Thursday, December 31, 2015

Now in Print: Baptize Your Children Well

From my latest article in Christian Standard magazine:
A young person who is baptized as part of an integrated discipleship process will be less likely to question the validity of his or her baptism a few years later. 
When my own son was baptized, my wife and I wrote up notes about the process we went through to verify his readiness. We still have that record of his questions and comments and of our observations, in case he ever doubts the validity of his childhood decision. 
Another father in our church took that idea one step further and asks his children to journal about their studies, their sins, and their thought process as they consider the decision to be baptized, creating a record of their own.
Read more in the Christian Standard January 2016 issue

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The View From the Bus: Gray Christmas

It's the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1991 and we're on our way to western Kansas to spend the holiday weekend with relatives. As we pulled off I-70 for a restroom break in Independence, Missouri, I pulled to a stop at the red light at the top of the exit ramp. When the light turned green, I stepped on the accelerator and the car inched forward like a turtle.

The transmission was shot. We spent the holiday in a hotel and then coaxed the car to crawl two miles to a transmission shop.

Thus began the most dismal holiday season of what has been a lifetime of holiday catastrophes for our family.

The repair shop took over a week to complete the repair.

After getting a lift back to Independence, I picked up the car and drove it 100 miles back to the exit ramp near my home. I pulled to a stop at the red light at the top of the exit ramp.

Stop me if you've already heard this.

When the light turned to green, I stepped on the accelerator and the car inched forward like a turtle: the transmission had once again failed. I coaxed the car toward the local shop of the same franchised transmission service.  They took another two weeks to do the warrantied repair, which then failed miserably during the test drive. The original shop had the car towed back to Independence, and then, after another two weeks, delivered it back to me, repaired.

So, from Thanksgiving through a few days after New Year's Day, we were without a car. I rode the bus every day to work and back. Our spirits were not merry and bright. Most of the things we would normally do to be out and about celebrating the season were called off. Our boys weren't happy campers.

One particularly wretched day in mid-December stands out to me.

Snow was falling when I boarded the bus at my workplace. The streets were already covered by the grayed and blackened snow leftover from previous snowfalls.

The windows of the bus were covered with a layer of the splashed-up dirty snow from the streets, quickly being topped by a coating of new-fallen snow. The only visibility to the outside of the bus was through the driver's front windshield, which the wipers were making a valiant effort at keeping clear.

A loose connection was causing the already dim interior lights of the bus to flicker on and off each time the bus hit a bump or shook. If you've ever ridden a city bus, you know that means the lights were constantly flickering, casting the scene with a surreal horror-movie atmosphere.

The interior heating system was also not keeping up, which meant that every rider sat bundled tight in their winter coats. Every time the doors opened for someone to board or exit, a gust of frozen air invaded the bus.

A young woman sat near the front of the bus with an infant in a car carrier. The poor child was doing what I and everyone else aboard wanted to be doing: he was cycling between crying, screaming, and whimpering in reaction to the nightmare surrounding him.

As the bus rumbled through the neighborhoods, we all sat staring out the front windshield, trying to keep track of where the bus was on the route. With darkness already upon the city and our view of the outside world constricted, I was more than a little concerned I would miss my stop and be stuck on this bus ride through hell for another circuit through its route.

Given the road conditions and the rush hour traffic, the ride took much longer than normal. The time finally arrived, though, when I saw the neighborhood of my bus stop past the driver's hunched shoulders.

I was almost late in pulling the cord to signal my stop, because judging distance was nearly impossible through the driving snow. When I did pull the cord, the driver looked up, startled, and began braking for the bus stop. The behemoth slid a few feet past its target, but finally found purchase among the snow and came to halt.

I was glad to leave the ghost of Christmas bus behind, but quickly discovered I was stepping into the gusts of Christmas present, with several inches of snow on the ground, more snow falling quickly around me, a bitter wind, and a two and a half block walk ahead of me.

When I finally opened our front door, my boys stared at me like I was the abominable snowman. I must have looked a fright, covered with snow, my body hunched down, and my face betraying the desolation of the long ride home.

From my point of view, though, the warmth of the house and the warmth of the welcome into my home was the greatest Christmas blessing I could want. And I knew full well that there were other people out there riding the bus on this dismal night who had much less than I. Did they have people to welcome them? Did they have a warm place to live?

God, bless them every one.

Originally posted 12/1/2014

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Holiday Curse: Thanksgiving

As mentioned before, my family has a Holiday Curse.  And Thanksgiving seems to have somehow been particularly cursed in regard to our cars.

Perhaps it's because so many of the cars we have driven have been real turkeys.

On a Thanksgiving weekend in the early 90's, we set out to spend a long weekend with relatives in Bennington, KS.  Leaving after work on Wednesday, we traveled west for over an hour and pulled off at the Noland Road Exit  in Independence, MO - an area renown for its plethora of fast food choices.

At the top of the exit ramp we waited for the light to turn green.  Then I pressed my foot to the accelerator and continued to wait.  And wait.  The car was going nowhere.

With a slight push I was able to pull on through the intersection and coast downhill and into the entrance to a Super 8 and Shoneys.  Which was a fortunate combination, since we wound up spending the next 48 hours in that Super 8 motel and eating at the Shoneys.

The transmission  had gone south on us as we were going west.  Thus began a the mother of all holiday curses, one that lasted through December, through Christmas and on through New Year's Day.  The car was in two different AAMCO shops to have the transmission repaired TWICE, over a total of over 40 days.

The two AAMCO shop owners bickered and fought over who was responsible to do the re-repair after the warrantied initial repair (which took two tries over 10 days) failed miserably during the trip back east to Columbia.  I received an education in the truth about those warranties - the shop is going to lose money on the re-work, which means they have very little motivation to complete the job quickly.

Back in those days, we were a one car family.  That meant I rode the bus to work, my wife took two small children to the store and other errands on the bus, and anything we wanted to do to celebrate the holiday season was only accessible by bus.

Any missional Christ-following blogger worth his salt would have some great stories at this point about the people I met on the bus during those weeks, about the relationships I made with people who are down-and-out enough to be riding the bus during the holidays.

But all I could think about during those weeks was how depressed I was.  How totally out of control my life had become.  How miserable this holiday season was.

I learn slowly.  but I have a patient Teacher.

O Master,
these are the conditions in which people live,
and yes,
in these very conditions my spirit is still alive —
fully recovered with a fresh infusion of life!
It seems it was good for me 
to go through all those troubles.
Throughout them all you held tight to my lifeline.
You never let me tumble over the edge into nothing.
But my sins you let go of,
threw them over your shoulder - 
good riddance!
The dead don't thank you, 
and choirs don't sing praises from the morgue.
Those buried six feet under
don't witness to your faithful ways.
It's the living —
live men,live women —
who thank you, just as I'm doing right now.
Parents give their children full reports on your faithful ways.

Isaiah 38:16 (The Message)

A sign you're growing in grace:  Even when you fail to live up to your calling, you trust in God's patience and learn from your mistakes. #asygig

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

That's What HE Said

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” (Steve Jobs)
  • "Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." (God, Hebrews 9)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hello, my name is Tim, and I'm an Introvert

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World
 That Can't Stop Talking
, by Susan Cain
I was asked to preach at our church a few months ago. I debated between spending the entire time talking about prison ministry and using the sermon time as a recruiting opportunity vs. sharing about the blessings of being messily involved with the messy lives of messy people.

So I did both.

My philosophy of teaching and preaching is simple: the vast majority of people in any audience will have forgotten most of what a speaker said within a few short days, if not hours. What they will remember is  perhaps one or two stories or a quote or a single idea that resonated with them. Each listener will respond to something different, based on what resonated with him or her at that moment.

The teacher or preacher has no way of knowing, predicting, or controlling which things will be remembered. It may even be something that wasn't in the speaking notes at all but instead some off the cuff comment. All the best communication tricks, carefully emphasized signposts, or alliterative outline points will not likely have much effect on what each individual listener takes away from what you've said.

I have a pretty good idea what will be the most remembered thing I said in my sermon, based on the comments I received afterward.

I told attention-grabbing stories about the lives of prisoners. I offered practical and detailed encouragement about how everyday outside-the-prison ministry can in fact plant seeds that diverts someone from a path toward prison. I quoted scripture. I talked for about 40 minutes.

And the number one comment heard by both my wife and I during the post-sermon mingle was about my admission that I'm an introvert.

I talked about what qualifies someone for prison ministry, or any ministry where you're messily involved with the messy lives of messy people. As part of that thought process, I shared that in many ways I'm the last person anyone would think would be qualified to teach and counsel a room full of prisoners every week, because I'm an introvert.

I told everyone in my home church how, if they had been paying attention, they would have noticed that during the mingle times they'd most likely see me standing on the edge of a group of people, pretending to be part of the conversation. Or, just as often, I'm standing off by myself, watching the rest of the people chit chat.

But when I walk into the prison chapel, God somehow transforms me into a person who can lead a free-wheeling conversation with a roomful of convicted criminals.

And, of course, what most people will remember from my sermon is the morning Tim Robertson came out of the closet as an introvert.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The View From the Bus: God on the Bus

Atheist Bus Campain, Great Britain, 2008
I'm pretty SURE God rides the bus, even if the bus doesn't believe in God.

I can't be certain I've ever seen God on the bus. He doesn't always make himself obvious. But I suspect I've seen him there.

Jesus says, in Matthew 25:61-46, that anytime we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, or visit prisoners, we've done the same for Him.

I've never seen a naked person on the bus, bus I certainly see people who are hungry, thirsty, just out of prison, poor, and generally needy.

I've also met people on the bus who know God.

If you were to have ridden the 109 bus in Buenos Aires a few years back, you might have found yourself seated across from a friendly Catholic priest in a plain dark suit. A conversation with him might be remembered on a future date when you saw his face on the news, now wearing the clothing of the pope.

I recall a stooped older man who seemed to always be riding the bus a few years ago, his straw boater sometimes on his head, other times on the seat beside him. Always, though, he held a large opened Bible in his hands. More than once he engaged my boys in conversation about what he was reading. At first they were wary of a man who seemed unspeakably old. Soon, through, they got to know him and would greet him when they boarded the bus and found him in his usual spot. Both he and the boys were pleased whenever they discovered they both knew details of a Bible story he brought up.

What if God was one of us
just a stranger on the bus
Just a slob like one of us
trying to make his way home.
(from "One of Us", written by Eric Bazilian, recorded by Joan Osborne, 1995)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Five Signs You're a Chaplain and Not a Pastor

Thom S. Rainer's Labor Day blog post is entitled Ten Signs a Pastor is Becoming a Chaplain. I generally find Rainer's blog to be a mixed bag. I'm not fond of blogs about "leadership", so I tend to pass over those posts. I have seen church plants thrive under Rainer's "Simple Church" approach, though, so sometimes his blog posts provide useful information.

Today's blog caught my interest because, as a volunteer prison chaplain, I thought it would be interesting to see what he had to say about the different approach a chaplain learns to take, as opposed to being a congregational pastor.

I even hoped it might be a little funny.

Instead, I read a post about pastors who spend so much time meeting the felt needs of people in the congregation that they have no time for other tasks. To make this point, Rainer compares his ideal of a pastor with his wholly warped understanding of what a chaplain actually does.

A couple of other chaplains replied to Rainer's post with complaints about his misunderstanding.  He responds, saying his chaplaincy metaphor is “far from perfect,” I don't think that goes far enough.

I suspect several chaplains clicked on this blog post hoping to see a constructive list of ways what we do is different from a congregation-based pastor. Instead, we read a list that discourages people from being chaplains, since what we do just doesn’t quite measure up to a pastor’s job.

As a volunteer prison chaplain, I recognize very little of the picture Rainer painted of a chaplain’s approach to ministry. Perhaps we need a more realistic list of ways to tell a pastor has become an actual chaplain.

  1. The chaplain is constantly connecting with non-believers and seekers, many of whom have never considered setting foot inside the doors of a church.

  2. The chaplain is actively equipping believers among the prisoners, military personnel, or hospital/nursing home workers who have more access and can do more to help people in need than the chaplain will ever be able to reach. 

  3. The chaplain is always learning, always pursuing new initiatives and new ways to address the specific spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people in situations and environments that have removed them from the sort of "normal" daily life of the average church member.

  4. The chaplain is always planning for the future, but it’s often the future of the people he or she is ministering to, rather than the future of a program or an organization.

  5. The chaplain, on a regular basis, experiences the lowest of lows but also experiences the greatest of joys in following the mission God has assigned to her or him. The chaplain constantly deals with people who are bitter, angry with God, and in constant life threatening situations. "Failure" in the chaplaincy often has immediate and soul-wrenching consequences. "Success" in chaplaincy can be an exhilarating victory in a very real spiritual battle.
I could go on, but won’t.

Mr. Rainer, I understand your point about church-bound pastors needing to do more than hold the hands of the flock. But you’ve chosen a way to make your point that wholly misrepresents chaplaincy.

I'd encourage you and every pastor who reads your blog, to wade into the waters of chaplaincy and experience its joys and heartaches.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The View From the Bus: Fellow Travelers

A wiry, shirtless man pedals a bicycle down the side of the street, a sullen pit bull riding behind, seated on a grubby pillow atop an obviously homemade bike trailer.

Were I at the wheel of my car, I’d see the matched pair only at a glance, it not being prudent to rubberneck while driving. With a city bus driver as my chauffeur, I can afford the luxury of turning to gawk as we pass.

The old meme about dog owners resembling their dogs certainly holds true in this instance. The bicycle rider's face and body are not just nicely tanned, but tanned like a tanner tans leather. His face is etched with the sort of deep personality lines you expect in a person who has lived and worked hard. The hot breeze is unable to ruffle his close-cropped hair, which looks like a mere upward extension of his day or two growth of beard. His clothes, a t-shirt and khakis, are not dirty but they are worn and stained with sweat.

His companion, seated in luxury on the grubby pillow, is approximately the same color as his master's skin, with his own personality wrinkles and stubbly whiskers. The wind of their passing has a greater effect on the dog's features, producing that face-flapping that seems to delight all traveling canines, whether stretching they're head out the window of a car or riding serenely on a bicycle trailer.

Both man and dog are intent upon the road ahead, not distracted by the scenery or other vehicles. They no doubt travel this route frequently on their way to or from their home, wherever that may be.

As the bus passes on, the bicycling pair dwindle out the back window of the bus, and then the driver makes a right turn along his appointed route. The view from the bus is always traveling on toward the next stop.

This world is filled with people who are quite unlike me and yet not that different than me. They carry on with their lives, thinking whatever thoughts meander through their minds, inhabiting a world centered on them. The dog and the bicyclist's worlds intersected with mine for less than a minute. Then we went on our separate ways, though ultimately headed toward the same destination.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Last Night: Chain Gang

The big news on the past few weeks has been the Pew Research report on Christianity in America.

According to their extensive research, the number and percentage of Americans identifying themselves as "Christian" has declined significantly. Only the percentage of those identifying themselves as "Evangelical" has remained relatively stable.

Why is that "Christians" are decreasing, but "evangelicals" are not?

While the term "evangelical" means many different things to different groups, at its core the term implies a people who possess a mission, a purpose, rather than just a label.

That's as it should be for any follower of Christ.

Jesus' final prayer with the disciples, recorded in John 17, is all about mission. God's mission, Jesus' mission, the disciples' mission, and our mission today.

“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. (John 17:6-10)

We're all on a mission and we're all at different points in the never ending chain of doing our part.

God's mission: to reveal Himself to the world through His son and to sacrifice His son for the sake of the world.

Jesus' mission, passed on to Him by the Father: to live and teach in such a way as to reveal the character of God to the world, and to sacrifice Himself for the world.

The disciples' mission, passed on to them by Jesus: to reveal the character of God to the world by teaching, by living through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by being willing to sacrifice their lives for the mission.

Our mission, passed along through the centuries is no different. We're not called to be part of the church so we can show up every Sunday, sing some songs, listen to a pep talk or a theology lesson, and then come back the next week to do it all over again. We're to be about the business of the Father, revealing His character to the people outside the church. We do that by talking to them, investing in their lives, loving them, living out the character of God in our lives through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by being willing to sacrifice our time, our priorities, our reputations, our "cool" factor, and our lives for the sake of the mission.

The church will survive and thrive when the people of the church eagerly embrace their identity of being chained to the mission of God.

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Last Night: Protected Together

We don't put much stock in the meaning behind names these days.

When we chose a name for our son, we looked through books full of names, like most modern American parents do. Those books list the meaning of the name - my name, Timothy, means "worshiper of God." But while we take note of the meaning, it's not the most important reason most parents choose a name.

We pick the name that rolls of the tongue best when combined with the last night.

We consider the nicknames the other kids in school will come up with.

We often choose a name because it's popular, perhaps because of a celebrity or a character in a TV show.

We chose Cody as our son's name because we liked western-sounding cowboy names. That was it. We noticed it's an Irish name, meaning "helpful," but that was irrelevant to us. We just liked the sound of Cody.

Our son has made the name Cody mean something, carry some weight, because of who he has become and the things he does in his name.

Simon was given his name by his parents, and he made that name become known as a fisherman. Jesus then renamed him Peter, meaning "the rock," because Peter's actions and his confession called for a new name to represent the rock solid identity he was assuming.

Of most importance in the Bible is the name of God, which Jesus brings to the forefront in His final conversations with the disciples on the last night. And He includes the importance of the name of God in His last prayer.

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.  While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. (John 17:11-12)
Several years ago I did something really stupid at work, a poorly chosen moment of self-expression which didn't set well with the top administrators. I kept my job, but only because my boss spoke up for me and protected me. She had a clout of clout in the organization, so they kept me around as a favor to her.

She protected me by the power of her name.

The name of God has even more power.

When we pray in His name, we summon all of His power behind the request. When speak out in His name, our words carry His authority. When we pursue His mission in His name, His power goes before us to accomplish the tadk.

Whatever we do in His name, we don't do it alone.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Last Night: Glorify

We will glorify the King of kings We will glorify the Lamb We will glorify the Lord of lords Who is the great I am 
Those lyrics, from Twila Paris' We Will Glorfiy, are typical of many contemporary worship songs centered on glorifying the Lord.

It's certainly true that God enjoys the songs His people sing to glorify Him. Psalm 22:3 literally says He dwells within the praises of His people.

When Jesus talked about glorifying God, though, He spoke of something beyond singing songs.
After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.  For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.  Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.  John 17:1-5
Jesus talks about two aspects of glorifying:

First, Jesus glorified the Father by finishing the work God gave Him to do. He was sent to live a life in such a way as to show the world how God intended humans to live, glorifying God in every action, every word, through pursuing His purposes through to the end.

Second, Jesus says God is about to glorify Him.

This is not going to happen by a simple statement like He's previously done: "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased."

The Father is about to glorify the Son by offering Him up to die, after which He will raise Him from the dead.

If I want to glorify God with more than the songs of praise I sing, I need to be willing to live my life in a way that glorifies Him in every moment. And I need to be willing to lose my life, to take up my cross daily.

Many Christians get a thrill from joining with the worship band and the crowd of voices, singing praises on Sunday morning. But too many worshipers leave the worship hall to go on about the lives they've chosen for themselves.

Are you committed to a moment-by-moment, day-by-day life that glorifies Him? Are you willing to lose your self - and your life - for Him?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Last Night: Grief to Joy

My mother's funeral included a musical presentation few expected: her son sang at his own mother's funeral.

When people found out I was planning to sing, several asked me if I was sure I wanted to do that. Won't that be hard? We could get someone else to sing the songs you want.

A co-worker I've known for over 30 years was at the funeral. She's a nominal Catholic and I noticed she had a look of amazement on her face while my wife I were up front singing. A few days later, at work, she stopped by my office and told me how much she appreciated our singing.

"I don't know how you did that without losing it in the middle of singing," she said, "but I could tell you really believe what you were singing." We sang Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone, I Can Only Imagine, and Trading My Sorrows.

The answer to everyone's questions is simple: In the midst of my grief I was feeling the greatest joy possible. My mother, who had suffered in pain for decades, was no longer confined to the wheelchair that had been her prison for years. She had trading her sorrows and pain and shame for glory and grace. While I played my guitar and sang, I imagined her in heaven's grand ballroom, dancing the jitterbug with my dad.

Such joy in times of grief is only possible because Jesus caused His disciples temporary grief while he turned himself over to be crucified.

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?  Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:19-22)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Night: The Change Up

It was the 5th inning of a midweek college baseball game. The game had been unremarkable up to that point. Both coaches were taking the Johnny Wholestaff approach, throwing a new pitcher out there every inning or so.

Then the atmosphere changed in the ballpark. The incoming pitcher was announced and everyone came to attention and watched the 6'8" right hander stroll to the mound.

The freshman pitcher held the hopes and dreams of many Mizzou Baseball fans in his fastball-throwing hands. His coaches certainly were eager to see him throw his first inning, to see how he would do in a real college game.

I stood up from my seat in Section E, Row 4, Seat 1, and moved to my right, directly behind the batter's box. From there I could not only see the pitches coming head-on, I was also positioned behind the scouts with their radar guns.

The first hitter up to bat never took the bat off his shoulders. He never even saw the four straight 95 mph fastballs.

Then the pitcher started mixing it up a little. He still threw that 95 to 96 mph fastball more often than not, but he also tried a couple of other pitches.

First he tried a big curve, which he just couldn't seem to control enough to get it over the strike zone. Then he went for a change-up.

A change-up, to the batter's eye, looks just like a fastball. The pitcher's mechanics, if a change-up is done correctly, appear no different from the fastball. But when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, it gets to the plate much more slowly, throwing the batter off his timing.

The difference is in the way the pitcher grips the ball, usually, along with minute changes in mechanics.

It works because the batter is expecting a fastball from this fireballer, he sees the pitcher deliver the ball in what seems to be the same fastball motion, but all the while the pitcher is lobbing in a much slower pitch.

This freshman's fastballs were blazing in at 96 mph, but his change-up arrived at 78 mph. There's no way the average college batter can make that kind of adjustment in the blink of an eye.

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” 
At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 
They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.” (John 16:16-18)
Jesus threw a lot of fastballs at the disciples, but it was the change-ups that made them look silly with their incredulous responses:
"Well then, who can be saved?" ( Mark 10:26) 
“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) 
“What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” (John 16:17)
They were so sure they knew what faith is all about, what religion is all about, what God is all about, they were continually confused by what Jesus was all about.

Lest we think they're just a bunch of dullards, remember that we're not much different.

Twenty-first century Christians can get so stuck on their modern American ideas of Christianity, we miss the point of what Jesus is really trying to do in the church.

While we get bent out of shape about political parties, Jesus focuses on people.

While we become absorbed in the routines and programs of congregational life, Jesus is pushing us out into the world, to share the way, the truth, and the life with the world.

Every time you think you've got Jesus figured out, get ready for another change-up.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Last Night: The Holy Help Desk

My day job consists, in large part, of two activities:

  1. Training employees to use a computerized ordering system
  2. Responding to phone calls, e-mails, and anguished screams for help.  
When I'm training new users I always explain I'm only giving them the basics of what they need to know to use the system. Some of them don't believe me, because they're overwhelmed with the volume of what I do tell them, and they can't imagine there could be more.

There's always more.

I've learned, though, that some things are just to much for them to absorb all at once. They've got to get in there and start placing orders, learning to use what they do know, before they can even begin to understand the more complex details of requisitioning.

When they do come across the need to order capital equipment, or split funding, or add a rebate line with a negative value - then they can call me and learn what they need to know for the current crisis.

The same dynamic holds true in the life of the church.

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” John 16:12-15
Jesus gave His disciples the basics of how to be His followers. I'm sure sometimes they thought He was forcing them to take an advanced course in theology, but little did they know.

It was only after they witnessed the resurrection and after they became the Church, spreading the Good News throughout the uttermost parts of the earth, that they encountered the true complexities of His mission.

For you and I in the 21st Century Church, the learning process is still taking place.

We can study the Word and learn our theology, but the real learning process takes place when we're on our feet, on our way into the world, sharing the gospel.

College students have asked me frequently whether I've actually heard God or the Holy Spirit guiding me. My answer is always the same: The Holy Spirit will speak to you and guide you most often and most clearly when you're already actively doing what you know He wants you to be doing.

If you're sitting in the church pew hoping for guidance, it might come. But when you  head outside the church walls and become messily involved in the messy lives of messy people, keep your senses attuned for the Spirit's guidance. That's why Jesus sent the Spirit, to be the heavenly help desk, troubleshooting and training when we're hip deep in His mission.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last Night: God Wins

Rob Bell stirred up quite the uproar with his 2011 book, Love Wins. In it, he claims the Bible doesn't actually support the idea of a literal hell, and that the love of God means no one will ever actually be judged, found guilty, and be sentenced to eternal punishment. Everyone gets endless rounds of second chances.

My chief argument with Bell's book has to do with his concept of God, apart from any quibbles or debates about specific theologies of heaven and hell. He seems to believe God is just not the kind of god who would condemn anyone to eternal punishment.
That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.  (Love Wins)
Bell is no different than the rest of the non-believing world. He pays lip service to the idea of God, but denies He can possibly be the deity represented in the Bible. He couldn't possibly be a god of judgment.

On His last night with the disciples, Jesus emphasizes the centrality of believing in judgment:

When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.  John 16:8-11
He's sending the Holy Spirit to convince the world about three things: sin, righteousness and judgment. The three go hand in hand. You can't have just one or two of them, like the proverbial 3-legged stool.

Jesus says the the greatest evidence the Spirit will use to convince the world about judgment is that Satan has already been judged and stands condemned.

At first, that seems a bit odd as an apologetic strategy. Whatever percentage of people currently believes in God, the number who believe in a real devil, as described in the Bible, is much smaller.

Satan, though, stands in the scriptures as the prototype for rebellion against God. As one of God's angels, He was given everything. He was trusted as a servant and messenger. And yet it wasn't enough for him. He wanted freedom to do his own thing, to be the master, not the servant.

That's really what it boils down to for all of us, isn't it? Sin is rebellion against the authority of the King.

Satan isn't just a caricature, a troublemaker, like the picture about. He's not some fantasy figure we can manipulate to fit our own ideas. He's a real being, as real as you or me. As real as God Himself.

Every time we indulge the culture's fictionalizing of the devil, we undermine the reality of everything in which we believe. If Satan is a joke, so is God. If the devil is just some guy in a red outfit with horns and a pitchfork, a stereotypical bad guy, then there is no hell, there is no judgment.

So how does the Holy Spirit use the reality of Satan and his condemnation as a tool to convince the world about judgment? The same way he convinces them about sin and righteousness - through the followers of Jesus, in whom He lives.

When the Holy Spirit assists believers in shedding the sins that so easily best them, the world sees the power of Christ in overthrowing Satan. We're only able to triumph over Satan's influence because Jesus has already won that battle and has already sentenced the adversary to condemnation.

If the world sees the church as no more successful in overcoming sin than they are, why should they believe in the Lord we represent?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Last Night: Righteousness in the Hall of Mirrors

When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.  John 16:8-11
In the fun-house mirrors of modern culture, righteousness looks different depending on who's looking in which mirrors.

When we make up our own definition of righteousness, it usually comes from our own standards of good vs. bad, mixed in with our experiences and influences from others, topped off with a little bit of pop psychology and whatever form of religion has managed to stick.

Religious people tend to set up their holy scriptures, whether the Bible, the Koran or something else, as the standard for righteousness.

For a follower of Jesus, the true image of righteousness incorporates the teachings of the Bible, but finds its perfect example in the life and character of Jesus Christ.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  Hebrews 1:1-3
Jesus told his disciples the Holy Spirit will "prove the world wrong about righteousness." He doesn't say the Spirit will do so by arguing about right and wrong or by pointing fingers. The reason the Holy Spirit has been sent to prove the world wrong about righteousness is because "I am going to the Father."  Jesus isn't around any more in the flesh to be a walking and talking example of the character of God.

The only way many people in the world will ever be able to look past their own image, their culture, or even their religion to see the true righteous image of God and Jesus Christ is when they interact with Christians. The Holy Spirit in the heart of each believer transforms his or her life into a mirror that reflects the clear image of God's righteousness, as lived out in the believer's personality.

Sometimes when I'm participating in the assembly of the saints it seems like I'm in a carnival's hall of mirrors, a fun house of oddball personalities and widely different versions of what it means to be a Christian. That's a good thing. That's how it's supposed to be.

Righteousness isn't about cookie cutter personalities or adhering to a certain cultural ideal. It's about the character of God being expressed through the diverse personalities of the people of the church. We're not like the mass-produced, perfectly identical mirrors you'll find at Walmart. You and I are uniquely formed and polished reflections of our personalities and the righteous character of the Holy Spirit within us.

What better way to be equipped to serve as an example of righteousness to a world filled with oddballs, non-conformists, and free spirits?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Breaking the Chain of Intergenerational Suffering

From my latest article, Breaking the Chain of Intergenerational Suffering, in the April issue of Christian Standard magazine:

To know what drives me and haunts me, you’d need to know me as both a father and a son. Even then you’ll have only scratched the surface, until you also understand my father as the son of his father.

I’m not trying to blame my personal issues on my grandfather, an abusive alcoholic. He’s been gone too long to provide me with a convenient target for a guilt trip, nor would shifting the blame effect any real change in me.

Still, I had to grapple with my grandfather’s sin and suffering—and the suffering he passed along to his descendants—before I could learn to take responsibility for breaking the chain of suffering that continues to threaten my own family
Read more HERE

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Madness in Their Hearts

Mad Men ad on the side of a New Zealand skyscraper
The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live... Ecclesiastes 9:3

A generation ago, I grew up in a Christian Church atmosphere where preachers and Sunday School teachers counseled the flock to avoid movies and TV. In the 21st century church, preachers use clips from popular shows to illustrate their sermons and name their preaching series after hit programs.

This sea change of attitudes reminds me of several quotes from Don Draper, the fictional adman in the hit TV show MadMen.
"Change is neither good, nor bad, it simply is." 
Some might quibble with the "neither bad or good" part of that statement, but the point is well taken: Change happens, and in today's world it happens quickly.

While some Christians try to dig in their heels and resist change, the fact is that an ever-increasing majority of church members are paying for cable or satellite or Netflix in their homes. Believers can choose to rail against the change, or they can find ways to constructively respond to it in a way that keeps the church focused on God's mission.
"We're flawed because we want so much more. We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." 
The Christian's battle isn't against the consumer culture itself. We need to look deeper. At the root is the same poison that has always infected hearts: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

Our mission isn't to attack the symptoms, but to introduce people to the Physician who has the cure.
 "The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." 
While Hollywood and Madison Avenue sell us a counterfeit love, Christians know the source and meaning of true love. We should be highlighting and applauding depictions of sacrificial love in the media and turning the conversation toward the greatest example of "no greater love."
"If you don't like what's being said then change the conversation."
In the context, Don Draper was talking about how to handle bad publicity about a client’s product (in this case, the bad effects of cigarette smoking). People would always be talking about smoking in connection to Lucky Strike cigarettes, but his job was to get people talking about some other aspect of smoking.

If people in your congregation or workplace are gossiping about the latest celebrity scandal, get them to see those celebrities as real people who are hurting, and talk about the temptations they must be facing. Once people begin talking about the pressures celebrities face, it's a short step from there to talking about the temptations we face and how to handle them.
“People want to be told what to do so badly that they'll listen to anyone."
Advertisers are in the business of telling the masses what they ought to desire. They're convinced they want carbonated, caffeinated soft drinks more than they want water. The absolutely magnificent iPhone 5 is no longer good enough when there's an iPhone 6 available.

The scriptures are in the business of cutting deep into the soul and spirit, exposing what people really want, and then telling them what – or Who – they really need. In any discussion about contemporary culture, the goal should always be to get people to discover that God and His Word offers them what they've been searching for.
"The day you sign a client is the day you start losing one." 
Never assume the faithfulness of any Christian.

This may seem like a pessimistic approach, but it merely acknowledges that all people are subject to temptation. The lure of the consumer culture in the 21st century is pervasive and targeted and is capable of entangling anyone.

Turning people into "clients" of an alternate Christian-themed consumer culture isn't the answer. The only lasting strategy is to move people beyond a lifestyle and onward to an abiding relationship with God

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Last Night: 4 Things People Get Wrong About Sin

Pieter Bruegel's Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony
On Jesus' last night with his disciples, He shares with them several details about the purpose and work of the Holy Spirit, who He's going to send to them after He leaves. One of the Spirit's tasks will be to "convict the world", as many translations put it. I like the way the NIV says it:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:7-11)
First, the Spirit proves the world wrong about sin. There are several things the world, and sometimes even disciples of Jesus, get wrong about sin.

Sin is about breaking a list of rules

Actually, sin is about unbelief. As Jesus says, the reason Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin is not because of a list of charges against them, but because of one charge: they don't believe in Jesus.

Unbelief is the root of all sin. The unpardonable sin, at its root, is about choosing to not believe in Jesus.

It makes sense, then, that the best way to approach sinners about their sin is not by haranguing them about their sins, but by pointing them to Jesus.

What they need is to believe in Jesus.

Sin is NOT about a list of rules

In our rush to correct the legalism many Christians grew up with, we sometimes swing too far the other way in our insistence on Christianity not being about morals and obedience.

No, sin is not all about the rules and commandments, but there are indeed rules. You really have to read the Word with blinders to miss the rules. Jewish scholars say there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. That's not even counting all the  principles, statutes, precepts - the rules - in the New Testament.

Christianity is about faith in Jesus (see point #1) and about grace. But there's no reason for Jesus' sacrifice, no reason for mercy and grace, if we all haven't fallen short of the glory of God.

We just need to remember that the list of rules is not an arbitrary list. The laws and commandments are a codified reflection of the character of God. And, again, this means the best way to approach sinners about their sin is to point them to the character of God, as lived out by Jesus.

What they need is to believe in Jesus.

Sin is about societal dysfunction

The world's definition of "sin", or of right and wrong, takes the character of God and belief in Jesus out of the equation. To non-believers, sin is all about doing harm to your neighbor.

Sins like murder, violence, and theft have been considered wrong in nearly every society throughout history, because those actions violate the social contract necessary for civilization. But if sin is defined by its impact on others, the list of what is truly wrong becomes quite short.

Sexual sins like adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, prostitution - even polygamy and bestiality - can be rationalized and normalized as long as they're done in a way that doesn't oppress or harm someone. Whatever is done by consenting adults is OK, by that standard.

The traditional seven deadly sins - pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth - are all allowable within the limit of not harming other people. In fact, each of those is in some way celebrated by modern society.

If we're all just a product of evolution, the survival of the fittest, then anything that helps us survive and thrive, without inordinate cost to the survival of society, is OK.

But if we're all created in the image of God, designed to function best the more we express God's character in our lives, then there's a greater good that defines what is bad.

What we need is to believe in Jesus.

Your sin is worse than my sin

Phil Robertson, a Christian, and the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, was asked by GQ magazine, "What in your mind, is sinful?" His answer: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

He's not wrong, but his starting point betrays a skewed attitude about sin, one shared by many people.

If you begin your definition of sin by naming the nastiest, worst things you can imagine, you're basically just following a more personalized version of the "societal dysfunction" definition. Instead of sin being what's bad for society, sin is what's bad in your own eyes. Sin is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Usually this means sin begins with the things you personally find most repugnant, the sins "those other people" do. Certainly not the sins you know most easily drag yourself down.

It's a quick trip from there to the attitude of the Pharisee toward the tax collector.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11)
I'm frequently disturbed in the prison ministry when women who are incarcerated for murder, drug dealing, and other crimes look down on their noses at fellow inmates who are involved in sexual sins. Somehow they, along with Phil Robertson and a host of other believers, have concluded some sins are worse than others.

They're not. Sin is sin. Some believers like to argue some sins are worse because of the consequences or because of certain adjectives used to describe them in scriptures.

In the end, all sins are equal because of one inarguable point.

Jesus' sacrifice covers every sin and every sinner. The only ranking that matters is forgiven or unforgiven.

What we all need is to believe in Jesus.

Friday, March 20, 2015

God Had Other Plans

From my latest published article, God Had Other Plans, in the April issue of Christian Standard magazine:
Months later, in a sermon delivered at CWCC, Nathan confessed, “When we prayed, when we pleaded with God, we begged him for complete healing. We prayed that if the tumor were to grow back, and Josiah had to have chemo, that God would take him home. After countless hours of wrestling with the reality that we could lose our son, we were at peace. We had given Josiah to God. We knew that for Josiah, to die was gain. We couldn’t bear the thought of him having to struggle through chemo, to struggle for life at such an early age. 
“But God had other plans for us. God felt it was more necessary for me, for the doctors, the nurses, the other patients, the countless lives that have been touched . . . it was more necessary that Josiah remain in the body.”
Read more HERE

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Last Night: Two by Two

Nearly everyone has seen something similar to this photo. Mormon missionaries, dressed in white shirts and ties, riding bicycles, have become ubiquitous not only in every part of America, but throughout the world.
More than 88,000 missionaries are serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at any one time. Most are young people under the age of 25, serving in more than 400 missions throughout the world. Missionaries can be single men between the ages of 18 and 25, single women over the age of 19 or retired couples. Missionaries work with a companion of the same gender during their mission, with the exception of couples, who work with their spouse. Single men serve missions for two years and single women serve missions for 18 months. (
The missionaries are sent out in pairs, according to LDS sources, because Jesus chose 72 disciples "and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go." (Luke 10)

It's always been a good idea to work side by side with a fellow Christian, no matter what the work you're doing.

For my wife, Karen, and I, one of the greatest joys of our marriage has been leading the Christian Campus House prison ministry for the past several years. We don't ride bicycles together, on the 70 mile trip to Vandalia, Mo, but we do plan together, we travel in the van together, we lead worship together, we teach together, we counsel together, we train students together. We finish each others' sentences when we're answering the prisoners' questions. We feed off each other, even if between the two of us we start off with only a thimble-full of energy. We're working as a match pair, a team.

When there's no one else going with us, we call it date night, stopping at Stacey's Place in Mexico, MO, a great little small town diner, for a meal together on our way to the prison. If you're married and you're not involved in some sort of specific ministry together, you're missing out on one of the great joys of marriage as designed by God.

If you're a dating or engaged couple, there's no better way to get to know one another and grow closer together than by being on mission together. Before Karen and I began doing the prison ministry, a pair of CCH students, Corey Rebekah, volunteered to help the prison ministry and also worked together on the CCH worship team. The Whitakers would tell you those experiences were vital to the growth of their relationship.

Jesus obviously thought being on mission in pairs is good idea. It's such a good idea, He made it possible for every Christian to never be alone when on mission for Him.
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)
The Holy Spirit, living in the heart of every Christian, has one overriding purpose. It's not to make you shiver and shout. It's not even to give you gifts or help you bear fruit.

The Holy Spirit was sent to us to speak the truth, to testify about Jesus.

That's our purpose as well. i didn't become a Christian so I could feel fulfilled in my life, or so I could bask in the glow of His glory and wallow in His blessings.

I must testify to the truth about Jesus. I must and you must, if you're a Christian.

And wherever I go on mission for God, I'm never alone. The Holy Spirit is always with me. We plan together, we travel together, we lead worship together, we teach together, we counsel together, we train students together.

If you're wanting to be field with the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to hear the Spirit speaking to you and through you, you've got to be on mission with the Spirit. I've seldom heard the Spirit's voice when I'm just sitting in a pew or watching TV. He finishes my sentences, He energizes me.

We work as a matched pair, a team.

Two by two.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Last Night: H8ers Gonna H8

The phrase "Haters gonna hate" is a meme used widely in popular culture. It doesn't refer simply to someone who hates something or someone else. "Haters gonna hate" because they're driven to go beyond private dislike into actively looking down on someone, The Urban Dictionary defines haters this way:
A person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person. Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock somelse down a notch.
The phrase and the attitude has its roots in the code of the street. The number one principle at the core of urban street life is the issue of respect. Much of the posturing and language and attitude outsiders observe (with disdain) among the hiphop culture grows out of the need to put on a front that demands respect. Whether or not the person's life and character is actually worthy of respect, the message is constantly shouted out, "Respect me! Or else!"

As such, the rule of respect ironically results in an attitude of arrogant pride that "wants to knock somelese down a notch."

Over the past ten years of involvement in prison ministry, I've seen how the street code of respect leads many people into a violent, arrogant, and eventually self-destructive lifestyle.

On that last night, Jesus warned His followers that "haters gonna hate."
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 15:18-25)
For someone raised with the code of the street, those words actually can sound very familiar. The leaders of a gang would tell the gang members and other people in their neighborhood that they can expected to be disrespected by people from other neighborhoods and other gangs. This is true because the leaders of those gangs hate each other, which naturally means one crew will hate the other crew. Even unaffiliated people in the neighborhoods may be suspicious of one another.

So does this mean Jesus is telling his disciples to have an arrogant "haters gonna hate" attitude? Obviously not. Jesus says these things within the context of talking about love and righteousness and holiness and fulfilling His mission.

Unfortunately, some Christians fall into the trap of reacting to the hatred and disrespect they receive from outsiders by developing a dismissive attitude toward the critics.

Every time I hear yet another preacher using derisive and mocking words to describe certain groups of non-believers, my ear is hearing the arrogance of "haters gonna hate." Every time I see yet another Christian friend's Facebook post dismissively making fun of atheists, Muslims, sinners, or political opponents, I have trouble seeing any difference between the the mocking heaped upon believers and mocking believers are shoveling right back.

Yes, haters are going to hate. But Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek, overcome evil with good, repay evil with blessing and respond with gentleness and respect.

We don't belong to the world. We belong to Jesus.

We don't respond to h8ers according to the code of the world; We respond according to the code of Jesus:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ( I Peter 2:21-23)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Last Night: FOJ

The term FOB became popular during Bill Clinton's administration, referring to the president's inner circle, the Friends Of Bill. Some have continued to use FOB for Friends of Barack, for the current president's closest pals and advisors, including friends from Chicago, grad school, and a few going all the way back to his years in Hawaii.
"Many people call Obama aloof, and he hasn't made a lot of friends in Washington," [Douglas] Brinkley said. "When you're president, everybody wants something from you and only these types of friends are able to simply want your well-being. They have a different level of affection for you than friends you meet later in life." (Meet Obama's Hawaiian Posse, AP/HuffPo, 12/30/14)

In the first century world of Rome, the phrase "friend of the emperor" was in common use (although I doubt they shortened it to FOE). It carried much the same meaning as the FOBs today.

According to one scholar, a true Friend of the Emperor would be known for his frankness:
In the first-century world of the New Testament, discussions of friendship moved from a friendship ideal to focus on the more pragmatic realities of patron-client relationships and on the political expediency captured in expressions like “friend of the emperor”. One of the main distinguishing marks of a friend in this context was the use of “frank speech” (parrÄ“sia). Philosophers counseled the patron to be on the lookout for whether “friends” were speaking honestly and openly or whether they were engaging in flattery to further their own ends. . . According to the Hellenistic philosophers, to be someone’s friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back. (I Have Called You Friends, Gail R. O'Day, Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University)
We think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as FOJs, His inner circle. Jesus, though, invites all His followers to be FOJs.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.  John 15:13-17
Like the "friends of the emperor", there is a clear understanding of a patron-client relationship underlying the friendship. Jesus is not saying we are all his casual pals.

Like the  emperor, Jesus cherishes the"frank speech" of His friends. To be an FOJ is to be open and honest with Him.

The best example of an FOG (Friend of God) being frank and direct is David, who was describe as a man after God's own heart. The Psalms are filled with David's questions toward God, some of them quite blunt. The psalmist takes it upon himself to remind his friend of His promises, wondering out loud whether He intends to follow through. In the end, though, David always finishes with praise and trust in God, not presuming to be an equal.

Some of the questions the disciples asked Jesus on this last night, as well as during the preceding three years, were open and honest, sometimes blunt. They obviously felt comfortable enough with their friend to not be intimidated when talking to Him.

If your prayer life seems stale and lacking intimacy, maybe it's because you're not accepting Jesus' invitation to be an FOJ. He wants to hear everything that's on your mind.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Last Night: My Kind of Town

I'm from Columbia, Missouri.

It doesn't take long for people to learn I'm from Columbia, or to learn that I'm proud to be from Columbia.

I talk about Columbia. It doesn't take much prompting for me to jump into a conversation about CoMo, as the locals call our town. Having lived in and around Columbia for most of my life since I was 8 years old, I know this city inside and out. I can go on and on, until someone changes the subject out of desperation.

I cheer for Columbia. Yes, I cheer for the hometown Missouri Tigers, even though I never took a class at Mizzou. But I also cheer for all the local high schools, I celebrate when yet another publication lists Columbia among their top cities, and I take pride in the city's uniqueness.

I act like a Columbian. I drive like Columbia people drive, which can change depending on whether or not the students are in town. I know to stay away from campus on football Saturdays, unless I'm going to the game. Like a good Columbian, I love to check out a new restaurant within its first weeks of business - and then I drop it like a stone if it doesn't measure up.

I even cheerfully revel in the ways Columbia and Columbians are a bit odd. CoMo loves its roundabouts, even if a lot of its residents still haven't figured out how to drive in one. Columbia has a love/hate relationship with is bicyclists, altering streets and building trails to accommodate them, all the while we grumble about them. I love to hang out downtown, browsing through the specialty shops, enjoying the ambience of The District, even though, like most Columbians, I don't actually spend a lot of money there.

Yes, I'm proud to be from Columbia, and I wear that pride on my sleeve.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. John 15:8
Our life with Christ should be the same. People should be able to easily see how much we love Christ. They should know we are Christians by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

If I love being a Christian, it won't take much to prompt me to talk about it. If I love Jesus, I'll cheer heartily for His church. If I love Jesus, I'll act like a friend of Jesus.

And if I love Christ, love being a Christian, love His church, I'll be cheerfully honest about the oddball ways of the church.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Last Night: Learning to Love, Loving to Learn

Bud & Bert, circa 1976-77
We had a rule when we first started going together. Either of us could ask any question and the other had to answer. No ducking topics. No avoiding sharing the truth.

We were trying to get to know each other. As she said, "You lived nineteen years of life before I ever met you. How am I supposed to know you if I don't know everything about those 19 years?"

So the Q&A sessions became our dates. We'd sit out by the fake well on the front lawn, or on the steps of the dorm, or in the library, or wherever we could get some sort of privacy on the campus of Central Christian College. And we'd learn to love everything about each other.

It was in those sessions I learned she loves Tom Sawyer and yellow flowers and pigs. She learned I don't like lima beans, but I do like baseball and Superman.

Somewhere along the process, we learned to go beyond liking each other and actually begin to be like each other. We've spent a lifetime doing that.

It took me a long time to write those two short sentences listing some of what we learned about each other because we've long since become so blended in our interests and tastes as to make it hard to remember the beginning of it all. Learning to love what you learn about the one you love - it changes you.

Every couple goes through this process. If they don't, the relationship neither thrives nor survives. We've counseled a long list of couples over the years, and one of the fatal flaws to any relationship is a failure to continue to learn what the other love. Loving to learn about the other is part and parcel of learning to love for the long haul. Otherwise they settle into being two people inhabiting the same house, sleeping in the same bed, going about separate lives. And, for many, going their separate ways.

A believer's relationship with Jesus follows a similar path.
Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.  John 15:9-11
Under the Law, as practiced by the keepers of the Jewish religion, keeping His commandments was the requirement that stood on its own as the centerpiece of the covenant relationship. Jesus turned that perspective inside out. Learning to love Him and loving to learn what He loves is the core of the relationship. Keeping His commandments is what will happen naturally when I move beyond learning to like Him and begin to be like Him.

People whose faith is on the rocks share a common problem: a failure to sustain the effort to get to know Him better. The more I abide in Him, the more I blend my character, my loves, my hates into His character, loves, and hates, the more obedience becomes a way of life.
But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Revelation 2:4, NLT

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Last Night: At the Corner of Branch and Vine

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
   John 15:1-5
I'm not a farmer or even a gardener. I was raised in the city, except for a few forgettable years in small towns, and never gave much thought to the source of my food beyond the grocery store.

I have a number of friends for whom the idea of a house on a piece of land way out in the middle of nowhere sounds like the perfect life. The long miles over gravel roads pose no problem for them - they don't really want to go to town that often anyway. Their goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Good for them. But I like being where I can hear the big rigs barrel past on the highway. I like being close enough to a bus stop to catch a ride to or from work or to the mall.

I married a country girl, so we've never lived where I'd really like to be. I've always imagined living downtown, right on Broadway, the main drag. I'd live in one of those loft apartments above a local business. Who needs a back yard when you've got city sidewalks and the constant presence of city life just outside your door?

The other reason I don't live downtown is that the price of apartments has gone through the roof. I tell myself it just proves how great it must be to live there, since people are willing to pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

You can't have a garden in an asphalt neighborhood, but you can't step out of your front door in the boonies and find yourself instantly immersed in the life of the city.

Jesus used a seemingly endless supply of farming and gardening metaphors in his parables and sermons. It makes sense, given He was talking to a mostly agrarian society.

I can do the research and understood the meanings behind His illustrations, but even after all the in depth study, they still don't resonate with my city-boy mind like they do for my wife's extended family, all products of the farm.

I get the point that I'm a branch off the vine. I get that the key to life in Christ is to stay attached to the vine, to depend on the vine as my source for everything I need.

But I relate a little more to the idea that I'm "abiding" at the corner of Branch & Vine.

Picture Vine as the main arterial boulevard in a bustling city. The main arteries are the broad streets designed to feed traffic from the highways to the residential streets. There's plenty happening on the side streets, like Branch Avenue. Daily life, in all its mundane variety, happens along those neighborhood roads, But everyone and everything gets to the side streets by way of the main streets. The mail carrier, the police officer, the friends who come to visit - all of them use the arterial streets to get to the neighborhood streets.

As a disciple of Christ, I live at the intersection of my life and the life of Jesus.

My life, in all its mundane faithfulness, will become like a spiritual ghost town if I remain isolated, content to pursue my own version of the Christian life. Only by abiding on the vine will I stay connected to the source of nourishment and vitality I need.

Choose to live at the intersection of Branch and Vine. The alternative is to be a homeless spiritual beggar.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Paul, Paula & the Second Choice

I Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV (YouVersion)
When I was first told the news about Paul Williams, I doubted it could be true. This obviously must be a spurious rumor, gossip of the worst kind.

Then my friend told me Williams has a blog, so I used my smart phone to quickly find it online. The current photo of Paula Williams rocked me back on my heels. My reaction was so obvious that my friend apologized later for "puncturing my balloon".

Paul Williams never knew me, but I knew him. When he was with Christ In Youth, back in the '70's, he challenged and inspired me. When he left CIY to go plant churches in New York City, I was challenged by his willingness to go to a "hostile" mission field. Over the past 35 years, his writings in Christian Standard and elsewhere helped to encourage the hesitant writer inside me.

Yes, my balloon was punctured. I was poleaxed.

But I've trained myself over the past many years to not be like the bible-thumper I once was, the kind whose default response in such situations is to jump to conclusions and grab up the tar and feathers.

Ironically, this news was delivered to me during a weekend seminar by my friend, David Sowers, entitled Re-establishing Biblical Authority in a Time of Chaos. A major point of the seminar was to warn against allowing our cultural experiences to erode our allegiance to the authority of the Bible.

Many faithful, bible-believing Christians are retreating from their devotion to the authority of the Bible in the face of cultural pressures. They discover a family member or close friend is gay or divorcing and they think they have to choose between their bible and their dear ones.

The church doesn't make the choice any easier by teaching people there is only one choice to make: stand firm in opposition to sin, based on the authority of the Bible, cave in to the culture and abandon your biblical foundation. Some will quickly abandon the Bible and their faith when face with those alternatives. Others will take another look at the scriptures and choose to stand firm.

The Second Choice

What if we taught believers there is more to it, that after choosing to remain committed to the Word, there is a second choice to be made: How shall I deal with the people involved?

I could choose to point my finger at them, treat them poorly, ostracize them, and, in my wife's words, "be mean to them."

Or I can choose to stand firm on the whole Word of God: not just the parts we think of as doctrine, but the equally authoritative teachings above love, grace, compassion, and our evangelistic mission.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God. The second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself. Every other commandment ranks third at best. Commandments against homosexuality, sexual immorality, or any other culturally controversial behaviors are supposed to be followed within the boundaries of loving our neighbors, even the neighbors that shock us or rock us back on our heels.

It's not 'hate the sin, love the sinner'. That puts the hating above the loving.

Instead, let's love all sinners, and remember we are all sinners.

So many Christian Churches and so many Christians fail to recognize the importance of intentionally making that second choice, the choice for love. As result, many seekers, broken by the road they've traveled, back away from a finger-pointing Bible and a mean Church.

At this point, Williams' blogs indicates a faith strong enough to continue to seek God, in spite of the mean-ness of the Church's response. I pray that resolve continues.

So, after my natural initial reaction of shock, knew I needed to make both the first and second choice.

Opinions and Choices

I decided I needed to know more. Between the conclusion of that Friday evening session and the beginning of the Saturday morning sessions, I read every word of Williams' blog, from its beginning in February, 2014, through to the most recent post in the last week of January, 2015. Every word, including the comments, the Favorite Quotes, and the About Paula Williams page.

By the end of reading through it all, I came to some conclusions.

First, my opinion about Paul Williams' decision to become Paula, in Williams' words, "integrating Paul into Paula", is irrelevant. While I've struggled with my own inner compulsions and sins, I've never walked a mile in Williams' shoes. As a stranger, I'm not in any position to act as a friend, mentor, or advisor. From the blog it's quite clear there are faithful Christians who are in a position to offer Spirit-lead wisdom.

Nowhere in scripture are we told we have to have an opinion on every current event, nor are we commanded to share any opinions we do have. That flies in the face of the current instant-opinion culture of social media, but Twitter and Facebook don't own me yet.

Second, it's vital that I learn everything I can from the writings of a person who has been a faithful Christian leader for decades, all the while (since he was three) struggling mightily with a burden he knew he had to keep secret. Someday I may encounter a seeker who is struggling with a similar burden. Given that my wife and I minister in a women's prison every Monday evening, it's quite likely.

Williams' incredibly honest and detailed chronicling of the relevant issues, scriptures, and psychological research are invaluable. They have taught me both the critical importance of meeting troubled seekers where they are and the importance of seeing them through the eyes of grace. Williams' words also showed me the difficulty of applying the clear biblical truth to the murkiness of gender dysphoria.

Even if you never knew or even heard of Paul Williams, I encourage you to read that year's worth of anguished blog posts and prepare yourself for the need before it lands on your doorstop.

For any Christian who is a learner and not lander, studying the Word and the world carefully in order to develop an informed opinion is vital to showing yourself approved as a workman. Both knowledge and wisdom are needed to properly handle the truth while unashamedly doing the work of God's mission (II Timothy 2:15).

I have little interest in being right about anything. I'd rather seek the righteousness of God in order to faithfully represent Him to any and all seekers I encounter along the way.

And so, I'm not going to tell you my opinions about Paul Williams, or even about Paula Williams. I pray for God to grant Williams the peace only He can provide, as impossible as it may seem.

Praise to Him who specializes in the impossible.