Category Archives: Christianity

One Righteous Act

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Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14, ESV)

If Jesus were to ask that same question today, the answers might be, a religious leader, a healer, or even a fake. He is often put on a level with Mahatma Gandhi as an advocate of peace; with Mother Teresa as a bringer of love; with Mohammed as a prophet. Most people who have any understanding of the historical Jesus say that he was, at the very least, a good teacher.

C.S. Lewis, of course, seeks to dispel that misconception by his famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument (see the Preface to his book, Mere Christianity). His basic argument: given the incredible claims Jesus made about himself, he could only be a deluded lunatic, a pathological liar…or exactly who he said he was: Lord.

There is no doubt that Jesus was what so many believe of him: a good teacher, a prophet, a healer. He epitomized love for the outcast and spoke wisdom that shut the mouths of religious and political authorities alike. But if that is all he was, his impact on the world is all but over and done. Sure, his followers (most, anyway) continue to promote his message of love and peace, continue to seek the good of their communities and the world. But that’s about it. Hope ends there.

Recently I came across this verse: “…through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.” (Romans 5:18, Christian Standard Bible)

For some reason, those three words—one righteous act—stopped me in my tracks. Just one thing made the difference between a good but ultimately meaningless life, and a life of ultimate purpose and eternal impact.

What was that one righteous act? His death. The cross. 

Sit with that thought for a few moments. It is, after all, Good Friday—the day Christians around the world remember Jesus’ sacrifice. We look forward to Easter, of course, but you can’t get to Resurrection Sunday without going through Good Friday. Or silent Saturday, a day of grieving, wondering, waiting…for God knows what? So just sit with the reality of the cross, of a torturous death.

Sit with the truth that, but for Jesus’ sacrifice, we would have no hope beyond this life (which, you have to admit, has been challenging the past few years). Just one righteous act made possible justification leading to life for everyone. Life. Justification—a big word that simply means the slate has been wiped clean.

Jesus’ one righteous act demands just one righteous act in return. To lay claim to that gift—life, justification—you need only believe.

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9-10, CSB)

Just one righteous act.

Listening in Community

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Western culture places great emphasis on the individual. In sports we call out and praise individual performance, giving little more than lip service to how well a team plays. (Just look at baseball: nine players on the field, but only the pitcher is said to have won or lost the game.)

In school, each student is given a grade the she alone has worked for. Team projects are the exception, and a dreaded one at that.

Even in the Christian faith we stress the individual’s responsibility to accept or reject Jesus Christ. (I’ve written about this twice before, based on my first experience in Ethiopia. You can read those posts from 2015 and from 2008 if you want.)

But there is power in community, especially when it comes to making decisions. I recall a scene in a documentary from many years ago: the elders of an African tribe sitting in a circle discussing the appropriate marriage dowry for one of the girls in the tribe. Even as I write that i struggle with how wrong everything about it sounds – but only because it is foreign to me; I also see great wisdom.

Imagine if we were to harness the power and wisdom of collected minds for such things as job changes and career moves; for engagements (or divorces!); for discerning God’s call on our lives.

My parents recently gave me a number of books they’ve read over the years; the one at the top of this post among the titles. I just started reading it but wish I’d read it six months ago. Or three years ago. or twenty years ago. Listening Hearts: Discerning God’s Call in Community provides sound biblical and practical wisdom for a community of Christ-followers to listen for and to God’s call. The authors and a team of researchers combed through centuries of Christian literature to learn how previous generations and various traditions defined and discerned God’s call – for the community and for individuals within the community. Here are just a few tidbits that have stuck out to me:

Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle. (p. 7)

We often find our calls in the facts, circumstances, and concrete experiences of life. … A call may not be so much a call to “do” as to “be.” (p. 9)

Discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on our sense of what God wants us to do. (p. 27)

If you are wondering what you should be doing; if you are facing a decision about a career change or a cross-country move or whether God is calling you to be in full-time ministry, then I want you to do this: read this book, get a small community of people around you (who should also read it), then listen together for to discern God’s call.

Get Out of the Tar Pits

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USA_tar_bubble_la_brea_CAIn the heart of Los Angeles, California, in the shadow of towering skyscrapers and next to the very 21st-century Museum of Art, a geologic phenomenon bubbles up from deep beneath the surface of the earth: black asphalt. Trapped in the asphalt are thousands of years worth of fossils: bison, wolves, mammoths, and sloths; spiders, insects, and birds; sticks, leaves, and grasses.

Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum are treated not only to well-preserved skeletons and archaeologists at work on active digs, but also to the pungent aroma of the tar that seeps up in the middle of the otherwise-green lawns of the surrounding park. It is a sticky and stinky museum!

The tar pits that so easily trapped unsuspecting animals offered a poignant metaphor recently as I prepared to preach on Colossians 3. In this compelling passage, the apostle Paul urges his readers—already convinced of their salvation through Jesus—to live in light of that salvation. Look up!, he says. Keep your hearts, eyes, and minds fixed on Christ.

But then he adds these words of warning: “Put to death whatever is earthly in you….”

Paul knows we can’t keep our eyes on Jesus when our noses are filled with the stench of death – when we’re walking through the tar pits.

What are some of the tar pits that entrap us? “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. … Anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language [and lying].” It’s a comprehensive list, but by no means exhaustive.

When I was in training in the Air Force, i had a roommate who used to read two things every night before bed: Playboy and a Bible – in that order, at first. But as the weeks of training went on, the order switched. By the end of our two months, the Bible no longer sat on his nightstand but was tucked away in a drawer; only the magazine remained.

As my roommate learned, it’s hard to stay focused on life when you’re walking in a graveyard; it’s hard to keep your eyes up on heavenly things when you’re constantly looking down at what’s “earthly.”

You died with Christ, Paul says, but you’ve also been raised with Him. So put to death what belongs to death, and live a life of life.

 

What about you? Have you been raised with Christ? Then what do you need to put to death so that you can live with your eyes up, on Christ?

Keep your head up!

Gays, Guns, and the Gospel

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gays and gods planLast week, amidst all the outcry against zoos and irresponsible parents after an endangered gorilla was killed, I posted about the similarities between that situation and the gospel: “the innocent dying that the guilty might be made innocent.

Yesterday, the world awoke to news of a different kind…and a different response: 49 people (not a gorilla) gunned down by Omar S Mateen (not a zookeeper) in a gay nightclub (not a zoo) in Orlando, Florida. Here was no sacrifice of one innocent to save many guilty; Mateen’s death—the 50th of the tragic day—was as inevitable as it was willing.

I confess that my own response troubles me more than any other. I read no news stories, watched no coverage of the event. Perhaps I’ve seen too many such headlines and have become callous to terror. Perhaps I’m weary of the arguments for and against guns that I know will result. I’m certainly leery of the political posturing that will take place—and already has—about Muslims in America. And I’m especially wary of the responses we’ll hear from those who claim to follow Jesus but will speak only of judgment on the victims.

But my ostrich-like silence could last only until this morning, when an email appeared with this challenging headline: “Orlando Shooting: Why Christians Must Not Stay Quiet.” Indeed, it was that headline and the article that followed that motivated this post. But what words could I possibly add that would be more than mere noise?

Perhaps the place to begin is to offer a confession on behalf of the Christian body of which I have been a part for nearly half a century. As would-be followers of Christ, we—and I—have shown far more condemnation than grace toward homosexuals. We have complained about “agendas” and “lifestyles” but have not invited conversation. We have judged and called for judgment but have not shown grace. We have argued for doctrine and against science (which need not be mutually exclusive, by the way). And I am sorry. We—I—have been wrong, have lived and loved so unChristlike. All of this is changing, at least in some circles, but not enough, and not quickly enough. (Note: I am not calling for a change of theology, but action.)

A shift in our thinking on guns is also needed. This is hard for me, perhaps the hardest point of conflict between my Christian faith and my American citizenship. I don’t own a gun, though I want to—ostensibly for protection, though I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed that level of protection, nor can I truly imagine a situation where I would need to protect myself or my family with a firearm. But I don’t want to give up my rights as a citizen even though I pray to a Savior who gave up not just his rights, but his life, for me. Friends have posted things like “it’s not about guns, it’s about our godless society.” That may be true at one level, but can I really share the gospel with a gun on my hip? Jim Elliot—whose life and death brought the Aucas to faith in Christ—already answered that question:

Jim Elliot reached for the gun in his pocket. He had to decide instantly if he should use it. But he knew he couldn’t. Each of the missionaries had promised they would not kill an Auca who did not know Jesus to save himself from being killed. (See a short biography here.)

Something needs to change, and I need to begin with me. Most of all, I need to live, speak, and share the gospel I say I believe. I am most comfortable around people like me—Christians. But comfort never sold anyone on Jesus. I need to get uncomfortable, to get around gays and Muslims and anyone who doesn’t know Jesus, then live in such a way that when the see me, they will see Him and want to know Him.

Man, that’s not going to be easy. Maybe you can help.

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.