Friday, October 31, 2014

Everybody Lies – Do I?

I recently watched an interview with Ben Bradlee on Charlie Rose, it was filmed a few years ago. Rose asked Bradlee how the Washington political scene had changed since Bradlee’s early days with Newsweek and the Washington Post. Bradlee’s reply was, “Now everybody lies.”

With mid-term elections upon us we are bombarded with political advertisements – and once again we are reminded that as a rule people will tell us anything for a vote. In the corporate world we see that corporations will tell us anything for a dollar. I am afraid that all too often churches will tell us anything so that we’ll come and stay and give. I am more afraid that I will tell others anything to get my way or to take the easy way out.

Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew, in working with Matthew 5:33 – 36 (oath taking) writes, “At first, we must admit, Jesus’ Command against Oaths seems to be the least weighty and least relevant of all his Commands. How can taking oaths compare with taking life or breaking marriage? And yet the more one studies this Command the more on is impressed with its range. Did Jesus realize that not to swear at all would constantly put disciples in unavoidable and unenviable tension with all governments, all of which have historically required oaths?

“First of all, the Command’s larger purpose should be honored. Quite simply, the Command of Truth seeks to protect speech in the community as the immediately preceding two Commands sought to protect sex. The trustworthiness of what we say is as important to a community’s welfare as the trustworthiness of our temperament or morals. Discipleship applies to speech, too.”

Bruner quotes Paul Minear, “In a culture which depends on oral speech…the intrusion of the intent to deceive pollutes reality at its very source…in such a culture a community becomes deeply dependent upon the ruthless and rugged integrity of its teachers.”

Who is left to tell the truth if not the disciples of Jesus?

Bruner makes much of the fact that truthful speech is simple speech. No oaths, no constant appeals to God, no embellishments.

I find that I have opportunities each day to decide whether to tell the truth or not, whether to take the easy way out (the short term easy way, but the long term destructive way) or to tell the truth.

Sad to say, but I have learned that just because someone tells me to have a “blessed day” that it is no indication whether or not they will tell me the truth or be charitable in their business dealings. In fact, it often seems to me that when folks tell me to have a “blessed day” that it is a license for them to kill the truth and kill charity. I know that isn’t the case for all, but I can write that if my staff at work would encounter a few less “have a blessed day” professing Christians that perhaps a few more of my staff would become followers of Jesus.  

I know I live in a world of lies, a world in which the father of lies propagates lying throughout societies and relationships; the question for me is whether I will go against the grain and tell the truth, will I follow Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.

Everybody lies. Do I? Do you?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Do We Play for the University of North Carolina?

The illustrious sports programs of the University of North Carolina are not so illustrious anymore. For the past 18 years students playing for the university’s teams have been taking “paper” courses, courses which required little or no work and for which students received favorable grades. These were courses designed to ensure that players would not lose their academic eligibility to play sports.

For the past few years there have been investigations into the sham courses, but each time the investigations were halted and their findings not revealed. When Carol Folt was hired as the school’s new chancellor she determined to deal with the matter once and for all and hired an outside investigator who found that over 3,000 students took courses which were courses only on paper and were given A’s and B’s for little or no work. While much of the blame has been placed on one university employee, questions abound as to how many others are culpable. Someone was quoted as saying that while the employee in question thought she was doing a good thing for the school and students, she was actually hurting the students and school – consider that many of these students left school reading at an elementary-school level (which makes you wonder why they were enrolled in the first place).

The University of North Carolina looks like the American Church. We don’t require much, members need not be Biblically literate, we want to win (grow bigger and bigger congregations) whatever the cost to Biblical integrity, and we think that if we win championships (if we look good in the eyes of others) that all is well. We don’t want to engage in self-critique using the Bible as our benchmark, we don’t want the Holy Spirit to be our outside investigator, and we want to avoid sanctions (heartfelt repentance) at all cost – because we don’t want to be stripped of our titles (our reputations). Should a member or two of a congregation suggest that perhaps things are not as they should be they are asked to be a good team member and go along to get along – otherwise they can go to a lower-division school (a small congregation) to play.

Of course, people know that big-time college sports, especially the money-making sports such as football and basketball, are rife with questionable academic standards; it is all about money at the gate and money from alumni. Here again, in much of the American Church it is about money, about sustaining physical plants and large staffs and programs which often mirror the bureaucracy  of government – if congregations are held spiritually accountable members might leave, large donors might be offended.

What is the difference between a stadium packed with college football fans and a church of thousands? The crowds are both assembled to witness an event – to have a good time. The football fans don’t have a personal relationship with the coach or the team members – and yet they feel a connection with them. The thousands of church attendees don’t have a personal relationship with the pastor or the staff – and yet they feel a connection with them. It’s amazing what an event will generate, such passion, such feelings, and yet there is no personal relationship. How much pastoral care can there be in a church of thousands? How much accountability? How much is actually there? (Many of these same dynamics are found in smaller churches too – but in this context I’m focused on the success syndrome – bigger at any cost).

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:5, “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” Here is the BIG question, “Am I playing for the University of North Carolina?”

Am I living life according to the measure of God’s Word, following Jesus Christ as Lord of my life, and submitting to the Holy Spirit? Am I laying my life before God, asking Him to reveal sin in me, to cleanse me, and to keep me living in the light as Jesus is in the light? Or is my life filled with popular Christian fluff that is designed to make me feel good?

One day, when we stand before Jesus Christ, the judge of all the earth, we will know the answers to those questions. I’d rather deal with questions and answers now.

What about you? Are you playing for the University of North Carolina?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Screwtape – IV

In his fourth letter Screwtape deals with prayer; two elements of the letter focus on feelings and images of God. Screwtape writes that one tactic in defeating prayer is to, “…turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling…” (Pages 16 – 17).

Feelings can have a place in prayer for feelings are an element of relationship; but feelings are not a measure of prayer’s fruitfulness or efficacy. The issue in prayer isn’t how we feel but rather whether we trust and obey our Father and Lord Jesus. Only God can determine prayer’s fruitfulness and efficacy, only He knows the essence and result and influence of our communion with Him. Only God knows how our prayers affect others, only He knows the trajectory of our intercession. Only God knows how our prayers and communion with Him affect our souls. Even when we think we know some of the foregoing, we know only in part, only in shadows. God is big and we are small, He is ever the adult and we are ever the children. He is the Father and we are sons and daughters.

When feelings are the focus and validation of prayer then we not only are self-focused as opposed to adoring and worshipping God, we have also slipped into a works-oriented religion where we must conjure feelings for validation – and we go away (assuming we are successful) with the approval of God. But which god? Whose god? The God who created us or the god we created?

This leads us a second element of the fourth letter, getting the “patient” (the Christian) to focus on self-created images of God and not on the true and living God. “But whatever the nature of the composite object [the image of God the Christian has created], you must keep him praying to it – to the thing he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be’, our situation is, for the moment, desperate,” (page 18).

As I like to say, on our best days we are still children before our heavenly Father and Lord Jesus. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be growing and learning and getting to know Him; it is simply that even as we learn to live as spiritual adults we are still children relative to the Almighty and All Knowing True and Living God.

When I was young I thought I knew Him but didn’t know Him; now that I am old I don’t think I know Him but I do know Him…and yet I am still coming to know Him. When I was young I thought I was the master of the Bible; now I realize that I need to be mastered by the Bible.

Feelings do have their place; but God must always have first place. It is not for the instrument to play its own heartstrings, but rather for it to submit to its Maker.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Send the Mayor a Sermon or Equip Christians?

In the wake of the mayor of Houston, Texas demanding copies of sermons from pastors, some high-profile Christians have recommended pastors across the nation send her copies of their sermons; one also made sure that he included the admonition, “do it in love”. How will the mayor will be able to discern a sermon sent in love from one sent in another attitude?

The pastor of the church I visited Sunday morning told the congregation that he would be sending her his sermons this week. I thought the statement problematic.

Firstly, is this action likely to foster understanding and open a door of dialogue and witness with the mayor? I doubt it. It looks more like a, “We’ll show you!” action, hardly one clothed in humility and charity.

Secondly, and I think more important, how does this action model a way of witness for the congregation? Pastors should be thinking about how they can equip their people to live in a hostile world, a world in which overt hostility is becoming more commonplace. How can pastors help their people negotiate treacherous waters in the workplace, in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their schools? Modeling an “in your face” response to challenges is hardly helpful, hardly thoughtful, and hardly likely to bring others to Jesus.

One high-profile Christian leader wants us to rally to the US Constitution; it’s better to refresh ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount. Satan might be amused at how easily we are distracted, and perhaps the angels weep. Nothing should ever divert us from the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ – not the mayor of Houston, not the Constitution, not having our “rights” trampled on…Jesus invites us to be longsuffering witnesses for Him to others…will we accept His invitation? Oh yes, and will pastors start equipping their churches?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Daniel Chapter Two & “Whatever”

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with my friend Harry Hanger in the parking lot outside the office where our Tuesday morning small group meets. A woman came up to us and said, “I just want to thank you for your encouraging conversation, you must be Christians.”

We exchanged pleasantries with the woman and then asked her how we could pray for her. After she told us what her needs were we prayed with her. After the prayer she started talking about the nation and how everything was falling apart. She told us that Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry would be turning over in their graves if they knew what was happening…and on and on she went. The state of the nation was what was uppermost in this woman’s mind, she was in despair, we needed to put the right people in office.

After listening to this I finally said, “Well, we have the promise of Daniel Chapter Two, a stone cut without hands is going to destroy the kingdoms of this earth and that stone will fill the earth – God’s kingdom will come and we are citizens of that kingdom, not of this earth. We need not live in fear”

She looked at me, extended her hand for me to shake, and said, “Whatever.”

Ah, that in a nutshell is what many professing Christians say when they hear that God’s kingdom is not man’s kingdom, that God’s kingdom is not dependent on a political party, or economic system, or any other system of the earth. Many Christians would rather live in despair than trust in the sovereignty of God, many Christians would rather trust in natural means than in the Holy Spirit, many Christians would rather resort to fleshly manipulations, vitriolic rhetoric, and political power at any cost rather than being broken bread and poured out wine for those with whom they disagree.

It seems that the Biblical text is beside the point for political and economic agendas espoused by many Christians – how easily we forget that we are not to love the world nor the things in the world – this includes political things, economic things, things that look oh so patriotic, things that appear good – our citizenship is simply not to be found in those things, and any citizenship we may hold on earth at present is only temporary and should not be confused with the Kingdom of God. The passport the follower of Jesus carries transcends earthly distinctions, it transcends time and space; and that passport allows us, nay it commands us, to serve and love people without distinction, without prejudice, without preference, and without reserve.

The reality of Daniel Chapter Two is eternal and is being worked out on the earth today – whatever barriers we may put in its way. Better to live in that hope than to grasp at fleeting earthly agendas. Better to align ourselves with the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Better to place our hope in Him whose kingdom has no end…whatever others may think.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Screwtape – III

Screwtape writes his nephew, “In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.” [Page 13, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis.]

In the third letter Screwtape encourages Wormwood to incite domestic strife between Wormwood’s “patient” and his mother. One of the traps of the evil one is to seduce us with the delusion that we can be justifiably insensitive and unforgiving at home while being loving and caring in public and when at church. It is as if we build a wall between our home life and public life – like children we role play; unlike child’s play our games have long-term consequences.

The Kingdom of God begins at home. Reconciliation begins at home. Humility begins at home. Credibility begins at home. The shaping of our souls, of our hearts and minds into the image of Jesus Christ, finds no better place to begin than at home, among those with whom we live when we are out of the public’s eye, out of sight of the congregation. If there is a prayer closet in which we commune with the Father, there is also the secret place of our home and family in which the Father sees us as we really are; He sees how we treat our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, He sees our hearts and minds, our attitudes and motives. We are deceived if we think that we can separate our public and private lives in the eyes of God, we fool ourselves if we think that obedience to Jesus Christ is reserved for when those outside our families see us and that we live under another standard, our own standard, when the doors to our homes are shut.

Pastors are infamous for serving everyone but their own families; but how many of their congregants do the same thing? We forgive others but not our own, we encourage others but not our own, we are longsuffering with others but not our own, we invest time in others but not our own, we listen to others but not our own, we overlook the faults of others but not our own.

Peter writes that husbands and wives are “heirs together of the grace of life”. There is a dynamic of communal inheritance of the grace of God in families, especially in marriages. The communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should be reflected in the communion of the family, most especially in marriage. God is not one way in heaven and another way on earth – neither should we be one way at home and another way in public.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Good and Evil and Decision Making

When one knows Good from Evil many decisions are easy to make, at least easy in the sense of knowing what one ought to do - actually doing them may be another matter. It strikes me that much of the confusion we see in leadership is a result of navigational chaos - we no longer know the difference between Good and Evil and so we become like the Bismarck after her steering mechanism was disabled, we travel in circles until the enemy sinks us, Only 114 of the 2,200 man crew of the Bismarck survived. I wonder how many of us will be left?