Thursday, April 30, 2015

Condemned in the Shadows

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Thursday, April 30, 2015
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away.  Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins….Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things.  Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body.  For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.  Colossians 2:13, 18-19 (NLT)
Paul told the church body gathered at Colossae that the forgiveness of God is extended to whoever places his/her faith in Jesus; it is free because of God’s mercy and grace.  That “transaction” releases us from the ultimate penalty of sin – eternal death, which is final separation from God. 
And then Paul reminds them to not be intimidated by those who want to take them back to their “pre-Christ days” – rules, ceremonies, schedules and rituals.  He said those things are only shadows of the reality which is in our future. 
This is joy unspeakable, and full of glory!  Condemned in the shadows, we are freed by the future!  Set free, we are free indeed!
But let us be quick to point out that Paul never said that since we are free we can now do anything we want.
No…far from it!  Notice the last part of Paul’s instructions about those who are connected to the head of the church – Christ:
For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.    Colossians 2:19 (NLT)
A body that decides to do whatever it wants would be unable to sustain.  Legs that decide to be noses, or fingers that want to be kidneys, will not function to make the body healthy.  God wants to nourish and strengthen the body of Christ, but we must embrace that nourishment as we were meant to live.
And so that requires different than just rules, permission-giving leaders and ceremonies; it requires the body to be integrated, congruent – held together in the kind of koinonia or relationship that allows and supports each member to thrive.
In his letter to the Ephesian church Paul explained it this way:
He makes the whole body fit together perfectly.  As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.  Ephesians 4:16 (NLT)
Rules and laws are never for the peaceful person of integrity; they’re intended to keep the lawless ones in check.  Law is intended to keep the rioters off the streets. 
The older I get the more convinced I am that the royal law of love cannot be litigated.  God needs Christian lawyers, certainly, but you cannot bring a conscience to justice with externals; it’s an inside job
God gave each of us created beings free will.  And because the gifts and calling of God are without repentance[2] God also refuses to violate that free will by making us conform our will to His; that is entirely an act of volition, a voluntary response to the loving acts of God in Jesus Christ on the cross. 
The logic follows that you can use the free will you were born with any way you….will.
If you want to exercise that will to please the Creator (as you were hard-wired to do), you surrender it back to Him, and let God use you to be a blessing. 
In The Lion King, Mufasa, the daddy lion-king, pointed to the way the animals eat each other and eventually return to the ground as food for the next generation.  He told his son, Simba, the cub who would be the heir:  it’s the circle of life.
With respect to Disney…Mufasa got it wrong; that is the circle of death - the circle of life is when the humans love other humans and by it they honor God.

For You Today

Mufasa got one thing right; he warned Simba to stay far away from the place of shadows. 

So right! 

Stay away from the condemning darkness; live in God’s light; it’s how God holds the body of Christ together and nourishes us.  That will see us home safely.

Think about that out on your rocky road today; and have a great day!



[1] Title image:  By Chitrapa at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Romans 11:29

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Of State Dinners and Spies

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015
We hear songs of praise from the ends of the earth, songs that give glory to the Righteous One!  But my heart is heavy with grief.  Weep for me, for I wither away.  Deceit still prevails, and treachery is everywhere.   Isaiah 24:16 (NLT)
State dinners served at the White House are more than just political form – they are meant to be a high honor for visiting dignitaries from other nations. 
These dinners started in the late 1800’s and have been a tradition for all that time.  In the 1960’s President Lyndon Johnson hosted 54 of those festive nights – the most in presidential history.  Coming in second was Ronald Regan in the 80’s with 35 in 8 years.
President Obama has only had seven of the $500,000 nights, although it was supposed to be eight; it seems two years ago Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was to be honored, but it never happened.  She canceled after learning that the [U.S.] National Security Agency spied on her.[2]
Hmmmm….sitting down to a half-million dollar banquet given by people who want to honor you and your service to mankind, while they peek into your private life to keep tabs on you? 
I believe I would have also cancelled.  (That is, assuming I’d ever been invited….which I haven’t; yet!) 
(And…by the way, I’m neither holding my breath nor checking the mail for invitations!)
The picture of a pat on your back before the crowd, while the “patter” is using his other hand to plunge a knife in that same back, is a well-known and well-understood cause for apprehension.  Treachery, as Isaiah put it, is everywhere.
Pastors are not exempt – neither from being treacherous, nor being targeted by people who deal treacherously.
A very long time ago, and almost in another galaxy (as Star Wars has it), I was trapped by a pair of sharp operators.  They were church members and leaders; they laid a trap for the na├»ve preacher, and in front of a congregational meeting praised my leadership and preaching and even the way I parted my hair.
Then the hammer fell!
They proposed something to the congregation in a way that seemed to have my full backing, even though they had privately suggested to me it wouldn’t work.  I was in agreement with them, and assumed that was the end of it, and wouldn’t be brought up.  One leader brought it up; the other quickly seconded it and called for a vote.
After all their public praise, had I contradicted this dynamic duo, it would have made me the bad guy; unfortunately, allowing it to be adopted by the congregation, only to certainly fail later made me a bad leader.
I would like to say I stood up and spoke truth to power – but it’s hard to do that when you’re sitting there in absolute disbelief and shock.  I froze.  I think my mouth was dropped open so wide I got splinters from the floor on my chin. 
And then…the look.  The proposer of the dastardly motion looked at me and grinned a little.  To the gathered church brethren it looked like he was saying, we agree with your leadership here, you fine fellow of a pastor; but I knew it meant, preacher you’re gonna be one BIG fool when this flops and you get the credit for it!
Now, that’s not the only failed leadership event on my resume’, but it stands as one of the most painful events I ever experienced as a pastor.  And although it was personally humbling and painful, it taught me one of the most meaningful lessons I’ve ever put on my personal tee shirt:  when it comes to praise, be careful when someone wants to give a state dinner in your honor!

For You Today

There’s not a treacherous demon behind every bush just waiting to stick a knife in your back.  But there are some and you need to trust God’s hand to guide you through the maze. 
So, do what you can to keep loving people, and keep trusting the Lord; and avoid state dinners if you can.

Think about that out on your rocky road today; and have a great day!



[1] Title image:  The Truman White House China, photo by The White House Museum

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

When Faith is Discarded

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015
And you yourselves, who were strangers to God, and, in fact, through the evil things you had done, his spiritual enemies, he has now reconciled through the death of his body on the cross, so that he might welcome you to his presence clean and pure, without blame or reproach.  This reconciliation assumes, of course, that you maintain a firm position in the faith, and do not allow yourselves to be shifted away from the hope of the Gospel, which you have heard, and which, indeed, the whole world is now having an opportunity of hearing.  Colossians 1:21-23 (PHILLIPS)
In two lengthy sentences Paul navigates the breadth and width of man’s eternal possibilities.  On the one hand he presents the joy of a repentant believer being reconciled to God by the grace of the cross, standing before God, welcomed as a clean and blameless child.  In the next breath he shows a conditional alternative – faith being discarded, apostasy, a former-believer denied any hope the Gospel holds.
Wow; talk about going from “hero” to “zero” in a heartbeat!
There are two simple camps of thought on how it can be that a person places trust in Christ and is saved at some point in life, only to lose that position later.
Camp #1 – It cannot happen!  God will keep you (even against your will).  He will take you to the woodshed and straighten you out, but you’re His no matter what.
Camp #2 – It DOES happen!  You intentionally walk away, and God lets you do that.
There is a third camp…and it really isn’t a camp, it’s the road between the two camps.  A lot of people are on that road, somewhere between believing apostasy can eventually lead you to an eternity in Hell, and hoping it just ain’t so.
I know this road well; I spent most of my life on it.  And I don’t recommend sitting on that theological fence.  Frankly it is a road I’d rather avoid, even more than Wendover Avenue and I-40 in Greensboro during rush hour.
Here’s why:
Camp #1 (it can’t happen) is kind of comfortable – you simply wall yourself in, like a brick fortress, refusing to entertain the notion that God would ever cancel your ticket to heaven.  Any evidence to the contrary (like Paul’s letter to the Colossian church) is warded off with phrases we have learned, eternal security of the believer….once saved always saved….no one can pluck them out of my hand. 
But the problem with the comfort of an “impenetrable” fortress of the mind is it can lead to lazy discipleship.  Once something is so settled it never requires attention, there is a danger to never giving it attention.  In short, in your certainty that you’ve got it “right” you can become ungrateful, and that works against a worshipful heart.
Camp #2 (it can…and DOES happen) is less comfortable; it’s something of a rocky road that won’t put up with a petulant child – the parent being God who warns, and then follows through with cancelling the birthday party. 
It’s hard to believe God would actually do that.  However, there are far too many examples of God’s disciplinary justice to ignore – particularly with His children.  As just one example among many in Scripture, In Numbers 16 we read about when a group of the children of Israel (led by Korah and family) rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, nearly 15,000 people died at God’s judgment.  These were people who were God’s chosen; yet they were swallowed alive by the ground for their disobedience.
Apostasy is more than a possibility; it is at the apex of dangers for Christians who begin to decelerate in their discipleship and wane in their walk with Jesus.
What are the signs of coming apostasy in the life of a believer?  Worship and Bible Study begin to become humdrum, then becomes irregular, and then non-existent.  Reluctance to serve becomes the norm.   Giving may drop from tithing to tipping, and finally spent on “necessities” like a new car or boat.  These are outward signs.
Inwardly what accompanies these signs are rationalizations which are the result of shutting out the truth that as loving as God may be, and as free as the grace is that saved you, God is still a God of justice and won’t tolerate sin in the people He loves most…followers of Jesus Christ.
 There is a long list of people that will not be in heaven (see Revelation 21:8 & 22:15).

For You Today

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters.  Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God.  Hebrews 3:12 (NLT)



[1] Title image:  By Michael Henderson from Brisbane, Australia (Apostasia), via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Good Shepherd Speaks Truth to Power

Jesus had plenty of trouble with the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s most powerful religious and governmental movers and shakers; Peter and the rest of the apostles didn’t experience any better.  The larger and more powerful the institution, the greater chance you will run into “keepers of the rules”. 
Whether its clergy leaders in a denomination, members of Congress, or business leaders in the community, there are those who are the self-appointed “permission-givers;” they’re in charge, and they will remind you of that in a New York minute!
Rev. Alan Bevere shared this in a clergy Facebook group this week:
The religious leaders argued with Jesus over his interpretation of the law because they wanted to be the permission givers. They could not rejoice in the good Jesus was doing-- healing the sick, reaching out to the marginalized, and offering words of comfort to those who were suffering. Jesus was doing good without authorization from those who were God's permission givers.[2]
Our text naturally divides into two sections, the Pharisees’ point of view (vs. 1-7), and the Truth of the Good Shepherd as told by Peter (vs. 8-12).

Pharisees – Speaking Power Over Truth

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees.  These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead.  They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning.  But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.  The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem.  Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest.  They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”  Acts 4:1-7 (NLT)
It’s really difficult when you’re in charge to sit-by while the unauthorized change everything.  To this collection of Pharisees, Sadducees and other Jewish religious power brokers of the Sanhedrin, Peter and the other uneducated nobodies, fishermen, tax collectors and other riff-raff, were claiming theological ground which belonged to the rulers.  They were going to teach them a thing or two about respect.
The problem was the religious leaders had (as one writer put it) confused the power of position with the power of God.[3]  It works that way when you’re given power; you begin to think you can’t make a mistake, or somehow you are smarter than you really are.
I’ve made that mistake.  In our first pastorate, while we were still in seminary, Elizabeth and I served a little church on the outskirts of New Orleans.  We had a preschooler, and several new babies showed up in the first few weeks.  So, we got the bright idea that the nursery, which was a tiny little castoff room, would be better in the large room behind the sanctuary. 
I was the new pastor and therefore the source of wisdom for all things at the church, so, without telling anyone Elizabeth and I moved all the baby stuff on a Saturday evening as a big surprise for the church.  Come Sunday morning we were in the middle of World War III.  Surprise indeed!
The Pharisees were convinced their position gave them ultimate power from God, and they immediately rejected Peter’s words because he wasn’t one of the certified and approved power brokers.  Ordination withheld!
Question:  What are you in-charge of that would get you angry if someone messed with your space?
The answer that just popped into your mind is that area which poses the greatest possibility of you acting like a Pharisee.
Let’s see how Peter turned this upside down.  Instead of speaking power over truth, here we see:

Peter – Speaking Truth to Power

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man?  Do you want to know how he was healed?  Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.  For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’  There is salvation in no one else!  God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”  Acts 4:8-12 (NLT)
Speaking truth to power is a common phrase of contemporary “progressive” thinkers (those who reject historical, orthodox Christian theology and doctrine…but speaking truth to power isn’t owned by any group.  Rather its a powerful tool of God in the mouth of a humble and obedient servant to bring justice and God’s healing as God chooses. 
Sometimes He uses people like us. 
What does it look like to speak truth to power?  Two components:

God-inspired

Did you notice Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit”?  Peter was not just ticked-off because they Pharisees made him angry.  Along with the other disciples he had spent long days in the upper room, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit to move.  And when the Spirit moved, Peter spoke.
Peter had a history of speaking before his brain was in gear; but becoming a man of prayer he began to know the difference…and so should we if we are to be like the Good Shepherd we serve; we wait for the Spirit.

Gospel-centered

Everything Peter said had a clear focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It was all centered in the Gospel.
What Peter said was God has Power to give life over death
Central to all apostolic preaching is the resurrection.  Without the resurrection there is no Christianity.  Paul said that if there is no resurrection we are still in our sins…we’re dead.
When you speak truth to power, speak in the clarity and certainty that even if the powers that be put you to death for daring to stand up for righteousness, God will raise you up and accomplish His will.
What Peter said was God’s Purpose is to save all who “will”
Peter referred to Jesus as the stone the builders rejected, a bold picture of Jesus as God-incarnate…worthy of worship.  He said this cornerstone of truth was sent to save us from sin and death. 
Peter spoke the truth that you can choose Jesus, or you can choose sin and death; but you can’t have both.
What Peter said was the ONLY Pathway to God is Jesus
In some circles[4] Jesus is not the only way to God.  If you claim that Jesus is the only way to God, you’re deemed an exclusivist and narrow-minded. 
But that was what Peter said – no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.
The choices are obvious when it comes to speaking Christian Truth to power – Christ, crucified, risen and coming again….OR…heresy and death. 
You can be a Good Shepherd follower, or you can follow the crowd.
As for me and my house, I’ll follow the Good Shepherd!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen!



[1] Title image: By Diana Ringo (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Alan Bevere, Not Just Good Work, But Kingdom Work, April 20, 2015
[3] Mitzi J. Smith at WorkingPreacher.com, Commentary on Acts 4:5-12
[4] By this I mean progressive-thinking persons who hold that Jesus is not the only way to salvation.

Including Jesus

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Monday, April 27, 2015
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.  He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.  Everything was created through him and for him.  He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.  Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body.  He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead.  So he is first in everything.  Colossians 1:15-18 (NLT)
It's just as important to the Christian faith to know why you believe, as it is to know what you believe.  The evangelist George Whitfield was witnessing to a man, and asked him, What do you believe? 
The man replied, I believe what my church believes. 
And what does your church believe? asked Whitfield.  What I believe, replied the man.  Undaunted, the evangelist tried one more time. 
And what do you both believe? 
Why, we both believe the same thing! 
We study a letter like Colossians because we must continually guard against all the ways our sharpness as witnesses of the faith can be dulled and pointless.
Paul wrote this letter while being held captive in a Roman prison.  If you've read the book of Philemon, you would be aware that both letters were written at the same time, and sent back to Colossae.  The letter to the Ephesians may have also been in the same mail bag. 
The occasion of this note is the danger that they were being led astray by some false teaching.  They were being told to tone down their view of Jesus.  It was okay to include Him in...just don't get too fanatical about it! 
Paul didn't spend a lot of words attacking the false teaching; he simply held up Jesus. 
Banks take the same approach about counterfeit money.  They will train tellers to recognize false currency without ever showing them a counterfeit bill.  They simply start them out with large stacks of real bills and say, "Count it!" 
After counting thousands of real bills, you know a fake instantly!
The Colossian church was being led to believe that Jesus was less than Lord of all.  This is not Christianity; it is the kind of syncretism that says Jesus is OK - we'll put him up on the shelf next to Mary, and Buddha, and money, and career, and the Daytona 500.
Beloved, your Christology (what you believe about Jesus) determines your Christianity.  As the old saying has it, If He's not Lord of all, He's not [your] Lord at all! 

For You Today

As you go to work, school, or the mall, or wherever else – in all your conversations and decisions of life, remember that you are the servant of the preeminent One; Jesus is Lord, and you are His servant!

Think about that on the Rocky Road today; and have a great day!



[1] By smz (originally posted to Flickr as Indian Idols), via Wikimedia Commons