THE WATER BUG IN MY TRASHCAN

Scratch, scratch, scratch. I lifted my fingers from the keyboard and listened, but the noise had stopped. I refocused on the sermon I was writing and clicked away at the keyboard, trying hard to put in print the thought flitting through my head before it escaped into the ether of ever-shrinking memory.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. There it was again! So soft any conversation, any music, any noise above the faint whir of my computer would have squelched the sound. But I was completely alone in my office and I could definitely hear…something. Was it a mouse?

That’s when I remembered. We’d been having problems (since solved you’ll be happy to know) with water-bugs in our building. That’s probably not their real name, and the pest-control man assures me they aren’t cockroaches. But I was picking up three or four a day in the hall near my office, crunching them between my fingers in a paper towel, and tossing them in the trash. Apparently, I hadn’t squeezed the last one hard enough. He was trying to climb out of the trashcan and make a break for the baseboards.

I decided to let him scratch while I warmed up lunch. (Don’t judge! Would you go digging through your trash to re-squish a bug? I didn’t think so). That’s when this thought hit: How like conscience is that bug in the trashcan. How easy it is to miss a sound like that in the constant noise of 4G life.

The Scriptures show us the power of a keeping a clear conscience: great boldness in any conflict.[1] It also warns that failure to keep it clear can lead us, among other things, into meaningless babble and shipwrecked faith.[2] But the quiet required for reflection and confession is hard to come by these days. We have to be intentional about it.

So, if a water bug was scrambling around in the back of your conscience, could you hear it?

[1] 1Peter 3:13-16

[2] 1 Timothy 1:5 & 19

JUSTICE FOR JACK: Religious Freedom in the Furnace

JUSTICE FOR JACK:  Religious Freedom in the Furnace

While sexual assault charges dominate the headlines, destroying careers and political prospects alike, the results of an assault on every American’s freedom of conscience are being weighed in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Jack Phillips’ Colorado bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, is named after his favorite Bible verse, Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” (NLT) Jack’s dream was to use his artistic baking skills not only to provide for his family and serve his community, but also to bring honor to God through his every day work.

Because of that conviction, Jack made it a policy not to create artisan cakes to celebrate things that ran contrary to his religiously informed conscience. All his customers were able to get custom made cakes for their celebrations with Jack’s nearby competitors, so Jack’s convictions were never a problem until two men asked for a custom-made cake for their wedding ceremony in 2012.

Jack’s legal team, Alliance Defending Freedom, explains what happened next.

“Jack offered to sell the men any pre-made cake in his shop, but kindly explained that he could not use his artistic talents to custom-design cakes for same-sex wedding ceremonies. Like millions of people across the globe and throughout history, he affirms the biblical teaching that marriage is the sacred union of a man and a woman. Designing a cake for them would force him to violate his conscience.

The men swore at Jack and stormed out. He endured weeks of threatening phone calls and emails. His family and his employees have also been abused.

But that was only the beginning. Jack received notice from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC). He was being sued, accused of violating the state’s nondiscrimination laws.

The commission ruled against Jack, fined him, and tried to force him to violate his conscience.

“I haven’t singled out that one issue as something I won’t do,” Jack says. “I don’t make cakes for lewd bachelor parties; I don’t make cakes to celebrate divorce; I don’t make Halloween cakes, or anything involving witchcraft.”[1]

The CCRC also ordered Jack and his staff to design cakes for same-sex wedding celebrations, go through a ‘re-education’ program, implement new policies to comply with the commission’s order, and file quarterly ‘compliance’ reports for two years to show that Jack has completely eliminated his religious beliefs from his business.

In response, Jack stopped baking custom cakes, losing 40% of his business and laying off employees as a result.

Jack’s story is reminiscent of the biblical Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel chapter three. As Jack refuses to bow to today’s politically correct sexual orthodoxy, so those men refused to bow before a political ideology that exalted the creature above the creator. As Jack faces the loss of his livelihood and life-savings, Daniel’s friends faced the loss of their lives. As Jack stands on his biblically informed conscience before the most powerful court of our time, they stood resolute before the greatest power of theirs, saying, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”[2]

Yet Jack does not stand alone; we are in the furnace with him. His fate is ours. If the Supreme Court rules against him, then religious freedom will cease to exist in the United States. Your freedom to obey your religiously informed conscience in your business, your profession, your education, your children’s education and associations, your affiliations, and yes, even your church, will be confined to the dictates of the new sexual orthodoxy. You will be forced by law not simply to tolerate, but to celebrate things that conflict with your conscience before God.

What can you do? Four very important things:

First, pray. This is first and foremost a spiritual battle.

Second, take a stand. Let it be known that you support Jack. Write if you are able, share this post or posts from the organizations listed in the notes[3], or at the very least go on social media and say, “I stand with Jack.” Supreme Court Justices are human too. They read and your voice matters.

Third, give money. Order brownies from Jack’s bakery. Send him cash. Or send money to ADFLegal.org to help them fight.

Finally, be informed and informative. Share the sermon podcast, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE FURNACE, listed here: http://www.fccsobo.org/files/fccsobo/Podcasts/September%203,%202017%20.mp3. Become knowledgeable on these subjects and learn to give a sound-bite on why the biblical worldview of human sexuality is good for everyone and why religious freedom is the fundamental freedom.

[1] Adflegal.org/jack phillips story

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Da 3:16–18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Adflegal.org/jack phillips story

STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

EXERCISE IN TYRANNY: Marriage and Freedom of Conscience

A beautiful wedding is a microcosm of cooperative community. Everyone exerts him or herself to the utmost to insure the bride and groom have their day of unalloyed joy. Friends fly in from far-off fields, florists outdo themselves arranging flowers, planners and facility managers push to make the venue flawless, and photographers find the perfect pose to freeze each moment in time. It all costs money, but ask the vendors and they will tell you, it is never only about the money, but about being part of something money cannot buy: the mystical union of husband and wife. When it all goes right, and even when it doesn’t, everyone sheds a tear or two of reverent joy.

Imagine what it would be like, what it would do to the spirit of celebration, to force someone who did not want to be there, who could not in good conscience participate, to do it anyway? What if, for instance, you insisted on bar-b-que for the reception, and your caterer politely declined because she is Hindu? Would you really want her to be there? Would you take her to court and attempt to shut down her business if she refused? Of course not! That is not a microcosm of cooperative community, but an exercise in tyranny.

That is what is happening to a fine lady named Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother and floral artist in Richland, Washington. Barronelle serves everyone in her community, regardless of race, nationality, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. She has long sold flowers to, and considers herself a friend of, many same-sex oriented people. But because of her Christian conscience about marriage, she could not agree to use her artistic gifts to create custom-arranged flowers for a customer’s same-sex ceremony.

Because of that, the State of Washington brought suit against Barronelle, and the Washington Supreme Court has now ruled against her for running her floral shop, Arlene’s Flowers, according to her Christian conscience.[1] She stands to lose not only her business, but also her home, and all of her retirement savings paying fees and penalties. Alliance Defending Freedom is appealing Barronelle’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The people behind the prosecution of Barronelle Stutzman, and other small-business operators like her,[2] are well-funded, well-connected, and cleverly led. Their avowed purpose is not only to stop all dissent, but to force everyone to celebrate their view of human sexuality in general, and marriage in particular. They attack small-business operators who do not have the funds, nor the customer support base (remember the failed attack on Chic-fil-A?) to fight back, and bring suit in courts favorable to their cause because judicial precedent tends to spread from state to state. [3]

What is our redemptive stance in the face of such tyranny?

First, pray for those who disagree with us. We cannot stop people who choose to disregard God’s good order of creation, but we can be kind, loving, respectful to them as persons, and prayerful.

Second, refer customers, like Barronelle did, to other vendors who can serve with a clear conscience.

Finally, follow Barronelle’s example and take a costly stand. Scripture teaches that “ … those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar.”[4] We should not participate in something that so directly contradicts God’s design. But that is not the only reason to stand with Barronelle. The social pressure of millions of believers who refuse to “go along to get along” will speak volumes to judges and legislators. Persecuting a grandma with a small business is easy; suing a hundred million people, not so much.

Watch for Barronelle’s case during the next session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Stand with her in prayer. Support her with your funds, letters to editors, legislators, and judges. It is not just her freedom of conscience that is on the line, but yours as well. If it falls, there will be no cause for celebration.

[1] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/blog-details/allianceedge/2017/02/16/washington-supreme-court-punishes-barronelle-stutzman.-what-now

[2] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/masterpiece-cakeshop-v.-craig See also http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/telescope-media-group-v.-lindsey

[3] Harris, W.C., Slouching Toward Gay Theism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America; Bruce, Tammy, The Gay Gestapo, WashingtonTimes.com, March 2, 2014.

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:18

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

AND SO WAS FULFILLED

Back in the late 1980’s, when George H. W. Bush (aka “Bush 41”) was running for president, one of the criticisms hurled his way concerned the circumstances of his birth. “He’s the child of up-east, old-money privilege and can’t connect with the common man,” was the gist of it. The fact that he was also a decorated combat hero of WWII and had made his own way in the hard-knock oil business after the war didn’t matter.

I love the way the future president handled that slam, “It’s true, I was born in Massachusetts,” he said. “I did that to be closer to my mother.”

That quote came to mind recently as I re-read the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. A repeating phrase (See 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23) rings like a chorus at the end of each element of the narrative: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.”

Six hundred years before Messiah’s birth the prophet Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred years before, the prophet Micah said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred and fifty years before, the prophet Hosea said he would come out of Egypt, and he did.

Four hundred plus years before, many Old Testament prophets alluded that Messiah would be a Nazarene, and he was.

And just like Mr. Bush, the baby Jesus had no control over the circumstances of his birth. He “did it to be closer to his mother.” Yet everything about his first advent testifies to the earthly fulfillment of an eternal plan formed for our good by a loving heavenly Father.

I offer three conclusions from this that I hope will enhance your Christmas meditations.

First, know your Bible. Read it well and deeply. Each prophecy came from what, to us, might seem obscure references. Many of us wouldn’t know about Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and the rest of the prophets, were it not for the Christmas story. But they weren’t obscure to Matthew’s readers and they weren’t the only prophets he quoted. A similar refrain runs at least twelve times throughout his gospel, confirming for his Jewish readers that Jesus really was the fulfillment of all their messianic hopes.

Life often seems obscure to us. The better we know our Bibles the more things come into focus.

Second, trust God even when you cannot see the plan. No one, save perhaps the Magi, saw this coming. No one knew to combine the predictions of the various prophets in the way they ultimately accumulated in the person of Jesus.

The providence of God in the outworking of his plans is to us inscrutable. We can only see the beginning from the end, whereas he sees the end from the beginning. So trust him. Walk the path of faithful obedience and don’t try to figure out how he’s going to accomplish his plans.

Third, put your hopes squarely on the second advent of Christ. The specific fulfillment of all the prophecies surrounding Jesus’s first appearance points us to the reliability of all the other promises of his return. God was silent for four hundred years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. Then, in the space of three decades, the fulfilled predictions of Messiah piled up on one another in the person of Jesus.

God’s further promises will come to pass as surely as any we celebrate this December. Put your hope in him.

DISCERNING GOD’S GUIDANCE

How do you make important decisions? Do you know how to listen for the leadership of God, how to discern his direction for your life? Now I’m not talking about those puzzling grocery store conundrums like, “Which should it be, dark chocolate mint chips or classic Klondike bars?” I’m talking about expensive, long term, even life changing decisions like: where to go to college, what to major in, which house to buy, which job to take, which person to marry. These and many more decisions affect us for the long term, contributing either to personal happiness and effectiveness in life or to dissatisfaction, distress and even misery.

Jesus promised us that God loved us and was listening to our requests, that “if we asked him for a piece of bread he would not give us a stone.” He encouraged us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking and the answers we need would be given to us. So what does that process look like? How are followers of Jesus Christ to discern his directions?

There are at least three steps to discerning God’s direction today. And like a three-legged stool, or finding your position using three points on a map, each one is important. The three legs are:

  1. The Word of God speaking to our minds, teaching us many, many things that give us clear directions in areas like money, work, marriage, authority, charity, mercy, and managing conflict.
  2. The Gifts to the Church – We also have, according to Paul’s list in Ephesians, gifts to the Church – “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-13 NIV). Every member of the Church is gifted or experienced in some area of knowledge. We make our best decisions when we seek the wisdom of other members of the body of Christ.
  3. The Spirit of God. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.(John 14: 16-17 NIV). As we develop the discipline of quietness before God we learn to perceive the direction of the Spirit much as we would a gentle breeze blowing on our face.

Are you faced with a serious, life changing decision? Consult the Word. It will teach you to think Biblically about your values and priorities. Consult the Body of Christ, your gifted brothers and sisters for their wisdom. And ask the Spirit of God to show you which path to take. Then make the decision and act on it, step out in faith and don’t second guess yourself. Trust God to provide one day at a time. I have seen him do so, over and over again. He will do no less for you.