Category Archives: Reaching others

Looking for answers in a world of tragedy and hatred

Every generation looks at the news and changing values around them and believes the end must be coming soon.  Each generation believes things are getting worse and it’s only a matter of time.  The early Christians felt there could be no greater evils than what they faced:  a corrupt Roman rule that sought to torture and execute them, feed them to lions for sport and drive them underground.  Every generation believes that things are so bad, Jesus must be coming back soon.

We see awful stories in the news that shock and outrage us.  School shootings, terrorist bombings, domestic violence, acts of discrimination and hatred, families torn apart and treating each other horribly.  We look from afar and judge and wonder how people could act such a way.

The Bible discusses the sinful condition of humans repeatedly.  It began with the original sin that ended utopia in Eden and brought brokenness to the world.  It continued with religious people that ridiculed, imprisoned and killed  God’s prophets, even mocking, torturing and killing the Son of God who brought the hopeful message of the Kingdom of God.  History has seen horrible dictators, genocide, murder, terrorism and evils that shock and sicken us.  In the Bible, Paul wrote the following phrases in his letter to the Romans:

“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23)

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom 7:18)

Writing about sinful people he said they will “invent ways of doing evil” (Rom 1:30)

It’s not all bad news.  Because we are made in God’s own image and likeness humans have the capacity to do good, but because of our sin we have the capacity to do evil.  Paul writes extensively about this dichotomy throughout Romans.  In chapter 7 he notes that he knows the good he should do and the evil he should avoid, but the good and evil inside him constantly do battle.

We all have that battle within us.  When things are going well, most of the time the good side wins.  We may fall into some sinful habits here and there but keep them in check.  Other times, we give into our darker side and allow ourselves to be tempted into sin.  At some points in our lives – and for some people most of their lives – we can become broken, worn out, depressed and decay deeper into sin.

We see awful stories in the news that shock and outrage us.  School shootings, terrorist bombings, domestic violence, acts of discrimination and hatred, families torn apart and treating each other horribly.  We look from afar and judge and wonder how people could act such a way.

And then we look in the mirror.  And we contemplate the hatred we have in our heart for someone that hurt us, the strained relationship with a person we’ve refused to speak to for a long time, the habit that no one knows about and we keep hidden in a dark place, or whatever sin is weighing heavily on our hearts.

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At the end of Romans chapter 7 Paul writes “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Now this is coming from a man who was an Apostle of the early church, who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament and did many great things for God.  To some people, this kind of writing dwells too much on the negative.  Many people just want to talk about happy thoughts and focus on the good things that humans do and are capable of.  And we should do that.  We should celebrate great human achievement, acts of love and kindness and unselfish behavior.  It’s true there is enough bad news out there, we need more positivity.

At the same time, when tragedy strikes or when we have those moments where we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom or are in a bad way, we need to realize the struggle within us.

Some would say we are getting more sinful each generation as morals change.  There are also ways that our morals improve by shedding off ignorant or judgmental attitudes of the past.  But at the same time, stories come along that remind us that for all of our progress, people are still broken and sinful people.

We will never conquer this ourselves.  We will never see peace, healing and love on our own.  Yes, humans are capable of it because of the imprint of God He’s put in us.  But real change comes from real change of heart, a change that only God can bring. In Romans chapter 7, Paul asked “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  And then he answered his own question:

“Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

People can put their faith, energy and hope in things like political candidates or parties, in social justice initiatives, in communities bound together by common interests and even deep love for each other…and those can be good things but ultimately lacking full potential without the answer Paul points us to:

“Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

We know that we will never see perfection this side of heaven.  There will always be sin, there will always be tragedy, there will always be people using their free will to commit crimes and horrible acts.  And if we’re honest with ourselves we realize we will always struggle with that same area of sin, we’ll gossip about someone behind their back from time to time, we’ll say something we don’t really mean, we’ll hurt people we love with our words or actions.  We aren’t perfect.  At the same time, we can do good.  We can help people, we can stand for truth and justice and help our communities.

We can do good things because our Creator made us in His image and likeness.  We can access the love and charity in our hearts and do good, even great things.  To truly combat evil, we’ll need more than what we’re able to achieve ourselves.  We’ll need a powerful ally.

“Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

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Scaring the hell out of the world

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Well-meaning Christians often use terminology that to non-believers sounds like extremism or radical fundamentalism.  You may have heard any of the following words or phrases in your church-going experience:

“Turn the world upside down”

“World-changers, Planet-shakers”

Military metaphors like “Take the world from the enemy” or

“Enlist in God’s army”

“Set the world on fire”

These things sound like chaos, destruction, warfare or religious and can make people actually concerned.  Religion is already associated enough with war, control, greed, the crusades, terrorism and other things that terms like the above can elicit in those we are trying to reach.

I know people mean well when they say things like this.  When they talk about being radical, they mean to be counter-culture with things like love, forgiveness and grace.   Christians may want to “set the world on fire” with the loving message of God’s saving grace.  We may intend to “turn the world upside down” by seeing people turn from sin and live for God.  But that may not be how people hear it.  May I suggest that the world needs to hear the church talk more about hope, healing, encouragement, love and grace.  Perhaps we could talk more about reaching the poor, hurting and lonely people who need some positivity.  Just a thought.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogue for the first time as an adult (Luke 4:16-19) he read from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now let’s look at the words and phrases Jesus used to change the world:

Spirit

good news

freedom

recovery

set the oppressed free

favor

People need to hear a message of positivity, love, encouragement, healing and forgiveness.  They need The Good News.  The world suffers enough from natural disasters, disease, tragedy, wars, terrorism, poverty, social injustice and a host of other problems.  In my opinion, there’s enough chaos.  We could try to change our words and actions to bring healing, love and hope.

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What did Jesus really say about judging others?

There are a few Bible stories or passages that just about everyone seems to know, whether they are religious or not.  And whenever the subject of morality comes up, you’ll hear people note that Jesus said not to judge others.  They even know where it is, in Matthew chapter 7.  This is everyone’s favorite Bible verse when any attention is given to something they are doing wrong.  Some might say phrases like “Jesus didn’t judge” or “Jesus said not to judge others.”  Others point out the difference between accepting people for who they are, and letting them stay that way.  They say Jesus held people to a moral standard and told them “go and sin no more.”

Often with issues like this, people tend to fall into extremes:  too accepting or too hypocritical. But how should we handle moral behavior?  Should there be any accountability?  Should we really sit back and let people do what they want so no one can accuse us of judging?

What did Jesus really say about judging others?  The verse people most often reference comes from Matthew 7:1-5:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

First, it’s important to realize the setting and context:  Jesus was speaking to a mostly Jewish crowd who knew the laws of their religion very well.  He wasn’t speaking to non-religious people.  The people were often under the oppression of pious religious leaders who seemed to be more focused on recording wrongs instead of changing hearts; handing out guilt instead of grace.  Sadly, this happens in any religious organization in any generation.  Many scholars and commentaries discuss this as an issue of having compassion on others and realizing that we all sin.  Not that we excuse or allow sin, but that we not treat people harshly for their sin because if we look at our own lives we will find our own sin to deal with.

Second, Jesus actually does tell us to hold other believers accountable.  Let’s look at Matthew 18:15-17.  Here, Jesus tells us what to do when someone is in sin:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Jesus tells us how to confront a brother or sister in sin to hold them accountable.  And when you look at the context, in both passages Jesus was talking about dealing with fellow religious people.  We need to realize that people who are not Christians, who have not had their hearts changed by an encounter with Jesus, shouldn’t be expected to follow Biblical morality.  We only make ourselves look like jerks and hypocrites when we point fingers and judge people outside the Church.  Why should they be expected to follow any moral code they don’t believe in?  Our job is to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and when people find God’s grace He will then begin to change their hearts.  We also need to be focused on removing the plank from our own eyes before we harp on the splinter in someone else’s eye.

God shows us mercy and grace every day.  The Bible says that we are all sinners, and even the great Apostle Paul realized his need to die daily to his sin.  It is with that measure of receiving grace that we should package our dealings with others.  Those outside the church, we can’t throw fiery darts at them about their behavior.  We need to show them the love and grace of God.  Those in the church, we do need to hold accountable but our hearts need to be ruled by love, mercy and forgiveness.  With the same measure we’re judged by God, that is how we should judge others.  Stop and think for a moment how God treats us despite all of our sins and shortcomings.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I can’t see very well; I have a few planks to remove from my eye.


For argument’s sake…

Remember the Bible verse (John 13:35) where Jesus said to His disciples “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you debate everyone and win the argument.”?

Or in 1 Peter 3:15 where Peter wrote: “Always be prepared to argue with everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.   And make sure to do this with abrasiveness and smugness.”?

In case you need me to spell it out (hopefully not), in the above verses I replaced love, gentleness and respect with arguing, abrasiveness and smugness.  Feel free to be a good Berean and look up those verses to see how they should read (and while you’re at it, you may need to look up what a Berean is).

Apologetics are important and the Church has often been ill equipped to debate, philosophize and handle logical arguments but we have to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing away from love, gentleness and respect.  We have to remember that our fellow humans that happen to not share our faith in Christ are also children of God.  They are not the enemy.

No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument.”  – Phillip Yancey, author of Rumors of Another World.

It’s easy to get sucked into debates and arguments and feel the need to defend the faith.  But it can also easily get pretty heated and even make us angry.  One thing we need to remember is that God, religion, Christanity, the Bible…they’ve been through the ringer before and made it through.

I confess that I can get sucked into arguing or feeling the need to debate.  I have to step back and think about how I am portraying Christ.  The internet and social media make it way too easy.  When you read the comments sections on youtube or below articles and blogs you see some surprising things and that is often due to anonymity.  On a site like Facebook or Twitter however, you are posting with friends, or friends of your friends.  As the Church, we need to think about how we are portraying our faith to others.  I realized this last week when a friend of mine who is a Christian made a comment and my reply was taken the wrong way by a friend of that friend who was a non-believer.  I then clarified and translated my “Christian-ese” language so the person didn’t misunderstand me.

Whether online or in-person (or with the chance of being overheard) we should seek to present Christ to the world in love, and with gentleness and respect.  We are the salt of the earth, the lamp on a stand, His ambassadors.  Paul even wrote we are “the aroma of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:14-17)  What kind of aroma are we giving off to the world?

What should we do then?  I have some suggestions:

1. Watch the documentary Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.  You might find it streaming on Netflix or other means.  Dan Merchant has done a masterful job presenting the problem and showing how the world views Christians and gives us a lot to think and pray about.

2. Listen.  Listen and hear their heart, their pain, the baggage oppressive or abusive religion has given them.  Most important: listen for the parts of their soul that are longing for God.  I promise you when you listen you’ll hear it.

3. Take the high road.  Confess that you at times have been guilty of being hypocritical or judgmental and admit that no one is perfect.  Apologize on behalf of the Church that anyone has ever felt hurt or offended.  That’s not the message of the Gospel.  Try to engage in peaceful, civil discussions.  You may not convert someone to the faith, but you can disarm them and help them see not all Christians are jerks which alone would be a win.

4. Present a loving Christ who cares about all His people and wants to ease pain and suffering, provide comfort, meet needs and introduce people to the love of the Father.  Obviously, Jesus didn’t condone sin either.  He held people to moral standards and told them to go and sin no more.  But He did it after earning the right by showing them love, meeting their needs and winning them over.

We don’t need to “win” the argument or be “right” but we do need to be good ambassadors for the love of Christ.


Summer Story Series Closes: A Legacy of Faithfulness

My dad once told me about a co-worker in his twenties who approached him (then in his late fifties) and said to him “There’s something different about you.  You don’t seem to ever get angry or curse, you’re always nice and honest and respectful to everyone.  What is it about you?”  My dad then had a wide open opportunity to talk about his faith in God and how Jesus had changed him.  He gave the young man a bible and invited him to a lunchtime bible study that he started with some other Christians at his office.

My dad’s life was filled with stories of impacting and encouraging others.

Four years ago I stood in a receiving line at my father’s funeral and was in awe at the number of people that showed up.  My parents had retired and moved from Pennsylvania to coastal North Carolina.  Many people from up north couldn’t make the trip and yet there were still hundreds of people in attendance.  The stories and comments we heard showed us how much my dad had influenced and touched the lives of those around him.  It was the evidence of a life lived with faithfulness, respect and integrity.

One woman shook my hand and smiled, “Your father always brightened up my day.  I’m a widow and get lonely sometimes and he would ride his bike through the neighborhood and stop by to say hello.  He’d tell me a silly joke to make me laugh.  He may have only stopped for a few minutes, but it made a difference.”

One relative with a family of his own shared that he learned how to be a faithful husband and father from observing my dad.  A long-time friend and colleague of his was in tears and trembling, telling my brothers and I that “your dad was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.”  I stood speechless and just cried.


 When we talk about what it means to be successful in this world, we often debate career success over enjoying time with family.  Somehow, my dad was able to have both.  He was never wealthy but managed to work his way up the corporate ladder while still being a family man and maintaining his integrity.  He didn’t lie or cheat or deceive to get ahead and was known for his honesty and solid business practices.

He didn’t grow up with a father himself, and during high school he took a job in the mail room of a large corporation to help support his mother and younger sister.  After high school he kept working  while taking college courses at night.  Over the next couple decades, he went from the mail room to the executive suite…and never missed a family meal and was always around to help us with our homework.  My dad had vowed to be there for his kids because his own father wasn’t.

He loved sports, and not just the way most people enjoy it as a hobby or escape.  It was an opportunity to be a part of a community, to share in teamwork and achievement.  He had to sacrifice playing sports in high school since he was working.  So when had had his own kids, he poured his passion into volunteering to coach.  Having three boys who were all active in multiple sports, my parents’ schedules were pretty much dominated by practices and games, and they never missed one.

As if that wasn’t enough, he managed to find time for other kids as well.  Some parents were not as dedicated or involved in their children’s lives and for those kids, my dad became the closest thing some of them had to a father.  He would purposely volunteer to coach the “B” teams: the less talented and often over looked kids.  His motto was “everyone plays.”  He made sure every kid got playing time no matter how bad they were, and built them up and encouraged them in their efforts.  He even managed to fill up the trophy case a few times.

The mainstay of his spiritual life was a love for the Bible and hearing good preaching.  He always had a kind and encouraging word for others.  He often found himself as a shoulder for others to lean on and even pastors confided in him.  My dad was humble, at peace with his walk with God and at the end of his life had no regrets.  He left us an incredible legacy of faithfulness and inspiration to follow in his steps.

I often think about the stories that were shared at his funeral.  He never stood before a crowd and preached a sermon or lead a congregation in song.  He didn’t travel to other countries on missions trips and when he gave his time to the church and community, it wasn’t for attention or praise.  He left a legacy of lives who were touched by his words, his actions and his heart.   And I know that when he met face to face with his Maker, he heard the words from Matthew 25:21 that every child of God longs to hear.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”


Summer Story Series: “I want to be saved!”

I once had a co-worker rush up to me as soon as I walked in the door, get in my face and say “I want to be saved!  Tell me how, I don’t want to go to hell!” 

 

I was working at a golf course inPennsylvania for the summer and one day got talking with a girl in the pro shop on a slow day when there weren’t many golfers and no one else was working.  I honestly don’t remember her name but I’ll call her Brenda.  We were just making small talk when she brought up some recent pain and suffering she had gone through, between a death in the family and some tragedy her family members suffered.  She shared that she consulted a psychic and tarot card reader and that she was very spiritual.  I shared some thoughts with her about my faith in God and how we can deal with suffering.  She was open and wanted to hear more. 

 Earlier that day, I had sent out a golfer who after chatting with him found out he was a pastor.  So when he was done with his rounds, he walked into the pro shop at just the right time.  I introduced him to Brenda and the two of us shared our faith in Christ.  No one else entered the pro shop; God put this together perfectly.  I wanted to be sure neither of us were forcing anything on Brenda.  She was open to hearing about Jesus and wanted to hear more.  The pastor’s words cut to her heart and she began to cry.  We prayed with her right then and there to be saved and become a follower of Jesus.  The pastor had to go, but I continued talking with her about getting connected to a church, getting a Bible, etc.  I had to get back to work and we left it at that for the day.

 The next day when I walked into the pro shop, Brenda was there again and before we could even finish saying hello, her friend and co-worker Jaime came from the storage room and rushed up to me.  “I want to be saved!  Tell me how, I don’t want to go to hell!”  She was dead serious.  After her first encounter with Jesus, Brenda had immediately started telling people.  Jaime heard and also wanted to be saved.  I talked to her about the basics of the gospel and prayed with her to accept Christ. 

 I spent the last few weeks there talking with them about God and trying to disciple them.  They started going to a church Brenda had attended as a child.  I still think about them sometimes, how incredible it was to see someone storm through the door, desperate to hear about Jesus.


Your testimony doesn’t need to be “colorful” or “interesting.”

I once heard a youth evangelist talk about his earlier preaching days when he would share his testimony at almost every speaking event.  He grew up in church, but strayed during his late teen and college years and got into drinking, drugs, sex and partying all the time.  He would recount all the gory details of hitting rock bottom.  He admitted to us that through telling his testimony over and over, the details were almost glorified and he was tempted to go back to his sinful lifestyle.

Many people spend 95% of their testimony giving us all the juicy details, and then rush the end:  “Then I came to church and found God and I don’t do those things anymore.”  The end.  The specifics of our story are useful to connect and relate with others, but we have to make sure the focus of the testimony is on God, not our sin.

Aside from the details, everyone’s testimony is the same:  we are sinners who were lost until we came to Jesus.  The Gospel isn’t about the list of sins we committed B.C. (Before Christ).  The Gospel is The Good News — about Jesus, not us.   Our testimony is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)  Obviously, when we tell our story we’re going to share our past.  It’s a part of who we are, where we came from and things that have shaped our lives.  But I’ve seen far too many testimonies that drone on about all the horrible things from their past, and then not have much to say about Jesus and their new life.  Many people also present it in a very depressing way, recounting how ugly sin is but not matching that intensity with the joy and peace found in Christ.

Early in my Christian life while hanging out with friends, my friend Sam and I were talking about our past and being thankful we found Jesus.  One girl in the group seemed down, and said that she had a boring testimony because she grew up in church and hasn’t “lived in the world.”  I told her that she does have a powerful testimony: of faithfulness.  I  would see solid Christians and doubt that I could ever be that strong a believer.  I had people telling me it was a fad that would pass, that I would slip up or that my faith wouldn’t last.  But seeing a Christian like her gave me hope and encouragement that I can walk with God and have a lasting faith as well.  She picked her head up with tears welling up in her eyes and a smile on her face and thanked me.

Sharing specifics can be helpful to connect with someone who may be in a similar situation, but the main focus should be on the powerful, life-changing encounter we’ve had with Christ, and how our lives are different because of Him.  The growth in our spiritual lives, attitudes, relationships, and other aspects of life are just as important as the rugged path to get here.  I was once lost, but now I am found. I was blind, but now I can see.  I was dead, but am alive again in Christ.


Beauty among brokenness

Some friends and I visited St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans recently, and we found a lot of great photo opportunities.  I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this:  among all the gray stone and decay (which in itself was beautiful), this bright blue statue of Mary stood out.

It made me think of hope when it seems like we are surrounded by despair.

That in the midst of suffering, failure, loneliness or other trials…we are still God’s greatest creation, made in His image.  And we reflect His love.

That in a world that is broken and in need of hope, we can let our light shine so that others might see and glorify God (Matthew 5:16).

Church, as we look in the mirror, we may not always like what we see in ourselves and around us.  But we have been forgiven, cleansed, anointed and called.  And the world needs us to stand among them and show them the beauty of the Gospel.


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