Not About Religion

Generally today, when someone talks uses the word ‘religion’ they mean a set of beliefs, values and practices based on the teaching of some denomination or some cult like leader. The Apostle Paul considered himself on top of the pile when it came to strict religion. In his words: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” [Gal 1:13 ESV]

The real issue of religion is that we have forgotten the source of Christian religion. We have forgotten the Bible. It is not just a collection of musty writings from long-ago out of touch old men. God wants to reveal His story and His vision for us.  Religion according to God is learning to find the pathway to Him so that we can live satisfying lives. James, the step brother of Jesus, was not always a Christ follower. Later in life he had this to say about religion: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” [Jam 1:27 ESV]

At least two or three times a year, we can pick up the newspaper and find some article on how a christian group or leader has fallen. All too often, the source of the fall is embedded in the avoidance of God and not taking seriously personal interaction with Him. This is not about tradition, public practices, parental upbringings or backgrounds. This is about personal relationship with the Sovereign Living God.

So, when you read your Bible, are you focusing on the events you are reading about? Are you possible focusing on how questionable they sound? Or are you focusing on how God is defining life for you? Do you see life-shaping issues in your life that God might want you to trust Him with? You know the stuff I am talking about … those thoughts and actions that simply will not go away no matter what you do.

Yes? Then the very next time that you sit down and start reading your Bible, pause just for 15 seconds and simply ask God to “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” [Psa 119:18 ESV] “Open my eyes so I can see what you show me of your miracle-wonders.” [MSG]

Try it. Seek God were He can be found. He will find you.

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It Is All About Others

“No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main … “[John Donne]

The calculation of success of what we believe and how we live can only be measured in community. There are no kingdoms building Lone Ranger Christians. Jesus was not a hermit or even a monk. He lived in community. He ate with others. He was constantly in demand. His ministry 24/7 was centered not in buildings, academic learning or social programs but in building into the lives of twelve men. He is the model of self-giving. Our job as Christ-followers is to reflect this in our family, co-workers and neighbors. It takes living among others to learn how to love as God loves us. God wants us to move beyond the “Hi. How are you?” “Oh, fine, just fine.” He wants us to nurture authentic relationships with the people He has put around us. The only way that we can reflect God’s love to others is when we have experienced it ourselves first hand. “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” [Corinthians 1:4 NLT]

As we intentionally foster authentic relationships, we demonstrate what Jesus had in mind for life with God in community with God. That community, the local fellowship of believers called church, is all about serving others. As Rick Warren so clearly stated: It is not about me. Community is what God created us to be part of and is His ordained mechanism were He transforms us into the persons He created us to be.

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Transformation

All too often, I have seen on a sign outside a church with the words “Come as you are!” Yet when you walk inside everyone is dressed the same. Years ago, during the hippy generation, I was attending a well-known evangelical conservative church. A man in the congregation was developing a street ministry specifically with the hippies in mind. Most in the congregation thought this was a good idea. That is until this one Sunday, he brought about six of “them” into the Sunday service; and they came in as they were. People were shocked. There were audible gasps in the audience. There was much rustling as people turned in their seats. They said “come as you are” but they did not really mean that. Those six never came back. What they believed was not transformational to their lives.

And that problem still exists today [the extreme of that would be Westboro Church]. Religion is not transformational. Encountering Jesus and doing life together with Him is the stuff that makes us change. Becoming more like Jesus means that we have to intentionally listen and then do what He tells us.

That is our part. But there is another side to this transformation. It is only a work of God. Only God is capable of transformation of the heart. It is the game-changer that changes us from doing religion as we think it should be done [read self-improvement] to becoming the person that God created us to be. Doing life with Jesus is not some sort of pressure to conform but a call to live in the Image of God just as Jesus modeled for us.

God wants us to join Him in His redemptive work in the lives of people. It is God’s agenda, not what we think God’s agenda might be. God never says be “conformed” but he does say be transformed. And the only way I know of being transformed is not by group collective actions but by being in close connection with God. Jesus never defines us by someone else.

Being transformed means that I have to be willing to release what I think is scared and allow space for God and His grace to help me learn to live “with God.” Jesus is not interested in my trying harder to change something in my life so that I am more pleasing to Him. That is the sure road to failure. All He wants is for me to learn to be and practice continually to be, in conversational relationship no matter what I am facing.

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Invitation

Being other-centric is hard to do consistently individually, much less for a church. It is much easier for both to institute and follow rules for controlling people’s lives. I like to be connected to churches that want to intentionally reach people who do not go to church. I like being a part of a church that looks out at those people who are outside of the church looking in. Jesus made disciples of all sort of people – people that society would normally ignore. Jesus embodied the good news of salvation and restoration to God’s kingdom. That is what we are to be about, inviting people looking in, people of all sorts regardless of their social or economic status.

Jesus was deeply passionate about setting the stage to be able to invite people to “do life with God.” And that is what we should be about as well. Biblically based Christianity is a life that is not about rules but about relationship. Church should be a place where we can bring our friends, family and any others that are far from God. I think that we have lost the concept of the original church that started in the marketplace. We tend to only invite to church those that appear to be a fit for our church. With that attitude goes the hope that they will get a taste of what life with God will be like and help them move toward a better understanding of who and what God is all about.

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DNA

Science has told us that we are all created by DNA [Deoxyribonucleic acid]. This is the self-replicating building block material presented in nearly all organisms. It is the main substance of chromosomes, and is the carrier of genetic information that is passed on in reproduction. It does not take long in studying the human body to discover the complexity that cannot be answered by evolutionary theory.

Having said that, it is not a giant leap to intertwine science and faith. Each one of us is wonderfully made. Each one of us is unique. Because we are unique, we can aspire to and accomplish many things. Our DNA hard-wires us physically and psychologically in certain ways. We are not robots. We have freedom in the ability to think and make choices. Part of that DNA has the icon of God imprinted in all of us; the Imago Dei. We are made for God, to represent Him in this world. As with any icon, it can get damaged or cracked and therefore the image gets distorted. But just because the icon is damaged in us does not mean that the Creator whose image it is has tossed out the icon.

We matter to God. Because we matter to God, people should matter to us. People have Imago Dei stamped into their DNA no matter how flawed or broken it looks. It helps for us to occasionally look in the mirror of the Bible. The image staring back at us is flawed and ego-centric. We may see a beautiful face but we know that inside that face is a flawed image. Our internal image is revealed by how we treat our spouses, children, family, co-workers, foreigners and even those in the community of faith. We do not naturally care for others. Because of that we are capable of thinking and saying and doing things that have no semblance of God’s image.

But if Jesus Christ is allowed to transform us from the inside, the outside actions will change. We will become other-centric. It is a process of reformation and transformation. People will start to matter. We will begin to see those around us as God intended us to see them – people with the icon of God in them. We will begin to see the potential in people and not the worse. We begin to treat others with dignity the way that God treats us. When this happens, we are becoming the hands and feet of God reaching out to a world going further and further astray. Incredible advances in technology do nothing to fix the unbelievable evil that comes out of the heart. If there is any shred of doubt the truth of that assessment, pick up the daily newspaper or read history. It keeps repeating itself because men keep missing the Imago Dei in others.

Part of my calling and work as a pastor is to encourage men that God puts in my path to become what God intended them to be. It is part of the hard-wired DNA that God put into me. As I have allowed God to expose that truth in me through His reformation, I get to see the Image Dei in others and learn how to treat them as God treats me. It is a process that continues.

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Patriotism

Patriotism is a quality of being, not a thing. It is the glue that binds us to our country. Patriotism is not about the geography make-up of my country. American patriotism is specifically about a principle that states “all men are created equal.” This is a fundamental core belief of our country and serves as the guiding light for all of our constitutional laws. Unfortunately, we have not always gotten the application right during our 378 years of history. Fortunately, patriotism is a process of living application, working out over time the principle to which we pledge allegiance.

Patriotism in America is all about providing freedom to think, to discern between right and wrong and to act as my conscience dictates. Patriotism is not always about freedom for all. Pick up the newspaper on any given day and you will see patriotic men and women in many countries fighting but it is not to bring freedom to all. It is to bring their way of thinking to be the rule of the land. That too is patriotism. But it is not the patriotism that we want in America.

Today we have created a problem between our chain of reasoning and the principle to which our country is bound together. The problem gets in the way of supporting the “all men are created equal” principle. Our founding fathers assumed that we were ‘created.’ The big bang theory and our climbing out of a primordial soup was not part of their scientific thinking. They reasoned that we all were created; human beings were brought into existence as the result of Providence’s [to use their word for God’s] action. The assumptions we make about our beginnings [created or evolved] historically has and continues to have, a bearing on how we work out living with our neighbors under the “all men are created equal” principle.

While geographically America is big compared to most countries, size is not what makes us great. Our greatness, our durability is based on human equality supported by responsible citizens in government.

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Firmly

I heard someone say recently “Really, I am telling you the truth!” If you read your Bible you find that Jesus has said the same thing to us more than once. For example, one of his disciple records Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” [John 5:24] Let’s look more closely at what Jesus is saying.

There is only one thing in this world that is truly trustworthy; Jesus’ words. They are not changeable but are a firm foundation for our lives. Jesus is the “amen” to all conversation. “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this …” [Revelation_3:14] Jesus is prefacing His promise announcing His authority and character. Jesus never wore a mask. What the disciples heard and saw was the real deal. And God superintended that they were faithful in relaying His words on to us. When it comes to matters of salvation, God wants us to understand that attempting to bring our carnal and fall-twisted reasoning into the discussion is a ship wreck waiting to happen. When it comes to salvation, our reasoning can never reach a final conclusion with certainty. Just think about that for a minute. Outside of Jesus, there is no assurance of salvation, We base everything devised in religion on limited faculties about the subject of eternity and our real condition before God. If we are honest with ourselves, no matter how we craft our arguments in our minds, we can never be sure that we have reached a correct conclusion in all cases.

Jesus wants us to hear him clearly. “I am going to relate to you in a systematic way.” In other words, I am the One who is speaking to you now, whom you have been actively resisting, rejecting and seeking to cut from your life. Jesus is saying: ‘Listen to Me and understand.’ Jesus wants us to understand that He is the sum and substance of what He says. Do not make the mistake of just listening with only the external ears that God gave you but also listen internally, with your soul. That is where life begins. It is only when we listen with the soul that Holy Spirit can enable us to distinguish what is truth from Sovereign God and what are lies from the many deceiving gods.

Jesus wants us to listen not only to His words but try to understand.If you only look for the bling and bang of miracles, then you will miss His intentions for you. There are two types of hearing: speculative and experiential. We can listen and speculate about the pros and cons of Jesus statement. Or we can choose to take them to heart, and then actively trust Jesus that He is telling us the truth and act on them as truth. When we act on what God says we discover He really is telling the Truth. The constant question before us is simply this: Do I entrust my spiritual well-being to Jesus? We learn and relearn three basic things in the Christian life: to trust in, rely on, and adhere to the Lord Jesus in all things.

Listening to what Jesus firmly tells us gives us the right to claim hope by faith in His grace. We will gain a new and perpetual  life as God intended it, full of His grace and peace that cannot be manufactured. He guaranteed His promise. Because Jesus was faithful to die in our place for our sins, we escape the accusation, condemnation and damnation for rebellion against God. We pass from guilty condemnation; meaning that not one of our sins will be held in accusation against us. It is not by our righteousness or our clever legal arguments but only by the righteousness of Christ that we have received by faith.

Listening and actively trusting Jesus removes us from all of our guilt. We move forward into spiritual life covenant grace and forgiveness. We are now alive to a process of exchanging our sinful ways of thinking. The Holy Spirit empowers us to a life that seeks to draw closer to God and live a life pleasing to Him. It is a life made secure. Trust in, rely on, and adhere to Jesus Christ. He is the only answer to your life.

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Would You Kill for This?

For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” [John 5:18 NIV]

Look at what happened. It looked like a good thing that Jesus did. A man who lived a miserable incapacitated life is suddenly freed by Jesus; on Sunday. The religious leaders should have been ecstatic with joy that this man who had suffered so much was now up and walking around. But no, they were more concerned about when Jesus healed the man. In focusing on the Law, they had lost all compassion or even sympathy for those who are suffering. Because they focused on ‘form’ they missed the ‘proof’ of Jesus being their long awaited Messiah. Their formality twisted their ability to make sound judgments.

This is the first of five instances that the Apostle John records the religious leaders seeking to kill Jesus. It was from this point forward that the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus reached a point of no return. They would not rest until Jesus was executed and thereby restoring the status quo.

It was never for criminal activity that they wanted to kill Jesus. What they hated was that He was defying their man-made regulations of what constituted ‘work’ activity on the Sabbath. To further add fuel to the fire, what made this so galling was Jesus’ own defense of what He was doing. Jesus “was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”  That gave the leadership the most serious charge against Jesus. The Jews understood what Jesus was claiming. This was not a case of mistaken identity or of misspeaking. The Jews clearly understood what Jesus was saying. He was claiming to have the same nature, the same privilege and the same power as their Sovereign God. This was, for the Jews, a crystal clear case of blasphemy. Death, with no provision for appeal, was the only punishment.

The religious leaders were suffering under a heavy burden of envy. They had a problem. Jesus had just done a great miracle but not according to the way that they thought things should be done. Envy creates hypocrites. A hypocrite’s actions belie what he says he believes. The religious leaders said they honored God and demonstrated that they loved God by doing what He commanded. But by their actions they showed that their love was not for God and His concerns, but in reality hatred for anyone who rivaled their coveted place in religion.

Jesus knew that His breaking the Sabbath and claiming equal authority with God would bring on their wrath. He was intentionally bringing the Jewish leadership’s crosshairs into focus on His execution. Barnes makes this note:

We may learn from [Jesus'] answer:

1.    That we are not to keep back truth because it may endanger us.

2.    That we are not to keep back truth because it will irritate and enrage sinners. The fault is not in the “truth,” but in the “sinner.”

3.    That when any one portion of truth enrages hypocrites, they will be enraged the more they hear.

[Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible]

The lesson here is to be careful with what you and I think is scared. It is so easy to fall into a false religiosity in form and loose the beauty in freedom of worship. It is so easy to let petty restrictions gobble up the grace that God wants to extend to those around us who are hurting.

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Firmly Held

How many times during your life time have your heard someone say to you, “Honestly” or “Really, I am telling you the truth!” If you read your Bible you find that Jesus has said the same thing to us. For example, one of his disciple records Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” [John 5:24 NASB] Let’s look more closely at what Jesus is saying.

TRULY, or MOST ASSUREDLY – There is only one thing in this world that is truly trustworthy; Jesus’ words. They are not changeable but are a firm foundation. Jesus is the “amen” to all conversation. “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this …” [Revelation_3:14]Jesus is prefacing His promise with a declaration of His authority and character. Jesus never wore a mask. What the disciples heard and saw was the real deal. And God superintended that they were faithful in relaying on to us. When it comes to matters of salvation, God wants us to understand that attempting to bring our carnal and fall-twisted reasoning into the discussion is a ship wreck waiting to happen. When it comes to salvation, our reasoning can never reach a final conclusion with certainty. Just think about that for a minute. Outside of Jesus, there is no assurance of salvation because everything devised by man in religion is based on limited fatalities about the subject of eternity and our real condition before God. No matter how we craft our arguments in our minds, we can never be sure that we have reached a correct conclusion in all cases. There must be an independent outside source of validation who participated in the creation.

I SAY TO YOU – “I am going to relate to you in a systematic manner.” In other words, the One who is speaking to you now, you have been actively resisting, rejecting and seeking to eliminate from your life. We do not like what He says to us if we are running away or just plain ignoring Him.

HE WHO HEARS – Jesus is saying: ‘Listen to Me, listen to My followers who are around you, listen to what is being reported, and understand.’ Jesus wants us to understand that He is the sum and substance of what He says. Do not make the mistake of just listening with only the external ears that God gave you but also listen internally, with your soul. That is where life begins. It is only when we listen with the soul that we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to distinguish what is truth from Sovereign God and what are lies from the deceiving gods.

MY WORD – listen not only to My words but try to understand My thoughts; My ways “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel.” [Psalm_103:7] If you only look for the bling and bang of what I as God do, then you will miss my intentions for you. There are two types of hearing: speculative and experiential. We can listen and speculate about the pros and cons of Jesus statement. Or we can choose to take them to heart, trust Jesus that He is telling us the truth and act on them as truth. The question is: how do we hear Jesus’ words? If we are looking to draw closer to God and discover for His ways, then our actions will be to yield in obedience through faith.

AND BELIEVES – The constant question before us is do I credit God with being faithful? Do I entrust my spiritual well-being to Jesus? The Christian life is composed of a life time of learning three things: to trust in, rely on, and adhere to the Lord Jesus.

HIM WHO SENT – Dispatched Me from where I was originally; My point of departure. Interestingly Jesus does not here say to believe Him but the One who sent Him. So when we reject the counsel and instructions of Jesus, we are then rejecting God.

ME, HAS – You will hold, you will have in your possession and you will have the condition of. I will have the right to claim hope by faith in His grace. This is a pledge not from a man but from God Himself.

ETERNAL – Perpetual [past, present and future] everlasting

LIFE – life as God intended it to be, full of His grace and peace that cannot be manufactured.

AND DOES NOT COME – Pass from; fall out of what God has promised us.

INTO JUDGMENT – Something ordained that is either for or against me. Implies justice enacted. Divine law adhered to. Accusation. Condemnation. Damnation. I will pass from condemnation of the original sin and all sins past, present and future. Not one of my sins will be held in accusation against me. It is not by my righteousness or my legal arguments but only by the righteousness of Christ that I have received by faith.

BUT HAS PASSED – to change places; depart from where I am at currently; to go toward; to be removed from [by divine decree].

OUT OF DEATH – moral death; all of the guilt from sins; out from under the penalty of death having missed the mark of perfection that the Law of God requires.

INTO LIFE – spiritual life; a life of covenant grace and justification by faith, made alive to a process of exchanging my sinful way of thinking and acting to a life that seeks to draw closer to God and live a life pleasing to Him. It is a life that has a security to it.

Trust in, rely on, and adhere to Jesus Christ. He is the only answer to your life.

 

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FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS

Psa 103:2 Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits–

I do not have a perfect memory. I may forget some of the things that God has done in my life over the years. I should never forget them all! God, help me to not be oblivious to what You are doing due to lack of attention on my part. When life gets messy around us, one of the first things that we forget is to give thanks to God. David is rousting his soul, that inner-most part of him that represents his whole being to acknowledge what God has done for him.

God in His unfathomable mercy ordained that I should receive good from His hand when I only deserved ill. His actions of salvation toward me have brought a myriad of benefits. Only those who have been redeemed from sin and self-destruction by experiencing His grace understand this psalm. It is a song of a saint, undeservedly crowned with loving kindness and compassion, in route through lonely shadowed valleys to the City of God. When we get to the end of our journey here on earth, we are going to be really surprised at the amount of ‘salvation’ God has heaped on our lives for our good. And we will have enough to praise Him for eternity.

My focus is to be on what God has accomplished in my salvation; not only past but present as well. I do not want to remember the puny self-efforts that I have tried or the haphazard opportunistic chances I took on events that ‘seemed’ right.

Jesus Christ pardoned all of my sins. Every last one of them He dealt with voluntarily on His cross. That payment is all-inclusive. God is still forgiving as I am tempted and fall into sin today.

My remembering in my soul, that place internally beyond the reaches of heartbeat and breathing, that directs from whence I came, where I am going and Who is leading the way, is an act of blessing. “Bless the LORD, O my soul.

 

 

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