Church

22Jan

Why It Matters How We Think about Heaven

Last week, 16-year old Alex Malarkey made headlines when he publicly retracted his story that he had been to heaven.

Malarkey’s book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A True Story details the events of a car crash that left Alex paralyzed at just 6 years old. The book ic co-authored by has father, Kevin.

Last week, Alex released an open letter to Christian publishers and bookstores confessing that the entire account of his journey to heaven was fictional, and implored them to remove the book from their stores.

“Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short. I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough. In Christ, Alex Malarkey.”

The “heaven tourism” genre has unfortunately taken off in force. Books like Alex’s are innumerable and seem to come from a new, but same, experience every month. And people cannot get enough.

Yet Christians have not been utterly silent. Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You Ministries, wrote a critique of the entire genre of heaven tourism books, including Malarkey’s book, over two years ago.

David Platt completely disarms the entire genre in this 4-minute video from a Secret Church simulcast in August 2013.

Yet while we could discuss our opinions on these books and the publishers that have so handsomely profited from their stories, I am not interested in such a discussion.

I am extremely interested in their effects on others, especially those outside of Christianity.

These books, coupled with Malarkey’s brave and honest confession that it was all a hoax, has fueled a barrage of “I told you so’s” from the atheist community.

Why it Matters

What’s even worse is the effect it has had on agnostics and skeptics alike, pushing those who at times are open to exploring faith in Jesus, further and further from the very faith they so desperately need. That is why it is so important how we think about heaven.

I would love for the Church to have a higher level of discernment when it comes to books and phenomenon such as this. In fact, I have committed my life to serving the Church so I am more than interested in seeing Christians get this right.

However, it is a far greater thing to see those far from God be brought near to God by the blood of the Lamb. And frankly, our team’s response to these books has not helped that in any way and we need to own that. We need to get heaven right because it is a glorious thing that is worth talking about.

I was glad to see Alex Malarkey’s retraction but I initially had no plan to write about it. I was glad to see it but I am not usually in the business of turning other Christian’s shortcomings into blog fodder. That changed yesterday.

Yesterday NPR ran an op-ed piece entitled, “What if Heaven is Not For Real?” It is a well written, and heart-breaking, article. Here’s the author’s conclusion,

I’m not concerned about the many years of my nonexistence before birth. Why then should I be concerned about the many years of my nonexistence that will follow death?

Granted, the author, Adam Frank, is a staunch agnostic (oxymoron?), especially about matters of the afterlife. He simply does not care. So a solid book on heaven would probably not change his mind regarding the afterlife anyway but the heaven tourism genre of books, movies, and merchandise simply gives people like Frank that much more of a reason not to believe.

Recommended Resources on Heaven:

Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things,  by Anthony C. Thiselton

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Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright

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The Glory of Heaven (2nd Edition): The Truth about Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life, by John MacArthur

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14Jan

Louisville Sluggers & Spiritual Gifts

While many of you see the New Year as a time of renewal and a fresh start, I consistently find myself stuck in what some of you call “basketball season.” I just refer to it as those dark months between football season and baseball season.

I love baseball in just about every form but I hate college baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I love the purity of the competition at the collegiate level. I love that most of these guys never get a chance to play at the next level so this is their last stop. They’re giving it all they’ve got.

They don’t sign endorsement deals or get distracted by multi-million dollar contracts like in the pros.

But I hate the sound of college baseball. It’s anything but pure. It’s changed some over the years but there’s always been this unmistakable ping of some type of metal bat whereas any baseball purist can tell you you’re supposed to hear the crack of a wooden bat.

Louisville Slugger has been making bats since 1884. One day a young woodworking apprentice went to an amateur baseball game and watched one of his favorite players fail to get a hit as he broke several bats during the course of the game. The young apprentice approached the player after that game and invited him to come to his woodworking shop to receive a custom made bat to use in tomorrow’s game. The player went on to collect 3 hits the next day and then immediately sent all his teammates to the wood working shop for their own custom made bats and the legend of the Louisville Slugger was born.

Ever since then the company has almost exclusively made their bats for professional baseball players, each one custom made to the player’s exact specifications, even down to the type of wood used.

Up until 2002, each bat was hand carved. A skilled craftsman could take the seasoned log of wood used to create the bats and carve one in 15 minutes to the exact specifications of the player with expert, precision detail.

However, now the work is done by a computerized process yet the custom, precision work has never changed. The computerized carving machine is still only operated by the most skilled craftsmen and can carve a bat in 42 seconds.

Louisville Slugger makes almost 2 million bats a year and no two players have ever requested the exact same specifications. However, every Louisville Slugger bat comes with the exact same brand stamp burned into the wood.

The types of wood used to create the bats have changed over time. The weights and specifications have evolved too.

Yet one thing has never changed, the brand stamp unifies the bats Louisville Slugger has made in parts of three different centuries.

God has done an even greater work in creating you and me. We are each custom made by God, created with unique gifts and talents. Our gifts can very different from one another but they are given to us by the same God for the same reasons, to serve one another and to glorify God.

Even though our gifts are different from one another we too have been given a divine brand stamp that unifies us all. While we are indeed custom made, we are also made in the image of God. Our different gifts should serve as a constant reminder of all the different ways God has loved us and made himself known to us yet it is the source of our creation, God himself that holds us together.

Resources:

Our church is currently preaching a mini-series called “Custom Made” on spiritual gifts as we journey through 1 Corinthians.

You can watch the sermons here.

Click here to see the spiritual gifts assessment we used in our home groups to start discovering the ways God has custom made us.

9Dec

When I Refuse to Pray for Church People

There is a time when I refuse to pray for church people.

This may seem odd, especially since I am a pastor. And I am a pastor who genuinely enjoys praying for people, both inside and outside the church. I am no expert by any means and I appreciate how even the Bible recognizes that prayer is hard. This is Paul’s plea to the church in Rome,

“Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 15:30

Paul had seen better days. Life was hard and persecution was real. Yet notice how Paul asks for help. He asks the people God to join him in his struggle by sending money, selfies, good thoughts, casseroles, praying to God because they love him.

Tangible expressions of love are great. Who doesn’t love a timely delivered meal? But we have to drop this idea that prayer is some lower level of ministry, not really as effective as doing something.

Tragically, I think prayer has become a lost part of the pastorate in many ways.

One of my largest spiritual influences, Eugene Peterson, tweeted a similar thought a few weeks ago that has been careening off the walls of my heart ever since,

The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.

Yet for all the importance of prayer in the pastorate, there is still a time when I refuse to pray for church people.

It’s at my kitchen table, coffee in hand, every morning before my wife and I leave for work.

Just before the hustle of the day begins, we both take time and pause. We read Scripture together and pray for one another. ONLY one another. Some days it is 30 minutes and others (like yesterday) it is 5 minutes. I cherish this time for one main reason: we pray for nothing but each other.

This has nothing to do with me being a pastor and everything to do with being a husband.

In marriage, praying together is like sex. When it’s happening, life is good. Each person knows their spouse generally cares for them. Extra effort is usually made and usually noticed and appreciated. However, when it’s not happening, little things can turn into big things in a hurry, causing to fights out of literally nothing.

How to Pray WITH Your Spouse FOR Your Spouse

1.) The WITH is important. The goal isn’t to just pray for your spouse, but to join in the struggles of each other through prayer because of the love you have for one another

2.) Ask, “How can I pray for you today?”

3.) Listen.

4.) Actually listen.

5.) Pray about the stuff you heard.

Even if you’re not super comfortable at first, the effort is not just helpful; it’s imperative.

How well do you really love your spouse if you are unwilling to pray for/with them?

1Dec

The One Where I Almost Killed My Wife in the Desert at 3 A.M.

I’ll never forget the time I almost killed my wife in the middle of the desert at 3 A.M.

It was our first Christmas as husband and wife and we were driving in a tiny Hyundai Accent (henceforth referred to as “Betsy” – may she rest in peace) from Waco, TX to San Diego, CA to visit my wife’s family.

We were too poor to afford a hotel room so we decided to make the 1,361 mile journey without stopping.

My wife had made the trek a few times with friends and assured me we could do it no problem…

As the hours ticked off we found ourselves on a long, remote section of highway in New Mexico in the middle of the night. It was snowing and my wife was fast asleep. I remember thinking how incredibly blessed I was, seriously. As a newlywed who had just completed my first semester of seminary and was working at my first real church job, life was good.

But then life wasn’t good.

As we were driving, I noticed the gas gauge needle had started to make some rather flirtatious advances toward the “E.” Much like Dorothy, I realized I was not home anymore and there was not a gas station at every exit. Not out in the desert.

I tried to stay calm but it just wasn’t working. As I thought about how my wife and I would be remembered once they found our frozen bodies (if they ever did), I only prayed my mother-in-law would somehow know it was never my intention to kill her daughter before we celebrated our 1st anniversary. That’s just inconsiderate.

So I white-knuckled the steering wheel and started to pray, “Lord, I really need to find a gas station.” When I looked down, much to my dismay, the gas needle was already bumping uglies with the “E.” It was not long until their relationship would be fully consummated.

I started to formulate a Plan B. If we couldn’t find a gas station, surely there must be a place for us to at least take cover from the cold. But I started to realize I hadn’t seen a diner, a store, or even a house in a long time. Looooong time.

I was popping Betsy in neutral any chance I could get as we rolled on to our imminent deaths. We had actually just rescued a beautiful Labrador, Zoe, from the humane society and she was on the journey with us as well. Now I would be remembered as a wife and a puppy killer. Great.

As I continued to pray and rack my mind for Plans C-X I kept having this one thought, “There’s no way I can make it over one more hill. There’s no way I can make it through one more valley.”

Until finally, the most glorious sight appeared. This was no ordinary gas station. No, at the bottom of the next hill I saw a 24-hour truck stop, blazing with light and food and clean restrooms and ultimately…gas!

As we pulled in my heart began to slowly exit my throat and descend back to its normal resting place. My wife slowly awoke, pet our sweet new dog, Zoe, and sleepily asked, “Everything going alright, sweetheart?”

“Yes, dear” I replied. “Go back to sleep.”

Imagine my dismay if, after coasting into the truck stop on the last bit of Betsy’s fumes, there was no gas. I knew this place was a gas station and not a Chuck E. Cheese because I had seen millions of other gas stations just like it. Imagine what it would be like to pull up and find it closed. No longer fit for service.

A lot of people in my part of the country look like Christians, at least on the outside. You can tell they’re not anarchists or brothel operators. We talked about this in depth in my home group tonight. There’s a cultural form of Christianity that is alive and well. I say this a lot in my church but I think it’s worth repeating:

Whatever it means to love Jesus has to be something categorically different than what it means to love college football and sweet tea.

Remember, I was never confused about what the gas station was; I just needed to make sure it could provide for me what it appeared to offer from the outside. Christians have the only real version of what the whole world needs, hope. If you’re celebrating the season of Advent you probably talked about hope yesterday. One of my big takeaways from yesterday was the responsibility each one of us have to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

Sometimes, Christians can get caught up in some form of cultural Christianity where they go to church because they think it helps them be good people or it makes them feel encouraged, which is all good but none of that’s Gospel. None of that’s hope. That would be like me coasting up to the station needing gasoline and only being offered a cup of coffee. It would make me feel good for a minute but it does not solve my fundamental problem.

Christians have a tremendous opportunity, especially during the Christmas season, to be stations of hope to people simply running on fumes.

Life is tough, no matter what belief system you adhere to. That feeling of being overwhelmed and beaten down is a universal one. People all around you are struggling through life, looking around for help, thinking there’s just no way they can make it through one more valley or over one more hill.

So how do we help? How exactly are we supposed to give hope to a hurting world?

This largely depends on the situation. Honestly, I don’t always know how to specifically help, but I know when I can never help. Imagine if we had coasted up to the pump, lights are on, workers are present, but the pump does not work. So one by one we check and none of the pumps work.

Why? They lost connection to the true source, to the reservoirs below the ground.I can never really help people find hope when I forsake my only connection to real hope.

This is incredibly encouraging, because it means we don’t have to be the hope people need. If someone were depending on me for that they would be mightily disappointed. No, we are simply called to point them to the hope we have found and to which we are connected. You can’t point people to a hope you don’t really have.

Stay connected to Jesus, the true source of hope. How? Lots of ways! I have friends that remind me how important things like prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, silence, and service are to staying connected to Jesus. There are lots of ways to stay connected but almost all of them require you slow down in a season where we feel we’re supposed to frantically hurry up.

How do you stay connected?

25Nov

5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

Last weekend, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the National Youth Workers Convention for the third year in a row. It is one of the most encouraging parts of my year and I earnestly look forward to it each year.

A few days after I get back from a conference I try and decompress a little. Most conferences are the same in that they’re full of seminars, breakout sessions, speakers, etc. Basically they try and cram as much information in a small window of time, which is a great thing if you take the time afterwards to process and see what might be helpful in your context.

My main takeaway was simple: The Church needs youth ministry.

My heart breaks to see some churches devalue youth ministry. The quotes below are real statements about youth ministry that I have heard from people I know and love:

“I just don’t get it. Youth ministry seems like a waste of time because so many of them just ditch faith afterwards.”

“It just kind of seems pointless because they don’t tithe yet so you’re always investing in someone else’s church.”

Youth ministry is constantly being re-imagined and the Church should be as well. The message of Jesus never changes but the methods we communicate that message to any and all ages should always be able to change.

Not valuing youth ministry because it does not directly contribute to the church’s “bottom line” is a refusal to measure success the way God does and a tragic neglect of the kingdom of God, which is much bigger than your specific local church.

At the conference, Mark Matlock, executive director of Youth Specialties, briefly outlined 5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry (click here to watch the 8-minute video).

I thought they were so perfect I did not change them at all. They’re re-posted here with permission and the comments in between are my own.

5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

1. Youth ministry is vital to helping teens integrate into the larger intergenerational community of the church.

The Church gets the tremendous honor and responsibility to create spaces for teenagers to transition from childhood to adulthood. The teenage years are choppy waters and can be difficult for students to navigate. Youth ministry gets to be the arm of the church (not a silo – off by itself) that gathers teenagers and their families under the banner of the cross as they seek to live these years well. Students will often hang with the church into adulthood to the level it hung with them through adolescence.

2. Youth ministry resists the status quo, helping a church stay relevant in a changing culture.

Youth ministry is fun, creative, and innovative. The Church as a whole can often look to youth ministry as a microcosm of where culture is and where it is going. When the church values youth ministry, it will see ways to stay fresh and engaging in an ever-changing world.

3. Youth ministry focuses on inviting those who are not already part of the church into the deeper narrative of God’s plan for humankind.

“Invite your friends!” As a student, I used to hate that phrase. It seemed like all of my youth pastors were constantly trying to get me to step out of my comfort zone and invite my friends to church…because they were. Their primary concern was not trying to simply draw a crowd. They all could have done that. Youth ministry is important because it is continually inviting in those who are outside the family of God.

Did you know that 85% of people will not change what they believe about God and eternity after the age of 13? Youth ministry gets to be apart of the most spiritually formative years of life and the invitation is always open.

4. Youth ministry reminds the church that teens are not marginalized members of the body, but are co-creators and conspirators in the divine work of the church, restoring life on earth as it is in heaven.

This might be my favorite. I love the language of “co-creators and conspirators.” Students are not the church of tomorrow; they are the church of today. If the Church refuses to acknowledge them it not only fails to love and lead them well but it tragically misses out on their contributions just waiting to be made.

P.S. This is not a “Hey some old lady needs her yard mowed; let’s call the youth!” This is real participation and real belonging.

5. Youth ministry helps the church focus on the way of Jesus, which goes beyond tradition, dogma, and ritual.

One of the great and terrible aspects of youth ministry is the turnover. Every single year the ministry changes by at least 20%. That can be a lot of fun because even in a declining church there’s always new students cycling in, even if it’s slow.

Lead pastors often get the blessing of walking through life multiple generations of life with the same family. Youth mnistry isn’t like that. You have a small window to impact a student’s life. If you do get to have a meaningful impact, don’t get comfortable because that leader will be in college before you know it. That’s heartbreaking, humbling, and exciting…all at the same time.

In youth ministry, we do not have time to waste on focusing too much on tradition, dogma, and ritual because we have a small window of time to focus on what is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We have to focus on what matters most: JESUS.

 

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Question: Do you think youth ministry is important? Why or why not?

26Oct

It Takes Time to Take Heed

Our church is currently preaching through 1 Corinthians. It’s been fascinating seeing how many of our present-day issues and situations are the same things Christians have been wrestling through since the very beginning.

Sometimes when I read the Bible, certain verses just rattle in my head for days, sometimes weeks, after I read them. The following verse has been on my mine since we unpacked it over a week ago now:

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” – 1 Corinthians 10:12

Don’t rush past that. Read it again. Slowly.

Paul is writing to a pretty new group of Christians who had a lot to be proud about in their city. They had unparalleled access to other cultures, knowledge, art, etc. The city of Corinth laid across a pretty major trade route so their world was growing smaller and smaller as they gained more access to the influence of other countries, people groups, and cultures. Sound familiar?

They had a lot of reasons to stand up and be proud. Or so they thought.

Paul’s encouragement to the church at Corinth echoes the encouragement God gives us in the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10.

Paul’s plead with them to take heed can seem hard to understand at first. We defined taking heed as “paying special attention to the condition of your heart before God.”

One of my favorite thing about our church is our home groups. For those who attend, they are rich blessings, a tangible exercise in the often-intangible pursuit of true community. For those who do not belong to a home group, they are missing out on a big part of what it means to belong to a local church.

This verse is rattling around in my heart because of something someone else said in my home group. These two comments from two different people answered two questions I had about this processing of taking heed of our hearts before God.

1.) Why should we take heed?

My wife is brilliant. When we were focusing on the words “take heed” she called us back to the beginning of the verse. She said something incredibly profound like, “Maybe our problem with the whole taking heed thing is we think we’re standing when we should be bowing.” *drops mic*

It’s in these moments that I am a proud husband and a humiliated pastor. I’m incredibly grateful for my wife and am just counting down the days until she “wakes up” and realized she really got the raw end of this whole marriage deal. But she also just saw something in the text I never saw and I preached the dad gum sermon.

But she’s absolutely right: Maybe we refuse to consider the position of our heart toward God simply because we refuse to acknowledge our great need to do so.

2.) How do we practically take heed?

I was proud of our group this last week. When this question came up, they refused to offer the typical “pray, read your Bible, etc. etc.” Those things are fantastic and a huge part of our lives but I’ve learned you’re either doing them or you’re not. Still, taking heed is something different, anyway.

While we were fumbling a bit trying to wrap our heads and hearts around how we actually go about taking heed, one of my friends launched into a really compelling time when he shared his frustration with how busy our culture has become. He had grown weary of the imposed expectation that his kids constantly be involved in 6 different activities at the same time. (His only do one at a time. These people exist, parents. I promise). He talked about how selling some of their extra stuff had recently enhanced their spiritual life and how they were really fighting to be open to God calling them to do anything or go anywhere at any time.

Then he simply said, “You know Steven, it takes time to take heed.” *drops mic*

He’s right. And God has seared that sentence on my heart the last week or so. It takes time to take heed.

Whether through Scripture reading or prayer, quiet contemplation on a run or a trip to the grocery store, it takes time to truly consider the position of our heart toward the One who made it. To place ourselves in a position of bowing instead of a position of standing because I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to try and stand on my own.

Today, take time to take heed of your heart. After all, it is what God is after above all else.

14Oct

Why I Hate Christian Bookstores

I hate Christian bookstores.

Can I say that? Yep.

They are frustrating for so many reasons.

But the $30 wooden angels that looked like they were carved by a blindfolded 4-year old or the t-shirts designed by someone who flunked a community college graphic design class are not what frustrates me most.

The books are the worst, and I LOVE books.

I don’t know what it is that makes Christians gobble up whatever the newest version of shallow theology peddled by some Christian author that may or may not even be a part of the local church. From prosperity “gospel” nonsense to virtue-based teaching steeped behavior modification the lack of solid, Christ-centered resources in a Christan bookstore can be astounding.

So with all these options – all these books from all these pastors writing about all this stuff…where should we start

How does the average Christian know what to buy and what to avoid?

I have one rule that helps me wade through the Christian bookstore maze: When it comes to books intended for a Christian audience, I generally only read books written by active pastors of local churches.

I have no interest in reading books from presidents of organizations, professors, or Christian authors in general. I am not saying they write sub-par books, not by any means.

There is just something about reading a book written by a man or woman who is in the trenches of ministry week in and week out. They’re not sleeping in and spending days holed up in their home office writing their books in solitude.

No, these are the people who write sermons by day and books by night. They may not reach their written word count goal for the night because a church member calls in a moment of need. So they give of themselves, their time and energy, to the ones God has entrusted to them and they write double the next night.

They can’t afford to sleep half the day away like other writers because they have staff meetings to conduct and hospital visits to make. They can’t quite seem to wrap up their latest chapter because they performed two funerals and welcomed a new baby into their church family.

After being wrung out for the Gospel all day, they ask God to fill them up on the way home so they can be wrung out yet again ministering to the ones that matter most, their family.

This week I’m at a small conference for church leaders at The Village Church in Dallas where Matt Chandler serves as pastor. He is the only “famous” pastor I really pay much attention to. I have enjoyed listening to his sermons since I was in college but I have gained a new level of respect for him today because I saw him make time for his church people, his family, and a room full of young pastors. His breakout session was filled with story after story of interactions with people in his local church, which will never make it into a book.

Of all the options at your local Christian bookstore, I would suggest reading the words of a humble, hard-working pastor who lives out what it means to love Jesus all the while leading others to do the same.

What are you reading right now?

10Oct

The In-Between Places

She was an outcast of all outcasts.

The lowest class. The lowest race. The lowest religion.

She was a member of the lowest community, and even among that community, she was rejected.

The woman at the well is one of my favorite stories in Scripture (John 4:1-45).

She’s a woman living a life where nobody wants her in a place where nobody wants to live. Jesus’ own disciples never seem too excited to be there. When John narrates Jesus’ arrival into the woman’s town he notes, “he had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4).

Samaria was a place to pass through. To avoid. The place where you play the license plate game with passing cars hoping the time passes by faster than the cars.

The place that’s in between where you are and where you want to be.

Do you know the place?

The place that’s in between where you are and where you want to be?

  • The place where you feel most alone and most rejected.
  • The place where your starter home never quite turns into your forever home.
  • The place where the person you’ve been waiting for never quite walks into your life.
  • The place where you feel stuck between what you’re doing and what you were made to do.

The woman at the well knew the place. She lived that place.

Yet for all its brokenness and frustrations, it’s precisely the place where Jesus chooses to meet her. That’s not a coincidence. It’s also not a one time thing. Jesus does this a lot…meeting people in the in-between places.

And in those in-between places, Jesus is always doing more than sitting down to have a drink.

He is always extending the same offer he extended to the woman at the well: the chance to become fully alive in a world of death. The chance to experience life, life with God and life with others, as it was always meant to be experienced.

It can be very hard to truly be content. I know very few people who have mastered the task. For the rest of us, we need to be reminded, often daily, that Jesus meets us in the in-between places.

Whatever your in-between place looks like, no matter how dull or never-ending it may seem, there is the divine offer of life swirling around you.

It refuses to rise above the monotonous details of your current position. Instead, Jesus saw fit to weave his life-giving offer into the very details that you and I allow to beat us down.

So on the very worst of days, when we feel most alone or rejected, most stuck and paralyzed, the offer to experience real life is all around us.

One of my favorite parts of taking that offer, taking that drink from Jesus, is seeing the in-between places disappear.

Don’t get me wrong; they’re still there. But instead of seeing them as holding grounds for the life I’m really supposed to have or the work I’m really supposed to be doing, I see them as the places in which Jesus wants to sit and meet with us.

We just have to take the drink freely offered.

Are you thirsty?

5Oct

God Doesn’t Need America

God doesn’t need America.

Disclaimer: I’m very grateful to be an American. I’m exponentially more grateful to be a Christian.

No version of America (1776 or 2014) should be equated with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. We are not God’s chosen people.

We are not set apart from other nations in the heart of God. God doesn’t love Americans more than Syrians. or Russians. Or Canadians (yes, even Canadians).

Yet this myth persists, and it baffles me. Because we can agree to disagree about the purpose of the founding of our country all day long. (If you ask me, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the connection between “religious freedom” and mass genocide of…the people who already lived here).

What truly troubles me about the syncretism swirling around the intersections of faith and patriotism is this belief that somehow God needs America. I haven’t found someone who would explicitly say that, but it is seems to be a valid, logical conclusions made from a foolish thought process.

In our country, we have created a God in our own image. He loves the same people we love and hates the same people we hate.

We have forgotten that we serve “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

God doesn’t need America. God doesn’t have a special relationship with America. Nations have come and gone, and will continue to do so, yet our God remains the same.

I remember reading a Puritan sermon in college, “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop. As early as 163o, Winthrop and others were calling for a new nation that could be a “city on a hill” as if the ancient text they barely referenced (Matthew 5:14-16) was just waiting to be fulfilled by the yet to be formed starts and stripes.

The idea that God would bless America in a unique way as compared to other nations shows, among other things, a complete disregard for the global nature of God’s love and sole focus on our worldview as the center of a very small universe.

Some churches are hosting God and Country services, “dedicated to calling America back to the God of Abraham and Isaac, and of Washington and Lincoln.” Instead of a Sunday morning worship service. Can’t make this stuff up.

godandcountry

 

 

 

 

I’ve seen church members leave a church for good when the American flag was removed from the stage in an effort to give singular focus and devotion to Jesus.

I think these folks are well-intentioned; I really do. But I also think heaven will be a shock for them (if they make it!) because they’ll see such a rich, diverse gathering of people, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10

America is a fantastic country. If I could pick any country in which to live it would undoubtedly be this one. I don’t share many of my generation’s disdain for our country, and especially not the men and women who protect her. However, I am beyond convinced that God does not need America.

America is not the hope of the nations. America is not the light of the world.

Jesus is.

2Oct

Two Types of Church People

It’s an old church saying. I remember hearing it several times in my childhood,

There are two types of people in church: pillars and caterpillars.

The pillars uphold the church. They’re the every Sunday attenders, the dedicated tithers, and the people who actually pray for you when they say they’ll be praying for you. They embody the fruit of the Spirit and are actively seeking out ways to serve others, especially the least of these.

Then there’s the caterpillars. They “crawl” in late on Sunday morning, drink some coffee, sing a few songs, and then crawl back out before the service is actually over.

I remember hearing this as a kid in church and looking around to see very few caterpillars.That was kind of the point, I guess. God loved pillars more and if you happened to be one of the unlucky caterpillars who crawled in that week you had better figure out how to be a pillar in a hurry so you could fit in with the rest of us pillars.

Now, honestly, I’m not so sure I’m a pillar and I’m a pastor. I try my best to be and I know in many ways I am. For example, giving/tithing has never been a problem for me. There have been months and years where it’s been harder to give than others but consistent obedience in that area of life has been extremely rewarding. Some of my friends really struggle with the idea of giving, though, for a myriad of different reasons. Many of these friends do a much better job than me of consistently cultivating a gentle spirit.

Maybe there should be a third type of church person, some sort of caterpillar/pillar hybrid. Maybe most of us belong in this third category, or at least at different points along a spectrum between the two.

The pillars are undoubtedly integral to the church. Without them, the church simply cannot exist. Dating back to the time of Jesus, the church has always had members who go above and beyond. They give more of their money, time and resources than the average church attender. There’s a statistic that’s generally true in many churches: 80% of the church’s ministry is accomplished by 20% of the church. This same 20% usually funds 80% of the ministry.

They’re often the…

  • thankless volunteers
  • consistent attenders
  • ones laboring in prayer for their church and community.
  • ones who listen attentively to sermons, not because it’s polite, but because they come expecting to hear the gospel heralded from stage every week, because they are keenly aware of their constant need for it.

One of my favorite moments in ministry came when I was meeting with a group of pillars. They told me, “Steven, we’re going to be here whether you are or not. We’re stable. We love Jesus, our church, and our community. We can serve you as a steady core of people that can provide you with a safety net of sorts to fall back on. So let’s be risky. Let’s do new things to reach new people with the Gospel.”

As a pastor, pillars really encourage me.

But I LOVE caterpillars. I think I love caterpillars so much because I don’t really know what it’s like to be one. I’ve been in church my whole life so I have never felt the anxiety many caterpillars have to overcome when stepping foot in church, or back in church, which can be even harder.

Caterpillars are often the…

  • ones with a past other Christians couldn’t look past
  • ones who are frequently and unfairly judged
  • ones terrified to walk into church
  • ones who are new or skeptic towards faith, unsure of the next step but they’re trying
  • ones with the most to lose if they were to make their faith with Jesus public

I love caterpillars because I know there are much more of them in our world and in our churches, than pillars.

Jesus loves caterpillars and pillars. He loves when caterpillars grow into pillars to reach more caterpillars.

I love Jesus because he never gets stuck hanging out with the pillars too much. That can be a common temptation for Christians, to only surround ourselves with people that think, act, and believe just like us.

I love Jesus because he spends much more time with the caterpillars. The skeptics. The non-believers. The disenfranchised. The disillusioned. The rebellious. When Jesus was in deepest need of encouragement, he retreated with some pillars, for a brief time. But he always found the bulk of his mission among the caterpillars.

So…what type of church person are you? A pillar or a caterpillar? (See: 6 Questions Every Christian Needs to Answer)

If you’re a pillar, stay the course! Don’t forget to look to the caterpillars around you, to call them into a deeper walk with Jesus. Your tireless efforts truly count in the kingdom of God and nothing you do, no matter how small, goes unnoticed.

If you’re a caterpillar, be encouraged! Some of us have no clue what it’s like to overcome some of the obstacles you have in between you and faith. But thankfully Jesus has overcome all those for you and so much more. So, take your time exploring Jesus. Seek out truth and your identity within a community. See: Can You Love Jesus and Not the Church?

You’ll see in time that he’s faithful. But don’t take too long. We need you to grow into a pillar so we can keep advancing the kingdom in our world. God is excited to know you and use you right where you are. See: The Underground Church in…Texas?

Are you a pillar, a caterpillar, or somewhere in between?

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