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Is Lent a Catholic Tradition that Leads to Hell?

No, it is not.

When it comes to debate, there are a few key verses that Christians always have on standby. If you want to argue with people about predestination and election, pull out Romans 9. If you want to talk about Gifts of the Spirit, pull out 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. If you want to eliminate women from Christian leadership, pull out 1 Timothy 2.

lentIt is no different when we’re talking about the church calendar. Yes, Lenten season is upon us. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans observe Lent, but so do Lutherans, Methodists, and some Evangelical traditions.

But then there are those who ADAMANTLY oppose Lent. They throw around phrases like “Papist traditions” and “traditions of man.” As proof-texts they will read you Mark 7:8-9 –

“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

Lent, however, is not a human tradition intended to supplant God’s commands. No one I know pushes Lent as a means of salvation or a ticket to heaven. It’s not about righteousness through works. And Christian traditions are not INHERENTLY bad. They are only bad when we use them in place of God’s work.  Lent is one of the oldest observations in Christianity and, though it has morphed over the centuries, is about aligning our hearts with God. Doug Ponder writes:

The heart of Lent is a season of fasting, which Jesus seemed to expect for his followers to do. After all, he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). In Lenten fasting we abstain from worldly pleasures to realize their power over us, to remind ourselves of our frailty and continual need of grace, and to rejoice that our appetite for sin has been forgiven and will one day be erased. I know of no Christian who would object to that!

fastingIn the Bible, Paul says that certain days are special to one person and not to another (see Romans 14). The point is not to judge each other, but in Christian liberty allow for a wide variety of how we honor and celebrate Christ. Rather than lamenting the “Papal tradition” of Lent, Christians everywhere should commend other Christians who desire to set aside human appetites in order to give space for God’s work in their lives.

Isn’t this the point of any fasting?

When our fasting (at any time of year) is centered on and motivated by God, no one should condemn it. Richard Foster wrote: “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” Since there are so many works examining the BIBLICAL practice of fasting, I’m not even going to waste space defending it. It’s an expected part of the life of a disciple of Christ.

This Lenten season, get off your high horse. Examine your life and see where your appetites control you. What can you put aside in order to create space to listen to God?

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For additional reading, check out:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/beginning-of-lent.html

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/13.54.html?start=1

http://www.christianity.com/church/redeeming-lent.html

Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Harper San Francisco, 1988.

Facepalm Jesus

Some people just don’t get it. They SHOULD get it but, for whatever reason, they simply don’t get it.

The disciples are those kinds of people. Even though these are the guys who follow Jesus around and are his closest companions, the Gospel stories show time and again that they just.don’t.get.it.

I can imagine Jesus dealing with them. They say or do something so ridiculous he can’t sokkahelp but facepalm. We see one of these instances in Mark 8,

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”

Here we start the facepalm. The scenario is eerily similar to the earlier story where Jesus fed 5,000 people with loaves and fish. This has led some people to conclude that there were two versions of the story circulating in Mark’s time, and that Mark mistakenly included both. While this might be a viable possibility for some people, it fails to account for two things: 1) the standard Christian understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and 2) the differences between the stories actually set up different points/purposes of each narrative.

As to our understanding of inspiration, our belief that the Bible has Divine origin and spark within it means that there is a godly intentionality that underlies the text. Our concept of inspiration is not something that can be proven or disproven by science – it’s a statement of faith. If you don’t believe it, I can’t convince you otherwise.

As to the different points of each narrative, that is more easily demonstrable. The first story highlighted Jesus as a new Moses. The people sat in groups in the wilderness just as Moses and the Israelite nation split into various groups/camps in the book of Exodus. Jesus providing his crowds echoes God providing for Israel in the desert.

By the time we get to the second story here in Mark 8, the story is set against the first story, almost as a check on learning for the disciples. Picture Jesus saying, “You were with me the first time. What’s gonna happen here and now?”

But the disciples fail the quiz. “Where can we get enough bread?!?”jesus-facepalm

And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

In addition to some of the numerical details being different in the stories (numbers of bread, fish, and people) Jesus is in a different location. While he spoke to Jewish people in the first narrative that had echoes of Moses and the Exodus, here Jesus is working in a Gentile area. Jesus’s ministry and blessing extends beyond the Jews and is for Gentiles as well. That Jesus extends his ministry to non-Jews is brought up previously when the Syrophoenician woman approaches him for help. Just as before, Jesus is able to abundantly bless and provide for those who follow him.

And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Cue the facepalm. Immediately after performing this incredible things, the religious leaders come and ask for a sign. When Jesus says that no sign will be given, part of me wonders if he’s really saying, “There’s not sign that you will recognize.” Jesus HAS been giving signs, but people are too blind to see what is right in front of their faces.

And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they flatbreadbegan discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

And the disciples continue in their blindness. They have seen Jesus provide in times of need, and they continue to fret about their lack. So Jesus warns them about being like the Pharisees. “I’m giving you stuff, but are you going to stay blind, too?!?” So Mark gives us a miracle story that acts as a living parable, illustrating his whole point.

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

After his initial encounter with Jesus this blind guy sees, but only in part. It’s kind of like the religious leaders and disciples. They should be able to see Jesus clearly, but clearly they can’t! Jesus might as well be a walking tree in front of them. So Jesus touches the guy again and he finally sees clearly. Cut to the disciples:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

FINALLY! Peter’s vision is clearing up and he sees Jesus for who he is.

He.Is.The.Christ.

This is the Gospel message for Jews and Gentiles alike. This Jesus is the one who came to provide abundant life, even when we’re in the wilderness. This Jesus is the one to lead the new exodus, taking these slaves into the spiritual promised land. Don’t miss the signs that are right in front of you. Don’t mistake the people for trees.

Here is our King.

Finding Fearless Faith

quotes-1449691_1280We’ve arrived at the second week of Advent, the time of year we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah at Christmas. This week we’re talking about hope. But what is hope? To many people, hope seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream – a wish.

“I hope that I get a raise.”

“I hope Uncle Frank doesn’t say anything offensive at Christmas dinner this year.”

“I hope….”

It’s nothing more than an expression of a wish or a desire. But that’s not the biblical understanding of hope. Hope is not a wish. It’s not human desire. Hope is intimately connected to faith. Hope is trusting and expecting something beneficial to come sometime in the future. It is a compelling positive view of things to come.

Romans 8:23-25 – Though we have already tasted the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are longing for the total redemption of our bodies that comes when our adoption as children of God is complete— 24 for we have been saved in this hope and for this future. But hope does not involve what we already have or see. For who goes around hoping for what he already has? 25 But if we wait expectantly for things we have never seen, then we hope with true perseverance and eager anticipation.

 “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” ~ George Washington Carvergeorge-washington-carver-393757_1280

But it’s not about something we manufacture. It’s not under our control. Hope is the proper response to the promises of God.

Psalm 119:49 – Do not forget Your promise to Your servant; through it You have given me hope. 50 This brings me solace in the midst of my troubles: that Your word has revived me.

Hope lies in God’s activity, not our own. The foundation of hope is not our own desire but an understanding that God HAS been active in human history and our lives, God IS actively working in our lives, and God WILL continue to work in our lives. This three-fold understanding of God’s behavior is the bedrock on which all hope lies. No matter what happens, we know that God is present and active. That puts is in a practical place – hope has real effects on human behavior.

Psalm 31:24 – Love the Eternal, all of you, His faithful people! He protects those who are true to Him, but He pays back the proud in kind. Be strong, and live courageously, all of you who set your hope in the Eternal!

2 Corinthians 3:12 – In light of this hope that we have, we act with great confidence and speak with great courage.

Godly hope empowers us to live courageously. It’s not about taking away all of the negative possibilities in life. It’s not about avoiding all dangers and troubles. It’s about knowing who is in control. Faith in God’s tomorrow removes our fear today. If we know that, no matter what happens, God’s plan will still come to fruition, it frees us to act without fear. Our decisions are not going to derail God’s will. Other people cannot change God’s plan. We are emboldened to act knowing that God wins. Even through the difficult times, we can still hope.

Romans 5:3-5 – We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love.

Hope isn’t diminished in bad times, it’s built in them! This may seem counterintuitive at first, but people living the good life have no need for hope- they have everything they need now.

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Infinite hope. It removes our fear. It compels us to act. It sets us apart from the lost and hopeless people in the world. It’s not because of us – it’s all because of Him. This Advent season, as we prepare ourselves for his arrival, let God’s actions in the past, his behavior today, and his promises for tomorrow, be your source of hope. In a dismal and decaying world, we have this hope that builds within us fearless faith to face whatever may come.

 “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~ Desmond Tutu

The American Sin of Nationalism

usa-1439915_1920One of my theological pet peeves is when people misuse the Bible in order to support their own over other groups. One glaring example is Jeremiah 29:11, which reads:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.

Or there’s 2 Chronicles 7:14, which states:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

These passages are HIGHLY misused because, even though they were written to and intended for ancient Israel, Americans take them and proclaim them as promises for America. The thought is that America is the new land of promise and God’s instrument in this world.

But it’s complete rubbish.

From a theological standpoint, America is no better than any other country in the world. We are not special. We are not unique. There is certainly no American exceptionalism.

Theologically speaking, of course.

Yet Americans, especially American Christians, CONTINUE to cling to national pride as though being an American meant divine favor. While this may not be true of everyone, all of the “Christians” I know who proudly claim to be nationalists are ALSO racist. They won’t say that. They say “pro-white” as though there is a difference. But being pro-white means you’re anti-anything else. And, quite simply, this nationalistic view is completely contrary to the nature and character of God.

God is the God of ALL nations. God is the God of ALL people groups. This is a lesson that we see in one of my favorite Bible stories – the story of Naaman.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.

Naaman is filled with nationalistic pride. When the prophet tells Naaman to wash in an Israeli river, his immediate response is to question why the rivers in him homeland aren’t better. We see a lot of this attitude in Christians today.

Our way is better. Our way is the good way. God favors our way.

Rubbish. The story of Naaman shows us that God is the God of all. God even cares about this non-Israelite enough to heal him. After  Naaman’s servants talk some sense into him, Naaman does as the prophet instructs and is healed! And he realizes that there is only one true God.

earth-11593_1920Naaman almost missed the biggest blessing in his life because his arrogance and nationalistic pride prevented him from hearing God.

In today’s Western culture, we need to be sure that our nationalistic pride and arrogance has not made us deaf to hear the voice of the Lord. It’s not us vs. them. Our country is not a theologically superior country. God doesn’t love one nation more than any other.

I’m fond of quoting Galatians 3:28 ~

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The human distinctions that separate us are just that – human. There is nothing of God in them. So drop the nationalism and the arrogance. Drop the racism and the sexism. Through our faith we are united. We are one.

We are God’s.

Dear America, You Left the Christian Nation Behind

flag-1192625_1920A few days ago a friend of mine posted a video of British Prime Minister David Cameron. In the video, Minister Cameron was giving his annual Easter message from 2015 and made repeated references to Great Britain being a Christian country.

And American conservatives are going NUTS for it. I’ve seen comments from people telling the PM to “stick it to Obama” and thanking him for “having the guts to say what Obama would never say.”

Watch the video:

Here’s the thing that conservative American Christians needs to understand about this video and, the bigger issue at hand, our own history: AMERICA IS NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION! In fact, we left the Christian nation behind because our founding fathers didn’t want us to be a Christian nation.

There is still an official Church of England. There is no Church of America (not officially, anyway). One of the ideas of settling in America was that there would be nobody to force our form and manner of worship – we can worship how we choose. We were part of a Christian nation and we left it behind to pursue something else.

It is inappropriate to our history and our Constitution to try to force a national faith on America now. Don’t misunderstand me – I believe that the Christian faith IS the only way to God. I do not believe that we can force the country into a mold from which it never came.

America can’t “get back” to anything because it never started out that way. It started out apart from a national faith. This ALSO means we cannot misappropriate the biblical promises to Israel and claim them as applying to the United States of America. They are not ours to claim. We are not God’s chosen people. If we humble ourselves and pray then God will not heal America and restore it to its pre-Cold War greatness.

That is NOT biblical. We can serve the one, true God from any nation on earth. We can serve the one, true God no matter which party is in office. My God is bigger than partisan politics and international borders.

If you can’t get down with that, perhaps your god is to small…

Dunkin’ Christians

The 100th anniversary of the Titanic has brought about a resurgence of interest in the story. They even re-released in 3-D the epic movie from 1997, unleashing that tortuous song from Celine Dion on a whole new generation of movie-goers. Has anyone actually seen the Titanic? I don’t mean the movie – I mean the ship. Underwater vehicles and cameras have come a long way in exploration and we now have excellent imagery of the wreckage. Have a look:

The ancient Greeks had a word to describe sunken ships – BAPTIDZO: submerged. The word “baptize” literally means to submerge or to immerse under water. For that reason, I like to call John the Baptist “John the Dunker” or “Dunkin’ John.”

dunkin-christiansIf baptize literally means to submerge, how did different Christian traditions begin doing other forms of baptism? Some traditions sprinkle water. Some traditions pour water over a person. The biblical example is that baptism is full immersion and, with the word literally meaning to immerse, that is the standard practice of many evangelicals. But the way you are baptized is not the critical issue.


Baptism itself will not save you or put you in right standing with God.

There is a great story in Acts 16. The Apostle Paul and his co-minister Silas were in prison because they had caused a raucous as they went around preaching about Jesus. So there they are in prison, praying and singing worship songs at midnight, and all of the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there is a huge earthquake and the doors shake loose and the prisoners’ chains fell off! The guard comes running, sees the open doors, and pulls out his sword to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. Better to die by his own hand with honor than to have his superiors put him to death for letting the prisoners escape. But Paul calls out to him, “Don’t hurt yourself – we’re all still here.” And the guard is blown away and asks these men of God, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul’s tells him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Then they tell him about Jesus and the guard takes them home, washes their wounds, and they baptize the guard and his family.

What do you have to do to be saved? Put your faith in Jesus. Baptism follows faith. For this reason many churches practice what we call “believer’s baptism.” Preaching always comes first: turn from your sin and put your faith in Jesus. It is also for this reason that many do not baptize infants and small children. While infant baptism is not prohibited in the Bible, the clear example is that baptism is something one does after making a decision to follow Jesus. But why baptism? Where does it come from?

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it is always pointing towards Christ. Even the Old Testament is constantly pointing towards Christ. There are two events in the Old Testament that are pre-cursors to Christian baptism; they foreshadow what is to come. Those events are the flood and the exodus.

bible-1138240_1920In the story of the flood, God sees that humanity has become corrupt and filled with violence. God instructs Noah, a righteous man, to build an ark for God will offer salvation and not destroy creation completely. So through the ark, Noah and his family enter the cleansing waters and come out the other side to a new world – a fresh start to be the people God designed them to be. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest companions, writes in his first letter:

“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you. Not the removal of filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3:21).

Similarly, in the story of the Exodus the time when God took His people out of slavery in Egypt into freedom, the people are running out of Egypt as fast as they can. Then they realize that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is coming after them to recapture them and take them prisoners and slaves back to Egypt. And all of a sudden they are trapped, stuck with the Red Sea on one side and Pharaoh’s army coming on the other side. But God does a miracle, and the waters separate so that God’s people can go through the water and come out the other side. Then the waters close back up, but God’s people have come out the other side to a new world – a fresh start to be the people God designed them to be. The New Testament carries on the same understanding of coming through the other side to a new world.

The water symbolizes God’s activity inside. Baptism becomes an outward sign of what God is doing on the inside! But John’s baptism is still before Jesus comes on the scene. Then comes Jesus and, shockingly, He asks to be baptized, too! It wasn’t that Jesus needed to repent of sin – He is the only perfect human in history. But by being baptized He publicly proclaimed, “I am aligning myself with God – I am on His side. I stand for God and His righteousness.” Christian baptism from then on become a public stand for Jesus – aligning ourselves with Him and declaring, “I belong to Him.

The Bible tells us a story in Acts 8:34-39 about a preacher named Philip. Philip comes across a man reading the Bible but the man doesn’t really get it. So Philip says, “Would you like me to explain it to you?” And he tells the man about Jesus. The man sees a body of water nearby and says, “Can I get baptized right now?” And Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” So the man gets baptized right then and there.

This is what baptism is all about; it is an outward sign of what God is doing inside of us. Through baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ – we die, are buried, and are resurrected. It is about God transforming us from the dirty prisoners we used to be into new people with fresh starts to be the people that He has designed us to be. It is where we align ourselves with God and declare to the world, “I do not belong to you – I belong to Jesus!” – Baptism is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

baptism-106057_1920So where does that leave us today? We’re left with three options. 1) If you do not believe, why not? What is it that’s holding you back from saying, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and I am willing to surrender myself to Him”? If you have never made that decision, choose Jesus today. Let Him have control of your life. Become His disciple. 2) If you do believe but have not been baptized – get baptized! It’s time to make the public statement – I believe in Jesus and I commit myself to live for Him the rest of my life. I belong to no one else – just Him! Finally, 3) If you have been baptized, let the old you die! Live a new life for God! So often we say we believe, we get baptized, but then we continue to do the same old things we’ve always done.

Baptism is about letting the old person die and coming out of the water as a brand new person – free to live a fresh start the way God designed us to be. Let your old self be washed away – start living in the freedom and newness of Jesus Christ.
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How about you? Have you been baptized? Where were you baptized?

Christian Community: It Ain’t Suposed to Be Shallow.

We live in an increasingly fragmented and shallow society. I believe people are really desiring a new way of life that is more connected with others.

universe-1044107_1920Genesis has a vivid picture of God creating. There is great chaos in the Cosmos as God is creating merely from the power of His words. Matter is neither created or destroyed, is simply changes form. God is the only one who creates something out of nothing. And every time he creates something, He steps back and says, “It is good.”

Everything is good – except for one thing in all of creation that is not good.

Genesis 2:18 tells us that it is NOT good for man to be alone.

God has given humanity all of this incredible stuff in creation, but the one thing that cannot be fulfilled by the created world is human companionship. God designed us to thrive in community. God establishes the very first human community – the family – so that we can survive.

Science shows that our health improves when we are actively plugged in to community life. Sure, there are other variables at play, but all things being equal, the person who is connected in community lives a longer and happier life. But this requires we are intentional about building that community. It means doing more than merely filling a pew with the same person week after week.

It is not enough simply to show up and think that we are building a community. Community is not built here in the service. Community is built on the outside so that we come together AS a community and worship God together. Let’s look at 3 elements of building community:

1. We must connect with Jesus.

There’s a great story about Jesus’s ministry when he encounters a small guy named Zacchaeus.

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been a pariah in the Jewish community. Not only did he extort people, but he represented the Roman occupying state. He was an enemy of God’s people, a traitor to Yahweh. Yet Jesus intentionally goes to this outsider, this incredibly flawed individual, and invited him in to community!

2. Authentic community begins when we realize that we are imperfect people invited into community with a perfect Jesus Christ.

In our imperfection we’re still invited to come an sit beside Jesus. Can you imagine that? God doesn’t require us to be perfect BEFORE we’re invited in. If we had to be perfect first we’d NEVER receive an invitation. But he loves us and invites us to be part of his community in spite of our flaws and failures.

Paul writes in Romans 5:

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

You didn’t have to be good enough for Jesus to take your place on the cross. You never could have made it. And authentic community begins when we realize that I am flawed yet still invited to be part of God’s community.

kitten-1154693_1920Radio personality Paul Harvey once said: “We’ve strayed from being fishers of men, to being keepers of the aquarium.” Some people act as though the church is supposed to be an aquarium. It’s pretty. You clean it. You watch the pretty fish swim around. It’s perfect, down to the exact pH balance and the diver with the bubbles coming out of his helmet.

People want the church to be perfect and serene. But if you read the Bible the way I do, the church isn’t meant to be an aquarium – it’s a hospital – where broken and wounded people come to find healing. As God works on our lives he cleans us up, sure, but we’re never supposed to forget that our authentic community begins with a recognition that we’re all wounded in need of a hospital.

You don’t have to be perfect – you’re invited as you are.

3. Authentic community continues as we grow and connect with each other

Acts 2 describes the intentionality early Christians had in building community:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.

Community doesn’t happen by accident. Community is built as we live life together, as we experience the ups and downs and the joys and the pains together. We don’t want to be a church of strangers simply getting together to do our spiritual thang and then disappear to our individual lives. Showing up once a week will not build community or establish relationships. Authentic community happens before and after church, through the week, after duty hours.

Think about group dynamics and cliques. People often get frustrated about an inability to break into new groups because of cliques within an organization. This is true in the church but it’s also true in the workplace and in neighborhoods. It’s not that cliques are necessarily bad or evil. Cliques develop because people form bonds with others outside of the large group environment. The clique is a fundamental element of community. People bond on the outside and bring those bonds into the larger group. You can’t say, “I’m going to show up at church once a week and then try to insert myself into a clique that meets together 3 times a week.”

What?!? While we want to be open and welcoming to all, we do need to recognize that there are in-group and out-group dynamics at play that allow us to build relationships with others, and building relationships is always a good thing. Just make sure that your relationships don’t cause you to mistreat or alienate others and you’re good to go.

The original Christians met together daily. They ate, they hung out, they celebrated. Their worship services weren’t about strangers getting together – they were about the extended family coming together to worship Jesus. Our social group ruts tend to be the people we can regular contact with on a daily or weekly basis. Connecting with God’s community means being intentional to develop those relationships and bonds.

Connect with Jesus. Recognize we’re all imperfect but called together to be part of the community of faith. Be intentional in developing the connection with others. It’s about deep relationships and forgetting the shallowness that comes with a lot of our modern culture.

You’re welcome in.

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Is The Bible More Violent than the Quran?

religion-40578_1280I recently read an article that stated the Bible is more violent than the Quran. The engineer who developed the analysis program said:

The project was inspired by the ongoing public debate around whether or not terrorism connected with Islamic fundamentalism reflects something inherently and distinctly violent about Islam compared to other major religions. ~ Tom Anderson

So in two minutes his program looked at eight emotions – Joy, Anticipation, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, Surprise, Fear/Anxiety and Trust – and concluded that the Bible scored higher for anger and lower for trust than the Quran.

The New Testament references killing and destruction 2.8% of the time while the Quran references killing and destruction 2.1%. I’ll be honest, the article doesn’t talk about the ins and outs of the program, but it’s a computer program and not a human. It’s geared towards finding quantitative data rather than qualitative data. what I mean is this:

The New Testament has some inherently violent elements. After all, it talks about the intentional self-sacrifice of Christ, who was plotted against, crucified/murdered, dead, and buried. Yes, those are some violent parts of the New Testament. But the overwhelming theme BEHIND the keyword violence is love – God’s love and self-sacrifice. I would rather have this 2.8% kind of violence than a 2.1% of Quranic violence that talks about doing harm to infidels (again, I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of the program nor do I know what material in the Quran was targeted).

My point is simply that, though the New Testament does contain Jesus 05keyword elements of violence, it is not done in a way that directs others towards violence. In fact, an honest reading of the New Testament directs people AWAY from violence and towards peace. Contrary to ultra-conservative leanings, Jesus was NOT a gun-toting war-monger.

On the flip-side, however, we need to be honest and realize that, just as violent themes in our sacred text do not necessarily lead to violent Christians, violent themes in the Quran do not necessarily lead to violent Muslims.

In the end, a simple computer search of emotional language in a sacred text is a pretty shoddy way of evaluating that text – ANY sacred text. It eliminates any nuance. It looks at the text through a single interpretive lens – the lens of the software engineer.

And that’s just shoddy hermeneutics.

A Church That Loves Politics More than It Loves Jesus

I enjoy following politics. I really enjoy political races for office. I believe that citizens in a democratic republic (like America, if you didn’t know what we are) have a duty to cast votes and play an active role in the political process. It is the primary means by which we hold our leaders accountable and shape the vision and future of our society.

I enjoy my faith. I really enjoy Jesus. I believe that citizens of God’s kingdom (all of those who claim to follow Jesus) have a duty to be loyal to Jesus and play an active role in the life of God’s kingdom. This necessitates we understand the breadth and scope of Jesus’s life, mission, and call to those of us who follow him.

One of my favorite stories from Jesus’s life takes place during a visit to the temple. Jesus sees a bunch of merchants and vendors trying to make a profit selling sacrificial animals to worshipers traveling from out of town. The mark-up would have been considerable, and the vendors were there not so much to help those who needed to offer sacrifices, but to line their own wallets with cold, hard cash.

This was simply unacceptable to Jesus, and he goes ballistic. He starts flipping over tables and driving out the cattle and animals, jesus-clears-the-temple

and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbersden.” (Mark 11)

Then this week I saw a very interesting phenomenon.

During the Iowa Caucus, I saw many churches that had opened their doors and had become caucus voting locations. Pews were filled with voters carrying flags, buttons, and banners promoting their favorite candidate.

It got me thinking…

I’m pretty sure Jesus would visit these church caucus sites in Iowa and start flipping over pews and tables…

No, it’s not wrong for Christians to engage in politics. I think it’s a GOOD thing to do.

What I have a problem with is people turning our sacred spaces into political grounds. How can we worship Jesus and worship candidates at the same time? How can our sanctuaries be converted to multi-purpose rooms used for secular political activity? I’m not cool with it.

Our call as Christians is to influence and change culture, not let culture influence and change us. One of my favorite Ed Stetzer quotations goes something like this:

When you mix faith and politics you get politics.

This is what I see happening during this election cycle. Don’t let it.

Yes, vote. Yes, get election-978904_1920involved in the political process. Yes, make sure the right candidate takes office.

No, don’t mix the two. Jesus doesn’t ride beside our politics. He needs to be above our politics. Because he’s the Lord of Republicans AND Democrats…heck, even of the Socialists. Jesus supersedes politics.

Don’t get caught up in the political movement and sacrifice our sacred spaces and our very faith.

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What do you think? Are you okay with churches being voting locations? How do you respond to the blending of faith and politics?

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