2018 is here! I seriously am shocked at how quickly that happened. And with a whole new year ahead of us comes the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. New Years is a time of opportunity, so today I would like to share my top 3 realistic and achievable New Years resolutions for pastors and church leaders.
1. Prioritize Family
We all say it. We all talk about it. But its not that simple is it? In my experience, talking about putting family first tends to be more of a "right thing to say" in ministry circles and less of a "right thing to do". And here is what I mean: In ministry you can get called out if it looks like you haven't worked enough but if you worked too much, no one seems to say anything. In ministry, you are praised if you are present, active, involved and reliable. But if you establish patterns to balance ministry and family people get disappointed because your presence diminishes, your activity becomes limited, your involvement measured and you have to redefine your meaning of "reliable" from "always there, in person, on a dime" to "always there, not necessarily in person, when it counts."
If you follow the traditional pattern of ministry, you will be everyone's hero. You will accept preaching appointments everywhere, take on every Bible study contact you can get, and dive into every ministry and meeting at your church. If you take the latter approach, you wont be everyone's hero, but you will have your family's happiness which is way cooler. So do it. It's what matters most. And when people get ticked off, remember resolution number two.
2. Live for an audience of One
Ministry is just like any other public role. You don't get rich, but you can get famous. If not worldwide, definitely locally. You are a public figure when you are in ministry, whether your Facebook account has 5,000 followers or not. And when you are in the spotlight like that, its easy to get caught up in peoples expectations.
Some people want you to preach about this, others about that. Some want you to be here, others there. Some want you to dress more classy, others more mellow. Some want you to be more "professional" others more down-to-earth. And the expectations extend beyond you to your family as well. Some want your spouse to fit their predefined idea of what a pastors partner should do, how they should dress, carry themselves and what ministries they should be involved in. And then there's the kids. People have expectations there too. And if you live trying to meet everyone's expectations, you and your family will end up exhausted and incapable of leading.
I had a church member at one of my churches walk out 2 minutes into my sermon and never came back. That person now attends another church. When asked, my head elder confided that she left because when I preach I use phrases like "good morning guys", or "dude, man, etc." and she didn't like it. I guess she was expecting me to say things like "brothers, bretheren" or something like that. My reply? "Sorry dude, I'm a Puerto Rican from Jersey. I have always been a Puerto Rican from Jersey. And I'm going to die a Puerto Rican from Jersey. I will not become someone I am not to satisfy some other persons narrow expectations". My elder smiled.
People will always have expectations of your and your family and some will get upset when you don't fit the mold. So don't do it. It's dumb. Live for an audience of One. Preach, teach, dress, talk, walk, live, breathe and move to make your heavenly father smile. No one else.
3. Make yourself Redundant
I believe that a good leader is the leader who makes his/herself redundant. In other words, a good leader spends so much time training and equipping his team to do everything he does that eventually his presence is no longer needed. Bad leaders do the opposite. They can revive a church and do amazing things while they are there but once they leave everything falls apart. The entire thing depended on them. They did not work themselves to redundancy. The tragedy is that such leaders are incapable of leaving a legacy that extends beyond five inches of themselves.
I spoke to one of my colleagues a month ago about the church she pastors. When she first got there, the members expected her to do everything. The church had woes like you would not believe. It needed a youth ministry. It needed to iron out wrinkles in lots of areas and it needed a strategy to go forward. During board meeting they all looked at her and said, "well now that you're here you can do..." She stopped them. No way. "I am not doing anything" she said. "We are."
Her goal is to train and equip this church to succeed independently so that when she leaves they can continue to thrive and grow. That's leadership. Anything less is babysitting.
So there you have it! These are my top 3 New Years resolutions. I will definitely be aiming to live these out by God's grace in 2018 and I invite you to do that same.
What other NY resolutions do you have? Share them below!
This past week I had the privilege of hanging out with Lachland Harders from The Worship Collective to film this simple video exploring the difference between the Christian faith and every other worldview and religion on the planet. Check it out below and make sure to follow The Worship Collective on Facebook! (More info below)
For those who have never heard of The Worship Collective, head over to their Facebook page and give them a like! The Worship Collective exists to create, share and inspire others to make Christian Content. Their goal is to stimulate growth in the Christian creative community and firmly believe in following in the footsteps of our creator-God across all artistic mediums.
We need more young leaders like this doing awesome stuff in our church! Show them your support!
Note: I published this article in 2014 when the media was buzzing with recent protestant steps toward reuniting with the medieval church of Rome and bringing the reformation to an end. Today, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation I decided to re-share this post. It is just as relevant today as it was 3 years ago when I first wrote it. Enjoy!
The religious world has been buzzing after Pope Francis appealed to the Pentecostal conference for unity among believers. For some, Pope Francis' words are exactly what they have been longing for. And no wonder! Ever since the early days of the reformation the followers of Jesus have been fragmented into ever increasing splinters. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptist's, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Adventists and the list goes on and on. As a matter of fact, these denominations represent only some of the larger bodies. But the reality is that Protestantism is broken into thousands of smaller components resulting in a plethora of beliefs all claiming allegiance to the Bible. For many years Christians have been clamoring for unity in Christ and decrying the walls that separate Protestants from Protestants and Protestants from Catholics. It is with no wonder then that Pope Francis' humble appeal for unity is received with enthusiasm and joy by many.
In his video to the Pentecostal Conference Pope Francis' used an illustration to clarify his appeal. He said:
The Holy Scripture speaks of when Joseph's brothers began to starve from hunger, they went to Egypt, to buy, so that they could eat. They went to buy. They had money. But they couldn't eat the money. But there they found something more than food, they found their brother. All of us have currency. The currency of our culture. The currency of our history. We have a lot of cultural riches, and religious riches. And we have diverse traditions. But we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love.
I don't actually disagree with Pope Francis on this. I think it is absolutely imperative that Christians treat one another as brothers and sisters, with love, respect, and appreciation regardless of our theological differences. I agree with Pope Francis when he says, "[a]ll of us have currency.... [b]ut we have to encounter one another as brothers." However, here is where I draw the line:
Does Pope Francis define doctrine as currency?
He doesn't actually say so in this video and I refuse to put words in his mouth. However, he does come awfully close when he speaks of all of us having "religious riches." As a Seventh-day Adventist the greatest religious treasure that I have is our doctrine, or (as I prefer to put it, our God-story). While I am all for more unity, respect, compassion, and love among believers of different denominations I cannot sacrifice Adventisms God-story for the sake of unity. It is just way too beautiful to sell out.
Some may be wondering what I mean by that so here are some examples. Am I meant to sacrifice the beautiful message of the Sabbath, which celebrates Gods creation, redemption, and restoration of humanity, in order to be united with those who don't value the Sabbath? Am I to sacrifice the truth about Hell which shows us that God is not a sadist or torturer but is instead a loving and just Judge, for the sake of unity? Am I to surrender my commitment to Sola-Scriptura, and replace it with pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle whose works set the foundation for much of Catholic and Evangelical theology? I am all for unity, but not at such an expense.
But why is the God-story of Adventism so important to me? Two reasons. First of all, suppose you are married and your spouse is accused of committing a crime. Everyone in your family is out to get him/her and only you know the truth about your spouse. But to stand up for your spouse means that your will not be united with your family. What do you do? Do you tell the truth about your spouse? Or do you embrace the lies for the sake of unity? I don't know about you, but I choose the former.
Likewise, much of what is believed and taught about God is a lie. Am I supposed to embrace those lies so I can be united with those who believe them? Or am I supposed to stand up for the truth about God and tell others what he is really like? I don't know about you, but I chose the latter. I believe Adventisms God-story is the most accurate and beautiful picture of God from any other theological system around. And I will tell that story even if it means division.
The second reason why I believe the God-story of Adventism is so important is because your God-story ultimately determines your ability to love. We become what we behold. And if our God-story muddles the love of God you will be constantly beholding a muddled picture of God which will result in a muddled concept of love. While I can appeal to the long history of Christianity for this, allow me instead to give you a few examples from my life and my own denomination that evidence this.
As a Seventh-day Adventist I have encountered many people who get it and many people who think they get it. By "it" I am referring to the truth. Those who get it are always balanced, loving, tender, and compassionate. They care about others and give of themselves unreservedly. But there are others who think they get it. These are often imbalanced, unloving, rigid, and more concerned with the "standards" than they are with souls. This group is often characterized by conspiracy theorizing, criticism, and legalism. But what is the difference between these two groups? Aren't they both Adventist? Yes. But they have a totally different picture of God. The former group is passionate about the gospel. They speak much of the love of Jesus, his tender mercy, his compassion, and his grace. They recognize their own daily need for mercy and forgiveness. They see God as caring, interested, and empathetic. They see him as an intimate friend in whom they can place all of their trust. The find rest in him and their hearts and minds are always filled with Jesus. Though far from perfect they always aim to be more like Jesus and reflect his perfect love for humanity. This is their picture of God and the more they behold it the more like him they become: kind, warmhearted, and merciful.
The latter group is passionate about the rules, the standards, and the law. They speak much of the sins of the church and how bad it is. They criticize church leadership as much as they change their underwear and they are fascinated with the negative, the pessimistic, and the controversial. They see God as strict, unbending, and rigid. They see him as one who demands holiness or else, and one whom is pleased with harsh obedience. They believe they must be sinlessly perfect in order to go to heaven and as such, they strive against sin and are always ready and eager to rebuke another. This is their picture of God and the more they behold it, faulty as it may be, the more like it they become: mean, critical, and unmerciful.
The same is true outside of Adventism. It has been in the past and will be in the future. All those who have the wrong picture of God will, in his name, and as the believers of old, justify all kinds of sin and atrocities in the name of Jesus. It was his picture of God that led Saul of Tarsus to persecute and murder Christians. It was their picture of God that led the medieval Christians to do likewise. It was a wrong picture of God that justified the Crusades and the Inquisition. It was a wrong picture of God that justified the Protestants as they drowned Anabaptists for no other reason than denying infant baptism. And it will be a wrong picture of God, a faulty God-story, a twisted doctrine, that will justify persecution again in the future.
It is because of this that I must say to the Pope:
Sorry dude, but doctrine matters.
It simply is not possible to love like Jesus if you have a broken doctrine. While there may be exceptions such is not the rule. Generally speaking the masses treat each other in a way that is consistent with their view of who God is and what he is like - a view they derive entirely from their doctrine. I know you never actually spoke of doctrine but you came awfully close. I also know that there are doctrines you yourself would never deny for the sake of unity. I cannot see you denying apostolic succession, Sunday sacredness, or transubstantiation for the sake of unity. Neither can I deny my faith as a Seventh-day Adventist for its sake. The Pentecostals may have accepted your call and many others may follow. But I must lovingly and humbly decline for I can never compromise the truth about who God is for the sake of unity.
Truth matters. Doctrine matters. The God-story matters. Not only must I tell the truth about who God is and what he is like, but doctrine is the brush that paints the picture of God. Use a bad brush, you get a bad picture like the one that says God will torture sinners in Hell throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. Use a good brush and you will get a good picture like the one that says that while God is just and will punish the wicked he will not needlessly torture them for endless ages. Use a bad brush, you get a bad picture like the one that says that salvation comes by way of works. Use a good brush, you get a good picture like the one that says we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Doctrine is also the brush we use to indirectly paint our characters. Use a bad brush you get a bad character. Use a good brush you get a good character; one that strives to love like Jesus no matter the cost.
In conclusion, the popular concept of "let's just love another and forget about doctrine" may sound good on the surface, but the reality is:
It is a self contradicting mindset.
Doctrine and love cannot be polarized for they are intimately related and for that, dear Pope, I cannot and will not compromise.
Pope Francis' Message to the Pentecostal Conference:
Note: It needs to be made clear that Pope Francis did not call for either compromise nor uniformity and neither did he call for unity in doctrine but for unity in love. Nevertheless, for Catholics and Protestants to move past their divisions, which are rooted in severe doctrinal variances, some level of doctrinal minimization will be necessary. It is this unavoidable consequence that I protest.
In honor of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, I would like to offer the following two eBooks free. They identify Adventism's place in the protest that Luther started and call us toward a deeper commitment to that protest which, in truth is not about us, but about God.
The story is told of a man who desperately wanted to share his faith but he was afraid. So he began praying a special prayer to God. "Lord, I'm too scared to tell people about Jesus but if you give me a clear sign that you want me to witness for you, I will! So give me a sign Lord. Amen."
The man felt really good after this prayer. He had just thrown the ball in God's court so from here on out it was up to God to make things happen. So he grabbed his things and jumped on the bus to head to work. That morning the bus was surprisingly empty. At about the third stop a woman dressed in a suit walked in. There were many seats empty, but for some weird reason she sat down right next to where the man of our story was sitting. There was a troubled look on her face, but the man just ignored her. Then suddenly the woman pulled out a Bible and began to read frantically from one side to another as if she had no idea where to even begin. Then, to top it all off she slammed the book shut and yelled at the top of her lungs, "Oh, what must I do to be saved?"
At this the man of our story timidly looked up to heaven and prayed, "Lord, is this a sign that you want me to witness?"
I'm not sure how much more evidence this wise-guy was waiting for, but one thing is clear - witnessing freaked him out to the point that he was still looking for a way out even when it was staring him in the face. And truth be told, this is the primary reason why many Christians never share their faith - or at least struggle to do so. It's awkward, scary, and a bit confronting. And for those who are introverts the struggle can be even worse! But have no fear, below I share with you what I have found to be the introverts awesome guide to sharing your faith. (note: the guide is not just for introverts. Works for everyone.)
Pray for the person you want to share your faith with for a specified period of time. It can be for two weeks, a month, or even longer. Just don't drag it out for too long.
Mingle with the person during that time in non-religious ways. Use this time to either strengthen or to build a trusting relationship. The best way to often do this is to find innocent activities they enjoy and ask them to teach you (note: innocent. Don't ask them to teach you how to puff-puff-pass if that's what they are into).
Serve the person during that time by finding small or perhaps large ways in which you can meet a need of theirs. It could be something as simple as helping them with an assignment or something as big as walking them through relationship drama. And remember, you are simply there to "serve" not "resolve". Stick to the former. The latter could land you in a mess you don't want to be in.
When your specified period of time is up, share your faith with the person by using the following approach:
Tell the person you have been praying for them. That's it. Its that simple. And in my experience I have never had anyone, even the most non-religious, get angry or defensive about this. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it would be really rare. At this point all you are doing is saying something like "Hey, I just wanted you to know that I try to pray often and recently I have been praying for you." Once you have said this just gauge their reaction. If they are thankful or open then go on to the next step. If they seem weirded out or standoffish then back off and set a new time limit to pray for them. When the new time limit ends, remind them you have been praying for them and then go on to the next step.
Ask them if there is anything specific they would like you to pray for. You can do this simply by saying, "I love praying for other people. Is there anything specific I could ask for when I pray for you?" Note: Don't say "Let me know if there is anything I can pray for..." Most people will take this as a rain check and never actually tell you anything.
Follow up on their requests. Sincerely pray for their request and follow up from time to time. Don't be annoying! Just be natural and sincere. Ask God to reveal himself to them via their request and then ask them how its going.
Invite them to a non-churchy church event. Once you have been doing this for some time you will be able to gauge if the person is spiritually keen or not. Either way, plan a non-churchy event with friends from church and invite them. This could be a barbecue, a day at the beach, or a movie night. Whatever it is, make sure whoever attends this event knows to avoid discussions and topics that could scare a visitor away from ever coming to church.
Ask them about their faith journey. This next step doesn't have to come before or after the previous one, but ask it when it seems natural to do so. Simply ask them about their faith journey. Don't ask them to debate or argue. Just ask them to truly hear and learn. Show sincere interest in them and be understanding.
Share your own. Once they have shared their faith journey with you, kindly ask them if you could share your own. Then simply tell them your story and why Jesus means so much to you. Don't try and convert them, just share with them why Jesus means so much to you. Use this as an opportunity to gently challenge their worldview, but don't allow the discussion to turn into an argument or all is lost. Depending on their reaction you could even take a step forward and invite them to a visitor-friendly event at your church.
That's it guys! Pretty simple hey? Give it a shot and see how you go. Remember that you are praying through this entire process and never forget that its not your job to convert anyone. Even if you never get any response keep loving. Love is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. So don't be loving because you want a conversion. Be loving just because. Let the Holy Spirit worry about the rest. Note: This post was originally published at: livingstonsda.church/livo-blog
Pastor Marcos is a millennial Adventist pastor with a passion for Jesus, the narrative of Adventism and the relevancy of the local Adventist church. He pastors in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram. He also blogs weekly at pomopastor.com
I would like to begin with a confession. Confession is a dangerous thing you know. Its good for the soul but bad for the reputation. But here is my confession guys - I struggle to pray.
Perhaps, the best way for me to explain it is with an illustration.
I enjoy exercising and in every workout there are generally 3 phases. The warm up, the workout and the cool down. I am OK at doing the warm up, enjoy the workout and hate the cool down. The cool down phase is generally when you do your stretching. And in my mind I feel like during the cool down phase I am not accomplishing anything. So I usually just skip it. And that's pretty much how I feel about prayer. Read the Bible? yes! I love it because I can feel the excitement of learning something new and discovering, digging and exploring the word. But prayer feels a lot like a cool down phase of a workout - like nothing is really happening.
So these last few weeks I have really had to confront this problem and here is what I discovered. The reason why I often struggle to pray is because I don't see the point. As far as I'm concerned if something is going to happen, its going to happen. And if something is not going to happen, its not going to happen. And me praying about it is not going to change anything. God knows whats coming already, so whats the point of prayer right? So I concluded a long time ago that I pray, not to change anything, but to change myself. Prayer changes me. And that's it. When I pray over a situation, nothing really changes but I do, so why not?
But I have to be honest here guys. This explanation of prayer never really did it for me. It killed my motivation to pray. Now let me be clear, its not that I don't pray. I do pray a lot. But there was something missing. There was a lack of urgency and motivation about prayer in my spiritual life.
That is, until 3 weeks ago when I looked into James 5:16,
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
The second part of this verse is the part that messed me up. Notice what James says here. He says that prayer is powerful. Now, I'm not a genius or anything but in order for something to be powerful it has to have power. And power literally means, "the ability or capacity to do something". So basically, if prayer is "powerful" that's another way of saying that prayer is "able to do something". And this flew in the face of everything I believed about prayer. It just didn't add up. In my mind, if something was going to happen it was going to happen. And if it was not going to happen it was not going to happen. And praying wouldn't change any of that. But James seems to be suggesting the opposite. James says prayer is able to do something. It is powerful and effective.
But it got worse for me. James doesn't just stop there. He keeps going by pointing back to the story of Elijah in the Old Testament. The story begins in 1 Kings 17, at a time when Israel had turned its back on God and, as a nation, was worshiping pagan idols. The people were being led by Ahab, the most evil king Israel ever had, and his wife Jezebel who was a pagan priestess. They had strayed so far from God that God sent them a prophet named Elijah to call the people back to himself. And as the story begins Elijah says to Ahab, "As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!” (1) And lo and behold, verse 7 tells us that "there was no rainfall anywhere in the land."
Now, notice James' comment on this: "Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years" (James 5:17).
In other words, James credits the drought with Elijah's prayer. I'm really uncomfortable with this. It's weird. It's bizarre. And you can't even wiggle out of it by saying that its because Elijah was a prophet because James makes that impossible when he says, "Elijah was a human being, even as we are..." In short, forget the prophet thing. That has nothing to do with it. He was a Joe Schmo like the rest of us. And his prayer stopped the rain.
The story continues. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah so he went into hiding for those three and a half years of drought. When the time drew to a close God spoke to Elijah and said, “Go and present yourself to King Ahab. Tell him that I will soon send rain” (1 Kings 18:1)! So Elijah went to Ahab and told him, “Go get something to eat and drink, for I hear a mighty rainstorm coming!” So Ahab went to eat and drink. But Elijah climbed to the top of Mount Carmel and bowed low to the ground and prayed with his face between his knees (41-42). And this chapter of the story ends like this: "soon the sky was black with clouds. A heavy wind brought a terrific rainstorm" (45).
Notice what James never says. He never says that God caused the rainstorm. Was God the power behind it? Of course. Elijah didn't have any power. He's just like the rest of us. But James, rather than crediting God for the event, credits Elijah's prayer instead. "Again he prayed," James says, "and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops" (James 5:18).
Now here is the part that weirded me out. James seems to be suggesting something radical here. Prayer has power. It can bring about results. Elijah prayed and it caused a drought. Elijah prayed again and it caused a storm. And the insinuation is this: if Elijah had not prayed, neither the drought nor the rain would have come. In order for Elijah's prayer to have power it has to be the effectual cause of the events. If it isn't, then James is lying to us. Worse yet, God is lying to us.
Throughout this story God had the power and he was there ready to use it. But Elijah's prayer was the key to unlock the power. Once again, James seems to be suggesting that your prayer, my prayer - they have the ability to change the course of history. That when we pray, things that would not otherwise happen do in fact happen.
This gives me a whole new way of looking at prayer
When I pray, something happens that would not otherwise happen if I don’t pray.
I discovered that this whole "what will happen will happen and what wont happen wont happen and my prayer doesn't make any difference" was the hidden myth killing my prayer life. And its possible its killing yours too. And look - I cant make sense of all of this. There are still questions about prayer that I find difficult to answer. But one thing is clear. When God's people pray their prayers are powerful. When you pray for your son and your daughter that they would come back to God, when you pray for healing, when you pray for revival, when you pray for victory over temptation, when you pray for the restoration of your marriage - there seems to be a mysterious reality in scripture that your prayer has the power to bring something to pass that would not otherwise happen.
In the book "The Great Controversy" pg. 525 we read, "It is a part of God's plan to grant us, in answer to the prayer of faith, that which He would not bestow did we not thus ask." And this is what James is saying. There are things in this life that will never happen if you don't pray for them. And there are things in this life that will happen only because you prayed.
If prayer changes nothing, then why pray? But if prayer has the power to produce wonderful results. If it has the capacity to bring blessings that would not otherwise come. If it has the ability to change the course of history. Then prayer becomes the most important thing I can do every day.
When I was a kid my father made my brother and I wear church clothes to go to public school. In our public school system there were no uniforms. Everyone just wore whatever they had which usually meant really cool clothes. I would see all of my classmates wearing Fila's (they were pretty cool back then) and trendy Tommy Hilfiger shirts and jeans (yes, I'm obviously a 90's kid) and then there was me. Wearing dress pants and church shoes with a button up shirt from K-Mart. As you can imagine this made my brother and I stand out. We were immediately branded as nerds and losers. And we got picked on.
Life wasn't horrible. We did have friends. Mostly all the other nerds and losers in the school (love you guys--snif, snif). But it was pretty hard. As we got older it got even harder. Until one day, my rebellious mom got into an argument with my dad over it, and then went out - completely against his wishes, and got my brother and I some trendy clothes. Which led to another argument because my dad was really upset (thanks ma', for sticking it to the man).
Why did my dad do this? He had one simple reason. He didn't want my brother and I to be like the "world". He wanted us to be different. So he made us wear church clothes to public school.
This experience led me to wrestle with questions such as, "What does it really mean to be like the world?" And since my dad derived his ideas from the Bible, I figured I might as well go there and find out what all this "worldly" stuff was about.
Which brings me to my text today. James 3:1:
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you?
In my home church there was an elder once who I wont name. He was a really nice guy. I liked him a lot. He preached better than the pastor too which was cool. And he was deeply spiritual. And, like many of us, he had a concern for what he referred to as the "world creeping into the church" which is a fair concern. But something happened during one of the board meetings. A certain annoying gentleman came into the board meeting to do a presentation. Now this gentleman was a very divisive and problematic kind of guy. And our dear elder had had it up to his neck with this guy. Now here is what you don't know. Back when he was younger, this elder was a Kung-Fu student. His wife met him kicking palm trees. This guy was hardcore. And at some point during the meeting this annoying gentleman began pushing his buttons, and next thing you know the head elder gets up ready to drop a bolo on this other guy. It was so bad that another one of the elders had to grab him so he wouldn't punch this guy. That night, my dear friend discovered something profound. He was worried about the world creeping into the church but it had been there all along hiding inside his own heart.
Notice what James says here,
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you?
Now the interesting thing is that James is paralleling something Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:3:
You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?
James and Paul are saying the same thing here. That the quarrels, jealousy and fights among the church members come from a single place - worldliness in the heart.
This blew my mind. Up to this point I was convinced that worldliness was purely external. I have since discovered that the church talks too much about the worldliness of fashion, and too little about worldliness of the heart.
But not James. James is calling out worldliness in the church. And here is what I discovered about worldliness in the Bible. Whenever the Bible speaks about it, it never has anything to do with culture, fashion or styles. My dads definition of worldliness was small. For him worldliness was about what haircut you had and what clothes you wore. For my elder it was about what songs we sang in church. And I am not discrediting any of those concerns. I do believe that those are relevant things for us to discuss. But what I am saying is that if your definition of worldliness stops there you have a very small picture of what worldliness is.
Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.
Notice how James repeats himself. This is a method of emphasis among the Bible writers. Rather than using caps, or underline or bold (no Microsoft Word back then) they repeated points they wanted to emphasize. And twice he says, if you want to be a friend of the world you make yourself an enemy of God. A Christian who seeks friendship with the world is an adulterer. But notice how he defines this friendship. He doesn't say anything about culture or fashion. He speaks exclusively about character.
When church members rile up and point fingers at each other and fight and bicker and defame one another and drag one another through the mud - James is saying that these people, noble as they may think they are, are committing spiritual adultery. Rather than operating under the fruit of the Spirit, the are operating under the law of the flesh.
Here is what I discovered guys. Worldliness in the Bible isn’t “the youth are wearing Roman skirts instead of Jewish ones.” Worldliness isn't "the music sounds a little too Greek or Persian". Worldliness in the Bible is Christians who gossip like the world. Christians who hate like the world. Christians who argue like the world. Back stab one another like the world, criticize each other like the world. Christians who are lazy, uncompassionate, merciless, unloving, indifferent and judgmental. That’s biblical worldliness. Not wearing trendy clothes - as my dad believed - but talking about the elder behind his back, mistreating your youth, inciting division, and gossiping about your fellow believers. That’s worldliness.
I discovered something scary after studying what worldliness is in the Bible. I discovered that it’s perfectly possible to be a good conservative, orthodox, traditional Adventist who does everything by the book and still be worldly. Worldliness is not just culture guys, its character.
But why does this matter? Why preach on it? I watched a video last night called "What People Really think about Jesus VS Christians" (below). These guys walked around the street asking random people what they thought about Jesus and their responses were mostly positive. They spoke of his kindness and love. Of the way in which he cared for people. And when asked to define Christians, their tones changed completely. They spoke of rigid people who were over bearing on others, unkind and judgmental. And that's the reason why this matters. Because so long as we continue to allow worldly attitudes to govern our lives we will continue to damage our witness in the world.
So the question that screams at me is this - what is the solution to this? How do we overcome our natural inclinations to be vicious, divisive and arrogant? How do we overcome those worldly tendencies buried deep within that entice us to gossip about one another, to show favoritism and to act in antisocial ways? And most of all, where will we find the wisdom to differentiate between true holiness which leads to love, and false holiness which leads to bickering and demonizing one another in the name of "faithfulness?"
I am thankful that James gives us the answer in four simple words:
...he gives grace generously (6).
Grace. That is the answer. Grace is always the answer. God gives grace. And grace in the Bible has two primary functions. Grace cleanses us from all our sin. Grace gives us a new beginning. Grace wipes the slate clean. And grace also transforms our lives. It sets us free.
I had a friend one who was so divisive and critical (in the name of holiness of course) that he even started to divide his own family. I distanced myself from him for a while to get away from the toxicity, but about a year later I ran into him. He had a huge smile on his face. He walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, "I'm a brand new man Marcos". And then, without me ever having said a word to him he began to talk about his judgmentalism, his critical spirit and his pride. He spoke of how he would always write people off when they didn't live up to what he considered holy. In other, words, he spoke of his worldliness disguised as holiness.
But now he stood there. With a big smile on his face. And he said to me, "I have encountered Jesus. I have encountered grace." And he was never the same again. We became good friends after that and I saw the work of grace in him. Jesus oozed out of his smile, his calm spirit and his sermons. He was a new creature. Grace had saved him. Because grace saves the wayward soul whether it be in the alley way or in the pew.
I want to encourage the church today, let's not be like the world. If there is any fighting, scheming, or jealousy among us let's humble ourselves before God. Lets come to him for grace to pardon and grace to set us free. Lets come to him and humbly pray, with Paul, "it is no longer I who live! Let Christ live in me. I can't do this. I can't be like Jesus. Lord, let him take full control. Let his love flow through me to others. Set me free of the worldliness inside my own heart. May my life be a reflection of your love."
Below are the top 5 songs (plus 2 bonus songs) that have spoken to me in tough times, whether it be seasons of financial hardship, anxiety and depression, or just plain old stress. I hope you enjoy them.
Share your own in the comments below!
These next two songs are timeless! I listened to "Great is Thy Faithfulness" almost every day while deployed in Iraq and "It is Well with My Soul" is my all time favorite Hymn which Audrey Assad totally owns.
A few years ago I was contacted by a young man who was writing to me on the other side of suicide. He had recently attempted to take his life and somehow he ran into my blog and decided to email me and tell me his story. He was a good kid. Thoughtful, kind and very educated especially in history - that was his favorite subject. I don't recall his exact age, but he couldn't have been past his early twenties. And he had a desire to live for God and honor him with his life. But something had gone horribly wrong. At some point in his faith-journey, he was introduced to a very dangerous but deceptive teaching - that in order for God to accept him he had to become perfect by overcoming all of his sins. And he tried. He tried because he wanted to please God. He tried because he trusted the people who were teaching him. So he gave it everything he had. And he failed.
His conclusion? I will never be good enough for God. Of course, this didn't happen over night. This happened after months - perhaps even years - of trying and failing, trying and failing, again and again. He reached a breaking point. He simply could not take it anymore. The pressure was too high. The demands were too intense. And when he returned home he returned to a broken family. He returned to a home where he wasn't safe to simply be. The intensity of not feeling safe in his own home, coupled with his belief in a God he could not please pushed him over the edge. He wasn't safe anywhere. He wasn't wanted anywhere. And in a moment of darkness he snapped. The only solution he could see was death.
Some friends of his intervened and his life was spared. And now, some time later, I get his email. He needs help. He want's to know why he doesn't feel good enough for God. He saw some articles I had written on the assurance of salvation and on the good news of Jesus Christ and he reached out - one Adventist to another - please help. And as I heard his story, I sat there and realized, this kid sounds so much like me.
But before I tell you why I want to introduce you to a contradiction in the Bible that provides the answer we are looking for. And from there, I'll launch into my story and then we will see what we can make of this contradiction. Here it is:
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works... (Romans 3:28)
James argues that a man is made right with God by faith and works. But Paul argues that a man is made right with God by faith apart from works. James says: Faith in Jesus + My Works = Salvation. Paul says: Faith in Jesus = Salvation. No Works necessary. As a result, the book of James has a tendency to make people feel inadequate. Many people read it and end up feeling like the guy who emailed me - like they can't measure up. Never good enough. The book of Romans, on the other hand, gives people a sense of security in their walk with God. Paul is seen as the champion of grace. James is seen as works obsessed. Paul says Abraham was made right with God simply by faith, not works. James says that Abraham was made right with God by faith and works. What gives? Is it Jesus + My Works = Salvation? Or is it Jesus-Only?
Why are these two Bible writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit contradicting each other? Allow me to tell you a few more stories and it will make more sense.
KP Yohanan, a native and missionary in India, tells of a fellow missionary who ran into a desperate woman on a bridge. She was crying uncontrollably. So the missionary sat with her to see what was wrong. The woman began to talk about all of her sins, her failures and the difficulties in her life. She spoke of her need to be forgiven and her families need for a blessing to get them through the following year. "In order to secure the forgiveness of sin and the blessing of the goddess" she said, "I have given her the greatest gift I can give her. My six month old baby boy. I just threw him into the river."
The missionary spoke to her. He told her about Jesus. He told her how God sent his son to die for our sins so that we could receive salvation as a free gift. When he was done, the woman looked him in the eye and said, "Why didn't you come a half hour sooner? I didn't have to kill my son." And with that she ran away weeping.
The woman's understanding of salvation is a very common one in the world. Every religion on the planet has a similar system. You do something for God, and God will reward you with salvation. We call this the "performance version" of salvation. And the Bible tells us that this is false. Salvation is a free gift of God. We don't earn it via performance. We receive it only by faith.
Next story. When I was in the Army I met a guy named Kennel. He was a total rebel who eventually got kicked out of the Army for drug use. He was wild. Partied like crazy and slept with a different woman all the time. One day, I asked him, "Do you ever think about eternity?" And his reply was, "Oh yeah, I'm not worried about it. I got saved at a youth rally four years ago. So when I die, I know I'm going to heaven." This version of salvation is the exact opposite to the woman in India. It requires zero performance. All you have to do is accept intellectually that Jesus is Lord, pray a prayer of forgiveness, and you are granted an eternal ticket into heaven. You can continue to live like you want, mistreat people, dishonor your body, lie, cheat and steal because you have the ticket. And no one can take the ticket away from you. I call this the "ticket version" of salvation.
So why am I telling these stories? Because they help us understand why Paul and James are contradicting one another. Paul is addressing people who believe what the Indian woman believes. He is addressing people who think that salvation can be earned by works. And the message of all of Paul's letters is: "NO WAY!" You cannot earn salvation by your works. You cannot earn salvation by keeping the Sabbath. You cannot earn salvation by going to church. You cannot earn salvation by paying tithe, or reading your Bible, or doing good things for good people. Salvation is a free gift of God. It cannot be earned. All you can do is receive it. According to Paul, the performance version of salvation is false in every way. You cannot earn salvation by keeping the law. And guess what? You cannot keep your salvation by keeping the law either. It is by grace through faith, period. That's it.
Funny thing is. I used to believe in the performance version of salvation even though I have been raised in church my whole life. But then, one day, I was introduced to the "ticket version" and it sounded so good that I went with it. And I loved the ticket version because I didn't have any fear about my salvation. But I soon discovered a problem with this ticket. It was powerless to deliver me from the power of sin over my life. All it did was make me feel good. And I needed something more.
So I abandoned the ticket version. But I couldn't go back to the performance version because I knew that was false. And like the guy who emailed me I landed at an understanding of salvation I thought was legit. I call it the "but version" of salvation. This version of salvation is basically "What Jesus did + What I do = Salvation". It wasn't like the performance version. The "but version" was trickier. I believed salvation was a free gift, but I believed that in order to keep this free gift I had to work hard. So anytime someone spoke about the grace of God, or the mercy of God in forgiveness, or the free gift of salvation I always felt compelled to say "yes that's true, but..." In other words, I couldn't enjoy or celebrate grace. I always had to throw a disclaimer in there. "yes, grace is good, but... don't forget you still have to do A, B and C all the way to Z". Too much grace made me worry that people would fall for the ticket lie, and I wanted to make sure no one did. But then, something terrible happened. The but version began to evolve toward its logical conclusion and I ended up in a place where I felt that if I didn't confess and repent every single time I sinned that I would lose my salvation. I call this period of my life the "light switch version" of salvation. Because in my mind, God was in heaven flipping a light switch. Every time I sinned he flipped the light switch off. There went my salvation. Every time I confessed and repented he turned it back on. I got my salvation back. Repeat. Over and over again. And after living with this idea for over a year I came to a place of utter desperation. I will never be good enough for God, I thought. Like the kid who emailed me, I got so angry with God. I didn't feel safe. I felt like he didn't want me. And the pressure to be this perfect person was too great. Jesus did some of the saving. I had to do the rest. But I couldn't. It was just too big an ask.
And this is what Paul addresses in the book of Romans and pretty much all his other letters. There is a free gift of salvation. It's a gift guys. Receive it. Believe it. You don't have to perform for it. God offers it freely. It's not like going to a car lot and driving off with a zero-down deal where you can take the car home without paying but the payments begin later. No. Salvation is not a zero-down deal. It is a gift. It is free and it is always free.
I love how Ellen White puts it in the book "Faith and Works":
When men learn they cannot earn righteousness by their own merit of works, and they look with firm and entire reliance upon Jesus Christ as their only hope, there will not be so much of self and so little of Jesus. Souls and bodies are defiled and polluted by sin, the heart is estranged from God, yet many are struggling in their own finite strength to win salvation by good works. Jesus, they think, will do some of the saving; they must do the rest. They need to see by faith the righteousness of Christ as their only hope for time and for eternity (FW 25.3).
In other words, it isn't what Jesus did + what I do. Its Jesus only. His righteousness is my only hope for time and eternity. There is no point where I need to add my own righteousness. I have none.
So when Paul writes his letters he is confronting people who think they can earn salvation by good works. His message to this is simple: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).
So why does James contradict Paul? Why does James turn around and say, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24)? Scholars have explored this apparent inconsistency and have discovered that James does not contradict Paul at all. The issue is that James is addressing and entirely different issue to Paul. Paul is addressing people who believed, like the Indian woman, that salvation could be earned and kept by works. So Paul emphatically declares that grace is a free gift. James on the other hand is not addressing people who think salvation is earned or kept by performance. Rather, James is addressing all the Kennels in the world - the ones who think that salvation is nothing more than a ticket. The ones who think that so long as you "agree" with the doctrine of Jesus that you are saved. And James consistent answer is "NO WAY!" You can't just agree with Jesus as though Christianity were some intellectual test. True faith isn't about agreeing with a bunch of doctrines. True faith is about trusting your entire life to Jesus. And if you have trusted your life to him, then the evidence of that new relationship is a changed life. Not a perfect life. But a changed life.
So this is why James is so harsh on his listeners. They claim to be saved, but they ignore the word of God, they are prejudiced against one another, they gossip and tear one another down, they are proud and divisive, arrogant, conceited - always complaining no matter whats going on. Judgmental and impatient. James isn't saying you have to be perfect. Hes not saying you have to add to what Jesus did. He's simply asking - are you sincere? Are you for real? If you claim to be a Jesus-follower why are you so harsh? Why are you so controlling? Why are you so hard to get along with? Why are you so judgmental? Why are you so mean? And James isn't the only one who is wondering this! Mahatma Ghandi, the hero of India, once said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians! You Christians are so unlike your Christ."
The best way to summarize James is like this: We are not saved by faith and works. We are saved by a faith that works. In other words, our salvation depends only on Jesus. But the result of faith in him is a changed life.
I want you to know today that you are safe in the arms of God. You don't have to impress him. He is not going to cast you away. Salvation is not something you earn or keep by your effort. Its a gift from start to end. You can rejoice today that you are a child of God and that you are safe in his arms. And from the place of safety and security you can say "God, I trust you. Please, make me more like Jesus. Let my salvation be reflected in how I treat others."
I don't know what ever happened to that young man who emailed me. We lost contact and I have not heard from him in years. But I know what happened to me once I discovered that salvation is the work of Jesus only. I was set free. I know I am safe in the arms of God. And because I am safe I can rejoice. I have discovered that your life will never experience the transformation God wants unless you know you are safe in him. Assurance is the key to transformation. You have to know you are loved. You have to know you are wanted. You have to know you are safe. And as I rejoice and daily celebrate his grace in my life I pray a simple prayer, "Transform me Lord. Let my life be a billboard of your grace. May I reflect your love in the way I treat others".
I'll close with the following quote:
Each one of you may know for yourself that you have a living Saviour, that He is your helper and your God. You need not stand where you say, ‘I do not know whether I am saved.’ Do you believe in Christ as your personal Saviour? If you do, then rejoice (Ellen G. White, The General Conference Bulletin, April 10, 1901).
Thanks for reading this article guys! I would like to take this time to introduce the latest free eBook in the bookstore. It's titled "Salvation: Plain and Simple" and is a more detailed exploration of what you have just read above. I hope you guys enjoy it and find yourselves super blessed by what it shares. Download it free below!
“The man who would truly know God must give time to Him.”
― A.W. Tozer
In the Army we had a saying: "Don't make an MOS out of it". MOS stands for "Military Occupancy Status" which was basically a fancy way of saying "job". When you enlisted in the Army you enlisted for a particular MOS, be it infantry, field artillery, finance, or engineer (among many other options). Once you finished basic training you went off to your particular MOS school where you would learn exactly how to do your particular job. Once done, you would then be sent to a unit as a fully trained soldier specializing in your MOS.
However, regardless of what your MOS was there always came a day in Army life when you had to go do some other simple task like helping someone on base move house, or disposing of trash that had piled on for too long. It was in these scenarios where certain soldiers would tackle the task in such a way that they would over complicate that which was meant to be simple. And thus was born the "Don't make an MOS out of it" phrase. It simply meant, "stop making things so complicated. Just take the trash to the bin. Its that simple dude".
Now of course, this isn't just an Army problem. I'm always amazed at our human inclination to over complicate just about everything. Years ago I locked my keys in my car and had a group of friends come and try and help me. Three of the guys literally spent the first 5-8 minutes engaged in formulating and debating a plan that none of them could agree on. Suddenly, the fourth guy who had been standing back the whole time sorting out some tools stood up and said, "Yall' got too many theories. That's your problem." And in less than 30 seconds, without any of their input or assistance, he had pried the door open with a crow bar and used a oddly bent clothes hangar to fish the keys out of the car. That simple.
But this knack for the over complicated also bleeds into our spiritual lives. When it comes to our devotional life we are always looking for some new thing that will help us connect with God. Perhaps a new devotional, a new method, a new DVD, a new book, a new app, or a new system. But, as is often the case, 2 weeks later we are back to having no devotional life at all. And so we go back to searching for the magic pill that will make it stick And we never find it.
The prime reason is there is no magic pill, no secret formula, and no complex system. Its really quite simple. Set time aside for God. That's it. Nothing else to it.
So if its so simple why don't we do it? I think the answers to that can be many, but in my experience its often because simple as it may be, setting time aside for God means I have to miss out on something else whether its extra sleep, news-feed surfing, or more Netflix. And so I have concluded that the problem isn't that a devotional life is complicated but that I am often not willing to pay the price of time with God. And here is the honest truth: Time with God will cost you something. Prayer will cost you something. Bible study will cost you something. Memorizing and meditating on scripture will cost you something. And as you make your relationship with God more central in your life he begins to occupy more and more of your time, thought, and attention (kind of like any other relationship). And some of us are just not willing to go down that path. We'd rather the extra sleep, the extra episode, or the extra YouTube video. So we settle for a "blah" devotional life. And its tragic.
So how do we break out of this horrendously selfish cycle? Here are some steps that may prove a blessing:
Admit it to God. Seriously, have a conversation with him in which you openly admit that Brooklyn Nine Nine is way more interesting to you than Bible Study or prayer. Don't hold back. He can handle it.
Ask God to replace your desires. If you are going to break out of this cycle, you are going to need divine aid. So ask God for a new conversion experience and that he will fill you with a burning passion for him above all else.
Now go do it. Seriously, don't wait until you "feel" the passion. Just go and live up to your own prayer request. Make time for God. Spend that time with him. Talk to him. Read his words. Enjoy being in his presence. It really is that simple.
When I was in university I developed a pet peeve for phony people. In particular, there were certain students there who would never say hello and would walk by me like they didn't even know me. I had been in class with them. We had done assignments together. But all of a sudden it was like they never saw me. And I would walk past them in school all the time. Even look at them with the intention of saying hello. Only to be met with a cold and indifferent gaze. That is, until I ran into them at the mall on the weekend. All of a sudden, its like we were best friends! "Hey Marcos, whats up man? Good to see you! How you been?" I would, of course, reply politely. But in my head I would be thinking, "What the heck bro?" And then, the following week back at school walking down the hall I would run into them again. And boom, all of a sudden they didn't know me again.
I don't know if that has ever happened to you. It is irritating. And few things are as irritating as a phony and hypocritical person who acts one way in one setting and differently in another. Which leads me to a verse I'd like to explore today:
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? - James 2:1
One of my professors shared an experience from his days of pastoring. He was preaching in a church somewhere in the US. The church was predominantly Anglo. And one day, in the middle of his sermon, an African-American family walked into the church and sat down. No sooner had they sat down than a large group of the Anglos sitting in that same section got up and moved to the other side of the church. Our poor professor was stunned. How can you? He asked. How can you claim to be Christians, to have faith in Jesus, if you favor one race or people group above another?
And that is what James is asking here. Evidently, the church he was writing to favored rich people over poor people. They treated the rich well and the poor not so much. And James writes to them and here in this verse he points out a contradiction. How can you say A and do B?
In order to understand James though, we have to take a step back in time. We need to leave his letter and travel all the way back to his home in Galilee. We know that James was one of Jesus' half brothers meaning he grew up with Jesus. Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up with Jesus as your brother? Jesus who never does anything wrong. Jesus who never gets in trouble. Jesus who never goes to time out or gets grounded in his room. It's annoying enough having a little brother who always gets away with everything. Its a whole other thing to have a brother who literally never does anything wrong.
I can picture James complaining to Mary, "How come Jesus disappears for 3 days in a temple and doesn't get in trouble and we get grounded for other stuff!" And while we don't know the details two things are clear in the gospels. Jesus' brothers did not like him and they did not believe that he was the messiah. In fact, no one in their town believed it. Matthew tells us that they "took offence at him" and they did not honor him or believe in him (Matthew 15:53-58). Perhaps, James would get into conversations with his neighbors. "James, what do you think of Jesus?" And they would talk about him behind his back and laugh at him. In fact, John tells us that they would mock and question him. "Why don't you go do your miracles somewhere else Jesus? Somewhere were there's lots of people instead of here?" And while this might seem like good advice on the surface, John reminds us that the brothers did not believe him (John 7:3-5). So they were either 1) sarcastically asking him to leave their town and stop embarrassing them or 2) suggesting that his miracles were fake and would not actually work if he was in a bigger crowd. Either way, the brothers of Jesus - James included - did not like him and did not think highly of him. They may even have held reservations against him for leaving Mary at home. I can almost hear them saying, "The rest of us stayed to help mom after father died, but Jesus didn't. He's only interested in himself and his self-aggrandizing ideas."
Their feelings for him didn't change when he became popular in Israel. It seemed that the more people followed and believed him the more irritated his brothers became. Mark tells us that during a gathering at one of his disciples homes someone complained to his family and they showed up "to take charge of him for they said, 'he is out of his mind.'"(Mark 3:21). In other words, they showed up to scold him and "slap some sense into him". They thought he was going crazy. As they journeyed to him the religious leaders accused Jesus of being demon possessed which is another way of saying "out of his mind". His own family, James himself, believed this. He probably even came to the point of disowning Jesus so that he could stay in the 'good books' of the religious leaders since they were known to ban Jesus-followers from the synagogues (John 9).
Jesus, Mark tells us, found their lack of faith astonishing (Mark 6:6). He was troubled by the way they felt about him. Mary would have defended him as best she could for she believed who he was. But the brothers did not. They probably argued with her. "If Jesus really is the messiah why are we so poor? If he can do miracles why didn't he prevent Joseph from dying or raise him from the dead? He's an impostor and he's only interested in himself."
In fact, it seems that Jesus' brothers disliked him so much that none of them were there at his crucifixion. Mary, his mother, was his only family member there. And instead of entrusting her to his brothers, Jesus entrusted her to John his disciple. Where were his brothers? We don't know. But we can assume that they felt justified. "He wasn't the messiah after all", they would have said after his death. "All he ever did was bring grief to our mother and dishonor to our family."
The story of James is thus a story of relational instability with Jesus. A story of rejection and insults against his half-brother. James spent his entire life rejecting Jesus. He thought Jesus was nuts. He showed Jesus no honor. And while we have no idea what words of offense he truly spoke and what ill feelings he harbored toward Jesus we can put ourselves in his shoes and figure it out pretty quickly. James did not like Jesus. And he sure did not believe that Jesus was messiah.
But then something strange happens. When the book of Acts begins it begins with the believers gathered to pray for the Holy Spirit and among them is James, the brother of Jesus (Acts 1:12-14). But it wasn't only James who was there. Mary was there with all the other brothers too! What happened? What caused this change? The Bible only offers us a hint in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 where Paul says,
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time... Then he was seen by James...
Sometime after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to James. James the half brother. The one who had, along with all his other brothers, given him such a hard time. James saw him. And when he laid eyes on Jesus he realized for the first time that Jesus was no ordinary man. Jesus was the messiah. He had been telling the truth all along. And James was never the same again. The resurrection of Jesus rocked him to the core. Jesus was alive. And a living Jesus changes everyone who encounters him. James placed his faith in Jesus, and he was never the same again. And thirty years after his conversion, James writes this letter we have been reading the last few months. And he begins like this,
James the servant of Jesus...
Not brother, no. I was a lousy brother to him. I denied him. I rejected him. I insulted him. I doubted him. I blasphemed him. And like the prodigal son who did not want to be called a son but a servant when he returned home, I do not want to be called a brother. I am content to be known simply as his servant.
And this brings us back to where we began in chapter two.
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?
James is pointing out a contradiction. He is asking, How can you say A and do B? And in his question you can hear the pain of his own story - of a man who lives with the realization of his own failures and of his own sin. How can I favor some above others? I who denied and rejected and insulted Jesus? I who spent my life blaspheming him? I never defended him. I never offered him the love and support of a brother. And nevertheless, he died for me and because he lives I have a hope that I don't deserve. The hope of having my sins forgiven and an eternal inheritance with him.
And what James is saying is that you are no different to him. All we like sheep have gone astray. There is none that does good, no not one! There is none who seeks after God. And yet in his love and mercy God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might be reconciled to him. And in order for me to play favorites, in order for me to discriminate it requires me to first assume that there is something about me that puts me above that other person. But how can I? How can I think I'm better than anyone? After all I have done to God.
You see, James' point is this: We are all broken. All of us.
No matter how you dress, you are broken. No matter what car you drive, you are broken. No matter what suburb you live in, or how big your house, or what degree/ title you have, you are broken. No matter what your race is, or your culture, or your political party, or your family tree - you are broken. At the foot of the cross all of our external pretenses are stripped away and we are all equal. So how can we show favoritism? If you have faith in Jesus then this means you believe that he is your savior because you need one. And if you need a savior and I need a savior then we both need a savior because we are both broken. How can you turn around, in light of that reality, and show favoritism as if you were somehow less broken or less sinful than the other person? James is confused. He's pointing out a contradiction. Favoritism in the Christian life is an oxymoron. It simply makes no sense.
Favoritism shows up in class warfare, it shows up in racism, it shows up in sexism, it shows up in mysoginy and misandry, it shows up in cultural exclusiveness, it shows up in generational elitism, it shows up in theological division and it shows up in lifestyle discrimination. And the end result of this discrimination is a perpetual cycle of division, disunity, and discord. And James is weirded out. How can you claim to have faith in Jesus and show favoritism? How can you claim to have faith in Jesus and fester a culture of segregation and estrangement?
I have discovered that the answer is simple. There are those who claim to be followers of Jesus and yet have never come to the place where they realize how broken they are. But I have also discovered that the solution to this problem is just as simple: to come to the place where you realize how broken you really are. Because when you realize how broken you are favoritism, racism, sexism and all the rest of it no longer makes any sense. Instead humility, love and friendship takes their place. That's the power of being broken.
I'm too broken to think I or anyone else is better than you. Whether you are rich or poor, from a first world country or a third world country, male or female, gay or straight, we are all broken. I deserve nothing. You deserve nothing. And yet God, in his grace, provides eternal life. And he offers it to us. And in his offering of salvation and restoration there lies an inherent truth: that we are equal regardless of what society might say. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female - all are one in Christ Jesus. All are broken. All are loved. So my invitation to the church today is this: Come to grips with how broken you are, how loved you are despite that brokenness, and never forget either.
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." - 1 Cor. 11:1
I have often felt as though, in our attempts at humility, we try and minimize the role we play in the lives of others. Preachers can often be heard asking Jesus to "hide" them "beneath the shadow of the cross" or saying “it wasn't me, it was Christ.” I have no problem with this outlook. It certainly is commendable in that it seeks to glorify God and not man. However, I think we often run the danger of being “hyper-humble” by pretending that we have absolutely no role whatsoever in the work of the gospel. The reality is that no matter how much we ask God to hide us beneath the shadow of the cross we will still be visible and no matter how much we give the credit to God people will remember our faces. Paul did not seem to shy away from that. He did not say, “don’t look at me, it’s all about Jesus” instead he said, “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul recognized that it was not about him, and yet he was there. He could not ignore the fact that others saw him and that he mattered in the work of the gospel. Had Paul been hyper-humble as some are today, rather than honor God, he would have damaged his witness. Likewise, I believe Christians should not be afraid to be seen, heard, and recognized. It is through our personalities, characters, and stories that Jesus is lifted up. Jesus is not glorified in spite of us as though we were just an unfortunate tool he had to use. He is glorified because of us and he finds great joy in partnering with us and using our individuality for his glory. When we attempt to hide our individual worth and value under the guise of humility, we are not really honoring God. Instead, we are allowing our insecurities to prevent Gods work in and through us from shining forth. I once heard of a church that had a huge cross in front of the pulpit so that when the preacher spoke all that was seen was the cross and not the speaker. As noble as this may sound it missed the real beauty of the gospel. The beauty of the gospel is not simply in the cross but in what the cross has done and continues to do, and that can only be seen in people. It is through our stories, testimonies, and personalities that the power of the cross and of the savior is fully recognized. So let’s be humble and always be careful to lift Jesus up and give him all the praise. But let’s also be careful to not go to extremes by acting as though we don’t matter. God didn’t commission angels to preach the gospel, neither does he do it alone. He commissioned women and men to do so because he recognized that it was through their lives, personalities, characters, stories and smiles that he would reach the world.
In fact, I have never drunk a drop of alcohol in my life. Before you feel sorry for me, do know that yes, I am doing OK.
It wasn't much of a big deal growing up because I grew up in a religious context where no one really drank. It was a bit weirder when I joined the Army because, well, everyone drank. A lot. For many years, my main reason for not drinking was simply the result of my conservative religious upbringing. But in recent years I have sought to define my life and choices on relationships and personalized faith as opposed to what others taught me. One of the questions to emerge was, Why don't I drink? And after some time contemplating this oh-so-weird reality of mine I have arrived at some pretty exciting answers (for me that is. Hopefully, you'll like them too). Oddly enough, none of them are all that religious.
1. Centeredness. The first is centeredness. Now what do I mean by this? Rather than define it myself I'll just quote from the article "Sober is the new drunk: why millennials are ditching bar crawls for juice crawls" (mostly because Angelina Chapin [the author person], captured it way better than me).
Most attendees [of this booze-free event called Shine] are millennials with new-agey reasons for socializing sober. Ask and they’ll say they “love real, authentic relationships”, and want to “open up to others on the same journey” and be “centered and calm to appreciate the day”.
In plain-speak, they think booze makes interactions less meaningful and that hangovers get in the way of their goals.
Now, I am not a new-agey person but I have to say, I resonate with them there. For me, centeredness is not some religious thing. Instead, its about being in each moment, appreciating the narrative unfolding all around me and remaining alert to capture whatever it wants to give me be it relationships, memories or the chance to speak life into another messed up person like me. Alcohol robs people of that. Maybe not 100% of the time. But often enough. So no thanks.
2. Humanity. According to professor Matthew Rushworth (of Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology) there is "an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human". Pretty cool huh? We're so unique.
Wow. That's a horrible meme. Sorry.
Moving on now. The area of the brain that makes us so "unique" (and useful I might add) is known as the frontal lobe. Suffice to say, this area of our brain is what makes it possible for us to reason. Now why is reasoning so cool? Because reasoning is what enables us to ask questions. And not even Kanzi (the worlds smartest ape) can ask questions. And I love asking questions. It's what makes me human.
Unfortunately, alcohol affects the brain by causing a "[l]oss of reason", in addition to a loss of: "caution, inhibitions, sociability, talkativeness and intelligence." In other words, alcohol turns off the very thing that makes us human. And I don't know about you, but I quite like being human. It's definitely a thing. And I want to celebrate it always. Not turn it off.
3. Social Justice. Now I have to be really careful here because people start to feel all guilty when you start to talk social justice. I am NOT saying that if you drink you are an evil person. Everyone is entitled to make their own decisions, so please don't take this the wrong way. I am just sharing why I, personally, don't drink. And this one is one of my biggies.
The top two reasons are the reasons why I don't drink alcohol at all. The final reason is why I don't support alcohol one bit, not even with a sip. Truth is, the alcohol industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives on broken families, societies and individual lives (there, I said it). If I were to buy alcohol ever (and I won't because see above) it would be from a local guy with a vineyard, not from the big companies. Just watch the video below to see what I mean.
Now some people simply respond to this by saying something like, "its not the alcohol industry's fault. People are responsible for their own actions." And that's true! But what most people don't realize (here we go again) is that marketers know, understand and exploit one simple truth about the human condition: the vast majority of people can't actually control themselves.
So the industry doesn't get to pass the buck here. They don't escape judgment by saying "they should drink responsibly". The industry knows that "[m]any consumer choices and decisions involve the need to exert self-control, and often consumers fail to exert such control". In other words, people should have self control but people don't. The alcohol industry exploits that reality for profit and then tries to justify itself with the "drink responsibly" commercial. Sorry dudes. Absolution denied.
So for me, not drinking and passing that value onto my kids is one way that I stick it to the man, the alcohol-industry man that is.
So that's it guys! Top 3 reasons why I don't drink. And no, none of them are religious. But I do thank my faith-tradition for at least giving me the foundation that has enabled me to be counter-cultural in this and other areas of my life. At the end of the day, my abstinence from alcohol is really a story about my love for "real, authentic relationships”, my desire to "open up to others on the same journey” and be “centered and calm to appreciate the day”. It's also a celebration of what makes me uniquely human which alcohol damages. And ultimately its a rebellion and a protest against an industry that destroys more than can be measured. Do I judge others who drink? Never. If you want to come to my house to watch a footy game and enjoy a few beers I won't tell you to leave the bottles outside. I also recognize that many awesomely cool people will disagree with all 3 of my point's above and offer some counter-views of their own. That's cool too. This is simply what works for me. Hopefully, it can work for you too.
Now if you'll excuse me. I think I'll go make a smoothie.
 Consumer Emotion-Regulation and Self-Control: A Strategic View. Duke University [click here for access]
Before reading the article, give this short video a watch and hang on to what you see. It gets revisited toward the end. Enjoy!
I saw an article this week on the 10 most popular books of the Bible and James wasn't on there. So I got worried because I am currently going through a sermon series on James at my local church. My church members, I thought, are not going to love me and they are going to email the boss-man, and then I'm going to get fired and then my family wont have any food (grin). So to calm my anxiety I googled the 10 least popular books of the Bible. I figured, so long as James isn't on that list then I am safe. And thankfully James wasn't there either! So I think its safe to say James is neither loved nor hated.
James isn't always an easy book to chew on.
Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. Martin Luther, the champion of the reformation, thought very little of the book of James. He referred to it as the "straw epistle". Luther's concern is that James seemed to focus on works too much and not enough on grace. And listen I get it. James isn't always an easy book to chew on. Some of the stuff he says seems pretty harsh. In fact, I would go as far as to say that James is almost impossible to appreciate without a proper understanding of grace. Now I'm not going to get into that today. That's a future post. But suffice to say, for now at least, that James is not talking about salvation by works. He's talking about authenticity. He's talking about sincerity.
You see James had this crazy belief that we are saved, not by faith and works but by a faith that works. James was one of these weirdos who honestly believed that faith changes lives. It's not just some idea you believe in because it sounds intellectually appealing. It's a living thing that reaches down into your heart and changes you entirely.
Has your faith changed you? Better yet, allow me to frame the question in an illustration. Suppose I was late to an appointment with you and told you that the reason I was late was because on my way to see you my cars licence plate fell off so I had to pull over and run through traffic into the middle of the road and by the time I got there a semi truck travelling at 80 km hit me and I got dragged under the truck for a few hundred yards until I finally got free, jumped in my car, and made it to you. What would you say to that story? Chances are you would think either I was crazy or I was a liar. Because there is no way I could come into contact with a semi truck going 80 km and not be changed from a 3 dimensional being into a 2 dimensional pancake. But here's the thing guys: God is bigger than a semi-truck. If its not possible to get hit by a semi without being "changed" it is even less possible to encounter the living God and stay the same. And for James, the servant of Jesus, faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith. Call it philosophy, ethics, creed or worldview. In fact, go ahead and call it theology. But if it hasn't changed you then don't call it faith.
For James... faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith.
That brings us to our first verse:
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (Jam. 1:26)
In other words, if your religion isn’t reaching deep and changing you as a person - not overnight but at least over time - then you need a new religion because, James declares, the one you have is worthless. Now I have to be really, really careful here because James is not trying to add extra pressure to someone who is new in the faith or going through a dark valley. Instead, James is pointing out something relevant - that there is a kind of Christianity that believes in the 10 commandments, the gospel, justification and sanctification, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and Jesus and in his return and yet it is worthless.
But it gets worse.
The word that we translate as "worthless" is an interesting one. Its the Greek word mataios. It means "1) devoid of force, truth, success, result 2) useless, of no purpose." So James is saying that there is a kind of Christianity that is devoid of force, proclaims empty truth, has no success and consequently nothing results from it. It's useless. It serves no purpose.
But it gets worse.
This Greek word mataios is also used in the New Testament in reference to idolatry and idol worship (Acts 14:15). So James is saying - don't miss this - that there is a kind of Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry.
You see, for James it's not about what you believe in your head. It's about how you allow that belief to redefine who you are. So what does that look like? James explains it:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (27)
In the latter part of the verse James insinuates the importance of doctrine when he warns us to not be polluted by the world. In scripture the world often alludes to thought. So James calls us to not be polluted by the worlds thought patterns. But that's not all James points out. Doctrine is certainly important, but James is emphasizing something bigger here. He is saying that if your doctrine doesn’t translate to mercy, and empathy, and acts of kindness for those less fortunate than you then your religion with all of its knowledge, ideology and philosophy is worthless. James doesn't care how pure you think your doctrine is. If it doesn't translate to active and practical love then it simply isn't pure. But if your religion leads to a life that is characterized by holiness revealed in visible hands-on love for others then that religion God accepts.
See, James isn't talking about gaining God's grace or love by working. He's not talking about going to heaven by trying. And hes not trying to put pressure on people who are struggling. He's talking about being genuine. Are you genuine? Is your religion genuine? Or is it worthless? Notice what God said to the nation of Israel through the prophet Isaiah:
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinfuland false. I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. (Isa. 1:13-17)
Notice the descriptive words God uses: meaningless, sinful, false, pious. And notice the emotive words he uses: disgust, hate, burden. He even calls the Sabbath sinful and false and says he wants no more! These descriptive and emotive words are synonymous with James' use of the word worthless. God isn't interested in worthless religion. In fact, he's not as into Sabbath keeping and church going as we like to think he is. So stop wasting your time! God doesn't want our religious pretense. He wants genuine faith which is revealed in lives that are forsaking sin to pursue goodness, justice, helping, defending, and fighting for those who are weak.
But here is the magical question. What exactly is it that separates worthless religion from genuine faith? We saw that both of them have the same belief system. So its not data that separates them. Then what does? How does a person go down one path or the other? Is there a practical instruction that can lead us, if obeyed, in the direction of genuine faith? And is there a decision which, if made, can lead us in the direction of worthless faith? How do we avoid the one and embrace the other?
James answers that question a few verses before,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (22)
Do what it says. That's it. Nothing else. You see, when James refers to worthless religion he describes its practitioners as self-deceived people. And here in verse 22 he tells us how to avoid being self-deceived people with a worthless religion. Its very simple. "Do what [God] says."
I don't know why we complicate the Christian life so much. Francis Chan once said it like this: Imagine I asked my daughter to clean her room and she comes back an hour later. I ask her, "have you done what I asked?" and she replies, "No dad. But guess what? I memorized what you said. I can even say it in Greek!" Would that work? Of course not. The Christian life is very simple. Do what God says.
I have concluded that sometimes we just need to stop talking and get out there and do something. We are here Sabbath after Sabbath listening and soaking in sermon after sermon and we love it. Our libraries are loaded with books and DVD's and we got our satellite dish so we can get some extra 3ABN or Hope or whatever. But when it comes time to do something for the community, to reach out, to bless and to serve all of a sudden most of us are tired. All of a sudden we have no time. All of a sudden we back off. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
When I was in New Jersey I attended a Jamaican church with Candice. One Sabbath I accidentally locked the keys in the car. So after the service a group of the guys came to help me break into the car and get my keys out. There was about six of them standing around and they all began coming up with a plan on how they would get inside. One guy said this, the other guy said that. The debate continued for a few minutes until one of the elders arrived. He looked at the group and literally said, "You know what your problem is? Ya'll got too many theories!" And with that he popped a crowbar into the door latch, used a wire clothes hanger to reach in, and in less than one minute he had opened the car.
Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
"Too many theories." That was his critique. But what he was really saying is that all their talk was worthless. And without any talk he got to work. So I ask again. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal? A religion that revolves around too many theories and too much lip movement but has little to no effect in the world around us? We show up every Sabbath and we listen to sermon after sermon and then what? We do Bible study after Bible study and then what? Is it possible that our greatest sin is we talk too much and we do too little. And the ones who do stick their necks out to do something barely ever get any support.
Guys, the difference between a Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry and a Christianity that is genuine is that one merely listens to the word and the other listens and does what it says. That’s it. That is the separating factor.
Narayanan Krishnan, born in 1981, is an Indian chef turned social worker. He quit his career as a leading chef and began supplying meals to the homeless in India, beginning in 2002. Krishnan was an award-winning chef and was short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. During a visit to his family, before heading to Europe, he said, "I saw a very old man, literally eating his own human waste out of hunger. I went to the nearby hotel and asked them what was available then I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness."
Krishnan founded his nonprofit Akshaya Trust in 2003. Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m., cooks a simple hot meal and then, along with his team, loads it in a van and travels about 125 miles (201 km) feeding the homeless and mentally-disabled in his region. He serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to 400 indigent and elderly people in Madurai. He carries a comb, scissors and razor and is trained in eight haircut styles that, along with a fresh shave, provide extra dignity to those he serves.*
But do you know what the weird part is? Krishnan is a Brahmin and he says that "Brahmans are not supposed to touch these people". And yet he does. In other words, Krishnan is doing something that goes contrary to his own religious tradition. In order for him to be true to his heart he has to contradict his own faith. And despite this, he is still doing it. Somehow, this man whose faith is miles apart from ours has discovered the heart of God in a way many of us have not. As Christians its not our faith we have to contradict. Its our selfishness. Its our worthless religion. But if we look intently into the heart of God we will see this love that changes lives there. We must accept that love, and then do what it commands.
There have been men in every generation who have claimed to be the sons of God... and yet who led a godless life, for they neglected the weightier matters of the law—mercy, justice, and the love of God. There are today many who are in a similar deception; for while bearing an appearance of great sanctity, they are not doers of the Word of God.... If Christ is in the heart, He will appear in the home, in the workshop, in the marketplace, in the church.... He who is transformed by the truth will shed a light upon the world (Ellen White, FW p.116)
Now some of you might be thinking I don't have the time to start a nonprofit, or to go feed the poor etc. But please understand, that's not the point. God isn't after dramatic things. Hes after the small things. He wants us to do something. Whether its helping out a ministry at church or donating some time (not just money - that's too easy) to the local charity God is calling you and me to be, not just hearers of the word, but doers.
Over the last two years I have been a pastoral intern for the Western Australia Conference in Perth, Western Australia. The internship process is designed, above all things, to give pastoral interns exposure to diverse areas of ministry for their personal development. This includes giving Bible studies, preaching sermons, visiting people in their homes or the hospital, organizing and participating in baby dedications, funerals, baptisms and a whole slew of other activities that a young pastor would have to know before going from pastoral intern to licensed minister. Consequently, the internship process is one that is filled with lots and lots of learning and figuring stuff out.
Over the next few weeks I would like to take the time to share some of the lessons I have learned. The first is related to giving Bible studies. After giving countless Bible studies over the last two years I have picked up on a few things. Here are 4 quick but super important points.
1. Adapt to different personality types. Not everyone is the same and, consequently, not everyone will respond or even enjoy the same Bible study topics. Some, I have found, really get into the deep stuff. Others simply zone out. It's not that they are less spiritual, they are just different. Some prefer a relational approach to the Bible, others really enjoy the scholarly type of approach. Some really enjoy Daniel and Revelation. For others, its a complete waste of time. I remember studying Daniel and Revelation with one particular student who exhibited enthusiasm over it. But every time we got back together she could not remember a thing that we discussed the week before. Eventually, I completely shifted my approach and had to put Dan and Rev on the shelf. However, there is no formula for developing a set of Bible study topics by matching them to a personality type. The best approach is to simply ask the student what will work best for them. Sometimes they know. Sometimes they don't. Test, measure and adjust as you go along. Remember, the goal of Bible study is to connect the student to Jesus, not to turn them into theologians. So do whatever works for them.
2. Learn the craft of the tailor. This second tip is simply an outflow of the first. Once you have learned that you need to adapt your doctrinal teaching to different personality types you need to learn how to tailor the study method itself. Some are perfectly content to go through a pamphlet with you. Others enjoy the question and answer format. And others simply want to have a conversation. I often begin by asking a new student to write down all their questions in a card for me. I then analyze the questions for patterns. Often times all of the questions boil down to one or two grand themes. From there I tailor the studies, including the language I use, to make sure I am addressing the things that the student is most interested in. One particular student I had simply did not connect with any typical approach to Bible study. I had a hunch something was up so I asked her if she had ever accepted Christ. She said "no" even though a couple of months before we had explored the gospel and I asked her if she wanted to accept Christ, to which she said "yes". Now, only two months later she couldn't even remember. Chances are she was totally zoned out in our gospel study and said yes because she felt that's what she was supposed to do. So I shifted approach. Instead of doing study pamphlets I had her watch a movie or YouTube video that covered a specific Biblical theme. Then, I would ask her questions about the movie and allow her to, essentially, teach the class. All I did was listen and direct the conversation. In the end, she learned tons more than the first time around.
3. Avoid the "factory mentality". Once again, point 3 is an outflow of the first two points. Many Bible studies are given as if the students where cattle in a factory conveyor belt and you had to get them in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. This translates into impersonal, irrelevant and uninteresting Bible studies. The student soon senses you are not interested in them and are simply trying to get the studies done and over with so you can dunk them in the water. Not cool. Avoid this at all cost and if necessary repent of this mindset. Students are not products. They are infinitely valuable souls purchased by the blood of Christ. We need to take the time to get to know them and pour love into their lives, not just doctrine. I made it a practice to pause the Bible studies every few weeks so I could spend an hour just getting to know how the student was doing in his or her personal life. I also took notes on some of their stresses so I could pray for them and revisit the issue in the future. Letting them know you care for them and are there for more than just a "shove religion down your throat" session is super important.
4. Teach how, not what. One of the biggest turnoffs to millennials and post-moderns is when they are told what to think. Old school Bible studies were very much like this. It was all about what you had to believe. If this is your approach, make sure all your study contacts are over 50, because apart from a few rare cases is simply doesn't work with this generation. Rather, they want to be taught how to think and there is a difference between teaching someone how to think through an issue thus giving them to tools to make up their own mind, and telling them what to think about an issue thus robbing them of the ability to think for themselves. However, in order to do this properly you, as the teacher, must familiarize yourself with much more than your own personal belief system. You must learn what others believe as well. But more importantly, you must appreciate what others believe even if you don't agree with it. This will enable you to build truth-seeking relationships where your motive is to lead others into the truth rather than argue or belittle alternative viewpoints. For example, one of the topics students often ask me about is alcohol. If I sit there and tell them all the reasons why they should not drink alcohol I will lose them immediately. Instead, I have familiarized myself with the differing view points and even come to appreciate why some people hold to these views. I present them all to the students and allow them to wrestle with them. Of course, I still explain why I believe what I believe but the student is now free to think through the issue for themselves rather than feeling coerced by an authoritative figure. I encourage every Bible teacher to be a student of the culture, the philosophical view points that under-gird our society (such as relativism, individualism etc.), the beliefs of other religious traditions, and even the diversity of faith-practice within your own church community. The ability to dialogue calmly and impartially when discussing divergent points of view is a strength that will enable you to connect and lead others to an appreciation and love for the truth as it is in Jesus.
2016 was a crazy year. I mean, it was so crazy that the Friend Dog Studio crew compiled some of the events into a frightening horror film trailer. And they didn't even include the clowns!
Funny as it might be, I see this as a sign of the times we are living in. Something is wrong. Everyone knows it. And it's getting worse. But brooding over "doom and gloom" is not my thing. Instead, I prefer to focus on what I can do to make a difference. So here are some of my goals for the new year. 1. Rediscover stillness. This one is simple. Over the last few years I have become more task-oriented. I don't like it. At all. Instead, I want to rediscover what it means to be still and mindful. I find the task-oriented life exhausting and empty. It forces me to be in the center too much. To try and solve problems too quickly. To orbit my purpose, motivation, and direction around ultimately meaningless and temporal things. This coming year I want to let go. I want a grace-oriented life. One that accomplishes much, not with business, but with stillness. One that can sit back and celebrate being a part of what God is doing without wanting to take the wheel. A life that is reflective, contemplative, and intentionally paused. I want to stop being in control and rest in what God is doing. 2. Realign priorities. With the task-oriented life comes the prioritization of the wrong things. There is too much to do so you automatically stuff the more important things in the background so you can focus on all the urgent stuff in front of you- most of which has little to no eternal significance. A relationship with God, a vibrant family life, and personal development are among the things that get lost in the mix. This next year, I want to realign my priorities so that I am focusing on that which has eternal value the most. 3. Deepen my commitment to social justice. I talk about social justice quite a bit and am very passionate about seeing it take place. But the recent years have been so financially difficult for my family that we have not invested much in it. This next year, I want to hone in on one issue that we can make a difference in as a family and invest time and energy into it. We are not sure what that is yet, but we definitely want to talk less and do more. Some of the issues that we feel drawn to are the war in Syria and human trafficking. Candice also has a passion for helping mothers struggling with mental health and we both have a passion for health and nutrition altogether. So in the next week we will be sitting down and making a plan on how we are going to make life for someone else just a little bit better this new year. 4. Build deeper relationships. I'm an amnivert which basically means I am both introverted and extroverted at the same time. But the older I get the more introverted I feel I am becoming. I don't know if that's a symptom of being task-oriented or just my personality evolving but I want to be intentional with it. When I was younger I was super extroverted and had lots of friends, but I was very shallow with them. Now that I am becoming less extroverted I find a desire to have deeper and more intimate friendships but I have not totally acted on those desires. So in 2017 I would like to invest in deepening some of my friendships. This may mean things like less time on social media or personal hobbies and doing more community. I also want to invest more in developing my skills as a leader, father, and husband so that I have more tools to invest more effectively in the lives of the people around me. So there you have it! Those are my goals for 2017. Through them, my hope is to make the world a slightly better place. I hope whatever you decide to do, that you too would aim to change the world with one small decision at a time. See you guys next year!
This past year I had the privilege of teaching a series of Bible classes at the Livingston SDA church where I worked as an associate pastor. Now that the year has ended, the entire series of classes is available online for all to enjoy! To give the classes a listen go to www.livingstonsda.church/bible-classes You can also find them on iTunes here or Soundcloud here. Blessings!
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish” (John 21:4-5)?
Jesus was alive. The disciples were back together. Life seemed good. Although they still had lots of questions they knew that everything would be alright. After all, Jesus had conquered death, so why worry about anything else?
It was evening time. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James and John, and others were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, "'We’ll go with you.' So they went out and got into the boat..." (3).
I can only imagine what that night would have been like. They must have talked about all kinds of things, but one thing must have kept popping up - Jesus. He was alive. How crazy is that? How do you stop talking about that? I don't think you can. Perhaps they were a bit too caught up in conversation because according to the story, "that night they caught nothing" (3).
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish (4-6).
Jesus then did something that I totally love. Jesus, who is creator God, said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” The picture that paints of God is to me absolutely stunning. He's relatable. Down to earth. Humble. He likes broiled fish. And he likes to eat breakfast with sinners. How amazing Thomas must have felt. He had doubted Jesus, but Jesus didn't hold it against him. He came near to him and together they ate breakfast. But the joy of his immediate presence would not last forever. "He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). Then, on the final day he said to them, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (8).
As Jesus spoke these final words, the story says he rose up into the air and "was taken up before their very eyes" (9). What was Thomas thinking at this time? I don't know. But I can imagine him longing for Jesus to stay. Thomas had come so close to Jesus that to see him go would have been almost unbearable. The skeptical, sarcastic, self-interested doubter had fallen in love with Jesus. But Jesus had to go and soon "a cloud hid him from their sight" (9) and they didn't see him again.
But Jesus didn't leave them with nothing to do. He gave them a mission. "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." In other words, their lives were to be poured out into one simple purpose: To tell the story of Jesus to the entire world. There was nowhere they wouldn't go, no land they wouldn't travel to, no tribe they wouldn't seek out. They had experienced the wonder and the beauty that is Jesus. They had discovered the way to heaven. Not a hopeless and futile list of duties but a friend who loved them and wanted them despite all of their flaws. This Jesus had given his life to cleanse humanity from sin and all that was left was to tell the story and let the earth be filled with the story of the sin-bearing God. However, there was more to the story than what Jesus had done.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (10-11).
The story the disciples were to tell was bigger than what Jesus had done. It was also about what Jesus was soon to do! He was gone yes, but he would return someday to establish his kingdom and the disciples knew their mission in life was to prepare the world for his soon return.
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (12-14).
This is the very last time Thomas is mentioned in the Bible. He never shows up again. So whatever happened to Thomas?
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
Thomas was there with the other disciples when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them. From that day forward they were filled with power to do what Jesus had told them to do: Tell the world! And that's exactly what the disciples did. They told the world, and they told the story so loud and with so much passion that the story of Jesus spread everywhere. And everywhere it spread the people there would join the disciples in spreading the story as well. Jesus saves and he's coming back again! And they were so good at it that their enemies dragged them before city officials and said, "These [are the] men who have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
They weren't exaggerating. The disciples really did turn the world upside down. And what of Thomas?
Traditionally, he is said to have travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, travelling as far as Tamilakam in present-day India. According to tradition, the Apostle reached... India in AD 52 and baptized several people, founding what today are known as Saint Thomas Christians or Nasranis. He is believed by the St Thomas Christian tradition to have established... Seven and Half Churches....
An ancient Assyrian and song writer who lived during the time of AD 300 wrote a song about Thomas which captures it all perfectly:
It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India's painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.
Today doubting Thomas is remembered by a moment of failure. But his life gives evidence to something more than just a doubter. He is known as the Apostle to India, is said to have worked miracles there, and established seven churches. According to tradition, Thomas was eventually killed in India by a man with a spear. Today the site of his death is known as St. Thomas Mount where the "ancient Syrian Christian community of India trace the origin of their church to St. Thomas the Apostle".
How do we experience God? I think if we asked Thomas he would tell us: Don't doubt him. He can do amazing things with your life you would never have imagined. Even when you don't see him trust him anyways. He wants you, he calls you, he accepts you, he guides you, he reveals himself to you, and he leads you along life's way. And you can be guaranteed one thing that so long as you follow him you will make it safely to the fathers house.
Episode four begins. The sun has set. A cool breeze adorns the night. As we look we spot Jesus kneeling. He is sweating drops of blood. His body is shaking. His fingers clutch the ground beneath him. He is praying. Talking to God about what is about to happen and visibly terrified. It seems as though whatever he is going through it is literally killing him. "Take this cup from me" (36) he prays, while simultaneously embracing his fathers will. In moments he is on his feet and approaches his disciples. They are all fast asleep on the ground. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour" (37)?
Jesus goes back to the place where he was praying. The struggle begins again. His body shudders under the weight of mans sin. Jesus is about to go to the cross. He is about to give his life for all of mankind. And at this moment, the weight and the guilt of our sin begins to create a gulf between he and God. The experience is so overwhelming it crushes him. Once again, he gets up to see if his disciples are awake and praying for him but again they are all asleep. Peter is snoring. Andrew is slobbering. And Thomas is talking in his sleep. Jesus goes back to pray for a third time. The battle ensues. When he is done he returns again to find Thomas still zonking along with everyone else. "Rise! Let us go" (42)! Jesus says.
Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders (43).
What happens from here on out is nothing short of mayhem. An angel knocks all the soldiers to the ground but Jesus stands him down. Then Peter decides to take off where the angel left off and cuts off a soldiers ear. Jesus tells him to stand down as well. The mob rushes at Jesus. Thomas and the rest of the disciples flash back to the Feast of Dedication in the temple and fear grips them. For a moment they freeze not knowing what to do, then their instinct takes over - "everyone deserted him and fled" (50).
A day later Jesus had been condemned to death. He was given a cross to carry after he had been beaten with whips and insulted by the Roman soldiers who pulled his beard, spit on him, and mocked him (Mark 15: 16-20). The beating was so severe that Jesus had no strength left. He collapsed carrying the cross and barely made it to the site of execution. He was dehydrated, exhausted, and crushed by the weight of sin now resting fully upon him. Six hours later, much to everyone's surprise, Jesus hung dead on the cross and the hopes of thousands were shattered. "We thought he was the hero" some said. But now they were sure that Jesus had been just another of the many phony hero's who had met his end at the hands of the Roman state.
With the exception of John, the disciples were nowhere to be seen. They each fled and were now hiding - afraid that the Romans would come looking for them next. Thomas was not with the rest of them, but he was hiding as well. A thousand thoughts sored through his mind. To think that I was ready to die for him? I was really convinced he was the hero, but now? I guess I got tricked along with lots of other people. He was a fake just like the other ones.
The sun set just like every other night. During the hours of darkness the enemies of Jesus celebrated their victory and the friends of Jesus wept. Their lives were over. How could they ever go back into society? They would be ridiculed to no end. Their hopes, dreams, and desires had been crushed. Jesus was gone, and with him went the last three years of their lives. What a waste.
Night two came and went. Thomas got no sleep that night either. He spent his time thinking, imagining, trying to put the pieces back together. But with every passing moment he only got more confused, more angry, and more disillusioned.
It was a Sunday afternoon and Thomas was walking through a field. His mind still racing. A knot in his stomach. And a million questions without end. As he walked he heard voices shouting, but he didn't respond. Then suddenly, a hand grasped his shoulder. He turned to Peter, James, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples standing there. "We have seen Jesus!" They exclaimed. "He is alive. He appeared to Mary first and then to us. You have to come Thomas. He rose from the dead just like Lazarus!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).
I. Will. Not. Believe.
Those four words are the most painful words a loving God can ever hear. After all God has done to save us and bring us back to himself there are still people in life who respond to his love by saying "I will not believe." How heart breaking this must be for God! Others respond to God by saying "I will not believe right now" and still others respond by saying "I will not believe unless." Which of those responses best describes you? Are you rejecting God today? Are you putting him off to some distant future? If you are, then I challenge you to pause. Stop the rush of life and just pause. What in the world are you rejecting him for? Is there seriously anything in this world better than God? And if you are not rejecting, then what are you waiting for? What could seriously be holding you back right now? Just go for it. He has given everything for you and hes asking for nothing in return except your love. And if you are putting the ball in Gods court and saying "Ill do it if" or "I wont do it unless" then my question to you is, what more can God do? He gave his only son to die for our sins, what else do you expect from him before you can embrace his love? Get rid of the "not". Get rid of the "not right now", and get rid of the "unless." Just say yes. Thomas refused to believe. Instead, he wanted proof that Jesus was alive. He had been hurt too deep and he would not be taken for a fool. If he was going to follow Jesus he wanted evidence. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe" (26-28).
Wow. Isn't Jesus amazing? He met Thomas right where he was. He met Thomas in his doubt. He met Thomas in his unbelief. He met Thomas in his weakness. And he will do the same for you. And his invitation to Thomas remains to this day, "Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (29).
Why did Jesus say that? He happily gave evidence to both Thomas and the disciples as well. Why did he say, "blessed are those who have not seen yet believe"? Could it be that when it comes to experiencing God physical sight isn't as important as we think it is? Could it be that experiencing God is something deeper and stronger than a sense experience?
I believe so. And the truth is some of the most important things in life are things we can't actually see. Oxygen is something we cant see with the naked eye, and yet without we would die. Gravity is also something we can't see and yet if you ignore it by jumping out of a window, you can end up dead. And of course, we can't see love. Its not something that is visible to the eye. But without love life is meaningless. Now true, we can see and feel the results of oxygen, gravity and love but we can't actually see them - only their results. But what is also true is seeing each of those things will do nothing to increase our belief or appreciation of them. If I could actually see the particles that make up oxygen and gravity or the essence that makes up love it would do nothing to impact my experience with each of them. My experience with them is stronger than sight, and because of this sight would add nothing.
In the same way, experiencing God is not necessarily about seeing him. Its about experiencing him in such a way that we know he is there, we can see and feel the results of his presence even though we can't see it. And this is super important to experiencing God. Because if we embrace false expectations of what experiencing God is we will miss him even though he is there. So what are those false expectations? They differ but more often than not people are expecting some sort of transcendent or ethereal encounter, a vision or a vivid dream, an emotional high, or some dramatic miraculous event. But those are not the ways by which we experience God. Rather God is experienced by the conviction that we are loved and desired by him, by the sense that he is calling you, by the experience of seeing him active in the world and changing peoples lives, by our life-long walk with him, and by observing in ourselves and others how trustworthy walking according to his way is.
We don't have to see God with the naked eye to know he is real. We can know he is real, we can believe that he lives, and we can have a personal encounter with him without ever actually seeing him. But how? And here is the main point that I want to bring out today. Without this you can rest assured that you will never experience God. But with it, we can be confident that God can be known, experienced, and encountered. When Jesus rose from the dead, no one was looking for him. The only people who came to the tomb were Mary and Martha who were only there to anoint his dead body, not to see him. Truth is, no one was looking for him. The disciples were all hiding like cowards in a room and Thomas was off somewhere else hiding as well. But they all experienced Jesus because even though they weren't looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for them. It was Jesus who revealed himself to the disciples and it is because of this that we know that Jesus is a self-disclosing God. He is not interested in hiding or in lurking in the shadows. He wants to be known. He wants to be met. He wants to be encountered. So here is the main point for today, you are not the only one wanting to experience God. God wants to reveal himself to you and even when you are far away, hiding, and confused he is approximating himself to you in order to give you an encounter with himself. You don't have to carry the burden of discovering or experiencing God. It is God who is revealing himself to you. All you have to do is "stop doubting and believe."
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).
I had a love hate relationship with the Army. There were things about it I couldn't stand one bit. And there were things about it I loved to no end. Among them was that being a soldier to me felt like a privilege. I could defend something that I believed in. All of the training and preparation was geared at one simple task - defending freedom. Sounds cheesy yes, but I loved it. However, it didn't take long for me to realize something that tore me up inside. No matter how much I fought and sacrificed everything I stood for would eventually be gone. Nothing in this world lasts forever. Nations come and go. Political philosophies rise and fall. And soldiers live and die. In my heart I felt I needed to dedicate my life to something that would last beyond a Hollywood flick or a history book. I needed to fight for something that would last forever. John chapter 14 begins with a promise. Jesus calls it "My Father's house". He speaks of mansions, rooms, preparation, a place. He talks about coming back and he talks about relationship - "I will come back and take you to be with me". It doesn't take a scholar to recognize that Jesus is using heaven language here. He is talking about that eternal home we call the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, and eternity. And it is in response to this amazing promise of Jesus that we once again bump into the elusive Thomas.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (5)?
In our last post we saw that the resurrection of Lazarus was a cataclysmic event in Thomas' spiritual journey. And here, just a few chapters later, we start to see a change in Thomas. We no longer see the sarcastic disciple. Now we see someone who is really interested in what Jesus has to say. And he asks one of the most profound questions known to man - "how can we know the way?" And today, if we pause and ask this question we will find a whole slew of answers none of which seem to be satisfying. The atheist would respond by saying that there is no heaven. The pagan would agree but would go on to argue that we must create our own heaven here on earth by striving to make the world a better place. The religions of the east would also deny the existence of heaven opting instead of a "oneness" or non-relational "reunification" with the divine. In other parts they may refer to their final destination as an escape from desire, nirvana, or "the end" - all of which are achieved through the excersize of the will in the performance of strict religious duties. If Thomas had asked his religious leaders that question he would have gotten two different responses as well. Some would have said that heaven was not real, and others would have said that in order to reach heaven you have to work really hard at keeping the law of God. But no matter which way you turn, it seems like the answer is terrible. Either heaven is not real, or it is real but way out of reach to the average Joe. But suppose you took the second option. Suppose you decided to try and work your way into heaven. Would you succeed? Not a chance. Even if you managed to do everything perfectly, you can never undo or outweigh the sins you have committed. If you are going to get into heaven, a different way must be made available or else you simply have no hope. But what is that way? That's what Thomas wanted to know. Jesus, how can we know the way? Is it going to church every week? Is it reading my Bible every day? Is it praying three times a day? Is it doing everything really good? What is the way? And here comes Jesus response:
Jesus answered, "I am the way... No one comes to the Father except through me" (6).
How weird is that? The way to heaven is not a series of behaviors. Its not a set of beliefs. Its not a way of life. Its not even a religion. The way to heaven is a person and his name is Jesus. He is the door to heaven. He is the path to heaven. He is the entrance to heaven. A person. Not a concept. Not a philosophy. Not an exam. Not a church program. A person. Entering the kingdom of heaven is not about what you do, its about who you know. Do you know Jesus? Or do you only know about him? Do you talk to Jesus? Or do you only talk about him? Do you walk with Jesus? Or do you only talk about walking with him? Do you know him? Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that you earn heaven by achieving level bff with Jesus. This isn't about measuring whether we know him a lot or a little. This is simply about asking if our faith in Jesus is based on a real relationship or if its nothing more than information in your head. Because the way to heaven is not information. Its Jesus himself. He wants you and he is calling you to go from being a Christian by default, to entering into a real relationship with him. In this series we have been asking, How can I experience God? We have looked at some answers from the life of doubting Thomas. The first step toward experiencing God for real in your life to is realize that he wants you despite your flaws. The second step is to answer his call over your life. The third is to follow him even if you don't know why. When you do, God places you in circumstances that lead you to experience him more and more. But now comes the fourth step and perhaps the most important one - to actively seek to build a relationship with him by realizing that following Jesus is not about religion, its about relationship.
Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”- John 10:31
It was winter. Jesus and his disciples had gone up to Jerusalem for an annual festival that every able Jew attended. The festival was known as the Feast of Dedication and celebrated a time when the Jews, led by a family known as the Maccabees, had revolted against the Greek invaders and succeeded in fighting them off. The Maccabees had become a sort of legend among the Israelites. They represented the last time Israel had been free from oppression. However, it wasn't long until the Jews were under foreign domination again and by the time Jesus arrived they were well and truly under Romes control. In a sense, the Feast of Dedication was the celebration of short-lived freedom. About 200 years after the Maccabean revolt, Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate their short lived victory. As he walks through the temple courts with his disciples people begin to notice him. "There he is" some of them whisper as they point at him, "Hes the one who claims to be the hero of Israel." "Not exactly" others retort. "He hasn't been very clear about who he is". The crowds begin to debate and then they grow. And with every floating rumor the tension in the air grows thicker. Who is this Jesus? Is he the one who will finally end our oppression? Will he pick up where the Maccabees left off? The disciples begin to feel the tension. Thomas looks around and everywhere he looks there's someone staring at them. Suddenly, Jesus stops. Thomas looks up and sees a group of men standing in the way - some look angry, others annoyed. In seconds the entire group is surrounded. Things don't look so good. “How long will you keep us in suspense?" Asks the leader of the pack, "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe" (25). Thomas gulps. Jesus answer was like a slap in the face. But Jesus didn't seem scared. He continues to talk but Thomas doesn't even hear what hes saying anymore. The men surrounding them are growing angrier with every word Jesus speaks. Then suddenly, they recoil in horror and begin yelling at Jesus. The leader of the pack reaches to the ground and grabs a loose stone on the path. The crowd follows, each of them picking up stones to throw at Jesus. Thomas and the other disciples freeze, not knowing what to do. Jesus keeps talking but as he does the crowds gather around him even tighter to the point that the disciples are completely blocked off from Jesus. "What in the world is happening?" Peter yells. "I cant see Jesus anymore!" In moments the angry mob grows even larger. They come from every corner of the temple - men with stones dashing madly toward Jesus. The disciples find themselves in this wild mosh-pit and desperately struggle to get out. "Stone him!" The crowd yells. "Hes a fake!" others cry out. Then, suddenly, the crowds begin to yell all at once. Thomas can't understand a single word. But something even stranger happens. The crowds begin to turn and look in every direction. "Where did he go?" He hears the cries. "He's gone! He disappeared!" Shortly after the crowds disperse. The disciples gather themselves together again and are found by Jesus. Together they leave Jerusalem and cross the river Jordan to the place where Jesus was baptized. Thomas takes a deep breath. That was close. Days go by. The disciples are still recovering from their frightening experience. Questions are going through Thomas' mind. Am I really cut out for this? I mean we almost got killed. Am I really ready to die for Jesus? I'm not even sure if he's the one... But their moment of peace was short lived. A messenger arrived from Judea where the disciples had just barely escaped with their lives. "Lazarus, the one that you love, is sick" said the messenger. "You have to come with me and heal him" (John 11:3). Thomas eyes shot wide open. No way, he thought, we just barely made it out of Judea, please don't tell me you are going to do this. Jesus spoke to the messenger and assured him all would be well, then sent him back. However, much to Thomas' surprise, Jesus did not go with him. One day passed. Nothing. Two days went by. Nothing. The disciples started to feel a little better. Thomas was definitely feeling better. But then came day three and Jesus said to his disciples, "Let's go back to Judea" (7). “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back”(8)? We can only imagine the fear and anxiety in the disciples hearts at that moment. One by one they desperately tried to reason with Jesus - to persuade him to stay away from Judea. To perhaps use his power to heal Lazarus from afar like he had done with the Centurions servant only a few months before. But Jesus reply was simple, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up" (11). The disciples didn't give up. “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better” (12). they said. In other words, "Whats the point of risking our lives again if Lazarus is just sleeping? It's not that big a deal. Just let him be." And Jesus replies, "[Guys], Lazarus is dead" (14). Oh. The disciples aren't through arguing yet. But Thomas had had it. He knows there's no way to dissuade Jesus. So in a moment of cathartic sarcasm Thomas blurts out, "“Let us also go, that we may die with him” (16). For some, Thomas' words are words of bravery. I am more inclined to think they were said in scorn. "Forget it guys. Whats the use? He's not going to change his mind so fine, lets all go so we can die too." In other words, Thomas was willing to follow Jesus, to walk with Jesus and even to die with Jesus but the truth is he had no idea why. He was just like, Hey why not? I've got nothing else going on. Let's just do it. Thomas was following Jesus yes, but he didn't seem to really know why. Why are you following Jesus? Some of you reading this may be just as gung-ho for Jesus as Thomas was and yet not really know why. Some of you may be leaders in your churches, you may be at church every weekend, you may even give time and money to the church but at the end of the day if I asked you why you do it, would you really know why? Apart from the cliche answers we usually give would we really know why we are living for Jesus? Throughout the years I have met people who are willing to die for Jesus and kill for him too but they don't actually know why. They are patriotic Christians. They are used to the idea of Jesus. Mom and dad took them to church. It's all they have ever known. So why not? Why not follow him? Every one else seems to be doing it. But when you squeeze them hard to find out why they are so hardcore for Jesus they don't really seem to know why. What about you? Are you reading this because it seems interesting? Are you at church each weekend because you enjoy doing church stuff and organizing church events? If I pushed you to the max, could you really tell me why you are here? Thomas was all out for Jesus but at this point in his life he didn't seem to know why. But let me pause now and say, that I actually think that's OK. I know I just drilled you on the why question, but the truth is, I think its OK to not know why. It's part of the journey. It's part of how we experience God. We have to go through different stages. In yesterdays post I mentioned that the first step toward experiencing God is to recognize that he wants you and is calling you. The second step is to then respond to his call over your life. And here is the third step: To follow him even though you may not have it all figured out. There are people who miss out on experiencing God because they are waiting to have all their ducks in a row - to have it all figured out. Forget that. You don't need all the answers. You don't need everything sorted. Just give it a shot. You have nothing to lose. Walk with Jesus. Serve with Jesus. Get involved in your church. Get active in ministering to others. Live with Jesus. And if need be, be willing to die for him. It's OK to not know why you are here. God is just happy that you are. But the story doesn't end there. God doesn't want your faith-journey to be void of meaning. He's happy that you are here but ultimately he also wants you to know why you are here. And Jesus wanted his disciples to know too. He wanted Thomas to know. Notice what Jesus said to them: "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe..." (14-15). The mob in Jerusalem weren't the only ones wondering if Jesus was really the hero. The disciples were wondering as well. Jesus was glad they were there. But now he wanted to give them a reason why. He wanted them to go from knowing about him to truly knowing him. To knowing his heart, his power, and his purpose for them. So he said to them, "Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go..." (John 11:14-15, The Message). Days later, the disciples stood by as Jesus stood before the tomb of Lazarus. The stone had been rolled away, and then Jesus said a prayer:
Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me (41-42).
Jesus' prayer is awesome. He's asking God to give the people around him who don't believe a reason to believe. He wants them to have a moment with him where their faith goes from being a head thing to a heart thing. Thomas was included in this prayer. And so are you. Jesus was giving Thomas and all those doubters a new ground to believe, a new experience with him. And then it happens.
"Lazarus, come forth! The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus *said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (43-44).
The story doesn't say, but something tells me Thomas was one of the ones Jesus was talking to when he said, "Unbind him...". In those days, the dead were wrapped up in cloths. Lazarus had come out of the tomb yes, but he was still wrapped up in cloths. Jesus calls those around him to go unbind Lazarus. But why? Why not do it himself? I think the answer is clear. As Thomas reached out to Lazarus and began taking the cloths off of him, loosening and untying, the whole thing became awfully real to him. With ever bit of cloth that he removed, Thomas came face to face with the wonder that is Jesus. There before him stood a man 3 days dead. He didn't stink. His skin was bright and healthy. His smile was real. I wonder, what was Thomas thinking at that moment? Was he still doubting who Jesus was? Or was he beginning to rethink his doubts? Did the act of unbinding Lazarus rock his world to the core? Did Thomas finally have a reason to follow Jesus? Did his faith go from knowing about Jesus to knowing him? I think so. Why are you here? Some of you believe. Some of you don't. God's just glad you're here. But he's also excited to give you a whole new reason to believe. So if you want to experience him, don't wait until you have it all figured out. Realize that God want's you. Respond to his call. And start following Jesus even if you don't understand it all. And as you follow him, walk with him, and listen to him he will take you to the place where he will rock your world to the core. He will do amazing things and call on you to be a part of them. He will transform the life of a drug addict and call you to pray for him, he will deliver a child from abuse and call you to be there to comfort them, he will rescue a friend from alcohol, from suicide, from brokenness and he will call you to be there to unbind him from that left over mess that lingers on. And as you do that your faith will come alive. Because experiencing God is not about seeing a vision of angels, its about walking with him and working with him. When I was 17 I started following Jesus. I had no idea why. I just knew he was calling me. I started preaching and I understood very little of the Bible. I knew nothing about theology or any of that other stuff. I hadn't even graduated High School yet. But I knew Jesus was calling me and that was enough. And God brought me from one crazy journey to another. I have never seen a man walk out of a tomb that needed to be untied, but I have met all kinds of people from convicts and addicts to broken and empty people and in each case I have had the joy of working with Jesus in unbinding their mess and through that, experiencing how real Jesus is and how good he is at changing lives. So I ask you today, don't wait to have it all figured out. Just walk with him and work with him and he will rock your world.