Tag Archives: gospel

War on Christmas Over!

“It’s okay to say that now. ‘Merry Christmas’ is back.”

Or so declared a number of Fox News voices on a mash-up video from a left-wing site, posted by one of my friends from that political camp. On the video, President-Elect Trump makes a show of proclaiming, “Merry Christmas” to the crowd, and the video cuts to supporters going wild. The newscasters delighted that the war on Christmas might now be over.

So I guess we win, or whatever. Religious Right, assemble! On to the next vile foe we must defeat to preserve America’s position as God’s favorite!

One of many battlegrounds!
One of many battlegrounds!

That a secular government–by design and by the Constitution–would take pains to be inclusive by not singling out one religion over another should come as no surprise. “Happy Holidays” is a way of recognizing “Maybe not all of you are Christians and some of you might celebrate something else during this season.”

But it’s been spun up for years as a “war,” as if not saying “Merry Christmas” is akin to denouncing the faith or outlawing worship. What if coffee shops don’t offer Christmas cups? What if a store clerk says, “Happy Holidays” to me? This is just one step in the advancement of the liberal agenda to destroy America, of course, so we’re told. Because we have to remember how bad “they” are and how imperiled our freedoms are, so that we keep a good, rabid voting base to get the GOP candidates elected.

Dear Christians, is the President-Elect saying “Merry Christmas” the victory we want? Is that the Good News we proclaim? Christmas is back now, guys; it was gone for the last eight years or something, but Trump said the word and now everything is better!

This changes nothing, and we’re foolish if we think it does.

Is saying the word “Christmas” the important part? Or maybe it’s a blow to politically correct culture that we celebrate? “I’ll say, ‘Merry Christmas’ and if you don’t like it then too bad!” Which totally sounds like the love of God revealed.

That’s what Christmas is about, right? The love of God revealed in the Son of God who entered a broken world and became one of us? That Jesus came in the image of fallen humanity in order to show us how to live and free us from the power of sin? We celebrate Christmas because it starts a story that leads to a cross and an empty tomb, not because “boy it really gets under those progressives’ skin when I say it, hehehe.”

My thanks go out to those who are actually on frontlines that matter:

…those ministering to the poor,

…those reaching out to the wounded and hurting during tough times,

…those who preach the Gospel around the country and around the world,

…those working to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation,

…those providing comfort and counsel to military members deployed worldwide,

…those speaking life and hope in prisons so that men and women don’t continue down the same paths that got them incarcerated, and so on.

I’m pretty sure these are the wars Jesus won at the cross and the empty tomb. These are the war-zones where His victory needs to be proclaimed and His compassion displayed.

Those wars–where we battle not against Leftists or Democrats or Liberals, not against flesh and blood–those are still ongoing. That’s where we’re needed, because that’s where lives can be changed.

To my fellow believers, merry Christmas. Let’s not forget what it is we say we’re celebrating.

Sometimes By Step

I promised to look at some Rich Mullins songs I love the most, as a Wednesday “Worship” thing.

I thought about putting these out on Sunday, because, hey, they’re worship and spiritual and churchy and all that.

But Rich Mullins was hardly churchy, and that’s kind of the point. Plus, while some of his songs spoke to me on Sundays, more often than not, his words and music were what I needed in the day-to-day of the work-week, in the midst of choices and struggles and frustrations and delights.

“Sometimes By Step” is one of those songs that I heard growing up–we’d sing the pretty Praise & Worship style chorus in church. Then I heard the whole song, and was shocked that there were all these powerful words in the verses. I felt robbed unawares, denied something powerful and true years earlier–missing out without even knowing something was missing.

This version shows Rich speaking about the profound nature of God’s tasteless love for us. I won’t do it injustice by trying to recap it. Please listen and hear him out, reflect on the love revealed in Christ’s sacrifice which is for <strong>all</strong>, not just for the so-called deserving or worthy.

In the first verse, Rich sings that “there was so much work left to do, but so much You’d already done.” And that so captures my despair at my failures, coupled with my joy at the hope of God’s grace at work in me.

The second verse hits my heart even harder. To think that a star Abraham saw was lit for me… to recognize that when I feel I don’t fit in, that might be by God’s design… and to remember even though I fall and struggle in the journey, I’m never beyond the outstretched grip of God’s grace.

That gives me a powerful reason to declare “Oh God, You are my God, and I will ever praise You!”

The Gospel on Mars

Does God want humans to go to Mars?

Serious question… sort of. But it’s possibly going to make my atheist readers’ heads spin off, because these are actual discussions Christians sometimes have.

I read a news story recently about some of the folks volunteering for the Mars mission. One is an Army 1st Lieutenant, and–being in the military–this caught my attention. Another is this fantastic article about the man behind SpaceX, Elon Musk and his vision for the future of space exploration. (Warning to my more sensitive readers: there’s strong language right off the bat.)

I mentioned the Army lieutenant and the Mars mission to a Christian friend, and was surprised by their off-the-cuff response.

“I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we’re supposed to do that.”

I was shocked. I saw no issues with it. I was excited that it’s even a possibility. That humanity could take the first steps to go beyond this little ball of rock spinning around in the vast dark, and propel itself across the expanse to land on another spinning ball of rock in order to start the process of some day establishing human colonies on other planets, and to think I might see that happen in my lifetime? Amazing!

“Why not?” I asked.

“Jesus isn’t coming back to Mars. He’s coming back to Earth to reign for a thousand years.”

My evangelical Christian upbringing wanted to agree. <em>That’s true, that’s in Revelation. What do you think about that? Why</em> didn’t <em>you think about that?</em>

But of course I couldn’t let myself be wrong in any way.

“Is it really wrong to go to Mars? Is that even a topic the Bible attempts to address? No.”

I already knew the answer to my argument. There are a great many topics the Bible doesn’t specifically mention, yet we Christians take various principles and statements contained within, and figure out ways they might apply to those cases. Take the Christian concept of the Trinity: nowhere is that word found in Scripture, yet it’s a central tenet of the faith.

We went back and forth a bit. My friend thought 1) this was reaching beyond the scope of authority humanity has been given, 2) that the debate was fairly silly because there are resources and space aplenty as yet untapped on Earth, and 3) that the point is probably moot because it’s pretty clear from all the signs that the various prophecies of Scripture are coming true and the end is near.

I countered with some optimism both ‘rational’ and religious, like:
“think of what great technological advances the space program has brought about thus far,” and
“why did we explore Antarctica? God didn’t put people there either but we still went there to learn and discover more of the world around us,” and
“Imagine two astronauts on the surface of Mars, and one of them shares the Gospel with the other. Does it not have power to save because they’re not on Earth?”

Seems appropriate to this post.
Seems appropriate to this post.

But most of all, my defense comes down to one question, a question I realized I don’t think my friend is willing to consider.

“What if I’m wrong about this whole faith thing?”

We talked about the end times, but it struck me that Paul and others in Scripture wrote about the end times like they were already happening, like it would all be over in <em>their</em> lifetimes. I recall listening to Christians as I grew up, hearing their proclamations about the end, and thinking it would all be over before I became an adult.

(Ok, let’s be honest, I was afraid I’d never get married… because I was a teenage boy and I was afraid I’d never get to be with a girl. And while going to Heaven would have to be totally awesome, maybe God could hold off on the End of the World thing a little bit?)

Now, I think there are some interesting points about Scriptural prophecy. We’re living in the first time in human history where the Gospel could actually reach every people group on the Earth (Matthew 24 makes that out to be a requirement before the end comes). We’re living in the first time in human history when technology and economics make it feasible that some one-world government could mandate the use of a “mark” worldwide in order to have access to conduct business (Revelation 13 talks about the Mark of the Beast and what all that entails). We’re living in an age of “wars and rumors of wars” and natural disasters aplenty… and though it’s possible they seem to be increasing only because of worldwide 24-hour media coverage, it certainly feels like this world is going through the “birth pains” described by Christ in Matthew 24.

Yet here we still are. And it’s been 2000 years of Christians saying “the end is near.”

I’m not sure I can fault the skeptics for being a little skeptical.

Elon Musk makes the argument that for humanity to thrive, we can’t have all our eggs in one basket. He wants to make sure we get off this planet and start the process of reaching others. His view comes from reasoning about evolution and the risk of catastrophes on a planetary scale which could render this world devoid of life (or at least kill off the vast majority of living things and no doubt cripple or destroy civilization permanently).

While I have my faith, and I have personal experiences and I daresay <strong>reason</strong> backing my beliefs, I have to wonder.

Why wouldn’t humanity go to Mars? Why wouldn’t we reach for the stars? Why shouldn’t we work toward a better future for mankind in whatever time we have?

Because, well, what if I’m wrong?

Is that too serious a question to consider? Can that thought even occupy a corner of my faith-based brain without toppling the house of cards?

Rich Mullins Was Aptly Named

A few days ago (before I went on this short work trip away from home), my wife and I finally watched Ragamuffin – the life story of Rich Mullins’ ministry and struggles fitting in to the Christian music industry.

She pointed out that Rich Mullins’ name is appropriate: a guy who’s always mulling over the deep and rich things of God’s love, the practical expressions of it that get lost in religious structures and routines.

I know as a newly-recommitted Christian, Rich Mullins’ songs challenged me and pushed me to go farther and deeper in my faith, to be authentic and to think about what it really meant to pursue Christ.

For days since watching the film, I’ve had one of my favorites of his songs stuck in my head: If I Stand.

The chorus really captures a simple passion that it would all be about Him and not about me:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that You will pull me through

And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You

If I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs

And if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.

In the verses, he points out how the “stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the Giver of all good things.” As I write this, I just finished reading through Psalm 4, which includes the phrase, “How long will you love what is worthless?” (v.2)

I love a lot of arguably worthless pursuits. Or I’ll say I engage in a lot of pursuits of debatable value. I can make a case for the “good” that may come out of them. But it rings hollow.

Songs like “If I Stand” refocus me and get me centered back on Christ. But that’s just one of the awesome songs Rich wrote, just one topic on which it felt like he spoke and sang directly to my soul. So for a while I’m going to post a song a week, starting Wednesday, and briefly share my thoughts or why the song means so much to me.

Here’s If I Stand, recorded live. (I had to see him actually playing piano, because I don’t want to believe he can intentionally hit all those keys. He also makes a mistake in this, so you know he’s human.)

Playing Favorites

Happy Labor Day in America. It’s time for a

Monday Morning Snack

There was reclining on  Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples,  whom Jesus loved. – John 13:23 NASB

OM NOM NOM
Goes best with a cup of steaming coffee.
Coffee not included in price of purchase.

If you ever want to learn how to make things fair in life, have more than one child.

It seems no matter how hard we try, one of our four children is always wondering why he or she has it worse than everybody else, and why some sibling gets it so easy.

“My chores are the worst!”

“She got to play the XBox for a long time!”

“He got to go to his friend’s house, why can’t I?”

“IT’S NOT FAIR!”

I don’t feel too bad. If Jesus’ own disciples bickered and accused Him of playing favorites, then I figure this is a normal fact of life.

In the Gospel of John, the writer (John… shocking, I know) uses the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” five times to refer to himself.

Maybe it was humility; he didn’t want to write his name in the account, like “me me me, look at me.” But it kind of comes across to my ears as a proud statement. “I’m the favorite. I’m the one He loves. Neenur neenur neenur, you’re just plain ol’ Peter.

But maybe this phrase is neither humble nor proud.

Maybe it’s a statement of a wonderful and incredible fact.

John understood. He really got it. John’s the one who later writes all about love in the church (read 1st John). He’s the one who emphasizes over and over again that Christ’s followers are “beloved of God” – and he even uses “beloved” as the collective title for his readers.

Beloved means dear to the heart, favored, favorite one. To call myself beloved of God speaks of confidence about His love, security and certainty that “He likes me… He really, really likes me.”

That’s not arrogant, either.

It is arrogant when we add “more than you” either consciously or unconsciously. It is arrogant if we presume to add “but not you” when we think of some group we don’t like. It’s foolish for us to think God should limit His love to suit our desires.

But we can confidently say that we are beloved of God, dear to His heart, favored and special to Him.

Why?

Because He said so.

You’re His “prized possession” and “special treasure.” You are recipients of “great love lavished on us” by God, an unconquerable and inseparable love.

It pains my heart when my wife apologizes or worries needlessly whenever I seem frustrated or upset by anything. It hurts when my children say they are afraid to admit a bad decision for fear that “Daddy might get upset.” That tells me that I have not fully communicated to them the unchanging and unconditional love in my heart. They don’t understand that each of them is my absolute favorite. Each of them holds captive the full measure of my love. So, in my imperfection, I must work to communicate that more clearly.

God, on the other hand, has communicated His love. He has told you that you are His beloved, you are His treasure, you are the one He loves. When He plays favorites, we all win.

Say to yourself, “I am the one He loves.”

Chew on that for a bit.

The Exhibit

We are each a display case for God’s glory. We are meant to be a visible image of the invisible God.

This leads to two questions for personal reflection:

1) What sort of case am I?

I always make the mistake of going to the store hungry. I go with five or ten things in mind and leave with a basket full of everything that looked good. I have one dinner plan figured out and intend to buy what I need to make it, but suddenly I have a week of meals planned (and not a few snacks).

Most of the time, I hesitate to try new things. I know what I like and I stick with it.

My wife is a bit more brave.

She’ll come home with a new product and open the package, ready to give it a chance.

And immediately she gets upset.

“Are you kidding me? They needed this huge bag for that little bit? Half the bag is empty! And look at this box! It has three inches of empty space at the top! What did I spend my money on?!”

The outside doesn’t always reflect what’s within.

The gimmick of false advertising is true in other areas of life. Things aren’t always what they seem.

Nice, but not TOO nice.

The display case isn’t there to attract attention. It’s meant to reveal what’s inside. But sometimes our ‘displays’ can be calculated to look good, drawing the eyes of the audience to us instead of to God.

Imagine going to a museum for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit. You pay your money, get your tickets in hand, and head inside. When you get to the viewing room, you’re treated to a series of gold-layered, jewel-encrusted, ornately crafted cases. They’re so extravagantly decorated that you can’t even see the contents. Sure, they look great, but what’s the point?

Jesus spoke of the hypocritical Pharisees as whitewashed tombs made to look pretty but full of death and uncleanness. They were cups washed on the outside to look useful but full of spiritual dirt and grime. They did their good deeds for people to see, so that everyone knew how holy they supposedly were.

Sure, they looked great, but they missed the point.

The case can attract attention in another way.

A few years back, we heard about a zoo on Okinawa, and we were excited to take the kids to see the variety of animals. Our kids had not been to any stateside zoos yet, so this was a unique experience for them. We arrived and started the tour through all the various pens and cages, and they were delighted to see living animals they had previously only read about.

But my wife and I were shocked.

The cages were dirty. Most of the animals seemed miserable. The grounds appeared untended. Our kids didn’t know any better, but we had seen well-kept zoos before.

We couldn’t enjoy the sights because the poor condition of the displays stole our attention from the animals we came to see.

Paul wrote about vessels and containers in a house. He said some were made for honor and some for dishonor. Paul encouraged his protégé to live a godly life and thus be recognized as a vessel of honor.

A friend of mine modernized this analogy by talking about porcelain.

“A Lladro figurine is made of porcelain, and so is the toilet. Which would you aspire to be compared to?”

Take your pick.

If the display case is covered with filth, or if it’s covered with dust from lack of attention, no one will see what’s within. Inside, there may be great treasure or beauty, but the ugliness on the outside keeps people away.

I think of the many times I have seen people pushed away from the gospel by the hatred, pride, or condescension of the messengers. Similarly, one grave mistake or angry word can ruin our reputation and close the door of opportunity to share the good news.

Sometimes we need to dust off that display case!

We don’t want fake “picture perfect” lives or public good deeds to become a misleading distraction. But we also don’t want people to refuse to look closer based on the mess they see on the outside.

That leads to the second question:

2) What is on display in my life?

20+ years captured on display

Military veterans are often presented a “shadow box” upon retirement. The design and contents of the shadow box tell the whole story of a military career. All the awards and medals the individual won will be displayed. Rank insignia occupy a prominent spot. Unit patches may be shown, and various emblems or badges that identify specialties will also be featured. A folded flag is often the centerpiece.

Imagine a beautiful hand-carved wooden case with a rich varnish that shines in the light. There’s an engraved golden plate on the bottom with rank, name, date of enlistment, and date of retirement. Underneath that is a funny quote selected by friends and peers. The pristine glass window reveals a lush navy blue velvet interior.

And it’s empty.

Or worse yet, the few medals and stripes leave more navy blue empty space than they cover up.

What achievements are in my shadow box, I wonder.

Are they all based on what I used to be long ago? “I used to lead worship… I went on that missions trip one time… I led a Bible study for a few months…”

Are the contents of my display case even worthy of public viewing?

Think of the peril of public ministry. Far too often, we see the decline and fall of some notable preacher as the secret doors of their ‘display case’ are opened for all to see. It’s easy for me to point a finger and judge. My life isn’t in the public eye.

Yet the world around me is walking past the exhibition of my life every single day. Is there something in that case that tugs at their attention? Is there anything of value, anything of interest? Or do they only see what they’ve seen before?

The display case isn’t made just to hold stuff from years past. It’s not made for great achievements I will do “someday.” And there’s no secret compartment that is completely hidden from the eyes of others.

What sort of case am I setting out for the world to see?

What have I put within it?

I was made to be a visible image of God, an exhibition for the eyes of the world to see His glory.

They’ve got their tickets in hand.

Is the display worth their attention?

Display Cases

“What does God look like?” 

My daughter’s neighborhood friend asked me this on the way home from church. She recently declared her faith–or perhaps her desire to go everywhere with my daughter, based on other experiences dealing with her.

I’m skeptical about this decision she made. I’d like to know more about what exactly she “accepted” and what she understands.

I’m not overly fond of “Yay, I made a decision and prayed a prayer, now I’m saved forever from hell and I live however I want because Jesus!”

But the question was a good one, regardless of how deep or sincere the faith may be that asked it.

It’s also a trick question, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.

There are a few passages that try to paint an image of God.

And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool.  His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. – Daniel 7:9 NASB

2 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. 3 And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. – Revelation 4:2-3 NASB

So God is like white snow and surrounded by something like flames giving off light… He is like this gemstone… but like that one… but there’s this rainbow like a different gemstone all around… light and brightness and radiance and…

Sorry, Michelangelo.

That’s not very helpful if I wanted to draw a picture of Him.

From the beginning of Scripture, God’s people are routinely commanded that they should make no idol or graven image.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” Exodus 20:4-5 NASB

23 So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. – Deuteronomy 4:23 NASB

Other nations had representations of their various gods. They could point to a statue and say, “That’s what Dagon looks like, see how powerful he is?”

Not Israel.

The only thing Israel can point to is a testimony of what God has done for them.

They can point to a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt. They can point to signs and wonders performed by Moses. They can point back to provision and blessing through Joseph, through Jacob, through Isaac, through Abraham.

But they can’t point to a picture or an image or a statue and say, “Here’s what God looks like.”

Neither can I when I answer this young lady.

I know why I can’t point to a statue, but I leave it out of my answer to her.

My friends who are not Christians often point to God’s jealousy about idols and ask, “What kind of petty God has to be jealous? Is that really the God you serve?”

The writings of the Prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible often reveal God’s sarcasm and loathing of idols. They help explain a bit of why God is so jealous about this issue.

“I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.”
Isaiah 42:8 NASB

Later, Isaiah writes about the folly of idols. A man works and toils to fashion an image made of metal, and sets it up in his house. Then he falls down to worship the thing he just made, crying out to it for deliverance. Another man cuts down a tree and takes half the log for daily needs – a fire for warmth and for cooking. Then he takes the other half, carves an image, and says, “You are my god!”

That is what frustrates God: taking the created thing and making it into a god that competes for the glory due the Creator.

That’s nice to know, but it doesn’t answer the question of what God looks like.

For thousands of years, Israel goes on believing in a God that they cannot describe in a picture or represent in a figure. They can only point back to acts of God in their history, or moments where they believe God showed up in storming clouds over Mount Sinai, or in a fire from heaven, or in a powerful glory that filled the Most Holy Place in the Temple.

Then along comes Jesus, who says things like:

“I and the Father are one.” John 10:30

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” John 14:9 NASB

More than that, Jesus makes it clear that the reason behind His statement is because the people see Jesus doing what the Father directs Him to do. Again, seeing what God looks like is not about the physical representation, but about a testimony of what God did.

So the answer to the young lady’s question becomes, “Jesus!”

Typically, in Sunday School as a child, if you didn’t know the answer to a question, ‘Jesus’ was a safe bet.

Colossians 1:15 bears this out. “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.”

John 1:18 adds, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He [Jesus] has explained Him.”

Sweet, so now we know that God looks like Jesus.

Problem: where do I find Jesus?

Seriously, if Jesus is what God looks like, that still doesn’t give me a present-day answer to the question. It’s not like He’s walking around today in Jerusalem. In fact, if you DO hear that He’s walking around offering Kool-Aid or inviting you to His church in Waco, Texas, run away.

We assume we can find Him in the Scriptures; we can learn what He said and read about what He did. In so doing, we get something of a picture for ourselves of what God looks like.

Jesus attests to this in His rebuke of the Pharisees:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40 NASB

But that’s very personal. That’s an internal concept of what God looks like.

What do we point to if someone else wants to see God?

For that, I would say:

Look in the mirror.

Congratulations!

If Christ is in you, then you are-practically speaking-the visible image of the invisible God.

I have to caveat that in multiple ways, because religion leaves so much room for mis-communication. I’m not suggesting that everyone automatically reflects Christ. I’m not suggesting that every Christian automatically reflects Christ. I’m not downplaying the evil men do in the name of religion, nor am I attributing the blame for the terrible choices of men to a holy and just God.

Consider what these verses have to say:

No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
1John 4:12 NASB

18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 NASB

6 For God, who said, “ Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NASB

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  2 Corinthians 5:20-21 NASB

The ideal, the intended result of your salvation is that you become a display case. You become a “vessel of honor” that is designed not for its own glory but to carry something worthy of worship.

You have been called, chosen, redeemed at a great price.

This was done for a purpose.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9

If ever you doubt your value, go look in the mirror and remember that God chose and crafted you and sent His Son to die for you, so that you could be His visible image for the world today.

So you tell me…

What DOES God look like?

I look forward to seeing the answer.

Flip-Flops and Soccer Balls

“What are we supposed to do with a thousand pairs of flip-flops?”

I imagine this was the question for a pastor at BCC a few weeks or months ago. A local school had a fund raiser for a missions trip to Kenya, and they chose to collect flip-flops for the African children the team would meet.

They weren’t expecting a thousand pairs, and getting that many shoes from Nebraska to Kenya no doubt meant logistics and expenses and effort.

They get to the city and meet the couple who are running a ministry to children orphaned by AIDS and other diseases, and they find out that–oddly enough–the wife has been specifically praying for flip-flops for the 700+ kids she cares for.

On top of that, the team brought clothing and sundry goods, stuff we don’t even stop to think about like toothpaste and soap. It was like they were handing out treasure.

The team built two church buildings, visited with orphans, provided for needs, and even supplied joy in the form of soccer uniforms and balls. They saw returns on work they’ve been doing for over ten years, contradicting the thought that missions teams just show up for a week or two, then never come back to build relationships or follow up.

Teams I’ve supported or even traveled with have brought cases of medical and dental supplies, pulling rotted teeth and distributing basic vitamins and medicine. They have brought basic food, meeting the practical and real-life needs of the people.

Back on Okinawa, that one church partnered with several others to perform medical missions twice a year, to the Philippines and then Cambodia.

I know from a trip to the rural parts of the Philippines how much I take for granted.

A woman brought her infant to me and asked for prayer for his fever. I felt the baby’s head and ulled my hand away shocked. I thought about if it had been me with one of my kids. Jonathan was about four months old at the time, and so I thought of him. I would have been flying down the highway to the emergency room. My baby would have been full of Infant Motrin and Infant Tylenol and any other thing I thought might help.

This woman didn’t have any of that.

She and her child stand out as the memory of that trip for me. Her desperation and need for something we could meet with no real great expense or thought still haunts me. The unwillingness or apathy of Christians regarding meeting these needs… That frightens me.

Despite it being generally understood that Jesus’ last order to His people was to go into all the world and make disciples, we don’t always see a church that looks out past its building, past its community, past even the borders of its country.

In spite of common sense telling us that people need more than Bibles and “decisions for Christ,” that sometimes turns into the image we have of “reaching out to the world” with the love of God.

More than all of the above, we provide ministry to churches and we preach the Gospel to those who have not heard… Or who have seen no reason to believe before.

There are stories of missionaries handing out Bibles and being rejected. “Do you think I want your book? Will this feed my children? Will it keep them warm? Can your book be a roof or a bed? I don’t need this.”

We come not just with a Bible and a sermon, but with aid for real needs because our sermons based on the Bible tell us to do more than just give out a book or a tract. Sometimes we need flip-flops to deliver our message.

Some of my agnostic and atheist friends would say to deliver the latter, the real needs, while leaving the former at home in church.

They would ask, shouldn’t we do this practical ministry just for the sake of doing it? Should the goodness of the deed be enough to motivate the deed? Should we do this without such an obvious emphasis on Christ?

Ok, maybe.

Maybe it’s not enough to clarify that the response to evangelism is not connected in any way to the services received. But we’re out doing something about the suffering and tremendous need in the world, and we’re putting every cent and every bit of the supplies and support we raise into the people we encounter.

If you can find a better organization that does what you want more effectively, great. Support them. But if not, consider partnering with those who are meeting practical needs in the lives of others.

Pride

PRIDE

Disclaimer: This is a *fictional* story, not an actual personal experience. I hope to do something like this some day, and to live out love like this every day. But this is just a short story.

It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.” – James 4:6 MSG

I step out of the van and ignore the immediate hostility of passers-by.

Two cross-dressers glare at me as they head toward the parade route. A man is crawling on the pavement in leather chaps; he has a leash around his neck, and another man is ‘walking’ him. He barks at me.

These are among the more tame participants. It strikes me as odd that in such a crowd, I am the one who gets strange looks.

If I am embarrassed at all now, well… it’s going to get a lot worse.

I make my way to the edge of the crowd and try to squeeze through to the front. I need to be visible if this is going to be of any value. When people turn and see me, they assume they know what I’m here to do. I get jostled and shoved a few times as I gently push my way through. “Bigot,” one person says. “Homophobe! Go home!”

“Get out of the closet already, Bible-thumper.”

The police are out in force. Pride parades often get a lot of attention, not all of it good. That one church from Kansas is lined up farther down the street. Some local churches have put up their own signs, not willing to be outdone by these famous out-of-towners with the “God hates fags” posters.

The cops are busy keeping people marching in the parade from getting into fights with the various protest groups. None of them notice when I finally reach the rope that marks the edge of the parade route.

I stand at the edge and lean out, a Jesus in Teva sandals, a wig, and a polyester white robe with a red sash I borrowed from our church drama team. The beard is mine, scraggly but full enough after two months of growth.

The first few people to see me react in anger, swearing, shaking fists. “You don’t belong here,” they yell, along with some other choice words. People in the crowd throw half-empty Starbucks cups and large sodas and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Ketchup and mustard splatter across my white sleeve.

No one throws rotten fruit any more. It’s not readily available, and it’s too expensive.

The folks marching in the parade are not happy to see me, either. Rainbow signs with witty slogans are shoved in my face. I don’t know if they’re meant to block my view with their message, or block the view of the other marchers so that no one else has to see another religious jerk condemning everyone in sight.

“What’s another name for the Crucifixion?” one guy asks the girl next to him, loud enough for me to overhear. She shrugs.

“A good start,” he says.

She laughs, and glances my way, her smile turning into a sneer.

I reach out a hand to those marching, and someone spits at it. The next person ignores me, stepping away.

“I am sorry,” I say, and he looks back, brow furrowed. But he’s too far past me now.

Mostly all I get from the faces in the crowd is the strong sense that I am unwelcome–a defensive posture and wounded expression that demands to know, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. This is ours… go away.”

I catch another guy’s hand, someone in a leather jacket, boots, and briefs. He recoils in disgust, but then I say, “I am sorry for how we have hurt you,” and he pauses.

Someone else spits on me. “Go back to the tomb, Jeebus.” His partner winks at me and says, “Hey, baby, I’ll nail ya.” They walk away laughing.

The man in the leather jacket, whose hand I grabbed–he simply nods to me, and I think I see his eyes glisten as he turns and continues in the parade.

A thin guy explodes into a rant with more f-bombs than actual words, arms waving, fists clenched. “What the f’ing f are you f’ing trying to do, f’er? You f’ing f’s think you’re f’ing doing any good with your f’ing ‘God hates fags’ signs and your f’ed up little white dress? Do you really f’ing think I give one good f’ing G-D what the f you f’ing have to say to me? F!!! I f’ing hate you, I f’ing hate your f’ing book that does f-all to teach love and tolerance, and I f’ing hate the f out of the f’ing God you represent! What now?”

He gets in my face.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and a tear runs down my cheek. “I’m sorry for how we have hurt you.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

I think of the recent news stories I’ve heard, the angry sermons on the Internet, the callous defenses of indefensible statements.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve let people say we should ‘smack the gay out of children,’ or put them behind electric fences.”

He says nothing now, but he continues staring at me.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve pointed the finger at all of you, instead of preaching against our own arrogance, our own pride, our own prejudice and hatred. I’m sorry for how we act like you are less than human.”

“I came to say I’m sorry for my people and what we have done.”

His friend grabs his arm and pulls him away. “Come on, man.” But he keeps looking back, and I see him mouth the words, “Thank you.”

Another person spits on me, and a big guy just happens to hit me with his elbow. “Bigot,” he mutters.

This pattern repeats itself for an hour and a half, some people accepting my hand in friendship, many slapping it aside at first, some of them turning back to acknowledge the apologies I offer.

One of the people in the crowd behind me tugs at my shoulder. He’s holding a black leather Bible, with the gold edges on the pages and a little fish over a monogram in the corner of the cover. “You’re in the wrong place, brother. We’re all protesting at the other end of this block.” He points to where the angry people are waving their signs and shouting Scripture like a battle cry.

I nod and remain in my spot on the street.

Two women walk by, arm-in-arm. The blonde says, “You want us to confess our sins, pervert? We’ve been verrry naughty.”

They giggle as they approach. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bible Guy watching.

“I would like to confess my sins to you,” I say.

“Ooooh,” the other coos. “Kinky. Yeah, do it.”

“I am sorry for the double standards we use to judge you,” I begin, and the smiles disappear.

“I am sorry for acting like one sin is worse than any other, for acting like our sins don’t matter to God as much as yours. I’m sorry for behaving like we’re better than you.”

They are quiet, holding hands, waiting as I continue. Bible Guy storms off to rejoin his protest.

“I am sorry for treating you like you don’t deserve our love–like you don’t deserve God’s love.”

The parade marches on behind them. I look at them through tear-clouded vision.

“I love you. We love you. I am sorry for how often we fail to show it. We shouldn’t see you as what you do, but I know we also do that. Please accept my apology on behalf of my people.””

I extend a hand after wiping it off on a clean spot of my robe. They hug me instead, ignoring the chopped onions and ketchup and diet Dr. Pepper.

We stand there, hugging, for about a minute before they thank me and move on.

Bible Guy is back with friends, and they’re not happy. “Don’t you know Leviticus says homosexuals are an abomination and the Bible says it’s a sin?”

“I know,” I reply.

“Yeah, well, maybe you need to get your Gospel straight before you come out here supporting all these queers.”

“I know what the Bible says about homosexuality, and so does the rest of the world,” I fire back. “What they don’t know, what they aren’t seeing, is what the Bible says about loving others!”

“Hey Jimmy,” Bible Guy says to one of his friends, “What do you think we should do with false Christs?”

It takes a couple minutes for the police to respond to the situation and break up the fight. I’m the freak in an offensive costume, so I end up in the handcuffs. “For your protection, bud,” one of the cops tells me as he drags me away from the parade.

Sitting in the back of the paddy wagon, I pull off the wig and rub a bloody jaw.

“Not the smartest move ever for the Son of God, eh, bud?”

“Yeah, I guess not.” I answer. I don’t believe that, though. I felt the hugs, I spotted tears, I saw the faces change from rage to respect. “Then again, things didn’t go so well for Him either, so it’s nothing new.”

The cop laughs. “I thought I saw those punks head back over to the protest after we grabbed you. You sure got them riled.”

“They’re mad because I used to be one of the ones holding signs.”

“Oh… yeah, I used to hate dealing with this parade each year, too. And then my son started marching in them.”

He offers me a cup of water. “Take it you get beat up by Christians a lot?”

“You’d be surprised.” I take a drink. “It was the religious leaders that wanted Jesus dead, not the so-called sinners.”

“Feh.” The cop looks back out to the crowd. “I just wish those guys would go back to their caves sometimes.”

“They can’t help it,” I reply. “They kind of belong here. The event is all about celebrating pride. They’re just full of a different kind.”

Ambassadors

He spoke to them again and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

God has given us the task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. This is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others. We are Christ’s ambassadors… (2nd Corinthians 5:18-20)

At our church we were studying the term “apostle.” It comes from a Greek word that translates as “sent one.” This makes a lot of sense given Jesus’ commission and commands to His disciples (who are also referred to as apostles).

I’ve been fiddling around with a Vietnamese copy of the Bible. I decided to look up the word for “apostles” to see how they convey the meaning of that word. In so doing, I had one of the most interesting insights. The word is actually a combination of two words. One means “an ambassador” and the other means “a tracing” like a picture that is made by tracing another image. I’d like to share a little on that.

An ambassador is “an official envoy; an authorized representative or messenger” (Webster’s). They operate with delegated authority of the one they represent. Christ’s message that “all authority in heaven and on earth” have been given to Him is followed by the words “therefore, go.” Our act of going and making disciples is the expression of His authority. We can make disciples of all nations because He, having all authority, said so. We must because He said so.

An ambassador is an envoy– he or she must be sent to a location where the one they represent is not present. If we are called to be ambassadors, then we have to represent Christ in a location where His influence is not already present. In one sense, we can’t fully function as Christ’s ambassadors only within the church community, because we’re trying to represent God to the world that does not yet know Him.

An ambassador also must be faithful in representing the one who sent him or her. Jesus said that He was sent by the Father. At the same time, He made it known that He did nothing on His own– He only did what the Father was doing and what He had been sent to do (John 5:30). He faithfully represented the Father, to the point that when the disciples asked to see the Father, Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father, because I and the Father are one” (read John 14). In the same way, Jesus has sent us, and said that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater.” It sounds presumptuous, but our goal is to come to a point where we can say, “If you have seen me, then you have seen Jesus.”

An ambassador has to carry the message of the one who sends him. If I am Christ’s ambassador, I cannot pick and choose parts of the message that do or do not apply. That is not for me to determine. Christ’s commission included the command to “teach these new disciples to obey all the commands” He had given; not just the ones we like, or the ones that make us popular.

That faithful representation leads very nicely into the second aspect I referred to– being a “traced image.” Time and again, the apostles in Acts were noticed by others as being faithful representatives of Jesus, who had already departed the scene. In Acts 4, the teachers took notice, looking at Peter and John, that “they were ordinary men who had had no special training. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” Acts 11:26 shows us that at Antioch, the disciples were first referred to as “Christians.” This was probably a form of mocking, but there is truth to the joke– Christians means “little Christs.”

Many times we think that we are to simply learn the concepts and theology of the Bible in order to be good Christians. When someone is particularly interested in learning the teachings of the Bible, they may be called a disciple. Discipleship actually carries a much deeper meaning; in the time of Christ, discipleship meant a day-to-day, moment-by-moment training where the disciple learns in all things to follow the example of the master. A good analogy would be the way the Air Force does training. A bad trainer would simply throw you a study guide and say, “Read it and follow it, and you’ll be fine.” A good trainer sits down with you and shows you by example how to perform the various tasks that you are required to do. He or she teaches you from experience, from having been there before. “It was necessary for Jesus to be in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. He then could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and temptation, he is able to help us when we are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Jesus became like us, so that He could present us an example to follow and make atonement for our sins. Now we are taught that we are to follow His example (not simply comprehend His teaching) until we become more and more like Him in all things. Here are, in closing, a few verses to express this thought:

2nd Corinthians 5:15, He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves but for Him who died for them and rose again.

1st Corinthians 11:1, And you should follow my example, just as I follow Christ’s.

Ephesians 5:1-2, Follow God’s example in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love for others, following the example of Christ, who loved you and gave himself as a sacrifice to take away your sins.

What a challenging and difficult calling, but what an exciting opportunity to recognize that wherever we find ourselves, God has sent us there to accomplish His purpose and be His representative, to literally be the visible image of the invisible God.

Therefore, go!