Monday, February 26, 2007

Walking in or knowing about?

Near the end of the apostolic age, John the apostle wrote, "It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us" (2 John 4).

Much diligent thought is being addressed toward understanding the frightening decline of the church in America while it is exploding with growth in virtually every other part of the world. This in spite of the astounding resources for Bible study, etc., available to American Christians far beyond any generation of believers in any other time or place.

Perhaps one factor is that the model of "doing church" in the USA has primarily emphasized KNOWING the truth. Learning Bible content and doctrine is the focus of a plethora of ministries in most churches.

John's joy was not the result of people knowing the truth, but walking in it -- that is, living it in life transforming ways.

Maybe we need a new model of doing church in which we decrease the number of ways we communicate Bible knowledge (they keep us very busy) and more strongly emphasize a few ways to apply and live the truth we know -- encouraging and holding each other accountable as we share life in relational communities whose DNA is to be formative, caring, and missional.

While I'm at it, remembering the "Stories Jesus Told" (check out the sermons at, perhaps our new model of church needs to radically reduce the number of things we do which keep us inside our "Christian bubble/sub-culture" so that we have time to hang out with sinners and get to know those who are poor and disadvantaged. It's impossible to practice the lessons of Luke 14 and 15 if we live inside the "bubble."
How to extend your life

I read today in US News & World Report that "according to research, you can gain around two hours of life expectancy for each hour of regular exercise." Wow! That's quite motivational. The article proceeds, "Beginning an exercise routine doesn't have to feel like training for the Olympics; simply start small. Take the stairs instead of the elevator...Park your car further out in the parking lot."

I wonder if any research has been done on the converse -- e.g., "one week without exercise cuts one day off your life expectancy" (that's not research, it's just my surmising).

Small habits in many areas of life can produce big results--both positive and negative. I think about the long-term impact of the habit of putting a small amount of money into savings from every pay check...and the long-term impact of not doing that. How about the long-term impact of regular Bible study? The applications are myriad.

I think I need to pay more attention to my habits...including my inadvertent ones.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Can you be too polite?

Some time ago I observed someone who was visibly upset as he angrily confronted what he saw as sinful behavior.

It was a very uncomfortable moment. I suspect that some or most who were present felt that the angry words were inappropriate.

I was reminded of the incident this week as I studied for my sermon -- #6 in the series on “Stories Jesus Told.” In Luke 14, Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of His fellow guests at a Pharisee’s banquet as well as the host himself (see Luke 14:7-14 or check out the sermon at

I suspect that when Jesus finished these very pointed admonitions, it must’ve gotten really quiet and uncomfortable in the room.

Frankly, had we been there, we might have been tempted pull Jesus aside and say, “Jesus, that wasn’t very polite. You’re really being insensitive to these peoples’ feelings. You’re embarrassing them in front of others. You shouldn’t offend people like that! You need to be more tactful.”

I wonder if the disciples were a little shocked by Jesus’ apparent lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the people at the banquet and the host. After all, His words put the actions of those in the room in a very bad light.

In our American Christian culture it seems that we have exalted politeness, tactfulness, and non-offensiveness to a virtue status that trumps speaking the truth and exposing error and hypocrisy. We want to be “nice” so people will think well of us so we are afraid to raise our voice or to speak the truth when it is uncomfortable lest we offend. We've lost the ability to be outraged!

We don’t want to make people feel badly so we just say nice little polite things instead of speaking truthfully and passionately about what is right and wrong.

Far more often than I would like to remember, my sinful motivations have caused me to be “nice” when I probably should have been passionately angry and purposefully confrontational. When I "wimp out" it nearly always comes back to bite me...hard!

The Old Testament prophets didn’t seem to worry much about offending people when their message cut like a laser as they exposed sin and called for repentance. Was it Amos who called the women of Israel, "fat cows"? Ouch! Not too polite.

Jesus didn’t seem to worry much about offending people with the truth, and there were a number of times when His anger was obvious as He confronted people with their sin. There were times He called people hypocrites and snakes. When His anger drove people out of the temple and sent them diving for cover to escape the sting of His whip, He didn’t seem to worry about being polite and tactful. John tells us (2:17) that the incident reminded them of a word from the Psalms, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

In another situation, shocked by the way Jesus’ spoke to and about the hypocritical religious leaders, the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” Rather than backing down, apologizing, or attempting to smooth things over, He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:12-14). That was not very concilliatory.

This is no justification for being out-of-control or nasty or unkind. Anger held too long (Ephesians 4:26) or used inappropriately (James 1:19, 20) is wrong. But, I must remember that sometimes I sin if I am not outraged. Politeness is sin if it hides the truth.

God’s wrath is a frequent and frightening topic in Holy Scripture. It is and ought to be frightening, yet it is as much an expression of God’s perfection as is His love.

The surgeon’s scalpel isn’t polite or tactful, but if you have cancer, you’ve got to be willing to cut in order to heal.

Back to my opening scene – because my perspective is sometimes skewed by my brokenness and biases I’m not confident I can properly judge what happened. Further, we, unlike Jesus, can be mixed in our motives and methods—partly good and partly not so good or even bad. However, I have to admit that it is possible that the one whose anger made us uncomfortable, may have been acting like Jesus. Jesus had a way of making people uncomfortable so they would make positive changes.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Everybody wants to feel valuable, respected, important. Everyone likes to be honored, recognized, and affirmed.

Some people take advantage of this human longing by flattering people, telling them what they want to hear, or giving them recognition in order to manipulate them or use them selfishly.

We are all turned off by the politician or salesman who gives us special treatment in order to get our vote or sale.

On the other hand, a person can, as Jesus did so well, acknowledge a person’s worth and value as God’s image bearer by giving them attention and respect. Consider His friendly and respectful treatment of the woman at the well.

In either case, it is natural for a person to be attracted to someone who treats them with respect and in a way that acknowledges their worth.

What's the difference between approprite honor and dispicable manipulation?

I think that the keys are TRUTHFULNESS and MOTIVE. If I attempt to "butter someone up" by saying what is not true, it is evil. If my motive is self-centered, to receive something from them or to get them to do something for me, it is wrong.

However, if my affirming words are honest and truthful, and my motive is to show respect to God's image-bearer for their encouragement and benefit, it is probably right and good. It calls for a motive check: is my motive to get or to give; to use or to bless; to manipulate or to edify?
On being overly nice

It has become fashionable to only speak well of religions and beliefs other than Christianity and to suggest that they may even provide alternate ways to God. Unquestionably Christ followers should always display love and respect for all people regardless of their faith or lack of it. It is not wrong to acknowledge that which is right and good in another faith.

Nevertheless, in our commendable efforts to be loving, we must not miss the clear reminders of Scripture that false teachings and those who promote them are often inspired by demons (1Corinthians 10:20; 1 John 4:1; et al). John, "the apostle of love," did not hesitate to use the label "antichrist" for those who did not confess that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2, 3).

It is not loving to change the label on poison to something that sounds more gentle.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Proverbs and Promises

Perhaps because of my deep commitment to the Bible as God's Word, I have too often handled the Bible as a kind of "magical" book without adequate regard for what should have been simple and obvious interpretive guidelines--for example the genre of a particular book. I have grown up in a movement which, though with excellent motivations, hasn't always practiced careful exegesis.

For example, I, like many others, treated the book of Proverbs as if it were the book of "Promises"--divine commitments to make things turn out a certain way if conditions were met. Therefore if a generous person did not become wealthy or if a diligent parent had a prodigal child, it appeared that God had reneged on His word. A proverb is a pithy statement of popular wisdom, such as "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." No one turns that into an infallible medical law. We understand that proper eating habits promote good health.

The book of Acts is another example. Too often I have treated it as a manual on missiology and ecclesiology, instead of a book of unvarnished history presenting the birth and spread of Jesus' church in the first century. It is more descriptive than prescriptive, that is, it tells us what happened back then more than what we should do now. This is certainly not to diminish the value of any portion of Scripture, but rather to clarify how it should be read, interpreted, and applied.

Believing that one aspect of the image of God in us is the ability to think and communicate in signs and symbols (language), I should not distrust the normal usages of communication. For God to use the normal "laws" of language in His written revelation is no different than the incarnation of Jesus, in His humanity, occurring as a normal human being. Failure to perceive this has led to extreme allegorizing of Scripture as well as other misuses such as my turning proverbs into promises and history into doctrine.

Reading Acts 15 this morning (the occasion of this post) is an important recitation of how the early church developed both theologically and ecclesiastically. How the church affirmed what is required for salvation is a valuable companion to the doctrinal propositions of the apostles' teaching in the New Testament letters like Romans. Observing in Acts the emergence of elders as the leaders of the churches and seeing how decisions were made helps us contextualize passages like 1 Timothy 3.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sometimes I feel like I'm barely hanging on.

The world is changing and diversifying so rapidly. It's the Tower of Babel-effect in hyper speed.

One of the challenges today is that 25+ years ago we had a much more unified culture. It really wasn't that difficult to feel like you were "in touch" with what was happening in the culture (at least in our Western culture--we were painfully ignorant of much of the rest of the world and didn't know it). The media was a unifying factor in culture -- for example, it erased some of the distance/distinctions between urban and rural because the farmer in Iowa listened to the same radio broadcast as the school teacher in New York City. There were only a few radio (and TV) stations and they were all pretty much alike.

Today in the electronic/information age, media is NOT a unifying factor but a huge diversifying influence and reflector (think of the political difference between the news on ABC and FOX, for example). There are hundreds of radio stations and they are very different, each having an audience which is very different than the audience of another station (music style being one of the key differences). Think of the TV options with cable or dish. With only a few, rare exceptions (e.g. the Super Bowl) is there a culturally unifying influence through media. Our retirees are still watching "Little House on the Prairie" while their grandkids are watching MTV. Talk about different -- shockingly different!! Neither has much appreciation for or understanding of the culture of the other reflected in those media options.

When I was a 30-year old pastor, the culture of the seniors and the teenagers was different (we were starting to talk about a "generation gap"), but nearly like it is today. Many seniors today don't have a clue what the world of a teenager is like, and have long ago given up on trying. Of course, the teenager isn't spending a lot of time learning about or appreciating the culture of the AARP crowd either.

So, we face the great challenge of needing the wisdom that can come from age and experience but also the cultural awareness and fresh dreams that come from youth (without which we can easily become irrelevant -- not in our CORE message, but in its applications and methods). On the one end, it's easy for the older generations to think that the younger generations should "do it just like we always have." And, it's easy for the younger generations to "throw out the baby with the bath water."

The good news is that the all-knowing and all wise Holy Spirit is willing to be our guide. He works in and through Jesus' new community, the church. Hopefully the church will be the "lab" where cross-generational life sharing can happen in meaningful and productive ways. We need to soak it all in love and understanding.

I'm trying to hang on...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The response to our Sunday series, "Stories Jesus Told," has been very gratifying -- especially because people are being serious about LIVING out the lessons, not just filling their heads with more Bible knowledge.

One man responded to the Good Samaritan study by picking up a man walking by the highway with a gas can, assuming his car had run out of gas. Once in his car, the man explained that he had lost his driver's license and so was doing a lot of hitchhiking. He learned that people were more likely to pick him up if he carried a gas can. Creative!

I had a great email question about the conclusion to Jesus' story on forgiveness.

If we take Jesus' words very literally in Matthew 18:35 and Matthew 6:14, 15, we might conclude that a believer could lose God's forgiveness by an unwillingness to forgive. Because we believe that the Scriptures teach that those who are truly saved cannot ever be lost, we tend to look for another explanation. Here are a few alternatives:

1. Jesus' parabolic teaching was not meant to be a "systematic theology" in which every sentence was intended as propositional truth to be organized in categories that seem logical to our Western, enlightenment-influenced thinking.

2. All true Christians will eventually forgive. They may struggle with the sin of an unforgiving spirit temporarily, but if they are truly born again, they will come to forgiveness.

3. If a person refuses to forgive, at some point that becomes evidence that they have not truly been regenerated. An unforgiving heart is inconsistent with a regenerate heart.

4. If a believer refuses to forgive, he doesn't lose God's forgiveness at a salvation level, but does at some other level -- e.g. day-to-day fellowship including the joy, freedom, and peace that come from walking in obedience to God. Perhaps this could be illustrated in marriage where some "offences" affect the closeness of the relationship, but have no impact on its permanence.

5. Perhaps Matthew 18:35 was meant to be a "proverbial" statement, rather than a precise theological proposition. The book of Proverbs is that -- a collection of "proverbs," that is, a collection of pithy statements of wisdom, which are generally demonstrated to be so. It is not the book of "promises." For example, a truism which is repeated frequently in Proverbs in various forms is that "generous people prosper." It is not a guarantee that if I am generous, I will be rich. You might be able to find a generous person who doesn't always prosper. This doesn't mean that the book of Proverbs is false, has errors, or deceives us. It is the book of "proverbs." We need to read and interpret it for what it is, not what we might like it to be. I could be stretching it here, but maybe that's what Jesus' parabolic teaching was also.

What do you think?
Reading 2 Peter 1 this morning, I was reminded that Biblical knowledge is not an end in itself, but designed to enable Christ-followers to "participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires" (1:4). We must not be "ineffective and unproductive in [our] knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:8).

To increase knowledge without a resultant transformation of character is a perversion of God's design.

The intended goal of God's Word in my life is that I will add character qualities, most or all of which have to do with how I live and grow in relationship with others: "goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love" (1:5-7).

Which is more important, knowledge or character-development?

Which is more important, breathing or living?

As I live out the spiritual discipline of Bible study, I must never be content merely to increase my knowledge and understanding. I must ask if others can observe a difference in how I relate to them.

This has implications for how we do church. We must not be content merely to dispense Bible content. Our methodology should reflect our commitment to life transformation.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sometimes the brokenness of this world and we who call it "home" really smacks us in the face. This last week we said "good-bye" to two dear friends who succombed to brain cancer.

Rene Moser's battle was about 13 months. I don't know that in nearly 40 years as a pastor I have ever seen someone grow spiritual as fast, deep, and strong as she. In her life and death, she gave powerful witness to God's love in our suffering. One of her favorite phrases was, "God gets it, we don't." Her trust was child-like, but her insights about God and the purpose of suffering were profound.

We met Dan and Nancy Brower in graduate school, living a stone's throw apart on an island in Winona Lake, IN. Dan and I were youth pastors in churches in neighboring cities while attending seminary. Our four children arrived in close proximity to each other (reversing the sexes--3 boys and a girl for us, 3 girls and a boy for them). They were some of the most amazing missionaries we have ever known, bringing folks to faith and planting multiple churches (now led by nationals) in a Brazilian spiritist stronghold. Some of our most treasured memories are of our visit with them in Uberaba, Brazil.

Nancy's battle with cancer was much more brief than Rene's, but her faith and testimony were similarly unfaltering and inspiring. The morning after her homegoing, I felt compelled to arrange some thoughts in verse:


An “abundant entrance”* is what occurred
As news of her arrival through glory stirred.
When Nancy showed up at heaven’s gate
A gigantic crowd came to celebrate
The arrival of one whose hero fame
Was known by thousands who’d heard her name.
When hundreds of parties* in heaven took place
Whenever an earthling found saving grace,
The angels came to the joyful event,
Their eager query to the Throne was sent:
“Who brought this Brazilian to faith in our Lord?
Whose witness for Jesus deserves the reward?”
Then from the Throne the word was sent:
“Nancy Brower’s the one who gladly went
To live in Brazil and tell of My love--
How to earth I came from heaven above.
Because of her My story was told.
Now this one like others is in My fold.”
So when to heaven Nancy came
Thousands already new her name.
They gathered to meet her with shouts and cheers--
It was just the beginning of millions of years
To celebrate with her dear Lord
And be with friends who heard the Word
Because of her and her husband Dan--
Her partner, companion, and godly man.
Together they served and never looked back--
A model of faithfulness has been their track.
They’ve blessed us all and showed us the way
Of what it means to serve and obey.
Our confident hope and comforting thought
Is the coming reunion our Savior bought.
Then Jesus’ face we’ll finally see
And with dear Nancy forever we’ll be

*2 Peter 2:11 (KJV); Luke 15:10