Category: Discipleship (page 1 of 21)

Where He Leads

For the past several years it’s become clear that the word “evangelical” has very little, if anything, to do with Christianity or religion. It’s not a Christian term anymore. It’s been misused and redefined by the politicians and media in the United States for so long now that it’s become a purely secular word. A national political term.

One of the more obvious manifestations of this is in the way African Americans are left out. Have you noticed that the media will not refer to African Americans as “evangelicals?” Christians of color may have a high regard for the Bible, they may focus on the atonement of Christ through the cross, they may be committed to proclaiming the Gospel, they may believe the Gospel changes lives and changes the world — they may embody every facet of the classic definition of “evangelical.” But because African Americans vote heavily for Democratic candidates, the media will not call them “evangelicals.” The term is strictly political now. “Evangelical” means Republican. “Evangelical” means guns and lower taxes and immigration reform and repealing Obamacare.

There are a lot of reasons this matters so much. One of the main reasons is that our young people now identify traditional Christianity with right wing American politics. This development has been analyzed and discussed in every “unchristian” and “You Lost Me” type of book that’s been written in the past twenty years. Young people are not leaving the Church because they reject Christ Jesus as Lord, they’re leaving the Church because they reject the national politics that appear to go with it.

That’s a problem for all of us. Whatever our national political beliefs and practices — left or right, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal — they shouldn’t be wrapped up in God’s Church because they all eventually come into conflict with God’s ways. And our young people see right through it.

I was privileged to be in attendance at Hope Network’s Preacher Initiative in Dallas last month when Dr. Mallory Wyckoff delivered a powerful sermon on the disconnect between what we teach our young people in our churches and what they actually experience in and through us who do the teaching. Her sermon was gut-level honest and penetrating. Eye-opening. Inspiring. The language soared and the message cut straight to the heart of the Gospel.

Mallory has graciously provided me with a manuscript of her sermon, “Where You Lead I Will Follow” from Matthew 23. You can find the entire sermon posted to her website here. But I’d like to share a couple of excerpts in this space.

Mallory began by praising the church and the church people who raised her in the faith. She expressed her admiration and love for those men and women who shaped her as a child of God.

“To be sure, I was loved. I was loved really well. I was made to believe that I had worth, that I could pursue the dreams that surged within, that God would guide me as I took each clumsy step. I was nurtured in the Christian faith from the womb, loved and cared on by my community, educated in their schools, formed in their churches. I attended their youth groups and summer camps, wore their T-shirts and sang their songs. These people invested in me, gave of their time and resources to help me grow into the woman I am now. For all of this and for more, I am grateful.”

Mallory then moved to unashamedly hold the mirror up to the troubling inconsistencies she noticed when she actually began to read the Bible her church told her to read and follow the Christ her church told her to follow.

“[I] observed that Jesus seemed to care an awful lot about the poor and marginalized, giving them food and dignity, binding their wounds and healing their bodies. But when I named the gross inequities between the rich and poor in our country and asked what we might do to overcome this, they called me a socialist…

They told me about the cross of Christ and insisted this was a central feature of our faith. So I spent time reflecting on the cross and observed it as the culmination of Jesus’ consistent refusal to employ violent means. I took to heart his teachings that the swords we live by surely are the ones by which we will die, that we are to love our enemies and, perhaps, this might mean to not kill them. I wondered how I could follow this Christ with any integrity in my heart if I also carried a gun in my hand or on my hip. But when I asked my church about these things, they told me this was unrealistic, that Jesus’ teachings are for individuals but have nothing to say to nation-states, and that I should fear the nation-state taking from me the very weapons Jesus warned against.

They took me to the baptismal font and buried me with Christ beneath the waters, calling on me to live into the newness of life in Christ, proclaiming that my identity is found therein, and I swore my allegiance to Christ. But when I began asking about all of the myriad allegiances we seem to hold in conflict with the lordship of Christ, that perhaps nationalism is the most dangerous kind of idolatry, they told me I was not a good patriot.

They taught me about the early church, a marginalized sect seeking to live into the Kingdom in the midst of empire. They told me stories of the church’s courage, even in the face of persecution and death, and of their commitment to the way of Christ. But when I began wondering about how the empire in which we find ourselves dehumanizes black and brown bodies, they told me I didn’t show enough respect for the flag and for country and for every other symbol that bears Caesar’s image even while the body count for image bearers of God keeps climbing…”

Mallory’s critique comes straight out of Scripture, directly out of the prophets’ mouths and our Savior’s heart. She articulates so well what stirs my own soul and what burdens my shoulders and my mind, but what I have such difficulty describing. She perfectly says what I’m thinking.

Our priorities are out of whack. Our identities are compromised. We’re seeing issues to be argued instead of people to be loved. We think first as Republicans or Democrats, as political conservatives or liberals, and not first as disciples of Jesus. Our positions are solidified and our decisions are made through the lenses of our race, our zip code, our political affiliations, and not first and foremost by our identity as baptized followers of the Christ.

The younger generations coming up behind us see it. And they feel it.

You already know my position on all this. The United States is not going to be changed by votes or parties. It’s not going to be saved by force of numbers or force of rhetoric. It’s going to be saved, along with the rest of the world, by Christ Jesus. And his way is about love and forgiveness, sacrifice and service. And peace. Our Christianity should be defined by those things. Our congregations should be characterized by those things. Our young people need to see that in us first. And last. And every place in between.

Mallory ends her sermon with a genuine humility and grace that are sometimes missing from mine. She expresses her deep love for the ones who’ve gone before and she confesses that she is no better. She sees the hypocrisy and duplicity in her elders, but is self-aware enough to know she’s capable of the same missteps.

“I am neither different from nor better than the ones who taught me to follow Christ and dismissed the places he took me. Like them, I say one thing and do another, unaware of the ones who suffer because of my ignorance. I tell [my daughter] to follow Jesus no matter where he takes her, even and especially when it’s a path I reject or dismiss. I tell her that she will have to differentiate between the heart of God and the ways I do or do not reflect this God. I tell her to follow Christ, wherever he may lead. May we have the courage to follow him, too.”

Thank you, Mallory, for these challenging words. Thank you for your boldness and your grace. May our God bless us all to see more clearly and to follow more faithfully.

Peace,

Allan

What If It Happened Here?

“My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place.” ~Jesus

The headline on the front page of today’s Amarillo Globe-News asks the question in bold print: “What if it happened here?” with the subheading: “Local churches eye security measures in wake of massacre.”

The paper quotes a couple of local pastors who are considering changes to their church’s security plans in light of last Sunday’s horrible shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. One of the pastors is hiring an armed Amarillo Police Department officer to be present during their worship services, claiming it will put the members of his church “at ease to see a uniformed officer” and that he wants his people to “feel safe and secure.” This pastor is also considering hosting an active shooter seminar for his congregation. Another pastor expresses the need for an active shooter seminar at his church “as soon as possible.” All of the pastors in the story have some type of armed security personnel in and around their buildings during services. We do, too, here at Central.

The headline asks a question the story never answers: What if it happened here? Maybe the reporter never asked the question and the headline writer was having a rough night. It’s a good question. What happens in your church building if — God forbid — an active shooter begins opening fire? What happens at Central?

If the Church of Jesus is established by God to serve as a light to the world, as an alternative community in contrast to the values and priorities of society, as a scandalous counter to the ways and means of our culture, then we would all keep our guns in our holsters. If God’s Church is established to witness to the “other” way, to proclaim and live out the teachings of Jesus, the true interpreter of God’s Law, then the shooter would not be shot — at least not by a Christian.

Which serves as the more powerful witness to the world: a Christian blowing away a non-Christian in the middle of a worship assembly inside a church building in the name of self defense or Christians praying for and forgiving the one who is shooting them, refusing to kill him, asking God to, instead, have mercy on him, in the name of Jesus? I know the world will laud the Christian who kills in the name of self defense. That same world will lament the misguided Christian sap who refused to meet violence with violence in the name of Jesus.

What if it happened here?

Nearly two years ago The Christian Chronicle published a front page story about church shootings, quoting a dozen ministers from a dozen different congregations in several states who believe and, apparently, teach that carrying a gun and being prepared to use it against another human being is a good thing to do.

Those preachers were asked the question, “What if it happened here?” A minister in Florida said, “walking in with the intent to harm our congregation would be like walking in to harm someone at an NRA rally or gun show.” A minister of another church told the Chronicle that lots of people in his congregation are packing and “someone would be sorry to try anything here.” Some of the preachers interviewed even attempted to say that shooting a criminal inside the church building is the “Christian” thing to do. One preacher from Houston said, “There is a world of difference in being ready to die for your faith than to die at the hands of a crazy man simply because he’s crazy. I believe God would permit me to protect myself and my family in cases such as that.”

A minister in Kentucky went so far as to claim that Christians are required to shoot when he said, “We believe theologically we have an obligation to protect and defend our church membership, especially children, against a stranger or angry member who was to come in and begin shooting.”

A preacher in Alabama who admits to bringing his own Ruger .380 to the church building on Sundays invoked the name of Jesus in justifying the use of deadly force by a Christian: “I do not believe that Jesus — or even the old law — taught members to cower in the face of danger. It was Jesus who told his apostles to take a sword in Luke 22.”

OK. Stop right there.

Two things.

One, you cannot use the name of our Lord to justify the killing of anyone under any circumstances. Ever. Yes, Jesus moves to protect those under attack, not by killing the attacker but by stepping in front of the bullet. And he would forgive the attacker and pray for him while he was dying. I’m always surprised to hear Christians say, “Jesus would not allow himself to be a victim.” Actually, our Lord willingly left his home in glory, put all of his trust in the One who judges justly, and purposefully submitted to being the worst kind of victim. He blessed those who attacked him, he loved those who hated him, he forgave those who killed him, and never lifted a finger against any of them in self defense. I’ve heard other Christians acknowledge that truth about our Lord and then add, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t shoot anybody, but I would.” That actually makes you, by definition, not a Christian.

Two, Jesus’ words in Luke 22 do not authorize the use of gun violence in any way. Jesus is telling his disciples that things have changed. The first time they went out, they were all welcomed with goodwill and hospitality. But now, when they are scattered, they are going to face opposition. They’re going to be ridiculed, rejected, and maybe even killed. Now, Jesus says, you’re on your own out there. Don’t count on other people to help you. You’re going to need a purse, a bag, a sword, whatever. He’s speaking figuratively. He doesn’t discount in this moment every word out of his mouth for the past three-plus years against violence. He’s not saying the opposite now of his every teaching against violence. He’s speaking symbolically. How do we know? Because when the disciples reply, “Look, Lord, we’ve got two swords right here,” Jesus rebukes them. “Enough, already! Stop!”

Yes, Jesus says, you’re going to face intense opposition to me and my message, your very lives are going to be endangered. But you don’t respond with self-defense and violence. Enough! You’re missing the point! Jesus will have nothing to do with swords, even for defense. How do we know? Because later in this same chapter, in the very next scene when Jesus is being arrested, one of the disciples asks him, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And Jesus says emphatically, “No!”

One of the Christ-followers uses his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus sharply rebukes him. “No more of this! Stop!” And he heals the injured attacker. He ministers to and heals the one who came to harm him. In Luke 22, literal armed resistance as self-defense is exposed as a foolish misunderstanding of Jesus’ message.

Of all the ministers quoted in the Christian Chronicle article, only one expressed a theological and scriptural objection to the use of gun violence by Christians in self-defense. Tyler Jarvis, the student and family minister for the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, Texas, said, “I think that the church should trust in the protection and mercy of God, even if it means not being able to defend against an attacker or intruder. The church ought to be able to extend love and forgiveness to those who wish them harm, even if it costs them their lives in the process.”

There are many reasons Christians in the U.S. believe it’s OK to kill people in self-defense. Culture plays a role, society has something to do with it, fear informs our understandings, and there appears to be a general unwillingness to carefully think things through and reflect. Gun violence is normalized as if there’s no choice. We accept the culture’s position and then approve it for God’s Church. There’s no theological challenge, just an out-of-context proof text.

Since when is showing unconditional mercy and love and grace and forgiveness in the face of danger and death labeled as cowardly and weak? Since when is praying for our enemies and refusing to repay evil for evil and sacrificing self preservation for the sake of the sinner viewed as unrealistic? Our Lord was not cowardly in the Garden of Gethsemane that night. And he wasn’t weak when he willingly submitted to the cruelty of the cross. Neither are Christians who reject the use of violence to get their way. They are courageous and brave, faithful and true.

Christians, leave your guns at home this Sunday. Practice prayer. Practice forgiveness and mercy. Practice discipleship and obedience to The Way. Pray to God that nobody with violent intent ever attacks your church family in the sanctuary. But also pray to God for the courage and strength, should it ever happen, to respond in ways that will honor our Lord, the Prince of Peace.

Peace,

Allan

Putting It On the Line

“Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” ~Hebrews 13:13-14

In this world, just about all we have as Christians is faith, hope, and love. That’s it. As followers of Jesus, we really don’t have much status or security. We don’t mean a whole lot in the eyes of this world. We know as disciples of Christ we’re going to face opposition and accusation and persecution. That’s where we live. All we have is faith, hope, and love. And we put those things on the line every day.

We put our faith on the line every day. Think about it. We’ve never seen God. We live in a world where everything can be seen and studied and weighed and measured and explained and subjected to psychological analysis and scientific control. But we insist on making the center of our lives a God we can’t see or touch. That’s risky.

We put our hope on the line every day. We don’t know one thing about the future. We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen between now and tomorrow morning — we’re not guaranteed there will be a tomorrow morning. We don’t know about future sickness or pain in store for us, loss or rejection we might or might not experience. Still, despite our total ignorance about the future, we say with confidence that God will accomplish his will and nothing can ever separate us from his love and promises. That’s dangerous.

We put our love on the line every day. There’s nothing we’re less good at than love. We’re much better at competition. We’re better at responding by instinct and ambition and selfishness than at trying to figure out how to love people. We’re trained to go our own way. Our culture — the whole world! — rewards us for trying to get our own way. Yet, we make the decision every day to put aside what we do best and try to do what we’re not very good at: loving other people. And we open ourselves wide to hurt and frustration and rejection and failure. That’s tough, huh?

We declare our words of faith in an unbelieving world. We sing our songs of victory in a city where things get messy. We live our joy among a people who don’t understand us or encourage us. But this isn’t our home. Not this current city with the current structures and current methods of doing things and current ways of judging failure and success.

We have been made holy by the blood of Jesus Christ. We belong to God in Christ — where there’s a whole lot more happening than meets the eye.

Peace,

Allan

Paying the Price

Being a disciple of Jesus is costly.

Sometimes we pay financially. There are jobs Christians will not do. There are deals Christians won’t make, promotions they never get, strategies they can’t use.

Sometimes the cost of following Jesus is social. Sometimes a family will bail on a new Christian convert. You mention the Lord Jesus more than twice at a party and you might not be invited back. There are entertainment and pastimes disciples of Jesus won’t be a part of.

Sometimes it’s an intellectual or emotional price. It’s a whole lot more demanding mentally and emotionally figuring out how to love your enemies than it is trying to get even. Being different from the culture, always swimming upstream, takes a toll. the cross is the heaviest piece of furniture to move, and Christians are called to pick it up and carry it every day.

And Christians pay the price politically. There are appointments Christians will never be considered for. There are powers Christians refuse to use, lords they refuse to serve, and compromises they refuse to make.

Commitment to the faith carries a cost — we know that. But Christians are not always willing to pay that cost. The price can seem too high in some circumstances. Or maybe we just get tired of paying it every single day. Most of the time, though, what chips away at our confidence and erodes our strength is a loss of hope. We keep paying the price and making the sacrifices, but nothing changes. The problems don’t get fixed, the powers against us still seem to be in control, and none of the issues go away.

It’s a struggle.

We grow weary and lose heart. We get tired of serving other people. Tired of trying to keep the church going. Tired of being different and pointed at and whispered about. We get tired of trying not to sin, tired of reading the Bible, tired of praying. Tired of battling our own cravings and addictions. Christians grow weary of walking the walk.

And Christians who are tired and losing hope don’t usually do something dramatic. They don’t become atheists, they don’t join a witches coven, they don’t start suddenly rooting for the Red Sox. They just give up. They just quit.

The sermon in Hebrews is addressed to Christians on the verge of quitting. The preacher in Hebrews is concerned about people who stop coming to church. He’s worried about people who pour their lives into the collection plate but never receive the blessing. He’s concerned about people who have all the scars, but none of the hope.

I want to spend the rest of this week looking at some really encouraging words from Hebrews 12 that speak directly to those who are losing hope in the midst of terrible pains and hardship. Tomorrow, Hebrews 12:5-9, our suffering has meaning. Friday, Hebrews 12:10-11, the gain is worth the pain. And then Saturday, Hebrews 12:12-13, healing comes in the running.

In the meantime: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful people, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” ~Hebrews 12:2-3

Peace,

Allan

Holy Spirit

Allow me to pick up where we left off yesterday and conclude this short conversation on holiness.

When you put on Christ in baptism, when you accept God’s will for your life to be holy and sanctified, everything becomes brand new. It’s panoramic. It’s all-inclusive. It’s rich and deep and it gets into every crack and crevice of your existence. It all belongs to God and he’s claiming it. You’ve got new desires, new interests, new instincts, new motivations. There’s no room for other gods, no place for selfish behavior, no time to waste in worldly pursuits. There’s only holiness. Holiness has to be pushed into the room and dominate what I do and say and think. “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”

But, I can’t.

I find myself on a holiness roller coaster, some days great, some days awful, some weeks in tune with God and his will, some weeks or months living for my goals instead of his. I want to be holy, I want to live a pure life all the time. But, I can’t.

I know. Neither can I.

Which makes 1 Thessalonians 4:8 sound scary: “He who rejects this instruction does not reject man, but God.”

But, I can’t.

I know. Neither can I.

Which makes the rest of the verse a word of divine grace: “…God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

Being holy is powered by God’s Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit living inside each one of us that works in us to make us holy. The Spirit is given to us to root out the sin in our lives and lead us in this process of sanctification. Yes, we’re called to be holy; but, praise God, we’re also equipped to be holy! It IS possible, only by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live in holiness. God is the one who makes it happen — not you, not me. God does it through his Son and by the power of his Spirit living in us.

God doesn’t merely provide the holy standard we’re to live by based on his character and holiness. He also provides us with the power and the resources to live that way.

I am the LORD who makes you holy! ~Exodus 31
I am the LORD who makes you holy! ~Leviticus 20
God in Christ makes us holy – Hebrews 2
Christ Jesus is our holiness – 1 Corinthians 1
We’re made holy through Jesus – Hebrews 10

The Christian life is not about working to become something you’re not; it’s about being what you already are. God’s Spirit is in us, working to sanctify us, working to make us holy — if we’ll just stop fighting it.

Paul doesn’t tell the Thessalonians to start loving each other and acting right. They already are. He acknowledges how well they’re doing in their walk with Christ. He just encourages them to do more. Take it further. Be so completely wrapped up in God’s claim on your life. Be so totally dependent on Jesus Christ for your salvation. Be so thoroughly led by the Spirit inside you to holiness and sanctification. Ride it, don’t fight it. It’s God’s will, let him do it.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified. It’s what he wants to do. Let him do it.

“God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”

Peace,

Allan

Holy Life

“God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” ~1 Thessalonians 4:7

Can we take Paul’s instructions regarding our sexuality and sexual expressions and apply them to every part of our lives? The way you handle your money? The way you deal with jobs and career? How you treat your parents? What you do when nobody’s watching? Paul is telling the Christians in Thessalonica to think about their sexual conduct, not as a separate part of their lives, but within the larger framework of their walk with Christ.

Everything you do, everything you say, everything you think, from the moment you wake up until the minute you go to sleep — God claims all of it! His will is that all of it be holy. We don’t belong to ourselves. Every second, every square inch — we belong to the Holy Creator of the Universe. We need to change the way we look at things. It’s bigger than we think.

Christianity is not, “Hey, God does exist and he makes some demands on me through Jesus.” The Gospel is not a systematic approach to ethics, it’s not a rational understanding of morality. Jesus does not bring a new teaching or a new ethic or a new set of morals. He brings a brand new reality!

If anyone is in Christ: New Creation! Everything’s new. All of creation is brand new. Everything looks new. Everything’s re-interpreted. Jesus is not an add-on to the story; he IS the story! Jesus is not the missing piece to the puzzle; he IS the puzzle and the box it came in! And the card table and chairs and bag of chips and whatever else is in the room! That’s our reality. Our conduct is attached to how we see the world. We act according to our understanding of reality.

Think about what happened to your conduct the day you learned you were pregnant with your first child. Everything you know as reality shifted dramatically. And your priorities change. You spend money differently. You start saving money differently. The things you look at in the store are different. You’re checking consumer reports on baby strollers and car seats. There’s a baby coming! You’re painting your study or your workout room in warm pastels because you want the baby to feel welcomed. You’re buying little things to stick in the plugs and latches for the kitchen cabinets because you want the baby to be safe. Your wife starts eating differently and you can’t find Dr Pepper in the house anymore. The things you talk about and think about are different. Everything’s a little more serious. Your outlook on life becomes a little more big picture.

Why?

Most of this stuff had never occurred to you before. But now you’ve got a brand new reality. New creation. You’re seeing things you’ve never seen before. And your behavior changes to reflect it.

When you put on Christ Jesus in baptism, when you accept God’s will for your life to be holy and sanctified and like his, everything’s new. It’s panoramic. It’s all inclusive. It’s rich and deep and it gets into every crack and crevice of your existence. It all belongs to God and he’s claiming it. New desires, new interests, new instincts, new motivations. There’s no place for selfish behavior. There’s no time to waste in worldly pursuits. There’s only holiness.

God’s claim on my life in Jesus has to be pushed into the room and dominate everything I do and say and think about. It has to. It must be at the very core of my being and the very reason for everything I do.

Peace,

Allan

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