In the dairy barn

“Spend more than half an hour in a dairy barn and you can hardly smell it any more.”

Let me ask you: When was the last time you heard of a church pursuing “church discipline” (i.e., excommunication) for a matter that didn’t involve either sexual sin or church politics? Or when was the last time you heard of a case of church discipline for idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander or swindling?

I haven’t made any careful research on the matter, but based on just observation and recollection, it seems to me that the main reasons people come under church discipline is for one of two reasons:

  • Sexual/marital issues of some kind: divorce, cohabitation, adultery, homosexuality, or some other form of related issue.
  • Church Politics: not in the pejorative sense, but in the simple sense of whether or not a person is adhering to the church’s teaching, or if their church attendance shows faithfulness and a desire to maintain membership.

I’m not saying every case relates to one of those two things. I can think of one or two examples of those other things that I’ve heard of in my ten years of ministry. But the abundance of cases I’ve been aware of fall under one of my two bulleted categories. I’m not suggesting that those things should not be addressed. I would suggest – and I’m not alone in this – that this should be a warning sign to us.

I’m at a pastors’ retreat today. We have with us Professor Joel Fredrich, a New Testament scholar, and this morning we’ve had the opportunity to pick his brain on 1 Corinthians. Looking at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, one of the men here made the analogy I quoted at the opening, and he applied it especially to the sin of greed. Prof. Fredrich, following that trail, talked a bit about the American pursuit of wealth and material blessings, and asked when the last time any of us had heard of someone being put under church discipline because they were greedy. He concluded by stating, “This is what proves as much as anything that we are in the dairy barn, and we can’t smell what fresh air smells like.”

There are two big issues here:

  1. We obsess over sexual sins because we don’t understand sex. Every culture of every period has had issues with sex. Ours is no different. It sells us a view of sex that is the opposite direction from God’s intended purpose for it. Sadly, the church too often pushes back with an equally unBiblical view of sex, an attempt to force morality on a world that doesn’t want it. The problem is that morality isn’t the same thing as the Gospel. It’s like we say, “It stinks in this barn. If we put around a lot of air fresheners, that will fix the problem.” It is meaningless to fix someone’s sexual life without showing them the Gospel, and helping them see how beautifully the sexual relationship reflects the Gospel.
  2. We ignore the sins that are rooted in our national identity. As Americans, we are committed to the concept of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We can do what we want, say what we want, and pursue the life we want. Anyone who says otherwise is simply unAmerican. So we ignore it when we make an idol of our pleasures and entertainment, when we make a habit of gossip, and when we throw ourselves into acquiring everything the commercials tell us we can’t live without. We don’t just ignore it – we’re so steeped in it we don’t even smell that it stinks in here.

The results of this are likewise twofold: Christians appear to be hypocrites, only interested in denouncing sexual sins and blind to all other lovelessness; and worse, we don’t address these American sins adequately and souls are harmed because of it.

So what do we do about this? Start rooting out anyone who seems a little greedy and starting kicking them out of membership? Not the best solution.

Here’s what we can do:

Each of us can start with self examination, repentance, and trust in our forgiveness. In 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul says, “This is what some of you were.” How can I know if such a thing includes me? If I search my sinful heart, honestly and openly in the light of God’s Law, I’m not likely to come away saying, “No, actually, I’m doing pretty good here.” And in that state of repentance, I see how Paul finishes the verse: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” This is forgiveness I can bask in, I can rest and relax knowing that I’m completely clean. This is fresh air I can breathe and remember what fresh air smells like.

We can live as the people of God. Just because I live and work in the barn doesn’t mean I have to love the smell. Knowing I’m forgiven for my sins of idolatry, greed, slander, and so on, why would I go back and revel in the dung heap? So much better to devote my heart to the God who saves, embrace contentment with all he’s given, and show his grace to others.

We can boldly and graciously confront all sin and call others to repentance. We do need to deal appropriately with sin, including those issues of a sexual/marital nature and church politics. But we also need to address all the other stuff, and we need to do so in the light of the grace we’ve been given. Then we’re not just living with the smell because we’re used to it, but actually finding a real solution to its cause.

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#onelifematters

Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. But no matter how many hashtags we post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Friendster, MySpace, etc., in the end it seems like it… doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t seem like the hashtags are solving the problems, does it?

I’m not trying to be cynical. I recognize that there are deep issues here. I’m distressed by the stories of what seem to be hasty decisions by police officers. I’m distressed by stories of violent protests against police officers. My little brother is black; his life matters. One of my closest friends is a cop; his life matters. I have a wife and two children; their lives matter. My life… well, that might be debatable some days, but you get the point.

In the end, there’s only one life that matters. More on that in a moment.

It’s been weighing on my mind how we react on social media to every incident. (And note, I say “we” because I believe I have been just as hasty at times.) We see a video or a meme and quickly hit the “share” button, but have we bothered to look more than three paragraphs into the news articles before forming an opinion? Have we waited for due process to reveal the truth of the matter? Are we so quick to jump to a conclusion based on which voice is telling us what to think that we end up contributing to the problem?

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? – Matthew 7:3

In so many ways this is just our human nature blatantly on display. It’s no different than when we rush to judgment on our neighbor because something in their life doesn’t look right to us. We think we know all that’s behind their behavior, we put on our holiness hat, we point a finger and cry foul.

But God will judge us all. And what will he see when he looks at us?

Well, this is why I say there’s only one life that matters. And it isn’t mine. Or yours. It’s the life of a man who came exactly because of all the crap we do to each other day after day. All the times we rush to judgment. All the times we assume we know the score. All the times we take sides against each other. All the times someone makes a hasty decision that ends a life, or a deliberate and well planned one.

Jesus came for all this. He saw this moment in time, when it seems like the world is falling apart around us. He saw all the other moments when our hopes soared and when they came crashing down. He saw all the rottenness in all of us and the rotten things we do to each other. He stepped in… and lived better.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. – Lamentations 3:22

He was compassionate. He was kind. He healed. He forgave. He chastised. He called for repentance. He rebuked. He called. He sought. He sacrificed.

Jesus lived as though every life matters, because to him, every life matters. So he didn’t just live to show us an example, he lived to be a substitute, and then did the unthinkable – he gave up the only life that truly matters, the only perfect life anyone ever lived. He offered it up as appeasement for all of our failure to love each other, for our failure live as though all lives matter. His one life for all of our lives, to make our lives matter.

We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:10

And God accepted that sacrifice as full substitution for everyone. That’s the point of the resurrection. Jesus’s return to life was no gimmick to wow the crowds. It was a sign that his life matters so much that even death can’t hold him down. Can’t hold us down, either, because we have him on our side. That’s how it works – he can overcome death for himself, he can overcome it for us.

So now what? I’m of the mind that if we live as though his life is the only one that truly matters, because only his life truly gives our meaning, then we don’t contribute to the problems – we become the solution. When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we think less about how we can make ourselves significant and more about how we can accomplish his mission of saving the lost. When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we’re less likely to point the finger of blame at others and more likely to ask the question, “How can I help?” When we live as though Jesus’s life is the only one that matters, we draw others to him and show the true meaning of the Gospel to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Blue lives matter. Black lives matter. All lives matter.

One life matters.

What’s My Label?

Anyone who has gone through high school in the last 30-40 years have had it drilled into us not to put labels on people. We had assemblies and special days and campaigns that taught us that it is unkind and unhelpful and wrong to put people in boxes and assign them a label. Does that ever stop teenagers from segregating others into groups like “jock,” “nerd,” “prep,” (or whatever the groupings are these days)?

It doesn’t stop, though, when we get out of high school or even college. Even as adults we label. The labels get more complex, but we also tend to put them on the people closest to us, like our spouse, kids, coworkers, and fellow church members. We may not think of them as labels, but how different is it when we say things like, “My husband is so __________,” or “My wife is such a __________,” or “My kids are just __________”?

It really shouldn’t take us long to come to grips with the notion that such labeling, complex or not, isn’t healthy. It colors our expectations and interpretations and every negative label we apply damages the relationship. So why do we do it? It would be easy to blame it on sin in general, but we have to get more specific than that if we want to address the problem.

I  recently was at Camp Phillip for the Confirmation Retreat, and the Bible Studies were all on this topic. As I worked through it alongside the kids, it struck me how great a tendency I have to label myself. And I think this is where the problem starts.

I assign negative labels to others because they salve the inadequacies and insecurities I feel in myself. I label myself as weak-willed, and so to comfort myself I label others as overbearing or inconsiderate. I label myself as awkward, and so to comfort myself I label others as arrogant or cliquey. And on it goes. The sinful man in me feels better when it tears others down, emphasizes their weaknesses, and ignores their God-given individuality. Isn’t that wretched? It’s also true.

It might seem to that the solution is to work on my self-esteem and talk up my good qualities, make myself feel better about myself, and then I won’t be tempted to bring other people down. Just look in the mirror and practice some good old self-affirmation. And that might work, until the next time I bungle it big time and all my self-affirmation sounds hollow and naive.

The key is not assigning myself new labels that I can feel good about. That isn’t going to help me in the long run. What I need is to have someone else, someone I can be sure has my best interests at heart, tell me who and what I am. Maybe you see where I’m going with this.

God tells me who I am and what I am. And one thing he says about me is that I’m a sinner. The worst of sinners, in fact (1 Timothy 1:15). And at first that may not seem all that helpful. I mean, how is it better to be told how awful I am? But if the reason I am assigning labels to others is to try and minimize my own issues, then it’s actually really good to be reminded that I am a hopeless case. There’s no point in trying to make myself feel better if I know, for sure, that I’m as bad as it gets.

All that would be pretty depressing if there wasn’t more, but there is. God doesn’t just tell me I’m a failure and walk away. He also tells me I’m loved, that I’m forgiven, that I’m his child, that I’m chosen, that I’m called, that I’m redeemed, that I’m his workmanship, that I’m his servant. He tells me that through Jesus I am a priest and prince in his kingdom. This changes everything. There is nothing I can say or think about myself, no label I can apply, that can trump the God of the universe saying, “I love you, and you’re mine.”

With this going for me, I don’t need to label others to make myself feel better. I already have everything I need. Beyond that, the same thing God says about me he says about everyone, including those closest to me. If I know my family and friends are all sinners, I’m not going to expect better from them than I should expect from any other sinful human being. If I know they are loved and forgiven, I don’t have any reason to withhold my love and forgiveness. If I know they are God’s workmanship, uniquely talented individuals God has made, then maybe I can look for what makes them special.

The apostle James probably knew what it was like to carry some tough labels. “Jesus’ little brother.” “Not perfect like Jesus.” “Not as good at anything as Jesus.” No wonder he tried to label Jesus as “crazy” and tried to stop his ministry. We don’t know exactly James came to faith in Jesus, but we know that Jesus met with him privately after his resurrection (imagine being a fly on that wall), and that soon after James became one of the most important leaders of the Early Christian Church.

It changed everything for him. He let go of all the labels he had carried before, and was left wit this: “A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).

When Jesus tells you what you are, it changes everything.

True love isn’t always fireworks

I ran across this Huffington Post article the other day: I Didn’t Love My Wife When We Got Married.  The writer is an orthodox Jew, but no, that doesn’t mean that he is writing about being pushed into an arranged marriage or anything. Rather, he writes about the difference between the intense emotions he felt when he got married and the deeper, truer love he feels for his wife when he serves her and acts for her good, regardless of how he feels day to day.

Mr. Nehorai strikes on something very true and very important about love. We romanticize love in our culture and think that it’s about the fireworks and the pie in the sky and the burning feelings inside us. True love is rarely about those things, and really has much more to do with what we do than how we feel. Mr. Nahorai, being a Jew, doesn’t touch on the most significant and important example of true love, which is found in the redeeming work of Jesus. Knowing full well what it would cost him, and knowing full well how desperately we needed him, he sacrificed everything. Make no mistake – that didn’t feel good. It wasn’t fireworks and romance and pie in the sky. It was painful, it was harsh, it was difficult. But he did it anyway. For us. That’s love.

There’s an example for us there. We live out love when we have that kind of sacrifcial love for our spouses. But chances are that you won’t have many opportunities to sacrifice your life for your spouse. But you will have opportunities day after day to live for your spouse. Jesus does that for us too. He rose for us, and lives for us and works for our good day after day. What’s more, he does so despite our constant unfaithfulness. He could just decide we’re not worth it, that our betrayal is every reason to just give up on us. But he doesn’t. He forgives, he restores, and he helps. That’s true love.

We can respond with thanks and love to him. We can also respond by reflecting his love in our lives, starting with our own spouses, by living for each other day after day.

Reconciliation

This is the final entry in a series based on the Six Steps of Granting Forgiveness.

Jacob and Esau were twin brothers, and though they were competitors from birth, they were still brothers.  Yet, Jacob seemed to not prize that relationship as much as he coveted the blessings that their parents had to give.  Jacob schemed to get Esau’s inheritance. He took advantage of Esau, he tricked his father, and he stole what was his brother’s.

Continue reading “Reconciliation”

“I forgive you.”

“As a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins…”

So we hear week after week as we confess our sins together in worship, and our called minister pronounces forgiveness to us.

Yet, has anything really happened at that moment? Has our spiritual situation changed in any way?

Continue reading ““I forgive you.””

Letting Go

“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” -Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who was arrested by the Nazis for harboring and aiding Jews during World War II.  In the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp she and her sister Betsie were horribly mistreated, and her sister died as a prisoner.  Many years later, after speaking in a church basement about her experiences, Corrie was approached by a former guard from Ravensbruck – who had become a Christian – who asked her for forgiveness.

It was, according to her, the hardest thing she had ever been asked to do.

Continue reading “Letting Go”