Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Can't Get Past the Smell of Condemnation

Last Sunday I was mad. I was not in a good frame of mind to be entering the pulpit. Over the course of the last three or four weeks, several people had let me down--not showing up to teach youth SS, not attending the New Member class I was offering, not showing up at small group, missing church when they said they would be there. I was letting it get to me and it showed. My preaching crossed the line from passionate to irate. And people sensed it, of course. Comments and questions like "Are you mad at us?" were made. I had to apologize and ask forgiveness.

When I read this passage from Randy Newman’s book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, I knew I had missed the mark of displaying God's love as I preached about it:

A few years ago, The Washington Post conducted a social experiment in what they called “context, perception, and priorities.” They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists of all time, to play classical masterpieces at a Washington subway stop during rush hour. They wanted to see if anyone would recognize the world-famous virtuoso and stop and listen. They caught the entire episode on video.

For close to an hour, Bell performed great works of the violin repertoire—Bach’s “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Ponce’s “Estrellita,” and more—on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari, valued at over 3.5 million dollars. More than a thousand people walked by without even glancing in his direction. A few paused for a moment, and several people tossed loose change into his open violin case. (He collected a total of $32.17. Yes, some people gave him pennies!) Only one person recognized the star who, just a few nights later, would accept the Avery Fisher Prize for being the best classical musician in America.

The Post writer and his colleagues had to admit their hypothesis was wrong. They had anticipated that, despite the stress of rush hour and the noise of the trains, beauty would transcend.

You can imagine how people interpreted this experiment. “We’re too busy today.” “We don’t take time for beauty.” “We have become musically illiterate.” “We need more funding for the arts.”

But Gene Weingarten, the Post writer covering the story, had a different take. He saw the problem as one of context. People expect a virtuoso when they pay large amounts of money to sit in beautiful concert halls where the lights are dimmed and the background noises are deliberately eliminated.

But in a subway, at rush hour, with irreducible noise, you don’t expect Joshua Bell. You might not even want him! Weingarten concluded, “He was, in short, art without a frame.” It was the context that shaped “what happened—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen …”

In a similar way, we sometimes present our gospel-masterpiece in a context that belies our message. We speak of measureless love, unmerited grace, and infinite goodness but our tone of voice, demeanour, and lifestyles convey the exact opposite. We want people to quiet their hearts so they can hear the music of the gospel, but we’re performing in a context of judgmentalism. We want them to feel loved by God, but they feel unloved by us. We want them to be amazed by grace, but they can’t get past the smell of condemnation.

Perhaps we need to work on the context as well as the content of our evangelism. (128-129)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dance, Drink, Smoke and Chew

I was raised in what most people would consider a very strict family. I was banned from many "worldly" activities that my friends enjoyed. My motto became, "I don't dance, drink, smoke or chew or ever go out with girls that do." Whenever I pressed my parents about going to school dances, I was reminded what Mamie (my grandmother) would often say when asked to dance, "When I dance so, I sweat so, and when I sweat so, I stink so--so no thank you, I don't think so!"

A lot of my friends growing up, however, (and many of my friends now) fit very comfortably in the dance, drink, smoke and chew category, including my wife (JK--I just angered Heather, my wife, and gave my mom a heart attack!). Often people ask me about these "worldly" activities--if I think they are sinful or if people who do them are going to hell.

Randy Newman, in Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, gives a great answer to someone raising these questions:
“Well, I think we all like rules because they make it easy to know who’s in and who’s out. We like rules because they can make us feel superior to those people who don’t keep them. In fact, I think I make all sorts of rules that I generally keep because they make me feel good about me and bad about others.” I could see I had grabbed his attention.

“But the stuff I need forgiveness for is a whole lot worse than just smoking or dancing or drinking. I need to be forgiven for anger, bitterness, hatred, self-righteousness …” I stopped. His face looked shocked.

“No. Really.” I continued. “If I’m going to have any kind of connection with God, I need forgiveness for some really ugly attitudes and actions. That’s why I really like Christianity. It offers that kind of forgiveness.” (74)
As for these "worldly" activities. Heather and I don't drink (often). Heather won't let me smoke or chew (or go out with girls who do!). But we both love to dance and when we do we sweat. I stink (in more ways than one). Heather does not.

I don't despise my heritage. I treasure it. I value the character and integrity that was instilled in me by my parents and grandparents. Their love for Christ was the motivating factor in their lives. What they did for Him was more important (in the end) than what they didn't do. And I know now that Mamie did love to dance. Now, in heaven, she does so without sweating.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Just Wait! You'll See!

Last night as usual, our family sat around the dinner table and talked about the events of the day. Then we talked about gifts and how we should use them. Taking turns, we told the person on our left a talent God had given him/her and how they could best use it to bring glory to God and good to people. Elijah's talent? A bright and creative mind he can use to help people think and enjoy learning. Emily has a way of great influence with people. Ellie is a ray of sunshine and helps all the other kids feel included. Heather has the gift of hospitality and is always reaching out to people. Eli said that he sees me as a general leading people strategically in battle against evil. Heather said I have great faith and can see things before they have come into existence. That sounds very grand, but I'm not sure I always see it. The soldiers in God's army don't seem to know there is a war going on at all, much less that I have the responsibility to help lead the 'soldiers of the cross' move forward against the evil without and within with 'deeds of love and mercy'. We seem to be too busy arguing about what the kingdom of God is to actually see it be advanced in our lives and in our community.

Then I read this morning's devotional from Elisabeth Elliot's A Lamp For My Feet. She quotes 1 Corinthians 15:49, "As we have worn the likeness of the man made of dust, so we shall wear the likeness of the heavenly man," and then writes:

What a word of hope for us when we are discouraged with our own sinfulness! The old Adam is always there, rising in rebellion against the new life which Christ has given us. There is constant struggle, daily reminders that we are yet very unholy, very un-Christlike, very dusty. But a day will come when even I, with all my glaring faults, will wear the likeness of the heavenly Man. This gives me ammunition to fire at the Accuser. I shall be like Christ--just wait! You'll see!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Gospel of the Kingdom

For over 25 years I've been studying, talking and writing about the gospel of the kingdom. It all began when I picked up a little book call The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Eldon Ladd. As I read it, I had an inkling that it was a game changer. Now looking back I can see that it was a fork in the road (one of many!). It changed the course of my life.

A quarter of a century later, I am still sorting out the gospel of the kingdom in my head, heart and life. Without any hesitation or fear of overstatement, I can say the gospel of the kingdom is not only my only hope, but the only hope for the human race, the planet and the cosmos. It is that monumental, huge, epic (or whatever the current slang for massive is).

To get a picture of what I'm talking about, consider this very compelling (and concise) article by Matt Guerino. He asks, "What is the gospel?"
It’s a deceptively simple question, yet one that merits more thoughtful reflection than might seem necessary at first. The word “gospel” simply means “good news.” So the gospel, meaning the Gospel of Jesus, is good news about Jesus. For years I was taught, as many are, that this means Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I can be forgiven. I understood “the gospel of Jesus” to mean the good news that because He died I can avoid hell and be in heaven. It’s a Gospel of Final Destination. And this is true, as far as it goes.

But it doesn’t go far enough.
Read the entire article here.