Archive - May, 2010

The Best Preaching Compliment I’ve Ever Received

This last Saturday I was back in Oceanside having lunch with a good friend. I should say a few things about this friend. He’s two years younger than I am, an officer in the Marine Corps, and is quite theologically astute. His dad is a seminary professor back east. He started attending the church I worked at in Oceanside about a year before I left, and he and I hit it off almost immediately. From the beginning, we didn’t agree on much of anything theologically, outside of the basic fundamentals of Christian doctrine. We both hold the Scriptures in extremely high regard, we just often interpreted them and their implications differently. Nonetheless, we became great friends, and made a habit meeting together to have a beer and discuss theology. Those conversations were incredibly rich. I loved having this friend of mine in the congregation when I preached, because I knew he was a careful and critical listener. He took notes better than anyone I knew, and often times we would have fascinating discussions about my sermons in the days that followed. All of that to say, he’s a great friend and a sharp guy who I enjoy talking with and who has shaped my own thinking in profound ways. As we sat talking and eating Mexican food this last Saturday, he, in the context of a larger point he was making, was telling me about what he remembered about my preaching. “I loved listening to you,” he said, “Because when

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like you’d take a text, and if this is all of the standard stuff I’d always been taught about that text (he made a big circle on the table with his hands), you’d come at if from a totally different angle and you’d be over here (he motioned with his finger outside of the circle) and you’d say stuff and draw conclusions that I’d never even thought of, and I’d always walk away saying, ‘ok, I never thought about this before, I need to maybe rethink some things.'” Bam. Best preaching compliment I’ve ever received, right there. And I told him that. He went on to say that he didn’t always agree with me 100%, but that I always made him think. That’s what I like to hear. When I preach and teach or when I talk about God I am not burdened by the need to be different, or controversial, or needlessly contrarian. I believe that when preachers set out to be difficult or controversial then can cause great pain. Frankly, I think that is a sign of insecurity on the part of the preacher. But when it appears that our standard interpretations of a text are off base, or are shaped more by our cultural, political, economic, or philosophical presuppositions and commitments rather than what the text actually says, I’m willing to call them into question. And I believe that is healthy. Even if, every now and then, it rubs people the wrong way. I am burdened to, as humbly as I can, be faithful to what the text actually says while trying to weed out as many of my own biases as I can. When I preach my hope is to point myself and my audience to the Scriptures in a way that leads everyone involved to a greater love for Jesus and a greater desire to live a life that glorifies him. My hope is that that would be a process that really gets people to think. And when it is, that makes me happy. It’s been tough not preaching regularly this year. I’ve had about five chances to preach, and they’ve been great, and I look forward to getting “back in the game” soon. I think the fact that I’ve been out of regular preaching for the last several months made that compliment especially encouraging.

The 3 Functions of a Disciple

Blogging the New Testament, Day 19, Mark 3-5

“And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” – Mark 3:15-16

One of my favorite sermons that I’ve written comes from this passage out of Mark where Jesus calls the twelve disciples. In the talk I go through the three initial things that Jesus calls his disciples to do, and then go through what it looks like for us to engage in those three activities today, because while the specifics of our lives may be different, I believe that Jesus still calls those who would follow him to engage in three sorts of activities:

1) “…that they might be with him…” Discipleship, I believe, begins with being with Jesus. For us that may take the form of Bible reading, prayer, listening to biblical preaching and teaching, singing worship songs, or otherwise focusing our attention on Jesus and seeking to learn who he is and what he is like. I believe it is through being with Jesus that a) we can save ourselves from the temptation to worship a god of our own creation rather than the God of the Bible, and b) we can learn what Jesus is like so that we can better allow him to shape the way that we live.

2) “…that he might send them out to preach…” The second function of a disciple is to “preach.” Whether that means speaking to people in a church context, sharing one’s faith with a friend, or doing acts of mercy and justice that pave the way for the proclamation of the gospel, all Christians are called to “preach.” We are to demonstrate by word and deed the reality of the kingdom of God, and we are to seek opportunities to be able to present and explain the gospel. To borrow from the teaching of one of my favorite preachers, we must notice the absurdity of the popular saying, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.” The truth is, proclaiming the gospel will always, eventually, require words. Certainly a lifestyle consistent with our faith can create opportunities to present and explain the gospel, but we cannot rightly say we are preaching the gospel if words are not involved.

3) “…have authority to cast out demons…” I believe that for us this means that we stand against evil in the world. We seek justice. We work for that which benefits the least. We care for those that the world overlooks. We promote mercy, love, and healing. We love our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us. We live as people whose help is in heaven and not on earth and thus are able to pour ourselves out for the good of those around us.

Those are three simple ideas, but we can all spend our lifetimes growing in our ability to live out those three functions of a disciple.

How to Avoid Problems with Facebook’s New Privacy Settings

1) Don’t put anything on Facebook that you don’t want to become public information. If you want something to remain private, keep it to yourself. 2) Live your life in such a way

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How’s Your Spiritual Bank Account?

When I was a kid, this was how ‘religion’ was explained to me: I was told that we all have bank accounts in heaven. When you do good things, like go to church, give money to the poor, pray, or especially take communion, it’s like putting money

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in your spiritual bank account (you will notice that Bible reading is not included on this list. I was a part of a tradition that never even suggested personal Bible reading as a spiritual discipline. When you do bad things, like disobey your parents, be mean to your brothers, fail to do your homework, or say a bad word, you have ‘money’ taken out of your spiritual bank account. When you die, if the balance of your spiritual bank account is high enough, you go to heaven. If not, you go to that other place. That was essentially how I understood Christianity for my entire childhood, and that is largely why I continued to pray regularly even though I didn’t really want to, and why I always felt guilty on Sundays that we didn’t go to church, despite the fact that I hated going and loved staying home to watch football. Needless to say, when I became a Christian in high school, I had to unlearn some things. I had to unlearn the notion that we go to heaven because we have enough capital in our spiritual bank account, and instead recognize that it is by grace we have been saved through faith. I had to learn that following Jesus wasn’t about being a good person, but was instead about recognizing that we are all bad people, that Jesus is good, and that he loves us in spite of that. Whatever good deeds we do are simply the fruit of the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. As I continue to grow as a Christian, I am continuing to unlearn what is false and grow in the knowledge of what is true. But here’s the thing: I suspect that the notion of the spiritual bank account more or less accurately describes the understanding of Christianity that many, if not most, Christians possess. In fact, I would bet just about anything that the person who initially taught me the spiritual bank account analogy still basically believes it, despite having attended a church that teaches salvation by grace through faith for years. In my experience, many Christians believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Also, in my experience, many non-Christians believe that good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell. Such people also tend to believe that if their is a deity, that deity “lets people into heaven” on the basis of them being “good people”, which virtually all who profess that sort of belief claim to be. This sort of religious attitude leads to either arrogance or despair: Arrogance- “Look how good I am,” or depair- “Look how bad I am, how could anyone ever love me?” As destructive as this sort of attitude is, many of us prefer it to proper Christian teaching, because we are scandalized by the notion of grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” -Ephesians 2:8-10 May we then be people who recognize that we are saved only because of God’s grace and not because of any good we have done. May we recognize the wickedness of religious ideas that would tell us that we are somehow responsible for our own salvation, and may we live lives of good works, not as an attempt to prove our religious righteousness, but in joyful response to what God has done for us. And it is not what the Bible teaches at all.

Understanding Future Hope: A Brief Reflection on Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and hope.” -Jeremiah 29:11

The above Bible verse is among the most quoted in all of Scripture. It is quoted as a reminder that God has wonderful plans for all of our lives, and has blessings in store for us, even when we seem to be facing difficult circumstances. It was one of the first verses I was told to memorize as a new Christian years ago. It is quoted so often that it has almost become a cliche. Among more educated Christians, in my experience, it has become almost cliche to say how stupid it is to quote Jeremiah 29:11 in defense of the idea that God has wonderful plans for all of our lives and has blessings in store for us, even when we seem to be facing difficult circumstances. It has been called “the most misunderstood verse in the Bible,” and that title is deserved. The briefest of looks at the context of the verse realizes that it is most certainly not a promise from God to each of us individually promising us lives of blessing. In fact, God speaks this verse after Israel had been taken into captivity to Babylon. Here is the verse in the context of the paragraph in which it is found:

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you,
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declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” -Jeremiah 29:10-14

Look again at how that paragraph starts. “When seventy years are completed for you in Babylon (!)…” A different way that God could have expressed the idea of that verse would have been, “Once you and your children are all dead, here is what I am going to do.” God’s promise in 29:11 not only isn’t for personal blessing of individuals, it’s not even for the generation of people that are receiving the blessing. God is basically telling them that they are going to die in captivity, but that God’s work in the world is going to carry on, and that he has plans for a hopeful future for his people. That doesn’t play nearly as well on the side of a coffee cup. But if we look to Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise of personal blessing in this life, we are sorely mistaken. But if we stop at merely critiquing that sort of understanding of this verse and passage we are also sorely mistaken. Because while I don’t like the cheesy Christian misreading of this verse, the corrective to such a misreading is not to ignore it altogether. I believe this verse can help remind us of a few important truths: 1) We are a part of something that is far bigger than ourselves. The Kingdom of God, the work of God among his people, and the redemption of all things is something that is far bigger than any individual life. God’s promise is for a future and hope for his people, and all of us get to play a part in that, whether our individual earthly lives appear “hopeful” or not. 2) God is going to win. Imagine how it would have felt hearing Jeremiah 29:10-14 from God as an Israelite in Babylon. I think it is especially interesting to think about in light of Jeremiah 29:7, a few verses earlier, when God says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God says, ‘this is where I have brought you, this is where you are going to stay, seek to bless this city, play your part well, and know that a hopeful future is coming, even if it is not in your lifetime.” The knowledge that God is going to win, and that God’s purposes are going to be accomplished, and that death, sin, and evil will not have the final say, is the kind of knowledge we need to endure the difficult times of life. It is far more helpful than pithy coffee cup slogans. 3) We are to be conduits of blessing where God has placed us. We bless when we are persecuted. We love our enemies. We forgive. We seek the welfare of those with whom we disagree. We live lives of sacrificial love. We seek to make life better for those around us. We try to make God’s Kingdom a beautiful and tangible reality for those around us who do that know him. By participating in those truths we give our world a taste of the hopeful future that God has for his creation.

We Don't Want Fair, We Want More

Blogging the New Testament, Day 11, Matthew 19-20

No fair. Anyone that has ever interacted with children for any length of time has heard that statement. Or maybe, “No fair!” would be a bit more accurate. Most of us, if we’re honest, can remember times when we said that as kids, or even as adults.

But the truth is, we don’t really want fair. Andy Stanley has talked about this in sermons of his I have heard. He says that we don’t want fair, because “fair” on a global scale, would mean a huge step backwards in the comfort and ease of our lives. As Andy puts it, “We don’t want fair, we want more.”

I think he is right. Whether we are children or adults, our concern is not naturally for fairness. Our concern is for our own self interest. We rarely clamor when we are the beneficiaries of unfairness.

In Matthew 20 Jesus tells a story about unfairness. He speaks of a vineyard owner who hires some workers to work for a day in exchange for a denarius. As the day goes on, he hire additional workers, all the way up until one hour before quitting time. When the day ends and he goes to pay his workers, ht gives those that had only worked for an hour a denarius. The men who worked the whole day got all excited, expecting that they would be paid much more.

But when it came time for them to be paid, they only received a denarius as well. They complained, and the vineyard owner said, But “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

I think the truth is that if we are going to be the recipients of generosity we have to let go of our obsession with fairness. Jesus closed out that parable by saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. That’s the way it works in God’s Kingdom. We are all recipients of generosity. The word “grace” names that generosity. Some of us just do a better job of pretending we don’t need grace than others.

I am thankful that God is not fair. While it is quite easy for me to find someone who is a worse sinner than I (and I suspect that is easy for you as well), the truth is I want to believe that God extends grace to those sorts of people, because that reminds me that his grace extends to me. It reminds me that walking with Jesus is not a morality contest, but is instead a relationship where we learn to love because we have been loved and redeemed.

I know that my natural inclination is to worry about fairness, especially when I’m the one getting shorted. But I don’t want to worry about fairness. Or about getting more. But instead I want to remember grace. Because to be honest, I don’t know who I am in that parable. Am I the worker who started at the beginning of the day or the end? I don’t know that, but I do know that there is grace for me and for you.

And that’s not fair. But it is really beautiful.