s judgment even while observing the outward elements of religion.

We discover the problem deeper in the chapter. God speaks of their fasts, but then condemns them for oppressing the workers and the poor. He goes on to tell them in verses six and seven that the fast preferred by God is to release the oppressed, to share one’s bread with the hungry and to shelter the homeless. This is an important consideration. One way sees religious practices as a simple equation between the supplicant and God. The other includes our treatment of one another as definitive of obedient observance.

Part of the way to understand this is to keep in mind the Old Covenant definition of righteousness. Righteousness meant the observance of one’s duty to others. One was righteous if one treated others in keeping with the demands of duty. But one was not righteous for observing only particular duties and ignoring others. One was righteous if it could be said they observed all duties owed to any other being. A great example is the chapter before us. If I see my duties to God as somehow separate from my duties to my fellow man, I can delude myself into thinking, “As long as I do my duty to God, it doesn’t matter how I treat others.” In an Old Covenant economy this could mean that while treating others poorly, I may offer sacrifices and fast regularly in the wrong belief that God would be satisfied with the performance of my duties to him. However, such a person was not righteous before God. Only one who did his duty to everyone was truly defined as righteous—someone who had left no duty unperformed.

Those to whom God speaks in Isaiah 58 were not righteous because they owed duties to their workers and to the poor, which they ignored while seeking God’s favor through religious observance. There are two things which help us to see why this was a problem.

First, all men[1] are made in God’s image. We all reflect his image and the way we treat other people reflects on our treatment of God. If I despise my fellow man, how can I claim to love God in whose image my fellow man was made (James 3:9-10)? Our treatment of our fellow man serves as a litmus test of our claim to love God (1 John 3:10).

Second, consider for a moment a wealthy man deciding, “Today, in honor of God, I will fast and eat nothing.” What happens to the food? It is still consumed by the same man, just on another day.[2] It is only the consumption that is delayed. However, if I take the food I would have eaten and give it to another, it is gone, never to return. It has actually cost me something. The former cost me nothing. The former cheapens the sacrifice. This form of fasting only delays the consumption, so is it truly a fast and sacrifice? God says it is not (Psalm 51:16-17; 1 John 3:17).

God condemned his people for observing the details of fasts and sacrifices without recognizing the most important element of these—concern for others. Our religious observances or faith practices are not separate from our treatment of our fellow man. They go hand in hand. You honor God by treating those created in his image with dignity.

[1] By this I mean all humanity—mankind.

[2] Yes, I understand that some foods may not be preserved and their lack of consumption could make them garbage. But this makes it even worse! Imagine the man throwing away moldy bread today, which he chose not to eat yesterday during a fast, rather than giving it to some poor person who could have consumed it while it was still good.

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A Change of Heart

San Antonio Riverwalk
San Antonio Riverwalk

Recently, the Lord has been working on something in my heart that surprises me. He does that from time to time—pointing out a problem or needed change of which I was previously unaware. One such experience has been weighing on me lately.

When I was about nine years old I went to the local theater where a new movie was playing—a kid could wander off to the theater alone in those days and no one batted an eye. I sat there in the dark watching Grizzly Adams. I was smitten with the mountains and forests. From that day forward I wanted to live at least near mountains, if not right in them.

The Lord allowed me to live in the Bighorns, the Rockies, and the Cascade mountains. I truly loved the mountains, When I came to San Antonio, I was sure God was calling me to the church here. However, I assumed by the situation and my heart that God was likely only going to have me stay here temporarily, and before long he would send me back to my beloved mountains. Now, years later I am feeling convicted of a terrible thing.

Over this last eight years, I fell in love with the people here. What I did not fall in love with was the city itself. Be honest! San Antonio is a huge, highly-populated area. Traffic is horrible. It is almost impossible to go anywhere without a crowd and even more difficult to find a place where one neither smells exhaust nor hears traffic. These have made it quite hard for me.

Yesterday, I shared with my church something of which the Lord has convicted me. I have made myself loathe this city itself—once again, not meaning the people. I find myself thinking negatively about the city and life here. I find myself distracted by thoughts of returning to a small town somewhere in the mountains. The problem is that I know he has called me here—and that he is not done with me here.

What I have done is similar to a spouse who despises his wife, not because she is a bad wife, but because he has fed his mind with negative thoughts about her. I have allowed myself to fixate on the negatives about life in San Antonio—traffic, crowds, etc. In that way, I have kept seeing myself as here only temporarily. God has me here. He wants me here. He is not done with me here. I need to come to terms with that and work on my attitude about living here.

Don’t get me wrong. Staying with this church has mostly been pretty easy because I love the people so much—that love has only grown since the beginning. It is love for the city that I need to develop.

I have been praying for the Lord to take care of my attitude and give me a heart for this city. As part of that, I have committed myself to a frame of thought and a practice. If a man came to me filled with bad thoughts about his wife, I would counsel him to find one good thing about his wife each day for the next thirty days and then come back to me. I have decided I need to do that myself about this city.

To do this, I will post one “thing I love about living in San Antonio” on social media, each day for the next month. Part of the exercise is not to qualify it, but to simply express my love for it. This morning I posted that I love the Riverwalk. I do this because the calling is God’s part; the attitude is impacted by him but is mostly my own part.

I want to love San Antonio—not only the people but the city itself. I am committed to spending the rest of my life in this city if that is God’s will. Now I need to seek the contentment to stay here the rest of my days.

Please pray for this transformation.

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Forgiveness is hard!

forgivenLately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of forgiveness. I won’t share why, but let it suffice to say that pastors need forgiveness just as much as anyone. Funny thing is that we are best prepared to teach the things we have hardest learned. One who truly understands forgiveness, has both forgiven others much and been forgiven much by others—there is no other way to learn these lessons.

Often when counseling someone to forgive, there is one most common reaction. When hurt by another or slighted in some way, we are often unwilling to forgive the person because it would mean they got away with what they did. We can find ourselves thinking, “Once that person pays for what they did I will forgive them.” Another form of this would be “Once that person reverses the results of their actions, then I will forgive their actions.” The problem is that this is not forgiveness.

According to Dictionary.com, the word forgive comes from the Old English forgiefan, which is a compound of the prefix for meaning “completely” and giefan meaning “to give.” It literally means to give up completely. You see, if we require any rebalancing of the scales prior to forgiveness, it is not forgiveness we practice. This is because we would not be giving it up completely. In effect it would be saying, “I will not give up that much, but if you act to bring the line back this far then I can work with you by giving that up.”

Another reason a requirement for restitution does not constitute true forgiveness is because it is, instead, a demand for justice, or at least a more just outcome. Forgiveness is not interested in justice, it offers grace and mercy. Forgiveness is, in effect, to declare the scales balanced. If one demands the scales be actually balanced, then there is no forgiveness necessary.

One can only forgive if one gives up completely the right to be recompensed. One truly forgives only when one declares the scales of justice to be balanced.

So, how best can we do this? One thing to do is keep in mind that this is exactly what God did for you through Christ. God did not demand you make up for your sins, or work some of them off so there was less to forgive. No. He met you where you were, in the midst of your darkest sins, to forgive you. He declared the scales balanced. When he did this he gave up any right to demand justice against you. Think about that for a moment. The God of the universe, creator of all, the most holy and righteous judge gave up any right to demand restitution for your sins. He declared the scales balanced, meaning he declared you as not guilty of the sins—he declared that you did not do them. You see, one reason we cannot require restitution when forgiving is because we are in effect declaring the forgiven action never happened—if it never happened there is nothing for which to make restitution. We are, in effect, justifying that person in our own eyes and hearts. So, was this act of God a divine fiction—God winked and pretended you were not guilty? No. God did this by placing your sins upon Christ. The sinless Christ was declared, willingly taking it upon himself, to be guilty of your sins. We often gloss over this because we know that Christ is sinless and never sinned. We are willing to say he bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). We are willing to see his parallel in the scape goat. We forget that this means the guilt itself was placed upon Christ. Folks, understand! This means you are not guilty of your sins. Christ has been declared guilty of them! I know this sounds too harsh, but it is the reality of the transaction to which Christ submitted. We are forgiven because Christ took our sins and he is righteous enough to balance any scales of justice.

We are commanded to forgive and should do so, because that sin committed against us was also placed upon Christ. Now this assumes the person to be a Christian. What if that person is not? Then all that person has to do is come to Christ and that sin will be placed upon Christ. So, when we refuse to forgive, we are declaring the sacrifice of Christ as insufficient to cover that sin. If Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient to cover that sin, then there is no hope for our own sins. We find ourselves caught in a trap when we refuse to forgive.

There is one more thing to remember about forgiveness. If we are truly declaring the person who has sinned against us as not guilty (as we do when giving up their offense completely), then can we ever bring that back up? If we bring it up against them later, then we show that we have not actually forgiven them. We do this because bringing it back up says, “You are guilty of this,” which is the opposite of forgiveness which declares, “You are not guilty of this.” How can we say we forgive when we then hold the forgiven act against the one we claim to have forgiven?

As you read this understand that I rebuke myself in this far more than anyone can know. There are things I have not forgiven people for. I thought I had done so, simply because I had decided to not demand restitution. However, by continuing to see them as guilty of the transgression shows I did not truly forgive.

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Whatever is True?

This morning, because of some personal inner wrestling, I found myself seeking comfort from Philippians 4:8, which reads (ESV):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When you find your mind fixated on negatives, this passage can be a great help. It reminds us to fill our mind with those things which are positive. However, it is too easy to misunderstand this passage and think of it as a sort of positive confession or as an example of early pop-psychology. This would be an error. It is not saying to simply think happy thoughts. It is not telling us that claiming good things will make them a reality. While the latter parts of the passage can be misunderstood this way, the very first encouragement prevents it.

The passage begins by telling us to think about “whatever is true”. I found myself wondering how the author meant this word. Did he mean “true” as in the correspondence view of truth, meaning it is something that corresponds with reality? Is it possible that the apostle Paul was commanding us to think about what is true and mean that which is “reliable, unfailing and sure”[1]? It is very important for us to understand exactly what Paul intended. Each definition includes different materials for us to fill our minds with. The latter group would be a much smaller group than the former correspondence definition.

If Paul is commanding us to think about those things that are sure and unchanging then we have a very small group included. However, if he intends us to understand “true” as everything that corresponds to reality, then we get a different feel for this part of the passage.

The word Greek word used is ἀληθής which means “statements that agree with facts” or “substantively true thing, fact”.[2] The antonym for this word is ψευδής which means “lying” or “false”.[3]

Paul is commanding us to look at what is factually true. To honestly look at what corresponds to reality. We are not called to imagine things as better than they are, but to honestly look at how they truly are. We are called to be people who accept and act upon the truth. One of the greatest causes of depression is the lies we tell ourselves. You can convince yourself that you are worse off than you actually are. You can be certain that the true condition of your life is false. You can build your actions upon lies that you have told yourself.

As Christians, we must have the courage to look honestly at the truth, accept it and act upon it. We should never hide from the truth, even the hard truths. We should never accept the lies told to us—whether told by others, by the enemy or by ourselves.

This actually informs our view of the rest of the passage. We are to think about those things which are truly honorable, truly just, truly pure, truly lovely, truly commendable, truly excellent, and truly praise-worthy.

[1] Dictionary.com definition of “true”

[2] Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament

[3] Ibid.

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The Lord’s Servant

This morning, my devotional reading was in Isaiah 42. I was struck with the following (vv1-4 ESV):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

 

It is important that we understand this passage is a description of Christ. However, keep in mind it also points to another. Hebrews 10:1 tells us that the law was a shadow of the good things to come. The law established Israel as a servant of God. Israel was a shadow of the true good servant to come. Israel, in this capacity, serves as a shadow of Christ. So this passage refers to Christ as the good servant who would peacefully and faithfully seek justice, but it also refers to his Old Testament image—Israel. Now, after the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church fills this role as the image of Christ upon the earth. We must keep this in mind. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 42:1-4 was, in their role as the Old Testament shadow of Christ, Israel; was Christ who came in the flesh; and, is applicable to the Church who displays Christ today. If Christ is seeking Justice in the world—as Isaiah says he will do—then he does it through his church.

Notice something about this passage. It says the servant would not cry aloud or lift up his voice, would not break even a bruised reed, nor extinguish a faintly burning wick. This is an image of someone working, but doing so peacefully. It is not the image of an activist screaming in a bullhorn. It is not the image of a rebel taking up arms to throw off a tyrant. It is the image of one who quietly and peacefully sets his shoulder to the work of establishing justice around him.

This image is to be a description of our own work in the world. We are to be about the business of establishing justice and these efforts should be marked by two qualities: peacefulness and faithfulness. We are to seek justice in a way that encourages the peaceful transformation of society from unjust to just and we are to do so no matter how long it takes and regardless of how many oppose our efforts.

The faithfulness is easy to understand and difficult to misapply. This means doing it without stopping and without discouragement. Actually, the passage goes on to say that the servant will not grow faint or be discouraged until his work of establishing justice is complete. This helps us to understand exactly what is meant.

The problem comes when trying to understand the peacefulness quality. Does this mean we must always be quiet and malleable? Does this require having a milquetoast quality? Well, if we follow Christ’s example we have to conclude that this is not what is intended. Christ opposed strongly. He stood for the weak and he spoke for the voiceless. He insulted the spiritual leaders of his day (What else is meant by calling them “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones” or a “brood of vipers”?) He flipped over tables, and drove away the merchants with a hand fashioned whip. He stood before a king and contemptuously refused to answer any questions.

So, what does this mean? How do we fulfill this quality? Actually, the passage itself makes it clear.

First, how we speak:

It says he would not lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. This doesn’t mean we never shout or be loud in support of justice. But it does mean we do not draw attention to ourselves. When we shout it is not to put ourselves forward, but to put forward the cause and the need for justice and to draw attention to the victims. If we raise our voices, it is so the world is informed of the injustice. We speak to publicize the need, rather than our efforts.

Second, how we act:

Notice that the unbroken reed was already bruised. For those who do not understand this means that it is previously damaged and weakened. Notice that the unquenched wick is already burning faintly—nearly extinguished on its own. In other words, he will not do more harm to what has already been damaged. The servant of God does not destroy what is already broken, nor does he tear down what is already falling. The servant of God seeks to build up, to encourage, to mend.

Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite. When we see Christians screaming in people’s faces or practicing scorched-earth politics the world sees a twisted image of Christ. Believers responding to sin with judgment rather than forgiveness mistake Pharisaism for Christianity. When we are more interested in being loved by the powerful than lifting up the weak we are not acting as Christ.

Christ had an Old Testament image which was embodied in Israel. Christ was the physical manifestation foreshadowed by Israel.

Peacefully seek justice—justice for our fellow believers, justice for our neighbors and even justice for those who oppose us.

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Don’t come to this party!

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Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did you know pastors occasionally hold parties? We do. Sometimes we welcome people into our homes to eat, talk and enjoy one another’s company. These can be blessed times. Actually, doing this is one sign of being qualified to serve as an elder (pastor is an elder). 1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:8 both say he must be hospitable. Well, last night I threw a party, but of another variety—one not very hospitable. This party, also, is one seldom people believe their pastors would have. However, it is one quite common among us. It was a pity party.

Last night, I found myself feeling some of the pressures of the fishbowl. You see, pastors are constantly under scrutiny. If you think the internet is quick to get offended at even the slightest perceived discretion, try the average American church goer. We mastered offense and shaming far before there was an internet. Well, last night I found myself just wishing to be able to simply share what I feel and think without the constant need to filter it through how it will be perceived as by others. I have a good friend who is very blunt, apparently holding nothing back. If he is thinking something, everyone knows it. If he is upset about something, it is not hidden. Of course some of my friends are going to be shocked because they doubt I hold much back—if they only knew.

This pressure can weigh quite heavily on a pastor. Many people will share their experiences of the church trying to force compliance upon a church member, of judging them and condemning them for every little discretion, no matter how slight or even if imagined. Actually, many of the people to whom this is most commonly done are pastors. This is why in some segments of the church the average pastorate only lasts nine months. Actually, of all the men who enter into pastoral ministry a large group will not continue more than a few years.

I say all this not so you will join me in my pity party. I say it because it is the foundation for my sharing something from the Word of God that I think He gave me. I was, in my pity party, getting very tempted to just drop the filter and just spew forth what I was feeling—to vent my spleen about something. However, this morning while praying for my church and reading scripture I read Isaiah 38 and 39. In Isaiah 39, Hezekiah was visited by an envoy from Babylon because his king had heard of Hezekiah’s deathbed recovery. Hezekiah, being proud, and perhaps overconfident showed him all the wealth of his household and of God’s temple. The prophet came to him warning that within the lifetime of Hezekiah’s sons all that treasure would be plundered and carried off to Babylon.

You will again be surprised to hear that this spoke to me about my pity party and my desire for the freedom to simply show my feelings without a filter. Hezekiah should have filtered himself and limited what he showed the envoy. That would have been wisdom. We can actually see some of the same foolishness of Joshua and the treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). Hezekiah thought Babylon was so far away he discerned no danger in showing them everything (Isaiah 39:3c).

Though I wanted the freedom to openly share feelings and opinions without thought of consequence, it would be unwise. You see, God is working on me. All humans go through these times. We get depressed. We get upset. We want to simply let rip and pour out whatever we feel or think with no regard for what people might think. This can actually be cathartic. I do it regularly in prayer. When feeling really down I go into a quiet private place and yell prayers at God. I demand he respond. I play the part of Job and insist that he show me why he isn’t doing what I expect. Every time he soothes my heart and comforts me. By the way, if you think there is something wrong with doing this you should read the Psalms, where David—the man after God’s own heart—does this same thing.

What today’s reading did was remind me there are things we would be wise to keep private. When I am upset with someone, it is usually best to keep it quiet—something I am still learning. When I really want to chime in on something that will upset a person for whom I care, it may be best to keep it to myself. Perhaps you will say, “But wait! Hezekiah was showing off treasures. How can you apply this here?” Well, these areas that I want to spill and these times I get down are areas and times where God is working on me. He is turning these negative feelings and qualities into virtue, a far more important treasure than gold. When I share these things before wisdom would have it, I simply end up with more work needed—and relationships possibly ruptured. When this happens, the blessings which this relationship could have been are metaphorically carried away. I have allowed myself to be plundered. I have opened the store room of my heart and let the enemy carry away my blessings—and even helped him carry away the bigger more valuable ones. Believe me, this is a lesson I do not want to learn. In my pre-Christ flesh I had two emotions: anger and not anger. Occasionally, old dead Ken shows up and wants to wreak havoc.

This doesn’t mean we never share. This doesn’t mean always wear a mask blocking anyone from seeing the true us. Actually, this means the exact opposite. To protect the store room of our hearts we need trusted friends to share with—those friends with whom we can share the key. We need people with whom we can pour out the bile that builds up. People who will listen and respond in love no matter how self-pitying we may be.

Do you have someone with whom you can share? Have you tried spilling your guts before God and simply telling him what’s in your heart without the phony pretend piety? He won’t be surprised—since he already knows what’s in there.

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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.

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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.

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