Swatting mosquitoes

One of the highlights of my week is a Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. In the previous post, I wrote about how we sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. Sometimes that process exposes hidden weaknesses to which we’ve been blind. There was such a moment about three weeks ago. Some people might call it an epiphany. For me it was an “aha” moment. It was unexpected.

Early in our conversation, one of the men raised a question about God’s covenant to Israel and how it relates to the church. I opened my Bible and waited to respond. Without pausing, the guy raised another question about end time events. I stuck a finger in my Bible to hold the place and turned to another passage. Then we were off on another question. I put a another finger in the Bible. I was looking for a unifying thread to tie the discussion together.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. These questions weren’t going anywhere. There was no direction. We were just swatting mosquitoes.

Do you have mosquitoes where you live? We have tons of the little buggers in Clarkfield. (Whoops! Sorry about that if you’re thinking of moving here.) When mosquitoes bite, we itch like crazy. We’ll all felt those ugly red welts on our skin. They’re almost always inconsequential. Bu they grab our full attention. When mosquitoes bite, we stop whatever we’re doing a scratch ourselves.

Because we know what’s coming, we often start swatting mosquitoes before they bite. Do you remember when bug lights were popular? I recall the “crack” and “zap” as bugs strayed too close to the purple light. Bugs were everywhere. But no matter how many mosquitoes we zap or swat, one thing is certain: we’ll never get them all. One dead bug is immediately replaced by ten lives ones. Sometimes the mosquitoes we swat have blood in them. Our blood. We can feel the itch. So we swat harder. But it’s no use. They keep coming back. I think hell will be full of mosquitoes.

One of my friends in Clarkfield has told me about his ancestors pioneering into this territory in the late 1800s. The wagon train arrived in Yellow Medicine County on their way west to the Dakotas. According to the story, mosquitoes were so thick here that the travelers couldn’t continue. So they stayed. And built homes. And planted crops. And dug fence posts. And raised cattle. Somewhere along the way, they figured out how to drain the local swamps to create more farmland and reduce the mosquito population.

How did the early pioneers do all that work with the swarms of mosquitoes? Maybe their work was most productive in January. Never mind that snow covered the ground and temperatures dipped to 30 degrees below zero! Productive people don’t waste much time swatting mosquitoes. If they did, the necessary work would never get done.

That morning in the men’s discipleship group, I realized we had been scratching our itches and weren’t really getting anything done. The tasks we had laid out for ourselves were forgotten while we chased pesky mosquitoes. For example, the board had appointed the Saturday morning group to audit the church’s financial records. We agreed to do it. Every Saturday for two months I brought in a stack of paperwork and set it on the table. Every Saturday for two months the papers sat neglected while we swatted mosquitoes.

Four months ago we decided to watch a video addressed to evangelizing young adults who have left the faith of their youth and no longer believe in God. A few minutes into the presentation, we ran out of time for that day and never got back to it. Six months ago we agreed to preview a discipleship curriculum on emotionally spiritual health. Not only is it unfinished, we haven’t even begun.

See the pattern? Get the picture? Instead of moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve basically gone around in circles. We have swatted mosquitoes and left the heavy tasks undone.Life change is hard work. Just talking about it won’t cut it. We have to do it, despite the mosquitoes.

I’m not saying the group has been a waste of time. Not at all! The men have done an incredible amount of work around the building. Many times the guys have stayed til noon cleaning, mowing, trimming, shoveling and repairing. On occasions we’ve moved off campus and carried out service projects in the community. Bravo! It’s been great service and great fun.

But if we’re going to knock off the status quo and impact the trajectory of the church, it’s going to take intentional, focused leadership. So we changed our format on Saturday morning. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, we agreed to begin working on the tasks we said we were going to do. As a result, the financial audit is now complete. This week we’re doing a church health study. Next week we’ll get back to the evangelism training video. Soon we will begin to preview the emotionally healthy spirituality curriculum. If you’re in the area, we’d love for you to join us. You don’t have to be part of our church or any church. We meet 7:00 a.m. Saturdays at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota.

Look out, mosquitoes! We’re draining the swamp.

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Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

Gamaliel, an Unlikely “Good Guy”

It’s time to smash the stereotype that believers are good people and unbelievers are bad people. Simply put, God’s people are not always good and those who reject God don’t always do bad.

Ananias and Sapphira were God’s people (I think they’re probably in heaven), but they were hypocrites when they stood before the Apostle Peter and lied about selling their land and giving all the money to care for the poor. God struck them both dead for that deceit. Decades later, Peter may be have been thinking of Ananias and Sapphira when he wrote, “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).

On the other hand, Cyrus, first king of the Medo-Persian empire, treated the captive Jews in Babylon favorably. He stopped the cruel policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians and encouraged the Jews to go home and build their temple. He even returned many of the valuable items which had been stolen from the temple. Isaiah wrote that the Lord called Cyrus “his anointed,” a messianic term (Isaiah 45:1).

The prophet was clear that the pagan king didn’t acknowledge the Lord, yet God summoned Cyrus by name and bestowed on him a title of honor. The unbelieving ruler accomplished God’s purpose of releasing captive Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Cyrus was an unbeliever, but he did a very good thing under the providence of the Lord.

In the New Testament, right after the story of Ananias and Sappira in Acts chapter 5, another unbeliever did good to God’s people. Rabbi Gamaliel, a famous Jewish teacher of the first century, saved Peter and the other apostles from an almost certain death at the hands of an angry and frustrated Sanhedrin.

The early church was enjoying tremendous growth, to the dismay of the Pharisees and the temple leaders, the Sanhedrin. The jealous Jewish leaders refused to recognize the resurrection of Jesus and repeatedly warned the apostles to stop preaching. They even had them arrested and thrown into jail.

An angel from God released them in the middle of the night. The apostles returned to the temple courts and resumed their preaching. The Jewish leaders were furious and wanted to kill them. It probably would have happened, too, except for an unbeliever in their midst by the name of Gamaliel. He convinced the Sanhedrin from history and logic to let them go.

Gamaliel concluded, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).

The speech illustrates what Howard Hendricks used to describe as “the law of spiritual thermodynamics.” The greater the heat, the greater the growth. It worked. The apostles were flogged and released. They returned to their ministry, rejoicing that they were considered worthy of suffering for Jesus.

Gamaliel, an unlikely good guy, had saved the lives of the apostles in the providence of God.

Two questions to consider:

  1. Do we rejoice when people oppose Jesus and we suffer for it? Or do we whine and complain about injustice instead?
  2.  Could we help others believe in Jesus because we refuse to stoop to criticism and judgment when we are mistreated in the providence of God?

Three Hours as an Outsider on Sunday Afternoon

A little over two years ago I joined a service organization, the local Lions Club. For some reason, last summer they made me the club president. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. I still don’t. (Fortunately, the club runs itself.) So when I heard about a “Guiding Lions” training taking place in Windom yesterday, I signed up for the class. I told them I’d be late because I had a long drive and couldn’t leave church early since I was the pastor.

The instant I walked into the room, I knew I was an outsider. For starters, I was the only person in the room wearing a Lions Club vest. I immediately began to scheme how I could slip it off and take it out to the car.

Sixteen people there huddled around two round tables. There were no empty seats. I experienced an awkward moment of uncertainty where to sit until they expanded a circle around one table and squeezed me in. They were very friendly and welcomed me warmly. Every one of them shook my hand and told me their name, followed by their title. High positions. Well up the organizational food chain.

Uh, oh. Now I knew I wasn’t only an outsider. I also was in the wrong place. I wanted to turn around and leave, but I figured it would be rude to walk out. Besides, I had driven a hundred miles to get there. So I decided to make the best of it and learn what I could.

It was quickly apparent that all the people there were lifers. Most appeared to be in their 60s and 70s. Perhaps a few in their 50s. They knew one another very well. They participated freely and openly. They talked about what they did in their clubs 40 years ago. They were feeling right at home. I was not feeling at home, even though they were friendly and near my age. I still didn’t know what in the world we were doing there.

The purpose of the meeting, it turned out, was to learn how to plant a new Lions Club or help a struggling club and train new officers, people like me. They emphasized instructing newbies on their duties. They didn’t say much about what those responsibilities are. It wasn’t necessary because they already know them. Unfortunately, I don’t. Not knowing what they knew made me feel like an outsider.

They talked about a Lions Club constitution and Roberts Rules of Order. They talked about resolving conflict. They talked about service projects. They talked about recruiting new members. They talked about how to run a good meeting.

Gradually, it dawned on me: This is just like the institutional church!

I heard statements like:

“Millennials are different…. They’re a different animal.”

“You have to get them out of the club environment because if they walk into a meeting and see all the gray heads… [they’ll run]”

If you shut down their ideas, you’ll lose them.”

“We need young blood.”

“We have to get older Lions to let go.”

“Young people want meaningful service projects, not ceremonies and protocol and awards.”

It seems the Lions are trying to reinvent themselves from being more of a fraternity organization to more of a service organization in order to reach young people. That would be closer to their founding ideals. Apparently historical drift isn’t limited to the church.

As an outsider, it took courage and determination to hang around with a group of insiders for three hours on Sunday afternoon. That’s from a pastor who’s accustomed to meeting new people in strange environments.

How much harder is it for outsiders to hang around with a group of insiders for three hours on Sunday morning?

Outsiders don’t know where to park. (I parked on the wrong side of the building and had go back to my car and drive to the other side to get to the right door.) Outsiders don’t know what to wear. They don’t know what positional titles mean. They don’t know their way around the Bible. Most importantly, outsiders don’t even know why they’re there. They may quickly conclude they don’t belong in the church.

If the church is just a fraternal organization–a potluck and fellowship congregation, we don’t have a chance with outsiders who think they’re in the wrong place. Just being friendly won’t cut it. We can welcome outsiders, but they’re still outsiders and we’re still insiders. We know what the conversation is about and they don’t. Awkward! Somehow we have to help outsiders become insiders. The church exists for those who are on the outside, not for ourselves.

Nobody models this better than Jesus did. Jesus was the consummate insider with God. But he left the comfortable fellowship of heaven, emptied himself of his inside status, and entered our world as the consummate outsider in a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus ministered as an outsider to all people. When Pilate asked him if he was a king (an insider), Jesus answered, in effect, that he was a political outsider. He did not grasp for power. He even allowed himself to be nailed to a cross. Jesus became an outsider so we could become insiders with God. Then he called his followers to work as outsiders, too, so everyone else could become insiders.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Philippians 2:5-8

The church is called to labor as outsiders, not as insiders. That’s a hard challenge for lifers, who gravitate toward becoming total insiders.

Ironically, last Sunday I could have filled out a course completion form and been certified as a trained Guiding Lion, ready to mentor new officers. But I really wasn’t ready to help others because I’ve still never even seen a job description for my position. For now, it’s enjoyable just being with the other members, especially when we’re doing service projects. They know how to run the club. That’s enough for now. It works for me to be an outsider there, even as president. Eventually, I’ll figure it out. Probably I learn what the president should do about the time I leave office. But I’m not sure I ever want to be an insider.

 

 

 

 

 

Foundations

This month at New Life Church we are beginning a new study in the book of Acts. Basically, Acts is about two people (Peter & Paul) and one event (the Church). Acts 2 is a famous chapter in the Bible because it tells the amazing story of the birth of the church. Acts 1 lays the foundation for the church before the church is begun.

I’m not a construction worker, but I’ve heard foundations are critical to a building. A foundation goes down so a tower can go up. When bold builders erect skyscrapers in Manhattan, they dig deep into the earth until they reach solid bedrock and anchor the building to the foundation of rock. The foundation must support the entire weight of the building. A structure is no better than its foundation. The leaning tower of Pisa is a classic illustration. A few years ago, a strong wind blew over a poorly built 13-story apartment building in China. It had a lousy foundation.

The church is not a physical building, but it’s like a building. The foundation is all important. If the foundation is weak, shallow or fake, the church will go nowhere. The Apostle Paul wrote that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

How is Jesus the cornerstone of the foundation of the church? Our text in the book of Acts offers four clues: 1) The resurrection. It’s plain and simple. Take away the resurrection of Jesus and the church collapses.  2) Holy Spirit power. Take away the Holy Spirit and the church withers on the spot. 3) The Great Commission. We have a divine assignment. In the end, the church doesn’t exist for us. We are really here for unbelievers. That’s why God left us on the earth. 4) The second coming of Jesus. This last one is the surprise kicker. God placed an endgame into the church’s foundation. There will come a day when our work is done. Why? Because Jesus is coming again. That is our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).

A New Apology

Sometimes a fresh insight hits me in the the middle of delivering a sermon. I think this happens to a lot of preachers, despite all the prayer and preparation we do. Sometimes I even ask God to give me everything I need during the week so it doesn’t happen on a Sunday morning. Spurious ideas are often a distraction and sometimes I get lost. It doesn’t help listeners when the speaker gets lost.

Three weeks ago it happened again. I realized I had missed something huge, right in the middle of my message. The congregation wasn’t aware of it because I never mentioned it. Nor can anyone go back and observe what happened that day because the audio recording software failed to render the message (again). But you can take my word for it. I fumbled an opportune moment. I’ve tried to forget it, and haven’t.

So I’m going to use this blog as a tool to create the point I failed to make that Sunday morning, namely, a new apology, a fresh defense of our faith.

I began my sermon by noting how most Christians struggle with evangelism, often because we don’t know what to say. Perhaps the wildest opportunity would be for someone to fall to their knees and ask us what they must do to be in right relationship with God. This unlikely scenario actually happened to the three major characters of the New Testament–Jesus, Peter and Paul. What’s amazing to me is how each of these religious leaders gave vastly different, even contradictory, answers to that core question.

I listed the three answers anonymously to the congregation one at a time and asked them to vote if that was how they would answer the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The first option was “Keep the commandments,” (Matt. 19:17). I begged for votes from the congregation, but didn’t get any. The second choice was “Repent and be baptized,” (Acts 2:38). Nearly half the congregation raised their hands for that answer. I hadn’t expected that many. Perhaps I’ve not been clear in my preaching. The third answer was “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31). Just over half the people voted for that. A couple individuals may have voted twice to help make it the winner.

I pointed out nobody had voted for answer which came from Jesus’ lips, even though I had begged for votes. Then I asked which of the three contrasting answers was the right one. I planned for everyone to pull for his own vote and wrestle with the contradictions in the three answers. But instead, as one voice, the congregation responded firmly, “All three are right.”

I should have seen that coming. Immediately I realized why they had said that and parroted back to the congregation an old apologetic: “Jesus said it; therefore it’s true.” Heads nodded. In other words, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it for me.”

Gotcha! Too late. Sucker punch. Ouch.

It would have been better if instead I had said something like, “Isn’t it interesting that Jesus gave an answer which appears opposite to what we would say. Nobody in the room voted for Jesus’ answer. Let’s see if we can figure out why he gave this unique answer to that important question and what it means to us today. More than that, does Jesus’ answer show he is worthy of our trust?”

It was a missed opportunity. I affirmed the old apology, which rested on the authority of Scripture. Once upon a time, western society recognized the inspiration of Holy Writ even if many didn’t follow its morality. No longer. The authority of the Bible is not widely accepted outside the church. Therefore we must move to a deeper level to defend our faith. We need a new apology, anew defense. Here’s an example:

Old apology: “Jesus said it; therefore it’s true.” (And I dare not question it.)

New apology: “It’s true; therefore Jesus said it.” (And perhaps Jesus is worthy of my trust.)

It may seem like a trivial distinction. This is probably a hard point for some readers to follow. But I suspect there may be something significant here, even if I’m struggling to express it in a way that’s easy to understand. If a reader has thoughts about this hard challenge of apologetics for the church today, I’d appreciate hearing them.

Growing Grass, Killing Weeds

Last fall a roofer came to our house and tore up the yard with the scaffolding. Then the power company came in and tore up the yard even more with their monstrous equipment to relocate a pole and move our service box. The yard was a mess all winter after the trenching and digging. Now it’s time to clean up. That means planting grass. Quite of bit of it, to be precise.

Our housing was in slow transition for three years until we bought a house last August. At our old house I worked hard to take care of the lawn. I mowed it very neatly, bagged the clippings, and deposited them in Carol’s garden. I dethatched every year or two, pulled buckets and buckets of dandelions, sprayed for anthills and applied a series of seasonal fertilizer/weedkilling treatments to the lawn.

But rarely did I plant new grass. Now I have to do it. I’m learning that planting new grass seed requires conditions quite different than simply caring for an old lawn. When I bought grass seed last week, there was a stern warning on the bag: DO NOT APPLY WEED KILLER FOR SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER PLANTING. Killing weeds is my specialty. But apparently I can’t do that if I want to grow new grass. It seems I must choose between planting new seed and killing weeds, especially if I want to do both at the same time.

The same thing is true in the church. There are times and situations when we have to choose between killing spiritual weeds and growing new spiritual grass. In our older established church, we are expert weed killers. We can spot doctrinal error or moral deviance with ease – and we immediately move to condemn it. Those who are already established in Christ seem to thrive in that weed-killing environment. But it doesn’t provide a healthy soil for growing new believers. So we rarely see them. New Life Church is not doing a good job of producing new believers.

If we want to produce new grass in the church, maybe we’re going to have to lay off the weedkiller. There might be a time later for killing weeds. But if we want to produce new, tender plants, maybe we must create a completely different kind of environment.

Jesus’ story about the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) illustrates the spiritual environment needed for growing new seeds. It’s right there in the text. We can’t grow a new crop by killing weeds! But that’s what do. While we’re busy trying to identify weeds and rip them out of the ground, Jesus’ concern is to protect all the good seed. We routinely ignore Jesus’ warning and keep trying to separate wheat from weeds. Tangled roots in the ecclesiastic soil make this a confusing and futile task. Good wheat invariably gets uprooted in the process and the harvest is lost. Good people get hurt. Lost people become cynical – for good reason. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I’m the best weedkiller in the church. But that’s not what I really want to be.

What do we need in the church instead? How about spiritual sonshine, water, and fertilizer in proper proportions?