Monday, June 22, 2009

What the Underground Railroad teaches us today

I went on a bike ride today and along the bike path there was a sign put up to honor the people from Marietta who played a part in the underground railroad. For some reason today it struck me that these people being praised for what they had done were in reality undermining and violating the cultural and political system of their time. According to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Yet it is crazy to me that now, just 150 years later, their actions are not only no longer seen as criminal, but now they are seen as heroic. There were so many "Christians" defending slavery with Scripture that it is sickening when we look back upon it, but time has revealed the hypocricy in that.

I think too about Germany during the time of the Holocaust and World War II. As I read about a Christian pastor named Deitrich Bonhoeffer at that time, I was astounded to find out that the majority of "Christians" in Germany at that time saw it as wrong to resist what the Nazi party was doing or speak out against it. Bonhoeffer was in the minority of Christians in Germany standing up for the Jews and others being oppressed. He saw first hand the danger of nationalism. He had this to say in 1933: "The conflict is really Germanism or Christianity and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better." It got so bad that refusing the draft was "frowned on by most Christians and their churches at that time" (Page 33, A Testament to Freedom).

My main point though is not about war or nationalism (though I will probably write a blog about this sometime soon!), but rather about us getting some perspective on things. So 150 years ago it was seen as right (by many Christians, mind you) to keep blacks as slaves, and wrong to help them receive freedom. Yet in the very same country today it is seen as heroic. And 60 years ago it was seen as right (by many Christians, mind you) to fight for the Nazi party, and wrong to resist what Hitler was doing. Yet history even now has proven how terrible it was.

So here is my question. How much are we also caught up in things of today that are absolutely terrible? Is it consumerism? Nationalism? War? Abortion? Being consumed with pleasure and self? The neglect of the millions suffering around the world? Rampant idolatry with sports and celebrities? Sensual and sexual culture? Humanism? What is it?

As a Christian, I know that one day Jesus is going to come back and everything is going to be exposed for what it really is. Jesus said in Luke 12:2-3, "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." There is going to be a crystal clear perspective on the entire history of the world, and we will be accountable. Slave traders will be accountable for their actions even though everyone around them was treating it as if it was OK. The Nazi party, as well as the Christians who supported it, will be accountable for their actions even though everyone around them was pumping up the nationalism idea. And so will we.

So I hope that all of us can take a step back and look at our lives with eternal perspective, because if we are able to look back just a few years and see the sins of the past clearly, how much more so will our sins be exposed and seen clearly when the Kingdom of God comes in it's fullness?

We have possibly 80 years on this earth, and then eternity ensues. Shouldn't that drastically change the way we live our lives? Wouldn't it make sense for us to stop living to be satisfied here, living as if our hope was in this life? Don't we realize that what we do now is going to impact our eternity and the eternity of others? We will be looking back with extreme shame and regret, extreme joy and peace, or somewhere in between based on how we live our lives and in what we believe (Jesus, money, self, pride, etc.).

The reality is that we have become so conformed to the world around us. We do politics very similarly to the world: siding with one party, putting Jesus in a political box, minimizing Jesus' relevance to just a few issues.

We think about solutions to the big problems much like the world: thinking war, politicians, and policies will change the world for the better, as opposed to Christ and His gospel.

We live much like the world: living on more than we need, conforming to a dating/marriage culture that uses people, isolating ourselves from community and being individualistic, caring very little for the poor in practical ways.

We think about our context and residence much like the world: we see America as our home instead of Heaven, we live as if we had our hope in this life, we worship the American flag because it gives us all of our heart's desires and then give leftovers to Jesus and His kingdom.

We worship much like the world: putting religion in a box on Sunday mornings and morality, having Jesus be one of the many things that we "like" without giving total devotion, creating a religion of works that doesn't trust in Jesus' great saving work.

How are we different from the racist slave traders, or the fascist Germans? Have we not conformed to the sins of our own culture? Have we not eaten of the fruit of the tree of greed, arrogance, self-involvement, sensuality, etc? Do we really convince ourselves that we are good because we live in a "free nation" and go to church?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is Belief in Jesus?

It’s not that I don’t believe is God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I do. But belief is something that means so much more than we commonly like to admit. For the longest time I was taught that belief was something easy, something cheap, and something casual; it was easy to believe. It seemed like if you asked anyone around me if they believed in Jesus, they would respond with a casual “yea sure”.

I feel like most people say they believe in an abstract sort of way, but then they don’t really. I didn’t know that believing is a difficult process; nobody told me. We set it up as though it was a one-time deal where you “believed” and then went on about your life with a little Jesus mixed in. As long as this is how we define belief, it is the easiest thing in the world to believe. All I have to do now is go to church on Sundays and give a little money to the church and I am “saved”.

Francis Chan used an example in his sermon that really helped me understand this. While preaching he placed a balloon on a wall, aimed a Beebe gun at it, and asked how many people in the congregation “believed” that he would hit the balloon on the first try. 75% of them raised their hands. Then he asked how many of those 75% would be willing to hold the balloon in their hands while he shot it. 25% of them said they would. Then he asked how many people would be willing to come up and put the balloon in their teeth, turn sideways, and let him shoot the balloon. Only 5 people total were willing to do it.

So here is my question: did those 75% really believe, or were they just saying they did? What does it matter if you say you believe, but aren’t really willing to back it up? If you totally believe that Francis will hit the balloon on the first shot, then it isn’t risky to put it in your teeth. If, however, you are only saying you believe, but aren’t really sure what you think, then there is no way you would do it!

So let me get this straight. We claim to believe that there is this guy named Jesus who wasn’t just a guy, but was actually God incarnate. We claim to believe that this God/man loves us, and was willing to come die on a cross to make it possible for our relationship to be repaired with Him. We claim to believe that when we die, we will stand before Him and He will judge our lives based on how loving or un-loving we were towards Him and people. We claim to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross offers us freedom from the guilt and condemnation that we deserve in which we would be in the torments of hell for eternity. We claim to believe that because of what He did, we can have the promise of perfect relationship with Him and His people for forever and ever. We claim to believe that we have been invited in as sons and daughters, and that we get to take part in what God is doing here in building His kingdom. And here is the kicker: WE CLAIM TO BELIEVE THAT ALL OF THIS IS FOR REAL! We claim to believe that very shortly we are going to be standing before Jesus and then eternity will ensue for us!

I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like I see many people who really believe this. Sometimes I look at my life and wonder how much I really do! I mean if I really fully believe it, wouldn’t my life be totally different? If I believe it, wouldn’t I not care at all about my life here and just be totally obsessed with my God and building His kingdom? If I believe it, wouldn’t I tell everyone about it? If I believe it, wouldn’t I be so deeply satisfied by my Creator’s love that I wasn’t still seeking it out in so many ways here on this earth? If I believe it, wouldn’t I be willing to undergo suffering and hardship for this short amount of time so that I can love God and others more fully in preparation for what is to come. If I believe it, wouldn’t I not care that much about comfort, security, and a nice little life down here because of what is in store for me in eternity?

Seriously, this stuff makes me sick to my stomach. I believe in Jesus, but not enough. But I am realizing that belief is a process. Paul writes to the people of Thessalonica in 2 Thessalonians 1:3, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.” The very implication of Paul saying that their “faith is growing more and more” is that faith/belief is not a one-time deal, or a completed process while we are here. Belief in Jesus is something that needs to develop in the face of doubt, struggle, questions, etc., because there is a reason it is called faith in the first place. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The reality is that we can’t see God because He had to pull away from His creation because of our sin. He is intimately and passionately involved in our daily lives to be sure, but we can't yet see Him in all of His glory, seated upon the throne with all of the angels and saints singing before Him. So we must undergo the process of having true faith: striving towards being sure of what we hope for, which is Jesus’ return and salvation.

Is that really what all of your and my hope is in though? Would you say that your hope is fully set on Jesus’ return and salvation? Or is it in meeting an amazing spouse? Or is it in having a great family? Or is it in having a nice career? Or is it in retiring early and traveling the world?

You see this is what I mean: we act like we don’t really believe. So many of us are setting ourselves up for something really ugly by not really believing. We will have a nice marriage. A nice family. A nice career. A nice house in a nice neighborhood. A nice retirement. And then a nice memorial service. And then comes judgment and eternity based on what we believed in this life.

Putting our hope in Jesus means that if He isn’t real, we are in deep crap. If we were gamblers, it means that we would take all of our money and let it ride on Him being the truth. Are we really willing to do that? After all, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” But so many of us have really nice lives with plenty of hope in this world just in case Jesus isn’t real. If we put our hope/joy/satisfaction in that, do we really believe then? 1 John 2:4 says “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

I recently got into a discussion with a couple of new friends of mine at Ohio State who are atheists. Now I obviously feel strongly that they should believe in Jesus and follow Him with all of their lives, but at least they are willing to admit that they don’t believe. I can respect that. I am scared for them and what eternity will look like for them, but by admitting that they don’t believe, I think God has more room to change their lives and draw them to Himself. After all, Jesus says that He would rather have someone be cold than be lukewarm. So let’s just be real about who/what we really believe in.

I will be the first to admit that I suck at practically believing in Him, but the great thing is that I know my Jesus is bigger than all that and He is faithful to bring me through my lack of belief. I will not allow myself to doubt His love for me in the midst of my struggle and failure, because His faithfulness is not predicated on my perfection. I know my baptism, repentance, profession of faith, and following Jesus was and is for real, and that He is still saving me from my unbelief and sin. That is the thing about faith; it is hard. It is hard to believe that Jesus still loves me, is saving me, and will come to rescue me knowing how much I don’t trust/believe/love Him.

I was in tears several times a few days ago because of all this. It is so frustrating being here without Jesus’ physical presence. Even though it is hard and painful, I want to just run after Him with my whole life, leaving behind all the things that seek to hold me back and keep me in bondage. I want nothing else besides Him, even though my life often paints a different picture.

There was this guy in Mark 9 who’s son had an evil spirit in him. He says to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Jesus responded by saying, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes." Then the man said: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

Lord Jesus, I do believe in you; help me overcome my unbelief!

Something is Wrong

I am constantly thinking about what it means to be saved. I look out at America and see that 80% of people claim to be Christians and yet very few are really following. They prayed a prayer. They know the stories and verses. They dress up nice. They come to church every Sunday. Yet they haven’t been transformed. I struggle through what to think of this. I am tired of seeing this complacent, comfortable, non-transforming, fake religion drag the name of Christ through the dirt.

I think most of us know that something is wrong. We read about Jesus, what He said and did, and we read about the early church and we see one thing. Then we look at American Christianity and see a whole other thing. The Barna Group does studies on Christianity in America and after recent studies guess what they had to say when they looked at “Christians” and at outsiders of the faith. There is “no difference” (pg 47, UnChristian).

Most people seem to want to talk about how being saved is all about grace, and that works don’t matter much as far as salvation goes. This heresy was going on even in the early church; it’s called Gnosticism. They believed that as long as you have a special knowledge or got to a certain point, then how you lived your life didn’t matter all that much. Paul hated this. And James spoke out against it saying, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).

Then there are some who want to say that being saved is about what you do, or works. We know we can’t earn salvation because Paul says “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:12). We can’t come close to earning salvation because we are unable to do any good apart from Christ.

We must see that God does a mighty work in our hearts in order to save us, but if that work is not displayed in our lives by continual transformation, constant death to self, and persistence in leaving our sin behind then there was no salvation that took place in our lives. You can’t earn it, but things change when it happens. You are “born again”; implying difference.

As a basketball coach I think it is helpful for me to look at it like this. At Marietta College there are guys that are on the basketball team and there are guys that are not on the basketball team. As a coach, there is no confusion about which guys are which. The ones that have been invited by the coach, made the decision to be on the team, and are committed to coming to practice every day and working hard for their team and their coaches are on the team. The ones that don’t are not on the team.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys that are not on the team that play basketball. I see them on the recreation courts shooting around, or playing a pick-up game, or even playing on an intramural team. Some lift weights and work out to stay in shape so that they can play well. Some of them possibly even work harder than the guys on the basketball team, though it’s not very likely. Many of them think they are better than the guys on the team and think they could put together a group of guys that aren’t on the team to take on the guys that are.

But they aren’t on the team.

See here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how good you are, just that you are on the team.
But don’t for a second think it is easy to be on this team. Jesus does not have a basketball team. He doesn’t have two hour practices six days a week. He doesn’t recruit people that will slack off in practice or not be ready to play in the games.

He has a team of soldiers. The battlefield is not a physical one, but rather a mental and spiritual one (2 Cor. 10:4-6). The training is constant, hard, and grueling (see book of Martyrs). Anyone is welcome to join, but the cost is high. You give over all rights to your life (Luke 14:27). Everything that you once thought was yours is handed over. Relationships (Luke 14:26). Possessions (Luke 12:33). Heart (Mark 12:30). Mind (Mark 12:30). Soul (Mark 12:30). Strength (Mark 12:30). All of it.

Oh, and there is no quitting this team once you join; it’s all or nothing, no looking back (Luke 9:62), so you better figure out if you have what it takes to go all the way (Luke 14:28-30).

Still interested?

See the life that you have right now isn’t even worth saving, and if you do try to hold onto it, you will eventually lose it. The only way that you can keep your life forever is by giving it up to be on this team (Matthew 16:25).

So guess what, you may not be very good, but that’s exactly why you would join the team. You join the team because you recognize that the Coach of this team is perfect and knows how to make you better. You join the team because you see what your own training and teaching (or lack thereof) from either yourself, your culture, or others is worthless. You join the team because you know that this perfect Coach wants you on the team and you owe it to Him. You join the team because you were created to play under this Coach and be the best you can be in submission to Him, not in your own self.

The crazy thing is that most people think they are on the team. What we have is a few that really are and a lot that are faking it. Why do so many people try to pretend like they are on the team? Well think about it. Why do millions of fans cheer for their favorite NFL team when they aren’t actually on it? We like to live vicariously through others who do the things that we can’t.

In the case of the Kingdom of God, we live vicariously through others who do the things that we won’t. We want to be on the team without the commitment. You see only a select few actually have the talent or ability to make it to the NFL if they really try. All have the opportunity to follow Christ.

Yet so many refuse to do it on Jesus’ terms. Francis Chan said it well in his book Crazy Love, “When I was in high school, I seriously considered joining the Marines; this was when they first came out with commercials for ‘the few, the proud, the Marines.’ What turned me off was that in those advertisements, everyone was always running. Always. And I hate running. But you know what? I didn’t bother to ask if they would modify the rules for me so I could run less, and maybe also do fewer push-ups. That would’ve been pointless and stupid, and I knew it. Everyone knows that if you sign up for the Marines, you have to do whatever they tell you. They own you. Somehow this realization does not cross over to our thinking about the Christian life. Jesus didn’t say that if you wanted to follow Him you could do it in a lukewarm manner. He said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’” (page 80).

This sort of half-hearted involvement on the team, whether through being a fan or trying to pretend that you are on the team when you haven’t really given all up to join, is an absolute offense to the Coach. I mean think about it. Think about Francis’ example. If you were to come to try-outs for a team and tell the coach, “I know that you have these expectations and tell me I have to give it all up to be on this team, but I’m not going to do that. I’ll show up when I have free time and I’ll work hard when I have the opportunity. These are my conditions.” How do you think this Coach would respond?

I know how: “Get out. Come back when you are ready to give it all.”

Does this sound mean? Does this offend you? Check out what Jesus said to thousands of people following Him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out” (Luke 14:26-35).

Jesus says if you aren’t willing to go all the way, if you won’t count the cost and get on the path towards completion, then you are tasteless salt and you will be thrown out.

If you won’t join this team, you will be thrown out. It doesn’t matter how good you are in intramurals or open gym. Yet He is so good as to accept anyone that would come and join. He wants to forgive you more than you want to be forgiven. He is the initiator of this relationship. You can be the worst player or person or whatever; there are no tryouts, only a sign-up sheet called the Book of Life.

So are you on the team?