Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Soul Friendship

John 13: 34-35 
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

1 Peter 1: 22
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” 

The Christian community is a little like boot camp. In boot camp recruits come together from all walks of life. They have nothing in common with each other, except their commitment of service to the army.

At first, there is a lot of friction, but the drill sergeant pushes them and drives them. In time, they become best friends. Their central commitment overcomes all disagreements and they become one. 

What the army does through power and intimidation God does by an invitation to selfless love. If we want to love Him, then we must also love one another earnestly and with a pure heart. Jesus gave us an example of selfless love in his life and on the Cross, and then said “follow my example.”  We sign on as citizens of the Kingdom of God by committing ourselves to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. This leads to union with Christ and union with each other. In the army, the first command is to “obey.” In the kingdom, the first command is “love.”

But here’s the problem. We don’t know what love is. What passes for love in the church is a pale imitation of what God had in mind. It isn’t grounded in Christ. It is neither self-sacrificing nor trusting. What passes for Christian fellowship is often an inferior copy of worldly friendship. We are less connected with our church brothers and sisters than we are with our work friends or our hobby club.  What makes Christian fellowship so phony is our tendency to spiritualize everything.

 We say, “I love you in Christ” when what we really mean is “I really don’t like you, and, wish you would go away, but I’m supposed to say ‘I love you,’ because I’m in church.”   We share scripture but not our hearts. We don’t listen we preach. We don’t accept, we judge, and think ourselves holy for doing so. 

Larry Crabb described this kind of fellowship in his book Soul Talk.

“Churches . . . have become as dangerous to the health of our soul as porn shops. People leave both superficially titillated and deeply numbed.  Religious events can be as irrelevant to real life as cocktail parties at country clubs.  . .

“Retired folks in coffee shops gripe about expensive prescriptions or brag about their children’s success . .  .  Middle-agers share stories about their problem teens, pursue whatever dreams are left, and worry about growing old. Younger adults talk about babies, new jobs, exciting churches and ministries, and Grandpa’s inheritance. Adolescents choose heroes, fit in or drop out . . . Through it all, in every age group . . . it’s all the same. Most people tuck their soul out of sight and try desperately to ignore that something is missing they can’t supply. We speak few words that come out of an honest look at our soul, and few words that are spoken to us that inspire the courage to take an honest look that give us the hope and painful authenticity that would lead us to real life.”

Churches aren’t just random collections of people--they are people whom God has called together to be friends. Friendship is where people are knitted together as one mind and heart.
People today have many acquaintances, but few real friends. Forty years ago, the average American had about 3.5 friends. Today the figure is 1.5. Many, many people have no real friends.

Friends in Christ are different from human friendships. Christian friendships do not necessarily have anything in common—not gender, age, or education of any of these things, but mutual love and respect. Christian friends physically represent Christ in front of us. When we love them, we love Christ. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am.” 

Why is two the minimum?  Because human relationships begin as one on one relationships. If we can’t see Jesus in the person in front of us, then we will never see Him in a hall full of strangers. To experience Christian community, we first need to learn what it means to relate to one other person. The presence of Christ creates a safe environment where we can develop true soul friendship in a community of faith.

We don’t need to be just acquaintances—we need to be friends. These friendships are based on mutual, unconditional love and respect. There are 3 kinds of soul friend relationships. We need all three.

We need “Paul” relationships—someone who can mentor us in the Christian life. 
We need “Barnabas” relationships—someone who can walk beside us, with whom we can share everything.     
We need a “Timothy” relationships—someone we are mentoring in the Christian life. 

These relationships are “soul friend” relationships. As such, they have certain characteristics. Here is what they are not. 

Users. Worldly friendships are often means of getting something. Christian friendships are best when no one has a promotional agenda. We are with each other to display Christ’s love to that other person, not to get ahead.

 Judgers. Christians do not judge. Period.  Being a Christian friend is not a license to judge. We should accept each other as God accepts us. Soul friends treat each other with grace.

Talkers. Have you ever been around someone who will not let you get a word in edgewise? Christian friends learn to listen to each other. We are thinking of what we want to say before the other is finished talking. We must learn to be quiet and not dump our chatter on others without permission.

Fixers. We can’t be someone else’s messiah. Before offering advice, we should wait until we are asked. Let your friends hear from God themselves—He will give them to the right answer.

Pretenders. Whatever you do, be real. Don’t pretend to be different from who you are. If people don’t accept you for who you are they are not your soul friends. 

Avoiders. Soul friends talk about differences.  They care enough to get below the surface. Soul friends are people you can open up to about what is really in your heart. 

Being soul friends doesn’t come quickly or easily. It takes time. But the beginning of soul friendship is easy. It starts when we drop our guard and start loving each other unconditionally. Soul friendships begin with these simple words, “I love you—really!” But for that soul friendship to take form, we have to cultivate it. Here are some of the ways we can cultivate soul friendship.

How can we be a soul friend?
--Be there. We start by being where people are. You can’t be a soul friend staying in your room.

The reason we have fellowship activities in the church is for the cultivation of soul friendships. That is their purpose, more than teaching or serving. There are lots of places in the community for expressing our desire to help the poor and even to evangelize. There are many books you can read or websites you can visit that will give you a better education in the Bible and Christian doctrine that we ever could. But there is only one place where you can do this and make soul friends at the same time—within the gathered body of Christ. In order to make soul friends, we have to be where people share our soul. 

-- Listen, don’t talk. Once we spot a potential soul friend, we need to get with them. Our first job is to listen. No one will trust what you have to say if you don’t listen to them first. Pay attention to them and hear the voice of their heart.  

--Share your stories. As you listen, learn their stories. Then share your own. Tell who you are and where you came from. Friendships are built on a mutual sharing of stories.  

--Practice hospitality. There is a big difference between hospitality and entertainment. We entertain strangers, we practice hospitality to friends. If we are worrying about what our house looks like before we have someone over, we are entertaining. We want friends with us even if our house is messy. They aren’t there to see the houses--they are there to see you.

--Do stuff together. Invite them to work and play with you. Go to dinner, a movie or concert together. Soul friendships are usually formed when we are not expecting them to be formed, in the off-guarded moments of life when we are not looking.  Share our fun times as well as our serious ones.  

--Pray together. One characteristic of a soul friend over a regular friend is what happens when you share a need. A regular friend will try to fix it, or will try to get away. A soul friend listens and pray.  He (or she) realizes that your friendship is in your mutual bond with Christ, and will have confidence that Jesus can fix your problem, so they will go to God in prayer about it. Soul friends are comfortable praying together, and pray for each other. 

--Stay together. Proverbs 17:17, “A friend is made for adversity. Being a soul friend is hard. It’s like a dance between porcupines. We are constantly trying to get close without being hurt. Having a friend is hard when things are not well. But soul friendships come together in Christ, so they are not put off by pain. They are held together in Christ. Our mutual connection to Christ gives us the freedom to be ourselves, and causes us to endure the struggles of mutual disagreement with humility and grace. 

We are the body of Christ, not just to the world, but also to each other. As we obey Christ, we display His nature to the other Christians around us. By showing His grace we bring grace to all people. We Christians are sometimes bad about being friends, but Christ is always our friend. He will never leave us or forsake us, and He will unite us together if we ask Him to.

Take the time to get to know each other, not for your sake, but for Christ’s sake. He can make friends of us all. 

 If we can’t find a soul friend, don’t worry. Christ is there. He is your friend. He will stay with your forever. Not only that, Christ will find you a friend.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What is the Church? - Ephesians 1: 15-23

Today we begin a topical study on the church of Jesus Christ. Today we will discuss what the Church really is.   
First, I want to clear up a series of misunderstandings concerning what the Church is. The first is that the Church is a building or an organization.

 Buildings and organizations are “worldly” structures—they exist in heaven and not on earth.  There are church buildings in heaven, neither will there be any religious denominations. They will not be needed. Christ is the great head over all the churches and there will be no need for any other. We will all have direct access to Him.   

The church isn’t an organization but an organism. It has buildings and structures, but they are not the church. We have clothes, but we are not clothes. We are living beings who exist inside dead clothes. The church is a living entity that exists within an organizational structure. The church is people. The word “church” means a group of people who are called to follow God. If the building or the structure disappears, the church survives, just as when we take off our clothes, we are still there. 

The second misconception is that the church is about feelings. Psalm 133 says, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” Don’t confuse good feelings with unity itself! Even if the church is fighting and fussing, it’s still the church. If you fuss with your family, are you still family? Enjoyment is good in a church, but that doesn’t make us brothers. Beauty is desirable for a woman, but that does not make her female. We should still the church, if it doesn’t act like it.

Paul talks a lot about the church in Ephesians. In this passage, we see Christ uplifted. The church, Christ’s body, is uplifted along with Him. To unite with Christ is to become part of the church. Christ draws us up to God like a magnet drawing iron filings off a paper. As we stick to Christ, we stick to each other, whether we have anything in common or not.  Christ is the center and the head of the church. 

Confusing feelings of unity with positional unity causes problems. To leave a church or switch churches for emotional reasons devalues our unity in Christ. It’s certainly more fun to be with people who share our interests, politics, and taste for music, but that isn’t a reason to stop fellowshipping. The basis for our community is a mutual allegiance to Christ, not how much fun it is to be together.  

Remember the old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together?”  It’s certainly true in the church! In the 80’s, Fuller Seminary studied thousands of growing churches. They developed seven principles of church growth. The most controversial was the principle of “cultural homogeneity.” People go to churches with people like themselves. They recommended starting churches aimed at particular sets of people. This has worked wonderfully well--in fact--it’s become a hallmark of the church today.  We have traditional churches, contemporary churches, young churches, old churches, churches for new believers and mature believers, hipster churches, hip-hop churches, cowboy churches, and biker churches.

While I applaud ministries designed to take the Gospel to special sets of unbelievers, these are ministries, not churches. The church isn’t something we do, it’s something we are, because of who we are in Christ. To make churches for special groups of people is to suggest that we don’t need each other. The church is all people who submit to Jesus Christ.  

In the early church, Greek and Hebrew believers worshipped together. They took pride in not being the same. They believed their mission was to unite to the world, not promote division. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  There is neither young nor old nor cowboy or hipster nor Republican nor Democrat nor contemporary worship lovers nor traditional worship lovers nor Calvinists nor Arminians, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.

A third misconception is that the church has one mission. The church isn’t about mission, but submission. 

I grew up in a mainline church youth group. In those days, we were told that our mission was basically the agenda of left-wing politicians of the day. Then, I worked with Southern Baptists who told me that the mission of the church was only soul-winning. Then I went to a Christian college and was told that the main mission was transforming society along conservative lines. Since then, I have heard different versions of the “main mission”—world missions, church planting, social justice, pro-life, anti-pornography, saving America--even world domination! They all can’t possibly be right.

The church’s mission is to submit to God’s will.  He’s the head, not us. What one person is called to do may not be what we all are called to do. If you build a house, you don’t need all carpenters--you need people of many skills and callings. 

Jesus has many different projects going at the same time.  Some people are not called to do anything, but just be in the church. Soul winning, social action, and good works may all be God’s calling on your life, but they should not define the church. Whenever one view of mission becomes the mission of the church, we start excluding people who cannot help us with that mission. We may have many ministries, but we are one single church. Our unity is not the ministry to which we are called, but to the Lord we follow. 

A fourth misconception about the church is that participation in it is a voluntary association. If I can choose to fellowship with certain people, I can choose to disfellowship from others. In the past, there was only one church in town, and all Christians went there. But with so many churches in town, churches have become a consumer driven choice. If I don’t like what happens at my church, I just go to another. 
   
Local churches are places where people commit to loving each other. If I don’t like my cable company, I can change it. I have no commitment to that company. But if I don’t like my mother, I can’t choose another mother. You are not my brother, because I happen to like you. You are my brother because you serve Christ. The relationship we have with the members of our local church is “mediated” though Jesus. It is not about how I feel about you, but how I feel towards Christ. 

Most people I talk to say that their church is loving, because the people inside are loving to them. All cliques are loving on the inside! They are just cold on the outside! If we fit together and have things in common, it is likely that we will choose to be together. If we have nothing in common, it’s harder to be together. So we choose to hang out with our friends instead of with others. I have seen churches where the people like each other so much that they don’t want to leave! They stand around after church in little clumps of people. Meanwhile, people who are new or hurting or unpopular, who come to church, because they are hurting or struggling or looking for friendship and encouragement try to enter those little friendship clumps, but bounce off like balls off the bumpers of a pinball machine. There is no room in those voluntary associations of like-minded people who do not want to be bothered to love someone who isn’t like themselves. I have heard people complain in a church that they would not come back if “so and so” were there,  because they just didn’t like them.

Under Jesus’ lordship, we can no longer say that. We have joined a family, and must accept them.

  The New Testament is clear that we are not segregated socially, racially, ethnically, or any other way. Church should bring God’s family together, not tear it apart. We are most like Christ when we love and appreciate our differences. 
So what is a local church? It’s a body of believers who accept Jesus Christ as Lord, held together by faith, and nothing else. 

We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do share a commitment to Christ above all, and to love each other Christ loves us. Churches are the places where people learn to live together as Christians. A church is the family of God.

We can’t just be a church for one kind of Christian, but for all Christians. A family is responsible for every member. We care for each other not because we like each other, but because we are family. Our love for each other is based on our mutual love for Jesus Christ. 

This family love is not based on convenience, feelings, or some visionary task, but on our mutual position in Him.
As family, we need to stay together. This is the Christian virtue of stability. In Matthew 10: 11-13 Jesus told us, Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart.”   In other words, don’t change homes, because someone else has a nicer house. Don’t be looking for greener pastures, stay and learn to love who’s here.

In the Middle Ages, monks promised to stay in one house, unless they were sent out as missionaries. Stay with the people you are, unless you experience a true call of God. Love requires a serious commitment. It is a duty, not a feeling.

Last week, I had a funeral for a woman who had been a shut-in for fifteen years. She suffered from dementia and was completely blind. They had no children, so her husband of sixty-five years was her only caretaker.

I wish I could say that they had a loving attitude towards her, but that would be a lie. She was often angry, bitter and frustrated, and would swear at him, God, and anyone else around her. No human being can always feel loving under such circumstances. He suffered times of deep and serious depression. He told me why he stayed with her for all those years. It wasn’t out of loving feelings. He said that sixty-five years ago he vowed that he would be faithful, and he was determined to be a man of his word.

That’s what love really is—not to enjoy ourselves but to stay faithful.


When we commit to a church, we make a promise to remain faithful—not to a church building or denomination, but to the God of the church and the people of the church. That’s what the church is—God and the people. It isn’t about how we feel, it’s about being His, and faithful to Him, to love those He gives us in Jesus’ name.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Good Foundation - Matthew 7: 24-27

My house has a problem.

It was built as part of a planned development of eight-six homes. The developers were in a rush to build, so they skimped on preparing the foundation. The ground should have been pounded solid before the concrete blocks were put in place. 

This wasn’t done, so now cracks have appeared in the wall, and the doors and windows stick all the time. The longer it goes without me fixing the foundation, the worse these cracks become.

Foundations don't sell houses. Vinyl siding, pretty landscaping, fancy front doors and hardwood floors sell houses. People tend to look at flash and elegance. They usually don't see the problems with a foundation until they have bought the house—I know I didn’t. 

What the developer did with our house, most of us do with our lives. We focus on the "showy" parts, but neglect the foundation. We want to impress the world with our beauty, strength and creativity. As time goes by, the faults in our foundation become apparent.

This is what Jesus means at the end of Matthew 7 24-27:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

When we build our lives on a good foundation, we can last. When we build a show cover over a bad foundation, it will eventually collapse. It isn't the floors or the doors or the windows, but the foundation that makes or breaks a life.

Mother Theresa once said that if you want to change the world, go home and attend to your family. Jesus said that if we are faithful in a few things, we may be rulers over many. It's not the big projects we undertake in the world, but the little things we do in our tiny sphere of influence that makes the difference. 

The church in America institutionally has chosen to focus on the big things--evangelism, social reform, building megachurches, and world missions. All that is great, if the foundation is in place, but if it isn't then everything we do will eventually collapse. 

 There is a deep groaning today in the church, an awareness that something is seriously wrong with the way we do church. Cracks are showing in the walls. People visit the church get involved, then go away with a queasy feeling of vague disappointment. The music may be good, the preaching may be great, but something isn't there. 

This is even truer in church leadership as in the rank-and-file believers. Something is missing. We have become more professional Christians than professing Christians. We feel like employees of Christ, not friends of Christ. We are busy working and doing, but the foundation of our faith is shaky.

We tell ourselves that neglecting our inner relationship to God is perfectly normal. Someone recently told me of a pastor saying, “I’m too busy to pray.”  I may not have said it, but I have felt it in my heart. We can even argue that this neglect is a moral necessity. Why take time from a busy schedule of serving God to pray to Him? Why struggle with our inner thoughts, when there is so much need in others? Our distance from God is the natural result of being so publicly active in His work. We resemble those builders who failed to look after the foundation, because they were in a hurry to finish.  We succeed in building the Kingdom, but fail to be Christians.

Now we see the results. Institutional churches are collapsing, as the veneer of faith crumbles. Christianity in America has great looking walls, but a weak foundation. We don't really believe what we say we believe, and do not seek what we say we seek. We want to impress others, not express what is true inside. Our neglect always comes back to bite us.

 The true foundation of our lives is faith. Faith is more than just belief—it’s the basis of all our thoughts, feelings, and habits. If we neglect to make our relationship with Jesus our first and ultimate concern, then what we build on it will not survive the struggles of life. We have to build on a commitment to be like Christ in all things, to make Him our model for behavior, thought, and feeling.

If you want your family to follow your family to follow you to church, then go to church yourself. But don’t go there, just to show them what to do. Go there to learn, to grow, and to struggle with your own stuff. Christianity is based on God’s love and forgiveness, and our commitment to be like Him in all things. Don’t let other concerns dissuade you from that purpose. It is the foundation of all we are.  Build your life on the foundation of a relationship with Jesus.

What does it mean to build on God as a foundation? It doesn't mean to just to follow the Ten Commandments. Just having the Ten Commandments is like a house with crossbeams and braces, but built on sand. A house with a well-built frame will probably keep together longer in a flood, but it still can be washed away. The Ten Commandments are not the foundation. God Himself is the foundation that keeps us together. It is building on an awareness of Him being alive and real.

Smith and Lundquist in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers coined a phrase that describes the commonly held view of God among many Christians--Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the idea that God gave us moral principles to follow that will help us with our lives, but has little to do with us personally. The Bible is the instruction book which gives the best advice, but if you follow it without a relationship to Christ, it will be meaningless. We need to know the writer, not just the rules.

Modern religion has been reduced to "click bait"--"Six principles God wants you to know about marriage." "Five principles that will make you happy." or "Six habits of an effective leader."  The principles are real, but they don’t necessarily lead us to know an eternal, transcendent Deity. There is nothing uniquely Christian about them, and they do not answer the basic question--what am I here for?

There is a three-step process of building a house.

Foundation comes first. That is our ultimate purpose in life. For a Christian this is God, revealed in Christ. It isn’t family or patriotism, or health, or happiness. It isn’t American culture or European culture. It isn’t even just belief in Christ. Our true foundation is to practice the faith of Jesus, who has declared that His purpose was, "To do the will of My Father."  (John 8:28) His purpose was to stay in a daily listening relationship with God, and to do whatever He commanded.

How do we stay connected with Jesus? We can reflect daily on when and where did we felt close to God. If it has been weeks or months without some sense of the Divine presence, then we need to find out why. Our foundation may be shifting. We should not flippantly dismiss this lack of feeling by saying feelings don't matter. If we do not feel His Presence, we need to find out why. God wants to have a personal relationship with us. If we have no sense or desire for Him, something is seriously wrong.

We build on the foundation of faith with the habits of the heart. Our spiritual habits are the pillars and side joists which frame to the house, connecting that eternal purpose with everyday life.

The pillars which connect us to Christ include worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, Scripture reading and intercession. The joists—the horizontal planks—connect us with the world. They include soul-conversations, fellowship, forgiveness, tolerance, and love. These join us with other believers in mutual faith.

Outreach, evangelism, church building, social justice, and concern for the poor are like the walls, floors, windows, and roof of the house. They are all important, and are also part of who we are as Christians. They grow out of our inner life, but they cannot substitute for it. As important as our outreach and service is, it can also be a way of hiding the truth that we can't get along with our churches or families.

In the early seventies, I had a conversation with a college student who was an outspoken anti-war protestor. He said he protested because he loved the world and hated the war. But he also disclosed that he hated his parents and his family. His protest was not an act of love at all, but a way of escaping the obligation of caring for his parents. By loving the world in general, he felt free not to love his family.

Many churches and social movements get started this way. Instead of investing our love in the imperfect world where we live daily, we invest in a theoretical perfect world that doesn't exist and may never exist. We are like that contractor who can't build a straight wall, so he hides his mistakes under the best vinyl siding.

Don't try to change the rest of the world before you make your part of the world livable. Invest time and effort into building a good foundation. Build your personal relationship to God, and you will have something to give.

Goodness grows outward, like rings on a tree. First, we love God, then we love ourselves, our family, our fellow Christian, and finally our neighbor. Each level depends on the strength of what the one beneath it is.


As we get grounded in the foundation of Christ, we also discover the ways we can reveal Him to the world.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Know and Obey - Matthew 7: 21-25

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’
23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

On this day fifty-two years ago, a young man named Jonathan Myrick Daniels was murdered in Selma, Alabama. Jon was a white seminary student who came with the Freedom Riders to join Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protest. He was one of four people who attempted to enter a segregated store. The shop owner met them at the door with a shotgun.  After a brief argument, the shop owner aimed his shotgun at a young unarmed black girl and pulled the trigger. Jon pushed the girl out of the way, taking the full blast in his chest. He died instantly. His actions saved the girl’s life.
 Jon kept a journal during this time. Shortly before his death, he wrote:

“I lost fear . . .  when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.

I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”

Jon recognized in himself two struggles he must win if he would truly follow the will of God—fear and self-righteousness. He lost his fear by knowing his relationship to Jesus. Once we are really in a relationship to Christ, we lose our fear of everything else. Following Jesus, losing our lives or gaining earthly glory are just the same. To follow Jesus is to surrender ourselves to Him. Jon won the struggle with fear by recognizing his position in Christ. He knows Christ and he knows that Christ knows him.  

But the second struggle continues. It is a struggle of why we serve. Are we serving with the right motives? 
 I marvel not only at this young man’s faith, but also at his wisdom in understanding this second struggle. Jonathan Daniels understood something that many older people simply overlook—that our actions are rarely totally unselfish. Even in our most unselfish moments, there are elements of superiority and self-exaltation.

Jon saw himself as a civil rights crusader. But he also saw the selfishness of what he was doing. He was there to prove his own moral superiority. A part of him held an ego-stroking desire to prove himself good by “fixing” the South. Our struggle isn’t just to make Jesus Lord, but to do it for the right reasons. If we follow Jesus for the wrong reasons we can do as much damage as if we were working against Him.
    
Compare him with the store owner who murdered Jon. We don’t know this man, but it’s likely that he considered himself a Christian, which means that he thought he was following Jesus. His decision at the moment to pull that trigger was done for what he thought was right. 

The Klan claims to be Christian even while betraying what Jesus stands for. Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1998 or James Field who drove his car through a sea of people in Charlottesville did it because they thought they were serving God by protecting their way of life from foreigners. They thought they were doing God’s work, but really they were breaking God’s law. If only they really knew God and their motivations for serving Him, these tragedies may not have happened. 

Jon recognized that even in our most apparently unselfish moments we can have a deeply selfish desire to “fix” the world. Fixing things makes us feel good about ourselves. We have a childish desire to stand up and say, “Look what I did” and then to claim all the glory. Jon struggled that in the midst of his most noble moments, we do it fully for the love of God and for nothing else. 

In Matthew 7, Jesus is not talking to unbelievers but believers. He assumes we believe in God. He assumes we call Jesus our Lord. But it is possible we may call Jesus as Lord and not even be in God’s kingdom. We can work for God and still miss Him.
The structure of this passage goes like this—

“Lord, didn’t we (fill in the blank) in your name?”

 He fills in the blank with all kinds of good things we do for God--prophesying, casting out our demons, and doing mighty works. We could fill in the blank with witnessing, feeding the poor and hungry, speaking truth to power, or any other good work.  

True obedience and faith is based upon two things--a knowledge of God, and His knowledge of us.  
Look at the life of Moses. He was born a Hebrew, yet raised as a grandson of Pharaoh. When he learned he was really a Hebrew early in his life, he developed an empathy with his people. In his ignorance, he lashed out at their enemies by killing an Egyptian who was whipping a slave. At that moment, he thought he was doing the Lord’s work, but he wasn’t doing it the Lord’s way. He never met the Lord, he was just doing God’s work. He had as much potential as hurting as healing with his actions. He had not yet met the Lord, so his killing an Egyptian did nothing to further the Lord’s work.   

Moses did not meet the Lord for another forty years. When he encountered God in the burning bush, he was already a broken old man. Instead of being confident in his abilities, he complained of his unworthiness. It was not until Moses stopped trying to think of himself as a messiah, that he could be used by God.
We have to know Him and hear from Him before we can be used by Him.

Jesus is telling us here not to lead, not to try to serve at all, until you see the burning bush. God must reveal himself to you.

It isn’t only our vices that leads us away from God’s will--it can just as easily be our virtues. If in our impatience to serve Him, we fail to hear his voice, we scatter God’s people not unite them. If we do not hear the God we serve, then we do not help.

Does God use people who do not know Him? Yes. Do people do God’s work who do not hear His voice? Absolutely. There are many good charities and excellent social changes that have been started by people who do not know Jesus. But in the long run, it does them no good, and the Kingdom of God no good. The Kingdom is first of all where God rules, not where good things are done. 

Nor can we assume that we are doing right simply because we are doing things in God’s name.  Jesus makes it clear that there will always be people doing things they think are right, but not in God’s name. If we work even good things in God’s name that God did not command, then we are taking God’s name in vain, and confusing our will with God’s will.  All the religious wars that were ever fought were fought by people working in God’s name. 

To be used by God, we must be listening to Him.  We can’t just hear the voice of God once, and go on, but we listen for His voice constantly. Once we hear from God, then we must obey. Jesus said,

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

We follow the will of God out of habit. We may have heard His voice in our youth, but we haven’t heard from him since. But we can’t keep hearing Him unless we are obeying.

Obedience is not something we do once, but something we do over and over, every day. Don’t just respond by habit, but pay attention to what God is saying. 

Once, there was a church who had a stewardship Sunday. They invited people to testify about what giving to God’s work had done for them. A man stood up and told how he had come to that church with only ten dollars in his pocket. The preacher was preaching about giving it all to the Lord. He heard the voice of God that morning and gave all ten dollars to the Lord. As a result, God blessed him and he was now worth a million dollars.
After he was done, someone shouted out, “Mister, I dare you to do it again!” 

Bold obedience is expected from anyone who truly wants to walk by faith. When we know Jesus’ voice, we must obey.

Do you know Jesus? Have you had a personal encounter with Him in your life? Is that personal encounter ongoing? Are you willing to follow now, like you did yesterday, and to listen for the voice of the Lord?

When you hear the voice of the Lord, are you willing to obey, no matter what the cost?  Are you willing to sacrifice now the way you sacrificed when you were young, with your whole heart and soul? 


That’s what it means to follow Jesus—to hear his voice and obey.    

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Roots and Fruits

Matthew 7:15-20

 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
 You will recognize them by their fruits.

 Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

When I was younger I loved debating doctrine, and sometimes prayed that some hapless Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon would knock on my door. I knew the Bible better than most of them, and could argue with the best of them.

But I had become proud of my ability to argue, and that was a spiritual snare. I also realized that the people who came to my door were people, too. They were not deceivers, but deceived. They were trying to do me a favor, even though they were wrong. They didn’t deserve to be demonized.

Mostly, though I came to realize that these weren’t the false prophets Jesus warns us about.  The false prophets that need to concern us aren’t strangers that come knocking, but people who come from within the church. They are not so much cultists as sincere believers who cause trouble in all sincerity, not because they are deliberately deceiving. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, but they wear sheep’s clothing, because they are convinced they really are sheep. They are self-deceiving, not just outwardly deceiving. Writer Marshall Shelley calls them “well-intentioned dragons.”  They may be disrupted, but they don’t mean to be. They don’t know they are dragons. They still think they are sheep.

There are three kinds of false prophecy that we need to watch carefully.

1.  False prophets from outside the church.  There are people who preach false doctrines who infiltrate Christian churches, for the purpose of sewing dissention. We—especially elders and pastors—must guard against them.

2.  False prophets from inside the church. There are people in the church who are genuinely ignorant or deceived. Solid teaching of the Word of God is the only answer. If they are sincere, they will receive the truth. Pray for them, that they become genuinely converted.

3. The falseness of our own souls. All of us can be deceived. We all have unsurrendered areas in our own nature. The process of Spiritual transformation is the process of slaying the false parts of our own selves. This is what Paul writes about in Romans 7:21-25

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

So, how do we spot false prophecy?

Jesus gives us a test to spot falseness in ourselves and others. It is the “roots and fruit” test.    A person’s behavior reveals what is hiding inside. If a person teaches or upholds one kind of behavior, and practices something else, then we should not listen to them. If our behavior is inconsistent with what we say, then we should also be silent. We are not talking one incident, but a life pattern.

This principle goes far beyond discerning false prophets in the church. It also reveals to us in the falseness in ourselves. The main use for the “roots and fruits” test is in the examination of our own motives in the light of Christ’s example. 

Have you ever had weeds in your lawn?  If you have, you know how hard it can be to get rid of them. As soon as you cut the weeds down, they start growing back. The only way you can get rid of them is to pull them out by the roots. But when you have weed seeds in your lawn, you can’t see them. It is only when they grow up to a certain height that you can recognize they really are there.

The same is true in our lives. The roots of sin are still in us, but we can’t see them. If we tried to get rid of all the sin in our lives at first, we would have to get rid of everything. But as the sin presents itself, it is not enough just to cut it out. We have to find the root of the sin, and pull that out, too. 
The writer of Hebrews writes about this in Hebrews 12: 15-16

“ See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;  that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.”

You may think you have your life in order.  Then suddenly, without warning, your find yourself getting short-tempered, crabby, or resentful. Our sinful nature suddenly pops up like a weed.  Something inside of us that we did not want to acknowledge has just born fruit in our lives. 
When this happens, it is not enough to just cut it down. We have to pull it out by the roots.

Jesus compares it to a fruit tree. If you have an apple tree where you wanted a fig tree, you can pull off all the roots, but it is still an apple tree. Good trees produce good fruit; bad trees produce bad fruit. It’s roots, not the fruit that brings ultimate change.

Bringing change in our lives, therefore is a two-step process. 
First, examine your fruits to determine your roots.

My two least favorite things in my house are my mirror and my bathroom scale. That is because they force me to look at things I don’t want to see. I like to think of myself as I was forty years ago—a young, black-headed, handsome guy.  I can fool myself into thinking that I haven’t put on weight and that I don’t have wrinkles on my body. But it is obvious that some things I am doing to keep young and handsome haven’t worked very well.

This is even truer in my spiritual life. We live in denial of the truth. What we think of ourselves is easily deceived. 

For that reason, the church has always encouraged Christians to practice self-examination.  The ritual of confession in the Catholic Church was not originally about the forgiveness of sins, but the discovery of sins. John Wesley, when he started the Methodist movement, came up with a list of twenty-two questions to practice self-examination daily.  The Puritans, who are our spiritual ancestors in the Presbyterian Church, had many similar lists of questions. The reason that we have communion less frequently than other Christians is because we are supposed to spend weeks in examination of our hearts and behaviors beforehand. God invites us to look inside ourselves, and see what kind of weeds are growing there.

One method of doing that is called the examen.  Take a few minutes each day to review your last twenty-four hours, one hour at a time. Ask yourself where in the last day you felt closest to God and when you felt the farthest away. Ask yourself where you have hurt others, when you were irritated, and when you felt fear. Then give those moments in your heart to God, seeking forgiveness and repentance. It is a Spiritual discipline that will work wonders in growing close to God.

But there is a problem with this. Most of us aren’t very good at seeing our own faults. That is why we must have trusted friends and loved-ones who can help us see our shortcomings. Seek the advice and criticism of others in looking for where we are false. Start with our spouses and our children. Seek out one or two trusted, Spiritually-minded friends who can keep their eyes on you. Keep accountability partners. It often takes an extra pair of eyes to see the weeds in our personal gardens, and point them out to us. 

When we find these faults in our lives, don’t despair. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” God doesn’t discard us, because of the bad fruit growing in our garden. Instead, he forgives and cleanses.

Which brings us to the second part of the process. Change your roots to change your fruits.
When we discover ourselves in a fault, what should we do? Change our behavior, of course. But don’t stop there. Seek out the roots of that behavior. Why did you do it?  What was the thoughts and feelings behind it?

Some people are too inwardly obsessed. Martin Luther was one of those before his conversion. When he was a monk he spent so long in the confession that his abbot finally told him to go away until he had some real sin to confess. But such people are exceptions. Most of us don’t want to examine ourselves too closely.  

Why did we become crabby and short? Are we impatient or prideful? Then pray for patience and humility. What caused us to lust? Are we lonely, or do we think we are entitled to sexual satisfaction all the time?  Do we think sex and love are the same thing? Why did we overeat? Do we equate food with comfort? We can deal with the fruits, but we have to deal with the roots.

Ultimately, all or our sins come down to one thing—we do not see God as the root of our lives and comfort. We look to satisfy ourselves to satisfy our needs and desires, rather than trusting God. 

What makes a person false is not the things they do or say. It is the motivations that we have beneath it. It is the denial of the truth in us. In order to be true, we must first be honest with ourselves.  Look at our own hearts, to determine what is going on within.

When we do this, then the falseness of others is the least of our concerns. We are too busy with self-examination to criticize anyone else.

An athlete, training for a race, cannot be concerned about the performance of his opponents.  He must first be concerned about his own performance. He does not ask, “How can I slow down the other runners,” but “How can I find it in myself to do what I am doing better.”

Being a Christian is not about being better, smarter, or godlier than others. It is about how we can be more like Jesus in every way. We should not concern ourselves with the fruit of others, but to find in ourselves the roots of our own salvation. We do not have to produce more fruit than the other trees, but we must make sure that we produce good fruit, that what we do reflects the beauty of Christ. 


Being a Christian is not being perfect in our behavior, but it is all about being rooted and grounded in Christ. When we look to Him as the source of all our love and strength, as we grow in Him, we produce the fruit that leads to eternal life, and that lasts forever.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Narrow Way

Matthew 7: 13-14

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

These two verses can stir up a lot of confusion if you interpret them wrong.  For example, here’s the way I’ve heard them:
The narrow way is the way to the Cross. The narrow gate is the Cross. Once we’ve found Jesus we’ve entered into the narrow gate.
So far, I agree with this. But what’s so hard about the narrow way? Is the road after we believe a hard one or an easy one? 
This verse seems to say that the road after the Cross is hard and few stay on the path. The easy roads are the ones that lead to destruction. But why? If we are saved by God’s grace, isn’t that all we need to enter heaven? Then why is the road so hard and narrow? 
This “narrow way” isn’t a superhighway with rest stops every five miles. It is more like a dangerous mountain road with cliffs on each side and no guard rails. It’s a place where we can fall off at any moment. Yet we tell children that the way to heaven is easy and safe. If the Christian way is so hard, then why would anyone want to take it?
This conflict of the Christian walk as both hard and easy creates conflict. One such conflict is called eternal security. Some Christians teach that we can fall off those cliffs and lose our salvation—in other words, that we start for heaven, but never get there, because we were careless along the way. Another group believes that once we are saved, we’re always saved-- that God guarantees us no matter what we do, we’ll stay on the road. This leads to people not taking the dangers seriously.
Another controversy is Lordship Salvation. One group says that you can’t just say believe in Jesus to be saved. You must follow Him as your Lord as well.
But this also causes problems. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by our own works. (Eph. 2:8-9) It’s His love, and not ours that saves us. If we must be obedient, then salvation isn’t free. Salvation becomes like a car purchase with no down payment, but high premiums for the rest of our lives. That’s not a free gift, because it’s buying on the installment plan.  
But if it’s all about just believing, and there’s no effort, then how is that a hard road? Do we think that God is just as happy with us when we sit back and do nothing to serve Him as He is with us giving our lives in service and martyrdom?  
One way the church has dealt with this puzzle is to talk about two judgments. One is for who gets into heaven, and one is for rewards in heaven (kind of like flying first class or tourist).  But if heaven is perfection, then how can there be more of perfection? It’s already perfect, so how can the way to heaven be both hard and easy?
If we look at the context of these verses in the Sermon on the Mount, an answer presents itself. The narrow way isn’t just going to heaven, but it’s following Jesus. The narrow way is the road in pursuit of the imitation of Christ. The destruction is not only hell, but the destruction is our works due to a purposeless and useless existence. We can never get back the hours, days, and years we lost when we are off this road.
Have you heard the expression “killing time?” It’s more than just an expression—it’s real. Every moment we waste is a moment we can’t get back. If we waste a moment, it’s gone forever.
Sadly, many people come to the end of our days before they have ever really begun to live. The time we have on this world will be destroyed before it is used.  This is what Paul writes about in the passage that is often used to describe the second judgment—in            I Corinthians 3: 10-15,

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Finding our way to heaven isn’t hard. What’s hard is finding the way of heaven. That’s the narrow way. How can we live today, so that something of worth and value will be left? Will our lives be wasted on trivia, or spent on following Jesus?  We want to keep the value of our days and hours, so that something of our life on this earth will endure.    
To make our lives count we must stay on the path. It’s narrow and hard, like walking a tightrope.  But it can be done. God will help us every step.
Think about walking the narrow way like walking a tightrope. Balance is everything. If we look to the right or the left, we can fall off.  To walk the narrow way, we need to know how to keep our balance.
I believe there are four main balances that we need to keep in order to keep walking the narrow way.
1.  First, there’s the balance of head and the heart. We must use both our brains and our emotions. God guides us through the intelligent study of the Word of God and by His revelation of the Spirit in our hearts. If we don’t have both, then we can easily lose our balance.
Study God’s word. Read it seriously, studying it like we study anything else, applying our brain, looking at the original source material, consulting with experts, analyzing, reading critically, and testing its truth against whatever else we know. Studying God’s word is a lifelong study, and we cannot afford to be lazy.
Many Christians think Bible study is only for the young. They already think they know it all. These people are sadly mistaken, and cheat themselves woefully. If you believe exactly like you did twenty years ago, you have given up thinking. Keep our minds sharp in God’s service.
We also need to keep our hearts passionate. God doesn’t just speak through the mind, but through our feelings. Don’t lay off worshiping either alone or in community. If you are not regularly worshiping with others, your hearts are already growing cold to Him.  
Don’t neglect the importance of feelings in your life or in others’ lives. Feelings are one of the ways we hear God’s voice. All of us have times when our feelings don‘t line up with God’s. We hate people who God loves. We grow tired of compassion. Don’t fear when you discover your emotional life is not perfect, but go to God and ask Him to help you with your feelings. Own up to your struggles, and trust God to help.
2. Then there’s the balance of action and submission. Following God means learning to be still and learning when to move. Before we get involved in serving Him in the world, we must first learn to be quiet and wait. For that we learn the inner disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, and submission.
When you teach a dog obedience, the first command you teach is “sit.”  It is the key command that leads to all other commands. Before a dog learns to fetch or come, it must first learn to sit. So it is with God, before we can learn to preach, teach, lead, or prophesy, we must first learn how to sit in silence and wait our turn. Impatience causes us to miss God’s voice.
But sitting also has a danger. Many Christians stay sitting when they should be moving. They are not so much standing on the promises as sitting on the premises. So, we need to learn the daily habits of obedience in action, which includes public worship, loving one another, forgiveness, witnessing, and works of charity. 
3.  There’s the balance of self-awareness and community awareness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let those who will not be in community fear being alone. Let those who will not be alone fear being in community.”
The word “holiness” is really all about boundaries. We must be aware of what belongs to God and what belongs to ourselves. The person who forms his view of Himself based on his relationship to others, is not being holy to the Lord. It doesn’t matter what others say about you. It only mattes what God says about you.
But Christians belong to a greater community. The Bible does not teach a kind of holiness that is purely personal. He calls us to be part of the church in general. Our relationship with other believers is a sacred trust and calling. 
4.  There’s the balance of heritage and hope.  Our relationship with God leads us to the past and the future. Christianity didn’t begin yesterday. We have a heritage two thousand years old, of godly men and women learning how to seek God, making mistakes and learning from them. We have traditions that go back deep in time. If we ignore all this, then we become tumbleweeds, without roots, and driven by every wind of fads and currents. 
On the other hand, we must also be willing to change. We must believe optimistically that God can change us, and be willing to change. If we look to the past too much, then we get stuck there. If we look too much to the future, then we can lose our way.

All of this seems hard. Well, that’s why it’s called the Narrow Way! But there is a much simpler way of saying it. Just follow Jesus, and do what He did. He was all these things, and more. Trust the Spirit, too. God’s Spirit can give us the power to change, even when conforming our lives to Him is so very hard. 

Follow Him; make Him your model. Don’t worry too much about the sides. Jesus walked this road before you. Most people get tangled up in looking right or left, backwards or forwards, and they fall off the road. Just look to Jesus and you will make it to the end.