Monday, September 12, 2011

God or Godfather? When did giving become a protection racket?

You moved into the neighborhood, got settled in, and were enjoying the wonderful neighbors, beautiful scenery, and perfect amenities. One day, you answer your door to find a well-dressed, grim-faced man standeing before you, holding a book. Before you can ask him the nature of his business, he informs you, "I serve the God-father. I am here to inform you that your continued peace and tranquility can only be maintained by paying a small protection fee. I will collect this fee on a weekly, by-weekly, or monthly basis. The fee is 10% of your income."

Startled, you look at this man for a trace of a chuckle, then over his shoulder in hopes of seeing a video camera indicating that this is an elaborate prank. His lips never curl, and he begins inventorying your possessions, noting that "it would be a shame to lose all these nice things. You never know when something bad could happen. Protection is a lot cheaper than replacement." After a few minutes, he leaves, promising to return in a week, and hoping that you make the right decision before "something unfortunate happens..."

A recent discussion on tithing got me thinking about how much of what passes for teaching about giving/tithe paying sounds like a thinly-veiled threat from Don Corleone. Instead of a dead horse in your bed, dire threats of unemployment, sickness, or misfortune are presented to you as the consequence of failing to maintain timely payments to the local representative of the "God-Father." Not wanting to risk it, you pay, or, not wanting to roll over, you protest. If you do the former, you are praised for being wise enough to trust in the protection of the God-Father, but if you do the latter, your name is bandied about the neighborhood as a selfish, money-grubbing parasite who wants to live in the neighborhood but doesn't want to support it. Of course, no one told you about this requirement when you accepted the invitation to move in, but now the representatives tell you that it was right there in the contract.

I know that "tithe" means "tenth." I also know that there are no passsages of Scripture where that tenth was made of a person's silver or gold, but rather as I once read in an email on the subject, "tithes were counted from a family's assets, not from their income." In other words, you tithed from your cattle, flocks, and crops, not from any income that you might have derived from them.

This is a simple proposition, one that, if I am wrong, I should have been shown such long ago. Instead, I get mocked, accused of having poor theology, or threatened with dire calamity for daring to speak against what I see as an extortion scheme. Perhaps there is no way to prove me wrong, because the words that would do so were never written in Scripture. The expectation that Christians will be generous with their resources is found in Scripture, along with promises that this generosity will not go unnoticed by the generous Savior. This call to generosity for others, especially other Christians, is different from the demand for payment made based on Malachi 3:9-10, which, if it were admitted, was not written to a single Christian, but at the most, to the nation of Israel, and, according to some, specifically to the very Levites who were beneficiaries of the Holy Tithe which consisted of flocks, herds, and crops produced within the land of Israel.

To me, the image of a generous Christian community is far more consistent with the message of the New Testament than is the image of a taxed community, forking over 10% of their income in order to have a comfortable life protected from the vagaries of living. Do tithe payers really manage to avoid such things as sickness, car accidents, getting traffic tickets for speeding, and I.R.S. audits? I wonder. Last time I checked, even Rev. Fred K.C. Price had to pay the hospital bills that his wife incurred when fighting cancer. They didn't magically vanish simply because he paid himself 10% of the money that was given to him by his congregation in hopes that they would be spared the bumps and bruises of life. I've known of rich tithe payers, and poor tithe payers, and I've known of rich non-payers, and poor non-payers. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between an individual's willingness to pay and their possession of wealth.

Of course, as I once said when I first began studying this issue, I would love to be wrong. After all, if a small investment of 10% of my income would open the doors to fantastic wealth, I would be a fool not to fork it over! That would certainly be no more than the various multilevel promoters have sought to separate from me in recent years, with some slight degree of success. Unfortunately, I have had as much success handing over my payment as I have after purchasing the latest book. If godliness were a means of gain, then I must have somehow failed to get my payments properly credited.

More to the point, I think that, again, the Christian model of giving is the generosity desplayed by our Lord, who, seeing that we needed someone to save us, provided the exact resources that could meet our dire need - His life and blood. He purchased our redemption with his blood, and when our brother or sister is hungry, without shelter, in need of aid, or struggling, we can also be generous in finding and supplying the resources that will meet their needs. The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is not the Godfather Don Corleone, He is not a mobster, and we are not buying protection under the guise of giving.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Does God need the 10 Commandments to tell Him how to live?

I am about to enter the gateway educational facility for Lutheran ministry for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Concordia University. Within a few years, I will be serving as a pastor/teacher in a denomination that has a history of over 500 years, but not much of a footprint in the African American community.

There are certain things that I have learned that were familiar to me after my years in discipleship. My current church home, Promise Lutheran of Murrieta, is a place where God's love for us, expressed in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is preached and taught regularly. The joys of Christian service are also regularly expounded by Pastor Chris Deknatel, M.Th. There are a few things that I was ignorant about, because they weren't discussed very often in the Church of God in Christ world of which I have been a part for most of my Christian life. Strangely enough, one of them is the relationship between Law and Gospel, how they are ministered, what role they play in my life, and how I can see them in the Scriptures. Understanding this is probably one of the most important things I must do in order to effectively serve, being faithful to the Lutheran vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

For many of my Christian brothers and sisters, discussions about this are the farthest thing removed from their minds. Many of you are happy to be heaven bound, glad that your sins are forgiven, and not too worried about the fine print in the arrangement. As long as God does a few things for you, get you a nice job, get you a raise on that nice job, get you a attractive spouse to go with that nice job, get you a nice house with a reasonable mortgage to live in while you working at that nice job, married to that attractive spouse....

Now, there are some of you who enjoy a good theological discussion...or should I just put it out there; some of us just love a good debate about theological stuff. I admit, I have a little bit of that in me. Is it in my flesh or in my spirit? Are these spiritually edifying exercises in iron sharpening? I think the only way you can tell is, if you can't walk away from getting in the last word, you might be a "debatoholic." You know, like "My name is Delwyn; I'm a debatoholic." "Hi Delwyn..."

Now there is a legitimate issue on this, though. It was serious enough that Paul wrote about the issue extensively to the church in Galatia, and touched upon it in his letters to Colosse and Ephesus. When Christianity was developing, the New Testament was in the process of being written, and the Old Testament was, until close to the end of the first century, the only complete collection of Scripture that everyone had. It would have been relatively easy to continue the old process of proselytization, turning Gentiles into Jews via circumcision and teaching about the Law of Moses. That was, in fact, what some Jewish Christian tried to do in Antioch (see Acts 15), but their efforts were rebuffed by the church leaders in Jerusalem, including James, the brother of the Lord, and Peter. In the end, the saints at Antioch were given guidance on their conduct that would enable them to live in a way that pleases God, and enabled them to have a good testimony in their community.

I have intensely studied this issue for a few days now, and one thing that I have learned is that the concepts of Law and Gospel are found in both the Old and New Covenant. A good definition is that those portions of the Word of God which speak of what we must do in order to be righteous are defined as Law, while those portions of the Word of God which speak to what God has done in order make us righteous are defined as Gospel. The Law condemns us to death; the Gospel rescues from the condemnation declared by the Law. Both are of God, and both are holy.

Ok, but what does that mean to those of us who are not theologians, who are not tasked with preaching or teaching? What does this mean to me as I go about my day-to-day living? For one thing, maintaining the difference between the two is important because the Bible declares that the two are not synonymous, and they cannot be mingled. Christ did not come to bring a new law, but to bring into fruition the grace of God. At the same time, Christ's fulfillment enabled Him to break the cycle of death that held mankind in its grip, because He had done nothing worthy of death. He chose to lay down His life, and, by virtue of his fulfillment of the Law, He had the right to take His life back up again. God has declared that we may have Christ's legal righteousness placed to our account through faith in Him, and we can be made partakers of His righteous nature - enabling us to live like Him (2 Peter 1:2-4)!

Does this give us the license to walk contrary to the new nature of Christ, now placed in us by grace through faith? God forbid! We no longer need the Law to guard us, when we walk according to the Spirit, anymore than God needs the Law to tell Him what He should and should not do. Either the Spirit really does lead us, or we are deceiving ourselves. Either we are led by the Spirit of God, indicating that we are children of God (Rom 8:14), or we deceive ourselves, and His Word is not in us (1 John 2:6). God cannot lie, so when God says that these things are so, then we must confess that they are so (Rom 8:16-17).

I suspect that someone, somewhere, will accuse me of attempting to destroy the Law - as if I could! The Law exists entirely independent of me, It does not require my support for its existence. In order to preach the whole counsel of God, I must proclaim the Law of God as well as the Gospel of God. What I cannot do, however, is give anyone the impression that there are two ways of salvation, one which involves my effort, and gives me a basis for boasting before God of my righteousness, and another that rests upon Christ, and takes away any basis for boasting in my righteousness. There has always been, and there will always be, only one way of salvation - by grace through faith.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Forgive and Move Forward

When people do wrong, we have a mixture of emotions. Do we know the person? Do we like the person? Do we despise the person? Our reactions to the transgressions of others is colored by a lot of subjective filters that can cause us to become biased, even if unintentionally.

I recently had a lengthy, shallow, social network conversation about forgiveness, casting stones, judging, and so on. Everyone involved in the conversation was a Christian, so all of us understand the basics about sin, grace, and forgiveness - I hope. All of us, I think, would agree that repentance is a part of the experiential side of forgiveness, even as we know that, transcendentally, we experience forgiveness based on an eternal decree of God, acted out about 2000 years ago on "an old rugged cross." There are some who would argue that, since Christ paid for our sins by His shed blood, we don't need to say anything at all, or, at most, just thank God for our forgiveness.

I can see why that idea would be attractive. It keeps us from having to grapple with the impact of our actions, both on those who are directly involved, and upon others who look to us for inspiration and direction. Jesus said, while declaring that not everyone would be punished the same for their failures, that "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48b). Those who enjoy the benefits of being in the spotlight also have to carry the burdens. If you get to exercise authority, you will also have to exercise discipline, over yourself as well as over others.

There was a time when we understood that, without question. Commissioned officers were held to higher standards than were noncommissioned and petty officers, while recruits were basicly required to do whatever they were told by those more senior to them. In the civilian world, executives could be punished for violations of "moral turpitude," actions that were considered to be vile or depraved, as well as general violations of policy. People would seek to avoid shame, as well as the actual punishments that could result.

Now, it seems as if apologists spring up from every side to defend shameful and even illegal activity. A Senator consorts with a prostitute? No problem, since he is a good conservative. A Representative sends leud pictures of himself to relative strangers, and then lies about it? How dare we feel that he has violated the public trust? A pastor is accused of carrying on a sexual relationship with some of his teen-aged congregants? "Judge not," his supporters respond.

I don't know how we got here, in fact, I don't even care. That is all in the past. I do care, however, what we intend to do about it. I just spent yesterday being encouraged to be a man of integrity, reminded that my son will be watching me for direction of how he should conduct homself as a man as he grows up. I hope that is true, but I wonder. It seems that the acceptance of transgressions has become so commonplace in our culture, that those who are against us may seem to be more than those who are for us. Many times I have been surprised to hear that my concerns about integrity are now viewed as hypocrisy on its face, even though I say that I am only applying to others, the same standards that I apply to myself. Then I'm called a legalist, a prude, self-righteous, or worse. Have we lost even a cricket-sized sense of morality, in our quest to avoid excessive zeal in demanding excellence of one another?

I cannot force anyone else to find their seemingly-lost moral fiber, but I can make sure that I maintain what I still have. "Stolen waters" may be "sweet," but sooner or later, "be sure your sin will find you out." As the old song goes, "Where will you run to, on judgement day?" Those crowds who rose up to defend the moral failures of others will not be there at the Judgment Seat of Christ, and "the weakness of the flesh" will be insufficient to stand as a defense. Will the blood of Jesus wash away the sins of those who welcomed, rather than resisted, the devil? God knows, I don't, and I hate to gamble. I must, therefore, encourage myself, my son, and you, my friend, that our labor is still not in vain in the Lord. Whatever others may do, and regardless of what position they may hold, they are not God, and they have not changed His ways to make them like our ways, nor His thoughts, to be like our thoughts.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Submitting to 2000-year-old ideas takes faith

Fellow blogger, Lisa Blue, recently asked a question about a wife's responsibility to submit to an unbelieving husband. Lisa and I often have spirited conversations on Facebook, and I enjoy the interactions. This particular conversation, I expect will generate some energy, and I wanted to craft a response that was deeper than a FB post allows. In our modern world, do the directives of the New Testament need to be amended, re-interpreted, or obeyed, if we are seeking to please God?

In 1 Peter, Peter, one of Jesus's chosen apostles and the one to whom Jesus gave the initial responsibility to "feed my lambs" and "feed my sheep," writes, in his opening paragraph, about the wonderful inheritance we have received through faith in Christ. After the glowing affirmation, he writes the following caveat: "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls"(1Pe 1:6-9). Later on, he further develops the idea that this faith may call for a different type of lifestyle than that of our unsaved fellow-humans, writing, "but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct"(1Pe 1:15).

The rest of the letter discusses the variety of ways in which Christians, living out this call to holiness of character, will have to do things which are counter-intuitive, going against the grain of the normal ways of modern-day Americans. As Christians, we are called to serve others, to accept a vulnerability in the natural realm, based upon our complete confidence in God oversight of our lives. When Peter wrote this letter, of course, he was writing as a person who lived in a society which was shaped by both Greco-Roman and Jewish sensibilities of the 1st Century C.E. (Common Era). Egalitarianism was not a strongly held conception in relationships, and the idea of hierarchy was pervasive in both public and private life. By contrast, our modern views of equality, which were born out of the Enlightenment, make the very idea of submission and acceptance of what God has allowed, difficult pills to swallow.

The family, rather than the individual, was the basic unit of society in both Roman and Jewish society. In the home, both Roman and Jewish culture made the father the authority figure in the home. Everything revolved around the father; in Roman society, the "paterfamilias" (Father of the Family), even had life and death power over his children. Any new-born child that he rejected was exposed to the elements, subject to either death or slavery. Divorce was relatively easy to obtain; and in Roman society, only wives could be charged with adultery.

In such a background, feminist ideology made no impact upon either theology or practice, such concepts would have to wait 1900 years. A woman could exercise influence behind the scenes, but the man was formally the "master of his domain." He was also responsible for the providing for the members of the family, including his adult children, until he died. In return, the family members helped maintain the family honor. Honor and shame were very important concepts at that time. Today, we are more interested in fame and fortune, and with such a focus, fame and notoriety are kissing cousins.

But I digress. We no longer live in close-knit family units like those of ancient Rome, unless maybe our last name happens to be "Kennedy." As a rule, the father is a poor guy with all of the responsibility, but whose authority is easily challenged on the basis of personal autonomy. Looking at modern entertainment, the man is even the regular butt of humor - clumsy, inept, lacking in wisdom, his sole claim to authority lies in occasional salutes to "the good old days" of Ozzie and Harriet. A lot of us don't even know who Ozzie and Harriet are anymore. We chant, as if it were the 11th Commandment, "respect isn't given, it is earned," not even thinking about the practical implications of such an idea. In a society that values the self above all, how long does it take for someone to earn authority? On what basis does anyone stake a claim for authority that merits acceptance?

Against such cultural static, the Christian lifestyle seems quaint and archaic, and perhaps it is. Certainly, it is old rather than new, about 2000 years old, in fact. Accepting the biblical exhortations and promises requires one to lay aside every weight of modernity and even post-modernity, and embrace becoming the biblically-informed men and women into which the Spirit of God is transforming us. I, as a husband and father, am to love my family sacrificially, laying down my very life for it's sake, as well as "the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). My children are to submit to me, not because I have earned it through doing what they think I should, but because God, their Heavenly Father, has commanded it (Eph 5:22). My wife is to submit to me, not because I embody the husband as expressed by Dr. Phil, Oprah, or Deepak Chopra, but because God said to do so (Eph 6:1), praying for me, that if I am struggling in my call to godliness, the Lord will work in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Phi 2:13). The only way I can get around those statements is to ignore them, as some are willing to do, in the name of being "relevant," "cutting edge," or some other nice euphemism for rebellious. Since the entire culture is sliding into decadence, the Church, standing for holiness, can't help but stand out.

I think that this is a good thing. Instead of artificial standards of holiness, based upon picking things to dislike simply because others like them, we will be holy, as He is holy, because we live biblically grounded lives, based not only on appearance, but on a real difference of world-view. Some will admire us, and others will dislike us, just like they did the church in Jerusalem, and just like they did Jesus, Himself. Since Jesus never said that he was trying to win a popularity contest, I think that we can live with that, don't you?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Numbers don't lie, but what do they mean? The Middle

Much of the discussion/debate about financial support of a ministry, at some point, turns towards claims of benefit or loss from the practice of tithing, or that of sacrificial giving. On the one hand, someone tells the story of how they gave their mortgage money and, miraculously, enough money showed up, just before the default deadline, to make the payment, and sometimes with extra thrown in. On the other hand, someone describes, in gut-wrenching terms, giving in response to a request, writing a check with money that isn't actually in the bank yet, or paying that tenth of his/her income and being short on the power or water bill, but then nothing else comes in, and they are left having to explain to family and friends why they are "suffering in the name of the Lord."

I know that both scenarios have happened - to someone - and that there is the possibility that such things can happen, either for good or for ill. I bet, though, that neither of these experiences are the norm. Instead, I suspect that most people either give or not, pay or not, and life goes on. Since, according to research by the Barna Institute, tithing has been practiced consistently by less than 10% of Christians, generally hovering between 5-7% in the years 2000-2008, apparently the positive anecdotal evidence has either not spread to the general Christian public, or we don't believe it.

Of course, regarding things of faith, as the old saying goes, "one plus God equals a majority." If the things that tithing proponents say are valid, then the statistics don't matter. If less than 10% of believers give 10% of their income, then that means they get more of God's blessings that might have gone to the other 93-95% of church attendees who are rejecting God's offer of protection and provision. If anything, maybe this information should be kept a secret, lest unbelievers take advantage of the spiritual imperative that the principle seems to hold forth. After all, if God is obligated to bless those who tithe, as I have heard preachers say on occasion, then even those who reject the Gospel, but in a pragmatic investment move, support a ministry, will receive abundance from God, in the manner of someone buying the protection of a local mafia family against business competitors. After all, Malachi 3:8-12 has no disclaimer statement limiting the results to those who are baptized believers. It simply promises results to those who "try" God to see if He will "open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing..."

What I have found, in my own experience, is that these anecdotes remind me of similar promises made on late-night television about real estate investment plans, tax certificates, multi-level marketing concepts, and other offerings that promise results that only a small segment actually experience, no one of whom most of us know personally (do you know any Publishers Clearing House winners?). They sound great, and, if true, would make my life so radically different from what it has been for much of my adult life, as to make it seem foolish to not try it out, at least for a while. I admit it, I have closed my eyes, taken a deep breath, and wrote those checks. I have waited, watching my mail box and my bank account, for the promised windfall. "Is my living in vain? No, of course not," I sang with all the energy that I could muster, watching for my change to come.

Unfortunately, just like my attempts with Dean Graziosi, Kevin Trudeau, and Matthew Lesko, I tried and fell short. According to some, like Creflo Dollar, it's my fault. I lack either the necessary faith or the necessary joy. If I doubt, God doesn't have to do anything. If I am less than completely happy about obeying, God can be less than abundant in His response. Of course, Dean, Kevin, and Matthew said the same things, but they don't have a heaven or hell to put me in for disbelieving them, they just say that I'm already there, and I'll stay there for not following their perscriptions for wealth.

Now, that's my anecdotal story, or at least the Cliff Notes version of it. Sorry, I didn't drop names, telling about the pastor that benefitted from my largess, but I don't think that my anecdote should be more weighty than anyone elses. I'm hoping to hear from people who have had what I didn't, who can, perhaps, tell me what step I might have missed. One thing upon which I think we will agree, God has no problem with providing resources, for "the earth is the Lords, and all of its fullness" (Ps 24:1). Most of my adult life, while I have never been rich, I have not been destitute either. Like most members of the middle class, I have moved from payday to payday, making enough to live contentedly, and give regularly, but still needing to get up every Monday to go to work, rather than simply working for the joy of having work to do. There is enough space in the comments for your anecdotal stories which explain the way to do it right, so that we get the promised results. If there is a right way to start a car, and I'm not doing it, it's a lot cheaper to find out the proper technique, than to leave the car sitting on the driveway and take the bus. So tell me your story.

Otherwise, I shall move on to the next part of this saga, a different view on giving. In it, I shall discuss what the concept of Spirit-led giving is, and what it is not. If nothing else, it only offers me the prospect of helping others because I love God, giving me the opportunity to share His love in a way that matters, to God, to others, and to me. Any positive economic change that happens afterwards is just collateral blessings, due to the gracious mercies of God.

By the way, while you're commenting, don't forget to check out the sponsors' links, since they are a part of my page, and "the laborer is worthy of his hire." :)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Giving by a New and Living Way - the Beginning

I recently wrote an article about how Christians have responded to the current recession. Like some of you, in addition, I have heard about the $15 million settlement between Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct. These two events, along with my becoming more open about my thoughts regarding Christian giving, have caused me to give thought to answering the questions that I have been fielding, so as to make my position clear. Above all, I want the Word of God to be understood, and rightly applied.

The Bible, especially the New Testament, is clear that we are to treat our fellow-Christians as if they were our own family (Gal 6:10). We are to love one another, showing that love, not only by what we say, but by how we treat one another (James 2). Scriptures abound that call us to care for one another, share with one another, and help one another. I believe that even the passages which talk about supporting those who are in ministry are rooted in this concern, rather than in any sort of entitlement that those in ministry may have because of their position or status. After all, if a person is committed to preaching the Gospel to the point that he or she forgoes the normal economic activities that could allow them to prosper economically, offering themselves as an instrument in God's hands to spread the message of the Kingdom, should not the rest of us, who are able to pursue the regular economic opportunities, sustain them in order that they might continue without care?

Recently, the practice of tithing has come under the light of scrutiny as some have questioned whether the Old Testament practice is binding upon Christians, and, if so, how? At one end are those who take the words of Malachi 3:6-12 as directly applicable to Christians, including the offer of blessing and cursing that are included. As a result, pastors and teachers encourage their congregants to set aside 10% of their gross income for the church, in order to reap financial and other blessings and avoid the specter of God cursing them with poverty. At the other end are those who argue that the teaching is flawed and inapplicable to Christians, who are encouraged instead to give generously as an act of ministry to help others, support their local church, and other ministries, as they have been blessed, but only after having met their family needs, and while living a lifestyle that is modest rather than extravagant.

I am not going to write anything today that will give cover for covetousness or an apologetic for avarice. If you are so in love with the money in your possession that the only way you will give it away is when "they pry it away from your cold, dead fingers," I cannot support you, and I implore you to repent immediately. I am suggesting that we have looked at the issue of money in a way that swallows a camel and strains out a gnat, when God has given us everything that pertains to life and godliness through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us (Col 2:8-10). Instead of allowing the Spirit to lead us in the grace of giving (2 Cor 8:5), we pull out our calculators, demand to see w-2 statements, and make promises and utter threats in God's name that we will one day have to answer to Him for.

We are told in the New Testament that we are to be motivated by faith working through love (Gal 5:6), or not at all(1 Cor 13:1-3). This applies to our teaching, preaching, worship, prayer, and giving. The debate over tithing, however, seldom delves into this area, but instead is mostly focused on our obligation, the ministry's entitlement, and God's enforcement. In it, God becomes a loan shark, who loaned money to us, demanding that protection money be paid to His appointed agents in order to avoid horrific economic consequences.

I remember a conversation that I had with a pastor who told me that my questioning on this subject was putting my son in danger. Knowing how close I am to my son, he thought that the possibility of my son suffering behind my exploration would stop me dead in my tracks. It did stop our conversation, and I never brought it up with him again. It didn't stop my research, however. I have seen friends separate over this, people get rejected from service because they dared question it, and people engage in illegal activities in support of it (writing checks by "faith" is still writing bad checks when you know that the money is not there to cover it, saints). I believe that there is a more excellent way.

I will explore this issue over the next series of articles, and I want to hear from you. Pressent your view with your best arguments, avoiding personal attacks, questions of personal integrity, etc, and I shall do the same. In so doing, I hope to look at the impact that the Church has in the Community, and how people view the involvement, or lack thereof, by their local churches and its connection to the financial resources that members make available. I also want to look at the idea that the church gets to play surrogate for us in terms of reaching out to others who are in any trouble. It is this idea that undergirds many appeals to our generosity by both local and television ministries, but is it legitimate? Let's search it out together. The end result should be that we are better representatives of Christ's presence, walking in love, and supporting our ministries out of love rather than by compulsion.

It is my aim to present the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, regardless of the impact of that truth upon traditions, habits, practices and other relics to which we have grown accustomed and comfortable. Walking "by faith and not by sight" applies to everyone, both in the pulpit and in the pew. Above all, I want to help us to "grow in grace," and in the "knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue." This is part of the practical aspect of fellowship, pressing towards the mark of God's upward call. So "don't be skerred," as I promise that I will still esteem you when we are done here, regardless of where we end up on this issue.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jumping the Broom: Cinema Verite, or an Urban Gospel Fairy Tale?

I don't often discuss movies - in fact, I have never done so before today. I read an interesting article by film maker Tariq Alexander, discussing the film, "Jumping the Broom." Produced by prolific pastor/author/entrepreneur Bishop T.D. Jakes, the film deals with the issues of marriage, sexual purity, and the class struggle as expressed in the context of the African American experience. The cast includes veteran actors Loretta Devine, Angela Bassett, Mike Epps, Tasha Smith, and Meagan Goode, along with lesser known actors Paula Patton and Laz Alonzo. The combination of themes, talent, and the beautiful scenery of Martha's Vineyard makes it a pleasant virtual vacation for a couple of hours at the matinee.

One responder to Alexander's piece argued that the movie's premise of class-based black-on-black crime was so unrealistic as to be comedic all by itself. Even though we know that there are wealthy African Americans - you know, Oprah, P-Diddy, MJ (Jordan, not Jackson) and T.D. himself - still, few of us personally know any, no matter how often we claim to be related to one (yeah, me and Tisha Campbell - wait, she isn't one of them). As a result, the images portrayed in this movie, at least as it relates to the family of the bride, can be seen as an unrealistic mockery of our grinding, unending struggle to at least appear to be "movin' on up to the East Side."

The movie never discusses how the Watson family achieved its status, excepting a brief reference by the mother to the effect that their family history puts them in the category of slave owners rather than slaves. It is clear that the distance between Watson and Taylor families is greater than the drive time from the island to the post office place of employment for Pam Taylor, mother of Jason Taylor, the lucky(?) guy who is about to marry the alleged woman of every black man's dreams, cute, sexy, and successful Sabrina Watson. Throw in the added spice of the light-skinned sistah/dark-skinned brothah romance, and you have a movie that seems tailor-made to give us something to talk about.

Ahhh, so much to say, so little time... Is it realistic to expect a guy to go 5 months subsisting on smokey kisses and longing looks? Can a guy from the Hood make the ultimate connection with a girl from the Hamptons? Can you really have a wedding reception without doing the Electric Slide? I guess you'll have to spend your $7.50 and find out. What I would like to know, right now, is how I can find the kind of job, opportunity, inheritance - something - that will allow me to drink fancy breakfast drinks that contain something more carbonated than Sprite. I have been reading and listening, and one thing I think I have learned, some sistahs may not know how to cook like momma, but they still want you to take care of them like daddy. Like many men, I relish the role of the Handsome Prince, but I don't own a kingdom yet. I am still seeking that fortune that will put me over the top, and make me the most eligible bachelor in America, although, hopefully, not for long. I have tried MLM, writing with advertizements (don't forget to click one of the links for me), working from home, and applying to everything that sends my way.

It seems to me that, while we wait for Jesus to return, we have to live, love, and eat. We would prefer to do those things comfortably. We live in what is claimed to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, but a lot of people seem to be feeling rather weak since the the real estate collapse that took hold by 2007. If there are keys to prosperity, should those who may have found them keep that info to themselves, or should charity, having done well at home, begin to spread abroad? Can I learn the secret to wealth without having to spend $799 for a video series, live phone support, and the opportunity to buy the next hot new product that promises to be more of a game changer than was the last one?

"Jesus is the answer for the world today," and "the Bible is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," but I have not yet found the chapter that tells me how to get a piece of the pie without taking it out of a Mrs. Smith's box. Of course, I am not the most prolific Bible scholar on the planet, so someone might know where that chapter can be found, so that I can get busy putting it into practice. Trust me, if it works for me, I'll be happy to share the info without taking four easy payments from you. I just want to know what is achievable, and how it becomes achievable, if I am willing to become, "not just a hearer of the word, but a doer of the word." Can Jesus take me from Brooklyn to Martha's Vineyard, without my having to marry into it? Perhaps a better question might be, "Should He?" This inquiring mind really wants to know!

I'm just sayin'...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not losing salvation, just throwing it away...

A recent online discussion led to some serious introspection regarding a belief that I have held without much examination for some time. For a long time, I had looked at the issue of eternal security as being a question regarding whether a Christian could lose his or her salvation. Believing that allowing my salvation to be dependent upon my vigilance at avoiding an accidental loss of faith would make my salvation extremely tenuous, I argued against such a possibility with vigor and confidence that my position was fully supported by the Scriptures. No passages of warning shook my confidence regarding this, because my confidence was in the ability of the Lord to keep me from falling and present me faultless before His throne.

Something happened to me on the way to the Second Coming. I firmly believe that God gave us the Scriptures for a reason, instead of allowing Christianity to be spread and framed totally by oral historians. In God’s wisdom, words matter, so much so that His only-begotten Son is identified as the Word of God, and, He sent His Word into the world, transformed into a human being, in order to save the world by His Word.

What does this have to do with Eternal Security? I think that we have been arguing the wrong thing, and, as a consequence, we may have been guarding the wrong gate. The Bible says nothing about “losing” your salvation, but it says a lot about “rejecting” it (1 Tim 1:19), “turning from” it (Gal 1:6), and “drawing back” from it (Heb 10:38-39). The difference is significant, because it deals with intention. Losses happen through circumstance, accident, or negligence, but in general, you only throw something away because you do not value it enough to keep it, and, instead, think that it is worthless.

When we choose the works of the flesh over walking in the Spirit, we really make a choice. We know from the Word of God that there is a difference between the two, and we even know the eternal consequences, because the Word tells them plainly. “Whoever does these things,” Paul wrote in Galatians 5:21, “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Nevertheless, to indulge the flesh is appealing, comfortable, and familiar, while the consequences are vague to us, since few of us have ever died, experienced the wrath of God, and returned to talk about it, and there is no consensus regarding the stories of those who say that they have had such an experience. For this reason, many if us have become inclined to put off being concerned about our actual position before God, believing that He won’t allow our foolish humanity to thwart His divine desire to save us from the eternal consequences of the “passing pleasures of sin.” We were wrong to do so.

The problem here is not that we could accidentally stumble into the wrath of God, but rather, that we will stubbornly choose to believe that God does not mean it when He says we must obey Him, and that it is so important that we do so, that He even, in the person of the Holy Spirit, comes to live inside of us – our humanity and fleshly history notwithstanding. God, who is Holy, in order to deliver us from His wrath, not only pays our debt, but takes up residence within us, to enable us to do what we all agree we cannot do – obey Him. With such a huge investment in our lives, what excuse do we have when we fight against Him, willfully walk contrary to Him, stop our ears to His word, and come up with clever arguments as to why we owe Him nothing more than lip service?
My moment of clarity came from reading the close of Hebrews 10. Just before launching into Chapter 11’s discussion regarding faith, the author says ““NOW THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; BUT IF ANYONE DRAWS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM." But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:38-39). God offers both comfort and warning; comfort, in that my ability to live is anchored “by faith, not of works,” and warning, that if I pull back, He will take no pleasure in me, and that the end result of my doing so will be destruction. I can monitor my will much better than I can keep up with my emotions. My choices, I can control, even better than I can keep up with my glasses, car keys, and wallet.

Therefore, starting today, I will say to everyone who asks of me a reason for the hope that lies within me, that, by God’s grace, I have been enabled to see clearly the choices that I have been given, and the eternal consequences, and have chosen life. I am confident that my choice will, in fact, hold up, because God has empowered me by His presence, so that I can live consistent with that choice, and that I will not reverse that decision for any reason, for there is no reason which merits my doing so. I know that this is true, because, while once I was blind, He opened my eyes, and now I see. Like that other man who was born blind in order that the works of God might be displayed in him, I decided to worship the Son of God as soon as I found out who He was, and I shall continue to worship Him, for there is none other. I invite you, if your eyes are opened, to do the same.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spring is in the air...Will the Lord be my Matchmaker?

Today, I am touching on a subject that I tend to avoid, and I think I have good reasons for doing so. Romance has never been one of my strongest suits, and I'm sure that my take on the subject will be affected by that. More importantly, I'm pretty certain that, beyond certain general guidelines about functioning as a godly husband or wife, the Bible is pretty silent regarding courtship and dating rituals.

I recently made a short comment that drew a lot of attention: The Lord is my Shepherd - He is not my Cosmic Matchmaker. I got reactions from a couple of my female friends, but my male friends did not take the bait. One said something that I found particularly interesting, that I will share later. This particular friend has been told by God, audibly if I understand her correctly, that certain men were her husbands, subject to their willingness to pursue her properly. I have heard, in the past, of women making claims on men based on the claim that God had told them so. On occasion, female friends have told me that men have approached them with this statement as well.

I must admit that I have dated a few women in my many years, and have been married more than once. I would have loved to have gotten a timely warning, an encouraging nudge, something - anything - that could have made the dating scene more comfortable, and less of a crap shoot. I am an avid reader of Scripture, and try to apply what I have read, because I believe that the Word of God is "a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Ps 119:105). Somehow, I have not found, within those sacred pages, any directions regarding which of the myriad women in the world I should propose to. Of course, I also seem to be unable to get God to whisper advice in my ear on this, and many other topics either. I usually have to plan my menus, select my wardrobe, and schedule my day's activities, without any direct input from above.

I also believe in prayer. Jesus prayed, sometimes all night long, and particularly before making a major decision, like choosing the 12 (Luke 6:12-17), or before a major event, like His arrest (Luke 22:41-45). Sometimes, like in the garden before His arrest, angels appeared and comforted Him, while other times, God spoke from heaven audibly, although some who stood by only heard the rumble of thunder. In my own experience, I have prayed, and had passages of Scripture come to mind, or felt a direction come to my mind that wasn't there before. I cannot say that I have ever heard a voice in my ear, or had a visitation from on high.

I do not think, contrary to what you might expect, that my experiences are the standard by which I judge the testimonies of others. After all, there may be perfectly valid reasons why God speaks to one person and not another, up to and including sin. I am still learning how to swim on water, and can only walk on it if there are rocks just beneath the surface. Maybe my lack of conversations with my Father stems from my lack of expectations of such.

A good friend of mine, Quiana Liggins, allowed me to pick her brain about this. She said that "God does advise us regarding our romantic interests, because He loves us, but we don't always listen." When I asked her if God had spoken audibly in the past, and she told me of a situation where she was dating a guy and found out later that he was already married. While on a date with him, she suddenly heard a voice saying, "adultery!" Other times God had told her to go home in order to get away from a situation that would have led to her stumbling. Now, Quiana believes in reading her Bible, and she was clear that God speaks via the Scriptures. She also believes that he will reveal His will through others. Thus, in her mind, God has multiple options for communication with us.

On the other hand, Greg Koukle, head of Stand to Reason, a Christian apologetics organization, argues in his article, "Hearing God's Voice," that while possible, hearing God's voice audibly would be akin to asking the teacher to stand beside you, whispering answers to the final exam in your ear. Writes Koukle, "Here is my view. Does the Bible teach that we must learn to discern the voice of the Lord individually for ourselves to live optimal Christian lives? Does the Bible teach we must learn to discern the voice of the Lord individually for ourselves in order to live optimally as Christians? The answer is no it does not teach that. So when someone teaches that you hear the voice of the Lord individually for yourself for optimal Christian living as a Christian discipline, this is not a Biblical discipline, ladies and gentlemen. It is not in there. Are there incidents of God speaking? Yes, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the discipline of learning to discern the voice of the Lord for myself to live optimally as a Christian. It's not there."

I respect both of these individuals. I have spoken with both of them on a number of topics, and I think that they are both devoted Christians, living for the Lord with all of their hearts. There does appear to be a difference between them regarding how far God will go in terms of communications with His children. I suppose I could split hairs and find a middle ground, but I don't know if such a place exists. I do believe that we may, by our expectations, limit what we can receive from God. When Jesus, as recorded by Matthew and Mark, returned to His hometown of Nazareth, He was "unable to do many works there, because of their unbelief" (Matt 13:58; Mark 6:1-6). Does God love us enough to warn us against bad decisions, and direct us towards good ones? Why not simply screen us away from bad decisions altogether? It would certainly simplify my life if God had, early in my life, given me instructions regarding who my wife for life was supposed to be, and then ensured that I was not allowed near any other woman. Think of the attorney's fees I could have saved, not to mention the heartache, dating expenses, and wasted time (no, I'm not joking here).

I really do not have a firm answer right now, although I thought that I did when I posted that comment on my Facebook wall. For every person who tells me that God is not operating as his romance coordinator, another will tell me that He did exactly that for her. Perhaps this is one of those things that really is an individual thing, part of each of us living out the command to "work out your own salvation...". After all, some people receive words of prophecy, while others are unfamiliar with the practice, due to their theological environment. Some dance during worship, while others applaud. Within the context of Scripture, either is possible, but some things are more prevalent than others. God did speak to people, occasionally, in the Bible, but it did seem to be more frequent when the Scriptures did not exist.

Back to my initial question; I think that God has planted, within me, certain principles. I have studied His Word, and, as a result, I know that I should not seek a wife from among unbelievers, and that I should focus my efforts with people with whom I share common interests. That still leaves a large margin for error, and I don't have much room, at my age, for an unhappy marriage. Even if you are much younger, I'm sure that you only want to be married once, for a lifetime, and happily. Is there anything that we can do to increase the likelihood that God will order our steps, in accordance with His Word, so that we will not slip? Can we make our way plain, our paths straight, by making ourselves tuned to hear God's voice above the din of our hopes, fears, friends' opinions, and parents' well-meaning comments? I know that I want to do what is best, and I believe that is true of most of us. So, in closing, I leave these words of blessing, hoping that they will, at least, give each of us the courage to trust that our hearts will be protected as we step into Spring, hoping for new opportunities, new joys, and even, to find the love of our dreams: "The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace"(Num 6:24-26), and "Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen" (Heb 13:20-21).

Now go enjoy those Spring flowers!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Loan Fraud Frustrates Pastor's Vision

On Wednesday, March 16, the local sheriff's office in Richmond, CA, was tasked to enforce a forclosure notice against Bibleway Apostolic Church. On the surface, it appeared that the church was another victim of the mortgage squeeze, unable to make its payments due ot the economic downturn's impact upon its members. Pastor Sidney Keys, however, supported by his wife and members of the congregation and community, argued that a more sinister cause, loan fraud, lay behind the church's woes.

In January, 2010, Torrey Pines Bank notified the church that the monthly payments for a recently approved commercial loan would be $6000 per month. The pastor protested, saying that he had been told by the bank's predecessor, Alta Alliance Bank, that the payments would be in the range of $4000 per month. Keys further informed the bank that there was no way the church could afford such a payment, saying that the church's financial statements clearly supported a loan payment closer to $4000 than $6000. According to Keys, then-bank president Arnold Grisham told him that the bank needed to see the church's financial statements, saying that "there was a problem with the papers" that the bank had in the file. The original loan was brokered by Jet Stream Mortgage, which, according to public records from the California Department of Real Estate, went out of business in 2007. Keys states that there were also discrepancies in the property appraisal, documents contained forged signatures, and false financial statements were created.

Pastor Keys turned his information, which included documents given to him by a former bank employee, to the offices of Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and State Senator George Miller, who each tried, unsuccessfully, to intercede with the bank. Eventually, Keys contacted the District Attorney's office, which is investigating and expects to make a determination within 30 days regarding possible indictments. The evidence provided by Pastor Keys could lead to arrests, but by that time, the damage could already be done. The church property was sold at auction on November 18, 2010, to "Macdonald & 2nd LLC." The chief official of that company, Ronald Haskins, is also Senior Vice President, Commercial Credit Management, for Torrey Pines Bank.

Both Keys and Torrey Pines Bank agree that efforts to resolve the dispute have thus far been unsuccessful. Bank Spokesperson Krystal Watkins replied by email, stating that "Torrey Pines Bank (formerly, Alta Alliance Bank) has worked with the Bibleway Apostolic Church for over a year to resolve this unfortunate situation, going well beyond our typical collections protocol.

The Bank understands and regrets the disappointment of those who have been affected by this situation. However, any suggestion that the Bank acted improperly or illegally in any way is simply untrue. The Church and Pastor Keys have had multiple opportunities to substantiate their claims in appropriate legal proceedings over the past many months. The bank is not aware of any pending investigation and no other legal claims have been filed with any court."

Commenting on the broader aspects of this case, Pastor Chris Deknatel of Promise Lutheran Church of Murrieta, noted that Lutheran churches are able to seek funding for ministry projects from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund. A nonprofit entity of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Fund operates with rigorous checks and balances from the Synod, but also has no incentive to fraud, since it does not operate from a profit motive. Commercial banks, by contrast, must keep as a bottom line motivation, high rates of return on investment. In addition, the fact that many loan officers work for 100% comission wages, creates a strong pressure to make loans that are based upon shakey or even false information. Commenting from a commercial lending perspective, Mike Brewer, of Griffin Capital Funds, a company that has had several years of experience in the church financial market, stated that many of these issues should have been caught by the loan underwriters for the original lender. companies like Griffin, which does work with mortgage brokers, takes a dim view of brokers who try to sneak loan through. "A lender will stop working with brokers until investigations are finished, and may rely more on its own in-house loan offficers," he said via a telephone interview.

As of March 18, the congregation was still on the property, and an ex parte hearing had been requested seeking an injunction.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Growing seeds, fighting weeds, and having needs.

I recently wrote about the Parable of the Seeds, sharing my thoughts that the message of this parable is less concerned with our eternal destiny than it is with how we live while we prepare for eternity. So far, I only had one person who disagreed, and I look forward to engaging him when he comments here. As promised, I am now exploring this story further, in hopes that my thoughts will help both myself, and those who read my words. Who knows, maybe you have the needs I feel as well; the need to feel at peace with God, to live without the guilt of condemnation, even the need to look in the mirror of God's Word, and feel ok with what you see.

As I seek to live a life that is useful to God, and a blessing to others, I am looking in the mirror, and I find myself confronting a question: is the seed bearing fruit, or has my life "gone to seed"? I know that I must be careful, as I have a personality that tends towards being critical, particularly regarding myself. Nevertheless, do I see fruitfulness, whether 30, 60, or 100-fold, or do I see feeble branches struggling to remain viable as the cares of life try to stifle the life of Christ that was planted in me so long ago? I want to say, "50 years and all is well," but I hear a nagging voice that shows me my inner frailty, both physically and spiritually. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do"(Rom 7:15). I want to succeed as a parent, as a teacher, as a minister, but I feel so stagnant, like a hamster running a wheel. Sometimes, I'm not even sure that I am running the wheel.

"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works"(Tit 2:11-14). Paul does have a penchant for writing long sentences, but he says a lot in them. My faith in God, and trust inn His grace and mercy, hopefully guards me against self-inflicted legalism, but I know that my enemy, the devil, is wily, and will use anything, including and especially complaceance, to lull me into a false sense of security.

In that regard, I am not that much different from the Jews who had, on the one hand, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, along with the Temple and it's services, as a reminder of their covenant relationship with YHWH. That relationship, first established with Abraham, whom God selected while he lived among idolatrous worshippers of the moon-god - indeed, he himself may have also worshipped Sin (Josh 24:2), developed from that of an individual and God to a liturgical system with a fully functioning priesthood. Eventually, Jeremiah would be called to proclaim that being connected culturally to YHWH did not allow Israel to walk contrary to His Word. You cannot rely on the protection of the LORD while simutaneously refusing to submit to His authority as expressed in His Word. The nation's blindness to this truth led to its exile in Babylon and humbling; Israel lost her glory, Jerusalem was trodden underfoot, and the rulership of God's chosen people, granted to the house of David, was turned over to pagans who did not know the God Whom David worshipped with his whole heart.

I should learn from their example, in fact, God intended that I, as a Christian, do just that, which is why the Old Testament is part of the Bible (1 Cor 10:11), even though, as a Christian, I am not under it's provisions, but am under "a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Heb 8:6). Even though that issue was settled historically very early in the Christian faith (Acts 15:1-31), we still struggle with wanting a nice, tidy set of rules that we can use to ensure thaqt we are on the good side of God, and keep us away from those who are not in His good graces. Just like the Pharisees, who started out with the best of intentions, we want to make sure that we are staying pure, but sometimes we end up "doing too much." My natural intellect and human wisdom are ill-equipped to guide me in doing the will of God. The Spirit of God alone knows the mind of God, Who reveals His will to us, and enables us to understand and do it. Without the Spirit of God, I am dead to the will of God, blind to the Word of God, and opposed to the Kingdom of God.

Even with the promise of His Spirit, still, I struggle, and sometimes I stumble. Still, thanks to the Spirit, the water, and the blood (1 John 5:8), I "get back up again." Just as Christ rose up from the grave, we get up from our failures, we rise and turn away from our sins, confessing our faults to one another, and praying for one another, not simply so that we can feel better about ourselves through our commiseration, but so that we may be healed, as God has provided in His Word (James 5:16). This is why confessing my security in Christ leads, not to pride, but to humility. I know that He is the only security I have, and He chose me; I did not choose Him, so I have no basis upon which I can boast (Eph 2:8-9). My desire to be fruitful reflects, not my innate goodness, but the presence of His Spirit within me, working in me both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

The great thing about this is that my availability is more important to God than is my ability. He is not looking for what I don't have, but for what I do have! Even better, I am not getting a special deal, for God is not moved by such surface things as my attractiveness, charm, or wealth; He is "no respecter of persons," - literally, God does not regard our face when He chooses us to be recipients of His grace. God's love is not earned, which might be part of why it is not fathomed. We find it so hard to grasp, and thus accept, that God loves us, neither because of, or even, in spite of, who we have become as individuals, but simply because it is His nature to love. As that old Commodores song declares, "Jesus is love." God loves, just like He creates, because it is His nature to do so, just like it is Satan's nature to steal, kill, and destroy. God's love wil triumph over Satan's devices, and I will triumph over the weapons which are formed against me. I have been sanctified, so I will be holy.

So as I look at myself, endeavoring to live in such a way that I reflect the presence of Christ in me, I do so with the reminder that the ultimate judgment lies with my Savior, and His grace is enough for me. Do I see plants that look more like weeds than the fruit of the Spirit? Yes, of course I do, but I also see the Hand of a wise Vinedresser, who knows the difference, and He will remove the weeds, purifying the soil of my heart, and enabling me to bring forth even more fruit as I abide in Him and His word abides in me. This is why the Gospel truly is good news, and we share it with others, so that everyone can have the oppodrtunity to experience the power of God leading to salvation, the joy of the Lord as our strength, and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding for those who don't understand Him. So the mirror doesn't frighten me, it encourages me, and I have all I need, for I have Him, or even better, He has me.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Can I be fruitful today when I was barren yesterday?

The Parable of the Sower and the Seeds is one of the more familiar stories that Jesus told to teach the crowds about the Kingdom of God. I have read it and listened to sermons and Bible studies about it. I have not, however, given much thought to what it means and how it could apply to my life.

Recently, a friend who was joining my tour through the Bible this year, commented on this parable, and her words sparked something in me. Then, a conversation with one of my New Testament Greek students pushed me even further. I think that my thoughts today will help someone else, so I will share this with you. Think about it, wrestle with it, and reflect on it. If you like it, apply it, and if you don't, talk to me about it.

The parable is found in Matt 13:3-9, Mark 4:2-9, and Luke 8:4-8. In each version, the story is the same. A sower sows seeds in a field. There are four sets of results. Some seeds are eaten as soon as they hit the ground by nearby birds. Other seeds land in hardened, rocky soil. Although these seeds spering up quickly, they die as quickly becaused they are unable to take root in the hard ground. Still other seeds land in ground that also contains weeds. The weeds, springing up, overrun the ground, hampering the seeds ability to grow, as weeds are prone to do. Finally, some seeds take root, and, unhindered by the obstacles related earlier, bring forth a crop of varying sizes.

It's a pretty straight-forward story, and Jesus did not preface it by saying what he often says, "the Kingdom of heaven is like...". Somehow, I developed the idea that this parable discussed the eternal destiny of the four types of soil. To be sure, I cannot tell you why I thought this, but I know that I did. At the very least, I would have been certain that the soil which Jesus later described as representing people who never even heard the Word because Satan snatched it out of their hearts before they could even respond. Therefore, not having heard it, they were doomed to disobey and end up eternally lost. Now, to be fair, Luke does write, in his version, that the impact, or lack thereof, does seem to have an eternal impact. Verse 12 says that the devil snatches the Word from their hearts, lest believing they should be saved. In verse 13, he wrote that there were those who would fall away rather than endure trial.

The thing about this, however, is that Mark and Matthew were written earlier, and they merely say that some would stumble because of trial, and that the first group has the Word snatched out of their hearts by Satan, but neither Matthew nor Mark say that this is a unchangeable situation. To put it another way, only Luke discusses this parable from an eternal perspective, while Matthew and Mark leave room for an alternative understanding. The alternative, that this parable is primarily, if not totally, talking about the Word of God making an impact in our lives here and now, is what I would like to offer.

One of the reasons that I am looking at this parable this way, relates to the description of the seeds that bore fruit. Not all of the seeds bore the same amount of fruit; some seeds were much more fruitful than others. We have no mention in Scripture that there are different degrees of eternal life, or that there are different levels of heaven, some more heavenly than others.

We do recognize, however, that there are different levels of life here on earth, even among those who are committed to lives of obedience to God. Not all who are dedicated to serving the Lord experience the same type of lifestyle. Some enjoy lives of affluence and exposure, while others live much more modestly, and are only known by friends, neighbors and fellow congregants. In some cases, these outcomes are pursued, but in others, the results are unexpected and unsought. Charles Colson often wrote and spoke about the "little platoons," Christians whose lives of service to the Lord by serving others goes unnoticed by all except those whom they have blessed, and the Lord Himself. Further, the Lord gives no assessment regarding the relative superiority of the fruitful plantings; the "hundred-fold" seed is not commended for being over three times more fruitful than the thirty-fold harvest. The only comparison that we see is between the seeds that bear fruit and the seeds that do not. The "good" ground (Greek καλός) is good in the sense that it is well-suited to the task. It is prepared, fertilized, and cleared.

While the parable does not discuss the pre-sowing preparations, it is reasonable to expect that the good soil was not that way by chance, and in like manner, we believe that the hearts of those who experience the power of the Word in a positive way do not just happen to do so. Rather, God prepares those hearts, "through the washing (laver) of water by the word." The English makes it sound like a verb when it is actually a noun. This is a lovely description of baptism. In baptism, we are not merely undergoing a symbolic ritual, but God's word is operating upon us transforming us from spiritually dead individuals with no capability to positively respond to Him, into spiritually alive saints who will, through the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, become equipped for the work of ministry to which God is shaping them. It is for this reason that Baptism is an act that takes place in the context of the community of the saints. The new Christian, whether infant or adult, is not left to her own devices to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. Rather, the household of faith bears witness through instruction and fellowship that this person is also part of the body of Christ. It is an awesome responsibility, one that we perhaps take more lightly than we should.

Wherever one is in Christian experience, there will be times when the word does not strike home, for a variety of reasons. I have experienced times when I was filled from what I had heard in the service, and I have left the worship service struggling to remember just what had been said. It is not a situation that we should ignor. Just as ground which has been left untouched can become unserviceable, in the same manner, a heart that has grown hard from lack of exposure to the refreshing and cleansing of the word of life can become calloused to conviction. Even hard ground, however, after a long, barren winter, can, with the first showers of spring, be softened and enabled to bring forth fruit. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and we can repent, if the Lord draws us by His grace. Rather than lamenting the winters past, let us look forward with expectation to the fresh wind of spring, as the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus brings newness of life to us.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Does God Pay Fair? Pt. 1

Matthew 19:16 - 20:16 is a passage that most Christians have heard discussed several times in their lives, but I suspect that the chapter break effectively kept most of those discussions on separate Sundays or Wednesday evenings. Thanks to an early Sunday morning visit to the E.R. for my son, I had an opportunity to spend some time reading this passage afresh. The results may resonate with you, shock you, or go right over your head. I believe that they are accurate to the text, but feel free to discuss, dispute, or dissect (but not disrespect) my not so random thoughts.

I'm sure that the young man was sincere. There is no record that shows him as being a tool for either the Pharisees or the Sadducees. I think that, by this time, Jesus had developed a clear reputation for integrity, veracity, and wisdom in the affairs of life, and people sought Him out for answers as well as for miracles (see Luke 12:13, for example). His question reflected this unnamed man's respect for Jesus as a godly teacher: "(Good) Teacher, what good thing shall I to so that I might have eternal life?"

Jesus' initial reaction has been commented upon by scholars, pastors and teachers, and people who have written more books than I have, so I won't attempt a radical new insight here, except to point out one thing. I noticed that Jesus did not, in His answer, ridicule the man's query. Perhaps He did push the man a little further by the general nature of His answer. If the man had responded to "Keep the Comandments," with a smile and a nod of appreciation, then one could say that he merely wanted affirmation of his own goodness from the "Good Teacher" (according to the Byantine textual tradition).

He goes further, however, asking, "Which?" It seems rather curt, this one-word follow up. The great Alfred Edersheim, wrote in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, that it was customary to use one word comments to women, but such a response would be deemed rude if directed towards a man. Jesus' response is also interesting, and almost as short: ""you shall not murder," "you shall not commit adultery," "you shall not steal," "you shall not falsely witness," "honor your father and your mother," and "you shall love yuour neighbor as yourself." The young man, apparently well raised, says that he has kept each of these since he was a young man, yet still feels insecure regarding his eternal destiny. Aside from the point, raised by others, that his question presumes that eternal life comes as a result of what you do, I am struck that Jesus said nothing about God in His answer. I would argue, though, that to claim this as an error of legalism by the young man might be reading information into the account that was not yet available to the young man. The cross was still in the future, the Gospel at that time was that Christ has come, not that we are saved by grace through faith, so the young man asked a reasonable question, considering the religous cultural background that both he and Jesus came from.

Jesus' reply interests me also: He doesn't mention loving God, worshipping God, or anything else that would be "God-related." It is easy to claim to love God, since, with few exceptions, God has never interrupted anyones testimony on that point to countradict it. Who could prove the man a liar if he had said that he had never worshipped any God but the LORD? We likewise have no way, in this New Covenant, of knowing who believes in Jesus Christ and who does not, so we hesitate to challange anyone who claims faith in Him, regardless of their behavior, except in the stricter Christian circles, who fall into the other extreme of looking for things which are done. Perhaps Jesus, therefore, felt no need to bring up the first three commandments, knowing that no one who failed to keep those would bother with the remaining seven.

Jesus' next words are the ones that have created the problem. Telling the man to sell his goods, giving them to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven, and then "Come, follow me," are not words that warm the hearts of your typical capitalist entrepenure. As a result, they have been muted or explained away. I think the fear of scaring away rich donors caused us to miss teh real point of Jesus' words. Being perfect can only come by following the One who is perfect. We have no other reference point than Jesus for perfection, for every other hero has a fatal flaw which keeps him from the ranks of the Divine. All of us have our moments, so none of us can confidently tell others to follow in our footsteps with complete assurance that we will never fail. Only "Jesus never fails," as an old Gospel song exclaims.

The young man's response, if we are honest, is not that much different from most of ours. As long as going to heaven can be achieved through our efforts, we can have some degree of confidence. "What one man can do, another can do," got Anthony Hopkins through a harrowing experience against a bear. If only getting into heaven only meant running a little bit faster than the guy next to you.

I have more to say, but I'll let you deal with this much of what will be a full plate. Better leaving you wanting more, than have you saying I did too much, right?

Friday, January 21, 2011

What is Love? - Thoughts as Valentine's Day approaches

“Love…a word that comes and goes…but few people really know what it means to really love somebody…” – Kirk Franklin, “Love
“We are His hands, we are His feet. We are His people, children of the Lord…” – Whiteheart, “We are His Hands

Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant share a common desire, that we would love God and love one another. Whether you looked to the instructions of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, or the descriptive passage in 1 Corinthians 13, one finds that loving God and loving one another are important in terms of living the life of a God-pleaser.

One of the biggest differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is the locus of control. Under the Old Covenant, the believer was given the Torah, what we call the Law, but really means “instruction” more than it means “legal code.” These instructions, if followed, were the key to pleasing God. Unfortunately, the Israelite believer had nothing within him that enabled him to keep the instructions other than his own self-will, which, at best, bore mixed results.

Now, under the New Covenant, we have been given, not merely a set of instructions, but power to please God because the Holy Spirit is within us. All we need to do is know how to access that power, right? If only it were that easy, then we could just buy another product from Evangelist ___, or Pastor ____, or maybe Prophet ____, and before you know it, you are the perfect Christian!

In fact, long before we finish that book, DVD, or tape, we find that love is still an elusive quality, sometimes hiding tantalizingly out of the reach of our heart, mind, and strength. Love cannot be captured by more education, more busy work, or more charitable giving. It only comes when you see the value in someone, whether it is God, or the person sitting besides you who is trying to see God while at Sunday worship or the Wednesday Night Bible Study. The only way to do that, though, is to see what God sees.

God the Father sees Jesus Christ as the Beloved Son, fully sharing the Father’s nature, heart, and will. So should we. He sees the rest of our family members, our co-workers and classmates, and the strangers who pass through our lives, as people for whom His Son died. So should we. These people are so valuable, that Christ gave up His heavenly glory and power, to become common, ordinary, and powerless. In His steps, and in the name of true love, we should give up our relative glory, our self-importance, our time, and our desire for preeminence, to help them find the Lord Jesus.

In the end, as Pastor Marvin Sapp sang, “Nothing else matters, than being with Jesus.” Whether it is “for me and my four,” or those strangers who make us nervous, proud, or frustrated, true love is never having to say that anyone passed through our lives without having experienced Christ’s love through us. This can only be said by those who seek, not by their own energy, but by trusting in Christ to supply what each encounter requires, to allow God to use them as a conduit of love, a channel of grace.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A new year, a new decade, and a new creation

As you may have noticed, we are in a new year, starting a new decade. If nothing else, time markers encourage us to take stock of ourselves. For this year, I hope to put my love of, and talent for, writing to good use.

Last year, I claimed the words of Phi 3:14 as my verse for the year. At this point, I do not know how well I submitted to that goal, but I do know that I am still here. Of course, part of my reason for being here, I believe, is to raise my son in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and prepare him for the work of ministry that is his destiny in Christ. Another part, I believe, is that I have more growing in grace to do.

This year, I want to submit to Phi 2:5-8. Paul joyfully described himself in every epistle as a slave of Jesus Christ. I want that same understanding, because I know that I will serve someone. I know that the Lord is a loving, wise, benevolent, and holy master, while Satan is hateful, foolish, wicked, and common. I must serve one of them, however, and I am aware of the end of the story. I want to win, I want to live, and I want to please God.

There are those who do not understand this, but believe that they are autonomous, and are choosing to indulge the flesh as they see fit. I have seen, however, that those who have rejected the Lord Jesus Christ are compelled to walk against His will. Inevitably, that leads to sin and death. I have never met a godly atheist or a holy hedonist.

As you enter this new year/decade, I hope that you will also consider yourself, and take a look at the road you are traveling along. Make sure that your path leads to life, and if not, God still allows for u-turns.