Paul says we Christians are running a race. Here's what I'm looking at on my run toward Christ.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Random Stories?

Sometimes when we read the Bible, especially the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) we read the stories as being somewhat randomly put together.  We must remember that the books of the Bible were put together in an order for a reason.  Each author had a point they were trying to get across to an audience; the Gospels are not like the diary of an eight year old.

So, today I read Luke 18 and wondered why Dr. Luke arranged the chapter the way he did.  It looked rather random at first, but I can see now his purpose in these stories.

The stories in Luke chapter 18 are the following: Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus tells the parable of the two men who prayed, Jesus blesses the children, Jesus speaks to the rich young man, Jesus predicts His death a third time and Jesus heals a blind beggar.  Please take time to read Luke 18 so you can see to what I'm referring.

In this chapter Luke pairs stories to make his points.  The pairings work inside out and then back to the centerpiece to finish Luke's point, I believe.

First pair: The two men who prayed and the rich young man.

This pair combines a parable and an actual event.  In this pairing we are shown two people who think they can earn eternal life.  The first is the Pharisee in the parable of the two men who prayed.  The Pharisee says, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men... robbers, evildoers, adulterers... or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."  Meanwhile, the tax collector begs God for mercy because he recognizes his need for mercy.  Jesus pronounces at the end of the parable: "... everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

In the second half of this pair a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus then has a give and take with the man before telling him to sell all he has and give it to the poor.  At that point the rich young man sadly went away from Jesus.  See, this man wanted to know what he could do to earn eternal life.  Riches were seen as a blessing from God, he had been faithful to the commands of God yet he did not want to recognize he had a need he couldn't meet on his own through a little hard work.  Receiving eternal life requires us to recognize our need to be saved, not to wonder what we can do to earn eternal life.

Second pair:  The persistent widow and the healing of the blind beggar.

Again Luke pairs a parable with an actual event.  In the parable the persistent widow makes a request over and over to a judge until he wears down and gives her what she requests.  Jesus was teaching that our prayer life should mirror that of the widow; we are to ask and ask and ask God persistently in faith.  Like the widow we must recognize that we need God to do for us what we cannot.

In the story of the blind beggar we see a man disregarded by society.  Like the widow before, he is a man that people would rather have, no pun intended, out of sight.  When the man shouts for Jesus to have mercy on him people try to shut him up, but he would not.  He continued to shout for mercy because he recognized that he had a need that only Jesus could fulfill.  Receiving eternal life requires that we ask God for what only He can do; we humble ourselves to ask Him to do what we never could.

Third pair:  The center stories I believe are the lynchpins of the chapter.  One story regards how we receive eternal life and the other points to how the possibility of us getting eternal life is achieved by Jesus.

People were bringing little children/babies to Jesus to be blessed, but His disciples shooed them away because they thought it was a waste of Jesus' time.  "But Jesus called the children to Him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God belongs to those who recognize their helplessness and simply receive to gift of the kingdom.  Unlike the men in the first pair of stories, babies don't think they need to work for life.  No baby does a trick or a chore before being fed or changed or held.  Like the second pair of stories, babies are keenly aware of their helplessness.  An infant will cry and cry until their need is met, they are persistent in their begging for life and mercy because their existence depends upon it.  Jesus is saying that the kingdom belongs to ones like this.  The kingdom of God does not belong to the self-righteous or the self-reliant.  Rather, the kingdom of God is for those who are in great need of being saved and those who trust in Jesus to do for them what no one else can.

Finally, Jesus wins eternal life for His people through humility.  In Luke 18:31-34 Jesus explains to His disciples that He has to die and then be raised again but they didn't get it.  The disciples didn't understand, and I wouldn't have either, that the greatest victory in history had to be won in humility.  Jesus' victory over sin and death came on a cross.  Just one chapter later, chapter 19, Jesus has His triumphant procession and everyone misses that Jesus riding on a donkey wasn't the high point of the week, but His glorious moment would instead come on a cross like a common thief.

So, as we can see in Luke chapter 18 the stories aren't random.  There is a lot of great truths to mine from each individual story but as we zoom out we can see that the structure of the chapter teaches us truth as well.  The Gospel is for the humble; it is for those who realize their need.  And the Gospel's immensity began in humility; Jesus humbling Himself to death on a cross ushered in the greatest news of all time.

Remember that the Gospel was achieved in humility for the lowly.  "Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" today.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Practical Advice for Graduates

The below post is originally from 2014.

Congratulations to all the graduates.  Below is some simple advice I wish I would have had when I graduated from high school.

Practical Advice for Graduates

Graduation is here for many high school and college students.  Several students I've had to privilege to know and love are leaving for college in the Fall.  So, here's some practical advice for high school graduates.  This list isn't exhaustive, but in my experience it is very helpful.

1) Don't go home every weekend and especially not the first weekend.

Your parents might not like this advice, but it is good advice.  So much of what you learn at college will not be learned in a classroom.  You will learn from the experience of being around new people.  Weekends are so important for meeting people, especially the first weekend.  Some of those people you meet your first weekend will possibly be life-long friends.

2) Leave your door open.

When you're in your room just hanging out leave your door open.  This will give you an opportunity to bond with those students living on your floor.  Most, if not all, of those students are also scared freshmen and that common experience is a great catalyst for friendship.  People who close their doors all the time often miss this companionship in a shared living space.

3) Don't overlook the weird kids, they're often the nicest.

High school may have been about cliques but college doesn't have to be like that.  Those "weird kids" are often the most friendly people on campus.  If you want college to be cliquey like high school it will be; but if you befriend people of all walks of life you'll learn so much more and have deeper friendships that aren't based solely on your social strata.

4) Don't believe everything your professors say, but think about everything they say.

Newsflash: many professors have an agenda.  A great number of these men and women want to teach you the subject matter and share their opinions with you as if they were facts.  These professors range from the atheist to the extreme liberal to the libertarian to the feminist that will make you sorry if you were born male.  Not everything presented in your class will be strictly factual.  However, don't use that as an excuse to stop thinking.  Some of my best professors were the curmudgeon former Christians and passionate near communists because they forced me to think sharply enough to defend my own opinion.

5) Plug into a church.

This is my most useful and impactful piece of advice for a few reasons.  In college you will be surrounded by 18-22 year-olds who think they know it all; your church will give you a chance to learn from your elders and give you an opportunity to mentor those younger than you.  Your church will keep you rooted in your faith.  For so long you've probably gone to church because your parents did, college will be a chance for you to go to church because you want to.  Don't underestimate the power of this.

9 years ago I plugged myself into a church in my college town, Waverly.  I was a nervous freshman at Wartburg College and I can't say enough how awesome the decision to go to Grace Baptist was for me.  Grace gave me a chance to be my own adult in the congregation.  No longer was I Jack and Kathie's son, I was just Matt.  My faith became even more my own and being plugged into Grace helped that immensely.  I'm still a member of Grace and I can only begin to say what a difference my church has made in my life.

Seniors, congratulations on your graduation.  I'd advice you to consider all the advice I gave above but I implore you to plug into a local church above all the rest of the advice that was given.  You'll be glad you did.  Again, congratulations and consider this advice today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Forgiveness and Drowning to Death

Forgiveness is a big deal.

Let me share with you something Jesus said about forgiveness.

"Jesus said to His disciples: 'Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves.

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times come back to you and says, "I repent,' forgive him.'

The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'"  Luke 17:1-5

The forgiveness that Christ demands in this passage is big.  Jesus said that we are to forgive over and over, even forgiving the same person seven times a day.  I don't think Jesus was giving seven as the maximum number, but rather He was hammering home the point that His followers must be forgiving.

The apostles understood how hard this was going to be.  They seemingly shout "Increase our faith!" after hearing Jesus' directive to forgive over and over again.  Forgiving is not easy.  Forgiving is even harder when the person we need to forgive is close to us and will likely offend us again.  I'm sure you have a sibling, co-worker, neighbor, spouse or child that has asked for your forgiveness many times and you're getting sick of offering forgiveness to them.  Forgiveness, especially forgiveness to those likely to be reoffenders, is not at all easy, but it is necessary.

We are not to do anything that would cause others to sin, especially "little ones".  These "little ones" might be children or simply new believers, but either way we're not to do anything to be part of the cause of their sinning.  Jesus said it would be better to be drowned to death mafia style than to cause a "little one" to sin.  So, saying this is a big deal to Jesus is an understatement.

My question when reading this passage was this: why are these two statements right next to each other?  Why does Jesus teach about not causing "little ones" to sin and then immediately start talking about forgiveness?

I think He did this because there is a strong correlation between forgiveness and the Gospel.  A large part of the good news of Jesus is that we've been forgiven and that we've been forgiven of a lot, to put it mildly.

Our forgiveness or lack of forgiveness preaches the Gospel; is your living sermon a good one?

If the Gospel is true then we should be so forgiving.  If the Gospel is true then we should be the most forgiving people.  That's why the apostles said "Increase our faith!"  They realized that it takes an immense faith to be as forgiving as Christ demands.  But Jesus goes on to explain in verse 6 that, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."  See, it isn't the amount of faith we need increased in order to be immensely forgiving.  We need the understanding of the size of the thing our faith is in to be increased.  When we magnify the Gospel to see it nearly as big as it really is then our willingness to forgive will be magnified to nearly as big as it needs to be.

Don't cause people to doubt the Gospel because you are unforgiving.  Don't cause your children to misunderstand what forgiveness is and therefore sin.  Don't put on such a shallow display of forgiveness that new Christians follow your lead and miss the mark.  Forgiveness is a big deal.  Christians, we must forgive.

Lord, increase our faith and understanding of what you've done in your Gospel so that we can forgive like ones that have been forgiven much today.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Universe Doesn't Care About You

This isn't all that new but it seems to be pervasive: people ascribing things to the universe.  People say we need to ask the universe for what we desire or they claim that the universe brought them together.

Let me give you a specific and popular example.  Nearly two years ago actor and comedian Jim Carrey graduated from Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa and was asked to give the commencement address.  Carrey gave an inspirational address befitting the school known for its "conscience based education" that has been viewed on the school's YouTube page over 10 million times and many more times on other YouTube pages.

In his speech Carrey said, "What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare ask the universe for it.  I'm saying: I'm the proof that you can ask the universe for it, please, and if it doesn't happen for you right away, it's only because the universe is so busy fulfilling my order... party size!"

Jim Carrey's speech is very inspirational.  His address to the other graduates does make you want to go out there and give it a shot and perhaps the courage to take a chance will help people achieve more than they thought possible.  Jim Carrey has some interesting insights in his commencement address, some inspiration that is actually useful, but his ideas of the universe are wrong.

The universe doesn't care about you.

The universe is not some agent taking our requests and then fulfilling them.  The universe, despite many celebrity and new age claims, does not act on our behalf in a conscious way.  The universe, despite what physicist Bernard Haisch says in his book The God Theory, is not God nor did God become the universe.  The universe, rather, is a creation of God.

I'm not writing this to have you forward this to your friends who believe that the universe is working for them.  I write this to warn fellow Christians not to use this type of language in our lexicon because I've heard Christians begin to work this type of thinking into our speech.

Christians, ascribing things to the universe is at best foolish and at worst pagan idolatry.  Even if we don't believe it ourselves we may be contributing to the problem at large.

"They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator... who is forever praised.  Amen."  Romans 1:25

We must remove language that ascribes to the universe what is God's.

The universe is not a god-like intervening agent.  Rather, the universe is itself in need of an intervention.

"The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."  Romans 8:19-22

So, let's take this whole "ask the universe" or "the universe worked for me" stuff out of our lexicon, Christians.  The words we use matter.  So, let's stop asking the universe and knocking on wood and let's start ascribing to God what is God's and asking God for what only He can do and His creation can't today.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It's My Party I Can Leave if I Want To

I hate to do another political post but my party is dying a swift yet painful death.

I've identified as a Republican since I began to think about politics.  I think my days as a Republican are done.  Donald Trump is going to be the nominee of the Grand Old Party and I find myself saying "I'm done."  I cannot in good conscience vote for the man due to political and moral convictions.  I also cannot vote for the Democratic option due to a drastic difference in convictions, especially when it comes to the sanctity of life.

The death of the Republican Party seem eminent, but it wasn't the Trumpster Fire alone that killed it.  It has been the Tea Party movement, the lack of common sense, greed and much more that has lead my party, my former party, to the brink of ruin.

I need a new party.

When President George W. Bush ran in 2000 he campaigned on a message of compassionate conservatism and that struck a chord with me.  W's presidency was marked by the tragedy of 9/11 and we'll never know if compassionate conservatism was what we would have gotten from a W. Bush presidency (though we got a few pieces of it like his response to the A.I.D.s crisis in Africa).

I propose that we who are leaving the now not so Grand Old Party form a new party, a party more befitting the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, I propose the formation of the Compassionate Conservative Party.

Below are a few bullet points of what the Compassionate Conservative Party would be built upon.  If you like this please share because, while I doubt I will form a new party while sitting here on my couch tying, people need to see that a brand of conservatism exists outside of the xenophobic, circus campaign of Donald Trump.

Compassionate Conservatism is...

A party that isn't afraid of investing, but of careless spending.

A party not afraid of writing checks, but of writing blank checks.

A party that affirms and honors life from conception to the grave.

A party that defends the Constitution as a document to be interpreted not reinterpreted.

A party that believes in carrying a big stick in order to speak softly and humbly.

A party that recognizes the nation's role in the world as a superpower, but doesn't believe that we are the world's savior in each and every crisis.

A party that lessens the tax load fairly and responsibly.

A party that balances the budget.

A party that designs a more efficient government not simply a smaller government.

A party for slimmer, more transparent bills not packed with pork and political booby traps.

A party that affirms the humanity of its opposition while still differentiating.

A party that spreads the dignity of work as a way of spreading and creating wealth.

A party for legal immigration recognizing that human minds and bodies are our most important national resource.

A party that works to quickly connect new, legal immigrants with employers.

A party that disavows xenophobia.

A party that defers to the states more often than not.

A party whose members can and often will have positions shaped deeply by their faith, but who are not interested in a government that is specifically of one faith.

A party that allows and encourages religious and service groups to freely do acts of service as a way of caring for those in need.

A party that protects and extends all the liberties given in the Constitution.

I believe that conservatives do care, I believe that liberals do care, but I believe a compassionate conservative approach would do the most good for the most people while protecting the most vulnerable in this country.  I just hope to see this brand of politics catch on.  If you agree spread the word that we need a new party today.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Meet Them in the Valley

The Gospel story begins in Genesis.  In the beginning God made all of creation perfectly (Genesis 1:31) At this point in the story there was no sin, no failure, no thing that was imperfect.  Then came The Fall in Genesis chapter 3.  Sin entered the world through Adam, Eve and the serpent.  Following The Fall death, destruction, disorder and disfunction entered creation at all levels.  From broken personal relationships to the dying of stars we see this universal entropy that is the effect of sin run amuck.

The story of the Gospel does not end in Genesis.  Jesus enters the story as the second Adam (Romans 5:12-19) and becomes the remedy for The Fall.  At the end of the Bible we see that all creation will be redeemed from The Fall.  The universe will be restored, redeemed, refurbished and recreated into God's perfect design again (Revelation 21:1-5).

Until the consummation of the Gospel we all feel the effects of The Fall in personal and cosmic ways.  Our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with one another need mending, they need radical reconciliation.

So, given that this is central to the Gospel, how does it affect how we proclaim the Good News?

Many of our evangelistic strategies involve mountaintop experiences.  We often try to reach people with the Gospel at fun camps, rallies, concerts, and other moments in time aimed at engaging positive emotions.  Now, there's nothing wrong with that.  I still will stop and watch the recordings of old Billy Graham Crusades on TV just to watch the throng of people flooding to the alter when the invitation is given.  I get goosebumps and tears watching that even though the recording may be 30 years old.  There's nothing wrong with evangelizing on the mountaintop.

But I would bet that more people meet Jesus in the valley than on the mountaintop.  Sure, more people at one time may have come forward at a Billy Graham Crusade and I thank God for what he and others like him have done, but I would bet that more people have met Jesus in the valley.

In the valleys of our life the effects of The Fall are most clearly seen.  In the nadirs of our existence we get that feeling that life isn't supposed to be like this.  When we are in cemeteries and hospitals something in us is reminded that death and sorrow aren't right.  It is in the valleys of life that people are most interested in the remedy for the death, destruction, disorder and disfunction in their life.

Christians, we must be willing to meet them in the valley.  We have to be there when the entropy of the universe comes crashing in on them.  We must be there in the floods, in the diseases, in the divorces, in the incarcerations... we must be there in the valley.

We are at our best and our proclamation of the Gospel is most clear when we rush to be with those in the valley.  Christians famously did this during the plague during the reign of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 165 A.D.  Christians are doing this today all over the world.  And we must do this type of evangelism as well.

The Gospel makes all things new.  Where there is brokenness, the Gospel brings mending.  Where there is destruction, the Gospel brings reconstruction.  Where there is disfunction, the Gospel brings unity.  We must reach people when they most realize the curse of The Fall and desire Good News.  We must meet them in the valley today.