Christian Resolutions

CandHresolutionsThe most common New Year’s Resolutions in America are to lose weight, volunteer, quit smoking, pursue education, get a better job, save money, get in shape, eat better, and manage money better. Those goals are really good ones that can improve our lives and make us more useful for Kingdom work. After all, better health frees us to serve others more freely and honors God who indwells our bodies. Better money management makes us better stewards and more able to help others.

I wonder how many people make resolutions with the specific aim of growing in faith? If you haven’t decided what you want to work on in 2015, can I offer a few possibilities?

  • Read the Bible daily. (Maybe read the entire Bible, or the New Testament?)
  • Pray more frequently and fervently. Keep a prayer list or prayer journal.
  • Take steps towards reconciliation in a broken relationship
  • Be more consistent in worship attendance
  • Share the gospel in a little way each week
  • Identify a weak spot in your discipleship, make a plan to address it, and be accountable to someone in your progress
  • Look for something that you have never done, that you’ve put off, that you need to. (Baptism? An apology?)
  • Step out of your comfort zone
  • Begin attending Sunday School or Wednesday Bible Study
  • Read (or listen to) a Christian book
  • Balance your life by honoring the Sabbath principle
  • Begin using one of your talents or interests for God in a new way

Resolutions can be a great tool. Will you use yours for the highest good?

(If you’re interested in a stunning example of this, check out Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions.)

God with US?!?

immanuel03Immanuel: you remember what that means, right? God is with us. When Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1:18-15, he reminds us that this is a name given to Jesus.

Sometimes we say something so many times, it loses its shock. GOD?! With US?!?

God was with us in the garden. Adam and Eve would walk with him in the cool of the day. But that was before sin. After sin, God walked. Adam hid. They didn’t walk together. They couldn’t! Sin got in the way.

Along the way there would occasionally be someone who trusted God so fully, who followed so closely that they could be described as walking with God. Enoch walked with God—and didn’t die. But as for the rest of humanity, God was no longer “with us.” Not like before, at least.

The prophets were men who walked closer with God than most. And the closer you are to God, the closer you want to be to God. The gap between man and God is so painful to men of God. Isaiah wrote,  “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” (Isaiah 59:2) Jeremiah said, “Your iniquity have turned these away, and your sins have kept good from you.” (Jeremiah 5:25)

Fortunately for us, the prophets weren’t the only ones grieved by the distance between man and God. God himself was grieved. He didn’t create us to abandon us. He wanted relationship with us. It gives him no pleasure to pronounce judgment on us.

So God gave instructions to the prophets. He told Isaiah to tell the people, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) He gives us a glimmer of hope that God and man can be together again. He gave Ezekiel, the prophet in exile, a picture of a perfect city. Instead of naming that city “Eden” or “Jerusalem” or even “Burns,” the last words of the book of Ezekiel are brimming with hope: “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, ‘the Lord is there.’” (Ezekiel 48:35)

God with us. That’s Immanuel. That’s what happened in Bethlehem. God came down, to be with us. He crossed the lines and became one of us to save us. He came to be with us so we could be with him. Jesus is good news!

Against the backdrop of war-torn Europe, Helmut Thielicke wrote these words about Immanuel:

“Jesus Christ did not remain at base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world’s suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down to us, in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live and worry about what the enemy may do, where we contend with our anxieties and the feeling of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure with us. He understands everything.”

Jesus is good news. God himself is with us!

The Gift of Jesus

The Gift of JesusSince Thanksgiving, each of our services has focused clearly on the person and work of Jesus. We have stood in awe with the shepherds at his birth. We have been amazed with the crowds by his teaching. We have cried with the women who stood by the cross. Today, we are transformed by power of the resurrection.

Jesus is the best gift mankind has ever been given. He doesn’t wear out, go out of style, or require batteries and “some assembly.” He always fits, he can’t break, and nobody who has him complains if they’re given more of him. All of the blessings of eternity are tied up in Jesus. He is the exclusive gift that everyone really has to have!

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

It isn’t over-simplifying to put it this way: there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who are in Christ and people outside of Christ. Every spiritual blessing is for those “in Christ”: grace (2 Timothy 1:9), inseparable love (Romans 8:38-39), redemption (Ephesians 1:7), righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21), change for the better (2 Corinthians 5:17), the promises of God (2 Corinthians 1:2), peace (Philippians 4:7), and eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:22).

As this year draws to a close, the most important question is this: are you in Christ? You can know that you are. I don’t want you to miss out on the best gift in the history of eternity. Come see me or one of the elders—or even walk down the aisle this morning at the invitation—if you want to get in on the great gift.

The Holy Huddle and the Christian Club

holyhuddleWhen a person becomes a Christian, there often is a temptation to “Christianize” his or her entire life. An avid reader, who becomes a Christian, often forms or joins up with a Christian book club where he can share both his love of reading and his new-found faith in Jesus. A Christian lady who loves to quilt might start a Christian quilter’s circle.

The idea is noble: enjoy what you love with like-minded people. It makes sense, too. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. People who make a living out of studying the behavior of people in groups have a name for this phenomenon: the homogeneous unit principle. That’s one reason that there tend to be rich churches, poor churches, white churches, and black churches. We naturally gravitate towards those who are most like us.

This behavior can become a well-intended dragon in the life of a local church. When I gravitate towards people like me, I necessarily drift away from those less like me. Before long, I find that I don’t have any close relationships with those who aren’t in the church, or even those who aren’t like my church.

I don’t know who said it, but I’ve always liked it. Christians are kind of like manure. When you heap them up together, they get hot and stink. When you spread them apart across the world, they really improve things.

I’m grateful for the time that I can share with the people who are most like me, but if I’m going to be salt and light—a disciple-maker—I can’t live in my holy huddle. I have to be like Jesus. He wasn’t sick, but he walked with the lepers. He wasn’t unholy, but he ate and drank with the “sinners.” He is the ultimate example of leaving the huddle to go into the world.

There’s nothing wrong with the “Christian club.” It can be a source of great strength and much-needed encouragement. It can help us in life’s struggles. But if we’re not careful, it can also become an escape from the mission we’ve been assigned or a distraction from our purpose as churches. Let me encourage you to be intentional about being with people who aren’t like you—and sharing the good news of Jesus!

Church Leaders as Translators

If you’re connected to churches of Christ, feel free to read this. If you’re not, this probably isn’t for you.  I don’t want to air our dirty laundry for you! I’m writing in response to the hubbub about 4th Avenue’s decision to have a female preaching intern. Good-Translator

I’m a weirdo. I go to Summer Celebration and FHU Lectures. Let that sink in…

I was trained at Crieve Hall, Lipscomb High, Freed-Hardeman, Harding University, and Knox Seminary (a reformed, predominantly Calvinist school). I read Hugh Fulford’s News and Views, Patrick Mead’s Tent Pegs, The Jenkins Institute’s Hope and Expectation, Rubel Shelley’s FAX of Life and the Gospel Advocate. Some days, I’m afraid my Facebook feed might destroy the universe when posts from the left and the right collide with each other like matter and antimatter.

My behavior doesn’t make me a traitor, a coward, or unwilling to make a stand. Don’t look me in the eye and call me wishy-washy. Truth is real and worth searching for. I’m not afraid of hard questions from either side. I believe that God’s will is simple, but his Word isn’t always. Scripture itself teaches me that in 2 Peter 3:16 and church history colorfully illustrates the point.

Here’s why I read what I read and do what I do: the right and the left speak different languages. Literally different languages. They have different vocabularies and different dialects.

The right has a vocabulary of book-chapter-and-verse that sometimes devolves into fragments and proof texts. The left has a vocabulary of story that sometimes forgets some significant details and turns in the text. Each language has different assumptions and preferences. Each side carries baggage. Both sides are biased.

I’m writing this article because of what I saw in the comments and posts about 4th Avenue. Here’s what happens: The left makes fun of the right for not speaking their language. The right makes fun of the left for not speaking their language. We go around in circles, tell all our friends how smart we are and how dumb they are, and get nowhere. Nowhere! I’m sick of it.

If we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need translators. People who can stand in the middle. People who can go to Freed-Hardeman lectures and find the good and reject the dumb. People who can go to Lipscomb’s Celebration and hear truth and reject error. People who remember that the only kind of brother they have is the erring brother. People who love the people with whom they strongly disagree on important matters—who can hug them without a dagger in their hands. You can’t prove to me from scripture that doctrinal perfection is possible. History confirms that unity has never come through perfect doctrinal agreement.

Let me act like a translator for a moment.

Conservatives, can I let you in on a little secret? Patrick Mead knows that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 exist. I promise he does! He just doesn’t think they mean what you think they mean. Like it or not, he has some compelling reasons, too. And don’t be fooled: you don’t take every “simple verse” simply, either.

Liberals, can I let you in on a secret? If the conservatives can’t hear your direct references to scripture, they can’t hear you at all. Oh! And they’re not all cranky, grace-hating old fogies, either! If you don’t like the “conservative monopoly on truth” – then you probably should back off your tendency to claim to monopolize grace.

We need conservatives who talk with liberals instead of about them.

We need liberals who listen, (and not lament!) conservatives.

We need fewer open letters about churches and more lunches and studies with them.

We need to respect autonomy and embrace connection.

We need intellectual honesty and searching of scripture. We need grace and the freedom that Christ gives us.

We need hearts that search for what is right, but also realize that we haven’t all come to the same place.

If we’re going to have those things, we desperately need translators. People who can speak to both worlds.

Want to be a translator? Want to bring peace? Here are a few suggestions.

FIRST: Make friends with someone on “the other side.” Have lunch with them. Get to know them. Learn to love them. Like them! It’s a lot easier to spout venom anonymously behind a keyboard than at a friend—even a friend with whom you disagree. In scripture, correction happens within relationship (see Matthew 18). Outside of relationship, it is impossible.

SECOND: Whenever you find yourself thinking, “I can’t possibly understand how somebody could think that” – congratulations! You just found your new job. Your job is to understand how somebody could possibly think that. Until you understand how, and why they think like they do, you don’t have the right to criticize what you do not know. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19) Beware the sound of one hand clapping! If you only know what you think, of course the other side seems ignorant. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17) As much as it depends on you, if it is possible, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:18) You may still disagree, but you’ll be disagreeing with the real story, not some straw man in your imagination.

THIRD: Season your speech with grace (see Colossians 4:6). Romans 5 teaches that God offered you grace while you were his enemy. I think you’ll find that being gracious to the people you see as wrong, erring, or dumb will make a bigger change than simply proving them wrong. When you win an argument, you’ve made a loser. Biblical discussions shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where there’s a winner and a loser. If truth is prevailing—that’s a victory for everyone.

FOURTH: Shut up! See James 1:19 again! It’s not my job to fix your congregation. It’s not even really my job to fix mine. It’s my job to work on me. Read Romans 14:4. It is not our job to judge God’s servants. That’s God’s job. I’m content to let him do it, thank you very much. The most helpful and hopeful line of Romans 14 (which deals with some tough topics, I might add) is that God is able to make his servant stand. That implies to me that the servant wouldn’t and couldn’t on his own. If you read the issues that plagued the early church, they were no “matters of expediency.” Does bacon damn? Is circumcision essential to salvation? It’s okay for me not to tell everything I know. I don’t have to show up at every argument I’m invited to.

Let’s be translators. Let’s fix this mess. Let’s quit displaying our bad side to the people who need Jesus the most! Let’s show the world how Jesus would disagree.

If I’m going to spin my wheels, I want to go somewhere. The only way my spinning wheels will go somewhere is if they have traction. And to find traction, we need translators. Be a translator!