We love our boxes.

Boxes keep people isolated and crumpled up.  And religious people can be experts at building boxes with labels to put people in.

A young woman wears something deemed inappropriate and a so-called “Christian” slaps a box on her labeled “tramp” or “whore” or “slut”, and then goes on their way.

You see, if I can place another person who is different from me in a box labeled “liberal” or “conservative” or “weird” or “snob”, etc. then I am off the hook.  I don’t have to do the hard and uncomfortable work of building an actual relationship.  Or, dare I say, loving that person!

But Jesus Christ is in the business of cutting boxes and breaking neck irons (I will explain that one below), and loving people for exactly who they are.

Three exchanges take place in Luke 5 and 6 that back this up.  First, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast (abstain from food for religious purposes).  Jesus explained that they didn’t fast because they were with the Bridegroom himself.  No asceticism was called for.  Celebration was more appropriate.  Later they would fast, Jesus told them, but now was not that time.

But wait!  The Pharisees didn’t understand that.  It was outside of their religious box.

A little while later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on a Sabbath and they picked grain and ate it.  The Pharisees considered that a violation of the law.  Now technically it was not because they were poor travelers, and the law made that food available to them.  But for a recognized Rabbi, the action was outside of the religious box.

The third examples happens again on a Sabbath, but this time in a synagogue.  A man was there with a withered hand.  He could not open it and stretch it out.  The Pharisees (expert box-makers that they were) actually preferred Jesus not heal him rather than do a “work” on the Sabbath day.  Jesus told him to stand up in front of them all and “STRETCH OUT YOUR HAND”.

You and I are supposed to stand tall and strong and enjoy the freedom and liberty of a lively faith that Jesus paid a dear price for us to enjoy.  We should not be cramped and crumpled inside a box of our own or anyone else’s making.

When John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace) was a slave-ship captain, God was beginning to move on his heart.  On his last journey he saw that the slaves he was transporting were actually mothers and brothers and fathers and children.  They were people and they deserved dignity.  He felt an urge to unshackle them all but knew his crew would mutiny if he did.  He recognized one thing he could do, however.

Remove the neck irons.

One of the most undignified and cruel devices used on slaves was the neck iron.  It would prevent people from lifting their heads.  They had to walk and moved in a hunched over position.  John Newton ordered the neck irons removed.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit was stimulating Jesus-type action through John Newton.

Will you continue that work?

Start with yourself.  Lift up your hands, your heads, your life itself!  Stretch out to your full height!  You are free!  You have liberty.  Jesus has cut that box and removed those neck irons.

Now look around and see if anyone else needs a box cut open or a neck iron removed.

That’s what Jesus does.  Hallelujah!

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“Happy in Jesus”

July 16, 2014

One of the great hymns from the 19th Century is “Trust and Obey” by John H. Sammis. It has a wonderful refrain… “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Being Happy is one of the undeniable results of our faith and a central tenet of our preaching…that to follow Jesus Christ will result in a happy and joyful life!
I am afraid I don’t remember or declare that as much as I should. But the truth is, I am very HAPPY since I gave my life to Jesus.

Yup… Just plain ‘ol happy!

In the documentary of the same name (“Happy”), the professors and social scientists who studied the reasons for happiness around the world and for successive decades, shared the three central reasons that produce happiness in people no matter their nationality, income, race, or creed. The three universal indicators of happiness are (1) Strong Familial Relationships, (2) Helping Others and (3) Personal Growth.

When I saw the documentary, I realized that church can provide all three! Is it really any wonder?!?!?

We are one family in Christ. We gather together for worship and to serve others. We daily seek to grow in our relationship with God and in understanding His Word.

Those exact elements of close familial relationships, service, and personal growth are what secular scientists have discovered are the formula for a happy life. No wonder we are so happy!

I have often wondered if we are taking the right approach to ministry in Isla Vista. Our church is a church for the homeless. On any given Sunday, we have a few dozen people (half of whom are houseless) sharing coffee and pastries followed a few hours later by a church picnic of tacos. More and more of our “houseless” friends are joining us for worship at 10:30 as well. They feel comfortable with our congregation and want to worship the Lord.

On so many levels that is really cool.

Still, it seems that every week an internal wrestling match takes place within me between two competing ideologies. Sometimes the match is over in about 13 seconds (we’re talking Tyson vs. Spinks fast). Other weeks, the match takes 2-3 days.

Who are the contenders, you ask? (Cue the ringside announcer…)

“In this corner weighing a lean 150 pounds is ‘Kingdom Values’!”

Scattered applause…

“And in this corner stands his opponent, weighing a hefty 250 lbs, ‘Worldly Success’!”

Thunderous applause…

On the outside looking in, it really does look like this match is lopsided. Everyone appreciates and values worldly success. I mean everyone. The most saintly of us still want to hear an “Attaboy” on this side of heaven.

The odds-on-favorite to win the wrestling match when Kingdom Values are in conflict with Worldly Success is Worldly Success. That is the sad truth. Pastors and churches get discouraged by slow “results” that don’t earn them “attaboy’s”.

It is then that a pastor, church leader, missionary or any other committed believer must strengthen themselves in the Lord, and remind themselves that Jesus stands in the corner of Kingdom Values (I am preaching to myself again).  He is not coaching the participants in how to be successful in the world’s eyes.

This week I was encouraged by reading the words of Bryant Myers in his book, “Walking with the Poor”.  He writes,

“We are to do transformation in the Spirit since the mission is God’s.  The Holy Spirit empowers us for mission, leads us into mission, and is responsible for the results of the mission.  If there is to be any human transformation that is sustainable, it will be because of the action of the Holy Spirit, not the effectiveness of our development technology or the cleverness of our participatory processes.  Because our role is to be faithful and obedient, in contrast to being successful, we must modify our ambitions and redirect our praise.” (p.84)

John Perkins had this to say about Bryant Myers and his books after reading…

“This book really comes out of one who loves Jesus, walks with Jesus, and has this great passion to eliminate poverty in the world.  The evidence of a Christian life is our love for all people, but also special love for the poor.  This book really reflects both the heart of Myers and the work that God is calling us to do.”

After reading these passages, the wrestling match was over!  Game over, man!  That is might be said of LLG that they “love Jesus, walk with Jesus, have a great passion to eliminate poverty in the world, love all people, and have a special love for the poor” is all that really matters.

The bell has sounded, the match has begun…Let’s get to work walking with the poor.

 

Man Up!

November 13, 2013

I am very glad for our friend Mark Becker who has held a hard line in advocating the “tough love” approach for people struggling with addictions.  Mark is an ex-alcoholic and drug addict and a huge proponent of AA.  Mark counsels that an addict has to desire freedom from their addiction above all else.  All the well-meaning people in the world at an addict’s beckon call are useless if the addict doesn’t want to be clean, owns up to their addiction, and commits him or herself to the humble and difficult process of recovery.

Take the mayor of Toronto as an example.  His story is tragic, yet offensive as well.  This is a man who was videotaped smoking crack cocaine and denied it for months.  Apparently, he even used extortion in an attempt to recover the tape.  It’s to guys like this that I want to shout, “Man Up!”

Read what blogger, Timothy Tennent, recently had to write…

Last week Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finally admitted to smoking crack cocaine.  A video tape had surfaced which made the previous denials difficult to sustain.  When the Major finally spoke publicly about the incident his explanation was, in some ways, more surprising than the original admission.  Mayor Ford said that the incident happened about a year ago, “probably in one of my drunken stupors.”  This statement revealed an important emerging trend in post-modern leadership (Mayor Ford is 44 years old).  Ford is making a distinction between various “selves” which is prominent in post-modern thinking.  He has a “mayoral self” who leads the city of Toronto, and he has a “drunken stupor” self who smokes cocaine, receives a DUI (1999), smokes marijuana (“lots of it”, Ford admitted) and gropes females (e.g candidate Sarah Thomson, March 2013), to name a few.  It has become increasingly common for public figures to say that their ability to govern should be kept separate from these kinds of “indiscretions” or even illegal activity.

It seems there is a new mentality permeating our culture that affirms blaming others for personal faults and copping-out of individual responsibility–even in the area of drug abuse.  We satisfy our consciences with a belief that we live with opposing dual natures and don’t need to take responsibility for the immature, partying, indiscreet half.  This is not only a bad way to live, it’s bad theology.  The glorious power of the Holy Spirit working inside is to transform whatever carnal nature we have (the NT often uses the word “flesh”) into TRULY integrated men and women.  We aren’t schizophrenic, we are HOLY.

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I understand that many drug abusers suffered horrible traumas in their lives.  Many were introduced to drugs and alcohol at early ages and, certainly, the blame for many, many cases of drug and alcohol abuse does not fall on the abuser’s heads themselves.  The greatest theology in the world doesn’t correct some addictions.  But for some of these cases, like the one involving the aforementioned mayor, I just want to say, “Man Up!”  Tennent continues…

As tragic as this story is, this represents an opportunity for Christian witness in today’s world.  For the Christian, integrity means that we have an “integrated” self, i.e. there is complete continuity between our private life and our public life.  The values which govern us as pastors are the same values which govern us as a husband, a father, a man, a woman, a sister, a mother.  We should represent wholeness in a fragmented world.  I still believe that the world is longing to see wholeness.  They are crying out for people of integrity.  There are few places to look today to find such role models.  This is an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the true power of the gospel in our lives.  All of our “old” selves which were enslaved to sin have been crucified with Christ, and “it is no longer I who live, but  Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Proverbs 15 has something to say along these lines, as well…

32 Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,
    but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.

33 Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord,
    and humility comes before honor.

The DSTV reads, “Take the punishment you deserve, because that is the first step in restoring your life!” (Dave’s Straight-Talk Version)

Comedians like to start with the same line over and over again and put different spins on the punch line.  For instance, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “Knock-Knock” or “a guy walks into a bar…”.  We have learned from experience what will come, knowing that it has to be a lot funnier than “to get to the other side”.  Each new joke-teller has to at least do better than that.

It turns out that preachers and pastors have their own set of opening lines they use when getting together with one another.  Some of the favorites are, “So, how big is your church?”  “When did you become a Christian?” and “Where did you go to seminary?”  To that list I want to add another.  “I was sitting next to this guy on the airplane…”  What follows is typically an amazing, astonishing, and tear-inducing tale of how (with just the right blend of courage, wit, Scripture quoting, and Holy-Spirit anointing) the preacher was able to engage that fellow passenger in conversation, save his soul with a powerful presentation of the Gospel, and seal his eternal destiny.

Other preachers hear these tales and testimonies and feel simultaneously guilty over their uneventful recent plane flight and awestruck at the courage and skill of these preachers.

“Knock-Knock”

“Who’s there?”

“The best preacher in the room!!!”

But I am finding more and more than my best gift as a preacher might not be my speech at all.  It might just be a set of listening ears.

Here’s my plain plane story.

A fellow sits down next to me with earrings and tattoos and spiky hair and we make small talk and then find something to laugh at in the captain’s intercom address to the passengers.  Our captain wouldn’t stop talking!  It was as if he was going to give us a comprehensive description of the entire mechanical system of our 737 jet.  We learned more about wind tunnels and the air conditioning unit and the time spent by each crew of mechanics and, while it may have been kind of interesting in its own way, the captain was talking SO LOUDLY into his mic that we were kind of going crazy.

Anyway, my new friend was, not surprisingly, an artist.  He was in charge of setting up the Mini Cooper showrooms all across the country.  He had both mechanical skill and artistic acumen and was able to exercise them both in his job…which he loved.  After sharing some photos of our kids from our phones, another LOUD announcement came across the intercom that we would be having turbulence due to a storm, but we would miss the bulk of it and have a smooth landing.  The captain made a comment about how he was praying that storm would clear out and it did (Thanks, Captain, you just gave me an opportunity!)

You see, up to this point, I had not shared my name or my vocation, but then saw an opportunity to say, “Well, I am a pastor and talk to God for a living, but my prayers regarding the weather don’t typically seem to make much of a difference.” (Easter Sunday, 2013, at Refugio Beach the one clear exception!!)

A few minutes later as we were descending into Charlotte, NC, I was able to encourage my new friend about God.  It turns out his wife’s two sisters were committed Christians, although he and his wife did not go to church.  He went as a kid, but hadn’t as an adult because he felt that Christian people were too pushy.

“I get that.  I have been part of churches that did that kind of thing, and I know it can be a turn-off.  But most of those people’s intention is good, despite imperfect execution.  But, most important of all, Jesus is always good.  He is graceful and kind and instructs us in the best ways to live life.  And you know how we are about to land and those people on the runway will be there with their glowing sticks waving our plane into the terminal?  Well, maybe God just put me here to wave a glow-stick toward Jesus.  He changed my life.”

“Cool, man. Cool. It was good to meet you.”