Chosen and Convicted by God

1 Thessalonians, Christ & Culture No Comments »

“Our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.” ~1 Thessalonians 1:5

A group of disciples, a church, is called out by God, chosen, separated from the world by God for God’s purposes. But how did Paul know these Thessalonians were chosen (1:4)? Because he saw a great change in their lives. He witnessed their work produced by faith, their labor prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope. Those whom God chooses, he changes.

Scripture tells us we must not be conformed to the pattern of the world; we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We’re changed by the way we see things and process things, by the way we think. And that’s difficult because we are all drinking the same water. We’re all breathing the same polluted air of our Western culture.

Society says we have to assert our independence. We have to emphasize individuality. We have to worry about safety and security. We have to fight for our rights. As Christians, though, we know that living that way leads to broken relationships. It values ideas and positions over people. It forces us to label and exclude those who are different. And it makes me more important than you and our needs more important than theirs. We become increasingly inward-focused. We’re certainly not acting out of faith, love, and hope.

But we’re all called out of the world! Set apart. Chosen and changed by God. If anyone is in Christ — new creation! The old has gone! The new has come! Everything’s brand new! Everything’s changed! The Thessalonians turn away from the idols of the age to serve the true and living God (1:9). Their faith, hope, and love — these three Christian virtues wrapped up in a package that comes only from the Creator — are the evidence of their divine chosenness.

Peace,

Allan

In Spite of Severe Suffering

1 Thessalonians, Acts, Christ & Culture, Church No Comments »

The early church in Thessalonica is described as a “model” church by the apostle Paul. In the opening lines of 1 Thessalonians, the author says they have become a “model to all the believers,” while explaining why he finds them to be so ideal and receives from them so much joy. There are many reasons listed in the first ten verses of this letter. Among them is this line about their commitment to Christ in spite of the hardships it brings:

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord in spite of severe suffering.” ~1 Thessalonians 1:6

This Thessalonian church was persecuted early and often. Luke tells us in Acts 17 that Paul was run out of town right after he established this church, maybe within just a few weeks. The church was meeting in Jason’s house in Thessalonica. He was arrested along with several other believers. And persecuted. It was serious. And real.

A lot of it had to do with economics. If I’m running a burger joint or a chicken shack here in town, I don’t need you and some group stirring up a bunch of low-fat, vegetarian fanatics. That affects my business, my bottom line. It impacts my way of life. So the makers of idols and religious trinkets rose up and opposed Christianity.

The other part of it was the polytheistic culture of the day. It was dangerous to ignore or offend the gods. If there was a fire in town or a flood or drought or plague or some other disaster, the thinking was, “Our gods have always protected us from these things! These Christians must be ticking off the gods!” So they would torture and kill the Christians.

Now, trust me, I’m aware, there’s nothing easy about this. There are no simple answers. It’s complicated because we’re so compromised.

I wonder sometimes. I just wonder…

I wonder how we can proclaim the sanctity of all life and be opposed to the killing of men and women created in the image of God when our economy and our standard of living is so dependent on wars and rumors of wars. I wonder about the criticism we’ll receive from other Christians when we love and serve members of the LGBT community and the condemnation we’ll receive from the culture when we say pursuing the gay lifestyle is a sin. I wonder about the public rebuke we’re in for when we love and serve immigrants and refugees in the name and manner of Jesus. I wonder about the trouble we’re already in from other Christians for tearing down denominational walls in God’s Kingdom.

Imitating Christ requires hard choices and it results in suffering. Always.

A model church embraces Jesus and his ways, all the way, in spite of that certain suffering.

Peace,

Allan

Salt

Christ & Culture, Evangelism, Love, Matthew No Comments »

“You are the salt of the earth.” ~Matthew 5:13

SaltShakerNot pepper. Some of us act like Jesus called us to be pepper. Some Christians feel like they’re called to behave in such a way as to irritate people. Some followers of Jesus just walk into a room and people’s eyes begin to water. Some Christians cause people to make funny faces and start sneezing.

No, we’re supposed to be salt. We bring out the very best of what’s already there. We bring out what’s possible. We season life and the situations around us so there’s more flavor. More to savor. By our lives we help make everything around us as good as our God always intended it to be.

So, when the world acts to condemn, we move to forgive. When the culture says you don’t matter, we say you’re a child of God. When society says I don’t care about you, we say what can I do for you? Where the world seeks to injure, we seek to heal. When the culture declares I hate you, we say I love you.

Everywhere we go, everywhere we are, we shine the light of love and forgiveness, we bring the Kingdom of grace and hope. In a culture of hate and violence and lies, the light of Jesus shines in us and through us with love and mercy and truth.

We bring it. We live it. And people around us are blessed and the world is changed.

We are the salt of the earth. Not pepper.

Peace,

Allan

The Johnson Amendment & The Church

Christ & Culture, Church, Preaching 2 Comments »

SteepleCityYou would be so proud of me. I’m showing such tremendous restraint in my old age. Yesterday’s Amarillo Globe-News published a front page story on U. S. President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise to abolish the Johnson Amendment with this accompanying headline: “Many local faith leaders support president’s vow to ‘destroy’ political ban for churches.” The same issue’s editorial contained an over-simplified analysis of the amendment that more or less argued that, since we all know which churches are politically conservative and which churches are politically liberal, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter. So why are we making such a big deal about it?

Steady… Calm… Serenity now… Serenity now…

I did not write a letter to the editor. I did not call the Faith reporter. I did not send out an email to my fellow Gospel preachers who are quoted in this story as being in favor of abolishing the amendment because our religious liberties are under siege.

I slept on it. And I’m responding with this post.

This will be short.

SilencePreacherFirst, there has never been and isn’t currently any kind of threat in this country against any pastor or church preaching and practicing the politics of the Kingdom of God which, by the way, are the only politics Christ’s Church should be concerned about. Love. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. Gentleness. Helping the helpless. Healing the sick. Worshiping in spirit and truth. Obeying the Law to love God and love neighbor. Would somebody please explain to me how any Christian is being told he or she cannot do those things?

Some of my fellow preachers in Amarillo are quoted in the paper as saying it’s an “overreach of the government’s authority to restrict what a pastor says from the pulpit on any subject, including politics” and that “freedom of speech shouldn’t stop at the local church doorsteps; The church… needs to be a voice to the community.”

So you think we should preach Christian values and Christian ideals and Christian beliefs and morals to the Christian members of our Christian churches? Me, too. Big time. What does that have to do with this country’s political parties or candidates? Our King tells us that bigotry and inequality and violence and discrimination and oppression — SIN! — are solved by love and grace and forgiveness, not politicians and votes and laws. Salvation from God in Christ is the only answer to what’s wrong with you and me and the Church and this country. The only thing a preacher can’t do in his or her pulpit is advocate for a particular party or candidate. My question is, as a preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ, why would you ever? Touting somebody or some thing other than Jesus as the solution for sin would seem to disqualify one as a proclaimer of the Gospel.

MoneyBagBurlapSecond, Christians come across as really petty and small when they complain about government interference. Churches in this country don’t have to pay taxes!!!! Everybody knows churches don’t pay taxes. You knew that, right? Don’t these faith leaders know it? We stand out as arrogant and entitled when we say, as one local preacher did in the AGN story, the Johnson Amendment “should not keep the church out of matters of the state, but rather should keep the state out of matters of the church.”

We don’t pay taxes!!!! The state is very much “in the matters of the church.” I don’t think totally removing the state from church matters — doing away with the tax breaks — is what he has in mind. It would be the best thing that could happen to the Church in the United States; but something tells me that’s not what he’s advocating.

FistThird, the last thing God’s Church in America needs is any kind of political “victory” delivered in the name and manner of Donald Trump. Can you just imagine the misguided ways in which that would be interpreted and then used? Abolishing the amendment would not only compromise the voice of Christ’s Church, it would bring out the worst in the people of Jesus. We would lobby and petition, boycott and campaign, write letters and print posters and stump for particular candidates in a specific party. And then we’d get offended or angry if someone pointed out how unfair it is that U.S. taxpayers are forced to fund our political group but not anybody else’s political group. Yuk.

I’m so grateful for my brother Burt Palmer of Polk Street United Methodist Church, the lone voice of reason among the Amarillo preachers responding in print to Trump’s pledge. Burt told the Globe-News that the total repeal of the Johnson Amendment “may lead to religious organizations being consumed with advocacy for a specific party or platform. He adds that the Church’s role is “to rise above [party] affiliations… sharing the message and love of Jesus Christ.” Burt warns about Christians and churches “slipping and sliding into serving the god of a political party.”

Finally (this is longer than it should have been), a response to the paper’s position itself.

The AGN editorial piece claims that repealing the Johnson Amendment is inconsequential because most Christians already know which way their church leans politically. By extension, I suppose, the community, too, knows whether a specific congregation of God’s people is politically conservative or liberal. Because of the preacher’s sermons on social justice issues, because of the political candidates the church may choose to invite to speak, it should be clear, so the editorial argues, how the pastor or the church feels politically. So, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter.

I pray that after listening to me for only a short while, my parishioners at Central have a clear understanding that my political beliefs line up first with our King Jesus. I pray that my sermons and my statements about current issues are completely confusing to anyone trying to peg me or our church to a specific party or a particular candidate. I am aware of no party in this country that is pro-life to the max: anti-abortion, anti-war, and anti-death penalty. I don’t know of any politician who is both opposed to gay marriage and for welcoming refugees. Is there any candidate who will denounce both the killing of unborn babies in abortion clinics in this country and the killing of born babies in war efforts in other countries?

Jesus Christ does not fit neatly into a nationalistic political party. God’s Church cannot be defined by the platform of a power-seeking coalition of politicians.

Survey after survey shows that young people and millennials are turned off by the Church’s affiliations with the political right. We’ve somehow aligned ourselves with a worldly party in a worldly kingdom with worldly goals and worldly means of accomplishing those goals, and it’s nauseating to lots of people who are conditioned to see right though it.

We are beyond this. We are above it. We do not want to be associated with it.

You’re right, Amarillo Globe-News, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t matter at all. But not for the reasons you believe.

Peace,

Allan

The Love of God and Your Group

1 John, Christ & Culture, Jesus, Love, Matthew 1 Comment »

loveperiodblueIdolatry of self is a root problem that keeps us from a supreme devotion and love of God. But a sin that’s just as dangerous, if not more so, is group narcissism. Idolatry of the group. Whatever the group — a political group, a religious group, a racial group — it’s an idol if it steals any of your allegiance away from God. A political party, a nation, a socio-economic group, a language, a Christian denomination — any man or woman belonging to any group is at least susceptible to thinking his group is superior to all other groups. My race is superior, my political party is righteous, my church is correct, my nation is best. If we’re not careful — better, if we’re not diligent — our devotion to a group can very easily compromise or even displace our primary love for God. When God’s platform comes into conflict with the group’s platform, we’re tempted to uphold the values and methods of the group over the ways and means and values of our God.

And they will come into conflict.

In fact, loving God is a gigantic threat to group narcissism. The groups can’t handle it. To love God first and most is to say there is another Power, there is a greater Authority, there is another One to whom all groups must bow. That flies right in the face of the idolatrous values of our society.

As disciples of the Christ, we declare that God has no equal, he has no peer. God alone is God. We cannot seek to find our worth or our identities by rooting ourselves in ethnic or political or geographic groups. We find our true identity in loving God. Period.

Loving God first will always mean loving others, too. It will always lead to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s not going to sit well with your “group,” either. This is why followers of Jesus can’t base their value on the political or social or cultural groups of the world: selfless, sacrificial love has almost nothing in common with the strategies and goals of the world’s groups. In fact, the two exist in constant conflict.

loveperiodglassWhen Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’ve got to remember that Jesus ate and drank with lepers and prostitutes. He spent his time taking care of the foreigners and the poor. He protected the vulnerable people on the margins and stood by those who had been accused. Jesus reminds us of the command to not kill and then he says, “You’re not even supposed to get angry.” He tells us when somebody hits me in the face, I’m supposed to turn the other cheek. He tells us not just to tolerate our enemies, but to actually love our enemies.

These are fierce teachings. This is a very difficult way to live. Christ Jesus has put before us a very hard path, a path that few have really tried to follow. To paraphrase Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found lacking; it’s been found difficult and never really tried.”

It’s been so loud in this country lately, so angry and mean and hateful and loud, the idea of loving others has mostly been set aside.

“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us…” ~1 John 4:15-17

The life-giving love that begins with the Creator flows to the Son. Jesus then takes that love and showers it upon us. And he tells us to show that same divine love to others. This heavenly love is completed, it’s fulfilled, when we give it to others. We’re the last link in this eternal chain of love. God’s love has not fulfilled its purpose, it’s not finished, until it’s coursing through his people and being lavished on every man, woman, and child around us.

God is not a man. He is not a state. God is not an institution or a party or a possession. He is the divine Creator and Father of us all. And he calls us to share his limitless love extravagantly with everybody.

Love doesn’t tear down, it builds up. It never divides, it always unites. It’s not terrified by terrorism. It doesn’t hate those outside the group. And love does not follow leaders or groups who promote hate and bigotry and division and violence as a way to get things accomplished.

Whatever you do as a child of God and follower of Jesus, make sure you love. If anybody tells you to do otherwise; if you get any email insisting that you forward something that’s not loving; if any leader or group urges you to act in any way toward anybody that’s not loving; you know that person or that group is not under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t let anybody ever stop you from loving. Don’t let anybody kill your love for anybody. Love everybody whether they like it or not. Love the people you’re told not to love. If you let anyone or anything keep you from loving, you’re cutting off the proof and the expression of God’s nature in your body and soul.

Peace,

Allan

The Light is Dawning

Christ & Culture, Incarnation, Isaiah, Jesus No Comments »

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
~Isaiah 9:2

candleoneI hope this is not a ‘newsflash’ for you, but we are living in a very dark place. It’s dark in Amarillo, Texas.

The homeless rate across the country is going down, but in Amarillo it’s actually going up. Today there are more than 1,200 homeless people in our city. A lot of them are young children, which explains why the average age of a homeless person in Amarillo is eleven.

Sixty-eight-percent of the students in the Amarillo I.S.D. are classified as economically disadvantaged. That number is 71% down the street from our church building at Bivins Elementary — almost three out of four.

Teen pregnancy rates are going down across the U.S., but they’re going up in Amarillo. Texas ranks fourth in the nation in teenage pregnancies and the panhandle has the highest rates in the state, much higher than the national average.

And last year a record number of women were killed in domestic violence incidents in Texas, with Randall and Potter Counties clocking in with the highest rate per capita in the state.

It’s dark in Amarillo.

But our Father in heaven, our God, the eternal Creator of Heaven and Earth, looks down with compassion on his children and says “I will not leave them in this darkness!” God says a light will dawn and his people will rejoice. The yoke will be shattered. The burden will be lifted. The enemy’s tools will be destroyed. Light will shine in the darkness. Victory will come from defeat. Life will spring from death.

“For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given.”
~Isaiah 9:6

As followers and imitators of the incarnate God who saves us, we are charged with proclaiming that life-giving light of Christ — to preach it and live it, to embody it and share it. God through Christ is defeating the Evil Empire, and we shout that from the rooftops!

And we pay better attention to exactly where our Lord is shining his light around us. We look for it. We anticipate it.

Just in this past year — just in 2016 — Downtown Women’s Center has opened up a transitional housing complex one-and-a-half blocks north of our church building. CareNet has relocated its regional headquarters five blocks east of our building. And two miles west, the brand new principal at Bivins Elementary is giving our church unprecedented — and maybe even questionable — access to the hurting families there.

candleglow

God with us is good news of great joy for all people! And I feel like his light is shining right here, like it’s really concentrated right here in our church neighborhood and there’s this giant star right on top of our building and people in Amarillo can see that this is a place where their yoke can be shattered and the rod of their oppression can be broken forever by this light that gives life to all people!

The people of Amarillo and the people of Texas and the people of the United States don’t need a new president or a new form of government. We don’t need more security or more jobs programs or more creative ways to wage war. What people need is Jesus. People need his light.

“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
~Isaiah 9:7

May the joy and peace of the season by yours today and forever.

Allan