This World Still Matters

This World Still Matters

More than once in the past couple days I’ve read comments on social media that say something like this: “The way I see it, the worse our world gets, the more Biblical prophecy is fulfilled and the closer we are to Jesus’ return. I can’t wait to leave this earth for heaven!”

I can’t completely blame the people making these statements. I, too, have been grasping for hope at the sight of the horrific news stories from around the world this week. And although we both place our hope in the same God, there is a subtle—but extremely significant—difference in the conclusions we make about God’s “game plan.”

Our beliefs about the end-times significantly shape our actions in the now-times.

In other words, if I believe that this world is going to continue to get worse and worse until Jesus’ return (or in other words, if I believe that Jesus won’t return until the chaos of this world reaches some sort of buzzer at the “end of regulation time”) then why would I even care about pursuing peace in this world? In a sense, by ignoring the pursuit of peace, I’m assisting in expediting Jesus’ return by not interfering! (“Yay, go Evil! Get worse so Jesus will return sooner!”)

That’s just not how I read the Scriptures.

When I read Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom would be brought forth on earth as it is in heaven, I see a God who cares about our world and wants to redeem it. When I see Jesus perform miracle after miracle and embody the radical way of the peaceful Kingdom that was prophesied in Isaiah, I don’t see a God who has given up on humanity, but instead I see a God who invites humanity to participate in God’s project of redemption.

Some might say, “Yes, but have you read Revelation?” Yes. I have. And I choose to read Revelation through a filter of hope, instead of a filter of fear.

Do I claim to know what, exactly, the end times will look like? No. Part of me thinks that God will look at all of our little “prediction timelines” and end-time maps and say, “Ah, how cute. That was a good try,” as God does something far beyond our wildest imaginations.

Ultimately, I guess we’re faced with two choices:

  1. We can believe that the world will continue to get worse until Jesus’ return and there is nothing we can do about it, leading to a sense of apathy and resignation, OR
  2. We can believe that God calls us to join in God’s redemption of all creation, a project that is currently in process, bringing God’s perfect future crashing into our present, pursuing peace in the midst of turmoil.

I choose to place my hope in the power of God’s peace that surpasses all understanding,

a peace that transforms lives,

a peace that changes the narratives and trajectories of history,

a peace that introduces heaven to earth,

a peace that speaks loudly, “THIS WORLD STILL MATTERS.”

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When Grace Goes Too Far

When Grace Goes Too Far

“Wait. What? Grace can go too far?”

Hear me out.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we can extend grace too broadly. Scripture makes it clear that God’s grace is available to all people, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

As someone who prefers to see the world through a Wesleyan theological lens—a lens that heavily emphasizes the vital importance of God’s grace to all people—at times I have seen the pendulum swing too far. What I mean by this is that sometimes people lose sight of the fuller definition of God’s grace that we, Wesleyan Christians, hold dear.

That is, grace is an undeserved gift from God that is given freely to a person, but that’s just the beginning! We also view grace as the ongoing power of God to transform our lives from that point forward.

Ironically, in an effort to emphasize the unconditional nature of God’s grace we often preach and teach about the gift of God’s grace to the neglect of the power of God’s grace.

Grace goes too far when we lose sight of the power of transformation. Grace goes too far when we allow each other to merely receive the initial gift of God’s grace and not trust God’s grace to actually change us.

Here’s the deal: God’s grace has the power to change you.

Simply accepting the gift of God’s grace and then choosing to live your life as you always have is like receiving a free gym membership and never working out.

Friends, transformation IS possible. The reason it’s possible is because it’s not out of your own power. If it were, then you may have already changed! Genuine transformation of our selves is only made possible by God’s grace.

The question is, “Do you trust God’s grace?”

If you don’t trust that the exercise equipment at the gym has the ability to affect physical change to your body, or you just don’t care to try, then you won’t experience any change (trust me). In the same way, if you don’t trust that God’s grace has the ability to actually change you as a person, or you just don’t care to try, then you’re guaranteed to remain in your current state.

On the other hand, if you do trust in the power of God’s grace, then you better watch out because it WILL change your life. You just have to be willing to let it.

Grace goes too far when we forget the power of this message. God’s grace is not just a one-time “get out of jail free card.” It is a life-long gift of power, straight from the source of the One who created you, to be freed from the things that are holding you back from living into the fullest version of YOU, just as God designed for you to live—a version of you that reflects and embodies the image of your Creator.

Good News is Boring

Good News is Boring

Remember when the largest hurricane to ever be measured was about to destroy Mexico?

Oh yeah, that’s old news.

Did you hear what the official death toll from that massive hurricane was?

Zero.

What a disappointment, right? All that attention and anticipation leading up to the impending catastrophe and the death toll is zero? Talk about anticlimactic! I bet there were more than a few news stations who regretted spending the resources to have a reporter on the ground covering what was sure to be one of the greatest news stories of all time. What a bust.

People: what is wrong with us??

How have we become so addicted to death and destruction that we allow tragedy to drive our news media?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned on a show like Good Morning America and have been overwhelmed by the dramatic music and bold headlines that can make even the most mundane event seem like the end of the world.

We live in an age when bad news goes viral, because quite frankly, bad news is exciting. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that bad news is a good thing. But there is something about bad news that drives our adrenaline and makes us want to hear/watch more.

The problem is, when we’re addicted to bad news, good news becomes boring. Unless it’s a video of a clever proposal that has 2 million views on YouTube or a small dog that can bark the alphabet, good news just doesn’t grasp our attention.

Which is probably why we haven’t heard about the “disappointing” death toll in Mexico.

The pervasive nature of bad news in today’s society leads us to constantly say, “What’s wrong with this world? We’re all heading to hell in a handbasket!”

I really wonder what would happen if we were exposed to all of the good news in the world with the same intensity that we are exposed to the bad. I know my morning cup of coffee would sure be more enjoyable if that were the case!

As a Christian, I think this addiction to bad news keeps us from praising God for God’s faithfulness to us. How can I praise God that no lives were lost in that incredible Mexican hurricane if I’m not aware of the news story in the first place?

I fully recognize the danger in jumping to the conclusion that it was God who kept that hurricane from killing anybody. For one, there were apparently some lives lost a couple days later as a secondary result of damage that was caused by Hurricane Patricia. Secondly, how, then, are we able to answer the question, “Why didn’t God save everyone from that other natural disaster (you name the disaster)?”

But the downside of such thinking is swinging the pendulum too far, and never giving God credit for anything. I would like to think that God is responsible for far more good in this world than we are ever aware.

I choose to praise God for God’s faithfulness to us. And I sure wish our news channels reported more of the boring, good stuff to make me even more aware of the ways that God is at work in the world.

How Facebook (kind of) Proves that Jesus is Real

How Facebook (kind of) Proves that Jesus is Real

The longer we live in a world with Facebook (or should I say, “the world of Facebook?”) the more we recognize the dangers associated with our constant connection to social media. Addressing this issue, Relevant magazine published an article called “8 Dangers of Social Media We’re Not Willing to Admit.” The list is helpful because it points out several destructive effects that social media has on our lives that easily fly “under the radar,” or don’t get as much attention as, say, cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking.

Here’s their list:

1. Validation

2. Comparison

3. Bitterness

4. Caring About the Wrong Things

5. Noise

6. Convenient Friendships

7. Wasting Time

8. Isolation

I’ll let you read the article for the full description of each danger.

Of this list, I think that comparison might be one of the most destructive. When we constantly compare ourselves to the beautiful pictures of our beautiful friends with their beautiful families eating their beautiful food on their beautiful balcony from their beautiful vacation home in a beautiful foreign country, we lose. Every time. We always come out second.

But every once in a while…. someone posts something that isn’t beautiful. It’s raw and honest and, well, different from the rest of the beautiful things in our news feed. And it makes us stop and think, “Wait a second… this is what reality looks like.”

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about the people who post toxic political soundbites trying to stir up a never-healthy debate, or other people who post something self-degrading looking for validation (see #1 on the list of dangers above). I’m talking about someone who for some reason decides to post something honest and unfiltered. Those are the posts that get my attention because those are the snapshots of real life that I know everyone experiences but doesn’t want to admit.

And when we see a post like that we immediately know it must be real because it’s so dissimilar from the Facebook “norm” of beautiful people in beautiful places doing beautiful things. We ask, “Why would they post that if it weren’t true?” And the answer is, they wouldn’t.

In Biblical criticism there is a term called the Criterion of Dissimilarity which essentially sees the Bible like Facebook and says, “The reason we can know that this story is true is because it’s so dissimilar from the ‘norm.’”

For example, the news feed of the 1st century might have had pictures of different people claiming to be the Messiah, each with a following of Jewish people exclaiming, “This guy’s the one!” As N.T. Wright tells us, there were several different candidates for the job, each claiming to be the one who would deliver the people of Israel by raising their nation to political prominence with the military defeat of the Roman Empire.

But then this guy named Jesus shows up and claims to be the Messiah. The thing is, he’s a lot different. He’s not leading any military rebellions. He’s telling people to put their swords away! That didn’t make sense.

But for some reason… the Bible is about Jesus and not about these other guys who claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus—the one whom people claimed had been raised from the dead? That didn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the news feed “norm.” Which is why it has the ability to stop us in our tracks and make us think, “Why would they write that if it weren’t true? Why would they risk and give up their lives for that guy if it weren’t true? Why would they start a movement following that guy that has spread to millions of people if it weren’t true?” And the answer is, they wouldn’t.

The beautiful Facebook picture would have been one of these other guys claiming to be the Messiah and leading military rebellions.  That’s what fit the expectations, or the news feed “norm,” of the Jewish people.  But they all died. And their followers dissipated.

Jesus was the least likely candidate to actually be the Messiah. And yet, his movement changed the world. The only explanation is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

After all, why would they make up something like that if it weren’t true? They wouldn’t. That would be embarrassing…

The Practice of “Withful” Thinking

The Practice of “Withful” Thinking

with•ful

adjective

1.  Having or expressing a desire to be with someone or something: I really wish he would stop isolating himself and start being withful instead.

————

“Oh, no. Oprah’s doing a seven-night series called BELIEF? Let’s boycott.”

“The new Muppets show is promoting a progressive agenda? Let’s boycott.”

The New Normal is normalizing new things? Let’s boycott.”

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to sarcastically endorse any of the above television shows. That is completely up to you. The point of this blog post is to ask the following question:

If Christians are so quick to boycott the stories with which we disagree, how can we possibly hope to engage the society in which we exist?

Here’s the deal: our neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends are watching these shows whether we like it or not. Sure we can try to apply pressure to certain studios and companies by threatening to remove a significant segment of their viewing audience, but is it really changing the conversation?

What I am not saying is that we should just watch anything on TV without passing judgment or without the option of turning the channel. What I am saying, though, is that we shouldn’t be so quick to withdraw ourselves from the general discourse of society.

In the United States, we already find ourselves living in a culture that is becoming more and more “foreign” to the Christian church. What I mean is, 50 years ago Christianity was a substantial part of the cultural language and that is no longer the case. The more that Christians isolate themselves from the cultural dialogue, the more we lose the ability to speak the language of society.

Instead, let’s take our cues from what missionaries have been doing in foreign cultures around the globe for decades. Missionaries don’t withdraw from the societies they are trying to reach; they move in, learn the language and customs, and live with the people. They don’t stop discerning right from wrong or compromise their fundamental beliefs, but they open themselves to experiences that exist outside their boxes of comfort.

Missionaries don’t perpetuate the cycle of withdrawal which leads to the increasing foreignization of the “other;” they work at eliminating the cultural differences and walls of separation by practicing “withful thinking.”

This returns us to the question: If Christians are so quick to boycott the stories with which we disagree, how can we possibly hope to engage the society in which we exist?

We can’t. We have to find creative ways to engage society by being with society. Like Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17, we have to speak the language of our neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends. And in today’s culture, that means not boycotting and withdrawing from certain television shows because we disagree with their premises. It means practicing “withful thinking,” watching these shows and listening to their stories, because this is the language of our culture—whether we like it or not—and we need to be able to speak that language.

Why God’s Will is Like a Freeway

Why God’s Will is Like a Freeway

As a pastor, one of the most common questions I receive from people is, “How can I know if this decision I need to make is God’s will or not?”

And I almost always reply, “Tell me what God’s will looks like to you.”

Most of the time, the answers sound similar: “Well, I know that God has a perfect plan for my life. I’m just terrified to make a decision that isn’t a part of that perfect plan. So how do I know if what I’m about to do is the right decision or the wrong one?”

After all, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plan I have for you,’ declares the Lord.” Right?

Wrong.

It actually says, “’For I know the planS I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘planS to prosper you and not to harm you, planS to give you hope and a future.’”

Let’s set aside the argument that this verse should only be applied to its original context with the People of Israel, and make the assumption that it can still apply to our lives today. Notice that there isn’t just one plan; there are multiple planS. I do not think this is unintentional. Also notice that those multiple plans do not spell out specific details, but rather point toward a desired outcome or end-goal.

This verse took on new light for me when I heard a brilliant man named Reuben Welch explain the will of God as being “less like a single beam of light and more like a spectrum of options.”

I’ve taken that idea and formed a metaphor that I like to share with those people who come to me with this question:

Think of God’s will as being less like a single-lane road and more like a multi-lane freeway. Instead of having one lane that you are always trying to stay in, terrified that you might accidentally stray from it, God’s will might be more accurately portrayed as a multi-lane freeway, with several options to choose from, all heading in the same direction.

As long as you’re on the right freeway, heading in the right direction, you can find comfort that you are “in God’s will.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared that metaphor with someone and witnessed an instant sigh of relief. Although there are times in life when we think it would be easier if God could just show us the single lane that God has designed for us to be in, I’m not sure that’s how God works. I believe God gives us choices and says, “Take your pick. These seven lanes are all good. They’re all heading in the right direction.”

You can extend the metaphor in many ways. For example, there are other freeways, travelling in a variety of “wrong” directions, and they are constantly tempting us to “take a detour.” Or, I had someone once say, “I think there are also pilot cars that God puts in your life to help make sure you are travelling in the right direction.” There are also times when the traffic gets bad, and life forces you to slow down, and times when you speed up and change lanes over and over.

Take it where you will, but the bottom line is this: If you’re in a pastor’s office asking, “How can I know if this decision I need to make is God’s will or not?” chances are, you’re probably already closer than you think.

We Need to Talk

We Need to Talk

The room fell silent as soon as a 91-year-old man finished his highly prejudiced description of the picture that used to come to his mind every time he would hear the word, “Muslim.”

That was when I learned that a completely silent room could become even more silent than silent.

He continued his story, “But I’ve got to tell you—since my wife passed away several years ago, the only family in my neighborhood that has been consistently nice to me are my next door neighbors, who just happen to be Muslim. And it’s got me thinkin’, ‘If there can be nice Muslims in this world, then there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that I don’t know about because I’ve never met ‘em.’”

That was when the room went from “pin-drop silence” to “speck-of-dust-drop silence.”

All 30 of us in that mid-week Bible study knew that what we had just heard was the truth, and we all recognized the fact that each one of us had been guilty of the same thing.

Take your pick. Choose your “those people.” We all have them. If you can’t think of who your “those people” are right away, then just think a little harder.

The reason we all have “those people” in our lives is not necessarily because we don’t like them; it’s because we don’t know them. Knowing “those people” changes them from “those people” to REAL people. But far too often we simply choose to remain comfortable in our boxes of unfamiliarity, boxes that lead to us form caricatures and inaccurate assumptions about who “those people” are and why they act they way they do.

Matthew 5:23-24 tells us to refrain from worshipping until we’ve settled our differences with our neighbor, or with “those people.” How do we settle those differences? By talking.

As basic as this sounds, we need to talk.

How are disputes in a marriage settled? By talking.

How do next-door neighbors decide how to split the cost of a new fence? By talking.

How do countries reach agreements and form treaties? By talking.

And yet, as simple as it seems, talking with people is not naturally our first reaction when we don’t understand the actions of “those people.”

“But people might see me talking to them!”

“But they might not want to talk.”

“But what if they really are like the prejudiced caricature of them I’ve painted in my mind?”

Those questions didn’t seem to bother Jesus. Over and over, Jesus was criticized for associating with “those people.” In fact, Jesus spent way more time with the people who were cast aside by society than he did with the “in crowd.” And in doing so, Jesus introduced the Kingdom of God by destroying the imaginary divisions that separate groups of real people from other groups of real people, one conversation at a time.

Lord, that we might do the same! Give us the courage to break the mold of comfort. Guide us into encounters with people who are vastly differently from us. Open our eyes to your image on the face of every person we are privileged to meet in this world. And fill our mouths with conversations that break down barriers.

So, the next time you find yourself tempted to judge “those people,” begin by asking yourself, “Do I even know any of ‘those people?’ Have we talked?” After all, “there’s got to be all sorts of nice people from different cultures and backgrounds that [we] don’t know about because [we’ve] never met ‘em.”