Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Is your church essentially a faith-based non-profit business?

I ask this because I think many Christians, including pastors, would say, "yes." But I can't really find anything in scripture that would put a church in that category. Yes, the IRS might do so, but if you rely on the IRS for your church identity you might want to look elsewhere. The church isn't a business but a body, the pastor is not an executive but a shepherd, you don't exist as a church to produce a product but you live to be a people. Our confusion on this is likely part of why most pastors and church members don't spend more than 5 years in a church.* Why not move on if it is just a non-profit business? There will always be another church/business that provides a better product or does things more efficiently. But that isn't the point, is it?


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Maybe Your Church Shouldn't Be Purpose Driven

Don't get me wrong, I believe the bible is jam-packed with purposes for the church. And I believe no church should be lazy in pursuing biblical purposes. But I don't find scriptural warrant for a church being purpose-driven as a core part of its nature or identity. Just examine some of the biblical metaphors for the church - body, bride, family, temple*. These items are not things that are preeminently purpose-driven but nature-driven. Their identity is in what they are more than what they do. And they all define a relational reality more than a functional goal or purpose. Maybe the chief purpose of your church is simply to be what it already is vs to try to accomplish something in particular. So, given this, do you think if we regard our church as existing to be purpose-driven, in the typical way, we might be missing something? 

* see Rom 12:4-5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:12, Eph 5:32, Rev 21:9, Mt 12:49-50, Eph 2:19, 1 Tim 5:1, 1 Cor 3:16-17, Eph 2:19-22, 1 Pet 2:5

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Do You Know Your Spiritual Enemies?

Knowing your enemy is so important no matter what realm - even medicine. Up until Louis Pasteur proved the effects of micro-organisms, the prominent theory for disease was it resulted from an imbalance of the four basic "humors" or fluids present in every human. This theory was established by the famous ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, who taught that the cure to the sickness was to remove or add the humor in question to balance the body. This belief led to all sorts of perplexing treatments like using leeches to suck your blood, creating boils on your skin to draw out fluids, dehydrating and other gross stuff.

The four humors were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. These "humors" may have their come from the appearance of blood that has sat in open air, which exhibits a dark clot at the bottom ("black bile"), a layer of erythrocytes ("blood"), a layer of white blood cells ("phlegm") and a layer of clear yellow serum ("yellow bile"). It also was the basis for theories of personality. Those with too much blood were sanguine – or optimistic. Those with too much phlegm were phlegmatic – that is calm. Those with too much yellow bile were choleric – emotional, and those with too much black bile were melancholic - sad.

It may sound intriguing and relatively innocent, as long as you didn’t get sick. It is very likely that George Washington died as a result of this type of medicine. He woke up in the middle of the night with a bad sore throat that was so inflamed it was hard to breath. They determined that he had too much blood so they bled out 40% of his blood. They also did a bunch of other things to reduce his bodily fluids and in the end, he most likely died not from the sore throat but from its treatment.

When it comes to disease, it is really important to know our enemy isn’t imbalanced humors but microorganisms. You have to know your enemy.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic passage on spiritual warfare. Perhaps too often it is taken out of context. This is a closing paragraph to a letter that is jam-packed with amazing truths about the good news of Christ and the sort of life that flows from it. The first three chapters are pretty much all about the amazing blessings that come to us with the gospel. Blessing upon blessing is listed in this rich section of scripture. The last three chapters are more or less about the lifestyle, the church and relationships and type of people that are produced as a result of all the previous gospel blessings. Then, Ephesians 6:10-20 tells us, in conclusion, that living in these gospel blessings with gospel-driven faith and obedience is how we best our spiritual enemies.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6:10-20 (ESV)

The Devil is A Chief Enemy

But often, as we go about our Christian lives, we focus more on the enemies of our sinful nature and the world instead of the devil. But Ephesians 6 and the rest of the bible clearly and unashamedly assert that although these two enemies are significant, we must also know that the devil and his minions are a chief enemy. Actually, if we only read Ephesians 6:10-20 we might think that our enemies are not in fact humans at all but the devil and his array of allies. This passage is a wake up call to recognize that the devil is a chief enemy of believers, a point too often underestimated. Do you know your enemy?

The Devil Isn't Alone

Also, Ephesians 6:12 and other scriptures teach us that the devil is not alone, he has a vast array of fellow evil spirits, perhaps as many as billions, who exert influence over the world according to different ranks and functions. They are called rulers and authorities accordingly. We face a formidable, pervasive hell-bent foe. This foe exerts significant influence in the world - to the piont of earning the titles, "rulers" and "authorities". The devil has lots of help. The devil isn't alone.

The Devil Has Allies

Not only does the devil have his fellow evil spirits but he also has two powerful allies to his cause. If we expand our gauge beyond Ephesians 6:10-20 to Ephesians 2:1-3, we see that the devil (here called the prince or ruler of the power of the air) and his minions have two powerful allies in the world and our sinful nature (here called "the flesh").
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. — Ephesians 2:1-3 (ESV)
There are various scriptures that also teach us this: Ephesians 2:1-3James 4:1-7Acts 5:1-5Ephesians 4:26-271 John 2:15-16. The devil has allies.This evil triad can wreak havoc left to themselves. Often we fail to recognize that usually all three are at work together in alliance. You need to recognize this evil triad that is at work to undermine your faith and life in Christ. Do you know your enemy?

The Devil is A Defeated Foe

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. — Colossians 2:13-15 (ESV) 
And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." — Luke 10:18-20 (ESV)
Best of all, the devil is a defeated foe.  Christ's work on the gross deals with the enemy of our sin by paying its penalty, breaking its power and very soon, when we see Christ face to face, removing its presence. That is very good news. Secondly, his work on the cross is God's victory over the devil and his minions. No longer do they have a right to terrorize God's people, no longer do they have a right to rule over humanity. Christ has defeated their reign by undermining the grip of sin and he will eventually eradicate their influence on the world entirely. In the meantime, his children walk in the authority he possesses to tread on scorpions and be a part of God's mission to win back people from all the nations and neighborhoods of the earth. The devil is defeated by Christ and Christ's victory is our victory. So, although it is good to know your enemy, it is even better to know he is defeated.

You can listen to more about by listening to the following messages from our church.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Got Strength?

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 
Ephesians 6:10 (ESV)

Some years ago our family was invited to a work party at a friend’s farm nearby. The kids were all small, ranging from 3 to 10 years or so. We enjoyed being on the farm and took some time to pet the animals, something we rarely got to do. Just so you know, despite what the movies may depict, animals are not necessarily very huggable. Goats are no exception. We were in a pen with a number of small goats. They seemed cute and pretty harmless. But we found out otherwise.

Our curiosity turned to horror as one of these cute pint-sized goats suddenly reared up on its hind legs in front of our pint-sized son only to launch itself head first right into our sons chest like a linebacker ready to knock the snot out of an unsuspecting tailback. That cute goat sent our cute huggable son sailing backwards through the air right onto his can. He was shocked but relatively unharmed. We quickly ran to his aid. He seemed to recover well and enjoy the rest of that time, at least until the goat got out again. When that happened, you should have seen how fast he ran and jumped behind my wife and me, holding onto our legs for his life. It was comic but also instructive.

You and I are like my son in the story. The challenges of this life, including the devil and his legions along with our enemies of the world and our sinful nature are like that goat. We aren’t meant to face them on our own. We can’t stand on our own, but must run to the shelter and strength of our heavenly Father. That is what Ephesians 6:10 is about.

The original hearers needed the force of this verse. You see, the Ephesians lived in a challenging environment. Ephesus was a large and prosperous city of about 250,000 people. It housed one of the 7 wonders of the world, the great temple of the goddess Artemis or Diana. The city was a spiritual center for the worship of this false deity and much of its economy came from the religious tourism to the great temple. Ephesus was a city steeped spiritual darkness and the occult. Its people lived in fear of dark forces, constantly trying to find ways to ward off evil. They thought that if they just had the right incantations and could name the right deities in their prayers, they could ensure their safety from evil forces and blessings in their endeavors. This city in its spiritual darkness was a very unfriendly place for new Christians.

Things haven’t changed all that much since this letter was written. We are not living in a world that is free from such evil. I don’t think we have to look very far to see this. The 20th century was full of genocide and evil beyond imagination. The 21st doesn’t necessarily hold much promise to be better. The crime stats and the plethora of social and psychological ills we face seem to say that evil is alive and well. We as individuals and as churches often deal with real spiritual evil that seeks to ruin our faith, overwhelm us with discouragement and divide us with bitterness and selfishness.

There is still spiritual darkness all around us. The devil is still active. It would be wrong to think that somehow we are now past the devil’s attacks, somehow past the world’s corruption, somehow past the reality of our indwelling sin. The evil one still controls much of the world. 
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.  
1 John 5:19 (ESV)
The devil still holds considerable power in this world, especially over those who walk in rebellion against God. He is allowed to work among them and from his kingdom of darkness to continue to oppose God’s people. We see his attacks in many ways. I encourage you to take time to read this excellent post on his schemes here.

And so, in light of our enemies, Paul calls us to be strong in the Lord and the strength of this might. A better way to phrase that might be “Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” The idea here is that the strength is something you receive from God, not yourself. It isn’t so much about being strong as finding yourself strengthened. Technically, the verb is a passive imperative. That means we are commanded to receive this strength.

Still struggling to get that? It is kind of like if you were a new swimmer and were trying to float in water and kept sinking no matter what you did. But say a lifeguard came along and told you to take a big breath and hold it. Suppose as you breathed in and lied back the lifeguard said, “Now float!” With that big breath, you would be able to float. Where did that ability come from? From trying to float harder? From putting mind over matter? From just believing hard enough? No, it came from the air now in your lungs. You would be able to obey the lifeguard's command not because of your own power but because of the power of the air you inhaled. Similarly, here it tells us to be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might. We are simply breathing in God’s strength to float where we would sink otherwise.

 And this letter tells us over and over again how we have free access to this air, to the strength of God’s might! In chapter 1, Paul prayed that the Ephesians might know..
 ..what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.                                              
Ephesians 1:15–23 (ESV)
And he tells them the root of this great power is what Christ has done for them to rescue them from their enemies as described in chapter 2:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 
Ephesians 2:1–9 (ESV)
We have so much in God through Christ! In Him we are chosen, forgiven, rescued, kept, loved, sealed, empowered, holy, useful, transformed and more! And in him we have all the strength and power and resources we could ever need for the battle. We have an endless supply of weapons and energy to continue. He is with us and for us and gives us all of his power. So, you can’t do it on your own but you can do it in Him. So breath in the great power of God and float!
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 
Ephesians 6:10 (ESV)
You can listen to the entire message on this verse here.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

99 Reasons for Faith - #90: Mercy Through Medicine

In early April I was in for my yearly dermatology checkup when my doctor noticed something unusual. Just by way of background, I have fair skin and have enjoyed being out in the sun every since I was a kid. These two don’t go together too well. My skin was made for the mostly cloudy climate of Ireland, not the mostly sunny climate of New England. I also grew up in the years before SPF 50 sunscreen and the like. On top of that I was a lifeguard throughout college and have owned a pool for the past 22 years. All that to say, it was no surprise when I started to show sun damage in my mid thirties. But I never expected what my dermatologist found this month.

She saw a dark spot on my left arm, just above my elbow. I had seen if before and just figured it was an extra dark sun spot, not too different than the many sun spots (or age spots) already dotting my 50-year old skin. She took a biopsy and let me know, a few days later, as soon as the results came in, that I had stage 1a melanoma and needed surgery ASAP. Thankfully, I was in surgery within 10 days and am healing now from the ~3x4 inch section removed from my arm.

How does this relate to reasons for faith? Well, you may think it was all just the result of good science and good medical practice. Certainly, the combination of good medical practice, well-trained, gifted and conscientious doctors and a medical system and health insurance that allow for such care is a huge part of all of this. But I can’t help thinking that behind all this is the simple mercy of God. Had I not had my annual check-up when I did, had the surgery turn-around time not been so quick, had such high quality care not been available, my melanoma might have progressed undetected. The fact that it was found at stage 1a, only 0.18mm in depth, versus stage 4, where it has spread to other parts of the body, means my 10 year survival rate is near 100% vs. 10%. (BTW - if you are light skinned and over 40, make sure you get a yearly checkup - it could save your life!)

So, I am grateful for good science and good medicine. But I see behind all this, particularly in the timing of things, another reason for faith – God’s mercy through medicine.

Reason #90: Mercy Through Medicine

Melanoma Cases Per 100,000 People Per Year

Friday, April 29, 2016

Why Do You Work?

This past Sunday I spoke on Ephesians 6:5-9 and the topic of work. Work is such an important part of our lives and we spend 40 or more hours a week working. For some of us, work is so closely tied to our identity that we really work 24/7. I think of homeschooling moms, live-in care providers, pastors and others. Regardless of how many hours we might work, we all struggle with our motivations and our work ethics. According to a 2013 survey, a whopping 73% of those surveyed work strictly for the paycheck. The Towers Watson Retirement Attitudes Survey has identified that for the youngest workers, the 10 most important factors (out of 23) were, in descending order: job security, base pay, healthcare benefits, vacation time, reputation of an organization as a great place to work, length of commute, career development opportunities, retirement benefits, challenging work, and promotion opportunities. How about you? What motivates you? What is your top 10 reasons to work? How do you work – do you overwork? Do you underwork? And what does God have to say about all this?

Although originally applied to “bondslaves” and “masters,” it is very helpful to apply it to any work situation. (BTW: for a very helpful discussion on Slavery and the Bible go here.) This passage in Ephesians teaches us three key things about work. These truths are radical and profound in their affect on our work.

1. We Work for Christ

If you look through this passage you will see over and over again the radical idea that we work for Christ: verse 5 “as you would Christ”, verse 6 “as bondservants of Christ”, verse 7 “as to the Lord and not to man”, verse 8 “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, verse 9 for masters.. “knowing that he who is both their master and yours is in heaven”. It is unmistakable that work for the Christian is not primarily to please a boss, not primarily for self-promotion, not primarily even to earn a paycheck and definitely not primarily for self-fulfillment. No, work for the Christian is primarily for the Lord. We work for Christ!

Why would anyone be interested in working for Christ, primarily? Well, I think it begins with recognizing how he has first worked for us. We need to recognize what he did for us when we had messed everything up.  While we rebelled against God, spurned him and his ways and made a mess of things, without any pleading from us, Christ came and worked to clean up our mess. He gave his life as a ransom for us – to free us to live forgiven and beloved and with him forever. 1 Peter 2:24 puts it this way: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” With this wonderful news of grace in our hearts from a God who so loves us, we will find power to gladly work for Christ!

2. We Work To Do the Will of God

Notice that it says that we are to work “doing the will of God from the heart.” Isn’t that interesting? What sorts of things would a bondservant have been doing back then? Things like cooking dinner, sweeping the floor, teaching mathematics and business, overseeing the farm, selling things in a shop, overseeing investments. What would masters have done? supervising projects, training new workers, reporting to their supervisor, making sure the projects were done well and efficiently. These were the sorts of things bondservants and masters did then, ... not too different from what we might do. All work is to be worship, no matter what the occupation. It is all deeply valuable to God when we do it in him, with him and ultimately for him. It is all the will of God. Whether we are changing a diaper, emptying the trash or discovering supernovas, all work for him is worship, all work for him is doing his will!

3. We Work for An Eternal Reward

Finally, and amazingly, we do all this to receive an eternal heavenly reward. That is so amazing. All and anything we do for the Lord in our occupation will be credited towards our heavenly reward. It says in verse 8, “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.”

I can’t illustrate this better than this account attributed to the 20th century pastor, H.A. Ironside:

When I was a boy, I felt it was both a duty and a privilege to help my widowed mother make ends meet by finding employment in vacation time, on Saturdays and other times when I did not have to be in school. For quite a while I worked for a Scottish shoemaker, or "cobbler," as he preferred to be called, an Orkney man, named Dan Mackay. He was a forthright Christian and his little shop was a real testimony for Christ in the neighborhood. The walls were literally covered with Bible texts and pictures, generally taken from old-fashioned Scripture Sheet Almanacs, so that look where one would, he found the Word of God staring him in the face. There were John 3:16 and John 5:24, Romans 10:9, and many more.
On the little counter in front of the bench on which the owner of the shop sat, was a Bible, generally open, and a pile of gospel tracts. No package went out of that shop without a printed message wrapped inside. And whenever opportunity offered, the customers were spoken to kindly and tactfully about the importance of being born again and the blessedness of knowing that the soul is saved through faith in Christ. Many came back to ask for more literature or to inquire more particularly as to how they might find peace with God, with the blessed results that men and women were saved, frequently right in the shoe shop. 
It was my chief responsibility to pound leather for shoe soles. A piece of cowhide would be cut to suite, then soaked in water. I had a flat piece of iron over my knees and, with a flat-headed hammer, I pounded these soles until they were hard and dry. It seemed an endless operation to me, and I wearied of it many times. 
What made my task worse was the fact that, a block away, there was another shop that I passed going and coming to or from my home, and in it sat a jolly, godless cobbler who gathered the boys of the neighborhood about him and regaled them with lewd tales that made him dreaded by respectable parents as a menace to the community. Yet, somehow, he seemed to thrive and that perhaps to a greater extent than my employer, Mackay. As I looked in his window, I often noticed that he never pounded the soles at all, but took them from the water, nailed them on, damp as they were, and with the water splashing from them as he drove each nail in. 
One day I ventured inside, something I had been warned never to do. Timidly, I said, "I notice you put the soles on while still wet. Are they just as good as if they were pounded?" He gave me a wicked leer as he answered, "They come back all the quicker this way, my boy! 
"Feeling I had learned something, I related the instance to my boss and suggested that I was perhaps wasting time in drying out the leather so carefully. Mr. Mackay stopped his work and opened his Bible to the passage that reads, "Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." 
"Harry," he said, "I do not cobble shoes just for the four bits and six bits (50c or 75c) that I get from my customers. I am doing this for the glory of God. I expect to see every shoe I have ever repaired in a big pile at the judgment seat of Christ, and I do not want the Lord to say to me in that day, 'Dan, this was a poor job. You did not do your best here.' I want Him to be able to say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'" 
Then he went on to explain that just as some men are called to preach, so he was called to fix shoes, and that only as he did this well would his testimony count for God. It was a lesson I have never been able to forget. Often when I have been tempted to carelessness, and to slipshod effort, I have thought of dear, devoted Dan Mackay, and it has stirred me up to seek to do all as for Him who died to redeem me. 
H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth, Moody Press, 1945, pp. 37-39.
So, I hope these three key truths help you work in a new way, no matter what you might be doing. We work for Christ, we work to do the will of God, we work for a heavenly reward.

If you would like to hear the whole message on this passage check out the audio here.

Have a great day at work!

(P.S.: Sorry to once again be absent from blogging. I have relied on Twitter for regular posts but am realizing it is hard to say much with only 140 characters. I will continue to tweet and post on Facebook but hope to start at least weekly blog posts to better serve folks. I hope you find this helpful!)