We’re leaving “real church”

Sun setting on an old church

Where We Started

My wife grew up in church. She even found ways to get to church when her parents stopped going for a while. She loved it. Always has.

I did not. I only went when Mom felt strong enough to get three other people to wake up and get ready when they would rather be sleeping. That happened often enough that I was familiar with church, though, and familiar enough to know that I had zero interest in it. It didn’t make a positive difference in the lives of the people I saw. It just added rules I didn’t like and made me have to get up early on the weekend. No thanks.

That changed in the summer of 1988 when we visited a new church in the town we had just moved to. The pastor there actually believed what he preached. His life was different, and he didn’t apologize for what the Bible said or try to package it in a way that made it more palatable. He just told you what it said. That was the first time I had ever experienced that, and I realized it was actually true.

From then on, I loved church in the same way that my (still future) wife did. I was there every time the doors were open. I loved it.

Where We’ve Been

The pastor that changed my life also ended up being the one who married us, and in 1998 we found ourselves in his church together.

In 2007, God led us out of that church and into a series of churches that covered virtually the entire gamut of what a church might look like. First it was a young church plant co-led by a nationally known church planter. When he left the area for a new work role, we merged with another young church plant.

A few months later, God led us to the other end of the spectrum and into a 95-year-old Appalachian-style Baptist church.

Less than a year later, he led us out of that church — and out of institutional church altogether — into the organic/house church movement. Despite my almost daily protests and petitions to be able to go back to “real church”, he kept us there for 5.5 years before finally returning us to the now-100-year-old Baptist church.

In March of 2021, he introduced the idea of us starting a new church from within that old church — a way to renew the church and start a new path that would carry the church for another 100 years. We pursued that idea until January 2022 when we discovered that the path actually led away from that church.

We left there feeling like we had a pretty good idea of what the next few months would look like, but things did not play out anything like we expected.

Where We’re Going

Over a decade ago, it was already really bothering me that the way we do church didn’t seem to be working. I wrestled with that for a while until we went back to what I called “real church” (always with air quotes), and then it fell into the background for a while.

It stayed there until early 2019 when I read The Divine Conspiracy and saw for the first time the catastrophic incompleteness of the gospel I had been taught all my life. It began to change everything.

And then it all came to a head in March of last year. I could have phrased it better than I did then (I was frustrated), so let me try again.

I love church — love it — but it’s in really bad shape right now.

As followers of Jesus, we are supposed to be growing into people who are just like him:

We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image…
– 2 Corinthians 3:18

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
– Romans 8:29

…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
– Ephesians 4:13

And who, as a result, do the same things he did:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I have been doing…
– John 14:12

Other followers of Jesus are supposed to be helping us do that:

Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus appointed roles in the church to be specifically responsible for it:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for ministry, 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, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
– Ephesians 4:11-13

After 2,000 years, though, and despite almost 400,000 churches in America today, how many of us (myself very much included) would be described as “just like Jesus”? More broadly, how many of us know even one person who would be described as “just like Jesus”?

We’re essentially failing at our primary function. Something is wrong. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.

I’ve struggled with this for years and have started wondering over the past few months if the biggest problem might be the way we do church. Virtually all churches use some form of the sermon-centric, Sunday event model — a model from a different time that today tends to result in clubs, not teams. I started 2022 believing that we could be a church that succeeded in our mission where many others were not. Now I’m wondering if that’s actually possible without doing church in a fundamentally different way.

So we’re stepping away from traditional church for now to see if there’s a better way. Plenty of people are already doing something different, in lots of different ways. Maybe there’s a better way for us, or maybe there’s not. There’s only one way to find out.

And for you, there may not need to be a better way. I get that. I’m not bashing the Church or the men and women who literally give up their lives in vocational ministry. There is so much good that can be said of our churches. So much. Your church may be doing for you what Jesus wants it to do for you. I know plenty of churches are.

If it’s not, though, we’d love to have you take this side road with us and see what we find!

Photo by Tim Umphreys.

Filed under Spirituality

Burn it all down

Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols singing to the crowd

One day in eighth grade, I spent the very long bus ride home from school carving a large anarchy symbol into my forearm with a piece of metal I broke off my spiral notebook.

When my mom saw it a few days later, she flipped. “Why would you do that?!?”

It was a great question, and honestly I had no idea.

I do now, though.

It started with my best friend David.

One morning as we were getting off the bus, he handed me his earphones and said, “Listen to this.” It was maybe the best thing I had ever heard.

“What is this??”

“That’s punk.”

I was a heavy metal guy and thought punk was stupid. (An opinion I was absolutely sure of even though I had never actually heard punk.)

The Sex Pistols changed my outlook on everything that morning — so much so that carving an anarchy symbol into my arm seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, even though I couldn’t explain why.

I had always been a good kid. Acted right. Got good grades. Did what I was told.

People told me my life would be better if I did those things, and I believed them.

By eighth grade, I had realized it wasn’t true — and that most of the people who had been telling me those things didn’t really believe them either. It was all a lie.

The Sex Pistols knew that, and they were mad about it. All these people and organizations and institutions that were supposed to be helping us were actually just helping themselves.

Man, that resonated with me. I had finally found people who were speaking truth. The system was beyond hope. The only solution was to burn it all down.

That’s why I carved an anarchy symbol into my arm. I was all in. It felt good.

I still carry that anger. Listening to punk still feels good. I’m 50 now though, not 14, so it’s a more informed anger and more accurately directed.

But I’m still mad.

Filed under Spirituality

Jesus built a team, not a club

Team / Club

A team has clearly defined goals that everyone is working toward. A club doesn’t.

On a team, everyone has a role and responsibilities. In a club, only a few do.

You can lose your spot on a team if you prove consistently that you’re not on board with the goal or your responsibilities. In a club, you can stay a member for as long as you meet the requirements and aren’t too much of a disruption.

As a general rule, churches in America today are clubs, not teams. They don’t have clearly defined goals that everyone is working toward, and the thought of turning someone out of church for not being wholly bought in may seem completely unlike the way of Jesus — but it’s exactly what he commanded and modeled.

In Luke 14:25–33, Jesus tells the crowd following him that they either have to be all in or all out; that there is no middle ground. He gets even more blunt about it in Revelation 3:14–16.

In John 6:1–66, he says some disturbing things in order to weed out the disciples who weren’t fully committed. In John 8:31–59, he simply walks away from believers who got offended by something he said.

Jesus loved, healed, and ministered to everyone — just like churches should — but he was very deliberate about only spending concerted time with those who were serious about following him.

Jesus built a team. We build clubs.

Filed under Spirituality

Christianity is not a Spectator Sport

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be in ministry any more than we consider ourselves to be players of our favorite sport. We might throw the ball around in the back yard, but that’s about it.

Paul says that’s wrong. In 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 he writes:

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, and the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

You see what he says here? If you are in Christ, then you are in ministry.

The job of apostles/prophets/evangelists/preachers/teachers is to make you aware of that and to equip you for it so that you can be out in the world representing Jesus as a full-time minister (Ephesians 4:11-14). It doesn’t mean (probably) that you change what you’re doing. It just means that you do it for a different reason and with a different focus.

And it’s not just people that we’re in the ministry of reconciling — it’s all things (Colossians 1:19-20). It’s systems and structures and institutions. It’s the environment. It’s life itself. Jesus came to begin undoing the curse (Luke 4:17-21), and he wants us to join him in that work (John 14:12).

This is something we’ll work on constantly at SoFo Church: How’s your ministry?

Photo by Jakob Rosen

Filed under Spirituality

Why Our Saints are Losing Their Leaves

This interview of Anthony Hopkins is a haunting look at the end of life:

Florian told me when we met, “The [character’s] name is Anthony.” He said he wrote it for me. And he put my actual birth date in. There’s a scene in the office with the doctor, where she says, “Date of birth?” I say, “Friday, the thirty-first of December, 1937.” As a little bit of character, I said, “Can I add ‘Friday’? Because I know the date.” I wanted to show the doctor, “I’m in perfect control. There’s nothing wrong with me. Friday. You got a problem with that?” That is a man who is in control—but, of course, he’s not. He’s been used to control all his life. He was an engineer, an exacting profession, with two daughters. His favorite has sadly been killed in a car crash, we assume. And he’s a bit of a tyrant. He’s not a bad man, he’s just been a tough old father, impatient and irascible, and now finally he’s losing control of it all. In the last scene, he says, “I’m losing all my leaves. Everything’s falling away.” And that must be a devastating tragedy.

He talks about when his father died:

My father had a heart attack on Christmas, 1979. I was in London doing “The Elephant Man.” But he survived another year. He lingered on and he deteriorated. Round about the spring, he started losing his body. I would go to visit him in the hospital, and he was beginning to become comatose. He was becoming irascible as well, impatient—with me especially, because I was his only offspring. I used to sit with him and make him promises. You know, you make these empty promises: “When you get out of here, I’ll drive you from New York to Los Angeles.” Because he loved America; he wanted to travel. I went in there a few days later, and he had an old road map of America, and he was sitting on the side of his bed and looking at this road map. I knew he would never make it.

The morning after he died, I went in to collect his things, and I saw his bed already occupied by the next patient. I thought, That’s it. Life goes on. He’s gone. And I got his reading glasses, his pen, his map, his book, and I sat in the car and thought, God Almighty.

It immediately made me feel the same thing I felt nine years ago reading Wright Thompson’s article about Billy Varner, Bear Bryant’s long-time driver. This passage in particular:

Nobody ever has a plan. A man looks up and he’s 76 years old, with memories he can’t touch and not much else.

In an article a few weeks ago, Dr. Diane E. Meier, longtime director of Mount Sinai’s Center to Advance Palliative Care and a 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, provided great insight into this:

It’s important to disabuse you of the notion that pain is the reason people request medical aid in dying. Pain is not the reason. It is existential and spiritual.

It all reminds me of a phrase I’ll always attribute to Danny Hansard: “I’m not afraid of death. It’s the getting dead that scares me.” Clearly, though, many people are scared of both. I used to lament how tragic that was — facing death with no eternal hope. How absolutely miserable and increasingly terrifying life must be.

I have realized, though, that it’s just as common among those in the church as those outside. And that’s even more tragic. They ought to know better! I was continually frustrated by people who were ignoring so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3). The shorter the time, the greater the excitement and anticipation should be! How could they possibly be miserable??

I know why now.

People who have never experienced fullness of life aren’t likely to find it when life isn’t as pleasant anymore. When the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to their old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken their sky. When their legs start to tremble and their shoulders stoop. When their teeth stop grinding, and their eyes see dimly. When the door to life’s opportunities is closed, and the sound of work fades. They rise at the first chirping of the birds, but their sounds grow faint. They become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets. Their hair turns white, and they drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper. (Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 12:1-5.)

And those who have never found fullness of life struggle to truly believe in — trust in, deep down — a brilliant eternity. If they never learned to trust God for this life, it’s unlikely they can truly trust him for the next.

Sure, a few do find it. But as Dallas Willard writes:

As things now stand we have, on the one hand, some kind of “faith in Christ” and, on the other, the life of abundance and obedience he is and offers. But we have no effective bridge from the faith to the life. Some do work it out. But when that happens it is looked upon as a fluke or an accident, not a normal and natural part of the regular good news itself.

The fact that few find a life of abundance is our fault — those of us whose jobs it was to equip them and help them grow into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). We have been “blind guides”. We didn’t know the way to go, so we couldn’t possibly show them. And we didn’t know because nobody taught us.

Thankfully there is mercy for us, and there is still time to begin telling — with compassion — a better, truer story.

Photo by Johannes Plenio

Filed under Spirituality

The Catastrophic Incompleteness of Our Gospel

In Matthew 13:44-46, Matthew records these two related parables of Jesus:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

I started going to church regularly in the summer of 1988 — and by “regularly”, I mean that I was there literally every time the doors were open. It was that way for over 30 years. Heck, it had even gotten to the point where I was actually the one opening the doors.

In all that time, including almost two decades of teaching the Bible, I had never made much of the hidden treasure and pearl of great value. I had heard the parables plenty, and could quote them basically verbatim, but they just didn’t mean very much to me.

Which seems astonishingly odd to me now.

I mean, think about it: Jesus says there is something of such monumental worth that a person would joyfully give up all he has to obtain it. If that was true, what person in their right mind wouldn’t stop to figure out what, exactly, he was talking about?

I never did, though, and now I know why.

In 30+ years of going to church regularly, and teaching the Bible almost 2/3 of that time, I can’t remember ever really thinking about the “kingdom” at all. I know for sure I couldn’t have told you what it was.

That all changed in December of 2018 when I started reading The Divine Conspiracy for the first time. As I read it, I felt exactly like Apollos in Acts 18:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

I had taught and preached with great excitement, but I absolutely did not understand the way of God as adequately as I thought I did. Dallas Willard did for me what Priscilla and Aquila did for Apollos.

This passage sums up where my personal understanding fell short:

When all is said and done, for many “the gospel” is that Christ made “the arrangement” that can get us into heaven. In the Gospels, by contrast, “the gospel” is the good news of the presence and availability of life in the kingdom, now and forever, through reliance on Jesus the Anointed.

The particular faith tradition I had spent three decades in focused heavily on our need for salvation. We were going to spend eternity one of two places, and we couldn’t make it to the good one on our own. Once we let Jesus save us, it was then a matter of being as good as possible until we got to go to Heaven. That was “the gospel”. Despite the fact that the New Testament is full of good news about the life we’re living right now, we never spent much time on that part.

Because of that, for us, passages like Matthew 13:44-46 are what Scot McKnight calls a blue parakeet: Something in the Bible that doesn’t fit at all into our established understanding, so we have to figure out what to do with it. Usually, we end up either ignoring it or interpreting it in a way that forces it to fit.

That’s what I did, unknowingly, with all mentions of “the kingdom”. They just blended into the text and I never really thought about them — which was mind-blowing when I began to realize how absolutely foundational the concept is. It shows up over and over and over again, even in passages that I was very familiar with. Here are just a few:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10)

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. (Matthew 11:12)

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28)

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (Matthew 13:10-11)

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19)

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:52)

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

That’s just a handful of the passages from Matthew’s Gospel alone. “Kingdom” is mentioned 119 times across the four Gospels and 36 more times in the rest of the New Testament. How do you understand the gospel without understanding the kingdom?? How could I have had such a colossal blind spot?

As I began to fill in that massive gap in my understanding, other blind spots starting clearing up too. Things like the fact that Jesus said the reason he came was so that we could have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance — to the full, till it overflows (John 10:10). That he said he had told us “these things” so that his joy would be in us and that our joy would be complete (John 15:11).

In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul writes “If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” It has been devastating to realize that so many of us have done just the reverse! Our hope in Christ is for the next life only. No wonder so many Christians are just as miserable as everyone else and have lives that look no different — we don’t know any better!

We’ve somehow turned the good news for here and hereafter into good news about the hereafter alone. That’s not at all the way God wants it to be.

The incompleteness of our gospel is killing us. And as the salt and light fade away, the world goes down with us.

Photo by Osman Rana

Filed under Spirituality

Those Who Lean a Little Left

Tweet: The sin of the people of Sodom was that they didn't support the poor and needy.

Tweet: At the final judgment, Heaven or Hell will be based on whether we helped our brothers and sisters in need.

Tweet: I think God would consider pure, faultless religion to be looking after orphans and widows and keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world.

These tweets aren’t real. They were created with a tweet generator. But it’s easy to imagine them really happening. Elizabeth Warren has been quoting Matthew 25 for years, so why wouldn’t others use Scripture to support their positions too?

Ezekiel 16:49 – Now this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn’t support the poor and needy.

Matthew 25:31-46 – “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

James 1:27 – Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Appropriate reactions would point out that context is important — that, for instance, when Jesus says “For …”, he’s not saying that our eternal destiny is because of our works. We know clearly from the rest of Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9) that our eternal life is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that while our salvation is evidenced by our works (as in this passage and in James 2:14-20), it is not our works that save us.

Still, a strong Liberal bent runs through these passages even when context is considered.

In a tweet on December 20, our president called Christianity Today a “far left magazine”. “Far left” is a stretch, but there are definitely a few ways in which following Scripture’s teachings place someone more on the Left side of the aisle than the Right today. Here are some other Scripture passages that read like Liberal talking points:

Psalm 112:1,9 – Hallelujah! Happy is the person who fears the Lord, taking great delight in his commands. … He distributes freely to the poor; his righteousness endures forever. His horn will be exalted in honor.

Proverbs 14:21,31 – The one who despises his neighbor sins, but whoever shows kindness to the poor will be happy. … The one who oppresses the poor person insults his Maker, but one who is kind to the needy honors him.

Proverbs 19:17 – Kindness to the poor is a loan to the Lord, and he will give a reward to the lender.

Proverbs 21:13 – The one who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will himself also call out and not be answered.

Proverbs 22:9 – A generous person will be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.

Proverbs 28:27 – The one who gives to the poor will not be in need, but one who turns his eyes away will receive many curses.

Proverbs 31:8-9 – Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.

Isaiah 58:6-11 – “Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood? Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.

“At that time, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry out, he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of the yoke among you, the finger-pointing and malicious speaking, and if you offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday.”

Jeremiah 22:16 – “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.

Matthew 5:42 – Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Luke 3:8-11 – “Produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What then should we do?” the crowds were asking him.

He replied to them, “The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.”

Luke 12:33 – Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

Luke 16:19-25 – “There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was lying at his gate. He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores. One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’

“‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony.’”

Acts 2:44-45 – Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Acts 4:32 – Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.

2 Corinthians 8:13-15 – It is not that there should be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality. At the present time your surplus is available for their need, so that their abundance may in turn meet your need, in order that there may be equality. As it is written: “The person who had much did not have too much, and the person who had little did not have too little.”

Ephesians 4:28 – Let the thief no longer steal. Instead, he is to do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need.

1 Timothy 6:17-19 – Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.

Hebrews 13:16 – Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.

James 2:15-16 – If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?

1 John 3:16-18 – This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him—how does God’s love reside in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.

Galatians 6:9-10 – Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.

It is the tendency of many today to require complete adherence to one party platform or another. Any seeming agreement with “the enemy” is seen as a total defection to the other side. But in 2020, there is no major American political party that perfectly encapsulates Christianity. Southern Baptist Pastor Bart Barber phrased it well:

I’m an ultra-conservative. I’m a hard-right-winger.

By that, I mean this: I’m a thoroughgoing biblical inerrantist. When I say that I’m an ultra-conservative, I’m describing my THEOLOGY, not my POLITICS.

Now, I’m also, as things presently lie in American politics, generally speaking, a conservative. But I’m not committed to that at all; my commitment lies with conservative theology.

It’s an important distinction, because the Bible never changes, but what it means to be a political conservative changes all the time. Under Ronald Reagan, it meant one thing. Under Donald Trump, it seems to mean something else. Who knows what it will mean in 10 years?

There’s no axiomatic trouble with BEING both a biblical and a political conservative, but you can’t be COMMITTED to both. When they diverge, you’re going to have to choose which way you’re going to go. I’m sticking with the word of God, as best as I can understand it.

The AND Campaign is doing an admirable job of advocating for a Biblical middle ground between Left and Right — a daunting task in today’s emotionally charged atmosphere. Their 2020 Statement does a great job of defining what, exactly, a Biblical worldview looks like in U.S. politics today.

Where it fails, for me, is in placing the blame for our current problems solely on the current administration. While Washington is in its worst shape in decades, we didn’t get here overnight and both parties contributed heavily. Republicans and Democrats should share the blame equally.

Other than that, I think the substance of the Statement is outstanding and I would endorse a rewriting like this that does not place blame on a single party:

Race and Voter Rights

America was built by enslaved people and immigrant workers who brought the country closer to its founding ideals through their sacrifices and protests. And yet racial discrimination has pervaded American public policy and the law since our nation’s inception, and its effects continue today. People of color still haven’t fully recovered from the War on Drugs and a myriad of other government sanctioned efforts that devastated communities and weakened families. We must address racial disparities in education, poverty-levels, healthcare, environmental quality, and the criminal justice system head on. Central to that effort must be the vigilant protection of voting rights. Voting should be fair, accessible, and convenient for all eligible American citizens, and enfranchisement should extend to former felons who have paid their debt to society.

The Poor and Pro-Family Policies

America can’t disregard poor people in policymaking. We need creative anti-poverty policies that work in tandem with, not in opposition to, other institutions, including the family and the church. We believe in the dignity of work, and that workers should receive a livable wage. Education should be accessible and equitable for all children. Paid family leave and enhanced child tax credits are both family-oriented policies that relieve the burden on hard working parents and create opportunities for them to invest more time and resources into their children and loved ones. In order for families—and indeed, the nation—to thrive, women must be free from discrimination, harassment and abuse.

Religious Freedom and LGBTQ Rights

All attempts to remove more traditional religious beliefs from the public square should be opposed. We, like many other Americans, affirm the historic Christian sexual ethic, and we also believe that religious freedom and LGBTQ civil rights are not necessarily in irreconcilable conflict. Faith-based charities, hospitals and colleges should not have to choose between surrendering their convictions and closing their doors. At the same time, LGBTQ people should not lose jobs and housing because of how they identify. We must pursue ways to disagree and live together without bullying or compromising our conscience.

Immigration

Increasingly, administrations have failed to treat undocumented immigrants with dignity and care, especially at the U.S.-Mexico border. In light of God’s special concern for the immigrant and the sojourner, we are deeply dissatisfied with the federal government’s continued negligence when it comes to passing comprehensive immigration reform. Draconian, manipulative measures to stoke fear in immigrant communities and pit family members against one another is reprehensible. Our government must always seek to be both just and compassionate regarding immigration policy, especially in protecting Dreamers and upholding longstanding laws regarding refugees fleeing violence, lawlessness and oppression.

Healthcare and Abortion

We believe in building a society that respects human dignity at all stages of life, including the unborn. This includes accessible and affordable health care for everyone. Americans should not go bankrupt because they get sick or die because their medication is exorbitantly expensive. This includes policies that support maternal health and address our nation’s high rate of maternal mortality, especially among Black and Native American women. It includes vigilant prosecution of pregnancy discrimination in education and the workplace. It is essential that the sanctity of human life at every stage, in particular in the womb, is defended vigorously. Abortion is a tragedy, not a social good, that should be vehemently discouraged rather than promoted.

While each of us would probably have our own version of this platform, the more we can achieve this piece, the better off we’ll all be: We must pursue ways to disagree and live together without bullying or compromising our conscience.

Featured Photo: © Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Filed under Spirituality

Bible Memory Verses

Scripture is clear that memorizing the words of God is critically important as we grow to be more like Jesus. GotQuestions.org has a whole article on it, so I won’t rewrite it here. Their article is great.

Below are the verses in my list of Scriptures I’m memorizing. There is no rhyme or reason to the order. I’ve just compiled them over time as I’ve read the Bible and marked passages I wanted to remember because they convey important truths that I wanted to always have readily available. I am not claiming that you should memorize these; they’re just what I’m working on.

Some are straight from a particular Bible translation. Others are slightly rewritten so that I, personally, remember their meaning better. (There’s also one quote in there that I really needed to be reminded of constantly.) We’re all different, so your mileage will definitely vary. Use a version that helps you remember the meaning best.

A few have the beginning of the verse and/or the end of the verse omitted in order to better isolate the thought. I preach context constantly, so I promise you the meaning of the verse(s) has not been changed by leaving out some surrounding context. However, the depth of all of these is only increased when read in context, and the more context you understand, the more their meaning grows.

– – –

This is what the LORD says:

“Cursed is the one who puts his trust in man, who relies on human strength and turns his heart away from the LORD. He is like a shrub in the wasteland; he can’t see when prosperity comes. He will dwell in the parched places in the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope and confidence are in him. He is like a tree planted along a river that sends its roots out into the stream. It doesn’t fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never stops producing fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:5-8

“Remember what happened long ago, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like me.

“I make known the end from the beginning, from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will.”

Isaiah 46:9-10

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.

Ephesians 1:18-20

Prayer is the way to experience a powerful confidence that God is handling our lives well.

Timothy Keller

So, girding up the loins of your mind and being sober-minded and self-controlled, set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:13

But the fruit of the Spirit [the result of His presence within us] is love [unselfish concern for others], joy, [inner] peace, patience [not the ability to wait, but how we act while waiting], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Galatians 5:22-23

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8

Since you are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

Colossians 3:12

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts — the peace to which you were also called to live as members of one body. And always be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

Whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:17

For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:7-8

Keep your life free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, for God himself has said, “I will never fail you or abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can man do to me?”

Hebrews 13:5-6

Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11:6

If you respond to my warning, then I will pour out my spirit on you and teach you my words.

Proverbs 1:23

So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.

2 Corinthians 5:9-10

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. And this hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:16

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you – with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

For the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth to show himself strong for those who are wholeheartedly devoted to him.

2 Chronicles 16:9

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.

1 Corinthians 4:20

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

Then the Lord asked Moses, “Who makes a person’s mouth? Who decides whether people speak or do not speak, hear or do not hear, see or do not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will be with you as you speak, and I will instruct you in what to say.”

Exodus 4:11-12

Wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.

Luke 7:35

If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

1 John 4:20

This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands. The one who says, “I have come to know him,” and yet doesn’t keep his commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

1 John 2:3-4

If anyone claims, “I am living in the light,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is still living in darkness.

1 John 2:9

For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

Zephaniah 3:17

This is what love for God is: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.

1 John 5:3

“Look, I am the Lord, the God over every creature. Is anything too difficult for me?”

Jeremiah 32:27

You were called to be free, brothers and sisters. Only don’t use your freedom to indulge the flesh, but serve one another humbly in love.

Galatians 5:13

And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 7:21

Lord, show me my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days just inches long, and my life span is as nothing to you.
Every human is only a vapor.

Psalm 39:4-5

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Now we have this treasure in clay jars to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh.

2 Corinthians 4:7-11

So Christ himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental spiritual forces of this world, rather than Christ.

Colossians 2:8

Those who think they know something don’t yet know it as they ought to know it.

1 Corinthians 8:2

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-18

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or imagine according to the power that works in us— to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:16-21

He has saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.

2 Timothy 1:9

Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—dwell on these things.

Philippians 4:8

Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

You will keep in perfect peace the one whose mind is dependent on you, because he trusts in you.

Isaiah 26:3

As he approached and saw the city, he wept for it, saying, “If you knew this day what would bring peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you and your children among you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in your midst, because you did not recognize the time when God visited you.”

Luke 19:41-44

God is able to make all grace overflow to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8

Featured Photo by Aaron Burden

Filed under Spirituality

God’s Intent for Our Lives

Child Looking at Map

What is God’s intent for our lives? What’s the big picture? Are we saved only so we can go to Heaven when we die, or is there more?

Paul answers that question in Ephesians 4:11-13:

Christ himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip his people for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

God intends that we grow into a maturity that is measured against Jesus himself.

How do we make the tremendous leap from being born in sin to “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory”? (2 Corinthians 3:18)

We Must Be Born Again

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)

You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)

As Something Distinctly Different

Being born again isn’t just hitting the reset button on our lives and getting to start over again, though. Peter writes that we are…

…born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable (1 Peter 1:23)

And Paul notes this in a couple of different places as well:

…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)

When we are born again, we are born as something altogether different than what we once were.

Like Babies

As with being born the first time, though, the New Testament writers compare young disciples to babies:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2)

But they’re very clear that we’re not to remain babies:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

Growing Up Takes Commitment

None of us matures naturally. It takes real effort, and effort takes commitment.

Paul writes that we’re to approach our spirituality the same way an athlete approaches their athletic endeavors:

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way. (Philippians 3:10-15)

Herm Edwards put it this way:

As recorded by both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is very clear about the commitment level that discipleship requires:

Now great crowds were traveling with him. So he turned and said to them: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

“For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish it, all the onlookers will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man started to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or what king, going to war against another king, will not first sit down and decide if he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If not, while the other is still far off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. In the same way, therefore, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33)

Are you growing up, or are you just growing old?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Filed under Spirituality

The Question the Bible Says Not to Ask

Most of the Christians I know would agree with these four statements. (I would too.)

The pulpit of this day is weak in praying. The pride of learning is against the dependent humility of prayer. Prayer is with the pulpit too often only official — a performance for the routine of service. Prayer is not to the modern pulpit the mighty force it was in Paul’s life or Paul’s ministry. Every preacher who does not make prayer a mighty factor in his own life and ministry is weak as a factor in God’s work and is powerless to project God’s cause in this world.

In many churches Christianity has been watered down until the solution is so weak that if it were poison it would not hurt anyone, and if it were medicine it would not cure anyone!

The true gospel emphasizes filling people with God. Modern religion focuses upon filling churches with people.

There is a condition which has existed in the Church for some years and is steadily growing worse. I refer to the loss of the concept of majesty from the popular religious mind. The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.

Would it be surprising to learn that the first is from E.M. Bounds in 1907, and the others are from A.W. Tozer in the middle of the 1900s — more than half a century ago?

How about the beginning of this editorial from 1957?

Millions of hopeful words have been written in thousands of publications pleading that Christ be put back into Christmas

I regularly hear that our churches and our country aren’t what they used to be. There is this idea that at some point in the past, things were much better than they are today. Our pastor spoke the truth recently, though: “Yes, there are many things that aren’t as good as they used to be, but let me tell you something: We’ve never had it as good as we have it today.”

We Love to Look Back

Human nature hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. You realize that when you read the stories in the Bible of people who lived thousands of years before us. Vastly different context. Same exact behavior.

One of those behaviors is that we always remember the past much more fondly than it actually was. The Romans referred to it with the phrase “memoria praeteritorum bonorum” (roughly, “the past is always well remembered”), and the flaw has been well-documented in our time.

It’s why the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:10 tells us:

Don’t say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

In Numbers 21:4-9, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake for the people to look upon to be healed from the poisonous snakes God had sent among them as punishment. As we would have done, the Israelites kept the bronze serpent as a reminder of what God had done. Fast forward 750 years, though, and we find that the Israelites are worshiping it.

When God works, it’s so easy to transition from remembering the work to worshiping the work — to transition from loving the tradition and allowing it to honor God to following the tradition instead of God.

My wife shared a quote from “Call the Midwife” that sums it up so well: “There is much of value in the old ways, but one must not become like Lot’s wife, frozen in the act of looking backwards.”

God is always on the move and is always inviting us to join him. Let’s be wary of imagining how good our lives used to be and enjoy the new work he is doing today.

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