Racism, Outrage, and the Church’s mission

What happened this weekend in Charlottesville, VA was a shameful, grotesque, damnable display of racial bigotry. There’s no excuse for behavior that proclaims one race to be better than another, that parades under flags representing racial hatred and murder. This behavior is sinful, and anyone persisting in such sin will earn the consequences of unrepentant sin – condemnation.

It feels odd to have to make such strong statements. Not because they aren’t true – they certainly are. But odd because, until recently, I thought it was a given. I thought that saying, “I love Jesus and live to proclaim his Gospel,” would be enough for anyone to assume, “Yep, he’s not a racist.” The Gospel, as a package deal, carries some pretty anti-racism concepts, such as:

  • ALL people, regardless of race, are a part of God’s special creation called “humankind”
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are under the curse of sin, inherited from the first two humans
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are so loved by God that he sent his Son to be the sacrifice for sins
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are treasured by Jesus, who gave everything so we could have everything
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are desired by Jesus to be part of his kingdom and to give him glory

Whether or not you believe in Jesus, the Bible, or trust what the Gospel has to say, at the very least please understand that these are the truths that Christians express when they say, “I love Jesus and I live to proclaim the Gospel.” To any genuine disciple of Christ, the notion that we have to explain why we’re not racist feels like a redundancy. It’s like an AARP member having to state that he likes saving money – it’s just a given!

Then a bunch of guys go marching under Nazi flags and call for racial segregation, while claiming to be Christian. Then we’re told that we cannot claim to be Christian and not denounce them immediately, otherwise we are giving approval and are, in fact, racists ourselves. It’s confusing. You’re sure that the eternal truths you hold to have not changed, yet because of the actions and opinions of a relative minority you have gone from “Disciple of Jesus” to “Closet racist” overnight.

Identity drives purpose

Does that matter? If my black neighbor faces injustice daily because of his skin color, do I really have a right to complain about how people see me?

No, I don’t. However, my reaction to this discomfort does matter, and that reaction is going to be driven by how I see myself. Identity drives purpose, and if I accept the identity of “closet racist” then my behavior will be different than if my identity is “disciple of Jesus.”

This is important.

Yesterday someone sent me this article: How to Tell If You Go to a White Supremacist Church. Here is his basic proposition:

“If your church does not spend a significant amount of time this weekend denouncing, condemning, and speaking out against the actions of the white supremacists gathering in Charlottesville, VA in the strongest possible terms, your church is racist as hell.”

In my church this past weekend, I watched a baby receive the miraculous gift of Baptism, where God pours his Holy Spirit on a child, claims that child as his own, and puts saving faith in the baby’s heart. There was an affirmation of Baptism for two twins who were born early and baptized in the hospital. We confessed our sins and heard the absolute forgiveness of our God. We heard a sermon about the importance of contentment. Having recently accepted a position on this church’s ministry staff, I was received by the congregation, along with my wife and two others who are also serving on staff positions. The congregation prayed for us and encouraged us to faithfully serve them with the Gospel. Throughout the service, the grace of God was emphasized as we gathered around his Word. (Aside, my friend had a pretty good response to this article as well. Read it here. Also, I stole his post picture.)

Now, if I accept the identity of “closet racist” and accept the assertion that my church is “racist as hell,” then my reaction by necessity is to make some major changes. Either I need to find a new church (the advice of the article), or launch a major campaign to fundamentally change the heart and spirit of my congregation. But what would that do? The Gospel is, in and of itself, anti-racism, so why would changing the focus from the Gospel to social action be the solution? It’s like changing a cancer patient’s treatment from chemotherapy to pain relievers in the hopes that feeling better will make him better.

If I see my identity as “disciple of Jesus,” then I want to dig deeper into the Gospel. I gain a better understanding of the great love Jesus has for me, and this translates to a deeper love for others. When I see hatred, bigotry, racism, etc., I am motivated toward action.

How does that action look? That’s up to individual Christians to by led by the Spirit to bear fruit in keeping with their gifts. Some Christians might take to social media to take up campaigns to raise awareness. Some Christians might hit the ground and be involved in their own demonstrations. Some Christians might choose to attend prayer vigils in solidarity. Some Christians might choose to work one on one, helping the disenfranchised and meeting their needs.

Some Christians might find other causes to champion. That’s another side to all of this, and please forgive this very related tangent. I’ve seen many of my Christian friends stating in no uncertain terms that if you are not outraged and outspoken about the racism on display this past weekend, then you are endorsing it. That if you don’t speak up, then you are no better than the racists themselves.

Selective outrage

What about abortion? What about the sex slavery that underlies pornography? What about the hundreds of drug related deaths per day in our country? Why aren’t we outraged about those things? Why aren’t we speaking out about those daily? Are we endorsing abortion, pornography, and drug abuse? Are we no better than the abortionists, sex slavers, and drug lords?

I’m not saying we are. But I am saying that we are being somewhat selective in our outrage here. Talking with a friend of mine today, he put it this way:

“We as Christians are often selectively outraged, and our outrage isn’t God’s outrage. God gets angry. He is furious. And while injustice outrages us, it’s only certain injustices… oddly enough, often the same ones our culture tells us to get upset about.”

One of the focal points of the January Women’s March was the right not only to have an abortion, but the demand that it be provided as a free service across the country. In other words, women were taking to the streets to say, “I don’t just want to be able to kill my child, I want my country to kill my child for me!” Which is worse? To call for segregation of races, or to call for a national program of selective murder? Why are Christians racist if they don’t openly condemn white supremacy, but anti-woman if they do openly condemn abortion?

The problem is the same in both cases, because both are a symptom of our common disease of sin. The solution is the same – the Gospel, which reveals all the wickedness in all of us and offers the same absolute forgiveness for all of it. We need Jesus. And the Christian who uses the Gospel to fight racism is no better or worse than the Christian who uses it to fight abortion, or porn, or drugs, or any other societal problem.

The Church’s Mission

But it must begin with the Gospel. This is the Church’s mission. Not to make a utopia on earth, but to win souls for heaven. Not to make people nice and better, but to give people eternal hope and an eternal future.

Another thing the Gospel is set against is legalism. Legalism is when we declare that, to be a Christian, one must adhere to a certain set of rules or regulations. For instance, it would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian, you must give up alcohol (something I’d never say anyway, because frankly, I like beer). It would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian, you must attend worship a certain number of times per month. It would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian you must make certain statements about racism, bigotry, and injustice.

Certainly, I would encourage you to denounce such things, just like I’d encourage you to attend worship. But to call your faith into doubt because you didn’t take to social media in the most outraged way, or to claim you harbor sinful racism in your heart because you didn’t speak up enough, would be to go against the Gospel. So, Christians… stop doing this. Stop laying burdens on the hearts of your fellow believers.

The same Gospel that has cleansed you of your sins has cleansed your brothers and sisters. Celebrate that. Cherish that. Come together under that Gospel. And yes, go take action where action is needed. Encourage one another to be the disciples of Jesus that you are and fight for change.

Then come together again… and again… and again as a Church to hear the Gospel that motivates your action. Not to hear rousing speeches about how to fight injustice, but to carry out the mission of the Church. To make disciples of all nations. To carry his love to all people of every race.

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Mission Mahahual Part 2 – What are we doing here?

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Except that in Mahahual, everyone already knows how to fish, and many of them are tired of it. I heard a story while down there that some of the people who live on the beach eat so much lobster that they’ll gladly trade a bunch of them for a frozen chicken.

But one skill essential for improving a person’s situation in Mahahual is English. The main industry of the entire area is tourism, and for nine months out of the year there are cruise ships every day bringing in tourists. Many of these tourists speak English, either as their first language or their second.

The best paying jobs in town are at the port, where the ability to communicate in English is almost a requirement. Because many people in Mahahual don’t speak English, the port brings in people from Belize and other larger Mexican cities to fill its 1,000+ positions. The next best jobs are those that put people in direct communication with tourists – restaurants, beach clubs, hotels, dive shops, and souvenir stands. Once again, speaking English is a leg up in getting these jobs.

Many children in town, especially in the poorer parts of town, don’t even have access to regular schooling. And even if they are able to go to school, the schools in town do not do much in the way of English education. We saw this as an opportunity for the mission to connect with the community in a meaningful way. If we could help them develop English skills, they would have access to jobs that would not only give them a brighter future individually, but would keep more money in Mahahual and strengthen the overall economy.

The goal of every mission is to share the Gospel of Jesus with people who need to hear it. But take for example Jesus’ response to the paralyzed man who was brought to him – yes, he gave him forgiveness and eternal hope, but he also gave him physical healing. Jesus did the same with countless others. We follow his call to meet both earthly and eternal needs.

We pulled together a program where we would gather kids at the church every day of the week for four weeks and teach them Bible stories in Spanish and then teach them English skills. We recruited two awesome young women (shout out to Taylor Weber and Brittany Brassow!) as lead teachers, and organized teams to come down and provide support.

As plans often do, this one morphed to include so much more than originally intended. There was an art camp, we worked with the local community center, we played soccer with kids, took them on a field trip to the port, helped clean up trash in the streets of the community, distributed clothing and hygiene supplies, and knocked out a painting project on part of the fence around the church. As of today, the team there this week is helping with clean up after Tropical Storm Franklin rolled through.

No matter the work, our goal is to represent Christ in all we do. The name of the mission is Cruz de Cristo, in English, “Cross of Christ.” Whether we were picking up trash, or holding a kid’s hand walking through the port, or teaching kids English at the community center, we were putting in front of everyone we met those three simple words – Cross of Christ. A reminder that there is something bigger than all of us, bigger than our trials, bigger than our sins. A reminder that there is a love that is greater than anyone on this earth can ever show.

And by loving the people, we were sending the message that the love Jesus, the love that drove him to the cross, inspires his followers to care for others. Even when we don’t speak the language very well. Even when we don’t always understand the culture. As a member of the church there often says, “Love isn’t limited to speaking the same language.”

Looking for a Sign

“Lord, just give me a sign…”

“Teacher, we want to see a sign…”

“No sign with be given, except…”

“I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about signs in the last week or so. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking for signs. Wishing for a sign.

It’s Holy Week, a week for focusing on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A week to be thinking about my mortality, my weakness, my sinfulness, and the awesome gift of grace found in Jesus. A week to stand before the cross and empty tomb and listen to my Savior speaking peace to me.

But…

A week before Palm Sunday I was asked by another church to join their ministry team. I have a few weeks in which to gather information, seek advice, and make a decision that will affect my ministry, my family, and both congregations for years to come. Funny timing. Humbling that God and these church leaders would put such a decision in my hands.

So, Lord, could you just give me a sign what the best thing to do is?

Have you ever felt that way? Ever had a big decision to make, and wished for some divine graffiti to tell you what to do? Ever prayed, “Lord, just give me a sign”?

Here’s some more funny timing – this week, my teaching plan for a religion class I teach on Thursdays to a group of 8th graders had us looking at Jonah 2. In the materials for this class, materials I wrote four years ago, we are led to Matthew 12:38-41 –

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” Ouch. Did you put that there for me, Lord?

I don’t think Jesus is trying to heap guilt on people for asking God to give them some direction. He’s addressing the sinful motives of the Pharisees, who are essentially saying, “We refuse to believe that you are from God, and refuse to believe anything you say, unless you can prove to us in a way that satisfies our arrogance that you truly are who you say you are.” In many ways, this is no different than people today who insist that faith in God is foolishness if you can’t produce evidence of his existence. “Show us a sign that your God really exists,” they say, and Jesus answer to them is, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.”

But there is a warning for believers in this as well. Many want to hear God’s voice whispering to their ears or hearts. Many want to see some kind of miraculous evidence that God is at work. The warning is not too look too hard for God to speak apart from his Word. What does Jesus point to? He points to the Scriptures, to the story of Jonah, and says, “This is the sign to look for. This was a foreshadowing of what will happen to me, and when it happens, then you will know that I am the Lord.”

And it did happen. And we have the testimony of the people who were there to see it. Today is Good Friday, and in just a few short days we will celebrate together the only sign Jesus says we should look for. Jesus died and came to life again. What greater sign do we need? This is where we get our confidence. This gives us every reassurance we need. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is the Lord and God he claimed to be. The salvation he said he would bring is real. Nothing in this life can separate us from his love. Jesus is Lord, and we are his. What greater sign do we need?

If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is Lord wherever I go to serve. If Jesus rose from the dead, the choice to serve and the promise of blessings in either place is certain. If Jesus rose from the dead, I can’t make a wrong decision between serve him here or serve him there. If Jesus rose from the dead, it really isn’t that big of a decision, because in the end, he’ll use either choice to build his kingdom.

The same can be said of your big decisions. Jesus rose from the dead. That is the sign that he is Lord, and everything he said about your life and his promises is true. Are you wrestling with a job decision? Jesus is Lord and will bless either choice. Trying to decide if now is the time to work toward marriage? Jesus loves marriage and will be your strength. Deciding on a big purchase? Jesus is the giver of all good things, so if this is a good time for this, then take hold and enjoy with thanksgiving.

In the end, the decisions of this life are but a sliver of what is to come. We have eternity to look forward to – because Jesus rose from the dead. So while these decisions may feel very big today, when we pass on to glory, we won’t look back with regret. No need to worry, Jesus has this. Because he rose from the dead.

Now, I won’t say that God never gives us a nudge here or there. Sometimes everything falls into place and you just have to grin. It’s just that he doesn’t promise he will always work that way, and he doesn’t want us to get decision paralysis while we wait for him to convince us of something.

The empty tomb is the only sign we need. Would it be nice to have extra direction once in a while? Maybe. But it doesn’t really change anything. Jesus is Lord. That is enough.

Why I’m Not Boycotting Beauty and the Beast

Image result for beauty and the beast

The remake of Disney’s classic Beauty and the Beast will be in theatres this weekend, and my wife and I have our tickets to go and see it. However, I know that many Christians are opting not to, and that well-meaning articles have circulated explaining why. It all comes down to a brief moment in a single scene, where the actors and director make one character’s sexual orientation clear – and he is gay.

In defense of my Christian brothers and sisters, their concern is valid. The movie makers have unnecessarily altered an established character in their remake of a classic story. While not unprecedented, it’s a transparent maneuver. There is no reason other than to normalize a behavior that, when the original animated film debuted, would have offended virtually the entire audience. And while it is done in the name of acceptance and tolerance, Bible believing Christians see it for what it is: giving one more sin the status of every day human behavior.

As it is a movie aimed at children and families, it is especially onerous, because it means that Disney knows full well they are working to shift the center in the minds of the impressionable young. Christian parents have a right to be miffed, concerned, and grouchy that, without warning, Disney would hijack a classic for the sake of agenda. Why not simply write a new fairy tale with a same sex romance at the center, while leaving the other stories be? Wouldn’t this be more satisfying to both sides? This feels like a poorly executed bait and switch.

My criticism of Disney’s choice doesn’t end with the issue of normalizing sin, though. Frankly, I think they made a strangely poor choice of character in whome to insert their péché du jour. I’ll go so far as to say that what should really offend Christians here is the utter lovelessness and disrespect with which Disney has treated the matter. For those struggling with same-sex attraction, to be confronted with it in a popular movie in the form of a bumbling, comedic buffoon of a villain sidekick would be a slap in the face. Why isn’t the LGBT community up in arms at so ridiculous a portrayal? I certainly find it disrespectful.

If you’re a fellow Christian and for these reasons or others you’ve decided you’re not going to see the movie, I am not trying to persuade you otherwise. I respect your choice, and I support you, and I love you. Please do not take the rest of the post as a critique against your choices.

That said, I’m seeing the movie. My wife is a lifelong Disney fan, and Beauty and the Beast has always been her favorite story. Belle is an intelligent, ambitious, and courageous young woman, who demonstrates sacrificial love for her father and learns to show unconditional love and acceptance for the Beast. Yes, I know we can make sideline jokes about Stockholm Syndrome and all of that, but in the end, it’s a charming love story mixed in with grandly entertaining musical numbers.

Am I sacrificing my morals or my conviction by choosing to be entertained, given the inclusion of a gay character? According to some articles and comments I’ve seen on social media, I am. But I’m not so sure. Here are a few of the challenges from my fellow believers, and how I respond to them:

  1. You’re supporting their agenda by giving your money to them. First of all, I don’t think Disney executives think that every movie-goer who buys a Beauty and the Beast ticket is doing so to say, “Keep adding homosexual characters! It’s just what we’re looking for!” They know that people are going to see the movie because they love the story and want to be entertained, and they know that the inclusion of a gay character is a wink and nod and little more. Second, if I were to apply this consistently, I’d need to avoid anything by Disney because whether it’s through Beauty and the Beast, Moana, or Cars 3, it’s all one company. If giving money to the company supports their agenda, then I need to expunge Disney from my life completely. Besides all that, Disney doesn’t need my money to pursue their agenda, and their agenda isn’t going to fall apart for lack of my money. I can’t stop sin by boycotting its presence – only Jesus has the real solution to sin.
  2. You’re condoning sin – you’re making entertainment more important than taking a stand for what’s right. Is it not possible to be entertained by something and still disagree with some aspects of it? Can I find Friends, Big Bang Theory, or Seinfeld funny and still call premarital sex sinful and unwise? Our movies and TV choices have always included some amount of ungodly behavior, from cohabitation to no-fault divorce to casual sex. Yet we justify it when we are entertained by other aspects of the story. What makes homosexuality a “special case?” Perhaps it isn’t. And what about violence, foul language, insults, gossip, humor at the expense of dignity – do we get concerned about these in our entertainment choices? We live in a sin-filled world, and no entertainment will be squeaky clean. Is it taking a stand to identify one sin among the many and oppose just that? Is there a better way to speak to our culture about sin – and about grace?
  3. You’re letting yourself (or your children) become desensitized to sin. Here’s the funny thing about sin and sensitivity to it – I already do a really great job of desensitizing myself to the sins I like to fall into. The danger of being desensitized to sin is that it will capture me and try to make me its slave all over again. I have a whole host of sins that I need to worry about being desensitized to that are a real problem for me, I don’t need to worry about this one. But there’s a solution to the problem of a seared conscience – and it’s not found in boycotting certain movies. It’s found in returning to the Word, that shows me the mirror of God’s Law and reminds me of the ugliness inside of me, which is what Jesus said truly makes a person unclean. As for my kids? Well, I know the sins they need to face up to as well, and I will help them face them with the same mirror. Then together we’ll turn from that mirror to the cross, where we find the solution to the problem of sin.

Now let me explain a few good reasons I have for going:

  • I want to understand my culture. I’m actually blessed with the job of being a student of both culture and theology and trying to meet the one with the other. I know people who do that as a hobby, I actually have people who give me a livelihood for doing it. But the only way to do that is to see how the culture presents its values, and yes, even how it seeks to normalize its pet sins. If I step back every time the culture piles on a new immorality, I’m going to get too far back to make sense of it anymore.
  • I want to engage with the world. Be in the world, not of the world. So said Paul, who spoke about his desire to be all things to all people, so that by all possible means he might save some. That doesn’t mean joining them in their sin, nor does it mean silently endorsing it. But it does mean being close enough to talk about it. Being able to sit shoulder to shoulder with someone and say, “Let’s talk about this,” rather than standing on the other side of the fence saying, “It’s awfully nasty over there, you know.”
  • I want to help my children understand what they see. I will not be able to shield my kids from the knowledge of good and evil. That fruit was eaten before they were born, and they’re going to eat of that fruit every day of their lives. I can’t keep them from knowing about homosexuality. Or porn. Or premarital sex. Or divorce. Or sex trafficking. Or gossip. Or brazen disrespect. They will learn of these things sooner or later – and actually, they already know about almost all of those things. What I can do is talk to them about them and guide them in seeing them for what they are. And I can show them how to love people who fall into them. I can love my children when they fall into them. And they will. Maybe not all. Hopefully not most. But maybe some, and a host of other sins. My job is to prepare them to face those things. Now, I’m not going to parade sin in front of my boys intentionally day after day – but I’m not going to live in fear or hide them in my cloak whenever sin walks by either.

As I said much nearer the top of this, I do not fault the Christian who says they will not be seeing this movie. I’m explaining my choice, and giving you food for thought, but you might come to different conclusions. In the end, we stand in grace, under the cross of the one who set us free so that we can live in freedom.

Election 2016 Commentary

Elections are intense, and they capture the attention of the whole nation. I kept a running commentary on Facebook of my thoughts on the whole process over the last 36 hours or so, but if you didn’t catch that, here it is in handy one-post form.


Monday, 11/7/2016, 9:52 PM: Tomorrow we elect an earthly ruler. Whether or not our country makes the “right” choice is a question for the historian. The theologian knows that the heavenly ruler remains, and that he is good. Rest at peace, my friends. Tomorrow is not such a big day after all.

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Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:21 AM: Went for a good hard run to start the day. Who knows, maybe we people of God will need our practice doing so. Thought about how Abraham, father of the promise, got his wife’s maidservant pregnant (at his wife’s insistence!), but then when his wife got pregnant, sent the maidservant and her child off into the desert to die. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 8:10 AM: Just cast my vote. It’s out of my hands now! Thinking about Abraham’s grandson Jacob, a guy so slick his name actually means “Deceiver.” But his uncle tricked him into marrying two women, and swindled 14 years of labor out of him for it. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

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This might be favorite moment of the whole day.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:06 AM: What can get a whole group of nuns into a Lutheran Church? Voting! Thinking about how God used Moses to lead his people out of slavery, even though he killed a guy and ran away, and later on literally broke God’s Law – smashed the two tablets to bits because he was angry. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 11:10 AM: What if today doesn’t go “your way”? I’m not actually sure that any way it can go is all that great. But there are bigger things at work than political machinations. I was just thinking about Samson – blessed by God with super-strength, but he slept around, married a couple different women, and was brought low by a woman’s feminine wiles. Scandalous! But God used Samson, and Jesus still came.

 

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 1:51 PM: RealClearPolitics is currently predicting a Clinton win by only 6 electoral votes, while ElectionProjection is predicting a Clinton win by 20. But news sources are also saying that these results could swing wildly as the day progresses. My Facebook news feed is just SWIMMING in goofy memes and people wearing their “I Voted” stickers. I’m thinking about King David. Here’s a guy who had multiple wives, but took his friend’s wife to bed with him (while his friend was off at war) and got her pregnant. He tried to cover it up, but that didn’t work, so he had his friend killed. Scandalous! But God called David a “man after his own heart,” and Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:20 PM: Polls are closing along the east coast and reports are coming in with some kind of results. My computer is protesting the election by refusing to anything until I restart it, but the restart is going on 15 minutes so far. Whatever. I’m thinking of King Solomon, wisest guy who ever lived. Unless you count the 300 wives and 700 concubines. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:36 PM: Still too early to tell who’s going to win this thing, though stuff is starting to really list toward Trump. But lots of people are also talking about the really big upset, which is the change of Toblerone’s shape to include LESS CHOCOLATE! I’m thinking about a regional governor named Pontius Pilate, who could find no fault with a man called Jesus of Nazareth, but had him publicly tortured and put to death anyway, just to appease the crowds. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Wednesday, 11/9/2016, 6:59 AM: I went to bed still uncertain of the outcome, but with a prediction in mind. All night I dreamed various scenarios. I woke to the news that Donald Trump is our next president. I don’t know if this is good for America or not. I don’t know what I’d feel if they had gone the other way. What I do know is that the sun is rising, I still have breath in my lungs, and God is still good.

There have been many scandalous people in positions of power throughout history. It is no coincidence that the names most often associated with human horror were also people in government leadership. Such is the way of the world.

Yesterday I repeated the refrain “But Jesus came anyway,” but that’s not the most accurate way to phrase it. See, Jesus didn’t come in spite of scandalous human leaders. He came because of them. He came for them. And for us, with all our own scandalous sinful lives. Jesus came precisely because he alone can solve our problems, can remove our scandal, and can give us hope and a future.

Whatever you’re feeling this morning, whether anger, fear, triumph, gladness or sadness, set it aside for a moment. Rejoice that your good God reigns. Remember that Jesus came for this. And that Jesus is coming again to take us from this.

Gospel Go

It has millions of followers, with more added every day. It is drawing people together from all walks of life, opening doors of communication, cooperation, and friendship between people who otherwise never would have glanced at each other. It is inspiring people to go out into the world and explore.

And it’s a video game, about made up animals with goofy names. But wow! It’s incredible that a children’s game that first appeared twenty years ago has become a world-wide phenomenon with the release of a free-to-play mobile app, and that it has literally changed the way people go about their daily life!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m astounded, because Pokemon Go is everywhere in the news, social media, and your neighborhood. I’m not even joking about it being in your neighborhood – to play the game, people walk around towns and neighborhoods, looking at a map on their smartphones, and the program plots the creatures onto the map. Players “catch” the creatures – called Pokemon – and add them to their collection.

They can take the Pokemon to assigned places called “Gyms” (designated locations in towns and cities) and let them compete against other people’s Pokemon, or they can feed them candy to make them change forms. When you visit certain landmarks and monuments in your area you can collect special items. Sometimes you find an egg, which you “incubate” by walking around, and when it hatches who knows what you’ll find!

You’ve probably heard horror stories in the news of people getting into trouble while playing this game – crashing their car or bike because they’re playing while driving. Walking off a cliff while playing. Getting attacked by people because they wandered into the wrong place. These stories might make it sound like it isn’t worth the trouble.

But those horror stories only make news because they’re sensational – and actually fairly rare, compared to the number of people playing. For more common is the kinds of stories the news media doesn’t find exciting enough. In Kalamazoo the police department shared a story from one of their off duty police officers. He was hanging out one evening in a park, watching people all over the place playing the game. A man in a business suit comparing collections with a couple of goth kids. Dads running around with their kids catching Pokemon. A pizza guy selling pizzas for $5, and someone bought one for a homeless man who spends a lot of time in that park. The homeless guy ended up walking around handing people the extra slices.

Community. Cooperation. Communication. Friendship. And all because of something as simple as a mobile phone game.

Church, I think we should be paying attention to this. See, we have something way more meaningful, way more powerful, way more lasting than Pokemon Go. It unites us, it breaks down all barriers of culture and age and gender and walk of life. It opens doors for communication, it inspires us to go out into the world and work together, and it instantly makes friends – no, brothers and sisters – of everyone who has it.

I’m not talking about a hymnal. I’m talking about the Gospel, the foundation of our faith. It is the simple, beautiful truth that in Christ we have been forgiven all our sins, given life, salvation, and a future, and that through faith in Jesus we are adopted into his family, called sons and daughters of the one true God. In the Gospel we have the promise of a day when we will all spend forever in a world of perfection, with nothing to separate us from each other or to stand in the way of us truly loving each other, and no prospect of it ever being ruined. That knowledge alone already gives us reasons to care for each other, to look for our brothers and sisters in Christ, to communicate and cooperate with them and grow in friendship and community with each other.

If a mobile app about a children’s game can do all this, I guarantee the Gospel can do so much more. But in order for it to do so, it has to take as much of a priority in all of our lives as Pokemon Go does in its players lives. Here’s what I mean: I’ve played Pokemon Go, and so have my kids, and when you start playing it, I’ll tell you, it catches you as much as you catch the Pokemon. You want to have the app open while you walk around, just in the hope that you’ll find something. You want to keep it open so that your eggs will hatch. You assign it a spot on the home screen of your phone so that you don’t forget to open it the second you walk out the door. You think about it and read about it when you’re not playing.

That sounds like a lot of obsession for a silly game, right? But what if we had the same obsession with the Gospel? I know some Christians who do, and it’s evident in their lives. They really live it. And if you ask them, “How do you have such a deep relationship with Christ and his Word?” they’ll answer, “I read it. I think about it. It’s the first thing I look at in my day. I make sure to have ready access to it. The Bible app is on my home screen on my phone. I read books to help me understand it, and I pray about what I read.”

I want to encourage you, Church, to make the Gospel your obsession. Sink into it day after day. Let it change the way you go about your day. You know, God said something like this to his people a long time ago.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:6-9)

The blessings of all of us growing deeper into the Gospel don’t stop with those of us who are already part of the Church. See, with Pokemon Go it’s all about us seeking out and finding the Pokemon wherever they’re hiding. An important part of the Gospel is all of us going out and seeking and finding people who need to hear it, looking for the people we can call to know who Jesus is and what he’s done. The more familiar we become with the Gospel, the more eagerly we want to let other people know about it.

Go ahead and download Pokemon Go and have some fun with it. It’s a fun game to play. But all the more, sink into the Gospel and let it guide the way you live day after day.

#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.