Of Battles and Surrender

I had another weird dream last night. I was part of a contingent of American soldiers holding down a building under assault from a great number of Germans. We were out manned and out of ammunition. The question was whether or not to surrender. I awoke before having to make the fatal decision. I wish I could figure out where that dream came from. 

As Christians,  we are at war. Jesus talked about it often. We have more challenges than whether to surrender or fight on. For us, everything is different, including what constitutes victory or defeat and who determines the outcome.

If you look at church prayer lists, we fight principally on two fronts: health and finances. As to health, you would think we believe we should live forever. To succumb to disease or injury seems the most horrible thing in the world. It’s as if we had no idea, much less appreciation, of a forever life. Our bodies are designed so that health is always a diminishing asset. We have a responsibility to take good care of these temples, but it’s because we need to be useful in the work of God and not eternal residents of them. Our health is not a measure of our faith or even our blessings. Victory in health comes in being able to do all we are called to do with great joy, including meeting Him when it’s all over here. Health victory is when we leave this body.

Our financial struggles are even stranger. Jesus had no place to lay his head. He marveled at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and their reliance on God. Our financial goals here are not to gather as much as we can. From my knowledge of the well-to-do, no amount is ever enough and no savings or treasure is ever really secure. We need to be more like the potent missionary, George Mueller, who set the table for him, his staff and orphanage charges to eat even when the pantry was bare and was blessed when a bread truck broke down in front of his building. Financial victory is achieving complete trust not self-reliance. 

The one thing absent from my dream was the thought that God would defeat the Germans even when we had no ammo.

 

Seed Time

I am amazed by what’s happening in my yard this summer. I can almost watch the grass grow. I have weeds higher than my knees. It’s just too hot and wet to get out there and tackle the problem. 

Back in the spring, I had glorious ideas about a summer garden. I planted seeds in seeding containers. I reconstructed my raised beds and filled them with garden soil. By the time my seedlings were ready to transplant, it had gotten too hot to do it. All I have are very fertile and empty raised beds. The workings of nature are a dramatic lesson.

Jesus often used seeds, plantings, and harvests as illustrations in His teachings. We reap what we sow. The time for planting is limited and critical. We want to seed in the spiritual and not in the natural. One day we will have to explain our plantings and take a hard look at our harvests.

I marvel at how limited our time is to seed in the lives of others. My children have long grown and gone. My grandkids are not far behind. My great grands are growing fast and my chances to affect them are minimal. 

Other people come in and out of my life so rapidly that I seldom seem to have a chance to impact their lives. I have to be more alert and responsive to opportunities that fly by. There is still some seed time remaining but not a lot and what’s left is fading fast. Fall will be here before we know it.

New

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22-23

We like things that are new, new cars, new clothes, new restaurants. Everyone, old and young, gets a thrill from something new. Following Jesus is all about newness, but we don’t usually think of it that way. It’s generally considered to be old and old-fashioned. As followers, we are contemporary – the latest thing. It’s worldliness and sin that’s passe’ and old-fashioned. The world is really tired of sin. It’s old hat; they just don’t always recognize that. 

The world is caught in a routine. We followers awake each morning with new perspective, opportunity, and challenge. The world is drug down by its history. We awake with eyes forward unleashed from a world that’s not our home and tied to a new heaven and a new earth. 

Consider what “newness” means:

We are forward-looking. The past is behind. What was bad is forgiven. What was good is credited to our Lord.

The future is a path not yet traveled but where Our Lord Awaits, already knowing what is there and having prepared us to deal with it. 

Newness means unspoiled with unlimited potential and opportunity. Ahead may be areas we have never walked but for which we were created. 

Newness is inherently exciting. We should look forward to our meetings and services with excited expectation, not knowing what to expect except that it will be new, exciting and from the Lord. We need to give up our comfort level with the “usual.” Just because we have always done something one way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way or that we should keep doing it. Remember insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result. Don’t we want something different to happen? Shouldn’t we do something different to get there?

I recently read an article about how to keep a millennial interested in church. It really amounted to be “new.” I think the advice applies to all age groups. 

Don’t expect them to carry checkbooks. They pay bills online. They should be able to make tithes and offerings there as well.

Have someone their age upfront. It shows we expect them to take part and not just to learn how it “should be, and has always, been.”  Those “up front” should show the demographics of the entire congregation. 

Don’t hand them a card and a pencil to note their visit. Give them a chance to send a text or an email. Don’t expect a “home” phone number. For most a mobile number is the main and, in fact, only number. Plan to text announcements. Snail mail is outdated and so is email.

Don’t try to make 20 points in the sermon. Make one really great point. That’s all anyone is going to remember anyway. That’s as true for your 70-year-old members as it is for your twenty-somethings.

Don’t be wedded to a liturgical format. Should the service always last the same time? Do the number of songs always have to be the same and always done before the announcements?  Speaking of which, do we really need the “announcements.” Our goal should be to reduce announcement time at church and spread the word through social media. That’s the only place anyone is really listening. 

Why not let a little “newness” into the service. We call that the Holy Spirit, remember?

In the Lord, things are new every morning. They should be new every Sunday as well.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

If the local church is going to survive, it needs to up its game on Sunday mornings. Sunday mornings used to be “church.” Not so much any more. Most couples work Monday through Fridays and take care of chores or kids sports activities on Saturday. On Sunday they are tired and just want to “chill.” 

Even traditional church goers are falling away from Sunday mornings at church. There is just too much competition. The center piece for most Sunday morning church services is the sermon. I can get better sermons that directly address issues or questions I have on TV or online. There I’ve said it.

The local pastor is competing with more talented better educated, more experienced teachers who are supported by staffs with vast technical and research resources. The local guy has to try to reach his regulars and any visitors with a one-fits-all message that he hammers together between pastoring duties during the week. The internet and tv guys can present very pointed, well researched and media backed messages. Lots of folks don’t even know what the Sunday message at their church is going to be and after a while they all tend to sound the same and run together. This is particularly true in churches where the pastor feels each message has to be “seeker friendly” and end with an altar call.

The local worship team faces even greater challenges. Jesus followers can listen to professionally uplifting and encouraging music 24/7. The local worship team is given a short time slot to try to make the presence of God felt with limited resources and major distractions.

What the local church has going for it is fellowship. You can NOT get that on TV or online. Most churches, however, minimize this advantage. There is a short time for hand shaking and back slapping. Attendance at “Sunday school” where fellowship used to happen is way down. Many churches are not even offering anything on Sundays any more.  Larger churches have multiple services and the crowd from one is quickly moved out to make room for the next group coming in. 

The key aspects of Jesus following can now take place outside the church. Your giving can be automated to the church and the opportunities to give to direct needs abound outside the church. There are multiple charities that do a better job of directly impacting people than most churches do. It’s much more satisfying giving to persecuted christians or starving children, than to support salaries, buildings and air conditioning repairs. 

The chances to “serve” in the local church seem to be shrinking as “staffs” grow and someone is hired to perform almost every function. The regular member is often limited to ushering or working in children’s church. Parachurch organizations offer much fuller serving experiences.

I don’t have any answers but there are, obviously, many challenges for local churches. If something radical doesn’t happen soon, Sunday mornings will just keep “Coming Down.”

 

That Bible Thing

I read a thought-provoking article this week, “The Ridiculous Emphasis Christians Place on the Bible.” Take a deep breath before grabbing the torches and pitchforks. I think the article was intentionally provocative, but made some good points:

 

 

  • We didn’t have the New Testament in its complete form until 367 A.D., when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books of the New Testament for the first time. That’s over 300 years of a church without a bible. A period in which the church took over the known world.
  • 100 years after Jesus left, some churches had copies of the collected letters of Paul and a gospel or two, but that’s it.
  • Many had collections with books of debated authenticity that were later ferreted out.
  • No-one owned their own copy of the Bible for personal “Bible study” unless they were wealthy enough to pay the real cost to have it transcribed (see Luke 1:3-4).
  • With the high rate of illiteracy, having a personal copy of the Bible would have been useless anyway. Most Christians wouldn’t have been able to read it.
  • The period of the church’s greatest growth and expansion (33–mid 300’s A.D.) occurred during the time when there wasn’t (1) a Bible in every Christian’s hand and (2) an obsessive preoccupation with Christians clustering to study it word by word, line by line and page by page?

The author concludes:  

Most Christians today assume that to be a Christian means to have a personal relationship with the Bible instead of the risen Jesus.

 

Sadly, I think the author has a point. If my wife gives me a card for my birthday or anniversary, I cherish it; but I don’t substitute it for her. I don’t sleep with it, laugh with it or take it to dinner. I think for many Christians it’s easier to read about someone than to have a relationship with them. It’s easier to study in air-conditioning than to go and make disciples in a world that hates you. There is no substitute for Jesus, even if it’s a Holy Spirit inspired book about Him. 

On the other hand, I think this trend to deemphasize the Bible grows not out of a wish to exchange scripture for a relationship with the real Jesus, but out of a discomfort about what the Bible tells us about who Jesus is. The Jesus we admire and proclaim is very different from the Jesus portrayed in scripture. He doesn’t call us to build structures or hire professionals to spread the word. He doesn’t promise prosperity but calls us to follow one who had no place to lay His head. He talks about cross carrying and dying and not about pew sitting and judging. 

The Bible is a precious gift from God, even if it came 300 years after Jesus returned to the Father. It provides an unchanging vision of who we are, who the Father is and who Jesus is. It’s been the inspiring foundation of Western civilization. It’s a source of inspiration and motivation. It provides a challenging vision of what love really is and what the church is really supposed to be. Some may overemphasize the Bible but still haven’t learned all it’s lessons, adopted its model for church life or lived up to its standards of holiness.

As society slips further and further away from a biblically based morality, scripture becomes more, not less, significant. We should never substitute a book about Jesus for Jesus, but we should never forget what that book teaches us about Him, what He said, what He did, and that He’s coming back soon. The Bible is God’s love note in a bottle. I love to read it especially when Jesus seems far away and I feel alone. It’s no substitute for Him. It’s a just a reminder that He’s here.

 

Sin and Sinners

There seems to be a lot of confusion about “sin” these days. You would expect that out in “the world” but there seems to be just as much confusion in the church. What’s that all about?

What is sin? I have heard it said that sin is “missing the mark.” I guess that’s pretty good. I like to think of it as doing something that hurts yourself or others or failing to do something that helps yourself or others. I don’t think God just made up an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts just to test us. I think He loves us and knows what is best for us. It seems even in “modern” times we are learning that a lot of the seemingly arbitrary rules of the old testament, like rules about food, are pretty good nutrition advice. 

Sadly, I have learned that we don’t always know what’s good for us. Some folks just stick with the do’s and don’ts as recorded in scripture. That would seem to be pretty wise, but we seem to think that “times change” and that, therefore, the rules change. Most people I know aren’t smarter than God and it seems to me what wasn’t good for us thousands of years ago probably still isn’t.

We also seem to get ourselves into trouble by ranking sins. I guess that started with the Catholics and “mortal” and “venial” sins. I mean it seems to make sense that killing someone is worse than hitting them in the mouth, but we always take things too far. For example, some think killing a person after they are born is bad; but while they are still in the womb, is no problem. They are now some who think killing folks when they start to get “old” and “useless” is no problem either.

Another problem with these classifications is that we begin to think the “little” sins are just no problem. We decide it’s okay to steal as long as we steal small or from someone who is really rich. I guess taking bread from a starving man would be a “mortal” sin, while taking a rich guy’s salad is venial.

We also tend to fall into the “everyone is doing it so it can’t be that bad” way of thinking. For years a divorce for no good reason was a big taboo. Nowadays, not so much. We have changed “happily ever after” to “as long as I am still happy.” I think if you ask children of divorce or abandoned spouses they might still think divorce pretty bad. Sex before marriage used to be taboo. Now it’s okay if you really “love” someone. 

This ranking sin thing has really gotten out of hand in the church. Now some churches won’t let you in, give you the sacraments or provide a funeral when you die if you are a certain kind of sinner. I guess they think Jesus was just kidding around with that “he who is without sin cast the first stone” stuff.  I wonder how we are supposed to lead folks to repentance if we don’t let them in the church. Guess it really isn’t a big deal since we don’t talk about repentance in church anymore. It’s not very PC. 

 I am told we should “hate” the sin, but love the sinner. Jesus just said to love God and each other. That works as long as we understand what he meant by “love.” We have really complicated “sin.” I don’t have the energy to deal what we have done with “love.” Until we really get back to understanding sin and love, we should probably just hate our sin, don’t worry about everyone else and just love them, not like we “love” chocolate or crawfish, but like Jesus loved us.

 

 

Father’s Day

Not a great fan of Father’s Day. It seems wrong to guilt kids into honoring their fathers on a certain day each year. They either appreciate their dad or they don’t. The older we get the greater our appreciation. My own dad died several years ago. He did a better job of raising nine kids than I was aware of at the time. My daughter has grown into a fine woman and there is little I can do now to help her any further. My son died early several years ago, never having found his path.  There are guilty memories there that can’t be altered. I try to make up for those with his son. It helps.

When you get to my age your fathering has pretty much ended. You may be occasionally asked for advice but the world has changed so much you feel pretty inadequate to give any really helpful guidance. About all you can offer is a patient listen and a hug. As to grand and great grandkids, you have neither responsibility nor authority. You hold your breath as they take steps you are pretty sure aren’t right that turn out to be fine. My descendants are awesome. I take no credit at all for that but try to thank God often for it. His grace makes up for a lot of parenting and grandparenting missteps. 

If your dad is still around, let me suggest this. Go to your calendar now and enter a periodic reminder to give him a call or drop by, not because it’s a requirement, but just because you are thinking of him. He won’t mind that you had set a reminder to do it. The older dads get the more forgiving they are…to themselves and to others.

That Time I Advised Putin

Putin was hold up in a fancy New York hotel. I was part of a team sent to ask him questions. My senior pastor was the team leader. I was  Putin’s counsel. He was reluctant to speak at first. Then he gave some smarty-pants answers to the questions. Finally, he took my legal advice not to answer any questions and shut up. Then I woke up.

Yes, it was a dream, a dream I had last night. It was one of those vivid dreams that require a few moments of stark reality before you can understand that it was just a dream. It’s always been fascinating to try to explain my dreams based on what’s going on in my life. This wasn’t too tough. These days there are people with no moral or legal authority conducting way too many “investigations.” Putin and the Russians have become part of our national psyche in a more pervasive way than they ever dreamed.  He’s moved into our heads (like he moved into a New York hotel in my dream.)

It seems many of us are having trouble separating the real from dreams. Lots of folks dreamed of the first woman president and it didn’t happen. They are in shock and have lost contact with reality.

To those with break-with-reality syndrome, be advised.

  1. Trump won by the same method that has been used since the establishment of our nation, the electoral college. If you don’t like it change it.
  2. Getting the most the popular vote, but not the most electors,  is like making the most yards in a football game but not running up the highest score. You lose.
  3. Our enemies have tried to hack us forever. They are getting better at it. We need to get better at securing ourselves.
  4. Someone with no political experience in public office is going to act differently from someone with such experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s what most of us have said we want. 
  5. The press is liberal. 
  6. The real folks are not.
  7. Congress is full of politicians.
  8. The real folks are not.
  9. Putin is a bad guy, but he’s not the only one. There are bad guys in Syria, North Korea, Iran and, oh yes, America. 
  10. Having the Presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, most of the governorships and state legislatures doesn’t mean you are in charge. I’m not sure why. 
  11. There are women out there who would be great Presidents. They aren’t named Hillary.

If I have another dream that straightens out any of the above or adds to the list, I will be sure to let you know. Don’t lose any sleep waiting for it.