Symbolism over Substance

There is a real danger within the church of something that is rarely talked about but ultimately can cripple a body of believers. Jesus confronts it consistently.

It is what I call “symbolism over substance!”

In the Gospel of Matthew, he gives the account of his conversion in 9:9,10. It is a fascinating study of how Christ goes after the heart of hypocrisy of symbolism over substance. Jesus goes straight to where Matthew was working and says two uncomplicated words, “Follow me!” While those two words are certainly simple, the implications behind them were enormous and life-changing. That call would forever change his life! Matthew went out and threw a banquet with all of his friends and co-sinners, I mean, co-workers! Jesus sat and banqueted with them and no doubt spoke of the Father as He was always quick to do! It would have been such a banquet like never experienced before!

But the Pharisees blew a gasket! Why? Because of symbolism over substance! They reacted to what it looked like (symbolism) rather than what was really happening (substance). It looked really bad for Jesus to sit with such sinners. To the Pharisees, it appeared to them that Jesus was giving some sort of approving wink at their sinful ways. Jesus was doing nothing of the sort! This gathering of sinners got to see first hand the power and authority of the God-Man who had just transformed one of their co-sinners, I mean co-workers. But the Pharisees got all bent out of shape because of what it looked like. You see, they had worked hard to get rid of these sinners who had so corrupted their society. Now Jesus was reclining with them.

Churches can get into this mode when their eyes are no longer on the real mission of the church. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of His own mission in 9:13: “Christ declared, ‘For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ to repentance” (as Luke 5:32 adds).  Jesus’s own mission was the substance of all that He was and all that He did for real sinners. The Gospel is by nature substance. It is truth to be believed. We give ourselves to the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us! When symbolism (what it looks like) becomes more important than the substance of the Gospel, courage is lost, love for others wains, humility shrivels up, and self-righteousness becomes the all encompassing way of doing church life.

The church cannot afford to pursue “what it looks like.” It must go for substance! It must find out what is true. In loving people, look past what their lives look like and how they appear to you. We very often carry self-righteous standards and quietly lay them on people without them ever knowing it. This is crippling to people who desperately need Gospel mercy and generous compassion.

It starts as a hair-line fracture in the foundation when one person decides what obedience to God looks like in a given situation. This “way” slowly begins to find approval with others. Over time this way becomes the “law of the land.” The law then becomes “tradition” and the people approve the tradition. Over more time it becomes “sacred tradition.” Even in leadership meetings, space is given to the sacred tradition and thus it rises to the point of unquestionability. Elder decisions are made in keeping with the sacred tradition rather than what God’s Word says. It then becomes about “who is right” rather than “what is right.” It is like this huge snowball meandering down the snow-covered hill and it grows over time and if no one stops it from growing it soon smashes into the structure and the crack in the foundation implodes. The church is left in shambles and people are crushed beneath the weight of something that should have never been that big in the first place. To be clear, there may be really nothing wrong with the first person’s way of obedience in a given situation. The problem comes when it is wrongly elevated to another level unchallenged, ignored, or worse, defended.

How do you know if that sound you hear is the tumbling snowball? Jesus speaks to Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means” (9:13) which was a rabbinic formula that encouraged humble repentance for their lack of knowledge about what they should have known. He then points their hearts to a passage in Hosea that speaks of God’s sweet mercy to the nation of Israel pictured by the prophet’s wayward wife Gomer. God pursued them with steadfast love and mercy. The remedy to their self-righteousness is simply the grace of Christ at work in their hearts through the Word of God. It is this grace that works into the people of God a humble heart that learns, a will that is filled with mercy, and emotions that are governed by truth.

May God keep His church from symbolism over substance!

What’s In It For Me?

We live in a world that is designed to cater to my base desires. One of the local TV broadcasters promotes this idea by saying, “We are on your side!” I always ask myself, “How do you even know what side I am on?” or “What makes you think I am on a side?”

I understand what they are saying, I guess, but one of the implications behind it is that I live life for all I can get out of it and if they can be in it for me, then I’ll choose their station rather over the other stations. It’s a default way of thinking what I think everyone thinks. We live life for what is in it for us!

People come to church for the same reason. People come to Jesus for the same reason. We read the Bible with that same underlying motive. Our ultimate goal in any kind of spiritual endeavor is often, “How can I be a better me?” So, we see Christ, His Word, and even church attendance in light of this motivation. We quietly think, “Just tell me how I can be better, do more, and live better and I will be happy!” So, Jesus, the Word, and Christ’s church all become a useful tool for my happiness. I don’t know that we ever intend to do this but “what’s in it for me” over time creeps into every crevice of our motivations for life.

We often don’t realize the path this takes us down. It subtly points us to our own goodness as the goal for life. Looking inward for our righteousness is never a good idea. There has to be a better motivation then, “What’s in it for me.” The good news is, “There is a better motivation!” We come to Christ, His Word, and His church for one reason: “Let me see the person of Jesus Christ and learn all He has already done for me!”

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John’s Gospel tells us of a group of Greek people who had differentiated themselves from the masses of people and came to Philip with six words, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21). So many in Scripture followed Christ for so many reasons but these folks stuck out in John’s mind simply because they wanted to see Christ. Philip told Jesus what they wanted and Christ said something notable. In Vv24,25, Jesus says in so many words, “He that will see me will have to die, lose their life, hate his life, and follow Me.” Jesus was headed to the cross. He was not headed for a happier life or for what was in it for Him, but instead He was sacrificing Himself for the sake of others. But, Jesus says, those who will die, will live! Those who lose their life will actually find it and those who hate their life will keep it!

The “what’s in it for me” way loses! Every time! Look to your motivation today. Look to your marriage, your family life, your own thought patterns and see just how “what’s in it for me” has snuck in and pulled you into it’s vortex and is draining the life right out of you. Now, turn from this thinking and set your affections on Christ…alone! He is the only one that has throughout all time really been “on your side.”

Prepare for Sunday

I can remember well the days when my children were very small and I had the privilege of pastoring a church we had started in Heidelberg, Germany. We were ministering to the English speaking community, including some sweet German friends that wanted to brush up on their English. Sunday mornings were hectic.

Cindy and I played a tag-team where each of us took a child or two and made sure they were fed, dressed, and ready to go. So many times it would not go as expected. Then, on the way in, the baby would have a serious diaper issue that soiled their clothes. But just like clock work, Cindy would reach in the diaper bag and pull out another whole set of clothes for the little one and we continued on our way.

Cindy would not say she was a super mom by any stretch of the imagination, but my point is, she was prepared. She had set some things out ahead of time for what was the possible or even the inevitable. Why? Because what was going on with the followers of Jesus was very important and she sought to do away with any possible obstacle for what was more important.

Sundays for the followers of Jesus is so very important. It is one of the reasons why we call Sunday, “The Lord’s Day!” How can we prepare for Sundays? Sunday morning is a Saturday night decision!

1. Take time on Saturday just to stop and pray for Sunday. Pray for your pastor. Pray for your Family Bible Class teacher. They are preparing for you and for your soul so spend some time in prayer preparing your heart for them. Pray for the family of God. Look forward to seeing perhaps some new people that God will bring to visit. Pray for the nursery/children’s workers that they won’t get distracted and that they will be loving and helpful to your children as they seek to point their hearts towards Jesus. Pray for the hearts of people to be softened by the greatness and glory of God. Pray that your heart will be receptive to the Word of God.

2. Take time on Saturday to confess sin. You have battled your own sinful heart all week. There were moments of sweet victory and then there were moments of stumbling unbelief. Confess your faith anew in Christ’s work for you and speak to God of turning from your own self-glory and coldness toward God and toward others. Confess your failure to effectively love your family and confess your struggle with discipling the heart of your children. Own your sin knowing that because of Christ’s finished work on your behalf, He freely forgives and cleanses you from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9).

3. Take time on Saturday evening to get ready. No, I’m not talking about putting your make-up on. I’m simply urging you to get the children’s clothing out ahead of time. Do the necessary ironing (is that still a thing?). Get breakfast stuff done ahead of time. Make it as easy as possible to have a calm Sunday morning. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in an extra outfit for the baby—you know, just in case!

4. Take time on Sunday morning to set your heart toward God. Play some Christ-honoring music that will help direct your heart toward Him. I would urge you to listen to something where the words of truth are clear and sung in a way where your heart will resonate with their truth. Get your Bible out and read it. Work together as a team to get the kids ready and shoot to get out into the car five minutes earlier than normal—you know, just in case…

5. Put your phone down. Just put it down on Sunday mornings. Really, can there be just one time when you are not looking at it? Don’t pick it up until much later in the afternoon. Take a “sabbatical” from social media. Remove any distraction in your heart and reserve all of your thoughts for Christ alone.

6. Arrive with expectation. Expect to encounter people who have needs. You are there to serve and not to be served. Look for someone and see in their eyes the hurts that have beaten them up that week. Be a source of grace, healing, and help to them. Expect to sing about Christ and His work on the cross—on your behalf! Expect to participate! Worship is participatory. Expect to hear from God through preaching. The spoken Word is the revelation of the Living Word (Jesus) with the view toward the transformation of your heart into the image of Christ. Long for Christ and His grace in your soul. Look and listen for the sweet words of the Gospel. Let your heart be refreshed and renewed once again in the hope that only Christ can give! Cherish it in your own soul and speak of Him to the others around you after the service. Our unity and fellowship flows from Christ and His glorious Gospel. Get there early and be the last to leave because it’s the best view of heaven you will see on this side!

Prepare for Sunday. It’s pretty important! Don’t miss it!

Atrophy in the Church

Many churchgoers in the American church can live an entire life and never witness firsthand a church being planted. Thus, many do not know what they are missing. While for me, this is sad, it is a very real a picture of the overall health of the American church. Any church over time that does not actually grow and mature in what it means to make disciples is in danger of atrophy. By growth, I mean there is in the life of the church people coming through the doors, growing and changing to Christlikeness, and then going out to from the church to serve Christ in His Kingdom work. The pinnacle of this is seen in a church starting another church.

The word atrophy means, “A wasting away of the body or of an organ or part, as from defective nutrition or nerve damage; a decrease in size, a wasting away, or deterioration.”  If there is no healthy inflow of people and outflow of people with intentionality, over time the church will slowly and often quietly crumble. You won’t even know it is happening until you walk in one day and see only a few people left hanging on for dear life. Atrophy.

There are some very real signs of atrophy.

1) The church seeks merely to survive. This is often motivated by fear. It is paralyzing and will cause both leadership and followship to not make the necessary changes so as not to “rock the boat.” What they don’t realize is the boat is already rocked and needs to be calmed with a clear vision of Christ and His church. The church is divided, unhealthy, and is in the process of atrophy. It’s subtle, but so destructive.

2) The church seeks merely to thrive. This too is often motivated by fear. This is the pendulum swinging the other way. Suddenly, change is the name of the game and change is made in bold ways that are often rushed and not well thought out and thus not really well communicated. Inadvertantly, this can be hurtful to people on many levels. The leadership looks horizontally to methods and personalities that can be somewhat mimicked for success. People who question leadership are often marginalized and thought of as “old fashioned” or “trouble causers” rather than shepherded and cared for. Growth can happen and often does at least numerically. But the good health of inflow and out flow of people and ministry doesn’t happen. Over time, stagnation and atrophy will show itself.

3) The church loses its heart of service to God. In its early form this shows up in people no longer interested in working at the very necessary levels like nurseries, ushers, greeters, etc. People lose the heart to serve others in the realm of the body of believers, so church attendance becomes sporadic, public services are dropped because no one comes and the vision for service for God and others is lost. Ulimately, discipleship and soul care of people wanes and the outflow of people for ministry dries up. Atrophy has the church by the neck and life is being suffocated out of the body.

There is only one remedy for atrophy. One. Through the careful preaching of the written Word of God a rebirth of a bibilcal understanding of the Living Word (Christ) must permeate every area of life in the body. The Gospel is central then to this important view of Christ. His person and His work then is driven home as the Word is preached with fervency and is received with humilty of heart. The result of this is two things: repentance from sin and faith in Christ. The person of Christ begins to flow (Gal 2:20) in the hearts of God’s people, service to God and others is restored, discipleship and soul care become the priority, and people go out with the message of the Gospel on their lips and their lives and impact their world. It’s not hard. The early church did it well with men who only knew how to fish.

Can you sense atrophy setting in? Don’t ignore it.

Can’t we just love each other?

So much bickering! So much anger! So many ugly things being said! So much hurt! Can’t we just love each other? After all, this is Valentine’s month, isn’t it?

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It’s a valid question. But there’s a problem. It’s a very real problem. The problem is this thing called “love.” We really struggle right there. If you listen to pop songs of yesterday or today, you will get a mixed bag of definitions, illustrations, or dreams of love, but you will find it difficult to find the real sense of love as God has defined it. It’s not what we think it is. Jesus addresses it though. His standard for love is really, really high and very, very difficult. You may not really want to know it. But you also may want to at least take a peek at it. You know, just in case…

In the middle of his greatest sermon, the one that He preaches on a hillside to his disciples, Jesus says this, “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12. We were taught this as a child and our parents called it “The Golden Rule.” Scripture often sums up all of the Law and the Prophets with one word, “Love!” The two greatest commands are “Love God and Love Others!” (Mark 12:28-31). Essentially what Jesus is saying here is love is lived out in the Kingdom of God by “whatever you wish others would do to you, you do it to them.” This is startling. This is shocking. Love just isn’t that way! At least, that is what our hearts tell us. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul gives us even more clarity about love in 1Corinthians 13 (Read it at your leisure!).

So, how do we want to be loved? I suggest that there are at least three spheres of our lives that long to be loved.

   We want to be loved emotionally. Don’t we all want emotional acceptance, emotional sensitivity, feeling of being wanted, feeling of being supported, feeling of being needed, the feeling of being important to someone, the feeling of acceptance, feeling belonging, cherished, respected, welcomed, appreciated, befriended, listened to? Then, this is how we treat those around us! You giveemotional acceptance; you be emotionally sensitive to the needs of other; you make others feel needed, wanted, appreciated, and cherished, respected, welcomed, befriended…etc. You see this?

 We want to be loved mentally. We want to be understood; we want our opinion heard; our thoughts to matter; we want recognition, approval, and to be believed in. All of these things and many more aspects we don’t have time to list are what we give to others. Think what relationship in your life right now would be so much better if this was done. Take your thoughts and direct them outwardly to the people around you.        

 We want to be loved physically. We want to be touched, hugged, caressed, and cuddled. I can remember my mother’s hand on my forehead when I was sick and throwing up. That certainly is a one-of-a-kind love.

  Here’s the point though: we don’t manipulate life so we are treated this way! Instead, we give this love to those around us! Wow! This is a tall order! Is there anyone you know that loves like this? I’m pretty sure, I am not capable of doing life and living love like this. So, the original question above, “Can’t we just love each other?” seems a bit like a “No,” doesn’t it?

Unless… Unless something from within our hearts changes. Enter, God’s amazing grace through the person and the work of Jesus! He changes the heart of those who trust Him and by God’s grace, in our struggle to love as we would want to be loved, we humbly exercise His divine grace and we reach out to God in prayer!

 We ask! Simply put, it is an act of humble faith. We are desperate to love this way, so we ask God in faith. Love doesn’t come naturally, but only through God’s grace working in us. We pray for God’s wisdom to love; for God’s patience to love; for God’s Spirit to love through us. This word ask is the word a beggar uses when he is asking for alms!  We don’t know how to love; we are bound by our base desires (7:6) and we are blind by our own lusts and self-serving desires. So, we don’t resort to our own manipulations of life, we die to self and come to Christ in nothing else but humble faith. Notice what Jesus does? He gives! Twice Jesus says this! Of course He does, He loves!

 We seek! This is asking in faith but with passion. Our base passions and desires scare us often so we tend to push away from them. Jesus says we passionately ask! With all the emotional gushing love we can muster we implore, plead, entreat, and appeal for God to grace us with a love that communicates Jesus’ kind of love. But, notice, it is not a demand! It is not with a stomp of the foot, but it is a humble faith with passion. It’s an earnest pursuit of reacting or acting in a way that you know is outside of you! I wonder if when you don’t love your neighbor well if you really passionately ask God for His love? How does Jesus respond to our seeking? He allows us to find. There are ways to love each person, each time! Seek from Christ His love and you will find ways that His love in you can be given.

We knock! This is asking God for love with passion persistently and patiently! It is probably the most blessed part of what Jesus is saying. We keep coming back. Why? Because life continues to present to us time and time again that we can’t love in a way that is needed. We persistently knock in order to patiently learn to love each person in each situation with care, with gentleness, with truthfulness, and with the same grace that Jesus has extended to the likes of us. Notice who opens the door! Twice Jesus says, “It will be opened to you.” He opens the doors to love others. He has to! It’s His love, you’re His person, and the one needing love is His work for His glory!

Who can do this? Only Christ! Look through the pages of Scripture and find people loving in extraordinary ways but getting very little love in return. The Apostle Paul explains how this love happens in Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. Faith in Christ is that upward and outward look to Him that steadies our hearts to love people that are so very different from us and look at things from such different views. By faith, we get to die to that inward and downward look that seeks its own and look upward and outward that loves God and loves others. Isn’t that amazing?

So, yes, we can just love each other. And, just for fun, we can work to “outdo one another in showing honor” to each other! (Romans 12:10). What grace!

 

I’m a perfectionist!

I never really wanted to be. I never thought I could be. But, I am!

I remember well as a young student pianist I would drive my Mom nuts when I practiced. I would take a two-note phrase and go over, and over, and over it until I could perform it perfectly three times in a row. If I made a mistake, I would start all over again. Usually, somewhere in the middle of my striving, I would get so frustrated that I would take both hands and hit the keyboard striking as many notes as possible. By this time, my mother would ever-so-cautiously enter the room, tap me on the shoulder, and softly say, “Why don’t you get yourself a drink of water and come back to this later?” Mom knew what she was doing. While that worked to divert my mind and emotions temporarily, it did nothing to quiet the beast that was forming in me and showing it’s ugly head. I say ugly, because that is exactly what it is. It is ug-ly!

Striving to be perfect is damaging on so many levels. We don’t realize everything that is connected to it at the time, but the evil beast from within is there storming about and seeking who it may devour.

The implications behind my perfectionism

I call them implications because they are not often quite so readily seen.

If I am perfect, I don’t really need a Savior. Now, think on this long and hard. If I can somehow, someway do it right or actually be right, why would I need Jesus. This is perhaps the most difficult truth about my supposed perfectionism. Jesus really didn’t need to die. We don’t need Jesus, really. This is more than just wrong, it is heretically wrong! This is rebellion at its worst. It goes against all that God’s Word teaches. I become the savior and I am my own righteousness. It speaks of ingratitude for Jesus. All that God did for us in Christ is unnecessary. Wow. I don’t want to go down that road at all.

If I am perfect, woe to the people around me! You see, if I am perfect, it is a perfection of my own making. It’s not God’s perfection, it is mine. It’s not really perfection at all and yet I demand that not only I must live up to it (which in itself is a big hoax) but everyone around me must live up to my standard. The problem is they don’t know my standard and so they fail miserably and constantly. But this is good for my perfection because it makes my position of perfection even better because no one else can be perfect like me! I then look down on them and treat them as the failures they are. I let them know about it too! They will never meet up to my standards. Over time, though, because no one meets my standards, people grow weary of not being able to meet up to my standards and they begin to resent me and desire to not to be around me. I am left to wonder why and am often sulking and feeling sorry for myself when I really it brought it on myself because “I have to be right!” I end up treating people in such selfish and unkind ways.

Yah, woe to them!

Well, the Apostle Paul understood this quandary of life. In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of a dialogue he had with God. He said that God gave him a “gift of a handicap to keep me in constant awareness of his limitations.” (V7 in the Message). He went on to say that he didn’t quite think of it as a gift at first, but when God showed him that in his weakness, Christ’s strength became visible in his life, he was glad to have his gift! He was glad to have his God-given handicap. His imperfection made him glad! In fact V10 says, “Now I take my limitations in stride, and with good cheer!”

Wait! Who really does that? Who really is glad and with good cheer in their limitations? Not a perfectionist! You see, my faux perfectionist heart is full of self-glory that keeps me from the two greatest commands of all Scripture: Love God, and love people (Luke 10:27). It’s damaging to the glory of Christ around me and it takes away an opportunity to love my neighbor. Why then am I even in this world then? No wonder I am discouraged!

But because of the Gospel of Jesus, I get to be a repenting faux perfectionist! And, I’m glad!

For more reading on this subject read here.

New Year…Same Battle

It’s a new year. For the genuine child of God who is seeking to live a life pleasing God there often creeps into our understanding that sanctification is a process of moving forward with God.  We interpret Paul’s words in 2Corinthians 3:18 “And we all…are being transformed…from one glory to another” as our sanctification moving us along in an upward direction that is more and more free from the pain and suffering of sin to a more glorious plateau of heavenly bliss that can only bring us more happiness and success. By success, we think it will mean complete victory over sin and even maybe to the point that the battle with certain sins will just vanish and our hearts will be at peace in this world. One look at the path of our Savior dashes the reality of an upward successful trek as He took the path to the cross (Philippians 2). This inward look comes around every year at this time because of the emphasis on the New Year with “new beginnings.” So we vigorously set up new goals in order to help us move onward and upward in our trek because, well, last year we really didn’t move quite as onward or upward as we anticipated. So our minds go to a quick review of 2018 and we measure ourselves by where we are in comparison to where we think we should be. We should be better. We should be more holy, more like Jesus, and more fearless in life. We should be…we should be…we should be… ugh! But we aren’t!

It’s an amazing deception. It is a masterful deception. The Evil One knows just how to push our buttons and get our eyes on to where they shouldn’t be. Living the lie that constantly pits our life against where we think we should be by now is a vicious and pernicious way of living. The flaw is where our eyes are going. Where our eyes look indicates where our hearts are. We are called to be people who believe. We are called to faith, only, not faith in ourselves, but faith turned away from ourselves (repentance) and turned toward trusting Christ–both who He is and what He has already done in our place. The glory Paul is referring to is not a self-produced, self-affirming glory from within ourselves but is a supernatural work of Christ in us and us in Christ. In just a few verses away, Paul exclaims, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!” (2Corinthians 4:5,6). So real glory is found only in an ever expanding and growing reality of Jesus as He lives in us and through us. This only comes by faith and faith only comes through the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Every day we spend time looking where we “should be” we lose sight of Jesus and His perfect work on our behalf. We are then discouraged, bound by our lack of seeming success, and blinded to all the realities of Jesus. That’s right where the Evil One wants us. We grow cold towards the Word and faithless in our living.

So, it’s a new year. My friend, don’t buy into the temptation to look inward and compare to where you think you should be. Look outward and look upward to believe in the work of Jesus who is in you. His perfections and promises are all yours to trust in and live your life out of. Only as He works His kind grace will your life see and experience His great glory in every area of your life. The battles may all look the same and you feel overwhelmed, out numbered, and you are so tired of that same nagging sin that is dogging your weary soul. But, really, truly, “Greater is He in you!” (1John 4:4). With great joy in Christ’s finished work on your behalf, trust Him. Rest in Him. Believe Him!

New Year…same battle…even more amazing Savior! He’s your sweet hope!