Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sabbath: The Practice of Unimportance

Sunday's Message (October 27): Nuts and Bolts
Message Audio: Listen HERE 

I didn't preach on Sunday. I spoke but didn't preach (some people might argue that I never preach - haha). I unpacked our new Connect Groups initiative which we launch in January. It is rather challenging to write a post that builds on a nonsermon, but during my Sunday info-bomb I mentioned Connect Groups will not meet three months out of the year. My reason? Sabbath. So...there is my "in" for this post. I'm going to write about Sabbath...just one angle.

Some days I feel important, as if the world needs me. Facebook and Twitter fuel my disillusionment  because they give me an avenue to make believe I'm a celebrity. I get to be my own paparazzi. But when I take a break from myself long enough to clear my head I cannot hide from the reality that I share this planet with 7 billion other people, and that if I cease to exist tomorrow the world wouldn't bat an eyelash. Not that it wouldn't care, but it wouldn't even know to care! For 99.999999999999% of the world life would not change. And for a handful of people, four to be exact, their world would crumble but only for a short time. Their life would go on too. It always does.

You may be saying, "That's depressing!" Not really. It is true. It is humbling and it is a reminder that I'm not as important as I think I am or would like to be. My existence, my effort, my work, my contributions, and my ideas do not sustain the world. The ebb and flow of Creation does not depend upon the energies I exhaust. Life does not need me. Life is a gift to me!

For many of us our busyness is self-idolatry. We worship our productivity. We think we somehow sustain our companies, our families, our world. We refuse to take a break, to rest, to cease because we fear things will fall apart if we stop. Reality check! One day you will stop and life will go on...ebbing and flowing. Don't get me wrong, your contributions matter but they do not hold the cosmos in check. God and God alone sustains creation. Sabbath is a spiritual practice that reminds us of this simple truth. God is in charge. During sabbath you force yourself to "cease" from your busyness and productivity and miraculously life goes on.

In Leviticus 25, the Lord tells Israel that every 7th year is a Sabbath year. He commands:

But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields  or prune your vineyards...The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you - for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary residents who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

God says "For six years you can plant, sow, and tend to your fields, but on the seventh you can only eat what the earth provides without your assistance." The sabbath year not only provided rest for the land but it reminded Israel that their existence was not dependent upon their effort and strategic farming, but on the provision of the one who sustains all things. I'm sure those 7th years were terrifying to Israel and yet somehow they always had food, somehow they managed to survive. Life did not depend upon their effort but upon God's sovereignty and love.

Take a sabbath. Engage in the practice of unimportance. Your company will not go under if you take a day off. Your kids will not grow up to be serial killers if you and your spouse hire a baby-sitter for the weekend and get out of Dodge. Your kids will not miss their chance at pro-ball because you take a year off from sports. Take a sabbath. Remind yourself that life does not need you. Enjoy the fact that life is a gift to you!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why The World Needs Fewer Christians

Message Title: Jesus Circles
Message Audio: Listen HERE

In the Jesus Circle message, I explained how the discipleship process moves you from CONSUMER to CONTRIBUTOR. I want to explore the topic of discipleship further in this post by addressing the call to "follow Jesus" and not simply to "believe in Jesus."

Students of Church culture and Christian history argue that America is on a post-Christian journey. In other words, Christianity is losing its public influence. Perhaps the crystal ball points that direction, but if you took a poll, a vast number of Americans consider themselves Christian and many Americans still view this country as a Christian nation. You don't have to look far to find a professing Christian, but I don't think Jesus is after professing Christians. He wants practicing Christians.

We associate Christian with a belief. It sounds something like this, "I believe Jesus is the Son of God!" Boom! Christian! (Or, depending on your Christian tradition, confess and then perform some rite of initiation...Boom! Christian!) We've made Christian into a worldview declaration. But Jesus never recruited believers. As he said himself, "Even the demons believe and shudder!" Jesus wants followers.

Mark begins his story by skipping the birth of Jesus and moving right into his public ministry. From the beginning Jesus recruits followers. Mark 1:16-17 reads:

When Jesus was walking by Lake Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the lake because they were fishermen. 17 Jesus said to them, “Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

 Jesus does not ask Simon and Andrew to "believe in him," to "sing songs to him," to "wear t-shirts for him," to "listen to Chris Tomlin for him," or to "put fish stickers on their car for him." Not that some of those things aren't beneficial and even necessary, but Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to follow him. Jesus invites them to orient their lives to him. Jesus wants to be true north, by which they navigate their earthly excursion. He asks them to align their lives to his teaching. He does not want them to believe but to follow.

You can believe without following. I try to plan mini adventures whenever possible...maximizing small pockets of free time by doing some kind of activity outdoors. This summer I ventured on an 80-mile hike in 2.25 days (you can see pics and video from my trip HERE). The High Country Pathway is a looped trail through gorgeous northern Michigan. The 80 miles left me blistered and smelling of Vienna Sausage (My poor dog. He thought we were going on an evening walk, but didn't realize it was going to last 2 days). Blue ribbons and tags marked the true route.

Two observations about the blue markers:
1.  Just because I believed the blue markers existed did not mean I followed them. I saw the blue markers. I was 100% certain they existed, but I still had to make the choice to follow them. I had to choose to align my direction with their instruction. Discipleship is more than believing in Jesus. It requires a second choice...aligning your life with his instruction.
2. I could have used a number of objects or creatures to orient my trip. I saw a porcupine. He seemed pretty intelligent and slow enough to track. I could have followed him. I could have let the path serve as my guide (unfortunately sometimes the markers went opposite the path). I could have licked my finger, lifted it high, and then trekked in the direction of the blowing wind.  I could have relied on my gut to tell me which way to go. I could have oriented my life to any number of 'things' that would have taken me in the wrong direction. When we chose to follow Jesus we are confessing that he knows the true path to life...not just life-after death, but "right now" life. We chose to orient our life to him inspite of all other appealing alteranatives.

Morning sun on the High Country Pathway
I pray you will be a Christian, but I pray more fervently that you will follow Jesus. Pray the same for me! The world would be okay with fewer Christians but could use a lot more followers. 
You may ask, "How do I follow Jesus?" I would recommend you start by getting a Bible with the words of Jesus in red letters. Work your way through the first four books of the New Testament and read everything in red. Write down themes and repetitions in Jesus' teaching. Let him teach you and not just save you.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Screwed Up? Try Church!

Sunday's Message (Oct. 13th): Killing the Lone Ranger
Message Audio: Listen HERE

On Sunday I highlighted the value of community by explaining how your connection to God's community improves your effectiveness in his mission. We explored how community participation makes you better by increasing knowledge and providing encouragement. This post continues the encouragement discussion by looking at how staying connected with a faith community after personal failure is vital for restoration and redemption.

Jesus intentionally moved to Jerusalem, his execution imminent. He spent the last three years of his life pouring the deepest part of himself into 12 men. They were not just his apostles. They were his friends, but fear is a funny thing and self-preservation a strong instinct. On the night of his arrest, they all deserted him and two of them betrayed him. You might know them: Peter and Judas!

Matthew, in his story about Jesus, contrasts the failure of Peter and Judas by setting the stories alongside each other. He begins with Peter. The Jewish leaders arrested Jesus. Peter followed at a safe distance and waited outside the courtroom to see what happened. While waiting for a verdict, three different people accused Peter of being a Jesus supporter, one of his posse. Hours early, Peter nearly decapitated the servant of the high priest, but fortunately Jesus called Peter off. Peter appeared ready to go to battle with Jesus, but when the tide began to turn and his "savior" seemed bound for execution, he withdrew his support. He denied ever knowing Jesus. Three times they asked him. Three times he denied, even calling down curses on himself. After the third denial, a rooster crowed and Peter broke.  Jesus had told Peter earlier, " Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." Peter thought Jesus had lost his mind, but at that moment, with the rooster's crow echoing through his heart, Peter came face to face with his failure. He broke! He was filled with sorrow.  Matthew describes it this way:

And he [Peter] went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

Immediately following Peter's denial, Judas reenters the story. Jesus was on trial because Judas turned him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver. Judas had a greed problem. His wallet trumped his loyalty to his teacher. I'm convinced Judas turned Jesus over because he never thought the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court) would convict him. He knew better than anyone of Jesus' innocence. They would never find enough dirt on Jesus. He figured the Sanhedrin would try Jesus and release him due to lack of evidence and he'd end up 30 pieces of silver richer. No harm, no foul! But...they convicted Jesus and upon hearing the news Judas, like Peter, broke! Judas was filled with sorrow.

Judas, the one who had given Jesus to his enemies, saw that they had decided to kill Jesus. Then he was very sorry for what he had done. So he took the thirty silver coins back to the priests and the leaders,  saying, “I sinned; I handed over to you an innocent man.” (Matthew 27:3-4)

Both men failed Jesus. Both were sorry but that is where the similarities between the stories end. Peter goes on to become one of the most known names in Christianity, the first spokesperson for the Church, a respected leader of the early church, a biblical author whose life still influences us today. On the other hand...Judas threw the money into the Temple. Then he went off and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).  

Many factors and choices led Peter and Judas to radically different ends, but I want to highlight one major difference between their responses. Judas isolated himself in his failure and remorse. Suicide is suicide because you commit it alone. Peter, on the other hand, returned to the rest of the disciples despite his failure. In John's gospel, we learn that Peter was one of the first disciples to enter the empty tomb. It is clear that Peter returned to be with the rest of the disciples within three days of his denial. Scripture does not say, but I suggest that Peter's refusal to isolate himself because of his failure and his willingness to stay connected to a faith community played a part in his recovery, redemption and restoration. Perhaps things could have turned out differently for Judas if he had returned broken to the disciples.

Sin destroys. Your sin destroys. My sin destroys. It is the nature of sin! Often, when you fail, church is the last place you want to go. You experience shame. You fear judgment. You feel out of place. Isolating yourself from the faith community seems more appropriate. After all, you betrayed Jesus. Why would you return to a place where people are trying to follow him. READ CAREFULLY...such a mode of thought is from the Devil! He wants nothing more than to isolate you in your failure, to trap you in your shame so that you can follow the Judas Road.  He wants your remorse to destroy you. The church should be the first place you go in your sorrow and brokenness. Carry your shame and guilt to the community of faith and give it to them. Let them destroy it in the name of Jesus.

If you realize you've messed it all up, or messed some of it up....Step 1: Go to Church. I'll see you Sunday!

(I have written more about the Judas and Peter story HERE and HERE).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Wish it Was a Bar Fight: Why Spiritual Pinkies Matter

Sunday Message (Oct. 13): Killing the Lone Ranger
Message Audio: Listen HERE

On Sunday I unpacked the necessity of being involved in a Jesus community (Church) by exploring the statement: communal participation creates mission preparation. We took a look at the story of Apollos to better understand how your effectiveness in God's mission is related to your connection to his community. I sent you home with two key points:
  1. Participating in community makes YOU better.
  2. Participating in community makes the Church better.
In this post, I'm building on point number 2.

Matt Clark is one of my best friends. We have shared life since my sixth grade year. One year Matt and I were teaching a class at Encounter, a summer camp on the Lubbock Christian University campus. Our class had ADD. We jumped from yoga, to a movie quoting battle, to our own rendition of the strong man, to a pointless skit. During the skit, I was supposed to punch him in the arm. The first two classes were flawless but during the third class, as I fired my punch, Matt turned and I hit him awkwardly in his chest. Immediately I knew this was bad, not because I had broken my hand but because I had broken my hand on his chest. He still flexes and gloats today, "Remember when you broke your hand on my chest?" What are friends for...

An orthopedic specialist confirmed that I had a boxer's fracture but let me know I would not need surgery. He laughed saying, "Usually I deal with these kinds of breaks from guys who have been in bar fights and not from pastors!" A bar fight would have been a better story. Over the next few weeks  a cast rendered my pinkie and ring finger useless. I tried not to let the cast slow me down. I continued to ride my bike. I played volleyball at camp (left handed). For the sake of humanity, I continued to shower. I carried on as usual and while I was able to do most of the things without the cast, I was far less effective and efficient. My bike steering was shaky, my volleyball game unsightly, and my showers slow and frustrating. Although 99% of my body was in full gear, the absence of a pinkie and ring finger had significant impact on my effectiveness.  I'm better with ALL parts of my body working together!

Enter New Testament preacher, writer and apostle...Paul:

Paul established a church in the city of Corinth. The church in Corinth was made of people, therefore the church in Corinth had conflict. Paul addresses the Corinthian problems in a letter. Among the slew of Corinthian issues, the church was dividing over who had the superior spiritual gift: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking different languages, or interpreting heavenly languages (I Corinthians 12:7-10).  Paul explains in chapter 12 that spiritual gifts have no hierarchy. The Holy Spirit does not distribute gifts based on merit or importance. The Spirit gifts people for the benefit of the Church! Paul says it this way:

 There are different kinds of gifts, but they are all from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve but the same Lord to serve. And there are different ways that God works through people but the same God. God works in all of us in everything we do.   Something from the Spirit can be seen in each person, for the common good.  (I Corinthians 12:4-7)

He uses the human body as an analogy to explain this concept further:

A person’s body is one thing, but it has many parts. Though there are many parts to a body, all those parts make only one body. Christ is like that also...If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But truly God put all the parts, each one of them, in the body as he wanted them. So then there are many parts, but only one body. (I Corinthians 12:12, 19-20)

Paul uses the body analogy to stop the Corinthian infighting, but I want to use his analogy to encourage you to use your giftedness for the benefit of the Church. Paul's body metaphor centers on the power of diverse gifts uniting around a common purpose...the purpose being the Church and the mission of God. If an individual refuses to use their giftedness in the church The Body suffers. The church is less efficient.

Just like a boxer's fracture, the church will continue to function without the use of a limb, an ear or an eye, but it will wobble a bit more. It will ride unsteady. It will move slower. The functioning members will have to exhort greater effort to compensate for the non-functioning members. But, when everyone uses their gifts for the mission of the church, the church is better.

The Holy Spirit has gifted you! He has gifted you to contribute to God's mission through the church. You may say, "But I'm just an ear!" We need you. Or, "I'm just a pinkie!" Trust me, I speak from experience. When the pinkie is out of commission the body misses it! Withholding your gifts and talents from the church hurts the church and the mission of God. Let me encourage you to get involved! 

(For TCOC members and attenders, we offer a Gift Survey HERE to help you discover your unique giftedness. Take it and then use it. We need you!)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Banana-Fana-Fofana...The Blame Game

Sunday Message (October 6): A 3C Church
Message Audio: Listen HERE

In the first Connect message I named the obvious: things are not right in the world. Whether a Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian or atheist, we can all agree that we live in a fractured creation. Just recently...Nairobi Westgate Mall attack, Syria, Aaron Alexis, National Mall fire suicide, and the government shutdown remind us that "something is wrong out there." But if we are honest with ourselves we must also confess, "Not only is something wrong out there something is wrong in here." One of the contributing factors to a broken world is a broken ME.  That's why repentance lies at the heart of the gospel message.

John the Baptist (He gets my award for best preaching attire) prepares the way for the coming of Christ. The gospel writer Luke tell us John went into all the country of the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).

Jesus shows up on the preaching circuit with a similar refrain: The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).

Peter, preaching the first sermon post resurrected-Christ, responds to the desperate crowd: Repent and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

You cannot separate repentance from the gospel. If we do not need to repent, then we have no need for the gospel. The gospel is the "good news" of Jesus Christ, his coming to earth, his ministry, his death and his resurrection...ultimately his defeat of sin! The gospel is God's response to our helpless situation. Believing in the gospel story, accepting its claims and following Jesus begins with repentance. It begins by acknowledging that you have contributed to the fall of creation, that you are broken. It begins with the confession that you need to change while acknowledging that you are powerless to do so. The gospel must cross the threshold of repentance before it can take up residence in your heart. And repentance begins by taking responsibility! "Yes, I am at fault. I am the problem!" Unfortunately, our tendency is to blame rather than take responsibility. 

When my youngest son was 5 he refused to take responsibility for his bad behavior. He always responded to my interrogations with, "But..." I remember one incident in particular. I had caught him red-handed. He denied my accusations. I presented the evidence, "I saw you, YOU, walk in the room and eat that cookie after I told you not to! You are lying to me! I know you did it!" I had him. He would have to own-up now. After a few careful moments of reflection, "Dad, it wasn't me. An evil Pierson from the Devil walked into the room and got the cookie." With the twist of theology he blew holes in my bulletproof case.

My son is not alone. I'm guilty. All of us are guilty. Throughout my years of ministry, couples have invited me into their marital conflicts under the guise of helping their marriage, but many times what they really want is for me to fix their partner. They believe fixing their partner will fix the marriage. Reconciliation will not happen until both partners begin by taking responsibility for their own contributions to the dysfunction. 

Last Thursday I tried updating myself on the Government Shutdown. I spent an hour flipping back and forth between MSNBC and FOX NEWS and came away with nothing. MSNBC pointed the finger at the Republicans. FOX NEWS pointed the finger at the President and the Democrats. I would just like for someone to stand up and take responsibility.

We like the Blame Game, but my acceptance of the good news of Jesus begins by confessing that I need him. It begins by acknowledging that I have a problem and that I am part of the problem. Part of the reason things are wrong out there is because things are wrong in here

Are you misplacing blame? For what do you need to take responsibility? 
- A struggling marriage
- A negative work environment
- A destructive habit
- A financial crisis
- An estranged friendship
- A feeling of discontent
- A sinful act

Today let's quit blaming. Let's take responsibility because when we do we make room for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Walk Out! Why We Stay in Prison After Freedom

Sunday Message (October 6): A 3C Church

Message Audio: Listen HERE

I began a new series, Connect, on Sunday - laying groundwork for the exciting Connect Group changes coming to TCOC in January 2014! The message unpacked how salvation is more than a simple spiritual transaction but rather a cosmic transformation. It emphasized how individual transformation contributes to cosmic transformation. I wrapped the message up reinforcing TCOC's spiritual transformation model:

          Engage the Unchurched + Connect to Christ + Connect to Others = Transformation

I spent some time in Romans 6:1-14 addressing baptism as a starting point for transformation. In this post, I dig further into Romans 6:1-14 and challenge you regarding your "New Life" in Jesus.

In Romans 6, Paul debunks the notion that more sin leads to more grace. The fallacy reads: If grace covers sin, then the more I sin the more grace I receive. My sins magnify the power of God's grace!" Paul's response, "Fools!" Not his actual written response, but he probably thought it. Paul goes on to deconstruct this line of thinking by explaining that accepting God's grace through baptism effectively means a death to the old, sinful self and receiving a new life in Jesus Christ.

When talking about Jesus' affect on our former life, our sinful self, Paul uses language like: it [sinful self] was crucified with Christ, done away with and as a result you are dead to sin. Have you ever seen the dead? Boring! Definitely not entertaining. Useless really.

I rode my bike to and from classes during grad school. One day, as I pedaled home, I came across a dead cat who unfortunately had not been as successful as the chicken. It sat their on the side of the road. The next day, it was still there. The next? Still there. This cat did not even have the decency to move it's rotting corpse to a more appropriate decomposing location. It wouldn't play, eat, climb, jump, or even meow! It was powerless. It was dead! Exactly. Paul says, if you are in Christ, sin no longer has power over your body. Jesus freed you from sin!

Freedom from sin is the other image Paul uses to reorient the Roman disciples to the transforming power of grace. He closes this section with the words:

 So don’t let sin rule your body, which is going to die. Don’t obey its evil longings. Don’t give the parts of your body to serve sin. Don’t let them be used to do evil. Instead, give yourselves to God. You have been brought from death to life. Give the parts of your body to him to do what is right.

 Sin will not be your master. Law does not rule you. God’s grace has set you free.

He says, "Quit obeying sin." You don't have to do what it tells you, because sin is no longer your master. You have been emancipated! Before Jesus, you had no choice. Sin was in charge. You were compelled to obey, but Jesus killed your old task-master. He blew a hole in the prison wall, unlocked your cell door and broke the shackles restraining your ankles and wrists. He set you free.

I love this truth!! Don't you? But if you are like me, you might wonder "If Paul is right, then why does it feel like sin is in control so much of the time?" Shawshank Redemption provides a possible solution.

Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 film staring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, tells the story of Andy's (Tim Robbins) genius escape from prison. Early on, the film introduces an inmate named Brooks who has spent the last 50 years of his life behind bars. After half a century the department of corrections decides he is rehabilitated enough to be released on parole. On the day of his release, Brooks, a harmless and gentle inmate, loses his mind, grabs another inmate, pulls a shank and is preparing to slit his throat when Andy talks him down. Brooks was sabatoging his own parole. Finally after 50 years he was free, but all he knew was life behind bars. He had been there too long. 

Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation. Jesus has freed you. The door is open but you refuse to walk out. Slavery is all you know. Sin is comfortable. It is familiar. It is a part of you. Somehow you still believe that life behind the "bars of sin" is better than a life of freedom in Christ. My challenge today...WALK OUT!

Maybe you have struggled with pornography for years. It consumes your life and your thoughts. WALK OUT! It is not your master. Get help. Call someone. Confess. Do it now!

Maybe you worship money and success. WALK OUT! Cut your work hours. Take a demotion. Give something away...today! Volunteer for an organization that serves the poor. 

Maybe you are living with your boyfriend or girlfriend, living outside God's design for the sexual relationship. WALK OUT! Sit down. Define the relationship. Decide if you are ready to get married. If not, figure out new living arrangements.

Maybe your self-righteousness manifests itself in a judgmental spirit. WALK OUT! Invite someone you have judged to lunch. Listen to their story. Don't talk. Just listen.

Maybe bitterness and an unforgiving spirit holds you hostage. WALK OUT! Pray for a spirit of forgiveness today. If you are too angry to pray for a forgiving spirit, ask someone you trust to pray the prayer for you. Re-engage the broken relationship.

Maybe drugs and alcohol control your life. WALK OUT! Call someone and tell them to make sure you attend an AA meeting or a Celebrate Recovery gathering. Check yourself into rehab.

Maybe you are in an affair. WALK OUT! End the relationship. Call someone you know loves you. Tell them you need their help.

Listen to Paul. You are dead to sin. Sin is no longer your master. You have been set free from sin. Trust that your life is in Christ. Don't sit in you cell any longer. Jesus opened the door. WALK OUT!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Problem with Love...Well, "That" Kind of Love.

Sunday Message (September 29): CROSS

Message Audio: Listen HERE

As I wrapped up the Friends: Be a Real One message series on Sunday, I unpacked the following statement: lasting and thriving relationships follow the way of the cross. I have directed this week's AfterWORDS at two tangents which time prohibited me from addressing in the Friends series. Tuesday's post centered on Paul's relational argument that the Spirit runs thicker than blood. You can read it HERE. This post focuses on the problem with "love."

Taylor Swift says, "We are never ever, ever getting back together." That's right, this relationship is over!

Bruno Mars flatters, "Her lips, her lips...I could kiss them all day if she'd let me." Giddy-up!

Enrique Iglesias gets straight to the point, "I know you want me. I made it obvious that I want you too...nobody has ever made me feel the way that you do...tonight I'm loving you!" Lucky girl!

And then Katy Perry's new song tattooing itself on mental replay, "I've got the eye of the tiger, fighter, dancing through fire. I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar!" Obviously she is directing her Rocky Balboaness at her punk ex.

Love is pop musics number one subject: I'm in love; we just broke up; she broke my heart; I'm breaking his heart; I can't live without you; you are hot, sexy...yada, yada, yada. I won't lie. I like pop music. I've car-rocked everyone of the songs I mentioned, off key of course and with nauseating dance moves. All of theses artists have catchy tunes, great voices and address a subject matter that matters to every person. Everyone wants love. The problem is not pop music. I don't believe you should only listen to Third Day and Chris Tomlin. I've been a Michael Jackson fan since I lip synced Thriller at church camp! The problem? The love culture speaks of is not love.

The Pop music love that dominates our culture, the love we obsess about, would be better defined as infatuation, chemistry, romantic love, attraction or Eros.  Romantic love focuses on how the other person makes you feel, from a racing-heart to sexual arousal. There is a place for romantic love, but it is not the highest form of love. It is not the most satisfying love. Often we feel our void for love with infatuation and chemistry and come up less than satisfied, because we were made for a richer, deeper, more fulfilling love. A love that originates from the nature of God.

In I Corinthians 13, Paul attempts to unite a fracturing congregation, fighting over their spiritual superiority, by showing them the most excellent way. The most excellent way...LOVE! The word Paul uses for Christian love is agape. Agape was best demonstrated on the cross. It is a love lavished on others whether they are worthy or not. It proceeds from the nature of the lover, and not the attractiveness of the loved (Leon Morris). Agape offers oneself for the best interest of the object of love. It has little to do with feelings, sex, or attraction but it has everything to do with humanity's greatest emotional need. Paul's definition of love sounds a lot different than "I know you want me. I made it obvious that I want you too." Paul says...

Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not want what belongs to others. It does not brag. It is not proud.  It is not rude. It does not look out for its own interests. It does not easily become angry. It does not keep track of other people’s wrongs. Love is not happy with evil. But it is full of joy when the truth is spoken.  It always protects. It always trusts. It always hopes. It never gives up.  Love never fails.

If Paul is right, then the most satisfying love is not the subject of Bruno Mar's latest hit. It is not confined to the marriage relationship. It should be most evident in the Church. It is agape. When we begin to emphasize the highest form of love, when we let it shape our search for love, the game changes.

1.  It dispels the notion that single people will be less than complete until they are married. Agape means that men and women can be fully satisfied outside of marriage. A husband or wife is not necessary in order to have your deepest need fulfilled.

2.  It creates better marriages. I'm not going to lie, I did not initiate a relationship with Mary Beth (my wife) out of agape. I sought her out because I thought and still think she is gorgeous. It was her smile, her jet black hair, her tiny nose...you get the idea. Although I'm still deeply attracted to my wife, our love has matured in our 15 years of being together. Our agape deepens and as it does our relationship improves!

3. It affirms the power of same-sex friendships. Many men have a difficult time with intimacy, especially when that word is used in the context of relationships with other males (our homophobia betrays us). Intimacy is not a sexual term but our misperception of love has made it such. When we let agape shape our understanding of love it creates space for same-sex friendships that are life-giving and soul-fulfilling. David and Jonathan are an excellent biblical example of such a friendship.

4. It reinforces the importance of the Church. As a Christian, I believe agape springs from the very nature of God and manifests itself most clearly in Jesus and his death. It is a Christian love and it should permeate every nook and cranny of our churches. People should find a love in the Christian community that reaches to the depth of their being.

Keep listening to Bruno and Katy. I know I will, but let Paul shape your view of love!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thicker than Blood: The Church as the Primary Community

Sunday Message (September 29): CROSS

Message Audio: Listen HERE

I wrapped up the "Friends: Be a Real One Series" on Sunday by exploring the third "C" of lasting and thriving relationships: CROSS. I used Paul's reconciliation strategy from Philippians 2 to argue that lasting and thriving relationships follow the way of the cross.  In this week's AfterWORDS, I will address two topics (tangents, if you will) I was unable to cover in the "Friends" series: 1) the Church as God's primary community and 2) the problem with eros.

If you happen to live in a suburb, like I do, it becomes apparent that businesses cater to the family...fine by me. I have three boys! Think about it: Chuck E. Cheese's, or what I call Kid Vegas. Have you seen how kids blow their $10 in tokens by gambling it all on the "ticket slots?" There is nothing more satisfying to a parent then spending $10 on 5 Jolly Ranchers and a snap bracelet. Actually, the $10 is for an hour of sitting without worrying about your kid biting the dog, flooding the toilet, or tagging the hallway wall.

"But Chuck E. Cheese is designed for children," you say! I'd argue it is designed for parents. But Chuck E. aside...take into account indoor playscapes, children's menus with more puzzles and coloring than food items, children's barbers with airplane stools and video games, Bass Pro turning into a Winter Wonderland at Christmas, and even Home Depot's "kid's project" Saturdays.

But IKEA is my favorite. In case you are unfamiliar with IKEA, it is a giant furniture store designed around family comfort. When you walk in the door you find yourself staring at a day care! You can drop your child off for an hour and shop kid free. I'm convinced some parents head to IKEA, not for the furniture, but for a 1-hour IKEA date! If your kid is in the "clingy stage" or if you are afraid to leave them at the day care because you weren't able to wipe down the entire playground with sanitizing wipes (Don't worry that will change by kid number three. The "3 second rule" has turned into a "5 day rule" at our house), then just head upstairs to the IKEA cafeteria for Swedish Horse Meatballs, baked chicken or Mac and Cheese and pudding. For the sake of your cafeteria sanity, IKEA has created a rolling tray carrier capable of carting 5-6 trays. No longer does the lone parent have to juggle a baby and three food-loaded trays. After getting a snack, or 5-course meal, you walk through the store where IKEA has strategically placed sensory stations for your kid to touch, climb, hit, and spin. As you leave, a second round of hunger pains will be setting in because it takes about 2.5 days to make your way through the store. No worries! A snack bar lives right behind the cashier serving hot dogs, cinnamon rolls, ice cream, and pretzels. Even if you are not hungry, you can bet your kid will "need" a snack. IKEA caters to the family.

In this world of IKEA's and Chuck E. Cheese's it is no wonder families come to Church expecting the Church to cater to them. Now don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in stellar children's programs and parenting and marriage classes. But, suburban culture and family friendly Churches often come with a side-effect. We reinforce the idea that God created the Church to serve the family. In scripture it is the opposite. God expects the family to serve the Church because God designed the Church as his primary community.

You may have heard the idiom "blood runs thicker than water" as a rationale for siding with your family over non-family. In large part, that is true. I'm most defensive about my wife, children and extended family. You can talk about me but don't talk about my wife. You can pick on me but don't you dare mess with my little guys. Why? Because blood is thicker than water! But according to Paul, the Spirit is thicker than blood!

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul is doing conflict management between Gentile and Jewish Christians. For thousands of years God identified his people with a certain ethnic group. Granted, others could be grafted in, but there was no separating the Jewishness of God's people. But in Ephesians, Paul says that through Jesus God's purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two [Jews and Gentiles].  He says, through Christ we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access to the Father by one SPIRIT and that in Christ Jews and Gentiles are being built together as to become a dwelling in which God lives by his SPIRIT. Paul tells us that the Spirit of God runs deeper than Jewishness, Gentileness, Taylorness, or your familiness. It runs thicker than blood.

God's primary community, the community to whom he commissions his mission is not the family unit. It is the Church. Blood is exclusive by nature. That's part of the power of adoption...the grafting of an individual into the family unit - making someone a part of an inherently exclusive group. But the Church is not exclusive. It is a community of male-female, young-old, black-white, married-single, Irish-Armenian, Chinese-Russian... God's core community is the Church and not the family. God labels the Church as The Body of Christ, not the family. The hope for America, for the world, is not in the nuclear family, but in the gospel-bearing body of Christ.

I'm a huge family man! I believe family is important. I'm ready to die for mine! I believe, as a minister, in helping foster better marriages, closer families, and more effective parenting. But...I believe the Church is God's primary community and believe God calls my family to serve the Church rather than waiting for the Church to serve my family.

So...how can your family serve God's Church?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shut Up and Look Up: Letting God Justify

Sunday Message (September 22): CHRIST

Sermon Audio: Listen HERE

We learned that thriving and lasting relationships make Jesus the center of individual identity in last Sunday's message. Tuesday's AfterWORDS explained how praying Romans 8:33b, "It is God who justifies" helps ground your value and esteem in Christ. In this post, I give you a practical way to let God justify and it means you have to shut up! :-)

Facebook fascinates me, not because I like to creep on everyone's life (just a few of you), but because it is an insightful study in our perception obsession. Facebook offers the perfect medium to design the "You" you want the world to see: brand yourself! You don't see a lot of people updating their profile pic with the "triple chin" photo. You don't see a lot of uploaded family vacation pics capturing the special moment when you screamed at your wife and your middle kid hit his brother with a stick! No, it's always the family sitting around the campfire, singing "Kumbayah," sharing S'mores (FYI, the Taylor's do not share S'mores), and sipping hot cocoa. Let's admit it. We are all fatter in real life.

Facebook is simply a symptom of a larger issue: seeking value and worth based on how others see us. That's why we spend a large percentage of our energy trying to get people to see us a certain way: our clothes, our homes, our cars, our hair, and most importantly our words. Many of us devote the largest percentage of our daily words shaping perception by correcting, explaining, and defending. Richard Foster, the Michael Jordan of Spiritual disciplines, says a practical way to put your identity in God and to let him justify is simply to "Shut up and look up!"

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence [emphasis mine] is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier....perhaps more than anything else, silence brings us to believe that God can care for us - "reputation and all." 
-Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline)

If you really want to let God justify, start by being quiet. Don't respond. Shut up. Leave it to God.

But what they think about me is wrong....shhhh.
But they are misinterpreting my motives...shhhh.
But they don't like me because of rumors....shhhh.
But that was a mistake, I'm not like that anymore...shhh.

Shhh...shut up and look up. It is so hard but in those moments when you do it,  it is
so freeing!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Just Because: Finding Identity in Christ

Sunday Message (September 22nd): CHRIST

Text: Philippians 3:1-10

Sermon Audio: Listen HERE

On Sunday, we explored how lasting and thriving relationships make Jesus the center of individual identity. You are a better friend and a better spouse when your value, esteem and sense of worth derive from an identity in Christ rather than in the acceptance or rejection from others. While it might be easy to understand this concept, it is very difficult to live it out in a world that assigns value according to ability, beauty, and productivity.

My wife recently informed me that thighs, skinny enough not to touch, are the new standard of beauty. Huh? I thought God designed the human body to be a fire hazard when wearing corduroy pants...inner thigh friction. Apparently not according to the latest, and ever changing, beauty trends. Seriously, women once thought hair on a man's chest attractive (reference: Magnum PI). Now men shave themselves into a porpoise. Society's definition of beauty carries so much weight when it comes to our sense of value and worth that plastic surgeons now offer surgery to keep your thighs from meeting in the middle. No wonder so many of us feel ugly.

And productivity...I spent three months as a Business Development Specialist (fancy for salesperson) in a retirement home. It was a depressing job. I saw many elderly discarded at the doors of the long term care facility because they no longer were "productive" members of society and therefore no longer valuable. No wonder so many of us lose our identity in our jobs and careers.

I realized how much of my identity and sense of worth came from my ministerial ability during an
eight-month hiatus from ministry. I was preaching at a 1000-member church. I was speaking almost monthly at events around the country. I earned the largest salary I had known to date. Needless to say, I was confident in my ability and then, because of choices I made, I lost my job. I spent the next 8 months building fences, and while I had great confidence in the Church World, I was an idiot in the construction business. I handled a saw and a nail gun like a toddler behind the wheel of a semi. My boss wouldn't let me touch the cutting saw for 6 months. I was of better use to his business with all of my limbs intact.  He entrusted that job to a 19-year old and a 26 year old...yep, and I was 35! Although I loved the physical nature of building fences and although I learned a lot, my self-esteem took a brutal beating in those 8 months because of my minimal ability. I felt stupid, dumb, and sometimes useless. During this 8-month break I realized that my identity had been in my preachin
g/ministering ability rather than Jesus, so I started taking steps to ground my value in Christ.

I began by praying a prayer from Romans 8:33b:

It is God who justifies.
I prayed this prayer a hundred times a day. It aligned my mind with the truth: I am valuable and worthy not because of how I look, perform, or produce. I am valuable because God has made me valuable.  

Justified means "being made right," and in a Christian context, "being made right before God." This simple prayer reminded me that the only thing that makes me right before God is God! It instilled a truth I had known but never really believed:
  1. I cannot fix my past mistakes. I cannot undo the past...but I'm not justified by fixing my past. It is God who justifies.
  2. I do not meet society's definition of beauty, and there are many areas of life where I possess no ability...but I'm not justified by my beauty or ability. It is God who justifies.
  3. There are people who do not like me, who have rejected me...but I am not justified by what others think of me. It is God who justifies.
If you are like me and you struggle to accept that your value comes from God and not ability, beauty or productivity, then I encourage you to pray this prayer today, this week, maybe even longer. Let these words move God's truth from your head to your heart. You are valuable "just because."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

AfterWORDS: Connecting the Message to Everyday Life

I'm Charlton Taylor, the Senior Minister for TCOC (Trenton Church of Christ). I believe in the power of preaching - the weekly rhythm of speaking publicly the Word of God. In the 2000 years of Christian history, preaching has been an essential component of individual and communal formation. I'm honored and humbled that God has entrusted me with the opportunity to regularly declare his life-transforming story.

I'm convinced God intends for his word to have a transformative effect in your everyday life. When theology ceases to be practical, it ceases to be theology. God never intended his story as an idea, but as a way of life and as a manner of perceiving the world. I created AfterWORDS as tool to help the hearer connect the Sunday message to everyday life. It is designed for the TCOC member, but will be available to anyone with Internet access.

Each week I will attach an audio link to the previous Sunday's message and will attempt to write two short devotional thoughts related to and building upon the message. I pray AfterWORDS will help you keep God's word fresh in your life throughout the week and not simply on Sunday.

"It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God..."