Church – Life Changing or Not?


Did you see that the Barna Group did a recent survey asking American Christians about the effect going to worship has on their life?  I think the results are thought provoking:

26% said their life has changed or been greatly impacted

25% said it “somewhat” had an influence

46% said their life has not changed from attending church

Why is that?  How do you think these numbers break down in your own church?  Why do you go to worship?  And pastors, is leading worship transforming for you?

One more thing I came across recently, that may be related: a video that went viral last month that is very provocative.  If you haven’t seen “Why I Love Jesus but Hate Religion” yet, take a look.  Do you agree there is a difference between religion and following Jesus?  Should religion be life changing?  Is it the wrong thing to expect?  Would you expect following Jesus to be life changing?  Are following Jesus and religion mutually exclusive?  If yes, then what?  If no, then why don’t Barna’s numbers suggest otherwise?  Share your thoughts and reactions with a comment!  I’m trying to provoke a response here!

At this point, I’m not saying one thing or another.  One day soon, however, I may share with you some shifts in my own thinking.

Learn What You Believe – Part IV


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Part IV – Suffered, Crucified, Risen

Dear friends:

I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe.  So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally.  It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything .  Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either.  But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot.  Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school.  Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done.  So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again;

Suffered/Crucified

Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification.  This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight.  Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death.  But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.

The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer.  To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death.  But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”.  They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.

Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead.  But there is significance in the manner of his execution.  The cross was a sign of being cursed.  It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair?  Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it?  But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13).  To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But!  That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.

Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.”  Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive.  Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it.  “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor.  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).

Hell

“He descended into Hell”.  I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?

John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”  Yes, he really said that.  Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20.  The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death.  What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul.  Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death.  When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance.  He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment.  To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.”  Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[1]  If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.

Resurrection

Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  Long time church people hardly think about it.  Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar.  We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window.  Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:

 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.  And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.[2]

Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there.  The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works.  If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.”  But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning.  Give that careful consideration.

Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.

…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil.  If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God.  The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.[3]

Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world.  Look for how they intersect with your life today.

Next: Ascended, Return and Judgment


[1] Isaiah 25:8

[2] I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.

Learn What You Believe – part III


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Part III – Christ, Son, Born, Lord

A friend of my wife’s is vegetarian.  She told us the story once of when she invited friends over to grill, carnivores and vegetores alike.  As he was leaving, one of her carnivorous friends thanked her for providing some real beef on the grill – it was one of the best hamburgers he’d ever had.  The thing was, all she had was the usual vegetarian mushroom/soy/whatever meat “substitute”.  Rather than accepting her point that “you can’t tell the difference”, I preferred to assume that her carnivore guests had very low standards for hamburgers.  After living almost twenty years in cow country, I can claim confidently that the key ingredient to a great burger is not what you pile on top; the essential ingredient is a nice juicy, grilled to perfection patty of ground cow.  Without that, what you have might taste alright, but what you have is not a hamburger, because you don’t have the primary ingredient.

The meat of the Apostles’ Creed – the essential ingredient that makes the Creed the hefty spiritual sandwich that it is – begins with these words “I believe in Jesus Christ…”  Believing in Jesus is the core, the heart of the Christian faith.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …

Anointed

Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that he was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.  It is a title that comes from a Greek word, christos, which reflects a Hebrew word translated as messiah.  Messiah and Christ are interchangeable because they both mean “anointed”;  Put another way, this title is The Anointed One – God’s Anointed One.

In the Old Testament, God would occasionally tell his prophets to anoint a particular person with olive oil to serve as king.  This signified that person as set apart, or ordained, by God for leadership of God’s people.  To believe Jesus to be God’s Anointed One is to believe that Jesus was ordained, set apart, by God to be the leader of God’s kingdom.  Jesus, if you remember the gospel stories (Matthew 3, Mark 1;1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34), was baptized not with olive oil, but the Holy Spirit, right there in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

As God’s Anointed One, Jesus leads his people as Prophet (teacher), High Priest, and Eternal King[1]:

  • He is our Prophet because Jesus reveals completely everything about God’s will and purpose for fixing the Garden of Eden disaster (in other words, salvation) that had not been made clear before.
  • Jesus is our only High Priest because not only did he sacrifice his own body as the sin sacrifice for all time, but he now performs the priestly task of standing before God on behalf of his people.
  • Finally, Jesus was anointed as our Eternal King because he rules – governs – leads – God’s people as they read and hear the Scriptures, and through his Spirit that lives inside every believer (the Holy Spirit); he protects us against everything that is at war with God’s kingdom, and he provides everything we need to flourish in this freedom-from-sin life he has won for us.

Only Son, born of Virgin Mary

God’s only Son and born of the Virgin Mary are related ideas.

First, aren’t we all supposed to be God’s children, so how can Jesus be God’s only kid?  Well, this is the flip side of saying that God Almighty is Father of Jesus the Messiah.  It recognizes that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique – that uniqueness is spelled out in Philippians 2:6-9 (also see John 1:1-18):

Though he was God,

He did not think of equality with God

As something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

He took the humble position of a slave

And was born as a human being

When he appeared in human form,

He humbled himself in obedience to God

And died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

Highest honor

And gave him the name above all other names …

Jesus the Christ is uniquely God’s Son because he is fully God, fully human; he was the Divine Agent of Creation (John 1:3); his sacrificial obedience led to the highest honor, his name above any other thing in the created order –  Jesus is to be worshiped.  His relationship with God is unique, essential to his person, a relationship that is integral to God’s triune nature.

For a lot of Protestant Christians, the Virgin Birth is not as important as it was to the early Church.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t significant any more, however.  As you remember from the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), the Holy Spirit was Jesus’, “birth” Dad (well, It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the Spirit his “biological” father).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” is a shorthand summary of this part of the Christmas story which forms the basis for the verses in Philippians 2.  This is the great mystery of the Incarnation: that Jesus, God’s Only Son, The Anointed, was completely God, and also completely human.  It also means that Jesus was God’s Only Anointed from the very beginning; he wasn’t a supremely exceptional human being who caught God’s attention and “Only Son, The Anointed” bestowed on him by God like some award for excellence.  Believing Jesus was fully God and fully human has been a stumbling point for people down through the ages, because it is difficult to keep in balance.  Yet, if Jesus was not really one or the other then the entire message of Good News gets thrown off track, one direction or another.  Take some time to think on that for yourself to discover what it might mean if Jesus were only God, or only human.

“Only Son”, and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” affirm the Incarnation of Jesus from two different directions, the eternal Divine direction, and the helpless human direction.

Lord

The words “Jesus is Lord” are so familiar and time worn that most Christians have lost the significance of the words.  In fact, the concept of Lordship is completely foreign to North American culture.  We have no experience with it, or any valid parallel.  Let’s face it – lordship was a basic cultural structure of the human race until we Americans consciously chose to invent a completely different way to build culture.

In the New Testament the title “Lord” is part of Jesus’ elevation by God to “the place of highest honor “.  Let’s go back to Philippians 2 for a moment where Paul says

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[2]

In Philippians Jesus is Lord because his name is above every name; his lordship will be confessed by everyone.  So in the New Testament, the title “Lord” is applied to Jesus in the highest sense possible, that he is God, the God of Israel.  To quote a theologian, the writers of the New Testament used the title “Lord” for Jesus because

…it was the most adequate term for expressing what … believers had come to understand and appreciate of Jesus’ person and achievement and his present decisive role in the outworking of God’s purpose and blessing for the universe.[3]

Most importantly however, how does one respond to such a Lord?  The only possible response to this kind of Lordship is submission (as Philippians 2:10-11 states).  This is another concept North Americans have trouble understanding.  Try it like this: to believe that Jesus is your Lord means that you are no longer “self-employed”.  The responsibility for failure or success, making all the right decisions at the right time, doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders anymore.  Rather, you are now “Jesus-employed”.  He has bought you out, he now owns the whole enchilada, and he is now the one responsible for making sure everything runs well.  To paraphrase Calvin, to claim Jesus as Lord means:

We are [the Lord’s]: let us therefore live for him and die for him.  We are [the Lord’s]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.   We are [the Lord’s]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only [permissible] goal.[4]

That is the goal – not merely to say “I believe in Jesus as my Lord” – but in the mess of every day’s living to strive toward Jesus, the Anointed-Fully-God-Fully-Human, to live for him more, to let his wisdom and will rule your actions more.  Yes, you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; so how is that “making you” today?

Up next: Crucified, Descent, Resurrection.


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 31.

[2] Philippians 2:9-11, NLT.  These words are arranged in the form of verse because most modern scholars believe that Paul was quoting a contemporary hymn.

[3] F.F. Bruce, Paul:Apostle of the Heart Set Free; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 117.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press, 1960, p. 690.

Learn What You Believe – part II


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Part II – Father Almighty, Creator

I introduced Part I – Believe in God by saying:

it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?  Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed. 

Part I went on to examine the words, “We believe in God” from the Creed’s first statement.  I would encourage you to read Part I if you haven’t yet. Now we will look at the next part of that statement, “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

Father

Next, the Creed describes God the One and Only with a startling word – Father.  Please! Don’t get bogged down with modern indignations about inclusive versus patristic language, because that would miss the marvelous point here.  The point is, God is personal – loving, relational, knowable!  This capital G God is not remote, disinterested, or coldly unaware of you.

The description of God as the Father makes two claims: first, that God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and second, that God is our Father.  The claim that God is the Father of Jesus doesn’t imply that Christians believe Him to be male.  Rather, it expresses the idea that Jesus and God had an intimate, organic, and essential relationship.  Likewise, if you believe God to be your Father, you believe that you have a deep, growing, foundational relationship with God as well.  That is an idea worth spending some time thinking about!

Almighty

Not only is God loving and relational, God is also all powerful.  To believe that God is almighty means more than God has the power to do whatever God wants.  What we really believe is that God rules over everything; Christian and not-Christians, every country, all creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the air, this entire planet, solar system, and anything there is beyond. God rules it all in macrocosm as well as microcosm.  One of the earliest manuals for Christian education during the Reformation states that it is by God’s almighty power that God “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”[1]

If God were only some benevolent, grandfatherly figure in Heaven, wishing you well, but of limited power, God might desire to answer your prayer, but be unable.  If God were almighty, but not fatherly, God might have the ability to answer your prayer, but be unwilling.  But you believe that God the Father is almighty!  Not only does he will to answer you, God is able to “accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”[2]  This counterpoint formed by God’s Fatherly love and almighty essence means you are able to be patient during tough times, grateful is good times, trusting “[your] God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate [you] from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.”[3]  What more do you need to sleep well tonight?

Creator

Christians believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth.  This doesn’t mean that Jesus people ignorantly cling to a hopelessly outmoded view of the cosmos from the ancient world.  It means we believe that everything was created by God.  We use a very simple rule of thumb – if it ain’t God, then God created it.  That should about cover it, but just in case, the Nicene Creed clarifies that everything visible and invisible was created by God.  Which brings us full circle – if God alone is creator, and if everything else is creation, then God the Father almighty alone is to be worshiped.

But, we have also just affirmed that God is almighty Creator, and loving, relational God the Father.  Therefore, this simple statement implies that God’s act of creation is an intentional act of love.  Creation was not an accident when God sneezed and divine matter flew into the chaos and spontaneously brought order.  Nor was it the act of a dispassionate divine being who set things in motion then sat back to observe what might happen.  To claim God the Father almighty is Creator affirms that not only is creation good, because God intentionally created it, but also that God wants to be fundamentally involved in every minor detail of what goes on.

What you believe about God determines how you interpret and respond to the circumstances which every day contains.  According to the Heidelberg Catechism, when you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, it means, “I trust I him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil [comes my way] in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful father.”[4]

Who knew so much could be packed into this one little sentence, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth?  If you haven’t memorized the Apostles’ Creed yet, start with this first line.  Spend time mulling it over, thinking it through, holding it up once in awhile to moments in life; Come to know God as your almighty Father, your Creator.

Coming up, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 27.

[2] Ephesians 3:20; NLT.

[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 28.

[4] The Heidelberg Confession, question 26.

Learn What You Believe – part I


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Part One – Believe in God

Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis.  Rapidly.  History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil.  Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture.  Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America.  That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.

Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste.  In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).

Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago.  As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder.  That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?

Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.  This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D.  In those days being a Christian could be tough.  Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing.  Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed.  And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to.  That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers.  As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s.  This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with.  So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!

As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three!  The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline!  We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Believe

When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand.  To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.”  Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:

and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;

I did not make it, no it is making me…”

In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being.  The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief.  He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of.  We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’  We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’”  When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.

This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for.  It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at persecution.com).  Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all.  It has power.  It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large.  The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world).  This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.

God

“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G.  This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons.  The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance.  That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life.  Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion.  The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (I added the emphasis)

That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”

Coming up next, Part II – Father, almighty, Creator.

Water in the Valley of Life


 

I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!  You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!”  And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.  Revelation 3:15-17

Cold Mountain Creek Water

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Cold water.
Mountain creek water clear as glass.
Rushing, refreshing water.
Water that makes you want to plunge in, to drink in with every pore; filling, cleansing, quenching, poring through your entire being, filling you with purity and light.
Living water of Jesus.

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Hot water.
Mineral hot spring water.
Bubbling clearer-than-crystal, steaming water.
Soothing, healing, restorative, cleansing pure water.
Put-me-in-a-bucket and pore me into bed because now all my pain and tension has dissipated water.
Living water of Jesus.

Mineral Hot Spring Water

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Luke warm, Laodicean water.
Nasty, mineral-bitter water.
The abhorrent result from the syncretism of mountain creek and mineral hot spring water.
Can’t drink it, can’t bathe in it, can’t clean with it, can’t irrigate with it water.
Laodicean Church water.
North American Christian water.

Epilogue
Jesus didn’t want the Laodicean Christians to make a choice for him (hot), or against him (cold).  He wanted them to stop being a waste.  He wanted their lives be life giving: refreshing, healing, and restorative to those around them; pure, clear, and cleansing – like cold mountain creek water, like hot mineral spring water.

Syncretism \Syn”cre*tism\,
1. Attempted union of principles or parties irreconcilably at
variance with each other.

Syncretism doesn’t end well because it robs the principles of their distinguishing characteristics.  The Laodiceans were like lukewarm water because they had lost what was essential.  They marked the “Christian” box under religious affiliation, but based their daily living on the benefits gained as citizens of a great city state.  They didn’t see their terrible need for Jesus, even if they aligned themselves with him. In the syncretism of Laodicean citizenship and Kingdom of God citizenship, they had lost the distinguishing characteristic of absolute dependence on God, resulting in absolute service to God.

Western Christianity is closer to the time of the Laodiceans now than any time since Emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Painful times are ahead, and the thirst for the living water of Jesus is multiplying.  Yet the North American church is like the lukewarm mineral water of Laodicea.  It’s the mainline denominational churches – and the charismatic, the Pentecostal, the independent, and the four-square fundamental churches.  We mark the “Christian” box under religious affiliation, but base our daily living on the benefits gained as citizens of great world powers.  We don’t see our terrible need for Jesus, even if we align ourselves with him.  In the syncretism of North American citizenship and Kingdom of God citizenship, we have lost the distinguishing characteristic of absolute dependence on God, resulting in absolute service to God.

If your church is lukewarm mineral water it’s because it’s full of lukewarm Christians.  If it’s full of mountain creek and mineral hot spring Christians, the church will no longer be lukewarm mineral water. A Hot and cold water Christian doesn’t “brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone”, but to the depth of their soul recognizes “that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.”   Then that kind of Christian dedicates everyday living to loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and to loving other people as well as they love themselves.  They invest their time and resources to help make disciples, bring others become citizens in God’s Kingdom, and teach them to follow Jesus.  When the churches in our communities are filled with these kinds of Christians, then they will no longer make Jesus want to vomit.

If your church is like lukewarm Laodicean water, don’t waste time pointing your finger.  The only lukewarm mineral water you are responsible for is your own. Owning that is the first step toward being the living water of Jesus in the Valley of Daily Living.

Speaking Frankly – What I’ve Learned About Doing Church


As a pastor, there were things I discovered that seemed so essential to me.  I did my best to communicate them from the pulpit.  But no matter how inspired my sermons were, the need to reiterate these basics never appeared to diminish.  Since I no longer have to deal with the toes of church people I squashed on Sunday, I feel free to share these with you as directly as might be necessary.  I will understand if you choose to read with sugar bowl at hand.  A spoon full now and again may make the reading experience more enjoyable!

  • It’s not about you; it’s all about Jesus.  Don’t be satisfied with just knowing that … Let it seep into you until it merges with your DNA.
  •  It’s not about your pastor.  That poor sap is as much a sinful human being as you are.
  • It’s not about you; your favorite hymns, your injured sensibilities over the new carpet color, or the talk of pulling the plug on your pet project.
  • “Tithing” means giving ten percent, period.
  • Doing church is about loving God with all your (plural, as in, “All together now!”) hearts, souls, minds, and strength, loving other people as well as you love yourselves, and going beyond the church walls to make more followers of Jesus and teaching them his commands.
  • It’s not about the pastor.  As a fallible human being, at some point the pastor will screw up. Please do not storm away from the church, stop giving, and begin murmuring in the parking lot to recruit supporters.  Check out the Bible for lots of great ways to react appropriately.
  • Don’t let the thing of “10% of net or gross?” get in your way.  Pick one and start giving.
  • The little taste of Scripture that you get on Sunday is enough to help you survive, but not thrive.  The time we live is not a good one to be spiritually anemic.  Get grazing on God’s Word.
  • Yes!  Giving ten percent is scary.  It’s supposed to be.  Trusting God 100% isn’t easy until you’ve done it for a lifetime.
  • If you claim that you don’t know how to pray, you must not know the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Speaking of which, tithing will require you to believe God really does hear you pray, “Give me today my daily bread”.
  • Learn to forgive.  Begin with the pastor.
  • Pssst.  Worship is meant to be joyful.
  • Do you remember what commands of Jesus Christians are to know and teach?  Love God with everything, love others, and make disciples!  Pretty simple, right?
  • If you know those commands, then you know what God’s purpose is for your life for the rest of the week!  Maybe even for the rest of your life!
  • It’s not about you.  Learn.  To.  Forgive.  Loving God and loving others (see above) means it’s very important.

The Blues in a Christian Key


Driving home across Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin the other day, I was enjoying the eclectic mix of music on my iPad.  Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me”, followed by Neil Young’s “Down by the River”, with some Mumford and Sons and onto something bluesy by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Some how that bluesy number got me thinking about Christian music.

A major movement within worldwide Christianity is usually referred to as “contemporary music”, to distinguish it, I suppose, from the non-contemporary organ driven hymns written in 18th and 19th centuries English that too many church-goers consider sacred.  Yes, I have an issue with that, but maybe some other time.  All around the world Christians are taking music from their surrounding culture and adapting it for worship.  In North America, jazz, rock, pop, rap,Hip-Hop, soul, pick your favorite genre, are being used by Christian recording artists, and finding their way into church services.  I’ve heard it all except – I realized at that moment – the Blues.

If the Blues are about the sordid, miserable, broken side of human experience, then perhaps Christians have an instinctive aversion to the blues in their worship.  If Christian worship is understood as a celebration of God’s victory over evil, then a music genre devoted to the worst of human experience may seem out of place.

Perhaps you already see the irony in that.  Because Christian worship celebrates God’s victory over the blues – the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is the ultimate answer to the blues.  Without acknowledging life’s blues, it’s hard to honestly give God praise.  How about these words from Psalms 22?

    I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.

    I will praise you among your assembled people.

    Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!

    Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!

    Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!

That would make a good organ-driven hymn wouldn’t it?  But first, the writer of Psalm 22 was singing the blues:

    But I am a worm and not a man.

    I am scorned and despised by all!

    Everyone who sees me mocks me.

    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,

    “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?

    Then let the Lord save him!

    If the Lord loves him so much,

    let the Lord rescue him! ”

Sounds like the blues to me!  Or how about this oldie but goodie?:

    Oh, oh, oh… How empty the city, once teeming with people.

    A widow, this city, once in the front rank of nations,

    once queen of the ball, she’s now a drudge in the kitchen.

    She cries herself to sleep each night, tears soaking her pillow.

    No one’s left among her lovers to sit and hold her hand.

    Her friends have all dumped her.

Nope, not Muddy Waters.  Lamentations 1:1-2.  How could you put that book from the Bible to music with any style other than the Blues (or Job for that matter)? But from Jeremiah’s blues comes praise for God in Lamentations 3:

    But there’s one other thing I remember,

    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

    GOD’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.

Sing the Blues in church?  Maybe, maybe not.  But I noticed in church this week that our time of confession was an expression of the blues, and every prayer request was lifting up the blues for God to overcome.   But wouldn’t some good hard Blues be good on Good Friday?  Or every so often during Lent – the times Christians traditionally express sorrow?  If I were still planning those kinds of things I might try it- but then again, maybe I was too edgy at times.

It is the resurrection of Jesus, not the cross, that ultimately shapes the nature of the Christian faith; the up-beat bouncy-ness of pop more than the mournful soul-ness of the blues.  But I want to suggest that the blues – both as a style of music and as a metaphor – has its place in Christianity.  I mean, hey!  The Bible is full of the Blues.  And any Christian who insists that life is all sunshine and lollipops because Jesus rose again, needs to start downloading some serious Blues music, ’cause God’s victory over the blues is present tense, as well as once for all time.

Last Friday my wife went out with the office staff for a little end of the season celebrating.  Some of the younger ladies are living the blues – families that put the “dis” in dysfunctional, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, betrayed relationships – the full range of life’s misery.  If they were invited to church, maybe hearing some Blues, some lamenting, a recognition of life’s misery, would help them connect, and hear the message, “Jesus’ empty tomb is the only blues beater there truly is”.

Beats me.  I like the music genre of the Blues, and just got to wondering why I never hear it from Christian recording artists or in church.  I can’t help thinking that maybe I should.


					

The Defining Moment


This my Easter sermon from last year.  I knew that it would be my last one in that church, so I wanted it to express something crucial about Easter.  This was the best I could do.

Essence

•        It’s Easter!  And along with chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and dyed eggs, Easter baskets are stuffed with Peeps – those blue and yellow marshmallow treats

What do Peeps and Christianity have in common?

in the shape of baby chicks, with the sugar-coated outsides.  If for some reason, you removed all the sugar from Peeps, you wouldn’t have much left; a little food coloring, and who knows what else.  Because the essence of Easter Peeps is sugar.  Without sugar, there would be no Peeps in Easter baskets.

•        According to Paul, the resurrection is to the Christian Good News, what sugar is to Easter Peeps.  The essence of Christianity is the resurrection.  It is what Paul and all the other apostles preached, and it was central to what the Christians in Corinth had believed.

•        Without the resurrection, Christmas and Good Friday are nothing more than sentimental events.  Without the resurrection, Paul wrote the Corinthians, the message of salvation – of rescue – is useless.  If Jesus stayed dead, the whole Good News collapses, because evil and death would remain undefeated.  If Jesus stayed dead, it might be possible to die forgiven, but die still in the grip of death.

  • Without the resurrection, Christianity means nothing:  “if all we get out of Christ  is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot” (1 Corinthians 15:19, The Message).  If the resurrection of Christ never happened, any good news Christianity has to offer is nothing more than a myth; an interesting, perhaps symbolic, story resulting from humans wishes, but who in their right mind would want to sacrificially dedicate their life to that?
  • If the resurrection never happened, Christians would all be better off living life with all the gusto they can manage, sucking the marrow out of life here and now, because that would be all there was and would ever be.  There would be no reason to give Jesus allegiance and put trust in him.  That would be ridiculous.  One writer notes: “no one can give himself to a dead man, no one can expect anything or receive anything from a dead man.” 

•        No, Christ’s resurrection was more than God’s noble experiment to test a theoretical possibility.  Christ’s resurrection is the source of eternal life for everyone who believes the good news that God has rescued us.  According to verse 20 of our passage, Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee that those who have “fallen asleep” will rise to new life.  Christ is God’s down payment, God’s pledge, of the bodily resurrection of everyone who believes.

•        Like sugar in an Easter Peep, Easter gives Christianity its flavor, its color, and character.  If Jesus wasn’t physically raised, then death has the last word, Evil wins, and there is no rescue.

  • Easter is the essential ingredient of the Christian existence.

The Difference

•        The idea that Christ’s resurrection is the defining moment for Christians may sound inspirational on a spring morning, but will it really matter tomorrow in the grinder of everyday life?  I believe it does.

•        In the book of Acts, something completely remade Jesus’ followers from the end of the story in the gospels.   It is interesting that the gospels don’t deal very gently with these first heroes of the Christian faith in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion.  His death completely shattered them.  Even though Jesus had been telling them this was coming, they were caught off-guard.   They are described as huddled behind locked doors and windows, afraid, depressed, and despondent; completely confused about what to do next.  But somehow, beginning with that very group of people, Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire in the next few decades.  What happened to this group of depressed and fearful people who had lost the one person that bound them together?  The resurrection – Easter.  Christ’s resurrection completely turned them around.

•         First, Christ’s resurrection rewired their reaction to difficult circumstances.  In Acts we see their despair turned into hope, their sorrow into joy; their fear and indecision transformed into clear purpose and determination.  That first Easter proved that there is no situation so bleak that God doesn’t prevail.  Think about it: God’s own son became the victim of corruption, political maneuvering, miscarriage of justice, treachery, and savagery – God had finally been defeated by his rebellious creation. I can’t imagine anything bleaker than that.  But the resurrection proved that God is victorious (present tense) over all the manifestations of evil.  Jesus’ resurrection guaranteed that God’s love will never quit, can never be defeated, no matter what happens, that even death is no longer a threat.

•        The result is a new reality, where every day can be an Easter day – full of joy, celebration, happiness – because there is nothing left to fear.  That is the reason that In Acts, Paul and Silas sang praise songs after being beaten and thrown in prison; why down through the centuries Christians have kept following Jesus despite prison, torture, murder, and execution.  Christians have the hope that even death can’t beat God.  They have known that Jesus had paved the way, so they could have the same resurrection life that he did.

•        Second, the empty tomb gave the disciples a sense of purpose; because of the Resurrection this life isn’t all there is – this life is merely the warm up for what follows.  Therefore, the resurrection purpose of this life is to get prepared for the life to come.  Summarized, the purpose of the resurrection life is to practice how to love God with all that you are, show other people how much God loves them too, and urge others to join in the resurrection life.

Belief

•        Easter is so much more than a fluffy promise about what happens after you die.  It can completely transform how you live tomorrow back in the grind.

•        You can view life’s circumstances with the Easter perspective; that they can never defeat or destroy you – not even the threat of dying.

•        You can have the Easter purpose for daily living; getting prepared for the life to come.

•        Go celebrate that today – eat some marshmallow Peeps!