My Hope After Lockdown!

My Hope After Lockdown!

Dread is probably too tough of a word.  But I am a little concerned about my first day back at the gym when everything opens up again from the COVID19 lockdown.  I’m trying to do some exercise now, but it’s not the same and when I finally make it back to the weights and inclined treadmill – I think it’s going to kill me.

Anticipation is the right word though when I think about the first Sunday morning back with my church family.  Like many churches, we are doing what we can with technology to share my sermons and stay connected, but it’s not the same. Yes, life has been different the past six weeks and thus people have been forced to take stock of what’s important and remember deeper truths.   I hope that when we move out of this dark valley we will see central truths about the church as well.  Though there are more, here are five of those truths about the authentic church I hope people will see.

1. The True Church is the People.  

Are we closed or open for business?  If church is merely a Sunday morning gathering club, then yes, we’re quite closed right now.  Yet when we unpack the word, church, it identifies the people of God who are called out of the world to himself. The church is the people and not the building or program.  I hope we will see that while we may not be able to meet together in large numbers, we are still called to live out our mission for Christ and those around us.

2. The True Church is a Team

Christian work is not reserved for the professional leaders while everyone else does their worldly job and merely shows up on Sunday morning to be taught spiritual mysteries.  Rather, Paul notes in Ephesians 4:11 that the role of leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Coach and player might be the right feel here.  Every Christian is filled with gifts and talents needed to advance the ball down the field as we work together.  I hope that when this is done every follower of Jesus will see their unique and essential role in the Kingdom.

3. The True Church is a Family

“God’s Family” is the actual phrase Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:10 and I have loved seeing some of that play out in my local church.   I have seen our church family checking on and supporting each other, continuing to support the mission financially, and the numerous little acts of love like when a team of volunteers went out to sing from the sidewalk to seniors who cannot get out at all.  We are loving each other the way God intended for us to do and I hope that this will continue with an even greater fervency in the future.  People need a family and that is what the church is.

4. The True Church is a Life-Saving Station.

After the resurrection of Jesus, he gave the first believers what we now refer to as the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  Here he called them to make disciples the world over.  Some will suggest that this commission was meant for the first disciples or professionals in ministry.  But the context of the New Testament does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  On the contrary, the apostle Paul referred to everyone in the church as “Ambassadors of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:20.  As an ambassador, our mission is the mission of our king.  Jesus declared his mission in Luke 19:10 as one of seeking and saving those who are lost. I hope that we will see that when Christians leave the church assembly on Sunday morning they are truly leaving the lifesaving station to go out into the world to reach the lost just like the Coast Guard leaves their shelter in a perilous storm to save drowning sailors.                                

5. The True Church is not to be Taken for Granted.

Historic closed door leading to Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens, Greece

The first gatherings will be exciting when the lockdown is lifted. The question though will be the following months as life yawns into routine.  It’s sad, but how often do we decide to attend, or not attend, the local assembly based on how we feel that day or what we may or may not get out of it for ourselves?  When we do this we forget the purposes of the true church.  When we do this it becomes less important and is eventually dropped to the bottom of our priority list. This has been the case many times in history dating back to the first century where the author of Hebrews exhorted the first Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.” In thinking about our time apart, maybe we can remember that in some countries, today and throughout history, Christians have been forbidden by atheistic or Muslim governments from gathering together. When this season passes, I hope we can see how much of a blessing the weekly gathering of the saints is and work to never take it for granted again.

At this writing, I don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted.  The opening may be gradual and I’m sure new safety efforts will be put into place.  But it is my hope that whenever and however we return, it will be with a renewed passion and energy for the body of Christ.  Jesus built the church and the church is his bride.  God’s heart is for the church and I hope that when this season begins to draw to a conclusion, your heart will be drawn closer to the church as well.

The Decisions for Divisions.

The Decisions for Divisions.

I hate it and it breaks my heart.  Over the past six months I have witnessed up close the division in two churches unleashing emotions of sorrow and anger but for different reasons.

In the first situation, a church was searching for a new senior minister and one of the associates asked to take the lead role even though he had no formal Bible college experience.  While the younger leader did have some great qualities, the eldership reasoned that this position required a more solid theological background than what the associate possessed.  The request for the position was denied.  Instead of choosing to accept the decision of the eldership, the associate first attempted a church coup to overturn the elder’s lead and when that proved unsuccessful, he initiated a church split and took half the people with him.  There was no immorality on the part of the eldership or foreign doctrines; they simply required a higher standard of education for the lead role than what the associate had.  Because he didn’t get what he wanted – he initiated a split.

In the second occasion, the church eldership asked the lead minister to resign.  In this situation, there was no immorality on the part of the minister or practice of heretical teaching. Rather, he was working to take the church out of complacency toward a more aggressive and missional path.  The eldership on the other hand was satisfied in playing life safe and controllable.  But the real difference in the two situations was in how this leader responded to the decision of the elders.  He had enough people who loved him in the church that he also could have initiated an eldership overthrow and if that did not work, could have launched a full church split.  However, what he chose to do was humbly release it into God’s hands and step away.

In both cases, my heart goes out to someone. In the first situation, for the people of the church body that kept their cool and suffered the wrath and hysteria from those who split the church. In the second, for the minister and his family who cared more for the church even though they were the ones wronged.  They could have staked their claim in pride. They however, humbly blamed no one, chose peace, and walked away leaving the whole situation in God’s hands.

In thinking again about the Bride of Christ and how we treat the church, these two real illustrations remind me of a very profound passage in 1 Corinthians chapter three dealing with divisions in the church.  In verse 17 Paul warns the readers that “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him, for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”

Early on when I read that passage, I thought Paul was talking about persecution and that those who attacked the church would eventually receive God’s wrath and judgement if they did not repent.  While there is probably some truth to this assessment, that interpretation does not fit the context.  The section deals with divisions within the church at Corinth with various factions following different leaders. Some followed Paul and some followed Peter or someone else.  Thus they ended up putting human leaders ahead of unity in Christ. This was not about differences in imperative doctrines, but personalities and possible preferences.  They divided on what they wanted instead of what was really important and Paul made it clear this was no small deal.  As noted in a blog post a few weeks ago, Jesus loves the Bride of Christ and so should we.  From 1 Corinthians we should also glean a little bit of fear and trembling.  Messing with the church for selfish reasons is not only destructive to people, but insulting to Christ and Paul indicates this can be a very costly mistake.

What about the church body that you are aware of or connected to?  Are you working to put the mission of Christ and the local church ahead of yours?  Are there times of clear heretical teaching, such as denying the deity of Christ or the clear teaching on sexuality in a world of confusion?  Yes. Such issues should be dealt with and are worth going to the mat for. However, the sad reality is that many of the divisions in churches are usually because of personal choice rather than real doctrine.  The results are both bloody and sinful.

We can, however, live another way.  What can you do today to strengthen the unity of your local church?

A Remembrance of Praise!

A Remembrance of Praise!

One evening during my study break this past summer I found a documentary over George Washington on Amazon Prime.  As Debi and I watched the preview for the docudrama, she got the sense the flick was more hero worship than historical.  We didn’t take in the show so I can’t make a review.  But I did wonder if maybe a little hero worship might not be a bad thing these days.

You see, we live in a culture of criticism today where anything that is not 100% aligned with our feelings is speculative and everything is open for potshots.  Cynicism is supreme and praise is problematic.  No, we don’t want to deify people nor turn a blind eye to blatant sin.  However, when we are geared toward tearing down, we miss so much good intertwined with the weeds that we pull up the whole plant and have nothing to encourage ourselves with or learn from.

One arena where this is especially seen is in discussions about the church.  Even celebrated Christian writer, Francis Chan, noted that his objective in a recent book was to “point out areas where the church is lacking.”   Areas where the church is lacking?  We all know that local bodies of Christ have issues.  I’ve been in some form of Christian ministry for over 25 years and I can tell you plenty of stories of dysfunction.  The question though is one of focus.  What will we choose to spend our time looking at; the problems or the praise?  This is especially true for followers of Jesus.  Yes, there are issues to be discussed and strategies to be employed for improvement.  However, when we do nothing but throw stones at the church, we are ultimately harming ourselves.

When I look around at the world today and see all the pains and problems, I am also quickly reminded that Jesus has the answers in his body, which is the universal church.  Loneliness is alieved when people connect passionately with Jesus at the center.  When the local church family is embraced, we find healing and purpose in a world of self-centeredness.  In short, while there are issues arising from our broken humanity, we owe it to ourselves and those who come after us to pursue and praise the local church which is to reflect the authentic universal and eternal Church.

But on a more intimate note, one of my favorite Biblical pictures of the church is the Bride of Christ.  It’s interesting to see the tension of this illustration with a book by Dan Kimball entitled, “They Like Jesus but Not the church.”  Here’s the deal.  I am not perfect nor is my wife. However, if someone began to trash talk my bride and say they liked me, but not her, well then, our relationship would be over with.  You just don’t talk bad about my bride.  Jesus probably doesn’t like it much when people talk down His Bride especially with a caviler attitude.  That ought to challenge us.

I’ll be making some posts this fall on the church and I hope they will be of an encouragement to you. I hope that at the end of all this, you will love the church as much as I do.  Yes, there are and will be problems.  But it is my desire that we might own up to our responsibilities and stand together to praise the Bride of Christ as much as He does.

What are some positive memories or praises that you can give about the universal Church or your local body of Christ today?

Francis Chan, Letters to The Church (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2018), 211.

Serving the Summons and Choosing to Serve!

Serving the Summons and Choosing to Serve!

I received a Jury Summons in the mail the other day.  My first thought when I saw the envelope and purpose within was not a nice one.  My angst was probably driven by a number of reasons.  I was spinning a dozen or more mental and emotional plates all at the same time that day and the thought of driving to downtown Houston in early morning traffic is a favorite of no one.  This duty just added to my present depletion.  Finding a way out of it was probably my second thought.  Reschedule? Quickly move out of state? Join the Marines?  Fake symptoms of the West Nile virus?  After all . . . I had been in Africa three years ago.

When the dust cleared and after a couple of days of processing, I was able to reassess the situation and reminded myself of how blessed I am to be an American citizen.  I have often suggested that the best education for American teenagers would be a requirement to live for a month or more in a third world socialist country before graduation. That would sure reduce the amount of complaining going on these days.  In addition though, I’m also thinking that this might be a good thing for many Americans of every age.

Despite whatever problem we might be dealing with, I can assure you there are other places on the globe where your conditions and contextual expectations would be much worse.  I also thought about whoever the poor souls might be who are facing legal trials over the next month and possibly the ones I’d be expected to serve on a jury for.  If I were in their shoes; would I want someone doing everything they could to get out of this role, or someone being still and compassionately listening to all sides of the case and truly working to discern accurate justice?  Honestly, I’d probably want someone like me who is trying to follow Jesus as a juror member of whom I knew would be praying for wisdom.  Thus, that is what I needed to be.

This whole process also caused me to look at the local church as well.  Often times we look at the local body of Christ as something which exists for us.  We ask questions of the church in regard to what we are going to get out of it.  What are the others going to do for us?  How are we going to get our needs and desires met?  However, when there is a need for our attention or time, we suddenly become too busy with other life pursuits to lend a hand.  Sometimes this is just a sad reality. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it.

Yet when we look at what the authentic church is and what Christ calls for, we have new reason to serve instead of firstly being served.  In numerous places in the Bible we see illustrations of the true church being comprised of many different people who all fit together tightly being blessed by each other and blessing others. Then of course there is the pattern of Jesus who said that he did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” and “greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” Truly, Jesus demonstrated the greatest act of service by dying for your sins and rising again.  Jesus offered salvation and showed us a new way.

America, or any country for that matter, would be a better place when its citizens were first looking out for others rather than for number one.  This application is obviously true for followers of Christ who have tasted the grace of Jesus. The more we look for ways to serve instead of expecting to receive, the more the love of Christ will expand and in fact, we will all be blessed by this sacrificial fruit.

Yes, there will be tough times when our schedules must be interrupted or our desires set aside for others. But the end game will be much more beautiful for all concerned.

What about you?  How can you serve others today?

The Problem with “Pastor” Steve!

The Problem with “Pastor” Steve!

I’ve never really been a fan of religious verbiage. I especially hate it when people call me Pastor Steve. God doesn’t call me that.  But the problem with the word pastor, in the English language, is that it means just about everything. Thus it sometimes doesn’t really mean anything.  Anything specific that is. The problem with me is that I tried to do and to be everything associated with the word and it just about killed me.  But maybe, in truth, the real problem belongs to all of us who call on the name of Christ. (more…)

Does it Work?  (Christianity that is.)

Does it Work?  (Christianity that is.)

Sometimes Boris would drive me nuts.  I mean really drive me nuts.  Ok, sometimes I suppose he just ticked me off if we’re being honest here.  I remember well the afternoons that Boris would come into our office at the college we rented from in Moscow, Russia.  We’d play chess and discuss everything from politics, to Christianity, to philosophy.  I liked playing chess with Boris because he was just about the only Russian over the age of 12 that I could actually beat.    The reason Boris pushed me to the edge sometimes was because he clearly had little interest in discussion for discovery, but rather just for the sake of being argumentative.  Boris longed for the Communist to retake the government in the national elections of 96.  Boris quoted Paul McCartney with as much reverence as the apostle Paul.  Boris referred to both Vladimir Lenin  and John Lennon with equal admiration while joking about Jesus.  Boris would deny the credibility of the Bible while all the time never acknowledging the proofs I’d give for its inerrancy.  Boris just liked to argue and I suppose that’s probably normal for a young man in his late teens and early 20s. I’m sure I’ve got my own history of annoying folks with my arguments as well.  So if you’re out there Boris, please know that I really do love you and miss you.

One of the criticisms of Christianity that Boris would level at me periodically was the supposition that Christianity was simply not practical. “It didn’t do much,” he’d say.  Maybe he was contrasting me to the Bolsheviks of old or something.  But for whatever reason he had that idea, I tried to illustrate to him that Christianity is anything but impractical.  (more…)