Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Speaking the Language of Karmic Balance

Suggested Reading: 1 Corinthians 14:6-12

Several years go, I had the privilege of spending a summer witnessing to a Vietnamese family that had moved into the neighborhood. Most of my conversations took place with a college-aged young man from the family. He had been raised in a Buddhist tradition and had only been in the States for a couple of years. Very early on in the discussion I discovered a significant difficulty in witnessing to this man: language. I don't mean that we spoke different languages in the sense that I spoke English and they spoke Vietnamese because most of them spoke very good English. I mean that there were entire concepts that were alien to them. Sin was literally a foreign concept. How do you convince someone that they need to be saved from sin when they don't understand what sin is or why it could cause lasting consequences? When you believe firmly that karmic balance is always possible, why would anyone ever need a savior? That summer I had to learn ways to communicate the Gospel in its most basic form and in terms that someone completely unfamiliar with Western Christianity would understand.

In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul was discussing the roll of speaking in tongues in the church and he wrote, There are doubtless many different kinds of languages in the world, and all have meaning. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker will be a foreigner to me (1Co 14:10-11, HCSB). Paul was specifically addressing the benefits of keeping that particular spiritual gift to yourself unless an interpreter was present but the statement also has larger implications pertaining to the example I used when witnessing to my Vietnamese neighbors.

More and more we live in a world where people do not understand the language we use when we witness. Words like "sin" and "saved" mean little in a world where people either believe everybody goes to Heaven or that your existence ends the moment you die. Fifty years ago, the American church still had the educational power that ensured nearly everyone knew what "justification" and "atonement" meant, even if they didn't put much stock in those things. Today's society has grown up without those influences and educational experiences and we must learn to speak a new language. We must learn to step outside of the church cultures in which we operate and speak in a language that unchurched, unreached people understand. We must strive to understand the Gospel well enough that we can communicate it in its most basic form to those who have no reference for what we are saying. Who is Jesus? Why do we need Him? How do we follow Him? What difference will following Him make? If we cannot answer these questions in simple terms, we might as well be speaking a foreign language.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

When Pastors Get Facebook Bombed

Suggested Reading:Proverbs 18:12-20

On Facebook, not long ago, I read a post that disturbed me. Someone had posted an opinion piece about a particular prominent pastor who was supposedly trying to blend Islam and Christianity. I clicked on the article to discover that the author didn't cite any sources or link to any articles but proclaimed this pastor the Spawn of Satan for mixing up his theology so badly. The comments on the article were even worse, decrying how this pastor was a false-prophet and the anti-Christ for pushing such an evil idea. The problem was, none of it was true. So I linked to an article which contained an actual interview with the pastor in question, an article in which he not only denied the accusations in the first article but gave compelling reasons why he would never hold those views. Once I linked to the article, suddenly the hateful comments stopped and no one had anything else to say. The experience reinforced a proverb I have read for years: The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross- examines him (Proverbs 18:17, HCSB).

We quite easily fall into the trap of believing the first thing anyone tells us, especially if we are told something that reinforces a negative feeling we already have about someone. Because we already have negative feelings we are much more likely to simply say, "Well, that wouldn't surprise me," and then quickly accept the claim as fact.  Sometimes, we are shocked that such an accusation could be true but swallow it anyway. At other times, we hear something from a source we trust and, even though the accusation doesn't make sense, we believe it because we trust that person. The problem is that nasty accusations always have some kind of emotional baggage attached to them and every single one of us has blind spots when it comes to certain groups or people. There is always another side to the story.

If someone were to make a nasty accusation against me, I would want them to investigate the claim before accepting it.  I would want them to verify the truth before passing it on to other people. So the least we can do is verify such claims when we hear them. If we can't verify nasty accusations or we don't have the time to check it out ourselves, we ought to let the accusations drop.  Most of the time, the first person we hear is going to sound right until we hear the other side of the story.

Don't just believe nasty accusations or pass them on without verifying them first. You would be pretty upset if you were the one being accused.

Monday, December 6, 2021

White-Water Canoeing Up the Road to Hell

Suggested Reading: Acts 9:10-19

When I was in seventh grade, our church youth group went on a white-water canoeing expedition for Spring Break. We drove up river, paired up in canoes, and then started down the river. Most of us had never done this before, but we all seemed to be doing well. Until the rain started. Within a few hours, the river had risen several feet and the rain was still coming down hard. Most of the group reached the camp where we were supposed to meet, but several were still unaccounted for. As the waters continued to rise, a few of our more experienced canoers got back in their canoes and headed up-river to find our missing people. We all knew that setting out, canoeing up-river with the water rising, was not safe. But teenagers were missing in the storm and someone had to go save them. So, even though the men were scared and we were scared for them, they headed out because someone had to save those teenagers lost on the rising river.

Looking at Acts chapter 9, I was reminded of that Spring Break trip by the reaction of Ananias of Damascus. Saul of Tarsus, the nemesis of the early church had been sent to Damascus to arrest and confine followers of Jesus. Without telling Ananias that Jesus had appeared to Saul on the road into town, Jesus appeared to Ananias, telling him to go find Saul and heal his blindness. Oh, and Saul already knew he was coming.  "But Lord," Ananias exclaimed, "I've heard people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name"(Acts 9:13-14, NLT).  With some pretty good justification, Ananias was scared to death of walking right into Saul's hands.  But going to Saul was an important task. Saul needed someone to open his eyes, both literally and figuratively. And so, even though it scared him to death, Ananias went.

We understand the urgency of saving people who are in danger, of sending rescuers into burning buildings to save children from fires and of searching for teenagers lost on raging rivers when the water is rising. We understand that urgency and we commit ourselves to action because, even though we might be scared, something has to be done. But far too often, we fail to apply that same urgency and commitment to reaching the lost, in spite of the fact that the consequences can be even more significant.

Every day we see people living without hope, never living out the potential with which they were designed to live in Christ. We see people who are either casually strolling or running at full speed down the road to Hell, people in desperate need of forgiveness and purpose. Yes, the idea of sharing the Gospel with them may be a little scary, but we wouldn't let fear stop us if there were children drowning in a river or standing in front of an oncoming car. Why would we allow fear to keep us from sharing the Gospel with people in need, especially when the consequences can be even more profound? Do we hold back simply because the danger doesn't seem as immediate?

Bravery isn't the lack of fear but the ability to do what is necessary in spite of fear. Isn't it about time we put a little bravery back into sharing the Gospel?

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Idolatry in Back to the Future

Suggested Reading: Mark 15:27-38

As a teenager, one of my favorite film series was the Back to the Future series. In fact, when I was sick and I would stay home from school, I would lay down on the couch and watch all three movies back to back. The first two movies are a lot of time-traveling fun, but they set up the third movie where Marty McFly, the main character, learns an important lesson about how to respond or, more accurately, how not to respond when people call him a coward. See, Marty's biggest flaw was that he couldn't stand for anyone to call him a coward and he felt compelled to demonstrate his lack of cowardice anytime anyone did. Only when that tendency landed him in a life-and-death situation did he realize that trying to disprove every disparaging statement made about him was not the brightest idea in the world.

I was reminded of Marty's lesson recently when reading the crucifixion scene in Mark. As Jesus hung on the cross, his political enemies (and those who just joined in the "fun" of a public execution) mocked and taunted Jesus, demanding that he prove his status as Messiah by coming down from the cross as a sign. They scoffed, "He saved others but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel come down from the cross that we may see and believe" (Mark 15:31-32, NIV). If Marty McFly had been on the cross, we would all have been in a lot of trouble because he would have had to prove himself to his mockers by coming down from the cross. But coming off the cross would have eliminated the primary task Jesus fulfilled as the messiah, enduring the crucifixion so that he could rise from the dead. Fortunately, Jesus was sure enough of himself that he endured their taunts, knowing that he did not have to prove himself to anyone.

How many times do we feel the need to prove ourselves to someone? How often do we do things we know are unwise because we want to silence those who mock us? How often do we take a position we don't really believe because we don't want people to see us as stupid or ignorant? As believers in Christ Jesus, we cannot allow our actions to be dictated by the possibility of someone looking down on us. We cannot silence the words God has given us to speak or hold back acts of love and service because people might think we look stupid. We have to remember that, like with those people who wanted Jesus to come off the cross, proving ourselves is not worth the cost.

More than that, when we allow ourselves to be goaded into an action we would not take on our own simply because of what those people might think of us, we give those people, rather than God, control of our lives. Our desire to look good (or to not look bad) gives those people who would mock and ridicule us power over us and turns us into idolaters who worship at the altar of other people's opinions rather than faithful followers of Christ.

People thinking badly of us is not the end of the world if they think badly of us for doing the right thing. We should respond to taunts, insults and mocking in the same spirit as Jesus: "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23, NIV). Sometimes, not responding is the very best thing we can do.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Quoting Rabbis and Missing Theology

Suggested Reading: Matthew 7:21-29

Because of my field of study, I have spent much of the last twenty years with biblical scholars and theologians. One of the good things about this group is the amount of reading they do and the number of ideas they are exposed to. Many pride themselves on thinking outside the realms of traditional theology, which can be a very good thing when tradition has wandered away from Scripture. But the other day I was talking with someone online and responded to his theological assertion by quoting a verse from 1 Corinthians and then by paraphrasing a verse from Ephesians and pointing out the tension between the verses. Mostly, I quoted those verses just to give him a hard time because they created some tension with his position and I enjoy ribbing my friends. But he responded by saying that I had missed Paul's theology on the issue. When I got the response, I thought, All I did was quote Scripture. How did I miss his theology? I wondered if he realized that I was simply quoting scripture. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, the guy had a Master's Degree in biblical studies. But his response left me wondering.

Unfortunately, people getting so wrapped up in theology that they forget scripture is nothing new. The rabbis of Jesus' day commonly taught by reading a passage of scripture and then quoting all the famous rabbis' interpretations. The people were so used to synagogue services filled with nothing but quotes from scholars that when Jesus finally came along, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, because he was teaching them like who had authority and not like their scribes (Matt 7:29, HCSB). Jesus didn't quote all of the theologians, he pointed at the Scripture and then laid out what God intended when it was first inspired.

As I say this, I know that we do not have the clarity of understanding that Jesus had about Scripture.   I can't give you a definitive declaration of what Scripture meant because it is always possible that I can be wrong. But what I can do is point you back to Scripture, to the words God preserved in the first place, the words that the Apostle Paul said were inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17, HCSB).

Theological study is good. I've spent more than two decades engaging in it myself. But never get so invested in your personal theology and theories that your first instinct is to explain away Scripture to preserve them.  Don't be more loyal to your denomination, or to your Bible study leader, or to those ideas that you like than you are to Scripture.  Every word is profitable to us, whether we know the latest theological trends or not.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Time I Tried to Steal a Car

Suggested Reading: 1 Samuel 25

I was never what you would call a "trouble-maker" growing up. Most people would have called me a "goody-two-shoes" and I took more than a little grief for how "good" I was. But looking back on my childhood, I was very fortunate that I did not get in more trouble. I remember this one time, when I was 14 or 15 when I was extremely angry with my parents. At that point, we had this key hanger where my parents tried to put their keys when they came in. For a couple of weeks, my mother had dutifully hung her keys there. On this particular day, while I was very angry with my parents (for what I don't remember) and while they were gone I decided I was angry enough to do something about it. My parents had gone out together, so I figured they only needed one set of keys, and I decided that I would take the car that was still home for a spin. I worked my anger into a hardened resolve and I marched over to the key hanger. There were no keys. My parents had taken all the keys with them. My anger quickly dissipated into frustration and, by the time my parents got home, I was fine again. Looking back on that incident, I've often thought about how the Lord protected me, both from danger and from doing wrong, by having my parents take both sets of keys with them.

There is a similar story in the life of David. David and his men had been standing guard for a group of shepherds for a season and, as was the custom, expected that he and his men would receive a token of tribute for their service when it came time to shear the sheep. David sent a few of his men to collect this token and Nabal, the owner of the sheep they had protected, turned them away with insults. When the messengers returned to David and told David of Nabal's response, David was furious and roused his men for war. Back at Nabal's home, Nabal's wife Abigail heard how foolish her husband had been and loaded up a wagon full of provisions to take to David and head off the danger her husband's foolishness had caused. She met David before he reached Nabal's home, presented him with the customary reward for guarding the sheep (and probably a little more) and spoke to David. Abigail said, "Now my lord, as surely as the LORD lives and as you yourself live, it is the LORD who kept you from participating in bloodshed by avenging yourself by your own hand" (1 Samuel 25:26, HCSB). David agreed with her sentiment and they both returned to their respective homes. Two weeks later, Nabal was dead from a stroke and David asked Abigail to be his wife.

In this particular instance, David was going to make a big mess of things because he felt he had been wronged, much like the mess I would have made if I'd had access to the car keys and had acted out my anger by taking an underage joy-ride. In those instances, neither David nor I could take credit for not doing something stupid. We were both saved from our own stupidity because of circumstances or people God had placed in our lives.

I often meet Christians who don't feel like they have a story to tell because they were never drug dealers or gang members whose lives were turned around by the power of the Gospel. But sometimes, the fact that God protected us by preventing us from doing stupid things is just as powerful a story. None of us, even the "best" of us, are all that good on our own. At times, only the loving intervention of our Heavenly Father keeps us from completely ruining things.

If you want a story to tell other people about God's power, don't think that you have to pull out an example of horrible sin and how God turned you around. Point out times where God, in grace, saved you from doing something stupid, protected you from your own penchant for sin, and saved you before you realized you needed saving. God's power can be demonstrated by the times God keeps us from going over the brink, not just by the times God pulls us back from it.

How often has God saved you from doing something stupid and kept you from ruining things? Thank God for the protection you've been given and then be willing to share that story. Never underestimate the power of God's preventive care.

Monday, November 29, 2021

I Swear It's An Invisibility Mask!

Suggested Reading: Isaiah 30:8-17

My son has a very active imagination. When he was younger, one of his favorite things to do was to take a mundane object from around the house and decide from then on that it was something very exciting. The plastic ruler became a sword that had to be held a particular way all the time. The spy glasses from the Happy Meal became a mask that made him invisible and if you claimed to see him while he was wearing those spy glasses, he would tell you in all seriousness that you were wrong because the glasses made him invisible. Whatever his imagination decided was what the item became forever, and if you had the audacity to ask him to put it away and call it by its real name, he would act like he didn't know what you were talking about. You couldn't ask him to put away the spy glasses, you had to ask him to put away his mask of invisibility. At that age, it was still kind of cute. But when adults do it, there is something a little disturbing about it.

In the book of Isaiah, God was speaking through the prophet about his people who wanted the world to be the way they imagined it and not the way it really was. He described them this way: They are a rebellious people, deceptive children, children who do not want to obey the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy the truth to us. Tell us flattering things. Prophesy illusions (Isaiah 30:9-10, HCSB). The people in the passage wanted safety to be something they could find easily by fleeing to Egypt, but safety was found in facing their sin and trusting God's instructions. Because they enjoyed the thought of their own imagined world better, they would tell the prophets, just like my son would tell me, "Don't tell me the way things really are. Just reinforce my own illusions."

I've discovered, as much as we want to deny it, adults still behave this way quite a bite. When someone tries to tell us that we're being unreasonable and we get angry and refuse to listen because they're not being supportive (who cares if they're right?), when we dismiss what the preacher has to say because we're uncomfortable with the standards he proclaims (so what if they come from scripture?), when we blame our child's behavior problems on the teacher (it's just a coincidence every teacher he's had was a bad one, right?), we are saying, "Don't tell me the way things are. I like the imaginary world I've created and I'm not leaving it."

The problem with refusing to acknowledge reality is that reality will still acknowledge us. We may refuse to admit we're being unreasonable, but the people around us still know it's true. We may insist our child doesn't have the behavior problem, but he's still going to get in trouble with next year's teacher, too. So, rather than try to maintain our own little world, as scary as it can be, we must face reality. As embarrassing as it might be to admit that you're wrong, pretending you're right just makes you look worse.

Don't try to silence the truth when people share it with you. Don't be afraid to face the way things really are. You can only live in your own imaginary world for so long before it comes crashing down around you.

Speaking the Language of Karmic Balance

Suggested Reading: 1 Corinthians 14:6-12 Several years go, I had the privilege of spending a summer witnessing to a Vietnamese family tha...