The Importance of Looking Foolish

August 31, 2016

If you want to grow spiritually in your relationship with God, it is important that you look foolish.

Noah looked foolish building an ark in a place with no water where there had not been any rain.  Sarah looked foolish preparing to have a baby when she was 90 years old.  The Israelites looked foolish blowing trumpets and marching around the city of Jericho.  Benaiah looked foolish when he went into a pit, with a lion, on a snowy day.  Gideon looked foolish when he reduced his army from 32,000 soldiers down to 300.  People probably thought Jesus was foolish when he told the man who hadn’t walked for 38 years to get up and start walking.   David looked foolish when he went up against Goliath.  Part of following Jesus is the willingness to look foolish.

Some people have never killed a giant, or walked on water, or seen walls come tumbling down because they weren’t willing to look foolish.  Some of the greatest breakthroughs in the world were accomplished by people who were willing to look foolish.  Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics with a new style people called the Fosbury Flop.  This flop was one of the greatest successes in sports.  Today, every high jumper uses the Fosbury Flop.  In 1 Corinthians 1:27 it says “God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.”  It’s important that we look foolish.

Our society keeps trying to make us conform.  It uses peer pressure to get all of us to act alike.  But, Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  God wants us to stand out from the world.  He wants us to be different.  That means, sometimes we will look foolish.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have Republicans and Democrats in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have black and white and brown and yellow in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.  The world doesn’t understand how we can have rich and poor, and the highly educated and the lowly educated (I love the lowly educated by the way – LOL) in the same church and all get along, but it happens all the time.

When you get excited about Jesus, don’t expect everybody else to get excited too.  When the Holy Spirit turns up the heat underneath you, it disrupts the status quo.  Some people will be inspired by what God is doing in your life.  Others will be convicted.  And they will mask their personal conviction by finding something to criticize.  9 times out of 10, criticism is a defense mechanism.  We criticize in others what we don’t like about ourselves.

Part of spiritual maturity is caring less and less about what people think about you and more and more about what God thinks about you.  Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders of his day for spending so much time with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.  It bothered them.  It didn’t bother Jesus.  They thought Jesus looked foolish.  Jesus didn’t care.  He knew the people needed him.  They were open to him.  They listened to him.  And some of their lives were changed.

Part of being a follower of Jesus is the importance of looking foolish.  We don’t expect the world to understand everything we do and why we do it.  But, that’s OK.  The Bible tells us that God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.  Doing the will of God is never foolish.  But faith is the willingness to look foolish, and when you step out in faith, some people will think you are foolish.  God keeps turning our world upside down and inside out.  When we don’t care how we look, and when we don’t care who gets the credit, the stage is set for God to do some amazing things.  I wonder what amazing things God is planning on doing in our lives this month?  If we are following Jesus, we will look foolish.

 

 

 

 

What are the Big Rocks?

August 1, 2016

There’s a story about a teacher who took a glass jar into his class and filled it with big rocks.  He asked the class if they thought the jar was full.  They said yes.  He said no, it isn’t.  He then poured some small pebbles into the jar around the big rocks.  Then he asked the class, is the jar full now?  They said yes.  He said no, it isn’t.  Then he poured some sand into the jar.  Then he asked the class, is the jar full now?  The class said yes.  He said no, it isn’t.  He then poured some water into the jar.  He asked the class if the jar was full now.  They said yes.  He asked them, what is the moral of this story?  One student said, “No matter how full your life is, you can always squeeze more things into it.”  He said no.  The moral of the story is:  if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in.

The point is that we have to make sure we have the most important things in our lives first.  It’s easy to get busy doing so many good things, that we don’t have time and space in our lives for the most important things.  If we don’t get the most important things right, we won’t get the rest of our lives.  What are the Big Rocks for the Christian Church?  What are the most important things for us to focus on?

We believe that our Big Rocks are the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.  The Great Commandment is found in Matthew 20:37-40, where Jesus says Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus says Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you, for lo, I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth.

When we put the Great Commandment and the Great Commission together, we see that our Big Rocks are Loving God, Loving our Neighbor, and Loving our Neighborhoods.  These are the three big areas of focus for our ministry.  We want to help people come to Believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior for the first time and then to spend a lifetime growing deeper in their knowledge of God.  We want to help people Belong to a community and a purpose that is bigger than all of us.  Loneliness and isolation are the great social dysfunctions of our time.  We were all created with a sense of belonging.  And we want to help people Bless their neighborhoods and serve the community where we live.  We have been saved to serve.  We have been Blessed to be a Blessing.  We call these three Big Rocks:  Believing, Belonging, and Blessing

These are our Big Rocks – Believing (spiritual growth), Belonging (relational growth), and Blessing (missional growth).  Some people think that the Big Rock is numerical growth.  But, churches that make numerical growth their Biggest Rock, often do not grow spiritually, relationally, and missionally.  However, churches that focus on spiritual growth, relational growth, and missional growth, often discover that God is causing some numerical growth to happen as a result.  We do want to reach more people for Christ.  But, numerical growth typically follows spiritual, relational, and missional growth – not the other way around.

This month marks the beginning of a new school year here in Terre Haute.  It also marks the beginning of my second year “back home” as a pastor in this community we love.  Kim and I are delighted to back in the Wabash Valley again and we are grateful that God has led us to be a part of this community.  I have a lot of hope for this coming year.  I believe that God is doing something in our churches and in this community.  I believe that if we keep our eyes open, we will see many opportunities for ministry and new doors that will open for us to make a difference in people’s lives and in our community.

I want to invite you to join us for another important year of ministry.  I don’t know what God is going to do, but I believe He is going to do some significant things, and I want us to be a part of His mission on earth.

These are our Big Rocks – Loving God, Loving our Neighbor, and Loving our Neighborhoods.  We call these three rocks Believing, Belonging, and Blessing.  We want to help people grow spiritually, relationally, and missionally.  Please pray for me.  Please pray for our church.  Please pray for our community.  Pray that we can stay focused on what is most important – our Big Rocks.  And pray that we will be open to all the ministry opportunities God brings our way.

 

The “Good Ol’ Days” Are Not Coming Back

June 30, 2016

As I look at what is going on in our world today, I hear a lot of people voicing a deep sense of frustration.  Many people sense that the world is stuck and isn’t getting any better.  Since 2000, most people’s wages have not increased much, if at all.  Since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, many people have not seen a financial recovery in their own lives.  The job market does not seem to be getting better.  Our economy does not seem to be getting better.  Our educational system does not seem to be getting better.  Washington DC does not seem to be getting any better.  We feel stuck.  We feel frustrated.  And we feel angry.

In Yuval Levin’s best-selling book The Fractured Republic, he says that this has led many Americans to look back at the “Good Ol’ Days” and try to figure out how we can go back in time.  Many of our imaginations were shaped by the post-World War II years, where our economy was growing, jobs were plentiful, America dominated the world stage, and life seemed to get better every year.  Levin says that the Democrats keep looking back to the Great Society years of Lyndon Johnson and want to go back to that period in our history.  He says that Republicans keep looking back to the 1980 years of the Reagan Revolution and want to go back to that time.  But, the problem is, those “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  We can’t go back in time and nobody seems to be looking forward.

We see this with the Brexit vote that was taken last week.  The United Kingdom voted to pull out of the European Union (EU).  Many people were expressing their frustration with the current realities of globalization and immigration and free trade and wanted to take their country back.  They wanted to become more British.  However, after the vote to leave the EU, the most asked question from England on Google was “What is the EU?” implying that people didn’t really know what they were voting for.  It seems as if they didn’t realize their vote would crash their financial markets, weaken the value of the pound, and put their economy in the tank.  Many wanted to go back to the Good Ol’ Days, but they are not coming back.

We see this in our country as well.  One presidential candidate wants to “Make America Great Again”, which is slogan that is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  The other presidential candidate talks about bringing back the financial heyday of her husband’s presidency, which is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  Nobody is looking forward, and people are frustrated with their leaders.

We see this in the Bible as well.  In the Old Testament, after living in Egypt for 400 years, the Israelites were finally set free by Moses, and crossed the Red Sea into the wilderness.  After two years in the wilderness, they were on the edge of the Promised Land.  But, in Numbers 13-14, it tells us that they became anxious and scared, and wanted to go back to Egypt.  They wanted to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which could not be done.  They were frustrated with their leaders – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  They wanted to vote them out of office and pick new leaders.  Sound familiar?

Today, in the United Kingdom, here in the United States, and around the world, we are still making the same mistakes the Israelites made in the wilderness some 4000 years ago.  We can’t go back to the past.  The “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  If we keep pining for yesterday, we will never find the path to tomorrow.

Because the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, they ended up having to stay in the wilderness for another 38 years.  They remained stuck and frustrated until the whole generation who were in leadership had died off.  They had to wait for the next generation to grow up, with fresh ideas, new perspectives, and a new imagination.  They needed people who were not afraid to take wise risks, to launch new experiments, and discover a new way to live in a world that had shifted significantly.  Our God is a creative God, and we need to encourage people to be more creative.  Jesus was a provocative and disturbing Bible teacher, and we need to encourage people to teach like him.  The Holy Spirit leads people through visions and dreams, and we need to encourage people to dream.  The seven last words of the church are “we’ve never done it that way before.”  Our past should never inhibit our future.  It should always provide the foundation to build new steps to a different future.

The Israelites in the Old Testament learned a hard lesson.  They learned that they couldn’t go back to the “Good Ol’ Days” and that they were never coming back.  Because of their stubbornness, they got stuck in the wilderness for a generation, before people were open to God’s new imagination.  We don’t want to make the same mistakes today.  Whether we are looking at our nation, our world, or our church, we don’t want to keep looking to the past when God wants to prepare us for a new future.  What will it look like?  We don’t know.  But, we have to keep looking forward, not backward. We have to learn to adapt to new situations and not be afraid to start new ministries.  We have to grow deeper in the scriptures to understand fresh ways to engage the new missionary context in our world.

We don’t know what the future holds.  We are faced with a lot of uncertainty.  But, we know that God holds our future.  We know that Jesus is leading us forward.  We know that the Holy Spirit will guide us on our journey.  We know that we don’t need to be afraid.  And we know that the “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.

 

 

Your Questions

June 1, 2016

Recently, I asked people to submit some questions about faith and life that they would like to hear some sermons on.  I am now preaching a six week series on some of the questions, but I don’t have time to cover all of them.  Here are some of the other questions that were asked, and some ideas to think about:

1.”My boss is an atheist and every time I try to talk to her about Christ, she becomes defensive and has lot of reasons.  How can I witness to her?”  That’s a good question.  There are no easy formulaic answers.  It requires a lot of prayer and discernment.  Many people react negatively to Christians they perceive to be too “pushy”, so you have to be sensitive.  Jesus engaged people more with questions than answers.  Instead of trying to give your boss answers, you might want to try asking her more questions.  What does she enjoy in life?  What is frustrating for her?  How does she cope with problems?  Does she ever feel lonely?  Does she feel empty?  Does her life have a purpose?  Sometimes questions have a way of opening people up.  If she realizes something is missing in her life, she might become more open to a spiritual conversation.  But, don’t rush it or force it.  It may take a long time.

2.”What is the difference between believers and angels in heaven?”  The Bible doesn’t spend much time on this question, and there’s probably a lot more that we don’t know, than what we do know.  But, 1 Corinthians 6:3 says “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”  So, when we enter the new heaven on earth, we will judge angels.  This probably means that we will be higher than the angels since we will be judging them.  Hebrews 1:14 tells us that angels are ministering spirits sent to serve us on earth.  So, they minister to us now, and perhaps they will continue to minister to us in heaven.

3.”I hear people talking about a moment in time when an experience happened that made them realize God was right there with them and it changed their life. How do we make ourselves open to know when that happens? Does this moment come for everyone?”  That’s a good question.  There is no “one size fits all” answer that fits everyone.  When we read the Bible, we see that different people have different experiences of God in their lives.  We are all different and God chooses to work differently in some than in others, based on what we need.  Some people have dramatic conversion stories when they became a Christian.  For others, it was more of a slow process over a long period of time.  Neither is better than the other.  The important thing is that we have a relationship with God through Jesus.  How it happens may be different for each person.  They key is to be open and to allow God to be at work in your life.  I believe that engaging in spiritual practices – studying the Bible, praying, attending worship, fasting, extending hospitality, solitude, stewardship, and the Sabbath – these kind of things open us up to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Being too busy can be an obstacle.  Sometimes we need to slow down, turn off the noise, and be still.

4.”In regards to psychics, mediums, and people who claim to talk to the dead, are they “gifted” from God or the devil?  What if their abilities are used for good, like police work?”  In Deuteronomy 18:9-13, God commands us not to practice divination, sorcery, engage in witchcraft, cast spells, consult mediums or spiritists or consult the dead.  Doing this kind of thing can open up our lives to evil forces that can overpower us and ruin us.  It is “playing with fire” and we will likely get burned.  God wants us to consult Him with any questions we have.  The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  To consult any other spirit is dangerous.  Satan is called the Deceiver and we never know if we can trust any information we might get from another spiritual source.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so if we want the truth, we need to look to Jesus, not someone else.  Some people look to other spirits as a way of gaining control of our world.  Christianity says we should not try to be in control, but that God is in control, and we need to trust Him, and look to Him, not to anyone else

5.”What is the Methodist Church position on Masonic organizations?” I don’t know. I don’t know if  there is an official position.  Prior to last summer, I had spent the last 17 years in California.  There, I don’t remember seeing any Masons, and I wasn’t even sure they still existed.  So, it was never a big issue that I looked in to.  If you look it up on the web, you will find some people who think Masonic organizations are compatible with Christian teaching and some who do not.  I do not feel qualified to speak to this without doing a lot more research.  The key is always to compare a group’s teachings and practices with the scriptures and see if they are consistent and compatible with one another.

6.”God, Lord, Jesus – which one is the proper title?”  There is no one proper title for God.  There are many names for God that are used.  One of the foundational beliefs of Christianity is the Trinity – that we believe in one God Who exists forever as three person – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  In the Old Testament, when Moses met God at the burning bush, he asked God what His Name was, and God said, “I Am Who I Am” or “Yahweh”.  The Jewish people also believed God’s name was too holy to say, so they would often call Him “Lord” instead.  After a while, the Greeks added some vowels to the name Yahweh and that became Jehovah.  Jesus is the Messiah.  The Greek word for Messiah is Christ.  Whether we are referring to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, it’s all the same God.  Any of these titles are acceptable.

I want to encourage all of us to keep asking questions about faith and life.  This is how we learn.  Being curious and inquisitive is a good thing.  We shouldn’t be afraid to ask any question.  The more we seek, the more we will find.  The more we search, the more we discover.  The more we want to know, the more our faith will make sense.  Any answers that we give are not meant to shut down conversations, but to stimulate more conversations.  Let’s keep asking, seeking, and knocking.  The more we do that, the more we will become like Christ, and the more mature we can become as His disciples.

 

 

Of Course He isn’t Safe, But He’s Good

May 10, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he talks about C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the book, two sisters, Lucy and Susan, are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan the lion, who is Lewis’ figure for Jesus.  Susan says, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe?”  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”  So, Lucy asks, “Then he isn’t safe?”  Mr. Beaver says, “Safe?  Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But, he’s good.”

Rich describes this as a tuning fork paradox:  God isn’t safe, but God is good.  As with all biblical paradoxes, living within this tension is difficult and yet essential.  According to A.W. Tozer, the God we envision determines the person we are becoming.  What happens to people who are primarily focused on a God who “isn’t safe” or what the Bible speaks of as justice, judgment, or wrath?  We already know.  Those with the primary image of a wrathful God eventually become wrathful themselves.  Those who believe only in a judging God easily become judgmental.  They become unable to offer any mercy and, just as tragically, unable to receive mercy themselves.  This is not a pretty picture of God, and folks who see God only in these ways are not endearing to be around.  Since these judgmental caricatures are usually how Christians are portrayed in our media, who can blame churches for treating this unsafe God the way families deal with odd Uncle Harry:  keep him in the background so he doesn’t embarrass us in front of the guests.

But Rich asks:  what about the other side of Mr. Beaver’s statement:  “He’s good”?  Even beyond good, doesn’t the Bible say, “God is love?”  Unfortunately, we can subtly turn that biblical statement on its head until it becomes “Love is God.”  We then fall prey to the opposite caricature:  God the benignly loving heavenly grandfather, who smiles on his children no matter what they do.  If this is our mental image of God, we easily assume that any loving person is automatically a godly person or that any belief system with some love in it must also have God in it.  Experience shows that neither is true.  God is not only loving; God is also just.  In fact, if God were not perfect justice, neither could God be perfect love.

Rich reminds us of something else that A.W. Tozer wrote:  “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”  An opiate is a drug that dulls our senses and makes us lose touch with reality.  It’s a fatal notion that a loving God could never judge anyone.  Why do we assume that love and justice do not coexist in God?  C. S. Lewis says with wonderful understatement, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.”  God is so good, and God’s love is so pure, that nothing impure can stand before him.  It’s the justice of God that shows us what terrible trouble we’re in.  And it’s the love of God, through Jesus’ death on the cross, that allows our burden of sin to be released.

Our view of God determines the kind of people we are becoming and the kind of lives we are leading.  The Bible teaches us that God is not shallow – God is deep.  God is so deep that sometimes He is difficult for us to understand.  The nature of God sometimes brings together seemingly opposite ideas in a way that is hard for us to imagine.  This is called a paradox.

So, while we can come to know God as children, it will take more than a lifetime to really understand God, Who He is, Why He acts the way He does, and why He calls us to be the kind of people we are becoming.  God combines revelation and mystery, certainty and wonder, questions and answers.  The challenge for us is not to reduce God down to something smaller than He is.  We need to allow God to remain big, bigger than our problems, and bigger than our world.  Only then can we catch a glimpse of how amazing God is, and how wonderful the Kingdom of God is going to be in the future.  Of course God isn’t safe, but He’s good.

 

 

Already But Not Yet

May 3, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he describes how the church he grew up in paid little attention to the Kingdom of God.  For some reason, a lot of American churches haven’t paid a lot of attention to the teachings in the Bible about the Kingdom of God, but it was the main thing Jesus talked about when he walked on earth.  The Kingdom of God is mentioned 122 times in the four gospels including 99 times from Jesus’ own lips.  In the Gospel of Mark, the very first words that Jesus speaks are about the Kingdom of God: ”The Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)  The good news that Jesus brings into our world is about the Kingdom of God.

Rich writes in his book that the Jewish people had been expecting the Kingdom of God for a very long time, just as the Old Testament prophets had predicted.  All creation started off very good (Genesis 1:31).  But God’s good creation came under the brutal tyranny of Satan.  Now Jesus is leading a counterattack, recapturing the territory Satan has held.  Whenever Jesus heals someone, the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever he casts out a demon, the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever Jesus reaches out to love people no one else loves – like lepers or tax collectors or prostitutes or sinners – the Kingdom of God has come.  Whenever truth and justice defeat injustice, the Kingdom of God has come.  Person by person, piece by piece, Jesus is reclaiming the territory that has been under the dominion of Satan.

Rich points out that the reframing nature of Jesus’ parables presses home the paradoxical, unexpected nature of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom will not arrive in overpowering might, as the Jews expected, but is already quietly at work, as insignificant to human eyes as a mustard seed or bit of yeast in some dough.  Jesus’ kingdom looks embarrassingly small and weak against powerful world systems that seem to have the upper hand in every quarter.  Yet he tells us it will expand to penetrate every corner of God’s creation.  As the nineteenth-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Rich reminds us that other parables continue the beat of the Kingdom’s mystery.  The Kingdom of God will not be joyously received everywhere, as the Jews expected.  As we learn in the parable of the sower, it will never take root in some lives, it will be superficially received in others, and it will be choked out in still others (Matthew 13:1-9).  One of the hardest truths for Jesus’ audience, and for many of us today, to swallow is how many people ultimately reject the Kingdom (Matthew 7:13-14).  Also contrary to Jewish expectation, the Kingdom will not vanquish evil all at once, but comingles with an evil world, like wheat and weeds growing together until the final judgment (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

New Testament scholar George Ladd has written: “The new truth, now given to men by revelation in the person and mission of Jesus, is that the Kingdom that is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen in Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men.”  Hence the classic phrase describing the Kingdom of God:  “already but not yet”.  It is already here, but it is not yet reaching its fullness until Jesus returns.  The future has already invaded the present, but not yet completely.

This is the tension that we live in today.  This is the challenge that we face.  How do we live in a world as people who have already been changed by God, but who have not yet been completely changed by God?  How do we live in a world that is in the process of being changed by God, but which has not yet been completely changed by God?  How can we be used by God to help advance His love and truth, to a world and to people who don’t always want to hear it?  It can be hard to live in a world with so many problems, but it can also be meaningful and rewarding to know that what we do matters, what we do counts, and what we do is important.  Every little thing that we do has the potential to make a difference in the world.  Even the smallest of words and the tiniest of actions can lodge in a person’s heart or mind and cause them to re-think what they believe and how they act.  Life can be hard, but life can be good at the same time.  Our labor is not in vain.  God can multiply what we do in ways we may not realize.  Life can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time.  This is the paradox of living between the now and the not yet.

 

A More Colorful Opportunity

April 28, 2016

Back in 1965, white people made up about 88% of the population in the United States, and the nonwhite population was about 12%.  Today, people of color make up 37% of the population in the United States.  In 1965, there were fewer than 9 million Hispanics in the U.S.  By 2013, there were 54 million Hispanics in the U.S.  In 1965, there were about 16 million Asian Americans in the U.S.  By 2013, there were more than 18 million.  We are becoming a more colorful country.

The demographics of our country are changing every minute of every day.  Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90% of that growth comes from people of color.  In 2011, the majority of babies born in America (50.4%) were not white.  A baby is born every seven seconds in our country, resulting in 12,343 births per day.  At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the population is 78% white.  So, while a majority of the births in our country are from babies of color, the vast majority of deaths are people who are white.

There are about 6,048 white babies born in America every day.  There are 5,204 white deaths in America every day, meaning that our white population increases by 844 people every day.  There are about 6,295 babies of color born in America each day.  There are 1,442 deaths of people of color, meaning that our nonwhite population increases by 4,853 every day.  Do you see a trend here?

More than 90% of all immigrants to America are people of color.  In terms of legal immigration, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day.  When these are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, 7,471 people of color are added to the U.S. population each day, in contrast to 1,053 white people who are added to our population each day.  Clearly, we are becoming a more colorful country.

Some who have been a part of the majority, who see their numbers declining, seem to be reacting with nervousness, anxiety, and fear.  But, perhaps God is giving us a unique opportunity.  As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, what is God up to here?  Why is God causing this to happen or allowing this to happen?  Perhaps the challenges that come from our changing demographics are actually opportunities. Maybe God is strengthening us rather than weakening us.  Can we rise above the negativity and the fear of our culture and model a healthier response?

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” The picture Jesus gives us is that people will come from all over the world, from many countries, and many racial ethnic groups to be a part of the coming Kingdom of God.  It could be that God is preparing us for that future time by helping us get to know people from different backgrounds to understand the vast creativity and imagination of God.  We used to have to go into the world to share the good news of Jesus with people from other colorful backgrounds, but now they are coming to us.  We can now share our faith with many different kinds of people without having to leave the communities where we live.

Some people of color have a strong faith in Jesus that can encourage our relationship with God.  Some immigrants who come here are bringing about a revival in our nation as they share their faith in Christ with us.  Some people are coming here as missionaries since the United States is now the third largest mission field in the world.  What if people from other countries were not coming here to steal our jobs, but to inspire a deeper faith in God?  Why do some Christians respond with such fear, when the command found most often in the Bible is “do not fear”?  When I lived in California, I had many friends who were from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.  I learned a lot from them, from their faith, and from how they viewed the world.

Maybe what some think is a curse is actually a blessing.  Maybe what some think is a problem is actually a solution.  Maybe what some think is a crisis is actually an opportunity.  Maybe God is surprising us again and teaching us something we need to learn.  Maybe we need to take off our cultural glasses and put on our Biblical glasses to see our world through different lenses.  Maybe we could learn to respond in faith instead of in fear.  Different is not always bad.  Change is not always bad.  Variety is not always bad.  Maybe God is leading us to a new level of trusting Him, where we realize He is still in control, and we are going to be OK.  Maybe we can all learn something new from each other.

(These statistics come from the book Brown is the New White by Steve Phillips.)

 

The Tipping Point

March 31, 2016

In the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, he tells a story about how a new hybrid corn seed spread through Greene County, Iowa, in the 1930s.  The new corn seed was introduced in Iowa in 1928, and it was superior in every respect to the seed that had been used by farmers there for decades before.  But, it wasn’t adopted right away.  Of the 259 farmers in the county, only a handful of them had started planting the new seed by 1932 and 1933.  In 1934, 16 took the plunge.  In 1935, 21 tried it.  In 1936, 36 more tried it.  In 1937, 61 used it.  By 1941, all but 2 of the 259 farmers were using the new hybrid seed.

The first farmers to try the new seed were the Innovators, the adventurous ones.  The slightly larger group who followed shortly after them were the Early Adopters.  They were the opinion leaders in the community, the respected and thoughtful people who watched and analyzed what those wild Innovators were doing, and then followed suit.  Then, came the big bulge of farmers who got on board from 1936-1938.  This group was called the Early Majority and the Late Majority.  They were the deliberate and skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected of farmers had tried it first.  They caught the seed virus and passed it on, finally to the Laggards, the most traditional of all, who saw no urgent reason to change.

Gladwell’s point is that when new ideas are introduced, or when you are trying to spread your good ideas throughout the community, it always starts slow.  It starts with some Innovators and Early Adopters who are willing to give it a shot.  If they like it, and respond favorably, the message will spread throughout the community by word of mouth – from person to person, neighbor to neighbor, and friend to friend.  But, you need a small number who are willing to try something new, experiment with the new idea, and accept it into their lives.  The new idea has to be contagious enough, and sticky enough, to “infect” people with the idea that this is better than what they have been doing before.  Once about 25% of the people in the community adopt a new idea, the Tipping Point has been reached.  The majority will follow and its spread will not be stopped.

As Christians, we have good news that we are trying to spread throughout our community.  We want to persuade people who are not going to church, and/or who don’t believe in God, that what we believe will be better for them than what they have been believing.  We want to convince them that the way the Bible directs us to live will be better for them than the way they have been living.  But, a lot of churches are stuck.  We feel like what we are doing never quite seems to “take off” and get adopted by others in the community.  What is going on?

The research behind the Tipping Point gives us some clues.  If we want to make a difference in our community, if we want the good news of Christ to spread to people outside the church, we need to begin with the people in our community who are Innovators.  We need to persuade them to give our message a try, or give our church a try.  Then, we need to convince the Early Adopters to give it a shot.  If we can convince some the key leaders and opinion makers of our mission and purpose, we will hit the Tipping Point.  The idea will take off, people will follow, and the message will spread by word of mouth from person to person, from friend to friend, and from neighbor to neighbor.  It won’t happen overnight, but if we build it organically, it will eventually take off on its own.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the Easter story ends by Jesus giving the disciples the Great Commission – to go and make disciples of all nations.  Jesus wants us to go out into our community and into the the world.  How can we spread the good news of Jesus and make a difference in our community?  Who are the people we know?  Who are the Innovators and the Early Adopters?  Who are the people who will “take it and run with it”?

Churches don’t have to be stuck in a rut.  We don’t have to be caught in the mud.  We can start to gain some traction, re-gain our footing, and begin to impact some people who haven’t been reached before.  We always want to pray about this and seek the leading of the Holy Spirit.  But, if we understand how to get to the Tipping Point, it will not be impossible.  God can guide us and direct us in the ways he wants us to go.  And like the new hybrid corn seed introduced in Iowa in the 1930s, we can see new people begin to come on board every year.  If we get the ball rolling, it will begin to spread – person to person, friend to friend, and neighbor to neighbor.

 

What’s the Big Deal about Easter?

March 1, 2016

What’s the Big Deal about Easter? In our American culture of today, Christmas is a bigger holiday than Easter. Thanksgiving is a bigger holiday than Easter. Halloween is a bigger holiday than Easter. For some, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, and the Daytona 500 are bigger than Easter. For some, the first day of deer hunting season is bigger than Easter. Many people don’t even get a day off from work for Easter. Some people think it’s just a kids’ holiday where you talk about the Easter Bunny, go looking for eggs, and eat chocolate. (Where did those things come from?) For some, it’s just a day to go out to eat. What are we missing? What’s the big deal about Easter?

In his book Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright, he says that when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make. Jesus brought heaven to earth. In biblical thought, heaven is not a long way from earth. In the Bible, heaven and earth overlap and interlock, as the Jewish people believed they did above all in the Temple. Heaven and earth are not like oil and water, resisting one another and separating themselves out. Heaven and earth were always meant to co-exist.

The view from the Jewish Bible is that heaven and earth are twin halves of God’s created reality, designed eventually to come together. Suppose that what has kept heaven and earth apart all this time is that the human creatures who were put in charge of the earthly part of this creation had rebelled, rejecting God’s rule over them, desiring to rule themselves. We wanted to “call our own shots.” This landed us in a hole we couldn’t dig ourselves out of. We became addicted to sin, and couldn’t break free. We knew if we couldn’t break this addiction, it would eventually kill us. But, we couldn’t figure out how to undo the damage we had inflicted upon ourselves. We were stuck forever, with no hope of parole, no time off for good behavior, no anticipation that the future would be any better. We were caught in an endless downward spiral that we could not stop. We were dying.

Suppose then, that the creator God had finally come in person to set us free from the addictive power of sin. Suppose that God sent His Son to stop our downward spiral, lift us out of our hole, and put us back on sturdy ground once again. Suppose that the power of sin and death was broken, hope was restored, and the original purpose of creation was fulfilled after all. That is what happened when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Easter was the birth of the new creation. The power of sin and death that had tyrannized the old creation had been defeated, disabled, and overthrown. Jesus launched the new kingdom of God in power and glory on earth as in heaven.

Jesus let loose a new power in our world – the power to remake what was broken, to heal what was diseased, and to restore what was lost. The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated strangely, mysteriously, and partially during his public career through his healings, feastings, and teachings was now unveiled in a totally new dimension. Jesus is the prototype of the new creation.

This new creation overflows with the power of love. When Jesus meets his followers on Easter morning, they are sorrowful, ashamed, and anxious. He calls them by name. He tells them not to be afraid. He explains what is going on. He deals with them individually. There is a love, a deep, moving, warmth that goes out from Jesus. This love is strong, powerful, life-changing, and life-directing. The new creation has begun.

The old creation lives by pride and retribution. I stand up for myself, and if someone gets in my way, I try to get even. We’ve been there, done that, and got the scars to prove it. Now there is a completely different way to live, a way of love and reconciliation and healing and hope. It’s a way many people have never tried before. It’s a way that has been as unthinkable as – well, as the resurrection. That’s the point. Instead of building walls to keep people out of the new creation, Jesus builds bridges and invites everyone to come in. Jesus has ushered in a new world, a new reality, a new creation.

This is why Easter is a big deal. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just mean “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, it means the reverse. It means that heaven has come to earth and made earth into a new creation. It doesn’t just mean “So there is life after death”, even though there is. Easter means so much more than that. Easter means you can live a beautiful, wonderful kind of life now both before death and after death. Death has lost its power over you. It will still hurt when it happens. But, now instead of being a painful end, death becomes a temporary phase that we pass through as we move on to an even better kind of life with God. Easter speaks of a life that is neither ghostly or unreal, but solid and definite and practical. Though the Easter stories come at the end of the gospels, they are not really about the end of the story. They are really about the beginning of the story. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. The beginning of a relationship that we can now have with God. A relationship that Jesus initiates for us. A relationship that will grow. A relationship that will never end. We can now experience an unconditional, never-ending love that sets us free to be who we really are, completely unafraid, healthy, honest, strong, and pain-free.

That is why Easter is a big deal. Easter changes everything. Reality has now been altered for all time. Some people will experience this new reality and some will not. If you will step out in faith, believe in Jesus, agree to follow his directions for your life, give up what he tells you has been holding you back, and join with others who are journeying with him through life, you can begin to experience this new reality. Your life can change in ways that you can’t begin to imagine yet. The world becomes a better place than you have dreamed. Jesus gives you a future that you can look forward to, that no thing and nobody can ever take away from you. Don’t miss it. Easter changes everything. Easter is a big deal.

What is the Getting in the Way?

February 1, 2016

What is getting in the way of your relationship with God? When you look at your life, can you identify anything that is keeping you from growing closer to God? Are you aware of anything that keeps dragging you down? Is there some persistent temptation that keeps tripping you up?

Going back to about 325 AD, the church decided to come up with a special time in the year to encourage people to eliminate the bad habits in their lives, and focus on developing spiritual habits that would draw them closer to God. They came up with what is now known as the season of Lent. Lent is the forty days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word “lencten” which means “spring”. The season of forty days was based on the story of Jesus in Matthew 4 where he goes into the wilderness for forty days, and defeats the temptations of the devil, which prepares Him to begin His ministry.

Based on this story, Lent was designed to be a time of fasting and repentance. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. It is a time of self-denial, moderation, and the forsaking of sinful activities. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism.

The day before Lent begins is called Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras. People saw it as their last chance to party before beginning a long season of fasting and celebration. On Mardi Gras, some people engage in the very activities that the Bible calls us to turn away from. This actually makes no sense, if one is really serious about giving up what is getting in the way of a closer walk with God.

The first day of the Lenten season is called Ash Wednesday. It is called the Day of Ashes because of the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross. The words from Genesis 3:19 are spoken: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” While the Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday, it does record accounts of people in the Old Testament using dust and ashes as symbols of repentance and/or mourning (2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Daniel 9:3). The practice of rubbing a cross on a person’s forehead with ashes is a physical sign that a person is turning away from sin and identifying with Christ.

Many Christians will make personal vows of abstinence during Lent, which could include anything from eating candy to meat to junk food. Some will choose to abstain from sex, alcohol, TV, or the internet. While some choose to stop doing what they shouldn’t, others choose to start doing what they should. Some people will choose to volunteer in their community or work for social justice. Some will choose to spend more time in prayer and reflection. It is a time to focus on eliminating what is keeping you from growing closer to God and developing new spiritual habits that will strengthen your faith.

It is an opportunity to change what we ought to change, but have not. Lent is about becoming. Lent is about doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now. Lent is a summons to live life in a new way, a better way, a healthier way.

For some, Lent had become an old tradition that they didn’t understand or had lost its meaning. But some are re-discovering it as helpful spiritual practice. We live in a culture that celebrates excess, breaking rules, and being selfish. We live in a culture that encourages selfishness, no self -control, and the pursuit of pleasure. But, some have found hedonism to be lacking, unsatisfying, and full of empty promises. Some have been hurt, abused, and damaged in the process. Some are recovering the call of the scriptures to turn away from the hollow temptations of the world which do not satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Some who are looking for a better way are returning to a spiritual approach to discover what is missing.

Sometimes the best answers are the oldest answers. Sometimes the wisest path is not the new path that no one has ever walked, but the most ancient path, that millions before us have found to be the way to go. Sometimes under layers of dead tradition, we discover a lively, vibrant, healthy lifestyle that leads us back to the truth, and we wonder why we have missed it all these years.

Sometimes what the world presents to us as fun is really just destructive sin that rips apart people’s lives. The Bible continually calls us to open our eyes to see the truth that God puts around us every day. The scriptures keep inviting us to open our ears to hear the voice of God that speaks to us every day. God’s Word keeps nudging us to turn away from what is ruining our lives, and turn to habits and practices that actually give life.

Lent can help us do that. It’s an old idea that is becoming more relevant all the time. If you have never paid much attention to Lent, this might be the year to take a look at it. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 10th. If you are looking for an excuse to cut something bad out of your life, and start something good, this is a good time to get started.