HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

The crowd was frenetic, chaotic, out of control. Hundreds, then thousands of people, rushed from every corner, out of every gate, jumping fences, hurdling ditches, and throwing clothing on the ground in adulation.

No, it wasn’t an Elvis concert.

The two men in the center of it were overwhelmed, not knowing how to react to the adulation, until they saw the local priests leading a couple of bullocks toward them with garlands for gods and the tools of sacrifice in hand. That’s when they tore their shirts wide open yelling: “HOLD IT! STOP! We’re just people like you! We’re here to tell you about the real God who made everything!”

Even with that, Paul and Barnabas, apostles of Jesus Christ, were barely able to keep the Lystrans from sacrificing to them.

God had just healed a cripple through Paul. The Lystrans mistook them for a repeat of a Greek myth where Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as servants for a while to get a read on human devotion. In the myth the two deities finally remove their disguises to receive the worship that was their due and offer blessings to their worshipers. When Paul and Barnabas ripped their garments open to reveal puny humans inside it popped the Lystran’s bubble. A few hours later they were stoning Paul. (See Acts 14:8-18).

Living in the selfie generation makes it hard to keep our shirts buttoned, so to speak. We need help avoiding self-deification. The best way to do that is by serving others in three practical ways.

Serve simply. Just show up and do what needs to be done. A great example happened on a tragic occasion. In the days when most shoes had to be shined, a young father of four lost his life in an accident. Instead of saying, “If there’s anything I can do,” one of the neighbors knocked on the door and said, “I’m here to shine the children’s shoes.” That simple service spoke reams of love into the young widow’s soul.

Serve today. With “his face set” on his way to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last time, Jesus had a lot on his mind. Yet he stopped to heal a blind man. Setting aside our agenda for the day, even if it isn’t an emergency, is a huge expression of humility.

Serve silently. I borrow this one from the late Stephen Covey who taught: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We serve best when we listen close, empathizing with others without expressing our own thoughts.

Of all the ways to serve, this is one of the most personally beneficial to the servant. It is also the most difficult and humbling because we think so much of our own experiences and like the sound of our own voices.

Covey explained that silent service also enhances our effectiveness as leaders. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.[1]

When we practice silent service, we give people what they need most. That’s why this is so helpful in the pursuit healthy humility. We learn to value others above ourselves and in the process give them life.

[1] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pg. 241

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, has died at age 85. One of Peterson’s lesser known works, Eat This Book, includes this challenging word: “The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken up at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.”[1]

Peterson was right, but his challenge raises a serious question: How can we know we are interpreting Scripture correctly? Perhaps more important, since most pastors—including this one—often preach topical sermons with collections of verses from different books of the Bible, how can we be sure they are getting it right?

Accurate Bible interpretation is a big subject so I’m boiling it down to five steps anyone can take toward accuracy. The steps are a summary of the study method Haddon Robinson teaches in his book, Biblical Preaching. They are so simple anyone with a high school education can use them.

First, read a paragraph or better yet a chapter at a time. Note any questions you have about it. Are there cultural, historical, grammatical, geographical references or vocabulary you don’t understand? Is it poetry, history, story, wisdom literature, or prophecy? Each literary type has associated interpretive guidelines. We do not interpret poetry for instance with the same level of specificity as law. Jot down your questions to look up later.

Why whole paragraphs? Paragraphs as opposed to individual verses, are complete units of thought. Later translations like the NIV and ESV identify them in the typeset. But most important, read complete thought units, not just verses.

Second, ask: What’s the subject? What’s the author talking about? Example: In Ephesians 6:10-20, the Apostle Paul is talking about spiritual warfare, our struggle “against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world…” That’s his subject, the main thing he’s addressing in the paragraph.

Third, ask: What’s the compliment? In other words, what is he saying about the subject? In our passage he’s saying, “Be strong in the Lord … put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…” He could have said, “Run away!” But he didn’t. He said to take a stand. That’s the compliment.

Fourth, ask: What’s the context? What is said about the subject in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and rest of the book that precede and follow that paragraph? What about the rest of the Bible? Do we see Jesus, Peter, or any of the other writers addressing spiritual warfare? Can we—keeping the contexts of their comments in mind as well—legitimately apply their insights and knowledge to Paul’s? This is where many Bible interpreters get in trouble. Context is king. “A text without a context is a pretext,” someone said. Context is even more important than vocabulary because it gives shading and a frame of reference for individual words.

Fifth, ask: What principles do I see emerging from my analysis? One of the most prominent in Ephesians 6:10-20 is that God expect us to stand strong in the battles, not to run away. Courage, faith, fortitude, and above all preparation, “putting on the full armor,” are supporting principles but taking a stand seems to be the main one.

You may need to answer some of your questions from step one before you can take that fifth step. Most good study Bibles, like the NIV Study Bible or The ESV Study Bible etc. will help as will a good online resource like BlueLetterBible.org.

We should never read a text of scripture and ask: What do you think it means? That invites us to use the Bible simply as a mirror to reflect what we feel in the moment. We don’t find its meaning in ourselves, we find it in the text as the authors wrote it. Ask, “what did Paul mean? What did Luke or John or Matthew or Moses mean?” That’s the way to interpret the Bible or any other text. Then we take that meaning and build bridges for how it might apply in our time and culture. The NIV Application Commentary is structured like that. It’s easy to read and a good addition to any Bible study library.

These five steps will take anyone who uses them to a deeper level of understanding than most people ever develop about the Bible.

And what about your preacher? It all boils down to trust. Has he demonstrated over time that he knows and respects the Scriptures well enough that he will not turn a text into a pretext and make it say something the Bible never said? No one gets it right one hundred percent of the time, but if he’s following these principles he’ll be close.

[1] Pg. 101. Quoted from John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint Facebook post of October 22, 2018.

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

Think for a moment about your Bible. Perhaps you have a favorite, but most American Christians have multiple versions.  I’ve had an NIV Study Bible on my desk for over twenty years, an essential resource for my work. I carry a personal Bible in my briefcase, well-marked from years of prayer and preaching. And I have multiple versions on my smartphone via the YouVersion app.

Do the same with your favorite Christian writers. Many of us can point to a few key authors or books that strengthened our faith. Chuck Swindoll, Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott, and Haddon Robinson not only line my shelves but shaped my soul. Then there are the tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries that help us understand God’s Word in its historical and cultural contexts.

We don’t just have libraries, we have great treasuries of wisdom and knowledge on our shelves.

Now, imagine you’d never had a single one. Imagine being a new believer and the only resource you have is a 100-year-old edition of the King James Version that is difficult to understand and doesn’t even have a concordance in the back.

Imagine being a new believer and not even having that.

Now you know what it is like to be a follower of Christ in most of the non-English speaking world. That is why I visited Nepal and India last week, to find out how important Bible translation and the development of companion resources really is in the rest of the world.

In short, it is enormously important.

I met some fascinating people as well. Consider: Last year it became illegal to proselytize in Nepal. If you are caught with a Bible on your person, or talking to someone about your faith, you face a fine roughly equivalent to a year’s wages and imprisonment for five years.

Yet I worshiped with 1500 Nepalese Christians who are willing to take that risk. Why? They know the power of the gospel first hand, to heal, to deliver from demonic oppression, and to set them free from slavery to dark spiritualities. Their goal is to finish planting a strong, well-led church in every village in the Himalayas in the next decade!

I also worshiped with and preached to over 700 Indian pastors and church planters, some who traveled for days by bus and on foot, who are committed–in spite of official government opposition–to planting churches all over India. They want every people group in that hugely diverse country to know Jesus and experience the peace he brings.

If they even own a Bible, these brothers and sisters and millions–yes millions–like them have at best a 100-year-old Hindi translation from the King James. It’s hard for monolingual Americans to comprehend how this separates them from the Word. Hindi is the national language of India, but there are 11 other major language groups in the country and dozens of derivative dialects from each major group. Imagine trying to read the Word of God in Spanish with the equivalent of your High School Spanish level learning.

Yeah, it’s like that.

What’s on your bookshelf? Are you digging into those riches, or letting them gather dust? And what would you be willing to do to help your brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south share in that great treasury?