Tuesday, June 25, 2013

FREEDOM

                I was talking with someone the other day about what it means to live in a free country. In a strictly controlled country, people’s outward behavior is controlled. People must conform to a set standard. They are not free to stray from the norm. In a free country, people have an opportunity to choose the path they will take. This freedom opens up many positive options for people. Unfortunately, it also opens up many negative options as well. People are free to make their own choices; both good and bad.  

                We tend to take our freedom in America for granted. We have almost complete control over what we do, where we go, how we act, and what we think. Because we assume this freedom rather than value it, we tend to abuse our freedom. In many ways we have become a nation of people who boldly proclaim, “No one can tell me what to do.” When restraint of any kind is removed the consequences are usually not good.

                The New Testament shares a different approach to freedom. It speaks of an ultimate freedom that respects authority, exercises self-restraint and leads to God’s blessing.

                The Bible makes it clear that our freedom is a gift from God and not a right to be claimed. Spiritually we are all slaves to sin. We can do nothing to break that bondage. Jesus stepped in on our behalf and redeemed us. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. It is Jesus who has set us free. Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:34-36 (NIV)

                Through Jesus Christ, we have been set free from the power of sin and death. Sin no longer is our master; in control of our lives. Most people today believe that they are free to do what they want to do. Sadly, they are wrong. Outside of a relationship with Christ, we are all slaves to the passions and desires of sin. Our “freedom” is only an illusion. Our sinful nature dictates our actions. When Jesus comes into our lives, He sets us free from the control of sin. This does not mean that we will never sin again. It means that now we actually have the real choice about how we will live our lives. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- Romans 6:6 (NIV)

                The Bible also makes it clear that with our freedom comes responsibility. If we take our freedom in Christ for granted, we may slip right back into our old sinful habits. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

                We must constantly choose to use our freedom to follow Christ. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. Romans 6:11-14 (NIV)
                There are limits to our freedom. This is a life-lesson that everyone needs to learn. In every situation in life there are certain limits or boundaries to our freedom. When we act within these boundaries we are completely free. When we violate these boundaries we forfeit our freedom. For example, if you go to the movies, you are free to sit wherever you would like, but you are not free to go up on stage in the middle of the movie and begin to sing. If you do, you have violated the boundaries of the movie experience and you will be summarily escorted from the theater.


                Paul makes it clear that our freedom in Christ does not give us license to do whatever we wish. Instead, we are restrained by the boundaries of service to Christ. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (NIV)

                Our freedom is an incredible gift. It is not bound to a political system or military power. It is secure in the power of the Living God. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

DRESS MATTERS: SORT OF

Exodus 28:1-2 (NIV)
"Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor.

                We have all seen the signs in the window. No shoes, no shirt, no service. Who wants to eat a meal with a bare-chested man with dirty, bare feet sitting at the next table? It kind of makes me lose my appetite.

                The way we dress matters, not in some legalistic way, but it conveys a message. People look at use differently according to the way we dress. We can argue that it should not matter, but in reality it does. For example, two young men apply for the same job working in an office setting. One comes in dressed in a suit and tie. The other comes dressed in a T-shirt and low-hanging, baggy pants. Which young man has the better chance of getting hired? You may react to that, saying it is not fair, but it has nothing to do with fairness. They way we present ourselves to others gives them permission to evaluate us. It is hard to convince a potential employer that I am an organized, hard working person when I am dressed in mismatched, crumpled clothes and my hair is uncombed.

                There is a trend in Christian circles to dress down for church. I have heard people use the argument that they have to dress up all week, so on the weekend they want to relax. Others argue that God doesn’t care how a person dresses as long as they come to worship. Any mention of dressing appropriately for worship is met with accusations of legalism and Pharisaic showiness. I grew up in a church environment that expected people to dress a certain way to come to church. It was confining and restrictive. I am not advocating a return to that era. But shouldn’t we show at least as much respect for God as we do for a potential employer?

                The real issue is not how we dress, but the attitude behind how we dress. When we come to church in sloppy clothes we convey the message that we don’t really care about worship. You can argue that a person can worship no matter how they are dressed. I would agree, but if you can dress nicely and choose not to, what does that say about you?

                Let me put it in another context. You are invited to a formal wedding. The wedding party is dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns. The church is tastefully decorated and the reception hall is elegant. Would you show up wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops? You are invited to a banquet sponsored by your company. All of the top executives will be in attendance. Would you show up in a Hawaiian shirt and ripped blue jeans?

                Most of us know how to dress appropriately according to the occasion. We dress differently when we are going to a cook-out than when we are going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Yet, we seem to think that it doesn’t matter how we dress when we come to worship.  I believe the way we dress matters to God for a couple of reasons.

                The way we dress expresses our attitude toward our host. In the Old Testament, God ordained that the priests should dress in special clothes to serve at His alter and to come into his presence. God thought that was so important that when a priest entered His presence in an inappropriate manner it cost him his life. We dress appropriately when we are invited to someone’s home as a sign of respect for that family. Should we not show the same kind of respect when we come into God’s house?

                In Matthew 22 Jesus told a parable about a wedding feast. The point of the story is that those who had been originally invited (the Jews) refused to come, so the master opened the banquet to all (the Gentiles). But at the end of the parable there is an interesting addition. "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' Matthew 22:11-13 (NIV) I don’t want to make this verse say something it is not saying. It is talking about being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. At the same time, the image is striking. When you are invited to a wedding banquet, you show respect for your host by how you dress.

                The way that we dress can become a distraction for others who have come to worship. We can argue that other people’s opinion doesn’t matter when we are coming to worship God, but we would be wrong. If we do things that we know will offend or distract others, we are drawing attention to ourselves and away from Christ.

                Paul touches on this concept in several places in his letters. In Romans 14 he talked at length about eating meat sacrificed to idols. He used that issue to give us an overriding principle. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. Romans 14:13-16 (NIV) We could paraphrase the above verse to say, if your brother is distressed by how you dress, you are no longer acting in love.

                Paul came back to this idea of how our actions affect others in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. His point is that dressing inappropriately distracts others from worship and draws undue attention to yourself.

                I am not advocating a legalistic dress code for worship. I am suggesting that we should consider the impact of how we dress before we come to worship.


1 Peter 2:16-17 (NIV)
Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

FAITH and REASON

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
1 Corinthians 1:25 (NIV)

                The other night I was watching the show “Inspector Lewis” on Masterpiece Mysteries on PBS. This episode began with a graduate student from the psychology department of a university interviewing people about their faith. The student was intentionally attacking people’s belief systems to see how firmly they would hold onto them. Later the student is seen telling another person that “we know there is nothing after death” and “reason has eliminated the need for faith.” That episode got me thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. As I was drifting off to sleep, I found myself constructing a counter argument to the arrogant assumption that reason trumps faith.

                The bottom line of the conflict between faith and reason is belief in God. If a person eliminates the possibility of there being a God (of any sort), then reason wins hands down. But if we leave the possibility open that there is a God, then faith wins the day. The Bible clearly makes this the starting point for any dialog about faith and reason. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6 (NIV)

                Paul expounds on the clash between faith and reason in I Corinthians 1. He points out that the wisdom of people is limited and therefore inferior to the wisdom of God. It is like a child, who thinks they have a certain subject figured out, telling an adult, who has spent a lifetime studying that subject, the right way to view things. It is not only arrogant, it is silly. All the wisdom we have accumulated over the centuries has been revealed to us by God and cannot even compare to the entirety of God’s wisdom. From our side of the equation, we think we have things figured out. From God’s side of the equation, He knows we don’t.

                For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NIV)

                Nothing has changed since Paul wrote those words. Humanity is still looking to reason to answer all of the questions of life.

                When people want to negate faith, they often ask others to be reasonable. Let’s consider that premise. Which is more reasonable? We see a world of amazing complexity and precision. Is it more reasonable to assume that it came together by chance or that there was some intelligent force behind it? When we observe cultures, we discover that every culture has some form of god-consciousness. Is it more reasonable to conclude that people are just looking for an emotional crutch or that there is a god or gods in the universe? Here is my point. True reason leaves the door open for all possibilities. Dismissing the idea of a god out of hand is not truly reasonable.

                When the debate arises over faith and reason, it is usually focused on religious or spiritual faith. There are so many things in this world that we take by faith that it is impossible to live on reason alone. Granted, many of these “faith issues” are informed by reason, but they are still an act of faith.  Reason can only take us so far and then faith must take over. I would contend that our faith in God is informed by reason, but reason has definite limits. How can the finite truly know the infinite? How can the created being understand the creator? How can limited intelligence fathom the depths of omniscience? We should not be surprised that our reason leaves us short of the goal.

                Faith and reason are not incompatible. We have been created in the image of God. Reason is one aspect of that image. It is a reflection of the wisdom of God, but only a reflection. God wants us to use reason; to explore, analyze and explain the world around us. When we do this with humility, and a keen awareness of the supremacy of God, we can discover truly amazing things. When we do this with arrogance, eliminating God’s involvement, we become trapped in a small intellectual space that cannot tolerate not being able to explain or explain away everything. True reason includes being honest about our limitations. Sometimes the most reasonable response to a situation is I don’t know how it works, I just know it does.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

What’s Your Motivation?

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Matthew 6:1 (NIV)

                I have always struggled with a desire to be recognized and appreciated. Growing up I was very shy and so I just blended into the background. While others were standing in the spotlight, I was looking on from the shadows. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I have sat in awards ceremonies and fantasized that I would be the one called up to the platform.

                It is natural to want to be recognized, appreciated and even applauded. It is nice when your efforts are recognized in a positive way. Businesses do this through programs like employee of the month. One of the things I like about distance running is that each runner is applauded for finishing the race. Sometimes the last runner in a cross country race receives as much applause and cheers as the winner. In its proper context, there is nothing wrong with being recognized.

                On the other hand, when a person lives just for the applause then things change.  We see this in the athlete who cares more about his or her personal stats then the good of the team. We see this in the salesman who has to tell everyone about his latest sales award. We see this in the performer who cannot live without the applause. People who long for the spotlight are willing to do whatever it takes to gain the recognition they crave. A problem with craving the spotlight is that it is a moving target and an insatiable hunger.

                In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the religious elite. Being a Pharisee was comparable to being a celebrity. They were very serious about their faith and dedicated their lives to keeping the Law in every detail. Most people honored and respected them, but some of the Pharisees fell in love with the spotlight. They succumbed to the allure of the applause. In doing so, they lost touch with God.  Jesus warned us about falling into the trap of craving the spiritual spotlight.

                This is a real danger to which we are all susceptible. Jesus raised a red flag of warning: Be Careful! Inappropriate pride has a way of creeping into even our best efforts. We may start with our heart in the right place, but quickly slip into the spotlight, like a moth attracted by a floodlight.

                This allure is most dangerous in the area of spiritual disciplines. Outward devotion to God can quickly be corrupted into seeking the praise of people. Jesus warned about letting our acts of righteousness become just a show. The warmth of the spotlight draws us in. For a short time we bask in its glow. Then the spotlight moves. Almost unconsciously, we adjust our behavior to regain center stage.

                Jesus warned us that when we perform acts of righteousness for the applause of people, we forfeit the approval of God. True righteousness is focused on an audience of one. Righteousness done as a public display of our piety is a hollow fa├žade. God will not share His glory with anyone. If we choose to actively seek the applause of people, we have our reward in full. We can expect nothing from God.

                So how do we guard our hearts and correct our course along the way? Let me suggest four things we can do to keep our hearts pointed in the right direction.

                Be honest with ourselves that we can do the right things outwardly and still not be serving Christ. If what is going on inside our heart is wrong, then our outward actions, no matter how noble, are tainted. Paul addressed this in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

                Be aware of the real danger that the spotlight holds. Sometimes we get to a place where we think we are no longer vulnerable. We think we are spiritually strong, and our pride begins to blind us to reality. Paul warns us about succumbing to spiritual overconfidence. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV)

                Cultivate a truly humble spirit that will permeate your acts of righteousness. True humility is not looking down on yourself. It is having an honest estimate of your strengths and weaknesses, and being comfortable with that. True humility is offering your best to God and leaving the results in His hands. True humility is caring more about the other person than how your actions make you look. Paul challenges us to keep our focus in the right place. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

                Always seek the glory of God over the praise of people. The praise of people is temporary and fleeting. The glory of God is eternal. The public spotlight will abandon us, but God will never leave us or forsake us. The greatest payoff in life comes from seeking to honor God with all we do. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17 (NIV)


                In 1968, Andy Warhol made the statement, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” That idea has stuck and has become a part of our shared culture. We still hear people talk about a person’s 15 minutes of fame. It highlights the fleeting and futile nature of chasing the spotlight. Jesus calls us to a higher goal. Jesus calls us not to stand in man’s spotlight for 15 minutes, but to live in God’s glory for all of eternity.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

IN PRAISE OF FRIENDSHIP

I have been away on vacation and have not been able to post anything for a while. I am back and ready to continue our conversation. A quick thank you to all you you who check in here regularly. I really appreciate it. If you ever have a comment or a question based on something I have written, please contact me. I would enjoy hearing from you.
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                I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves. I highly recommend it. It is an insightful look at the complexity of love. Lewis explores the four Greek words for love. “Agape” is defined as charity or unconditional love. This is the kind of love God demonstrated through Jesus toward us. It is the highest form of love. “Eros” is defined as sexual love. It represents the love between a man and a woman. It is intimate and sensual. “Storge” is defined as affection. This is the kind of love that parents have for their children. Affection is the kind of love that holds communities together. “Phileo” is defined as friendship. This is the kind of love that is born out of shared values and experiences. The four loves are not exclusive or totally separate from one another. They often overlap, support and enhance one another.

                In our world today, we have elevated Eros to the highest level. Very often, when people talk about love, they are referring to Eros. Just below Eros is Storge. We see family love as essential and highly valued. Unfortunately our ideal is in stark contrast to the actual experience of many families. Our desire to elevate Storge has lead to an almost idolizing of children. Agape is seen differently, depending upon your vantage point. From a Christian perspective, we see Agape as the ultimate standard for all love. It represents God’s unconditional love in Christ. It is the goal toward which we strive. For the secular person, Agape is seen as benevolence. It has become caring for the poor and the underprivileged. What most often is missing from our world is Phileo, true friendship. This is especially true between men.

                Lewis calls friendship the least natural of all of the loves. Whereas Eros, Storge, and to an extent Agape are essential for the survival of humanity, Phileo is not. We could liken it to the arts. Art and music are not essential to the survival of humanity. The human race could continue if they didn’t exist. Yet art and music bring vitality and energy to humanity. We can survive without friendship, but if we want to thrive in life we need it.

                Friendship is unique among all of the loves, in part, because of its focus. Eros is focused on the love between a man and a woman. Storge is focused on the love between parents and children. Agape is focused on love for God and humanity in general. In each case, the one who loves is focused on another person. Friendship does not so much focus on the other person, but instead focuses on a shared love of something else. It may be golf or fishing or art or philosophy or theology. It is in sharing a common passion or interest that friendship is born.

                In many ways, friendship is the most elusive of all of the loves. A person who desperately seeks friendship will never find it. Friendship must be based around something. There can be no true friendship where there is no shared passion or interest.

                True friendship is both exclusive and inclusive at the same time. It is exclusive because it is open only to those who share the same passions and interests. Yet it is inclusive of anyone who does share those passions and interests. There is always room at the table for another kindred spirit.

                Friendship enhances our lives by drawing out of us dimensions of our personality that often lay dormant. In a circle of friends, each one draws something different out of the other, and the whole circle benefits. True friendship gives a person permission to explore more deeply who they are. By sharing a common passion, friends create an atmosphere for creative thought and action. Good friends challenge one another to go farther, to test their limits and to push out their self-imposed boundaries. When I was in Seminary I had a circle of friends who enjoyed downhill skiing. I had never really skied before, but I had a desire to learn. It was that circle of friends that encouraged, challenged and prodded me to take the risk to learn to ski. I would not have done it on my own.

                The problem today is that many people, especially men, settle for mere companionship instead of developing a true friendship. Companionship is the foundation and the catalyst for friendship. On the surface companionship looks like friendship, but it stops short of the goal. True friendship evokes an intimacy that makes most men very uncomfortable. A true friend is willing to be vulnerable and open their heart to the other person. A true friend cares about the well-being of the other person and will work toward it. A true friend will stand with the other person, even when it is very costly.

                Many men today are afraid of genuine male friendship. Our society is quick to label male friends as gay. Any sign of affection is interpreted as a sexual relationship. We are poorer for it. Many men today will go through their lives without a genuine friend to lean on. Fear will hold them back.

                I want to raise the call for Christian men to break free from the restrictive confines of “normal” male companionship and begin to strive for genuine, godly friendship. This equally applies to women, but women tend to have an easier time developing friendships than men. I believe that every Christian man should have three male relationships in his life. He needs a Paul, a Timothy and a Barnabas.

                The book of Acts gives us a template for living out godly, male friendship. The Apostle Paul was not afraid to openly express his love for the other people in his life. He modeled for us a rich life of friendship that honored God and enriched his life.

                Every man needs a Paul in their lives. Paul represents an older, more mature man who can invest in a younger man. This person may be seen as a mentor, but needs to also be a friend. This is a person who is willing to share honestly about his own experiences of facing the challenges of life. He can help to guide the path of the younger man. Paul did this for Timothy.

                Every man needs a Timothy in his life. Just as we need someone to invest in our lives, we need to be investing in the life of a younger man. As we face the challenges of life, we accumulate valuable insights that can be passed on about how to live as a godly man.

                Every man needs a Barnabas in his life. Paul and Barnabas were partners in ministry. They were equals, working toward the same goal. They struggled and worked side by side. They shared life together, and with each shared experience they grew closer together.

                Throughout the years I have had the privilege of having all three of these friendships. My life is richer because of it. Before you decide that this is not possible for you, stop and turn toward the friend who will never leave you or forsake you. Ask Christ to open your eyes to the Paul, Timothy and Barnabas in your life. Then ask for the courage to pursue those friendships with all of your heart.

                Although it is not easy, I want to challenge you to move beyond a life filled with acquaintances and seek out those with whom you can develop a genuine friendship.

                Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV)