Tag Archives: church

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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I have no wrath

This morning, during my devotionals I was struck by the following passage (Isaiah 27:2-5 ESV):

In that day,

“A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!

I, the Lord, am its keeper;

every moment I water it.

Lest anyone punish it,

I keep it night and day;

I have no wrath.

Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!

I would march against them,

I would burn them up together.

Or let them lay hold of my protection,

let them make peace with me,

let them make peace with me.”

 

A striking point is the first phrase of verse four, “I have no wrath.” One part of Jesus earthly ministry and his sacrifice upon the cross was propitiation. “He is the propitiation for our sins, …” 1 John 2:2a ESV. Upon the cross, Jesus took the full wrath of God, poured out upon sin. This offering turned God’s wrath to favor (the meaning of propitiation) on our behalf. Now tie this to Isaiah and the idea of God planting a pleasant vineyard to keep and in which he will have no wrath. The vineyard is symbolic of the covenant people of God (Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT). We are the divinely planted vineyard which God prunes and tends. He is the keeper of the vineyard. Jesus used this imagery throughout his ministry. Within his vineyard there is no longer any wrath of God—none, nada, zip. All of his wrath was poured out upon Christ and turned to favor. Nothing he does within his Church (his covenant people) is a result of wrath. All of his actions in the church are love-inspired tending of the vineyard—discipline, correction and improvement. His wrath is never poured out upon us.

God expands upon this though by having Isaiah go on to write “If only I had briars to march against and burn up” (my paraphrase). This seems as if he is wishing to have, within the church, those upon which he could pour out his wrath. However, this actually supports the contention that God has no wrath. It tells us there is no one within the covenant people, his vineyard (the Church) for him to pour his wrath upon. Of course, this is because of the propitiation of Christ. We see this in verse five: let them lay hold of my protection. We, by coming to Christ and receiving his salvation have sought the protection of God. We may not be perfect, but he never will again look upon us in wrath.

Now, let us keep this in mind when dealing with our own sins and the sins of others. When I sin, nothing God does to me will be an act of wrath. He may pour out great suffering and allow great harm to come to my person as a result of his sin, but such has nothing to do with wrath. It is a loving act of discipline and correction. When others sin, I must remember that nothing I do should be seen as permitted as part of unleashing holy wrath upon the sinner. There is no wrath for God to unleash, so he could never inspire me as an agent of wrath against one of his people, no matter the sin. I may be used as an agent of his discipline and correction, but this is always part of God’s favor, not wrath.

 

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Bad Choices

Recently I’ve been doing some reading in one of my preferred areas of study: Ethics. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, is an interesting study on the choices we make that do not line up with our ethical views and why these choices happen.

I found it most interesting that many individuals if asked to predict how they would behave when faced with a certain choice would pick the option lining up with their ethics (what they should do), but when facing the actual choice they will often choose the opposite (what they want to do). Then, after the choice and the situation has passed, that same individual realizing the dissonance between their ethics and their actions will reinterpret the situation to justify their action.  In this way they follow what they know to be unethical, then remake it to look ethical.

One problem the authors point out is that when simply discussing scenarios most people quickly realize they are facing an ethical question, but when facing an actual life scenario they fail to recognize the ethical dimension of their choices. It is easier to weigh the ethics when not faced with the actual choice—when the ethical determination is simply a theoretical exercise with no actual cost.

This got me thinking about the choices churches make, never realizing what they have actually chosen. Often we justify our choices as wise, as stewardship, as honoring God, when they are actually abusive, uncaring, and divisive.

I’ve spent years as a pastor (usually going into a church after the previous pastor made a horrible choice). I have also counseled many of my fellow pastors when facing bad choices being made by themselves or their congregations.  As I mention these, understand I am not going to say what church or pastor did what. Please don’t assume I am speaking about my church or about any particular church. Also understand that I write this, not to condemn or judge, but to get people to dig a bit deeper under the surface, step back and look at choices with fresh eyes. If a congregation or pastor could foresee what choices they could face in the future, and what could tempt them to make the wrong choice, then they can be better prepared to recognize both the ethical dimension of the choices, and see the choices for what they truly are.

I know of one church where the pastor worked multiple jobs to take some stress off the church finances. He did this because the church had a mortgage that it really couldn’t afford, but by supplementing his salary, the pastor enabled the church to pay it down sooner. He felt strongly that the church was worth it and wanted to enable them to do more with the resources God gave them. At one meeting where the church board was speaking about the growing income and the decreasing mortgage balance, the pastor in passing said, “Let me know when you think the church can afford for me to go full-time and I’ll quit my other jobs.” One of the elders responded, “Well, you should be able to be full-time on what we pay you now, depending on how you live.” This pastor felt stung. It was his sacrifice that permitted the church to do what they were doing. He used his jobs for outreach and the church was growing. By having those jobs the church did not have to pay the pastor enough to support his family on the local economy. Yet, the elder was saying the pastor should be happy with a standard of living that the elder himself would have found unlivable. Churches often make choices on pastoral compensation based on the idea: “Well. It is a calling. If you serve God, then he will provide for you.” They then see it as an excuse to not support the pastor sufficiently—to abdicate their responsibilities in that area. They forget that the Lord does promise to provide for his servants. He promises to support the pastor/teacher/elder, but he promises to do it from the giving of the local church—from the wealth with which he blesses that congregation. Using “calling” and an unscriptural view of “providence” to justify forcing those who serve the church the most to raise their families on the least is at best an affront to the God who called the pastor.

I know another church where the board constantly fought the pastor. One day, an elder got some strange ideas about the pastor and put a chain and padlock on the church doors so that no one (especially the pastor) could get into the building without the elder being there. The elder believed he was protecting the church from a pastor he did not trust. In reality he was protecting his own power and from then on the church was known as “the church with the chain on the door.” In discussions with this elder he gave many justifications to support his choice to lock the pastor out of his own church.

Many churches are divided into factions. Each group seeks to have authority and exercise it over the others. They will be rife with party spirit and each make decisions not on what will glorify the Lord, and fulfill his will for the church. They make decisions based on what will keep them and their party in authority and then, after the fact, twist their reasoning to justify their behavior. I’ve seen such in operation in worship format, in building improvements, in benevolence giving, in outreach strategy.  Even the most holy of activities, as worshipping the Lord, become ammunition for these people. Let me ask you a question. Do you think God listens to the worship of his people and actually says, “I prefer when they worship me with that type of song and don’t really like when they worship me with the others.” Many will say, “But I don’t get anything out of (insert type of music) and get much more from (insert other type of music).” That is the problem. You falsely imagine that worship is intended for you to “get something from it.” Worship is intended as an opportunity to worship and bless God. He could not care less if you chant to him or rap to him. Before you think I am beating up on the traditional music folks with this, I have seen worship leaders, pastors, congregants, on both sides using music to beat up their opposition. This is not honoring to God, when you dishonor those Jesus died to save. Doing this is unethical regardless of the style of worship you are defending.

We’ve all been in churches where any noise from anyone—especially a child—receives stern looks from others. When you choose to glower at a young mother who is struggling to keep her toddler quiet, you do it with the hope they will see your face and choose to keep their child quiet. Do you really want to send the message: “Your child is not welcome here”?  In one church, I had a couple elderly women come to me to complain, “Don’t their children know how to behave in church?” I knew the family and responded, “They’ve never been in a church before so how are they to know?” I told them to give them time and be patient because the parents were seeking and we didn’t want to make their children unwelcome just because they didn’t act like these two elderly women imagined their own children did. It is funny just how much of our own children’s behavior we forget. We imagine that our own children never made any noise or never misbehaved in church and then judge parents because their children do not act like the perfect examples we imagine our own children to have been. When we do this we are choosing to send a message that children are not welcome—at least not those who act like children. We would never say it outright, but that is because we are more comfortable with a politely silent lie, than a spoken one.

Years ago, I heard about a church served lovingly by a pastor and his wife for over thirty years. They had always lived in a parsonage and lived on low income to sacrifice for the service of the church. One day the pastor died, rather suddenly. The church board notified the widow, shortly before the funeral, that she had thirty days to vacate the parsonage. In their mind, this was just good stewardship. They only had one parsonage and couldn’t pay enough for the next pastor to rent a home, so they needed her out. The problem is that the pastor and his wife were probably in that situation because of the church’s twisted view of stewardship. We are to be stewards of what is truly important to God—the people he redeemed. We are to use the world’s wealth to care for people. This is an example of a church who thought it was the money in the bank account that mattered most to God. Such a twisted view is not as uncommon as you might hope.

One bad choice people and churches make is often found in memorials. One day a friend was showing me around his church facility. It appeared everything had little brass plaques attached showing in whose name they had been given. When a person gives such things they are giving with strings attached. Heaven help the pastor who tries to remove grandma’s memorial organ, or grandpa’s memorial pew from a small country church. The thing takes the place of the beloved person and must then be treated with the same respect as the person. I told him that I felt sorry for him because if he ever decided to remodel he would be deemed guilty of throwing out Grandma or Grandpa rather than an outdated piece of furniture. Are you giving to your church to bless the kingdom or to trumpet your generosity?

There is one other type of church choice that is too common. It too can be rooted in bad stewardship concepts or in any other number of areas. This happens when a church makes a decision that will hurt another person—often the pastor. When a church knows they can have A or B, but not both, choosing either means preferring it over the other. If the church chooses A, then that means they value it more than B. If they choose B, then they prefer B to A. I’ve seen churches take actions that will require the pastor to leave—one example is a choice that favors the building over the pastor. When they do this the church is showing the pastor that they prefer the building to the pastor.

If your choice or action is unethical, it doesn’t honor God to twist the facts afterwards to make up for it. The only thing that can be done is repent, as forgiveness and make amends.

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Haggai for today

secondtempleHaggai 1:4-6 (ESV) says, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Sadly, this passage is one of the many taken out of context and misused by well-meaning pastors. It is quoted most often in sermons on tithing, telling people that they must give more to church or God will not bless the works of their hands. This is done by equating the local church with the Old Covenant temple. It is this assumption that causes the problem.

Yes, the passage does command building a temple. Yes, the people were to bring in their tithes (the portion of their wealth owed to the upkeep of God’s worship). However, equating the temple with the local church facility twists scripture. The Old Testament temple was never meant as a picture of the local church (by this word I mean the building). The Old Testament temple was a picture of Christ. The temple was symbolic of his body. This is why he said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” (John 2:19 ESV)

Understanding the temple was symbolic of the physical body of Christ—and his dual role as King and High Priest—helps us to better understand how to apply the words of Haggai, today. In Haggai’s day the people had decided it was time to concentrate on their own wealth, homes and farms, but was not yet time to build the temple, the House of God. I’m certain they assured themselves that once they were financially secure there would be time to build the temple and restore the worship of YHWH. God points out to them that without his blessing their efforts to provide for themselves were futile. Their best efforts would reap substandard results unless God worked on their behalf. This blessing was tied to their priorities. Haggai commands them to reevaluate their priorities and put God and His worship above their own drive for prosperity and security. They were to look to God for these.

How does this look today? While this is not a command to build a local church building, there is something to this passage about building the Church. But first we need to see the New Testament equivalent to the command of Haggai. We see this in Matthew 6:31-33 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Just as they were to place a priority on building the temple, we are to place a priority on building the Kingdom of God. So, how do we build the Kingdom?

We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in morals, so the world is attracted. We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in reaching the lost, so the world is transformed. We build the Kingdom by standing for righteousness in the face of the world’s onslaught. We build the Kingdom by being the very hands of Christ ministering to the physical needs of those around us. These are our priority and meeting our physical needs comes after these. Obedience to Haggai is found in obedience to Matthew 6:31-33. But does this have nothing to do with the local church?

The local church (the body, not the building) is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ in a local community. This means building up the local church, if it is a true church manifesting Christ to the world, is a major part of building the Kingdom. Actually, the lion’s share of our Kingdom building will be done in the local church—and should be. But to make Haggai into a command to tithe or to build a nice church facility is like painting the Mona Lisa but stopping with her nose.

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The Importance of Fellowship

fellowshipWe in the church are all disciples of Christ and, as such, we have been given the responsibility to take the good news to the world, sharing it with others. Too often we lose sight of the goal of this sharing. We don’t share merely to elicit agreement with our beliefs. While important, this is not the primary goal for which we strive. Neither is the physical response of baptism and church membership the actual goal. The goal of sharing the gospel is taking those who were once enemies of God and making them into mature disciples of Christ. Some will argue that assent to the gospel, baptism and church membership are the definition of discipleship, but I would argue this is only the beginning. Yes, at that point the responder has taken on the status of being a disciple.

There is far more to being a disciple than simply assenting to doctrines, being baptized in water and developing the habit of attending church. A mature disciple is one who exhibits the defining qualities of Christ in the flesh. Because this person has taken on the qualities of Christ, this person responds as Christ would to situations. This person lives as Christ would. The person desires what Christ desired. When one sees the mature disciple, one sees Christ. This is our goal.

Now, think about this definition of a mature believer and ask, “How much of what is done in church actually contributes to this goal?” How many of our programs actually encourage us to live like Christ? Then ask how many of those that encourage this sort of life actually empower us to do this? Think hard about it and I am sure you will notice that few of our most cherished programs actually qualify.

You may say, “Well, Sunday school does this.” You are partly right. Perhaps you will mention Bible Study or biblically focused sermons.  I would argue that very little disciplemaking is actually going on in these settings. Before you accuse me of downplaying the importance of preaching and teaching the Bible, allow me to explain. These educational programs are very useful in teaching what Jesus did. They are very useful in teaching what scripture commands us to do—when and where it commands. They teach us what scripture forbids—too often these even throw in a few things it actually does not forbid. But is this enough to learn how to live as Christ in the world? I would argue that it’s a good start, but only a start.

I have taught many people to drive. I’ve taught my wife, my three children and several immigrants how to drive. Let me use driver instruction as an illustration of disciplemaking. When you teach someone to drive, the goal is getting them to be able to safely, legally and responsibly handle a moving vehicle in a variety of situations. The possible situations one will face over a lifetime of driving are so numerous no one could predict all the possible scenarios. Now suppose I want to take someone who does not know how to operate an automobile and make them into a skilled driver. I could start with classes—and classes are important. We could teach them about the parts of the car; the way the parts work; the way to maintain them. When they understand these we might have a class on the laws of the road. Then we could teach them about what to do when the roads are slippery or when driving at night. We would, of course, want to teach them how to merge on to a highway (as one who lives in San Antonio, I can assure you many people need a refresher course on this one!). They need to learn how to change lanes safely (don’t get me started on this one!).

Suppose we sat our prospective new driver down, gave them classroom instructions in all of these and then simply threw them a license and a set of car keys, and cut them loose. You’d have chaos (something very close to Loop 1604 during San Antonio rush hour). You would have just guaranteed that person’s failure. What did we miss? We missed practical application. We missed road instruction. Someone learns to turn safely by actually turning a vehicle—they learn the feel of the car pulling to one side, the feel of the accelerator and the brake. They learn how to change lanes by actually doing it. They learn to merge on the highway by getting onto and off of the highway multiple times. They learn to drive at night by driving at night.

Learning to drive has a great deal in common with making disciples. We want people to live, walk, and talk like Christ. Sunday school and Bible Study lay a good foundation when done properly. Church programs can attract people in, and give them some instruction. However, those who come in will never really learn to be Christ in the assortment of situations life throws at them, unless they observe someone else living like Christ. This is why fellowship is so important—I define that here as the personal interaction between the present and the potential people of God (between those who have been reached, but also between us and those we strive to reach).

We make disciples by being disciples in the presence of those who are either non-disciples or who are immature disciples. We make disciples not merely by teaching what Christ did in the past, or what Christ has commanded. This is insufficient because life is full of decisions that Christ did not have an opportunity to model. This does not detract from him being tempted in every way as we are. However, it recognizes the difference between our world and theirs. Neither does scripture offer a black and white command for every possible decision we face. This was actually a major contributor to the strife between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Life was full of situations for which the scriptures gave no direct command so the rabbis had to interpret. They often decided a safe choice was to pile rules upon rules. Jesus showed a different way. He lived for years with his disciples modeling the right way to them. They saw how to live a righteous life through close proximity to one who was living a righteous life.

Disciplemaking must include practical field training. This means getting into the lives of other disciples. This requires us to spend time together—to visit with one another; to talk; to interact at various levels. The church has a long history of fellowship—usually defined as a Potluck meal. I would contend that biblical fellowship is far more than a meal, and that biblical fellowship is to be a primary activity of God’s people in church—not something relegated beneath the message, but an essential part of learning the lessons of the message. The church meeting (the service set aside for worship and the message) is the classroom. The world is where we practically apply what we learn. However, our preparation is not complete without the lab between the lesson and the application. Our fellowship is the lab where we learn to apply the things we learned from the message and the exposition of scripture. It is where we learn to interact in a godly way, to handle strife, to forgive, to bless, etc. Then, after we have not only absorbed the facts of the lesson, but have learned to apply them, we are prepared to go out into the world and live them out.

Biblical preaching and teaching are important. But fellowship between those so taught is equally important. We must build into our churches more opportunities to fellowship with one another. We must stop relegating these opportunities to the occasional second tier status to which such fellowship has for too long been exiled. The interaction of God’s people is just as important for making disciples as anything that will ever come from the pulpit.

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Our Journey, The Next Step

Our last Sunday in the Danbury building will be January 18, 2015. Interestingly, many people ask questions showing a misunderstanding about “church” and about what is happening. Often I hear questions asked which imply that once the building is sold we will no longer exist as a church. This could not be farther from the truth of biblical teaching.

The word “Church” in English is actually a very different word from the one used in the New Testament—they are not even related. However, there is some cross-over. Our word “Church” comes from the German word kirche. This word finds its origin in the Greek word kyriakon. Literally it expresses the idea of “The Lord’s house” kyri-a-doma (Dictionary.com). The New Testament word for church is ekklesia. This Greek word defined an assembly of citizens called together to make decisions and take action. It was the meeting where civic body acted in concert. The New Testament church is the gathering of God’s people acting in concert in service to God.

By looking at the different words you can see the problem. The New Testament idea of church doesn’t assume a special building or place of meeting. It assumes a collection of people called out from the world coming together as the local expression of Christ. The modern English word “church” is very hard to separate from the concept of a building where special services are held and functions are performed. The modern idea would have reminded the apostles of the Jerusalem Temple. However, the temple was a picture of the assembly of the people. We are the temple of God and no building can usurp that role.

Yes, we are selling our building. We will, for a time, not have a regular facility dedicated only to meetings and services. The board has decided to spend some time meeting in a home. This means we will likely go “from house to house” for a time. This is actually biblical and more in keeping with the New Testament. Will this be our permanent condition? That is up to God. He has to guide us into his plan for the church.

During this time, keep in mind that we are still a Church in the New Testament meaning—we are an assembly of believers called out to be the local expression of Christ. Also, keep in mind that Christ promised to be in our midst wherever two or more are gathered in his name. He didn’t say, “When you gather in a suitably dedicated building, I’ll be there.” We could gather in a house, in a barn, in a tent, in a field and Jesus would still be there among us. The important thing is continuing to love one another in the name of Christ and to live out the gospel where he has us.

After January 18, we will no longer have a building. However, we still have a temple. You and I are each stones in that edifice built by God. It is a living temple, built of the people of God. When we gather together Jesus is with us. The Holy Spirit still empowers us to minister.

How long will we be without a facility? That is up to God. I am not giving up looking. This is where we are now—and we go this way in obedience of God. However, as one who has experience in house church I know we can be blessed while in this condition. Blessing comes to a congregation through being the Church, not through bricks, sticks, stones and mortar.

If being without a building undermines our dedication to each other, we would have to admit we were never an actual New Testament church. I don’t believe this is going to happen. I see this as an opportunity to get weaned off of love for place, and restore a fresh love for one another. Turn your gaze from the building and look for the presence of Christ among your fellow believers. God stopped occupying buildings when he came to live as a man (Christ) and then poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh. People build and occupy buildings; God builds and occupies people.

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