Monday, September 21, 2020

Children of God

A preacher met an old man in a restaurant.  It was a normal kind of meeting since preachers like to eat and talk.  The two men struck up a conversation and they talked awhile.  On into the discussion the old man asked, "What do you do?"  "I'm a Christian minister," the pastor replied.  The old man said, "I owe a lot to a man of that profession."  

When the old man was a kid he had been born out of wedlock and his father had run away before he was born.  As he grew up he had learned to hate one question, "Who is your father?," since he didn't know the answer.  The bitterness in his heart, the anger in his mind and the emptiness in his soul had sparked quite a few fights and arguments as he grew older.  "Whose child are you?" became a reason to hate, fight and distance himself from other people.  His mother was a church goer and he endured the usual church life in the south.  One day the church got a new pastor and he prepared for the inevitable.  Sure enough, as he tried to leave the church before the pastor could get to the back door, he felt that hand on his little head and the preacher asked, "Who is your father?"  Then, after a pause that seemed eons, the insightful preacher said, "I know whose child you are!  You are a child of God!  I see a striking resemblance!"  That little boy's life was changed that day, and he went on to be elected twice as Governor of Tennessee."  It was all because he finally realized whose child he was!

Paul spoke truth to the Galatians who had been told they could not become children of God's promise unless they followed the customs and law of the Jews.  Paul writes, "So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-27)."  Paul is saying, "I know whose child you are. You are children of God."

September is recovery month.  Really, each month and each day is recovery time, because recovery is something that is constant and ever-present.  This week we will be blessed by a cardboard testimony from our Celebrate Recovery brothers and sisters.  There won't be lots of speaking, but there WILL be lots of substance.  You will meet people who have spent much of their life being told they are misfits, defective, ne're-do-wells and flawed.  There are two errors in this thought process.  First, these folks are not the outliers ... they are the norm.  I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have a hurt, habit or hang-up they need to face and (with God's grace) correct.  Second, all of these people are children of the Living God!  For "in Christ we are all children of God through faith ... there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female" and we could add black or white, liberal or conservative ... you get the point!  We are all God's kids ... so let's all go and claim our eternal inheritance, and stop arguing about whose inheritance is bigger, better or more valid.  Let's keep to remembering our Father loves all of His children, and let God sort out the things above our pay grade.  Randy

Monday, September 14, 2020

Dead or Alive?

In Galatians 2, Paul makes a bold statement about law and grace and life and death.  Paul's concern is simple.  If the law (the Torah and the Talmud) could save anyone, there was no reason for Jesus to die.  His message to the Galatians is ... "if you keep returning to the law, seeking to meet its requirements, you will be condemned by the law."  Paul says, "I died to the law!" (v. 19b).  "So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.  I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless." (v. 20-21)

Three issues here.  First, are you just existing, dead in the law?  Let's all be honest.  If we are living under the law of Moses and the Talmud (legal requirements) of the Jews, we are all guilty and worthy of the justice of death.  I hear people say, "I'm an Old Testament Christian!"  Sadly, there is no such thing, for Jesus said "I have come to fulfill the law (He took our sins upon the cross)."  He said, "I give you a New Covenant by water and the Spirit."  Jesus brings life abundant.  Jesus brings us newness of life.  We are full-Bible Christians who should learn to see the pre-Jesus Bible as preparation for the life, death, resurrection, newness and return of Christ.  Our part of this story is to die to the law, ourselves and our sin, so that we may do what Paul preaches ... "live for God" (v:19).

Second, is Christ alive in you?  Galatians, Chapter 2 is about how Christ lives through us.  Lately I have heard people (I think as an excuse for their nastiness) say things like, "Jesus didn't come so we would be good ... He came to save us."  While, on the surface, this is true, Paul reminds us that we carry in us (in our brokenness) a treasure placed there by Jesus (2 Cor. 4:7).  While Jesus didn't save me because I was good or to become a good person who keeps the law, I rather think Jesus living in me should produce goodness (one of the fruits of the Spirit).  Paul's rant about Peter in Galatians Chapter 2 reminds us that if God lives in us, if Christ dwells in us then we express the life of Christ to the world.  My challenge to those who try to defend nasty attitudes by claiming Jesus didn't "save them to be good," is this ... defend that position when Jesus prayed for unity in His last prayer ... defend that position when Paul (Gal. 5) describes the fruit borne of Christ-filled, Spirit-filled people as goodness, kindness, love, joy, peace, faithfulness, patience and self-control ... defend that position when 1 John 2:7 given us the new commandment to love one another ... defend that position when Jesus said, "I am giving you a new commandment ... to love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34).  Please do not delude yourself or those you claim to lead by this false and dangerous teaching!

Lastly, realize we (Christians) represent our leader, Jesus.  When I was confronted by 4 thugs, one with a visible gun in his pocket, and he asked me who was the leader of our church, I answered, "I am the preacher but our leader is Jesus."  He considered this and asked me about coming to service.  When I made this same statement to a friend recently, he looked at me like I had 2 heads.  Martin Luther King rightly preached that negativity breeds negativity and darkness breeds more darkness.  We have enough of that stuff going on around us.  1 Thessalonians 5:5 reminds us "You are the children of the light.  We are not of the night but are of the day."  So ... my charge to you ... my prayer to God ... my "telling the truth in love" is this.  If you are alive in Christ, and Christ, as with Paul, lives in you (v:20), then represent ... re-present the Jesus who saved you, who loves you and who wants you to do good in the world because He has chosen you and you have chosen Him.  That's all, my fellow children of light!  Randy

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Liberty of Grace

Galatians is a book about 1) Paul's authority to preach, 2) the insidiousness of false gospel teachings and 3) grace.  Paul says stay away from false gospels and false teachers, follow those whose teaching flows from Jesus and honors God and focus on grace as a foundation for life.  One of my friends loved to say that justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve and grace is getting something wonderful we, in no way, deserve.  I like that.  So today let's talk about grace and the things that oppose grace.

Paul says legalism ignores grace.  Legalism led Paul to react to Christianity by putting down this Christ-centered nonsense.  Paul's mantra was "follow the law and align yourself with its principles."  That teaching led Paul, according to Jesus, to persecute Him.  "Paul, why do you push against Me?" Jesus asked.  I want to ask today's reactionary legalists that same question.  Do we really all want when we deserve?  Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind!"  Paul reminds us in Romans 12:17, "Never repay evil for evil."  I could go on with many Biblical instructions regarding this, but I hope you get the point.  Legalism leads to conflict, persecution and becoming enslaved to the very law you say you uphold.  I find it interesting that in today's world legalism has a solid foothold in ideologies that claim tolerance and ideologies that desire for everyone to get what they deserve.  Try saying something politically incorrect (either too conservative in a liberal region or too liberal in a conservative region) and see what happens.  You will be crushed!  Legalism isn't our way, Paul says.

There is another extreme.  It is license.  Everything goes.  In 1 Cor. 10:23. Paul says, "Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is constructive."  Wesley struggled with this theme of living life.  He battled antinomianism.  If you parse the word it means, "against the law."  The antinomianists were caught up in the theology of election, and since the elect and the reprobate were "pre-determined" they believed that they had license to do whatever they wanted.  The result was moral and societal chaos with a dash of anarchy.  Since everyone basically did as they pleased, evil, self-centeredness and chaos thrived.  Sound familiar?  Read Judges 19-21.  It begins, "In those days Israel had no king."  It ends (21:25) with "In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes."  Between those verses we see cultural decay.  There is dismemberment of bodies, a myriad of sexual sins, civil war that claims almost 100,000 men and anarchy.  It is God's way of warning us about the devastating effects of license.  When there is no standard, there is social, political, theological anarchy.  That is not the Church Paul is planting, nurturing and promoting.

Then, there is liberty.  The liberty flows from the grace of Jesus (1:12-24) and is by the divine revelation of Jesus.  That grace is affirmed by the leadership of the Church (2:1-10) and is part of who we are and what we do.  That grace is founded on the love taught to us by Jesus Christ when He reminded us that His greatest commandment is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as our self.  It is a grace that looks to the good of others ... not to our rights or our own desires.  It is grace Jesus taught the disciples when He told them that His leaders would not lord over others but would serve others.  It is the grace of our nature as Christ-followers who profess the message that we are no longer slaves (Gal. Chapter 5) to sin, the law or societal pressure.  Unlike the people of Judges 19-21, there is a King in our land.  His name is Jesus.  His law is the law of love that leads us.  His grace leads us to do things that lift up people, heal blindness and edify the Church that He has called His bride.  We are neither slaves to the law or bound by the human desires of license.  We have liberty, freedom and life from Jesus who is our King of Kings.  We could do as we please ... but we choose Christ, who writes our story and is perfecting us with sanctifying grace.  Thanks be to God!  Randy

Monday, August 31, 2020

From Christ, Toward God

Over the past week I have had several theological discussions with folks from AUMC and people from other places.  In those conversations it was very easy to find reasons to pigeonhole people, preachers and even music into our categories of good, bad and indifferent.  I have a tendency to do this very thing.  It sometimes helps me to sort out theology that is not in keeping with the life, word and work of Jesus.  But sometimes I can "throw the baby out with the bathwater," so to speak.  All of this is treacherous ground.  On one hand, I want to make sure that we are within Christian orthodoxy.  On the other hand, I love lyrics and music that honestly examine our relationship with God and praise all of His works ... not just those I like.

In Galatians 1 Paul gives a good guide of how to sort out the good from the bad.  He sums it up in 2 statements.  The first is from Chapter 1, verse 12.  Paul reminds the Galatians that his preaching and authority to preach do not come from a human source ...  "I received it from direct revelation from Jesus Christ!"  While Paul is reminding the Galatians of his apostolic authority and source, it is a reminder to me that my preaching and teaching must come from the Scriptures given to me (and us) by the revelation of the Holy Spirit.  Be very concerned if you hear of preachers, teachers and denominations that say they have special revelation beyond God's Holy Word.  Likewise, be careful that your beliefs accept all of the Scriptures ... not just the ones you particularly like.  Our belief structure comes from God.  It is one reason we say the creed.  The creed reminds us that there is an umbrella of Holy Spirit revelation under which our theology must fall.

The second statement is from Chapter 1, verse 24.  Paul reminds the Galatians that because of his preaching, teaching and witness, people praised God.  This is vital to our belief structure!  We have a very human habit of loving things like charisma, flashiness, sword rattling (a guy thing), brashness, prosperity-promises and me-focused theology.  Paul exhorts the Galatians and us in his final statement of the chapter ... "they praised God because of me!"  Paul is not placing himself on a pedestal.  Paul is reminding them (and us) of the point of teaching, preaching, theology and even my daily grind.  It is to praise God and to point to God.

This thought process came about because of several discussions (and some internal pondering of my own) about denominational and musical theology.  It IS truly important.  But Paul's 2 points cause me to ask 2 questions about what I teach, what we sing and what we can all say we believe.  Does it (the teaching, preaching, singing) flow from Christ?  Does it also point to God?  Great questions to ponder.  And before you "throw out the baby with the bathwater" this question happened very early in the Church when priests were found to be sinful.  Some wanted to say that the sacraments administered by those priests (baptism, communion, etc.) were not valid.  The early Church decided that the sacrament was sacred, not because of the priest, but because of the presence of God.  Good call, early Church!  Maybe what we should do is ask, about theology, music and preaching ... is it from Scripture?  Does it point to God?  That's what Paul told the Galatians.  Randy

Monday, August 24, 2020

Other Gospels

Over the next few weeks, we will travel through the book of Galatians.  Paul writes this book relatively early in his ministry.  He is clarifying both his calling, his authority to write and the centrality of the one true Gospel.  I hope it will be fun for all of us ... but I get to have the most fun ... I get to study and prepare!

This Sunday we will look at Chapter 1 of Galatians.  In this Chapter Paul affirms his apostolic credentials and provides a clear purpose for the epistle.  One of Paul's major concerns is that the Galatians have been swift to follow other gospels.  Paul writes ... "You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News! (Gal. 1:6)."  As I read this I couldn't help but think about the day in which we live and what Paul would say to us.  There is the prosperity gospel that tells us that God's purpose is to make us prosperous.  There is the liberation gospel that tells us that God is always for the causes of social justice (by OUR definition).  There is the warrior gospel that leads us to fight everything (including each other).  There is the angry gospel that says all of our infirmity is God's punishment of a wayward world.  There is the conspiracy gospel that points us to conclude that we are definitely in the end times and that government, opposing political parties, other groups of Christians and other ethnic groups are methodically conspiring to destroy the planet.  There is the environmental gospel that recoils at any of us who think economics might be a valid consideration in decision making.  There is the socialist gospel, the LGBTQ gospel and the legalistic gospel.  And my list doesn't even include our denominational differences!  Paul's message to the Galatians is spot-on for our world today!

So ... here we go!  Paul reminds us that when we preface the Gospel with anything but Jesus and Jesus crucified, we make it gospel-light at best (note I didn't capitalize the g).  In our walk through Galatia I am hoping we can clarify the Gospel and amplify the message of Jesus.  As Paul says in Chapter 1, verse 6, the one true Gospel comes through "direct revelation from Jesus Christ."

This week we can do 2 things.  First, we can watch for how we are being taught by a myriad of sources to connect human goals with Gospel truth.  Don't buy in!  God's word is all about leading (and being led) to God's place, God's truth and God's way.  Second, we can transcend the mire of messages that lead us astray and see the truth of a Gospel that confronts, convicts and converts (that involves change folks).  In a song by Susan Ashton called You Move Me she sings, "I can't go with You and stay where I am ... so You move me."  If your gospel affirms your personal desires/feelings and doesn't challenge you to be better, you are probably following one of those "other gospels" Paul is speaking of.  Let's look at them together and find joy, challenge and life in the journey!  Randy

Monday, August 17, 2020

Call Back

I had a harrowing experience last week.  Each year I have a stress test to make sure all heart-related things are in good working order.  I did my prep and took the test as scheduled.  On my way back from Crestview (the doctor's office is there) to Freeport I was driving on the interstate, minding my own business, and I got a call from Crestview.  I answered the call and the stress-test technician says that there were issues and could I come back to Crestview.  I, of course, complied.  On my trip back I thought of what this could mean and was dreaming of all possible worst-case-scenarios.  I asked, "Why would they call unless something was horribly wrong?"  When I got there the technician said, "Oh ... nothing wrong with you ... the imaging machine had some glitches."  Why didn't he tell me earlier?

As I played back this situation, I had a thought.  What if God gave me a call back?  What if God said ... "I need you to come back so I can take some pictures of your heart.  There are a few glitches that need working-out!"

This thought brings two passages to mind.  The 1st is Psalm 139:23-24 ... "Search me and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting."  I wonder if God is giving a call back to His Church.  Can we ask David's sincere questions?  Are we willing to ask God to search ... test ... lead us?  I believe, for sure, we need this as individuals, as a Church, as a nation and as the body of Christ in the world.  We need a heart check and we need God to lead us out of our inability to see and follow His purpose (not MY purpose).

The second passage is Galatians 5:22-23.  If we have a heart check, what is a Christian heart supposed to look like?  Paul tells us ... "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives ... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."  That is what a God-led heart is to look like.  I think if God took a good look at me, He might say what the captain in Cool Hand Luke said to Paul Newman ... "What we have here is failure to communicate!"  I read, I sing, I enjoy listening to others talk about God's word ... but do I love God's word so much I ask God to change my heart ... change my way of looking at things ... change me to conform to God's will and way?

What about you?  What would God say if He called you back for a heart re-check?  Randy

Monday, August 10, 2020

Hostages

In his version of Matthew 20:24-28, Eugene Peterson's "The Message" talks about leading by humility in an interesting way.  He speaks of leadership in terms of humility, serving and (by living in this attitude) freeing those who are hostages.  Here's what he writes ... "When the ten others heard about this, they lost their tempers, thoroughly disgusted with the two brothers. So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage (Matthew 20:24-28, The Message)."  There are many curious facets to this passage ... let's explore.

The first point of this passage is to describe leadership differently that the world describes leadership.  I am guilty of using my earthly leadership mentors such as John Maxwell, Peter Drucker and Peter Senge.  All of these men are learned, wise and well-founded in their leadership styles.  All talk of humility in a positive sense.  But Matthew talks of a kind of humility we don't often see.  Matthew writes that Jesus, our model of leadership, came to 1) serve, 2) exchange His life for many, 3) free those who are hostages.

We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, caught up in the politics of the upcoming election.  I won't dwell here because I try to offer Church as a refuge from this somewhat seamy business.  I suppose what we see unfolding has a place, but I wonder about how easily I see us throw Jesus' words out the window to express the virtues of our political persuasion.  I hear people say our leaders should be decisive, reactive, powerful, willing to be quick to use authority.  You have probably heard these things.  Then, Jesus describes leaders as servants, giving away life for others and focused on freeing hostages.  There seems to be a disconnect between Jesus' views and our views.  Which of us do you think needs to adjust their view here?

So, the passage.  The first point is that Christians ... followers of Jesus ... serve.  It is not optional behavior.  The entire idea of leading people to Christ is the idea of leading/influencing them to follow this person called Jesus.  Jesus says that to do this kind of leading, we serve.  It is a humble calling.  Yet, we seem to seek leaders who are aggressive and reactive.  Jesus specifically (various versions use different wording) says worldly leaders "throw their weight around," "Lord over others," and are decisively reactive.  Maybe we should read and follow Scripture here and seek servant leaders in churches, localities, states and nations.  Remember that Jesus is saying, follow me and serve.

The second point of leadership in Matthew 20 is the idea that leadership is sacrificial.  C. S. Lewis expressed this well when he talked about humility.  He said, "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself ... it's thinking of yourself less."  To be and lead in a sacrificial way, one must value others.  We are in a national argument about whose lives matter.  In Matthew 20, Jesus puts this argument to bed.  All people created by God matter, and if we believe (truly) that God created the heavens, earth and people, we must believe in all of those lives.  In the song, "So Will I" the writer says, "I can see Your heart 8 billion different ways, every precious one a child You died to save."  8 billion people on the planet.  "Red and yellow, black and white ... all are precious in His sight!"  Mothers, fathers, unborn babies, police, protesters, preachers, prostitutes, politicians, voters ... do you get the point here?  Jesus gave His life for all of these folks.  The writer of the song says ... "If you gave Your life to love them, so will I."

And, the last point, hostages.  That's what Peterson calls people who are in this world, but are being held by the terrorism of death, fear and self.  Jesus gave His life for these people ... so will I.  And I will do this in the unpopularity of viewing all of those people (above) as being God's possession.  I can't remember who told me this, but I believe it was a great lesson in viewing people and considering leadership ... "You can demonize behavior, but be very careful not to demonize people ... for when we demonize people, we run the risk of demonizing the part of that person God might be using for His purposes."  Maybe, we should lead by serving ... sacrificing time and life to save others ... becoming agents of releasing those who are hostage to fear, death and self.

I hope this blog helps you in preparing for what will be a contentious season.  Maybe you will choose to see people differently.  Maybe you will think about how God is grieved when we decide whose life matters and whose does not.  Maybe it will let you join with the task of serving, sacrificing and releasing the hostages.  Maybe you will see God's "heart 8 billion different ways ... every precious one a child You died to save. If you gave Your life to love them, so will I."