Strong Christians

Church, Discipleship, Giving, Grace, Romans No Comments »

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“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself.” ~Romans 15:1-3

As children of God and followers of his Christ, the Church takes its example from Jesus. The Son of God is the one who calls us to live with each other the way we do. We realize that Christ Jesus never once did a single thing to please himself. Instead, he gave up everything, he sacrificed everything, to benefit others. And by choosing to serve others instead of please himself, Jesus sets the pattern that we must accept as our own: Putting others first, considering the needs of others more important than our own, never about me, always about you.

And Paul puts it on the strong. It’s up to the strong Christians, not the weak, to make sure this happens in God’s Church. It’s on the strong to bear with the failings of the weak sister or brother. That’s hard. It’s on the strong to make the concessions to our weaker brothers and sisters and that’s not easy. It’s easier to be the weaker Christian, drawing the lines and insisting that everybody cater to me. It’s the strong, Paul says, who are able to grasp the truth that our love and mercy and grace to others is like Christ.

“But I can’t stop doing this certain thing; not for him.”
“I can’t give up practicing this particular thing; not for her.”
“I can’t sacrifice this behavior or this privilege or this freedom; not for them.”

You call yourself a follower of Christ? Jesus gave up everything! Jesus sacrificed it all for you and me, for all our brothers and sisters, for the strong and the weak! That’s what makes a strong Christian strong: a faith that comes to the realization that a lot of the things you care so much about are really not that important to God. You love your weaker brother so much, you care about your weaker sister so much, you’re willing to keep those things between you and the Lord and sacrificially carry the burdens of the weak. And the stronger your faith, the easier it becomes. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. You can do this.

Bottom line, here’s what separates the strong Christians from the weak Christians: Strong Christians with strong faith know that the more you sacrifice and the more you give up for others, the more like Christ you are. The more you insist on your own way, the more you assert yourself for your own interests, the less like Christ you are. Pretty simple.

So, what if all of us, to a person, decided that we would put ourselves at the back of the line? What if we all vowed to bend over backwards to make everybody else happy and sacrifice our own feelings and opinions in order to build up others? What if we all did that?

If we all accepted each other like Christ accepted us, if we all bore the failings of the weak just like Jesus does, it still wouldn’t result in a perfect Church. It wouldn’t eliminate our differences of opinion. It won’t do away with our arguments and debates. But it would mean figuring out how to live together in the Gospel. And we’ll know for sure that the Jesus who unites us is greater by far than the differences that may divide us. And our grace-filled conversations and our mercy-laden interactions with each other will reflect and strengthen that conviction.

Peace,

Allan

Unfair Grace

Grace, Matthew No Comments »

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The idea that God’s love comes to us free of charge, no strings attached, goes against all our human nature and instinct. Buddhism has its eight-fold path to salvation, Hinduism has karma, the Jews have the covenant, and Islam has its code of law as ways to earn God’s approval. But only Christianity teaches that God’s love is unconditional. It’s different. And it’s scandalous.

Jesus tells a story about a farmer who hires men to work in his vineyards. Some of them clocked in at sunrise and worked all day. Some didn’t show up until the morning break, some came to work at noon, some showed up during the afternoon break, and some of the lazy men clocked in one hour before quitting time. And every single worker received the exact same pay!

Of course, that made some of the early arrivers angry.

The boss’s actions go against everything we know about employee motivation and fair compensation. The whole thing is very unfair. Because it’s grace. You can’t calculate grace like a day’s wages. Grace is not about finishing first or last. Grace is not about counting. Grace is not math. It’s a gift.

“Friend, I am not being unfair to you… Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” ~Matthew 20:13-15

God gives us gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit because none of us comes close to deserving it. If God were fair to us…

If God were fair to me…

I don’t even want to go there. And you don’t, either.

You know, in the world, yes, some workers deserve more than others. But in the reality of God’s grace, the word “deserve” doesn’t even apply!

We know how this world works: The early bird gets the worm; No pain, no gain; No such thing as a free lunch; Protect your rights, demand your rights, fight for your rights; Make sure you get what you paid for. We know all this because this is the way we all live. I work for what I earn. I like to win. I like to be right. I want others to get what they deserve, nothing more and nothing less.

But the Gospel tells me I did not get what I deserve. I deserve punishment but I get forgiveness. I deserve wrath but I get love. I deserve prison but I get a banquet feast. Grace means not getting what I deserve. And it’s not fair.

Praise God for his indescribable gift!

Peace,

Allan

Eager to Do What is Good

Faith, Grace, Hebrews, Luke, Titus No Comments »

ServantSongsSeriesThere are several places in the gospels where Jesus tells us to fear God. But in those same paragraphs, in that same context each time, Jesus reminds us that we are worth so much more to God than what we might think. We are worth more than the sparrows he tenderly protects. We’re worth more to him than all of nature for which he so faithfully provides. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

We live in the grace of God, in the grace of his faithful promises. We live in his love. We’ve been given everything he has. What could possibly hold us back? How could I ever be content with just sitting on the bench? I can’t. Much is demanded of someone living in God’s grace.

“The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” ~Titus 2:11-14

God’s grace teaches us how to live. And it’s not like everybody else. It’s different. Much more is demanded.

God’s grace does not call you to lay in front of the TV at night. The Spirit is not stirring you to take a big family vacation this summer. Christ’s love is not compelling you to spend this weekend cleaning out the garage (that’s your wife!). Now, none of those things are wrong. But please notice that we’re very quick to prioritize and rationalize our hobbies and our entertainment, but we’re very slow to embrace the high demands of life in the grace of God.

When you live in God’s matchless grace, you don’t just walk through practice and show up for the games. And you’re certainly not just sitting on the bench. God’s gifts compel you to do. God’s grace motivates you to act. To move. To give. to sacrifice. To be active and out there in the middle of it more and more and more each day, not less. You do not get into the Hebrew 11 Faith Ring of Honor by sitting on the couch. Or on your pew.

By faith Noah built an ark. By faith Abraham obeyed and went. By faith Abraham offered Isaac. By faith Moses left Egypt. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea. By faith Rahab welcomed the spies.

And don’t tell me, “Yeah, but I’m not Abraham” or “I’m not Moses.” Because you are. The heroes in the Bible are just like you. They’re exactly like you. A mess of noble intentions and horrible choices. Terribly inconsistent. A fluid cocktail of loyalty and rebellion. A patchwork quilt of ultimate highs and miserable lows. Those people in Hebrews 11 show us lots of good and lots of bad. Just like you. And me. But our God has always chosen to do his greatest work through people just like you and me.

James says Elijah was a man just like us. And he was! He was just as capable of whining and pouting as he was of boldly standing up to 450 murderous prophets of Ba’al. Same with Peter and Jacob, John and Joshua, Mary and Ruth.

When you’re gifted by God’s blessings and protected by God’s grace, it’s never about doing everything exactly right as much as it is about doing something. In God’s grace, you don’t hold back or sit out because you might mess something up or get something wrong. The key is not success. The key is faithfulness.

Peace,

Allan

Stuff in the Middle

Genesis, Grace, Holy Spirit, Matthew, Promise, Revelation, Story of God No Comments »

LamentB&WI don’t know where you are today. Maybe today you’ve already spent a few minutes alone in a chair by the window thinking, “I can’t believe this is my life.” Maybe last night you sat at your kitchen table and thought, “I can’t believe this is where I am.” Maybe you’ve been in a mess for the past couple of weeks. Or maybe you’ve been in a bad place for many years. Maybe sermons about transformed lives and blog posts about living by the Spirit discourage you. They might even depress you.

My life proclaiming the Kingdom of God? My life being a declaration of the lordship of Jesus? That’s not my life. Not today, not ever. My life is too messed up. I’m too far gone.

We all think we’re supposed to have an undefeated season. “This was going to be my year. This year everything was going to get worked out. This was going to be a great year. I was going to get everything on track and this was going to be a wonderful year. My family is going to be undefeated this year. My marriage. My career. My relationship with God. This is the year!”

And it’s not.

I’m sorry.

I want you to think about Judah in the book of Genesis. He’s the son of Jacob. His name means “praise God.” And he had sex with his daughter-in-law. He didn’t mean to, he said. He thought she was a prostitute. He had sex with his daughter-in-law, he left behind his keys and his wallet, and he got busted. It was a huge scandal.

Think about King David. The glorious king of God’s united nation. Personally chosen by God. David intentionally blows up seven of the ten commandments in one terrible weekend.

Think about Peter. The very first apostle chosen by Jesus. He publicly, loudly, and with great religious curses betrayed our Lord three times the night before the crucifixion. Told everybody he’d never met Jesus.

Can you imagine Peter standing in the room while the people were putting the Bible together? Can you see Peter looking over their shoulders? “Hey, can y’all just go from me throwing my nets down and leaving everything to follow Jesus to those letters I wrote at the end? Can you just cut out all that stuff in the middle?”

Can you imagine David in that same room? “Could y’all just skip from me killing Goliath to the geneaology of Jesus in Matthew? Would you please leave out all that stuff in the middle?”

Judah also is looking over the shoulders of the people putting together the Bible. “Um… can you go from my birth in Genesis 29 to those last words in Revelation that say the Messiah is the Lion of Judah? Could you delete all that stuff in the middle?”

That’s not filler stuff there in the middle. The stuff in the middle is there for a reason. To show us. To teach us.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t believe this is my life.” Hey, let me tell you, your life’s not over! If you’re reading this right now (and you are!), the last lines of your life have not yet been written.

By the power of his Spirit, our Lord Jesus is standing right now between what is and what can be. He stands between what can be and what it can mean for generations of people you’ve never met. Jesus also stands right now today between what is and what won’t be, too.

Your life can be a powerful testimony to the reality of the lordship of Jesus and the eternal Kingdom of God. I don’t care where you are right now or what’s going on, your life can be a proclamation. Not by your power. But by the power of the Spirit and the grace of our God through Jesus Christ.

Peace,

Allan

Dung It!

2 Peter, Grace, Luke, Romans No Comments »

“Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” ~Luke 13:8-9

FigTreeShovelThe Greek phrase for what the farmer wants to do to the tree is literally “Dung it.” Most English Bible translations say “Fertilize it.” A couple of them, including the Revised Standard Version, use “manure.” But the old King James and American Standard Versions go with the literal “Dung it.” It’s a weird little line in a short little parable. But the solution to the barren fig tree is to give it more time and spread around a little manure (No, that doesn’t mean preach to the tree).

Manure is not a word, especially back then, that anybody would use in a religious illustration or religious teaching. It’s just not polite. It’s gross. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament this word is used. Why do you think Jesus said “manure?” He could have said, “Let me bring in some better soil” or “Let me water the tree” or “let me prune some branches.” Why did he say, “Let me dung the tree?”

Well, there’s nothing glamorous about manure. It’s not exciting. It’s messy. Smelly. And it takes time. It’s not a quick fix. Digging around the tree, mixing in the manure, caring for the tree, nurturing the tree, paying careful attention to the tree — that takes patience. And great restraint. It’s going to take a while to see if it makes any difference.

Normally we want immediate results. So chopping down the tree seems like the best thing to do. We clear the ground out and get ready for a new tree. A new start. A new beginning. We love new beginnings: new efficient programs, new shiny buildings, new attractive members, new exciting projects, new fulfilling jobs, new shock-and-awe wars. But spreading manure has none of that exhilaration. It’s not dramatic. It doesn’t get anybody’s admiring attention. Manure is a slow solution. And it sounds a lot like our Lord, huh? Jesus is very much about the small, the slow, the unglamorous: yeast and salt and seeds. And manure.

This is how our God deals with people. Patience and restraint. Slow. I don’t care what 2 Peter says, God is slow. He’s not in a hurry. Scripture tells us over and over again we need to wait on God. And Scripture also tells us that God spends a lot of his time waiting on us.

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as Allan understands slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance… Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” ~2 Peter 3:9, 15

The holy God of Heaven and Earth holds off on his judgment, he delays his punishment, he refrains from putting the ax to the root because he loves us. He gives us time. And while he gives us this time, he nurtures us and takes great care of us. He carefully digs around us and blesses us with love and mercy and forgiveness. God keeps coming to us, keeps sparing us, keeps giving us opportunities and unlimited chances to respond. He never gives up on us. He keeps forgiving.

For me not to respond to that grace, for me to go through my life every day and not make changes, not start bearing Kingdom fruit for his glory — I’m without excuse.

“Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” ~Romans 2:4

If God dealt with us strictly by his holy justice, we wouldn’t stand a chance. But he doesn’t. He is patient with us. He gives us time and second chances and third and fourth and fifth and sixth chances to repent. That’s patience. Grace. The Master’s been digging around you for years. He’s been reaching out to you and taking loving care of you for a long time. You’ve responded, right?

Peace,

Allan

Leave It Alone

Forgiveness, Grace, Luke No Comments »

FigTree“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'” ~Luke 13:6-7

Notice the violence of the command. “Cut it down!” It’s not producing fruit. Chop it down! It’s not doing what I need it to. Get rid of it! This tree is disappointing me, it’s taking up space and eating valuable resources and doing nothing productive. Cut it down!

That’s usually our first instinct: Cut it down. We see something we don’t like, we meet somebody who treats us wrong: Cut it down!

The disciples, while they were on the way with Jesus, reacted this same way. Just three verses into this journey, Jesus and his followers are rejected by the people in a Samaritan village:

“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” ~Luke 9:54

Burn ’em out! Turn this whole place into a giant sand trap! Cut ’em down!

We’re the same way. We something wrong, we rush in to make it right. We encounter sin in the world or sin in the church and we fly into action with accusations and judgments and violence. Something offends us or some person is useless to us or just taking up space in the Kingdom, not doing what I think they should be doing, and we either verbally or physical get rid of them. Cut him down! Cut her out! Get rid of it!

We like to solve problems by amputation. That’s our instinct.

According to our Lord’s story, though, the preferred solution is to wait.

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'” ~Luke 13:8-9

Notice the patience and restraint in that response. Leave it alone. And let’s spread around some manure. I want to write more about the manure tomorrow. Today, let’s look at the great contrast between “Cut it down” and “Leave it alone.”

There are times when brave and decisive action is demanded. And those times are exhilarating. It’s exciting to be in the middle of God’s action. But there are other times that demand restraint. There are times when the command from Christ is to not do something.

Sometimes Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” or “Come, follow me!” His commands move us, they push us. “Put out into the deep” or “Go make disciples!” But sometimes his commands stop us in our tracks. “Get behind me” or “Put your sword away.” “We’re not calling down any fire today” or “Leave it alone.”

This is a good lesson for us. I think this is a great lesson for me. I’m too quick to retaliate when I’ve been wronged; I need to be quicker to say, “I forgive you.” I’m too quick to correct others; I need to be quicker to say, “How can I help you?” Instead of evaluating and judging and fixing others, I need to be nurturing and caring and paying attention to others. Instead of chopping down, I need to leave alone.

The world desperately needs our patience and restraint. If we don’t forgive, who’s going to? If we don’t spread love and hope around all the hate and fear, who will? This world is full of people who demand and take; who’s going to give and give and give?

Peace,

Allan