Archive for October, 2014

I got one of those late night phone calls. A family was in distress. The single mom and her adult daughter were fighting. Like most phone calls the single mom asks, “Can you come straighten out my daughter?” I can guarantee silence on the other end when the reply goes something like “No, I cannot straighten out your daughter.” I follow up with “I can’t straighten anyone out, but I can come and walk with you.” I have yet to have anyone reject the offer.

We didn’t fix anything. After spending many hours with the family and listening to both sides (Sometimes it would be easier to show up in stripes blow the whistle and call a foul) the family could not resolve their issues. The mother tightened down the screws and the daughter took off. Later the distraught mom asked, “Why does God allow this?” That is the number one question I have heard over the last fifteen years.

I do want to give the book answer.

I have asked that question in my own life. Relationships have faltered, the early death of friends and family as well as life issues that affect everybody reveal our weaknesses. In our weakness, we want God to flip the “fix” switch. If he isn’t going to fix it we demand to know what he is up to.

I have thought long and hard about this one. It would be easy to quote the classic verse the prophet Isaiah wrote so long ago, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways declares the Lord.” It is true. It doesn’t quite cut it at times. Is there more?

For some reason the distraught mom made me stop and think a bit deeper than a quick verse. Her heart was hurting. Surely, there had to be more than one verse. I think there is.

Most people accept the first of three responses. Even as a believer, living in a fallen world does not exempt us from the calamity of this world. Jesus said, “It rains on the just and the unjust.” He knows it is a broken world. I was hard on my toys as a child. I would break my toys and my parents were not the type to run back to Toys-R-Us and replace them. I had to live with it. I learned to play with broken toys. God is the same way. It is a broken world. We are broken people. Broken things happen. He knows it. Full redemption comes after this world. In the meantime, people will break.

While many understand the brokenness there is a sense that we as believers should be exempt from certain evil in this world. We break due to sin. There is a consequence to sin. We might be forgiven but we still suffer consequences. I have known people to believe in Jesus to try and get out of a prison sentence and to seek to marry a believer. Jesus did not intend belief to get us out of our jams. Paul said, “A man reaps what he sows.” That is the nature of God’s world. Sometimes things happen because we chose our own way, did not seek God’s way and ended up in a pickle.

Many accept the second round of counsel. It is the third round of counsel that hits a bit too close to home. God does things to mold us into how he wants us. Without events happening in our life we would tend not to change and not leave our comfort zones. God lets things happen to mold us. There is little in this world that changes without force or energy being expended (somebody of greater intelligence can probably argue that one). God is in the progress of bringing life to dead people and molding us into his image. He said, “I am the potter, you are the clay.” It is hard especially when we have been hurt to understand that God allows these things because we have some change and growing to do. Often that growing is in gaining a deeper understanding of forgiveness, grace and love. The three are the functional foundational elements of God’s kingdom.

There is a forth bonus to God’s ways. It’s simple. Whatever is happening is not about us. God is using us to bring change to someone else. A lot of the time it is about the other person.

We don’t have to understand it all. We want to but we might not. Can we rest that he loves us and desires us to love others to reveal his glory? Our inborn desire to control is our enemy. The basis of our faith is laying our lives in his hands instead of ours. Regardless of the consequences can we reveal our Lord’s forgiveness, love and grace? Now that has meaning.

Our family business sat on the number 3-bus line out of Baltimore City. From time to time the school for the blind would bus students out to our small suburb. It would give the students instructions. Without any help they had to walk to their assigned destination and get back to the bus stop.  A local resident would try to give assistance. It was rejected until they became so frustrated they had no choice. Watching them made me thankful I had my eyesight.

Jesus came across a blind man. He heals the man. That is the short version. I love the story. It is one of my favorites. It is deep and powerful.

When I read the story I think about what it was like for a blind man (since birth) to receive his sight. What was it like to have the colors of our world flood his retinas? How astonished was he to see his mother’s face for the first time in his life? How long did he stare at the birds, the skyline or the details of a leaf? It had to be amazing. No wonder he wanted to follow Jesus to the end of the earth. No way was he going to turn his back on Jesus.

I wonder sometimes if we have forgotten that we were blind. Through the work of the Holy Spirit we have received our sight. Yes, it is spiritual. While physical sight is important, spiritual sight has a greater value. With our redeemed sight we can see all sorts of things. More than anything, we can see people like Jesus saw them. Instead of being full of judgment he gives us the ability to have eyes of grace and to be able to love like never before.

Our spiritual sight allows us to view life differently. It orders priorities. It enables us to see the world in the light of redemption. Our new eyes can see what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is truth and what is a lie. Without the eyes of our soul being healed the eyes of our heart only see one thing according to the Scriptures…darkness and death. Instead we can see the beauty of God’s kingdom.

A friend of mine recently became discouraged. His eyes have been opened. He is like the blind man Jesus healed. He wants to shout it from the mountaintop. He wants to scream how marvelous green and blue and yellow look to his once darkened eyes. He sees people in a different light and so much wants to express it. The only problem is few want to hear. The same thing happened to the man in Jesus’ time.

As I spoke with him we became aware of another problem. We can see. It frustrates us when they can’t see along with us. However the problem we now have is to describe and live in a way that doesn’t scream “green or blue” but instead speaks of the depth and beauty of the colors. A blind person can’t see green or blue. Most Christians want to tell others they see the colors of the kingdom. Instead, we need to find a way to describe those colors that allows them to have a chance to see.

We can proclaim the kingdom of God and the good news to others. However, can they see it? They see it in and through us. They see it through our love and grace. It takes the Holy Spirit to bring the beauty to their eyes. However, we are the ones he has entrusted the keys of the kingdom. We are the conduits to which the light reaches the soul to see the beauty of his grace.

There are so many stories that get over looked as we read the gospels. A story that I have read many times but did not give it much value was of the calling of Nathaniel in John chapter 1. It is short but powerful.

Nathaniel has a friend names Philip. Philip meets and is called by Jesus to “follow me.” He wants his friend to meet Jesus. He does what any good friend does. Philip invites Nathaniel to come and meet the one from Nazareth.

Nate (makes it easier) replies “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Little did Nate know that he was speaking the essence of the gospel right from the get go.

What was Nate saying? He was saying what we all have said at one time or another. He was basically saying, “Jesus, he comes from the other side of the tracks. Nothing good comes from the other side of the tracks.” Nate was of the spiritually elite. His basic thought is that God only cares for the good people. We tend to think that God only works things out when it’s a good day with good things and good endings. You know what I’m talking about. I call it the Disney gospel.

Nate is being truthful. He is also revealing the very essence of the gospel…Jesus who himself is from the other side of the tracks brings hope, redemption and significance to those who realize that when holiness is the standard we are all on the wrong side of the tracks.

Jesus has a way of humbling the self-righteous. He works his glory on the other side of the tracks. Instead of proving it through the pages of the Bible let me show you that Nate was indeed revealing the way of Jesus.

He knocked on my door. As he told his story his tears flowed. He had killed a young boy in his neighborhood and the guilt was killing him. It sounded like an accident but he had kept it a secret. Three years later it was time to tell the truth.

He did. He went to his parents. They went to the police station. It was determined that it was a combination of self-defense and an accident. No charges were filed. But, that isn’t the good news. He met with the family of the dead child. He told about his guilt before a loving God. He brought redemption to a family and a neighborhood that had seen it’s slow decline into poverty. Jesus had a foothold. Too many had claimed “nothing good comes out of Nazareth.”

The young girl had a reputation. It was not a good one. She had good reason for her behavior. She was young and faced a fateful future. Why not live each day to the fullest. She heard the names and labels. She deserved them.

She didn’t think Jesus cared. But he did. He found her needy heart and transformed her. It took some time. It didn’t matter. Nazareth had been redeemed. “Nothing good comes out of Nazareth.” Think again.

She was a cutter. The scars reveal her issues. It wasn’t pretty. She too had a reputation. She heard the words. She saw the looks.

One day a lover of Jesus held her hands. She wasn’t able to get to her knife. For three hours she was loved well. The tide had turned. Jesus was making a difference. He did. She would go on to work with troubled kids…kids that come from Nazareth. But wait a minute. “Nothing good comes out of Nazareth.”

This is a small sample. Those from Nazareth are the addicts, the thieves, the abusers, the liars and the troubled in this world. I’m from Nazareth and if you truly understand the gospel you are from Nazareth as well.

Who says nothing good comes from Nazareth?

I’ve been in church ministry for very close to 15 years now. After spending a few years as a teacher I spent the previous 15 years in the business world. In business there is a constant need to look at success and failure. There has to be constant evaluation. Times change. Culture changes. We change.

If we were to run a business and cease evaluation we would not be in business long. The product and the community often are the two main determiners of success. When we had slow days we had to make adjustments quickly so slow days don’t become slow months. Too many slow months turn into a slow year. There are not too many small businesses that can survive slow years.

The church is not much different. Our product is the gospel. I would hope that we don’t seek to change the gospel. The good news of Jesus has stood the test of time. Of course it has…Jesus said he was the truth along with being the way and the life. However, people and culture change. Styles change. It becomes important for church leaders to not fall in the trap of changing gospel truth but rather to address how it is expressed and to the demographics of the audience.

I personally love to study the culture. Pop culture is amazing. Technology is doing amazing things. It is changing us. The change is often so fast we don’t have the foggiest idea life changed. It is important to know the interpretive lenses as well as the needs of those we expect to fill our pews.

Being a little different in how I view things I would like to take a left hand turn at this point. Most discussions of culture and the relevant expression of the gospel look outside the church. For a minute I want to look inside.

Every time I hear about a successful church I hear all sorts of definers. Some feel a church is successful and worth going to if it has a vibrant worship. I was asked the other day about the number of community or small groups we sponsored. I have no idea when the number of small groups defined church success. Others consider the number of service projects as a characteristic of a good church. Let’s be honest…a few of us consider a good church to be one that I get what I want on Sunday and they leave me alone the rest of the week.

Lately I have had a different view of success in the church. It has nothing to do with the righteous. It has nothing to do with programs, groups, style of worship, type of preaching and whatever else we can come up with. It has to do with people.

I saw a quote once but I cannot remember where it originated. It read, “The moment the church thinks it exists for itself is the moment it lost the right to be called the church.” That is just it. If I were to look for a church these days I would look for sound theology and good teachers. There is something I would look for that will revel these two elements. I would look for people who live on the fringe.

I would look for poor people. I would look for single moms. I would look for sinners…the ones who aren’t afraid to say what kind. I would look for addicts and adulterers. I would look for the hurting. I would look for the fatherless. I would look for those who tend not to be there.

I described the sinners who clamored to sit with Jesus. They are all over the gospel story. Samaritan women, greedy tax collectors, men with sexual issues, the unclean and the prostitutes. They know their only hope is Jesus. They don’t run away like the self-righteous. No. They run to him.

When I find them…I know that is where I belong. That is where grace becomes amazing.

I remember being the lucky guy who had enough eye-hand coordination in elementary school that I got to be the team kickball captain at recess. I got to choose who was on my team. On the few occasions the teacher picked other team captains I was usually chosen very early in the process. In fact, if they waited to pick me I tended to burn with passion and ‘kick butt” to prove I should have been an early draft pick.

The bad side of this “success” story is I perpetrated selfishness and ridicule to those who didn’t get picked but were rather the last ones in the line. They tended to be the kids who could not catch, throw, or run. Often I’m not even sure they knew the rules of basic kickball.

Let’s call them the “right fielders.” Why? That is where we stuck them hoping that the ball would never come their way. I remember lining up a classmate in foul territory so they would not interfere with “us.” I might have been a kickball officianto but as a person…a jerk.

I wish that attitude left me as I matured. I wish that Jesus made a bigger difference. Unfortunately the burning desire to “win” makes me a jerk even at 55 years old.   It’s deeply engrained in the fiber of success. It doesn’t have to be kickball. It might be a ministry attempt or a service project or a planned event. I can be a jerk. All I can do is ask those who I have treated as “right fielders” to forgive me and help me see their value as a person not a project.

Let’s get back to the story. When a “right fielder” came to kick with runners on base tears come to my eyes as I think of all the times I called for a pinch kicker which did not even exist. Why? I didn’t care about the person. I wanted to win. I can even remember one time when a “right fielder” won the game for us. I was not happy. I was a Jonah. I wanted to be the hero. I couldn’t even enjoy their moment.

The more I tell this ugly phase of my life I find great connection in our world. I see the “right fielders” make the connection. “Team captains” begrudgingly agree often with a slight shake of a bowed head.

I don’t bring this up to shame fellow elementary school “team captains.” I don’t want to cause “right fielders” to suffer. The desire is to understand the gospel at a much deeper level.

See, the truth in the gospel story is we are all “right fielders.” When the holiness of God’s family is the standard we don’t bring anything to the game. We don’t belong on God’s team and there is not one single thing about us that would make us qualified to even be on the field. We like to think we have skill but we don’t. If we did than Jesus didn’t have to die. In fact, if we bring anything to the table than the crucifixion has to be the cruelest action by God the Father and I don’t want to believe in that at all.

The apostle Paul says “we are chosen: in Ephesians 1. The concept does not mean we were the last in line. No, we are established as the sons of God through the work of Jesus Christ. As sons and heirs according to his pleasure we don’t just stay out of hell…we are given a place and purpose on God’s team. What is that purpose? To get up to bat and play like you have never played before.

It’s not a game of skill. It is a game of life and redemption. It is a team to display the nature of the love of Jesus Christ. It is a team where the first is last and the last is first. It is a team that shows what real love really is…to lay down our lives for the sake of another.

Batter up!