Thursday, March 29, 2012

Knowing the Unknowable

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)  


I've known that little verse since I was kid.  I'm sure at some point my Sunday School Teacher gave me a smiley face sticker for memorizing it.  I can still quote it, but in spite of having it etched on my memory it took years to understand it.

I believed faith was "confidence that God would grant my requests and answer my prayers if I believed hard enough and refused to doubt."  But once you receive what you have requested, faith is no longer required.  Now you have proof, evidence, hard data. 

Faith is not believing you will receive your requests, but rather believing that God is who he says he is, that he will keep his promises, that he will keep his promises in spite of the lack of proof, evidence, and hard data. Real faith is not receiving what you ask for but rather when your whole world is caving in, when evil has mounted your head as a trophy on its Wall of Victory, when every voice in every part of your life is screaming, "GOD is DEAD! He is a liar.  He is a human creation to make Hopefuls out of the Hopeless"... you are able, in spite of the evidence against him, in spite of reason, in spite of the overwhelming rise, and to declare, "God is faithful.  He keeps his promises. He is trustworthy."  Faith is, "being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see"...and may never see this side of life.

Hebrews 11 gives examples to support this understanding of faith:
  • Noah believed God when he said there would be a flood to the point of building the precursor to the Titanic (Coming soon the release of The Flood in 3D)
  • God promised Abraham he would have children like stars in the sky but when Abraham died it was more like "Children like the Brady Bunch."  Although Abraham died not seeing the fulfillment of God's promise, God was still faithful after his death, and Abraham believed him.
  • Joseph believed God would lead the people out of Egypt but he died before it ever happened, and yet God kept his promise many years later.
  • Moses and Israel painted lamb's blood on their door frames because they believed God would destroy the firstborn of the unpainted homes. And he did!
  • Joshuah and the Israelites marched around Jericho because they believed God would do as he promised and bring the walls down on the 7th day!
  • They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  (Heb. 11:37-40)
Hebrews 11 argues that faith means believing God will keep his promises even when all circumstances and evidence point to the contrary...even when he fulfills his promises after your death. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we may NEVER see... this side of life." Just because you don't experience the fulfillment of God's promises in your lifetime does not mean he will fail to keep them. Chapter 11 encourages the reader to trust that God keeps his promises no matter what your experiences.

And so Hebrews moves from this chapter on faith to, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses..."  Witness of what? Witness of God's faithfulness! Witness like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua... witnesses who testify from the other side of life that God is faithful - ALWAYS!

When your loved one dies, when you lose your job, when your spouse leaves, when your friends betray you, when you are ostracized at work, when you are depressed...and as a result you doubt God's love...when he seems like he won't come through, when it feels he has deceived you, when it appears he has deserted you - listen to all the witnesses!  Listen to...
  •  Noah, "The rains DID come.  The water DID rise."
  • Abraham, "Although I never saw it with my own eyes God DID make me into a nation!"
  • Joseph, "Even though I was long gone, Israel did walk to freedom out of the most powerful nation without having to raise a sword. There was an Exodus."
  • Moses, "God's messenger did kill the firstborn of the unpainted houses!"
  • Joshua, "The walls did fall!" 
  • Mary and Peter, "Jesus did rise from the dead!"
So... can you hear them?  When your faith is shaky, rest on theirs.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Church Dress Code: Midriffs

It was LCU chapel and I was up to bat. It went something like this: Hey guys, I have been thinking a lot about what to say today and I have wrestled with whether to share this or not. This is not easy for me to do.  I know some of you think of me as a spiritual leader but there is something you don't know about me.  There is something that I keep hidden everyday as I walk this campus. Now, this is going to shock some of you... but..."  And then I lifted my shirt and declared, "Yes, I have a bellybutton!" 

After I cleaned the lent out, I went on to explain how ridiculous it is to walk around pretending to be bellybuttonless and that it is equally ridiculous to walk around pretending to be sinless. That day I challenged the student body to practice authenticity. Nothing really changed, because practicing authenticity and transparency is extremely difficult and many times it is most difficult among fellow Christians.  Too often Christian communities foster an atmosphere that encourages layered clothing instead of midriffs.  And yet, I believe Jesus intended the Church to have midriff uniforms.  Here are three things I believe churches should do to foster an authentic and transparent environment.

1.  Recenter regularly on the cross.  The cross reminds us that no matter how many layers of clothes we throw on the bellybutton is still there.  Even if we putty it over...the putty will eventually crack and fall out.  Sometimes Christians seem to compete to see who needs Christ the least.  This fosters "layered environments." For this reason, Churches must recenter regularly on the cross. The cross reminds us that Jesus did what we could and can never do.  The cross reminds us that our identity in Christ is based on his work and not ours.  When we hide our present struggles, failures, and sins we are claiming that that human perception is more powerful than Christ's death.  When we wear masks we confess a weak view of the cross.  As Chuck Swindoll said, "All ground is level at the foot of the cross."  If the cross accomplished what scripture claims then your sin does not define you, Jesus does.  When we truly believe this and accept this (trust me, this is a difficult journey) it frees us toward authenticity and transparency. Keep preaching the cross.

2.  Leadership Leads.  It has been my long-held belief, in spite of ministry courses teaching the contrary, that leaders should model authenticity and transparency.  Although discretion is necessary, I believe, outside of a good understanding of the cross, that the number one factor in creating a transparent and authentic community is when the leadership models it.  When a leader stands up and shares openly about her/his struggles the congregation sighs, "It is okay to be real here." Transparency can be extremely difficult for leaders because they are encouraged, more than anyone, to layer their clothes! [Read with sarcasm] - "We all know leaders are leaders because they don't have bellybuttons." Leaders within congregations should work together brainstorming and praying over various ways to model authenticity and transparency.

In college I had an opportunity to speak at the most highly attended campus devotional. I would be in  a position of leadership for one night. The month before it was my turn to speak I felt God calling me to be honest and transparent about certain struggles I was having at that time.  After much wrestling in prayer, I decided to answer the call.  I stood up in front of my peers and shared from my brokenness.  I challenged everyone to find a friend and to do the same before the night was over.  The response was overwhelming, but what I remember most was an acquaintance of mine who wrote me a several page letter expressing in detail his struggle with same-sex attraction. He demonstrated extreme courage and took a great risk in sharing such deep and personal struggles with me. I believe he felt safe to share his deeply personal struggles, although different than mine, because I took the risk first.  Leaders need to lead with transparency.

3.  Regularly offer and encourage safe confessional opportunities during worship.  Whether you agree theologically or not, Sunday mornings still offer the greatest opportunity to reach the most people with the good news of Jesus Christ.  I believe every Sunday needs an intentional time and space for confessional/healing prayer.  I'm not suggesting an invitation song - AHHHH, NOOOOOO!  I see it more like this... a 5-8 minute musical segment where the lights are low and prayer teams decorate the room in various locations. During this time the community is encourage to receive prayer for pain, sin, and/or celebration.  This makes "sharing" a natural and normal part of the community rhythm. (Also a great time for leadership to model transparency and authenticity.)

One Sunday morning, in a congregation that practiced a similar "prayer time," a group of 10-12 visiting women made their way to the front of the auditorium and fell prostrate before God in prayer.  It was a moment that shocked many of our members but was an amazing demonstration of transparency and authenticity.  I later discovered that these women were from a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation home.  That moment of transparency birthed a whole new ministry to this amazing group of women.  Their actions taught us something powerful that day about brokenness, transparency, and God's healing power.

Some may say, "Fostering that kind of environment might imply that we do not take sin seriously." I  strongly disagree.  We take sin seriously only when we are willing to risk our reputation, our favor with people, and our credibility by acknowledging it and asking for help to fight against it.  One of Satan's classic schemes is "privacy and silence."  Break the silence; wear a midriff.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Excuse Me (Part II)

In my last post, I harvested a few "calling principles" from Moses's burning bush encounter.  His excuses and God's rebuttal better orient us in understanding our own calling.  In this post I return to Moses's excuses (excuses 3-5) and continue the conversation...

Actions not Words Silence the Doubters (Ex. 4:1-9).  At the beginning of Exodus 4, God has yet to pick-up on the fact that Moses does NOT want to head back to Egypt, so Moses perseveres, "What if they [Israel] do not listen to me and say, 'The Lord did not appear to you'?"  God does not prepare Moses for the ensuing doubt and coming inquisition by composing for him a stunning diatribe, "It was a hot day, my skin roasting in the noonday sun, the sheep were particularly restless when a fire spoke to me..."  Instead, God simply says, "Throw down your staff!" BOOM - staff becomes snake...then hand becomes leprous...then water becomes blood.  Moses's call was legitimized by action and not words.

When God calls you to something chances are it will be risky.  You will likely face doubters.  People will question your motives, doubt your ability, argue with you, "Let me tell you why you shouldn't..." The apostle Paul faced doubters.  In Acts 9, After Paul's conversion experience, God calls him preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, but Paul was notorious among the Christians. They feared him. He had a hobby of collecting Christians for prison and speaking vehemently against Christ and now, within the span of a few days, he is entering synagogues and preaching that Jesus was the messiah.  Needless to say, there were some skeptics, "Isn't this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on his name?" (Acts 9:21).  But Paul didn't waste his time trying to argue and persuade the crowd that he was legit.  Instead he spent his time being busy with his calling and eventually the doubters were silenced by his deeds: "Yet Paul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah." (Acts 9:22).  Paul used his energy in fulfilling his calling rather than defending his calling.

As God calls you to a task, a mission, a moment do not waste your time arguing with the doubters.  If your calling is from God it will bear fruit.  The fruit may not always be monumental, or successful by the world's standards. But the Kingdom of God measures "success' on a different scale.  If your calling is from God, it will bear the fruit of redemption, the fruit of the resurrection, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).  Keep silent and let your action do the talking.

Faith is more Important than Ability (Ex. 4:10-12). By this point you can picture Moses talking to himself, "Okay, this guy is God. He should be picking up on this by now. Am I just going to have to come out and say,  'I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS!'  Let me give it one more try." And in Exodus 4:10, Moses gives it another attempt, "Pardon your servant, Lord.  I have never been eloquent in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant.  I am slow of speech and tongue."  In other words, "You want me to talk to Pharaoh when my sheep think I have a lisp!"

God replies to Moses, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” God challenges Moses to trust him, to have faith that he will equip him with the necessary skills to accomplish the task.  God wants Moses to trust in him more that he trusts in his own ability.

Our society obsesses with ability.  It starts early.  As a young parent, one of your friends says, "Jimmy started walking at 8 months!"  You think to yourself, "Oh no! Timmy is 10 months and he just rolls around!  What's wrong with him?"  We rate people by athletic ability.  In 7th grade I played on the Goddard Jr. High Orange team.  The school colors were red and white.  Where do you think I ranked?  We rate people by intelligence.  "My kid is an Honor Student at Taylor Elementary."  Or, we rate people by strength, "My kid beat up your Honor Student."  We rate people by degrees and salaries.  We are drawn to people with ability; we hone ability, we crave ability.  We are obsessed with ability.

But God cares more about faithfulness.  As he said of David, "Man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart."  God wants someone who is loyal to him, who will sacrifice for him, who will trust that He can get the job done.  God wants someone who has a heart for his mission and not just the ability to accomplish it.  Therefore, as you seek God's calling on your life spend more time honing your faithfulness than your ability.  (Aside: I think the same should be said of our children.  We should spend more time developing our children's faithfulness rather than their grades, athletic ability, or social life.)

Community is Key (Ex. 4:13-17).  Finally Moses just has to come out and say it, "Pardon your servant, Lord.  Please send someone else!" (Ex. 4:13)  He begs God to not send him to Pharaoh.  God does not let Moses off the hook but rather offers him a partner in crime:

What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.” (Ex. 4:14-17)

Perhaps Moses was right when he said he was not a good public speaker but that did not disqualify him from answering God's call on his life.  It meant he needed to find the mouthpiece that he was not.  So, God sent Aaron.  Aaron and Moses did together what Moses might not have been able to do on his own.  Moses found strength in numbers.  Once God offers him a partner, Moses quits making excuses (of course he had exhausted his excuses and God was angry at this point too...but still).

In scripture, God is not a big fan of Lone Rangers.  He loves to work through groups, through nations, through communities, through teams.  As you answer God's call on your life chances are that God is moving in the lives of others within your sphere of influence along the same lines.  For example, I have seen local churches explode with several families adopting children around the same time.  This is no coincidence.  This is God stirring many to the same calling.  It provides a network of support and resources for the families entering this journey together.  Just because God calls you to a task does not mean you have to fly solo.  Chances are, God is preparing a slew of people for the same mission.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Excuse Me (Part I)

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)

 Now that is an epitaph, a fitting summation to one of Israel's greatest leaders, and yet Moses never wanted to answer God's call on his life. 

For most of my life I did not believe in the concept of present-day "callings"- God commissioning individuals for certain tasks and/or missions, but my experience over the last three years has shifted my perspective. I have no concrete evidence that God calls people today.  I cannot purchase a Calling Test at the local Walgreen's, open the box and ask, "God, are you calling me to move to Africa and serve orphans and widows?"- spit on the test sensor and if it turns pink, - yes, Africa is a calling.  But, if it turns blue, "No, just last night's tacos talking." In other words, it is a grey issue, where it is difficult to discern between God and bad tacos.  My belief that God calls people to specific tasks is a "gut thing" not a "scientific thing" (as wrong or as right as that might be). It's the Jeremiah syndrome: a fire in my bones burning to come out, a dull ache in my heart relieved only by answering its proddings.   

Perhaps God has called you to a specific task or ministry: from adoption, to recycling, to full-time church work. As you respond or think about responding, Moses's failed excuses in Exodus 3-4 offer valuable insight regarding "callings." In this post we glean some calling principles from Moses's first two excuses.

It's not about being a SOMEBODY but about being with A SOMEBODY (Ex. 3:11-12). Out of a burning (but not burning) bush God invites Moses to stand toe to toe with Pharaoh.  Moses responds, "Who am I?"  In other words, I'm a nobody, especially to go 12 rounds with a heavyweight like Pharaoh.  Moses was right.  He was a nobody.  Wait, let me take that back.  He was a murderer (Ex. 2:11-12).  He was also an experienced shepherd, but God was not calling him to herd sheep through the desert. God was calling him to lead the defining liberation movement in Israel's history.

Moses focused on his inability rather than on God's power.  Within three verses Moses already forgot that the exodus was God's project, "I have come down to rescue them [his people]." God did not need Moses but he strategically chose to collaborate with him.  The exodus was not an opportunity for God to showcase Moses but rather for God to showcase his power and love through Moses.  (God also makes a habit of choosing the least likely with whom to partner.)

So if God is calling you to a task, you are likely to have one of two reactions.  First, "Who me? I can't do this." Second, "Of course he picked me. I have all the credentials."  Both are wrong.  God's calling is not about being a Somebody but being with A Somebody - namely GOD. Take confidence that this is his project and he has chosen to partner with you.  

It is not simply a call to mission but to personal transformation (Ex. 3:13-14).  After God extinguishes Moses's first excuse, Moses lights another match. "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your Fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask, "What's his name?"  In other words, they say, "Who?"  Israel did not yet have a relationship with Yahweh, and for that matter neither did Moses.  Moses had likely heard of God but did not have a relationship with him. He didn't even know God's name, "Oh, and uh, you are...?"

God responds by saying, "Tell them 'I Will Be who I Will Be" sent you (Ex. 3:14)."  The divine name was an invitation to discover God.  God tells Moses, "You don't know me yet and neither does Israel but by the time this journey is over you WILL know who I am."  After the 10 plagues, the crossing of the sea, the manna, the quail, the water, the victories,  and the covenant Israel would no longer ask, "Who?" and it would be said of Moses, "He knew God face to face." Answering God's call not only freed Israel, it transformed Moses.

When God calls you to mission it is not simply about you doing something; it is about God doing something in you.  When you adopt a child so much more happens than completing paperwork and bringing a child home, something changes in you.  When you answer a call to the inner city, it's more than fighting poverty. You develop the eyes of Jesus.  When you answer the call to ministry, it is more than teaching and helping others. It's learning to love the bride as God loves her.  When you answer the not only create change but you are changed.  Do it for others.  Do it for yourself.