The Inclining Infection

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Recently, my wife and I got the chance to travel to Washington D.C. for the 4th of July. We toured the Capitol, explored the museums, and savored some of the local cuisine. One of the highlights of our trip was getting to watch fireworks explode over the Washington Monument. It was quite the memorable adventure.

As we wandered among the streets, the towering monuments and rich history of our nation was not the only thing that caught our attention. At almost every corner we were met by someone offering  pamphlets on faith or Buddhist prayer beads. We watched a priest debate theology, heard protesters use Scripture to justify their political position, and listened to a tent meeting. In all, we encountered no less than a dozen different religious and faith-based groups.

This was to be expected in our Nation’s Capital where hundreds of thousands of tourists were anticipated to come for the 4th of July. It also demonstrated the great diversity of thought and backgrounds that make us this nation. However, it also captured the essence of an epidemic that plagues us.

We suffer from biblical illiteracy.

Time and time again we heard Scripture taken out of context and misapplied. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in America. According to the American Bible Society, 9 out of 10 Americans own a Bible. The average household owns three in fact. Yet, LifeWay Research conducted a recent survey finding that more than 50% of Americans have read little to none of the Bible.* Because we don’t read the Bible, it follows that we don’t know it. This spirals into biblical ignorance, misinterpretation, twisting of Scripture, and even worse, misapplication. Recently the Attorney General cited Romans 13 to defend separation of immigrant families. Many churches and leaders rightfully countered his misuse of Scripture. But his biblical illiteracy is typical of the majority of Americans. We are suffering from an ever-growing infection. And if we ever hope to overcome this epidemic, we cannot just read about it, we must do something.

So, how do we rise above the biblical illiteracy that is so negatively impacting the world around us? While this is not the place for an exhaustive answer, I would like to offer one that every household in American can grasp. It comes down to context, context, context.

The Literary Context

When we actually open up our Bibles to read it, we have to begin by reaching back to our years in English classes. To better understand the passage we’re reading we need the literary context. We need to examine the genre or literary type that we’re reading. The Bible was not written in a single genre, but includes narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, Gospels, epistles, and apocalypse. Just as we would not read a math textbook the same way we would read Shakespeare, so too we do not read 1 Samuel (narrative) the same way we read Psalms (poetry) or the same way we read Romans (epistle). The genre dictates how we should read the passage.

Literary context also notes how words are used. As my seminary professors would always say, “Words have meanings not meaning.” There are multiple meanings for words. For example, the word ‘slave’ in Scripture, does not carry the same connotations that it does for those in the U.S. today. The meaning of a word holds great weight in how we read Scripture. We must get back to the literary context that the author intended.

The Histo-Cultural Context

Secondly, we need to add the historical and cultural context of the passage we’re reading. This may take some digging, but it is well worth it. Discover the lifestyles of the author and audience. Explore what situations they were experiencing. Finding the historical and cultural context will bring new life to what we are reading and a better understanding as to its meaning. While the Bible was written to a specific people at a specific time and place, there are universal and relevant principles that God’s Word still teaches us today. The histo-cultural context helps us recognize what the author and audience were experiencing while drawing proper parallels to today.

The Gospel Context

Finally, and most importantly, is the Gospel context. Although the Bible is made up of 66 books stretching several centuries and written in a handful of genres, it is still all one very true and very real story pointing to Christ. It is the story of a people created by God, yet who rebelled against Him. Their decision came with consequences for all humanity; the brokenness caused by sin. But God, loved His creation and longed to restore them from brokenness. He sent His son to take on our penalty and pain, that we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. That is what the Bible is all about. And when we read it, we must recognize how the passage before us fits into the greater context of the Gospel. How is it pointing to Jesus and our salvation?

Biblical illiteracy may run rampant, but you don’t have to be a victim. These three points of context are only the start of growing in biblical literacy. The more time you spend reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and asking biblically literate people questions about it, the better you’ll be able to understand and use Scripture as it was intended.

*https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/

 

Resources for You:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart

The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant R. Osborne

Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy

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Why I Can’t Worship

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There are Sunday mornings when the distance between the worship team and the worshipers seems wider than normal. You find a seat at church, the music begins to play, but something is not right. Is someone off beat? Are they playing that song you dislike? Is the person next to you saying ‘amen’ just one too many times? You can quickly scan the room and find a dozen reasons why you can’t worship. You want to worship, but your worship seems hindered. Maybe so much that you’re considering finding another community to worship with.

I have been there.

I have stood in worship services feeling frustration and confusion. Maybe that’s wrong to say as a pastor. I’m supposed to be 100% engaged, 100% of the time for worship services. But it’s true. I am human and I have wrestled with worship. I look at the band, I listen to the songs, I look at the people around me, and I have seen reasons why I can’t worship. We have all been there. One of the hardest jobs in ministry is a worship pastor, because they get pressured by a thousand opinions as to how they should lead worship. People often leave churches because the worship does not meet their preferences. But if we are truly honest with ourselves, the obstacles we encounter in worship are not from the worship team. The issue rests with me. I create the obstacles that prevent me from worshiping. If we want to worship God with more joy, more excitement, and more meaning, then we must overcome our obstacles. In fact there are three major obstacles that hinder us from worshiping.

NARCISSISM
We are our own biggest hurdle toward worship. While we say that worship is for God, we tend to act like worship is for us. Our preferred worship style must be met, with our preferred songs being played, at our preferred volume, with our preferred musicians. When our preferences are not met we make sure to let someone know, so that they can adjust.

Friends, let me share a hard, honest truth with you. Worship is not about you. Worship is not about us and it’s not about me. Worship is about God. If we are more concerned about our preferences in worship, than with the One whom we are worshiping, then we are doing it wrong.

PERFECTIONISM
I heard a pastor once say that “the church is a hospital, not a museum.” What he meant by this was that the church is full of imperfect people. In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, ““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” If you believe that you are perfect or need to be surrounded by perfect people and perfect things, then church is not for you. It’s a place of broken people. And worship is no exception.Not everyone will sing on pitch or clap on beat. And that is okay. Again, we do not worship for ourselves or for other people, we worship for God.

There is actually grand beauty in the imperfections in worship. It demonstrates God’s love for all people. We do not have to be perfect or talented to worship. God welcomes everyone (even if you sing like me). We need to see the beauty in imperfections rather than using them as excuses not to worship.

PASSIVISM
Finally, our own passivism and complacency throws up a wall to worship. Our own attitudes will shape our perspective on the service. When we come with a “meh” attitude to worship, we cannot expect to find the time meaningful. But when we come expecting to engage with God and engage with others, that is where God will meet us. When I am actively participating in worship, I always leave feeling filled up. Even if I have heard the passage a hundred times, I listen for something new or how I can learn to share it with someone else. James 1:22 reads, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” When I reject my passivism and embrace an active role in worship, I encounter God as I was meant to.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of obstacles toward worship, but it is what I believe are some of our major hindrances. As you consider whether you lean toward narcissism, perfectionism, or passivism in worship, be honest with yourself. If we cannot be honest with ourselves, then we won’t be honest with God and we will end up resisting His help. Identify your obstacles, go to God, and let Him transform how you worship.

The Potential in Your Shoes

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One of the most famous psychological experiments in modern history didn’t take place in a lab, but in a third grade classroom in Iowa. In 1968 Jane Elliot developed an exercise to help her Caucasian students understand the effects of racism and prejudice in light of the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Elliott divided her class into blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students. On the first day, she labeled the blue-eyed group as the superior group. They were given extra privileges, leaving the brown-eyed children to represent the minority group. She discouraged the groups from interacting and singled out individual students to highlight the negative characteristics of those in the minority group. In the hours to follow the children’s behavior changed almost instantaneously. The blue-eyed students performed better academically and began bullying their brown-eyed classmates. The brown-eyed students had poor academic performance and experienced lower self-confidence. The next day, she reversed the roles of the two groups and the same behaviors arose among the opposing groups.

At the end of the two day experiment, the children were done with being treated as they had. They were reported to have found new friendship with one another and agreed that people should not be judged based on outward appearances. This exercise has since been repeated many times with similar outcomes. Although her experiment has been controversial, Elliot went on to centering her career on diversity training.

This experiment offers us tremendous insight to the effects of racism and prejudice. Hopefully the experience and wisdom of third graders can lead us to the same conclusion as we consider how we treat others.

I believe that this experiment not only teaches us something about prejudice, but offers a timeless truth that can be equally applied to leaders. That is, people will fill the shoes we put them in. The better students were treated, the better they behaved and performed academically. The worse they were treated, the worse they behaved. They filled the shoes they were put in by the teacher and their peers.

The job of a leader is to take people from where they are at to their potential. It’s to help individuals, teams, and organizations recognize what they can become and to take them there. People cannot reach their potential until they are given a pair of shoes that fits that potential. They need to be treated as if they are what they can be. Unfortunately, too many leaders treat those around them as inferior thus they never reach their potential. Like Elliot’s third graders, those who were treated as lessor responded with poor behavior. It is when leaders treat those whom they lead as if they have already reached their potential that they will actually step into the bigger shoes. It is here that they flourish and excel.

I think this is what the author of Proverbs 22:6 has in mind when he writes, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is not just for children. The way we train up and treat others is the direction they will go. If we treat others as inferior and never able to amount to anything, then that is most likely the shoes in which they will walk. But if we treat others as strong, capable, and above all, having value and worth, then they will stand taller and boldly walk into their greatest potential.

Lead others well and give them the shoes of their God-given potential.

 

If you treat a man as he is, he will stay as he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become the bigger and better man.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Wandering into the Unknown

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“The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you…So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” Genesis 12:1,4a

How did Abraham do it? How did he pick up his life and move without knowing where he was going? For some this sounds like a dream. Some fantasize about dropping everything one day to embark on a spontaneous adventure. Rather than turning right to go to work, you dream about turning left, catching whatever plane leaves next, and letting fate decide the destination. 

But that’s not what Abraham does. It’s not a spontaneous adventure, where he will someday return to the responsibilities and reality that are left behind. God commands Abraham to wander to an unknown place, leaving everything he’s known for the last 75 years. And how does Abraham respond? Scripture simply records Abraham’s unequivocal obedience to go. There’s no mention of questions or doubt, just a large group leaving Harran for somewhere else. How does he go without knowing? Abraham is undertaking a completely new reality and packing up everything to relocate to a place that is literally, only God knows where.

How does he do it? If I were Abraham, I would want to sit down, ask questions, develop a plan, create a schedule, ask more questions, and then execute. That’s who I am. I am a ‘think before you leap’ kind of guy. I would struggle to walk in Abraham’s sandals because there is no clear plan other than “go!”

Which is exactly why I am wrestling with this passage right now as you read this. Since the beginning of the year, my wife and I have known that God has been calling us into a new chapter of ministry. And so after lots of prayer, I jumped into action and began planning. I searched for jobs, did some research, dusted off the resume, wrote cover letter after cover letter, and scheduled interviews. I wanted everything to be wrapped up so we could say exactly where God was taking us by the time we had to announce to our friends that God was calling us into something new.

But that day has come and gone without being any closer to knowing where He wants us to go. As a planner, I feel ridiculous when I tell friends we’re leaving, but have no idea where to. It sounds careless and I wonder if people question if I have really thought this through. I am standing in Abraham’s sandals preparing to step in a new direction, but only God knows where.

The planner in me is squirming and nervous, but not ignorant to how He may be using this all to mature my trust. God knows where we all need to grow and I am certainly no exception. To myself and others, it may seem unplanned and careless, but God has a plan that is bigger that I can fathom. And it is going to involve trust.

That is how Abraham did it. Abraham was able to pack up everything, uproot his life, and move his family because he trusted in God. He did not need to know the plan, he just needed to know the One who had the plan. That’s what it takes to wander into the unknowns of life.

As I continue to search and pray, Abraham’s trust in God is a daily reminder to me. And not just a reminder, but a challenge as well. It is a challenge to fully rely on God who is in control, knows the future way better than I do, and loves unconditionally. That is the God I follow, even when I don’t know where I am going. And I am okay with that. As I’ve been reminded recently “If you can’t see as far you’ll go, go as far as you can see.” God has got a plan and He will continue to reveal it in His perfect timing. I just have to trust and go, wandering into the unknown.  

Iron Sharpens Iron

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“As iron sharpens iron…” Proverbs 27:17                                                              

When many people read these words, images of athletes working out or preparing for a competition usually come to mind. In high school this verse was painted in bold, blue letters across the wall of the workout room. It stood over students to inspire as sweat ran down their faces. Yet the verse was incomplete and the four words seemed only to echo the dull clanking of weights in the room. There is more to this verse and it has little to do with inspiring people to pump more iron. The real meaning comes in its entirety; “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Humanity was created for relationships. The first time that God is recorded saying that something was not good, was when Adam was alone (Gen. 2:18). While Adam had God, God had also created him to engage with those like him. But Adam was unable to fulfill that God-given purposes, because no one else was around. It can be difficult to sharpen and be sharpened by another, when there is no other. So God created Eve and things went from not good to good in His eyes.

Our own experiences attest to the fact that we are created for relationships. Each person has an innate desire to be known and accepted by others. This is one reason why cliques are so prevalent in middle and high school. It is a time when kids are discovering their identity. As they realize who they are, there is a longing to be more than just one among the crowd; they want to be with those in the crowd. There are very few who remain secluded in life and do not seek out or at least desire a connection with others.

We desperately need those relationships. A seed cannot grow without the necessary nutrients. It needs water, good soil and sun in order to flourish. So too, people cannot grow, mature, and develop as God intended apart from relationships. If we do not have others pouring good nutrients into our lives, we are missing on being sharpened by others. Through others we find comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4), we find inspiration (Heb. 10:24), we can let go of past sins (Heb. 12:1), and we receive forgiveness (Col. 3:13). Community helps sharpen one another’s lives in Christ. We see this reflected in Jesus’ disciples and the early church described in Acts. The Body functions better when every part is present and working together for the great purpose of bringing God glory.

You and I were made for relationships. No matter the relationship or the size of a group, we have a mission to have intentional interactions.

Where do we start? We begin by noticing and inviting. Jesus reached out to those that most people ignored and He brought them into community. We must notice those that are alone and invite them into the Body of Christ. Then, we should engage and equip. Jesus purposefully engage and equip His disciples so that they would be ready to love others and proclaim the Kingdom. Jesus regularly sharpened His disciples. He did not always hold their hands through the ups and downs of life, but challenged their thinking and actions. He comforted them when they needed comfort and corrected when they needed correction. As a result they matured and were equipped to be powerful disciples that carried His Good News to the world. They shook the earth and we are capable of doing the same, if we sharpen one another in our walk with Christ.

Consider your relationships this week; your family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. How are you sharpening them? Are you noticing and inviting people in as Christ did? Are you challenging others to grow? This life is not meant to be lived alone, we are created to live this life for Him together. We are sharper because of one another.

Running Out of Patience

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How much more of this can I take? The question has raced into my mind many times. And although it races in, it is not quick to leave. It simply comes to a halt, hovering there as stress tightly grips its hands around my neck and my heart begins to strike a faster beat. It wasn’t just one thing that forced this question, it was one more thing. We tend to call this “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s something that is otherwise small but when added to a collection of surmounting pressures causes us to suddenly erupt! You’ve been patient, but that was the last straw. Enough is enough. If there was a pill for patience, now would be the time to pop it. But there’s not and that’s our problem. We run out of patience.

What an odd phrase; “to run out of patience.” As if patience were a food that is consumed until there’s none left or a currency that is spent until it’s all gone. We don’t say this about other character traits. We don’t say that we’ve run out of honesty or run out of integrity. That sounds silly. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really run out of patience. What we really do is turn it off. We choose to not be patient.

I’m guilty of this. I could be more patient, but sometimes in the moment I choose to turn it off. I choose to make another’s actions the last straw. And as I shake my head, asking myself “How much more of this can I take?”, I hear God asking me, “How much more have I taken from you?” Those words are a straight punch to the gut if there ever was one.

How can I choose to turn my patience off, when I’m in love with a God who never turns His patience off when it comes to me? I can’t tell you how many times in my life that I have ignored or disobeyed what God asks me to do. Yet God continues to be patient with me. And I have learned and continue to learn to better follow Him. Consider the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Despite God’s great love, provision, and protection, the people still ran after other gods. Yet God remained patient with them. He remained faithful in His love even when they abandoned Him and had to correct them. Even through this, God’s patience remained on.

And His patience remains on for us too. In Scripture, one of the Greek words for patience is makrothumia, which means “long temper.” Imagine an incredibly long candle wick which would take a tremendous time to burn. That is the kind of long lasting, slow to burn patience that God has for us. Generally, this kind of patience is often associated with love. It is out of God’s selfless, everlasting love that He extends patience to us even as we mess up over and over and over again.

Because God is able to extend makrothumia, it may seem impossible for humanity to be able to do the same. I mean God is God and we are not. But makrothumia is the same patience that is used in Galatians 5:22; it is one of the fruits of the Spirit and thus completely for us. It is ours to have and ours to extend others.

There is no straw that will break the camel’s back. When we remember the great patience that God has for us, we are compelled by His deep love to extend patience to others. It may not always be easy. We may clench our fists, bite our tongues, and feel stressed, but we can extend the long enduring patience that God extends to us every day.

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:12-14, ESV

Reckless Love

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Late last year a new worship song was quietly released into the Christian scene. The music was moving and the message was meaningful. Listeners soon picked up on the new song and Reckless Love by Cory Asbury has remained in the spotlight ever since. It has over 9.6 million views on YouTube at the time this was posted. For the last 10 weeks it has been on the Billboard Christian top 10 list and was number 1 for a month. Social media is full of worship leaders and artists singing their own renditions of Reckless Love. Even Justin Bieber recently posted a clip of himself singing the song for his 98 million followers on Instagram. Reckless Love has been a hit to say the least.
But not everyone is a fan of the now famous song. With popularity comes criticism, even from the Christian community. Some would argue that Reckless Love is theologically incorrect, biblically unfaithful, and should not be sung by committed Christians. They contend that God is anything but “reckless” as it is defined as someone who is careless, ignorant, and rash.
However, words can have multiple meanings, not just one meaning. That meaning can also evolve over time and develop into something very different than what it meant decades ago. The context and the author also determines a word’s meaning. So while “reckless” can mean careless, the context of Asbury’s song does not support the notion that he is saying God is careless or ignorant in what He does.
Now that we have the semantics aside, let’s expand on Reckless Love with the help of Scripture.
Asbury wrote Reckless Love with the parables of Luke 15 in mind. Luke 15 contains three parables; the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son (or Lost Son). Each story is about someone going out of their way to search for the lost. For the average person, this would not be their mentality. If you had a million dollars and lost one of those dollar bills, would you expend all your energy to find it? Probably not. You wouldn’t care about one dollar when you’ve got $999,999 left.
Or how about this. After someone takes half of your money, tells you that they wish you were dead, and then runs away, would you wait for them to return and even protect them once they come back? Most people probably wouldn’t, we’d rather they get what they deserve than go out of our way for them. Because most people wouldn’t behave this way, we would describe these characters as foolish, unreasonable, absurd, and yes, reckless.
But that’s what the parables of Luke 15 are all about. And that’s what Christ’s love is!! Christ gave up His life, He shed blood for undeserving humanity. Despite the evil that has been done to us and the evil that we throw onto others, Jesus still loved us enough to die for us that we may believe in Him and have life everlasting. That’s an incredible amount of love!! That is a selfless love that most people today don’t give to one another. Thus, by any normal standard that is a reckless love.
That is the Gospel. It is the same message that Paul says is considered “foolishness” by those who do not know God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul isn’t saying that God is foolish just like Asbury isn’t saying that God is reckless. But by the average human’s behavior, it is foolish and reckless. Yet while it is foolishness to the world and recklessness by the world’s standards, it is the powerful, saving love of God. No matter where you are in life, no matter where you’ve been, no matter how messy things may seem, nothing can stop God’s love from reaching out to you.

 

“There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me”