Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Deck or the Lifeboat?

I was in a church networking meeting today, and we were discussing a ministry for young homeless women getting temporary shelter, and their struggle to find enough finances to begin their necessary work.  I was listening to pastor after pastor talk about how there just isn’t enough time to focus on a ministry like this, and finally I spoke my heart:

“As a group, we don’t seem to have many resources.  We don’t have a megachurch in our midst that can float a ministry like this on their own.  But the budget isn’t excessive, and all that would be required is for each of the churches who have some financial stability to welcome the director and let her speak to her need for five minutes.  You don’t have to be a partner, but ownership in a ministry like this requires more than being a cheerleader.”

A pastor mentioned that many ministries are asking for help.

The network leader prayed at the end, “May we not use our passion to force other passions out.”

Other passions?  Like perhaps the passion of having prayer groups?  Or the passion of having group praise?  Or the passion of giving our pastor a upper middle class lifestyle?  Praise is essential, as is prayer.  Our pastors deserve to know that they are respected and that their needs are met.

When Jesus came to earth, his ministry was focused on two things: preaching the gospel and saving lives.  His teaching was essential, but the rest of his time was spent feeding the hungry, healing the sick, delivering the mentally ill, and allowing people to practically feel God’s welcome and forgiveness.

For the most part, our church finances are spend re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  We may hear the people screaming, drowning, but we don’t consider that our business.  We need to spend our time and money on better worship.  We need to set up an event and activities to draw in the youth.  We need bigger, nicer facilities to draw more people in.  We need to get more involved in politics to set our nation on the right course. We need more time to do denominational activities, to calm down the family who wasn’t listened to in the last board meeting.

Rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

We need to stop thinking that the place to be is on the deck, arranging worship as we all sink.  If we aren’t in the lifeboat, then we need to stop thinking that we are in ministry at all.   If we aren’t saving people from drowning, then why did God put us on the Titanic at all?

And when I am saying “saving” I am not meaning this as a symbol of convincing people of our tired doctrine.  I mean saving lives.  Delivering people from death.

  • Branice is a nineteen year old who had been on the street throughout her high school years.  Just before her eighteenth birthday, she got pregnant by a homeless man whom she had loved for years.  Branice was still using meth and marijuana well into her pregnancy, given to her by her boyfriend, well into her pregnancy.  Finally, winter came and as a church we decided that something desperate needed to be done.  I obtained some temporary housing for her, and I sat down and talked with her about her future. That she would probably lose her baby at the moment of birth unless she makes some serious changes.  A couple agreed to house her through the winter until the baby came, and she agreed to contact agencies until she had a plan for her life with her baby.  The couple also agreed to adopt the baby if the state refused to let her keep the baby, an open adoption so that she could visit her child.

Today, the baby is healthy and adorable, living with her mom, Branice who is nine months clean and sober, through treatment, going to groups, and looking for work.  Her boyfriend moved on, and she demands that if he sees his baby at all, it is only when he is sober.  She has been transformed.  It didn’t take much. Just some encouragement, and some housing, and some money. 

  • Tom was living on the street with his blood pressure so high that the doctors wondered how he was still alive.  The church offered housing and work so he could live in peace.  He praises the Lord every day for his new life.

  • Mark was a drug user and dealer until a member of the church allowed him to sleep in their backyard and he finally got himself straight and now leads the landscaping crew at the church.

The church should be a lifeboat.  It should save lives.  If all we are is a show, we should shut down.

What does this have to do with passion? 

If our passion is about the show, about keeping rules, about new songs, about camps and retreats, let’s just pack it in.  We are not a ministry.  If we are not rescuing the dying, if we are not saving lives—literally saving lives—then we aren’t fulfilling the ministry of Jesus.  Letting people die around us, as they call us begging us for help, that is not of Christ.

Our passions should be prioritized.  Saving lives comes first.

“Rescue those being led away to death;

Hold back those who stagger to slaughter;
If we say, ‘We didn’t know!’
Does not He know it who weighs the hearts?”
Proverbs 24:11-12

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Three Paths: Judgement, Mercy and Cheap Grace

• Judgment is immediate.
It demands the quick decision and the sentence is as swift and demanding as a guillotine.
• Mercy is slow.
Mercy takes its time, deliberating, mulling over options. Mercy is often second-guessing itself, repenting of former decisions as repentance is made known.
• Cheap Grace is careless.
It cares not what the issues are, and is as swift in its decision of forgiveness as judgment is of condemnation.

• Judgment is simple.
Black and white, clear cut, no recourse, no compromise. Judgment sees all situations from a demanding, no fills position.
• Mercy seeks truth—no matter how messy.
It deliberates, considers, ponders, discusses—but not without a goal. Mercy plods, the tortoise who wins the race, slow and steady. Mercy understands that truth cannot be found in a headline, but in a feature article based on many interviews.
• Cheap Grace triumphs the ignorant.
There is no need for determinations, deliberations or decisions. The decision has already been made—freedom and blessing for all, no matter what the situation.

• Judgment focuses on the law as a principle.
“The law is a standard which once broken cannot be mended. It is the Humpty Dumpty of God. It is an ancient china doll, needing to be placed behind glass—protected, served, and loved from a distance.” But the law of judgment is cold, hard and sharp as a steel blade. Judgment claims to be for the good of society, but the only one who benefits is Judgment itself.
• Mercy loves the law as a benefit to others.
The law is to “love your neighbor,” thus mercy is the heart of the law. The law is to train us in mercy, to see the Other as the beneficiary of all of our actions. Mercy considers the well-being of all—even the law-breaker. Mercy’s law is comforting, light, for it always seeks the benefit of all.
• Cheap Grace discards the law.
“The law was a plaything of youth, but is to be set aside as unworthy of consideration. Grace has set aside all law, especially the law of Jesus, as unworthy of God.” Cheap Grace claims to speak for Mercy, but denies the heart of God.

• Judgment demands recompense.
Judgment seeks equity to the cost of the action of the law-breaker. “You broke it, you pay for it.” It seeks a balanced account book for which each debit has its equal and opposite credit—the coin of which is blood and dishonor.
• Mercy pursues reconciliation.
Mercy can lead to dishonor, should repentance be the flip side of that coin. Mercy pleads for restoration, constantly seeking an ingathering together for all the saints.
• Cheap Grace rejects cost.
Cheap Grace points to Calvary and claims that all had been accomplished there. Cheap Grace ignores the man who said, “All who would follow me must take up their own cross daily.” Cheap Grace demands no personal cost, no change, no death, no discipline, and so gains no gift, no new creation, no life, no restoration.

• Judgment has no escape.
Once judged, there is no exit. The sentence is irrevocable, the differences irreconcilable, the community ununitable.
• Mercy offers an out—repentance.
The one who has harmed another—and so has defied the law—has an opportunity to be brought back under the law. To repent, to reconcile is the extent that Mercy demands, and will seek any way to achieve that goal.
• Cheap Grace is unconditional forgiveness.
It is spiritual bloodletting—seeking to heal the patient, while ignorantly killing him. Cheap Grace sees no need to gather in, to restore, for there was no separation.

• Judgment demands payment from the lawbreaker.
As the law suffered, so must the criminal. As society was harmed, so must the harmer. Judgment claims the lost deserve nothing, and so gives nothing.
• Mercy sacrifices.
Restoration also has a price, and the merciful takes that price on oneself. Mercy pays whatever the cost so the sinner can be restored. Mercy groans in prayer, endures attacks, forgives debts against it, pays debts against others, sacrifices its comfort, its family, its friendships, its resources, its very life—all for the sake of the lost.
• Cheap Grace gleefully ignores cost.
It is the thief, stealing from God’s honor. Cheap Grace receives no payment, demands nothing, gives nothing, since there is no debt incurred. Cheap Grace celebrates at the foot of grace delivered, but ignores the call of grace transferred to others. Cheap Grace requires nothing and so gains nothing.

• Judgment never forgets.
It is the elephant of virtues. It never trusts, never believes, never forgives, never restores. Judgment says “Once a sinner, always a sinner.”
• Mercy gives the benefit of the doubt.
Mercy does not forget, but allows complete restoration, a rebuilding of trust. Mercy believes in new creation, a new life, which has nothing to do with the old.
• Cheap Grace always trusts, even the hypocrite.
It always believes, even the liar. It always forgives, even the unrepentant. It accepts everyone and everything—except God’s truth.

• Judgment is Satan.
Judgment is the accuser of the brethren, the murderer of humanity for the sake of a bloodless law. It is the prosecutor seeking the death penalty.
• Mercy is Jesus.
It is the self-sacrificer, the reconciler to God, the perfect sacrifice. Mercy is the one who said, “Go and sin no more,” “The one whom the Son sets free is free indeed,” “I have come to seek and save the lost,” “Unless you repent you will likewise perish,” “I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance,” “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”
• Cheap Grace is the Flesh.
It is self-seeking, self-upholding, self-deceptive. Ultimately, it upholds what is abhorrent to God as the will of God. They practice sin and gives approval to those who practice it.

• Judgment is a liar.
It claims that God does not forgive, sees the sin and not the sinner. It denies the power of God to change the one in Jesus. It is lost, for it has forsaken the mercy of Jesus. Those in the power of Judgment will die by God’s hand—“Judge and you will be judged.”
• Cheap Grace is a liar.
It claims that God’s standard is flexible, and so non-existent. It loves the lost to such a degree that it cannot be separated from the lost. It causes the lost to remain lost, and so dead. Those in the power of Cheap Grace will die by God’s hand—“Whoever does not obey the Son will not see life.”
• Mercy is the truth of God.
It upholds the law, which is to love all. It demands love, even as it offers love. It demands forgiveness, even as it offers forgiveness. It demands sacrifice, even as it sacrifices. It demands purity, even as it offers purity. It demands devotion to God, even as it offers devotion to God. “Be imitators of God, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

Mercy stands with God 
over against Judgment and Cheap Grace

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Loves of God

Most of us love a whole bunch of people. It’s how we’re built—we are built to love others and to have others love us. Sometimes we have a hard time knowing how to love others, but that’s what we’re meant to do. But for all those we love, we don’t love everyone the same. The love we give to our spouse isn’t the same love we give to our children, or to our parents or to our country or to our friends or our neighbor or the good-looking stranger we meet on the street. We may care for them all and have their benefit in mind when we do something for them, but the actual actions and love we have for each of them is different.

In the same way, God loves people differently. He has different kinds of loves for the different relationships he has with different people. We can look at different people and each of them has a different relationship with God.

Who Does God Care For?
God cares for everyone, all humanity. God doesn’t love just some people—he loves everyone. God displays his care on most of creation, but humanity is his crowning achievement, his greatest creation on work, and God loves every single one of us. He sees us for what we are—all of our weaknesses and our disgusting habits—and he loves us. He wants us just like we are.
From the time that humanity was created, God loves all people. He desires their well being, and wants the best for all of humanity. God provides food for all of his creation, especially human beings. God has given every human being authority over the other creatures of the earth, and so indicated that every human is significant. God also speaks to every person about their sin, in order to give everyone the opportunity to repent of their sin.

  • No person can say that there is no one to care for them— for God cares for them.
  • No one can say that there is no one to take care of them—God takes care of them.
  • No one can say that they are unimportant—God has given them importance from the beginning of creation.
  • No one can say that God rejects them— God will do everything he can to help every person achieve his blessing and a relationship with Him.
  • No one can say that God hasn’t spoken to them— God at the very least convicts each person of sin.

This means that whoever you see that you hate— God loves them and cares for them. The people who you think deserve nothing less than torture and punishment—God wants to bless them. God is not scared of unholiness or filthiness. He is not disgusted by the things we are disgusted by. It is a part of God’s holiness that he can overlook unholiness and it is a part of God’s purity that he can embrace impurity. And so nothing is separated from God’s love—no matter how many people may think that someone does not deserve love.

What is humanity that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet. Psalm 8:5-7

Who Does God Especially Assist?
Although God cares for everyone, he does not assist everyone. After all, not everyone needs his help. Some people do fine on their own, and so they never need him and never really ask for his help. Perhaps those who don’t need God will do what they can to be on God’s good side—go to church everyone once in a while or they may be somewhat religious. But they don’t really need God.

The ones whom God looks to help are the needy, especially the poor. Those who have no other resources to help themselves, those who have no human means of gaining help—those are the ones God especially looks out for. And no wonder, those are the ones who cry out to God for help time and time again. They see their need and they know that there is no one else to turn to except God, and so they seek him out.

This is why God will especially heal and protect the poor above all others. When an injustice is done against the poor, God is there to correct the injustice. And especially, God will punish every person who oppresses those who have no where else to turn. God’s wrath is especially on those who harm those who can do no harm.

The LORD executes justice for the oppressed; The LORD gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises up those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous; The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, But He thwarts the way of the wicked. Psalm 146:7-9

Who does God choose?
However, not every person will receive God’s blessings. And not everyone is chosen by God to have the opportunity for God’s blessings. What are the blessings of God? Being forgiven of our sins, having a close relationship with Him, living with him forever, and having all of our needs provided for by God forever—that’s what God promises for us. And God chooses particular people to receive of this, while the others he does not.

The strange fact is that God has already chosen these people. All of them. He has made the decision not to choose everyone, but just one nation—a single country. They are the only ones who will be offered this blessing of God. It may seem like favoritism on God’s part, but it is his choice to give gifts as he chooses. And he made this choice from the beginning of the world.

Who did God choose? Originally, he chose Israel. And then, within Israel, he chose Jesus’ people. The nation that God chose is the nation of Jesus. The wonder of Jesus’ people, is that he is open to people of every race, every background, every language, no matter what one has done or even how evil they have been. Jesus is accepting of them all, and is ready to accept them into his people. All who are called are welcome into Jesus’ nation.

But to gain this love from God, we have to choose Jesus. That’s right. In order to be chosen by God, we have to choose Jesus. If we chose Jesus, then we are a part of the people who are chosen by God.

Everyone chosen by God receives his Spirit. Everyone chosen by God is adopted as a child of God, ready to receive of his blessings. And the chosen by God can know the true righteousness of God—what is really good and how to live it out. And they have their past—no matter how evil—wiped away and a new future to look forward to.

In love God predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. Ephesians 1:5

Who does God bless?

The strange thing, though, is, not everyone who chooses Jesus receives God’s final blessing. Everyone who chooses Jesus has all the grace of God in order to be able to live in Jesus. They have Jesus’ teaching—the true righteousness of God. And they have the Holy Spirit—the power of God to do good. However, unless the believer in Jesus actually does good, they will not enter into God’s kingdom and receive his blessings. They may have all the blessings of God on earth, but in the end, they can lose it all.

Those who do not remain with Jesus can lose it all—Jesus said that his true people would abide in him. Those who act hypocritically can lose it all—Jesus said that those who obey him are his true people. Those who deny Jesus before men can lost it all—Jesus said that those who confess will gain reward. Those who oppress the poor can lose it all—for Jesus told his people to assist the poor. Those who carelessly continue in their sin can lose it all—Jesus offers reward to the repentant.

In the end, those who receive the kingdom of God are those who endure. Not just those who make a commitment to Jesus, but those who stick with it and grow in Jesus and continually become more righteous before him. On the final day of judgement, those who will be loved for all eternity are those who do what is righteous by Jesus’ standard, no matter what obstacles get put in the way. God loves all people, but only those who abide in Jesus to the end of their days will gain the kingdom of God and all of the blessings of it.

Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Matthew 7:21

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A New Economy

This is an excerpt from my book Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution available on Amazon Kindle.

It was the time of the Feast of the Exodus and Jesus knew that his time on earth was short, and he was soon to go to the Father.  Yet, he loved his disciples on the earth, and he never stopped loving them, even to the end.  At the time of the Feast, the Great Liar already convinced Judas Iscariot to hand Jesus over to the authorities.   Jesus knew that the Father had granted him authority over all things, and that his purpose was to come from God and to return to Him. 

Given all this, Jesus got up from the meal, set aside his dress coat and put on an apron.  Jesus asked all of the disciples if they wanted anything as a refreshment, filling their wine cups.  Then Jesus took a basin, filled it with water and washed all the disciple’s feet, wiping them dry with his apron. 

As he came to Simon the Rock, Simon asked, “Do you think you’re going to wash my feet?”  
Jesus responded, “You don’t get it now, but you will understand later.”  
Simon the Rock said, “No.  You will NOT wash my feet. It’s too humiliating.  I won’t let you.”  
Jesus calmly said, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet then walk out and don’t come back.  If you want to be of my nation, then you must allow this.”  
Simon said, “Well, then wash all of me—my hands are pretty filthy and I haven’t washed my hair for a while…”  
Jesus interrupted him, “You are already completely clean, because your commitment to me cleanses you.  If you’ve taken a bath, you just need your feet washed, not your whole body.  Yet your whole is not clean.”  When Jesus said this last bit, he was referring to the Betrayer, who was still there in the room with them. 

                After all their feet had been washed, Jesus took off the apron, put on his dress coat, and stood in front of them.  “Do you understand what I have done?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’, which is good, because that’s who I am.  So if you see your Master being hospitable to you, then you must do so to each other.  I gave you this example, so that you would act in this way.  You are not greater than I—I am the one who sent you.  It is good if you know what I teach you, but it is better if you do it—if you do what I do.  Mind you, I am not talking to all of you.  I have chosen you, but one of you was chosen to fulfill the Scripture, ‘He who receives my hospitality has slapped me in the face.’ I tell you this ahead of time so you will understand when it happens.  Listen carefully—whoever welcomes into his home one of my workers actually receives me.  And whoever receives me welcomes God who sent me to earth."

Foot Washing
In many Mennonite traditions, it is common to take Jesus’ command to wash each other’s feet as a sacrament.  Thus, in many churches in the celebration of the week of Passion, they have a ceremony in which the church member’s feet are washed by each other.  What happens is really quite surprising.  We are often shocked at our reserve, at our measure of politeness. 

Many of all—perhaps all of us, at first—take on the reaction of Peter—“You won’t wash MY feet.”  We like to think that it is because our feet are dirty, filthy, undeserving to be touched.   But I think, if we explore our feelings more carefully, we find that there are one of two real reasons for our hesitance.  First of all, we find the touch of our bare feet to be intimate—too intimate.  We are allowing someone who is fundamentally a stranger touch us in a sensitive and personal place.  The second reason is because we are exposing a hidden part of ourselves to people.  We are allowing people to see that which should not be seen.  Opening ourselves up to the air what had been safely hidden.  What we are really feeling is the shame of nakedness.

Now the fact of the matter is that when Jesus got up, wrapped a cloth around himself and washed the disciples feet, he was not proclaiming a new sacrament.  We no longer do the daily practice of foot washing and so we do not understand the context in which it was placed, as the disciples did.  Foot washing was done for the guest, as they came to stay at one’s house.  Even as today, when we have a guest, we might offer them something to drink, even so the host of the ancient world offered to have the guest’s feet washed.  It was the first part of a whole ritual of hospitality that included drink and food and possibly spending the night. 

But although there was much ritual surrounding it, hospitality fulfilled a real need.  To offer a drink in the ancient world was no empty ritual like we have, for usually we offer a drink to those who are not thirsty.  Rather, the ritual of hospitality is given to one who has traveled, by foot, a long distance.  Perhaps only as short as a mile, but often it is a long journey of a day or two, during which water is scarce and food more so.  To travel was to endanger oneself, for bandits roamed the countryside and there was little security, and therefore little sleep. To offer hospitality, then, is to offer drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry and a safe place to sleep to those who are exhausted.  Foot washing is the first part of this, for it cleans the dirt off the road, and makes one more comfortable, not just personally, but also taking away the anxiety of the traveler that he might be dirtying one’s home.

Thus, when Jesus was commanding his disciples to wash each other’s feet, he was telling them to practice the whole of the hospitality ritual to each other, not just a part of it.  It was Jesus’ plan that many of his disciples would be travelers—itinerant evangelists—who would need to have many stations throughout the world, in need of hospitality.  Thus, he is commanding his disciples, not to wash feet, but to meet the needs of the disciples.  It is the introduction of the command he gives a number of times in a number of ways in the following chapters: “Love one another”, “Greater love has no man than this than to lay down his life for his friends.”   A part of this love, John insists (especially in his letter—I John 3:17) is to offer hospitality.  Food, drink, a place to stay and possibly clothing to those in need.   It is a command to be a social network for disciples of all shapes, colors and creeds. 

                This is a command that Jesus gave many other times.  “If anyone is to give even a cup of cold water to even the least of these because he is my disciple he shall not lose his reward.”  “If anyone offers hospitality to you, they offer it to me.”  “In as much as you have done so to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me.”  To be hospitable to believers isn’t a nice idea, it is a foundational moral command of the church.

Beneath Notice
Another thing to notice is that Jesus washed the feet himself.  This is a unique feature, and the one that Peter most noticed.  When a host offered to wash a guest’s feet, he did not do this act himself.  Rather, he had a servant do the washing.  Thus, there is no discomfort as to having one’s feet washed by a peer, or (God forbid) one greater than one.  Rather, it is done by a negligible one—a person beneath one’s notice. 

                However, Jesus, in this scenario, placed himself in the servant’s role.  Yet the disciples could not pretend that Jesus was beneath notice, to be ignored.  Peter finally couldn’t accept the contradiction between how Jesus was acting and who he was, and so he spoke up.  But it was imperative for Jesus to be the servant.  In this way, the disciples could also take on that role.  It is not enough to say that a Christian could take on any role, no matter how lowly, no matter how marginal it made one. 

Rather, Jesus command is for all of us to do the menial tasks, the servant place.  It is a part of our participation in the Christian community.  This is why Jesus said that leaders must act like servants—they must do the menial tasks, the tasks that made them lowly.  (Luke 22; Mark 8).  They must lower themselves to be the servants, even as Jesus did.  Not a single Christian leader, or Christian member or Christian teen or Christian pew-warmer can escape from Jesus command of service.  We must be the lowly to the lowly.  We must offer help to those in need, where they are, where we find them.  And we must make ourselves as less important than they.

Mutual Dependence
One last thing that Jesus emphasized.  When Peter complained to Jesus that he would not receive the foot washing—that he would not participate in the demeaning of Jesus—Jesus responded with a stern rebuke.  He said that if Peter wanted to be a part of Him, a part of His community, then not only did he have to serve, but he had to be served. 
Often we think of ourselves as undeserving of help.  But, more often than not, we think of ourselves as too independent to help.  We have been raised in a society in which independence is most significant.  If we are in need, we ought not to ask, we ought not to receive, for it is a wrong for us to put other’s out, to make them help us.
      Jesus thinks of service in a different way.  When we are in need, we are providing an opportunity for others in the church to be like Jesus.  We are providing an opportunity for service, for community to build, for us to be dependent on each other.  And frankly, it is this last that our society loathes, that we all secretly hate.  We cringe at the thought of being dependent on others, to rely on others for help.  But the fact is, that is exactly what Jesus is creating with this example, with this physical parable.  Jesus is creating a community of mutual dependence.  We are to lean on each other, and give to each other.  We should be dependable in our dependence on each other.  We help each other’s needs and we give to each other’s needs.  We love and are loved.  We give and receive.  And so we are the people Jesus commanded us to be.