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