Standing With the Others

This has been called the era of Celebrity Christianity. It’s a term that has been used in a variety of different ways. Some use it to refer to Christians who adopt the lifestyles and mindsets of secular celebrities. To others it has the connotation of Christian leaders acting like celebrities – you know, special treatment, more recognition, more power and more influence.

Then again it can refer to the Christian subculture and our need to have our own celebrities. People we look up to. People we can emulate. People who give us hope that we can make it just like they made it.

Over the years evangelical Christianity has developed a parallel universe with our own schools, our own publishers, our own musicians, and even our own celebrities.

Every culture has their celebrities. Every culture seems to have a need for celebrities. People who have made it in life. The rest of us are just the others still hoping to make it.

The Bible presents a vastly different picture.

Hebrews 11 is a good example. In the first 34 verses it relates the faith of some of the greatest “celebrities” in the Bible. People like Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his son Joseph, and Moses. People who were celebrities in the right sense of the word.

Then you get to verse 35 and it says others . . .

We all know about Enoch and Noah and Abraham. We’re familiar with Jacob and Joseph and Moses. And we know that we aren’t worthy to carry their bags. But what about the others that the writer mentions? Those unnamed, anonymous followers of God who lived by faith even though they faced mocking and scourging, yes, and of chains and imprisonments. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth (Hebrews 11:36-38). They were just ordinary people – people like you and me. But people who knew what it meant to live by faith.

Up until verse 35 most of the things that are said of the people who are named are positive. They walked with God. They were obedient. They led great nations and conquered great cities.

All of that changes when you come to the others. They had great trials, suffered for God, were homeless and wandered destitute. No glory here. This is not the stuff of Celebrity Christianity.

But it is the stuff of our lives. Most of us live on the other side of verse 35. The hard side. History will probably not record your name. You will stand anonymous, unnamed.

But not to God. He knows. And ultimately that’s all that counts.

God is not looking for the next Abraham or Moses. He’s not looking for another Christian Celebrity. He’s looking for ordinary people, the others, who will live with courageous faith. He’s looking for people of whom He can say the world was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:38). He’s just looking for people who will be faithful no matter what life throws at them.

The truth is we don’t need more Christian Celebrities. We need more others.

It’s an awesome heritage and responsibility that has been left to us to live life with the others.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

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Speaking Truth to Power

Speaking Truth to Power is a mantra that is becoming increasingly popular in our nation. It holds a special significance for Christians who believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word from God and is not just true but supreme in our lives.

It is the prophetic role of every Christian to speak the truth to those who hold temporal power in our nation. We have a long line of examples going back to Moses confronting Pharaoh, extending through the prophets who spoke to Kings (Nathan to David, Elijah to Ahab etc), and continuing into the New Testament (Peter to the Jewish Sanhedrin, Paul to King Agrippa and perhaps to Caesar himself).

Unfortunately, as Evangelical Christians have become increasingly engaged politically, a large part of the church has lost its prophetic voice. Many seemed more concerned that we have a strong political voice than a strong spiritual voice. That’s unfortunate because our strength is found in our faith not in our political views.

I’m not suggesting that Christians have to settle for one or the other. I am suggesting that in many situations we have chosen to elevate the temporal over the spiritual, even to the point of ignoring clear Biblical teaching.

Recent events of racial violence in our nation give us the opportunity to regain what we have lost. Ed Stetzer who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center has written eloquently on the subject here. I encourage you to read his article.

My purpose is not to repeat what Stetzer wrote. I simply want to offer some practical suggestions on how we can integrate the truth of God’s Word with the political landscape, especially as it touches on the area of racism.

1. Make sure your loyalty is in the right place. As Christians we are called to supreme loyalty to God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Matthew 22:37) not to political parties or earthly leaders. When political positions collide with spiritual truth you need to speak truth to power (see Acts 4:19).

2. View people as God views them. All people, regardless of race or color were created by God (Acts 17:25) and carry in them the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, James 3:8-9). That means that every person has intrinsic value and should be treated with godly respect. Racism elevates some people over other people and has no place in the Christian worldview.

3. Be more concerned with your spiritual family than your political family. Paul’s instruction to the church (Galatians 6:10) is instructive at this point. Christians are to treat other people in a good (godly) way, but we have a special responsibility to those who belong to our spiritual family.

Unless you are from a minority race in this country, especially African-American, you have no idea the kind of pain and fear that is caused by racial symbols. I’m not advocating that we rewrite history or that we even ignore part of our history. That would be unwise. But neither do we need to protect or flaunt symbols that inflict pain on people of color, many of whom are our Brothers and Sisters in the faith.

You may not understand their pain or fear, but the simple fact that they find the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers offensive should be enough for us to stand with those who want them removed from public places. Think about what a statue of a confederate soldier means. It puts a specific individual, in a uniform that stands for a set of ungodly values, on a pedestal. In other words it elevates the person and the worldly philosophy that they represented to a place of honor (see 1 Corinthians 1:18f) in our nation. Those things are certainly part of our collective history and should be taught to our children, but not as deserving of honor.

4. Don’t act out of fear. If I read the Evangelical landscape correctly, this is where many Christians find themselves. They are so afraid of the other political side that they are willing to keep quiet about issues that conflict with their faith instead of speaking truth to power. Fear does not come from God (1 Timothy 1:7), it comes from a lack of trust in God’s sovereign control over nations and events. If you are living in fear that is driven by the political turmoil in our nation, or by the potential ramifications of the “wrong person” coming to power, you are in the wrong place spiritually. Our actions, including political actions, should operate out of faith, not fear. We need to do the right thing and leave the results up to our sovereign God.

The events of the last several days in Virginia and North Caroline give us the opportunity to shine as spiritual lights in a very dark world. If our actions are driven primarily by a political agenda and not a faith agenda we will miss a valuable opportunity.

It is time for the Evangelical church to speak truth to power, individually as we have the opportunity and collectively as we see the need.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Some Thoughts on Prayer

Prayer is one of those mysterious and somewhat confusing aspects of the Christian life. We know that we’re supposed to pray but we often struggle with the Why issue. And when we don’t have a good answer we default to, because we’re told to (Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Sometimes that’s a really good answer.

But we want more. We want answers to questions like, If God is sovereign, why should we pray? Or, If God has planned everything, how much difference can my prayers make?

These are legitimate questions that deserve thoughtful answers. But I want to offer two, perhaps simpler reasons for you to pray.

Prayer is a way of acknowledging who God is.

When you pray about problems you are saying, God I can’t handle this by myself. It’s bigger than me. I need help. I need You.

When you pray in confession you are saying, God I sinned against you. I want our relationship to be right. I don’t want this to come between us. I don’t want to face life with a strained relationship.

When you pray in thanksgiving you are saying, God I recognize that you did this. It wasn’t anything that I did. You did it. I’m grateful.

When you pray in adoration you are saying, God you deserve all of my praise. You alone are worthy.

Prayer is our way of acknowledging that we need God, that we are willing to humble our self before Him, that we’re a thankful people and that He is the object of our love.

Prayer is also an expression of your faith.

Even when you don’t understand how prayer works – and especially when you don’t understand how it works, to pray says something about your faith.

It says that you believe when you don’t understand.

It says that you trust Him when your way is dark.

It says that you won’t give up when giving up is the logical and easy thing to do.

It says that you value prayer even when you don’t see the value of spending time in prayer.

Prayer is perhaps the greatest expression of faith available to the Christian.

It’s questionable whether or not we’ll ever find completely satisfactory answers to some of the great and difficult questions about prayer. But you don’t need answers to those questions in order to pray.

Pray to acknowledge that God is your God and you need Him. Pray to express your faith in Him.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Some Thoughts on God’s Mercy

Mercy. There are various ways to define it – especially when you’re talking about God’s mercy. At its core it’s an aspect of the Love of God. Sometimes we equate it with compassion.

I’ve often defined mercy as God’s love given to those who need it the most. While grace is God’s love given to those who don’t deserve it. Not perfect definitions, but helpful in distinguishing these two aspects of God’s love.

Think of the people on whom Jesus had compassion – the blind, the deaf, the destitute, and the dead. People who were desperate; people who, humanly speaking, need God’s love the most.

The ultimate mercy is when God gave His love to sinners in the person of Jesus (John 3:16). Sinners certainly need God’s love the most.

We often pray for God’s mercy – for God to be merciful to us. What we want is for God to change our circumstances. To make our life better.

But how do we know when our prayer is answered? How do we know when God gives us His mercy?

If you’re like most people you equate the reception of His mercy with a change in your life. Life becomes better because God answered your prayer the way you wanted Him to answer it.

But is that a good barometer of God’s mercy?

What if in His omniscience He knew that what you cried out for, what your heart longed for, would not be good for you in the long run? What if His mercy was NOT to give you what you wanted? What if, in His love, He knew that it might even be harmful to you in some way?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He knew would be harmful to you?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He didn’t give you because He had something even better for you?

The truth is that you won’t always immediately recognize God’s mercy. Sometimes you’ll see it in hindsight. Sometimes far, far hindsight.

So in the meantime you need to live by faith. Not seeing the evidence but believing in what you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith believes that God always acts toward you in ways that are merciful, even when life doesn’t go your way. It believes that God is merciful even when He disciplines you (Hebrews 12:5-6). It believes that God is always merciful. That there is never a time that He does not act in mercy (sometimes we draw a dichotomy between God’s wrath and His mercy – as if when God disciplines us He stops being merciful. That would mean that God would have to stop being God).

What if, as Laura Story has reminded us in her song Blessings (you can listen to it here), that God loves you too much to give you the little things you want instead of the greater things He has for you. What if the trials of life are His mercies in disguise?

Don’t judge God’s mercy based on how He responds to your prayer. He will always respond in love. He is always merciful.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Everyone Needs to Calm Down (Especially Evangelical Christians)

I can’t remember a time when evangelical Christians were so uptight (many, not all) about the political landscape, unless it was back in the 60’s when they wanted to impeach Earl Warren (yes, I’m old enough to remember it – and they were uptight).

You would think that God had just stepped off of His throne and Hillary was taking over the universe. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God is still in control.

We like to say that He’s in control but the evangelical blogs, the Facebook posts, the Twitter feeds, the emails and the scare tactics seem to indicate otherwise.

The way that many evangelical are acting you would think that if Clinton wins this election, the world as we know it will come to an end. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t but I’m sure of this – God will still be in control on November 9th and every day after that.

I’m not making light of the importance of this election. It may well signal a sea-change in our nation. And, yes I believe evangelical Christians should exercise their freedom to vote for the candidate that they believe can best lead our nation.

But where’s our faith? Is it in the political process? Or in our ability to elect the “right” candidate? Or is it in God, who by the way is still in control.

The writer of Hebrews didn’t tell us to keep our eyes on the Republican Party; or on Donald Trump; or on passing the right laws or policies. He told us to keep our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). There’s a reason for that. God is still in control.

Hey, we believe that God will bring about His will no matter who’s in the White House. We believe that He will bring about His will no matter who sits on the Supreme Court.

And isn’t that what we ultimately want – God’s will?

I’m not ignoring our responsibility to get involved in the political process. I’m just questioning the panic (even hysteria) that is the result of an unbalanced view of the sovereignty of God. When we say that God is in control we are confessing that He is sovereign over all things, including the election of our president.

So here’s my suggestion: Everyone just needs to calm down. Stop with the scare tactics. Stop telling people who God wants to be president. Stop pontificating on the end of civilization if your candidate isn’t elected.

Go ahead and try to persuade people to vote for your candidate; vote your conscience. But get a grip on reality! God is still in control.

That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:6).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Character Says it All

It has been interesting to follow the national debate regarding immigration. Prior to the recent events in Paris, France most of the debate centered on our southern border and illegal immigration from countries to our south. Now the debate has broadened to include refugees from various Middle Eastern countries. It has become another wedge issue dividing our country.

Not only has the issue of Middle Eastern immigrants divided our country, it is dividing the church. There are Christians on every side of this issue.

For Christians the looming question is not, How should I view this issue as an American?, but How should I view this issue as a follower of Christ?

If we are to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and the great pioneers of our faith, we will confess with them that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth; that we are seeking a homeland that is not of this world. That our desire is for something greater and better than even the greatest nation that has ever existed. Our desire is for something eternal (Hebrews 11:13f).

Yes, we are Americans and we are concerned about the problems that our country faces. But we are first of all Christians. And it is that reality that shapes our character as the church of Jesus Christ and determines the positions we take on the issues. Character says it all.

For the Christian, character leads us to ask questions like:

How can we use this opportunity to show the love of Christ?

What is our responsibility to the weak and helpless?

Is there ever a time when we sacrifice our security for the sake of the gospel?

Is the protection of our way of life our ultimate priority?

What does the Bible say about our treatment of aliens and refugees?

What is the Right (IE Godly) thing to do?

If we are Christ-centered in our world view and Bible-centered in our living these questions have to be answered out of a Christian perspective, not an American perspective. Our character must be shaped by the teaching of God’s Word, not by talk radio or political movements.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Christians Don’t Need Another Celebrity

For some reason Christians seem to need celebrities. When a Christian achieves celebrity status our chests swell with pride. One of us has made it! We finally have value. When someone with a connection to Hollywood or professional sports becomes a Christian the internet explodes with rejoicing. But it’s not exactly a Luke 15:10 rejoicing. It’s like we need someone with celebrity status to validate our existence. A celebrity Christian lets us hold our heads up high. We need our Tim Tebows.

None of this is new. When I was young and living on the West coast in the 60’s our Boys Brigade group traveled to Oakland to hear all star baseball player Felipe Alou give his testimony. We were awestruck. We weren’t just in the presence of a Christian – we were in the presence of a bon a fide star who believed like we believed. There was a lot of hero worshipping going on that night. We went away convinced that what we believed was real – it HAD to be, he believed it too.

Times haven’t changed. We still get giddy whenever a celebrity announces that they have accepted Christ. One of the recent stories circulating the Christian realm is that action hero, Sylvester Stallone became a Christian several years ago. An article has popped up twice in the past week on my Facebook page (this is not a criticism of those dear friends – good people all – who posted it). The title was, Sylvester Stallone: I Have Surrendered My Life to Jesus Christ, and the article linked to a video produced in 2006 by Pat Robertson on The 700 Club. Robertson could hardly contain his enthusiasm that another poor soul had been rescued from the evil clutches of Hollywood.

The only trouble is that nowhere in the video did Stallone make that confession. He talked about God and how his life in Hollywood had gotten out of control but he never confessed Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. To his discredit Robertson never pressed him on the issue. The entire interview was more about publicity for the latest Rocky movie than it was a testimony for Jesus Christ.

Since that interview Stallone has said things that are cause for serious skepticism. For example in a 2010 interview with GQ magazine he was asked about eternity. Here’s the exchange:

Q: Do you ever have any concerns about your own mortality?

A: I don’t believe that we go anyplace. You make your heaven and hell right
here, and you are what you leave behind. But don’t think that you’re going to change anything; you’re not.

Not exactly what you would expect to hear from someone who had surrendered his life to Jesus.

When Stallone’s publicity rep was asked in 2013 to verify that Stallone had given his life to Jesus Christ his reply was one word – “wrong”. After first jumping on the Stallone bandwagon, the Conservative Tribune, to their credit, corrected their original report and asked their readers to pray for Stallone’s conversion.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy when anyone – famous or not, comes to Christ. What perplexes me is why we get more excited about the thought that perhaps Sylvester Stallone became a Christian than we do about John Doe who lives down the street making a genuine profession of faith. Why does Pat Robertson give a seriously questionable interview to someone who talks all about God but can’t say Jesus is my Lord and Savior? I suspect for Robertson televisions ratings have something to do with it. That’s beyond sad.

Here’s the bottom line: Christians don’t need another celebrity to validate their faith – we already have One and He’s all that we need (Colossians 2:10).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve