The Beauty of Being Irrelevant

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True story from seminary days:

I stick a Tootsie Roll in my lip,” he said. 

“A what where why?” I said. 

“Well, the guys in my community all chew tobacco, and I don’t. So the Tootsie Roll turns my spit brown. I can relate to them better that way,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

He was a young pastor in rural upstate New York — to a redneck tribe of pickup trucks and flannel shirts. And chewing tobacco. In the spirit of becoming “all things to all people,” my seminary roommate took up the Tootsie Roll habit, that he might better relate to the men he wanted to reach.

I love that spirit.

But I’m not so sure about that practice.

Aside from the risk of getting busted, “Hey Jimmy-Bob, got a plug of chew I could have?” “Nah, just Tootsie Rolls…” there’s a flaw in the thinking. Being relevant does not mean coloring your spit, faux-hawking what’s left of your hair, or sporting hipster glasses. It does not require LL Cool J on your iPod or misspelled Hebrew tatted on your forearm.

Being relevant means BEING YOURSELF, connecting with a tribe different than yours, and offering hope for a way out. If God has called you to cross cultural barriers (age, language, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, social status) for the sake of the gospel, then the people you’re reaching need three gifts from you: Continue reading

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Why Boaz is NOT Ruth’s Kinsman-Redeemer

BoazSandalUnder the Bible’s laws for the Jews, there was a certain institution called levirate marriage. The laws of levirate marriage are found in Deut 25:5-10. These laws required that if a man died, his brother must marry the widow and produce an heir. Here you go:

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. “And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. “But if the man does not want to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’ “Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’ “then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ “And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal removed.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, NKJV).

Under the law, the child would the child of the brother who died.

The man who undertook such a marriage was called the kinsman redeemer. Continue reading

Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 1

An Unusual Interpretation of the Day Jacob Wrestled God

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“We tried to get into your church, but the ushers wouldn’t let us in.” Two high school girls from my youth group berated themselves for not following my church’s unspoken rules. “Some men at the door told us we couldn’t wear shorts in church. We’re soooo sorry!”

The vein in my left temple throbbed as I told them I was the one who should be sorry. Our youth group had been praying for two seventeen-year old girls who had just joined the group and had never attended church anywhere. They came—on a hot, muggy Chicago Sunday. Two ushers-turned-bouncers stopped them dead. “Oh no. You can’t come into church looking like that.”

The girls turned away crestfallen, and told me their story at youth group. They blamed themselves. They felt guilty for not measuring up to God’s standards.

Score one for legalism.

Anthony snorted and laughed out loud during my sermon, and later apologized for disrupting the service. He reacted to my mention of a chapel in Italy that contained the Scala Sancta. The “Sacred Stairs” were reported to be the very steps on which Jesus climbed to stand trial before Pilate. As the story goes, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, commanded them dismantled, shipped to Italy, and reassembled in Rome.

I explained that, for centuries, faithful pilgrims climbed up those stone stairs on aching knees, pausing to pray on each of twenty-eight marble steps. To this day, no one may stand on the Scala Sancta. Pilgrims climb up on their knees, and exit via another stairway on their feet. For this act of contrition, penitents are promised a plenary indulgence—full pardon from the temporal punishments due all unrecompensed sins to date.

That’s when Anthony snorted. He later explained that he’d grown up in Italy, and his grandmother made him climb the Scala Sancta every week. He told how she stood by weeping, wringing her hands, and praying for his eternal soul.

I admire her dedication, but can’t agree with her theology. Score another one for legalism.

Every Christian is a recovering legalist. We come from a long line of legalists, all the way back to Adam and Eve who sewed fig leaves to cover their shame. Instead of approaching God as empty-handed charity-cases, legalists approach him as religious success-stories who, through their hard work and sacrifice, have earned a spiritual paycheck. “Come on, God. Pay up.”

God has a way of knocking the legalism right out of us.

Case in point, Jacob. Genesis 32 tells the strange story of his wrestling match with God. Is it true that we must win a contest with God before he gives us what we need and want? Or is this story a biblical case-study on God’s way of delivering a knock-out blow to legalism? Let’s see.

The Context: A Personal Judgment Day

Jacob is about to collide with the brother he cheated years ago. He’s frantic, thinking Esau is out for blood. He dreads the heavy hammer of retributive justice – well-deserved – and scrambles for a solution.

He does so in a schizophrenic way. His first approach to deliverance is through grace. In v. 9, he appeals to the goodness of God, who “promised to prosper” him. The Hebrew word tob, translated “prosper” refers to God’s settled disposition to do good this his people.  Then, in v. 10, he confesses, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness [hesed] and the faithfulness you have shown your servant…” The word hesed refers to God’s policy of bestowing benefits on those who don’t deserve them and haven’t earned them. Hesed is a part of the Hebrew vocabulary of grace. Jacob prays a grace-based prayer.

Too bad he didn’t stick with grace. Jacob immediately shifted into legalism mode and, by his actions, undercut everything he just prayed.

The Human Solution: Paying the Price Ourselves

Jacob’s second approach to deliverance is through blatant bribery. He sent ahead treasure-laden caravans to buy his brother’s forgiveness. He offered goats, camels, rams, bulls, and donkeys.

We might laugh now, but how many times have we done the same thing? How many times have we sought divine deliverance through caravans of offerings, rituals, good behaviors, self-sacrifice, and religiosity? How many times have we expected God to answer our prayers on account of a week’s good behavior? Every time we try to pay our way out of judgment or into a blessing, haven’t we stepped into Jacob’s dusty sandals?

Legalism thrives in the dank atmosphere of self-atonement. We may not climb up stairs on our knees, and we may not believe in religious penance, but legalism degrades our Christian walk into a moment-by-moment penance. We so easily take onto our shoulders the hulking burden of paying for guilt—a burden than only Jesus Christ can and did bear in full on Calvary’s cross.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, yet still I catch myself undercutting the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. I know it’s stupid, but I have a mental closet crammed with fig-leaf garments I’ve sewn together to cover my guilt and shame. The essence of legalism is humans by human effort seeking to merit the blessing of God.

It’s time for God’s loving whack upside Jacob’s legalistic head.

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Should we wrestle God for answers to our prayers? What was Jacob thinking? What do you think God was thinking? What have you heard about this story? How has it been interpreted for you? 

(Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 2)

“But God…” A Dozen Reversals of Life’s Heartaches, pt 1

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One of my pastors mentors me from the grave. For inspiration, learning, and direction, I often turn to the late, great pastor, Ray Stedman (click here to learn more: Ray Stedman). Today I read this from him, and thought I’d give it a try:

If you want a wonderful experience, take your New Testament and use a concordance to look up the two little words, “but God.” See how many times human resources have been brought to an utter end; despair has gripped the heart and pessimism and gloom has settled upon a people; and there is nothing that can be done. Then see how the Spirit of God writes in luminous letters, “but God,” and the whole situation changes into victory. (Ray Stedman)

God is the Lord of Reversals. He can turn around the darkest moment, reverse the bleakest fortunes, and upend the devil’s most diabolical plan. When life falls apart, God reaches down with his mighty hand of grace to mend, to heal, to fix, to help, to win the day. Life is hard, “but God…” Here are a dozen great promises, a dozen “But Gods” to cling to in life’s toughest hours.

  1. “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Genesis 50:20, NKJV). Though great evil came Joseph’s way, God’s hand of power never let him go. God is able to convert life’s tragedies into blessings no words can describe.
  2. And he said, “Listen, all you of Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem, and you, King Jehoshaphat! Thus says the LORD to you: ‘Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. (2 Chronicles 20:15, NKJV). I know, this one does not fit the mold grammatically, but how could I skip it? The great promise on the eve of battle rings true forevermore, in every struggle, every trial, every loss, and every distress: the battle is not yours, but God’s. Whatever giant you face today, go forth in the power of God; be at peace in his perfect promise.
  3. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalms 73:26, NKJV). We come to the end of our resources, we want to quit, give up, fall into despair… but God comes in with strength from above and love that knows no bounds. He will strengthen you, uphold you, encourage you, comfort you, and fortify you for the battles ahead.
  4. The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters; But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away, And be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, Like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. (Isaiah 17:13, NKJV). For all who fret over the global political scene, here is hope. Your God is greater than the mightiest nation, ruler, or king. He will work through them and in spite of them to accomplish his glorious plan. He lifts them up, and when the time comes, he brings them down. The rulers of this world may seem almighty, but your omnipotent God towers above them forever.
  5. Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28, NKJV). Here, God reverses Peter’s lifetime of religious bigotry and the whole kosher system of the law. The law rendered us unclean, but God, by his mercy, washed us, brought us to his banqueting table, and made us his own.
  6. “But God raised Him from the dead. (Acts 13:30, NKJV). The ultimate victory. Here is hope for life’s darkest hour, peace in life’s fiercest storm, comfort in life’s saddest moments, and faith for life’s biggest obstacles. If God can conquer death, he can conquer whatever foes assail you today.

Click here for part two. If this blessed you, please use the share buttons below to share on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Thanks. 

How has God reversed your hardship? Has a bad situation turned into something good for you? Share in the comments your own “but God” story… 

Diversity’s Intolerance of Chick-Fil-A

I don’t care if you’re liberal, conservative, progressive, straight, gay, atheist, or Christian, without the first amendment, our nation is not free. Without it, we descend into fascism and totalitarianism. Without it, we are not the United States of America. The amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

When a private citizen engaged in commerce utters a moral or religious opinion, and government authorities PUNISH him, we no longer live in America. When that opinion conforms with traditional values espoused throughout the history of America, we are doubly in danger. When that opinion represents a Judeo-Christian worldview and is punished BY GOVERNMENT, we are ALL in trouble.

The PEOPLE give government officials their power; the US and State Constitutions limit that power. That power can in no case diminish our liberties, especially our freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Yet that is exactly what is happening before our eyes in the Chick-Fil-A controversy.

It is one thing to boycott; that is our right. It is our right to organize legal protests. It is right to voice our disagreement. It is right to rally voters to fill legislatures with lawmakers sympathetic to our causes. Private citizens and groups can make all the noise they like. They can take their business elsewhere. That is our right. That is our great freedom in this land. That is the diversity that makes America great.

But when GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS use the power of office to PUNISH an opinion that deviates from theirs, when they DESTROY a person’s or a group’s right to make a living, when they COERCE  citizens against their conscience, we are no longer free. A narrow view of pretended-diversity has become a cudgel to bludgeon outliers. Tolerance? Only in the fantasy of Orwellian double-speak.

What’s to stop Mayor Emmanuel (Chicago) from hindering the proclamation of the gospel? What’s to stop government from punishing the message of faith alone in Christ alone? What’s to stop Sharia law? If Chick-Fil-A can be punished for its CEO’s opinion, by what principle can any private citizen or group articulate an unpopular or contrary opinion without fear? Unchecked government power already threatens to force the Catholic Church to pay for abortions, and to coerce private Catholic hospitals to perform them — against conscience. What’s next, jail time for pastors who refuse to officiate same-sex marriages?

My point is that citizens enjoy rights that government officials, acting from office, do not. That is the essence of our American system.

In ancient Athens, a city of the Roman Empire, philosophers gathered on Mars Hill to enjoy debate — religious, political, philosophical, and moral. TRUE DIVERSITY existed, and competing views were easily aired. At the end of the day, the thoughtful crew enjoyed cold beverages together and went their way, no harm done.

Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing. (Acts 17:17-21, NKJV).

Here’s the result:

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them. (Acts 17:32, 33, NKJV).

That is diversity.

No opinion-staters were harmed during the production of that meeting.

Were Christians of the Roman Empire more free to express an opinion than Christians today in the USA?

There may come a day when the shoe is on the other foot; when conservatives enjoy majorities in Congress. On that day, I pledge to fight for true diversity. I will fight for my gay friends’ right to make a living and for my atheist friends’ right to be free from government’s attempts to cram religion down their throats. I may not agree with what you say or believe, but I will fight for your right to say it and believe it. The pendulum of public opinion swings both ways. Let it. And keep those in government on their leashes.

We have more to fear from unchecked government officials than from criminals.

Actually, what’s the difference?

A Non-Partisan Memo…

To all who voted for President-Elect Obama…flag

To all who voted for Senator McCain…

To all who felt the wrong choice would shoot us to hell in a handbasket…

To all who felt the right choice would put a chicken in every pot…

Remember…

God is on his throne.

For our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. (Psalms 115:3, NLT).

The high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, the Holy One, says this: “I live in that high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I refresh the humble and give new courage to those with repentant hearts. (Isaiah 57:15, NLT).

It’s a testament to God’s grace that no matter what the outcome, history was made (either our first woman vice-president or our first African-American president). This could have never happened when I was a kid.

Congratulations to our nation’s incoming President and Vice-President.  Congratulations to the McCain/Palin ticket for a hard-fought campaign.

Now, let the Church be the Church.  May the Lord bring us BACK TO THE BIBLE so that his blessing can rest on our land.