Daily Discipleship, Day 4: Acts 24-28

Who doesn’t love book ends?

Bookends are great, and make awesome decorative accents.

Whether they are bookends designed to look like books, or like the “B” bookends my wife and I had for years because that’s our last initial, bookends always come in pairs.

Literary bookends are the same way. They frame what lies between as a clue to the reader what takeaways are important. Continue reading

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Heaven IS For Real! (but not because a Toddler says so!)

With the release of a movie recently, many, many people are talking about Heaven. That’s a good thing, right?

Maybe.

Heaven Is For Real, a movie produced by mega-church pastor TD Jakes, and a book about a 4-year-old view who allegedly “visited Heaven” when he died on an operating table, has taken the nation by storm. Over and over, I have the same conversation. Someone will know that I’m a pastor and so must LOVE this enterprise, says, “I saw Heaven Is For Real last night. SUCH a good movie! I totally believe it!”

Then my face, which I imagine looks a bit like a boy being pinned down by his older sister and her friends for a “makeover,” launches us into a different discussion. Continue reading

How Do I Become “Saved?”

[This week’s posts will be a continuation of a recent sermon at Adventure Christian Church, based on questions members submitted to our leaders. Some answers were not addressed from the stage and will be covered here as a supplement. Check out the live answers here.]

It happens all over our country, in many different contexts. Pastors who have a genuine heart for reaching the lost tell their audience or congregation to be saved by simply “accepting Christ into their hearts.” Continue reading

The Way (part 2) – The ONE Way? Really?

[This is the second in a series about Jesus’ claims in John 14:6. Click Here to read the series from the beginning]

Jesus said he was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In fact, he then said, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.”

Those claims sound pretty exclusive to me.

And yet, it is so common for Christians to shy away from affirming this teaching of Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that we want to honor Jesus so long as he’s helping others, healing the sick, preaching peace and love, and tearing down _____ [insert your modern, contextualized, political pet peeve here], yet when he teaches something like his own exclusivity we try to explain it away, or—more often—ignore it completely and hope no one calls our bluff.

So today we ask, could Jesus actually mean what he said?

The Way to What?

Jesus said, “I am the Way.” But the way to what? This simple statement is implying two things: there is an end goal in life, and there is ONE way to it. Elsewhere he compares “the way to salvation” as a narrow path to which few will adhere, while the “way to destruction” as a wide and easy path to find. I’m guessing he’s not calling himself the latter.

In actuality, he calls himself the way to the Father. As in, being in the Father’s presence is the goal in life and Jesus is the only way to that goal.

What if there’s no Father?

Every religion has some image of “salvation.” They don’t all say anything about damnation, but they do all say something about salvation. A “higher existence,” if you will. It may be a separation from worldly desires, or a perspective on the world hewn from life experience that allows you to always make the right decision. Reincarnation into higher beings, trying to achieve a goal.

Nirvana.

Paradise.

Heaven.

Let’s not act as if there is no “salvation” in these worldviews. But just because they all paint the picture that we need some sort of deliverance does not make them all “the same.” It doesn’t mean they are all saying “basically the same thing.” What it reveals is that the notion there is something wrong or imperfect with us is a universal notion. It is a truth that—if we would just be honest with ourselves—we cannot escape. It’s part of our very humanity.

This truth also reveals that there is a desire for the perfect, for the correction of our brokenness, for the healing of wounds and for the freedom that comes when insecurity, self-preservation, and fear finally cease.

So the question is where this idea comes from? Where do we get morality, if not from a moral law-giver? Where do we get the idea of perfection if the very essence of the world is imperfect? If that is all that is observable, where have we learned to universally long for its inverse?

See, many world religions will deny God as Christianity understands him. They want to acknowledge God (some higher power, a guiding force, etc), but they don’t want this god to be personal. They don’t want their god to have created everything from nothing.

But a world without a creator God has no purpose, meaning, or basis for morality. A world without a personal, creator God is utterly futile.

The Way to the Father Creator.

The question of the Father implies that there is A CREATOR. Here’s why Jesus is the only way to be in relationship with said creator. One thing that is always true of created things is that they are subject to the will of the creator. When you create something, you have the right to regulate its purpose and use. It’s the reality that our copyright laws aim to recognize and thus, protect. It’s why we have patents. The creator has the right to dictate purpose to the creation.

As such, we owe God obedience to the will for our lives that he has set out. We were made for the purpose He alone dictates, and we are obligated to recognize and respond to that responsibility. When we fail to do this, just like any creator whose invention fails to do what it was supposed to, he has every right to scrap his creation and start all over.

But he doesn’t. Rather than destroy us because of our sin (falling short, or breaking his intention for us), God has given us a means by which we can be reconciled to him. The cost of sin is death, to be sure, but God gave his son to bear the death that we all deserve.

Think you’re pretty good? You don’t sin that much? Think your good deeds ought to outweigh the bad things you do (only once in a while, as we all seem to convince ourselves)? The issue is that even failing once separates us from him. And even if that weren’t true, I know I fall short several times, daily. So I don’t know whose scale we’re measuring on, or which good deeds “count” as more significant to counteract all my selfish deeds and desires, but I’m pretty sure a very strong case can be made for me breaking the relationship and the intention my creator had for me.

AND WHEN THAT HAPPENS, I need help. When that happens, I can’t “make it up,” because he already has exclusive rights to my life. Everything is already his. Even my “extra.” I already owe him everything for the very breath in my lungs. Any good I do to “make up for” the bad already belongs to him. It’s not extra credit. It’s just credit. and our account falls short every time when we rely on our own goodness.

This is why every ideological system in the history of the world has some concept of salvation.  We’ve come full circle and completed the cycle. We are broken > We need salvation (or whatever you’d like to call it) > We try to earn it by being good, >but we’re not that good > thus we are “broken” > and we need salvation (or whatever you want to call it).

Jesus breaks the cycle. Jesus says, “It’s not about how good you are.” Jesus says, “Your attempts were never going to be able to pay the penalty.” Jesus says, “I bring grace, where every other system only offers works.”

Jesus brings grace. It’s what is distinctive about Christianity, and it’s why Christianity is the only Way.

It’s why Christians have hope. Because the very law-giver has said, “I will forgive you of your lawlessness.”

No one else offers that.

Don’t miss your chance to take him up on the offer.

The Nazi Gospel

Arbeit Macht Frei.

“Work makes free.” Or perhaps a better English rendering might be, “Work brings freedom.”

This quote was plastered across the front gate of several concentration camps during the reign of the Third Reich and Nazism in World War II Germany. It was forged by prisoners at Auschwitz (ironically not bringing their freedom), and it was on the gate at Dachau, where I recently had opportunity to visit.

ArbeitMachtFrei

“Work makes [you] free.”

I’m no historian, and I’m certainly no expert on World War II, or Nazism. So allow me to vamp a bit while I engage Hitler’s claim, “Arbeit Macht Frei.

Hitler has become the embodiment of evil in our world. He is the poster child, the author and underwriter of perhaps the most evil chapter in recent world history. His crimes against humanity were vast and horrendous. Surely there were MANY points at which one could challenge his worldview. Engage with his insistence that certain people were “subhuman,” or with his socialistic reforms. Argue against his harsh treatment of humans. But consider if perhaps, the root of his depravity was founded on a much more basic level—a level more common mankind than you might have originally thought.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

At the inception of the Concentration camps was a simple idea. There are some in our society that are less. They are broken in their very nature. They are further from God.

But they can be rehabilitated. If they work hard enough, they can be restored to wholeness within society. Did you know that in the earliest days of Dachau (one of the first—and the first of its size—camps established by Hitler), prisoners were often rehabilitated and released? They were trained how to work to maintain their humanity.

This is not a revolutionary idea. It’s not new, and it wasn’t when Hitler rose to power, either. It is the essence of our humanness. We are given revelation of a God who is bigger and greater than anything we can do or even imagine (Romans 1:20). Even without the Bible to guide us, every culture in the history of the world has had some understanding of “God.” It’s what we call “general revelation.” And even without a Bible, we recognize that there is something “wrong” with us (Romans 2:14-15). That’s why every religion has some concept of “salvation.” Every religion in the history of the world depends on Work [to] Make [you] Free.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

At the core of what Hitler believed was that how hard one worked determined his value. How much one accomplished was tied to one’s humanness. Still today, in every religion except Christianity, salvation is the result of Human hard work. Karma is the gross sum of your acts in this life playing out in the next…and the next (Nirvana may take millions of lives to achieve). In Islam, man is on the tip of a sword and at the judgment and God “flicks” you one way or the other, based on your good deeds. Even if you were “mostly good,” Allah may have a “bad day” and condemn you anyway. You just better do your best. In Old Covenant Judaism, everything hinged on rigid obedience to the Law of Moses. In modern American Christendom—and ironically, atheism for that matter—the message can have a tendency toward moralism, being a “good person,” and doing the right thing.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

But true Christianity is different. Christianity is about a God to whom we owe everything. A God we could never pay back for our short-comings because our lives are already his. The Gospel is about a God that saved us “by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast.” Trying to be “good enough” is succumbing to “Arbeit Macht Frei” gospel, which is really no gospel it all.

Religion says “works bring freedom.”

Christ says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The bleak end to the story at Dachau is that in short order, prisoners stopped being released. Men, women and children were brought in with the promise that they could work for their salvation, that Work would bring freedom. And all the work they did—the back-breaking, arduous work that was typically overtly and explicitly pointless—only enslaved them further. They were prisoners of their work. Work would never bring freedom, and it was only when the allied troops arrived and showed them grace that the prisoners received freedom.

Arbeit Macht nicht frei; Gnade Macht Frei.

Work does not make you free; Grace makes us free.

Solid!

Solid.

That’s my impression of every single missionary family I met last week. Simply put, they are solid people.

Solid in their convictions.

Solid in their life.

Solid faith.

Solid marriages.

Solid families.

Solid kids with solid faiths of their own.

Solid.

If I were starting a church, I’d want any one of them planting with me. I would want them as elders, and ministry leaders. When we worshiped, the singing was genuine, and when they would pray, it was bold and meaningful.

These people get it.

Enter the interesting paradox. Given the opportunity to describe themselves in three words, I doubt any of them would use the word “solid,” or any of its synonyms. There was a humility about them. It was one thing they all had in common. It was humility born of struggle and heartache. A bi-product of moving away from family, of feeling alone in a new culture.

As one minister put it, “When you get to a new culture, it’s very strange. The very essence of your calling, mission and job is communication, yet you can’t even ask anyone where the bathroom is.”

John [the apostle] recorded John [the Baptizer] as saying of Jesus, “I must become less, he must become more” (John 3:30). Then Paul proceeded to call himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9), the least of the believers (Eph. 3:8), and the least of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). As his view of himself decreased, Jesus was glorified.

I think that is what has happened with these missionaries. Those that have stuck with it for the long term—who have struggled through being the new guy, struggled through learning a new culture, being worth very little (in a pragmatic sense) because of an inability to communicate, struggled through questioning the decisions they’d made, struggled through a life apart from everything comfortable, not to mention taking on the challenge of raising support from the generosity of others—those people have been humbled. They have become less, and their passion for the gospel has only grown stronger and stronger.

Growth only comes out of struggle. Life grows in the valley, regardless of how grand the mountain peaks may be. As one worship song says, “There may be pain in the night, but Joy comes in the morning.”

This isn’t to say they don’t have issues. Or sins to deal with. Or disagreements with spouses, church members and kids. This doesn’t mean their kids never run into trouble, or that everything is always hunky-dory. In fact, I got to see a few very small examples of some of these while I was with them.

Because they are real about it.

Because they aren’t shaken by it.

Because they have been through the fire and come out “without the smell of fire on them” (Daniel 3:27).

Because they are solid.

I want to be solid.

A Camel, A Needle, and Religion in Europe

I think we’ve invested too much attention on water, orphanages and third-world missions.

Wait, too bold?

Ok, let me try again. I think we’ve invested too much attention on water, orphanages and third-world missions.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that those are bad things. I think they are absolutely essential. In fact, I have the highest, highest regard for those who have given their lives to live in places where living is difficult, and who take care of the “least of these” in obedience to Jesus.

So maybe I stated it too strongly before. Maybe we’ve given the right attention to medical missions, human trafficking campaigns, and evangelism in tribal cultures. But we’ve under-appreciated the needs in other developed parts of the world.

Why is it that in America, we talk about “taking the gospel to where it’s needed the most?” Isn’t it needed everywhere, and needed by all people, as the first three chapters of Romans would suggest? Furthermore, why is that statement usually code for “where people are poor?” Usually that statement means the urban ghettos in our country or the trash-heap slums of Mumbai, India. Somehow we have tied a string that connects stuff to “not needing the gospel as much” and lack-of-stuff to “needs the gospel.”

I’m not trying to villainize, here. This is a common mistake. We see the hardship people go through and we are moved to action by the struggle to live comfortably, or at all. Our hearts break for parents losing kids, kids losing parents, epidemics, starvation and oppression. I’ve never been on a mission trip to the developing world, so I’m on the outside looking in, but it seems like everyone I know that has comes back and says their own version of:

“I thought we would go and share Jesus with them, but they understand faith in such a tangible way that they shared Jesus with me.”

See, to some extent, the people who are in the deepest poverty understand the gospel at a much more tangible level, because their lives are not as comfortable and they don’t make the correlation between gospel and wealth. Simply put, they know what it means to really trust God from day to day because they have nothing else. Meanwhile, the developed nations—especially those in Europe that are officially Christian—have fewer and fewer Christians in them. They get very little missionary attention because we assume that churches on every corner and a relative level of wealth equals, “reached by the Gospel.”

The reality is that Jesus talked about this very issue, and he told his disciples, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Wealth (personal or federal) does not salvation make. My fear is that we’ve decided that it does. Maybe those that “need the gospel most” and those “who have the most needs” are not the same group.

So consider this a plea. A plea to remember our brothers and sisters that are doing mission work in Europe. A plea to pray for those that are not simply building buildings and bridges, but relationships and trust. A plea to encourage your church’s missions committee to “diversify” who you are supporting. And a plea to pray for those who have given up a life of comfort in the states to reach the lost for the gospel overseas, no matter where they may be.

#PrayForEurope

Religion: A Relic

This little 12×12 ft (or 4m x 4m!) chapel was not far from where we stayed in Germany. We passed it almost every day. In much of Europe, Christianity is a relic of the past, and church buildings the memorials that honor that heritage. As we pondered this little chapel, we wondered, does it ever open? If so, who has the keys? Our suspicion is that it is just another architectural artifact. Fittingly, the inscription above the door reads:

“the Spirit, that hovered above the water,

the son that lived with fisherman,

the father who gave us this lake,

which were worshipped at this location.”

The Hills Are Alive!

Church in Mittenwald, GermanyI recently went on a mission trip to Germany. Yes, Germany. The land of the Protestant Reformation. And yes, mission trip. As in, working with missionaries who have devoted their lives to taking the gospel to those who live there.

While we weren’t doing evangelical ministry (we were primarily serving the missionaries), we had an opportunity to speak with many of them and pick their brains about what ministry looks like in Europe. 

There is so much I could say that one post just won’t cover it, so over the next week or two I will be sharing thoughts from our trip and observations about the landscape of Christianity in Europe.

1. The Hills are Alive!

2. A Camel, A Needle, and Religion in Europe