Theology 101

We just finished a thing called 42 Days.

It was a six-week journey of reading a book, making a once-a-week meeting, daily Bible reading, and a practice of general personal discipline that a group of 45-50 North Point men made together. It was a good thing. We’ll do it again, I’m sure.

But it wasn’t easy. Especially the book.

We chose to read “Crazy Love”, by Francis Chan. It wasn’t the most difficult read I have ever done. As a matter of fact, his style is easy to process and the content was pretty straightforward. But what he said didn’t sit too well.

Nobody likes to be called out for being a slug. Especially a spiritual slug. And especially not a bunch of men who have to actually look each other in the eyes and “fess up” to falling short. Lets just say our weekly meetings were not some kind of brag session on how great each of us are doing with following the commands of Christ…

For most of the guys, it was the first time in a long while…or even the first time ever… that there was any public owning of personal spiritual shortcomings or weaknesses. I can’t speak for women, but I know this is a difficult thing for most men (though I sense men and women are probably far more similar in this area than Bible scholars and cultural anthropologists think).

So here’s what I’m thinking today: How do you face your failures? How do you navigate through the flood waters of mistakes and shortcomings and willful disobedience to the statutes of a holy God? How do you stare down the man or woman in the mirror when you know the real story behind the public personna?

According to God’s word, no one is righteous…no one does good…everyone falls short of God’s standards…. We learn from the Master’s own mouth that the beginning point of a right response to God is to admit our spiritual bankruptcy…and from the writings of the Apostle Paul, we are taught that the path to spiritual strength is through the embracing of our weakness.

Hey…nobody ever said the “logic” of the Kingdom wouldn’t be counter-intuitive!

One of the boldest statements made in the Bible is by Paul in Romans 6:1-2…

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1, 2 NIV)

Should we keep sinning, keep disobeying, keep living selfishly, keep willfully living contrary to God’s revealed will for our lives, keep ignoring the needs of others and the good of the Kingdom….and then say, “No problem, I know God will forgive me!”???

To put a modern spin on Paul’s answer to his own hypothetical question… “Are you an idiot, or what?” No way are we to take advantage of God’s compassionate love for us. No way are we to deliberately and selfishly impose on his gracious benevolence towards us.

But here’s what we can do: Let your sin and brokenness and pride and laziness and obstinance and hard-heartedness and struggles with integrity be a constant reminder that your sufficiency and worth and wholeness will never be earned or deserved…nor will it ever be perfect…and that without your failures, you would never be driven to your knees for help.

Or with gratitude.

Starting a new week

just doing a little reading and reflecting tonight and i came across something the apostle paul said to the believers in corinth a couple thousand years ago:

“Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial.   “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything.   1 Corinthians 6:12

i’m pretty sure i don’t have any idea of the depth of this teaching,  but what i do know has changed my life.

there is a whole lot of stuff that jesus and the apostles make perfectly clear we are to avoid.   because they say so.   the list isn’t particularly long,  but it is explicit.   no excuses for not reading the book and learning the list.

but then there’s another list.   behaviors that fall into moral ambiguity…conduct whose value is open to debate because there is nothing explicit  in scripture to overturn its practice.   it is to those actions and attitudes that paul writes these words of wisdom…all is permissible,  but everything is beneficial.

but we can’t miss the glue of the teachingeven though i have the freedom to do a lot of things…things that everybody else around me does with no conscience and great regularity…i will not be mastered by anything.

everything would be different,  if we would obey this teaching.

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some random thoughts on the past few days:

  • eating and preaching at the same time is an intense experience.
  • the black magic woman  intro to start our opening big show song was pure genius…
  • i’m thinking a crazy train  intro to not to us  could be pretty sweet.
  • game one ranger hangover evidently took its toll on sunday attendance.
  • the rain this weekend was amazing.
  • it’s time for a little NP momentum to start building.   soon.   really.
  • hope people are getting serious about advent conspiracy.   time is ticking.
  • coming back to NP after being gone for a weekend is like a breath of fresh air for my soul.
  • as for bowling sunday night…my team lost by one pin.  twice.   i can still hear your smug chuckle,  parker.
  • i’m tired of tim tebow haters.   give the kid a chance.   he could be great.   too bad,  for me,  that he’s a bronco.
  • as bizarre and eccentric as al davis was,  i think he was the single most influential figure in american football history.   his pop culture legacy is profound.   i was sad when i heard of his death.   without him,  there would have been no raiders…or chargers.
  • speaking of the chargers,  they are a pretty weak 4-1.   ugh.
  • i bought a farmer discount card  for $10 last month.   we’ve already got money back on great 2 for 1 values.   i bought a marcus marauder discount card  for $20 yesterday.   i’m a bleeding heart sucker.   it has no good deals.   i hope the marcus soccer program buys some fancy hoodies with my money…
  • the rangers might go undefeated all the way to the world series championship.   they are that good.   and the other three teams look that weak.   start working on your happy dance  ranger faithful.
  • nelson cruz looks unstoppable.   the ranger bullpen looks unhitable.   lethal.
  • got my regular steroid shots to the knees this afternoon.   looking forward to wednesday when the juice reaches its peak.   i can feel it already.
  • favorite new show of the fall?  Pan Am.   it’s a cheesy,  sort-of-realistic,  period piece for baby boomers.   it takes wanda and i back to our teenage years.

the final word?   north pointers…come home.   it’s time for a full house again.   have a great week.

Sermon on the Mount – recap

it seems so arrogant…so foolish…so spiritually shallow.

when i was a child,  i had a fear of death.   not just my own,  but of those that were near to me.   i had a fear of the unknown.   i had a fear of pain.   most of all,  i had a fear of sadness.   especially about the ultimate loss.

i’m not sure where this fear came from,  but i know it lingered into my young adulthood.   even as one who believed in god and eternal life and salvation through the death and resurrection of jesus…death still choked my confidence and loomed like a dark cloud.

it was out of this inner darkness that i developed a way to cope with this fear.   it was a lame theology,  but it worked for me.   at least for a while.

i began to believe that if i was busy doing god’s work,  i would become indispensable.   i believed that if i was involved in important kingdom affairs,  god would protect me.     so i dedicated myself to serving people and giving myself up to the things of god.

(my motives for ministry were not completely dominated by a fear of death.   far from it.   but i would be less than honest,  if i didn’t own up to this kind of perverted life insurance policy i had made up in my mind…)

but like all stupid theologies,  this one was exposed as a fraud.   three times.

the first was the shocking death of keith green in a plane crash in 1982.   i was totally unprepared for this.   i was 28 years old and had already confronted the deaths of many others.   as a young pastor,  speaking at funerals was neither awkward nor distressing.   it was part of life.   just not keith green’s.

in my estimation,  keith was doing significant kingdom work.   his life was making a difference.   thousands of young people were being exposed to jesus through keith’s singing.   the church was being rocked by his call to uncompromising commitment.

for me,  if there was anybody who was whose life was going to be protected…whose life was vital to god’s ongoing mission on earth…whose mere existence merited special favor and safeguard from harm…it was keith green.   dang.   my theology was on shaky ground.

1997.   if there was ever a man guy who knew the heart of god,  it was rich mullins.   rich was also an artist…a renegade troubadour who surrendered himself to the master.   i remember the day…the moment…i heard of rich’s death.   he died in a gruesomely tragic crash on the way to a concert.   sheesh.   my theology that god would protect his most important and essential servants had moved to thin ice.   really thin ice.

as if i needed a final nail in the coffin  (sorry..)  of my lame and dim-witted protectionist theology,  along came october 30, 2003…the day my friend and youth ministry guru,  mike yaconelli,  died when his truck veered off the highway late at night and struck a light pole.

enough already.   if there was any doubt in my mind that god can complete his work on earth without me…or anybody else who thinks god needs him…mike’s death put it to rest.   there are multiple generations of youth ministers that were mentored by mike’s words and life.   he was easily the most important and significant person in the world of youth ministry.

and he died.   and finally…brutally…with great relief…so did my errant theology.

if god didn’t need keith or rich or mike to carry out his plans,  he definitely didn’t need me.   and what an incredible weight was lifted from my puny shoulders.   god does not need me.   oh…he uses me from time to time…but nothing others can’t do.   nothing so vital that he would ever have to protect me or save me or put up some special shield around me.

blessed are the poor in spirit.   blessed is he who understands that god does not need  him.   blessed is he who finally understands that he is absolutely nothing without god.

Beginning the Sermon on the Mount

preaching through the sermon on the mount is both terrifying and humbling for me.

the words of jesus set a bar that is entirely unattainable.   he even says midway through the sermon,  after telling us that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us,  that we just need to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.   (5:48)

talk about impossible. but that’s just the point.   the religious leaders of that day…especially the pharisees…had created an elaborate system of rules and requirements that people needed to keep in order to be right with god.   sort of a self-guided path to righteousness.

earlier in the sermon,  though,  jesus even blew that plan out of the water with these words:   for I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.   (5:20)

now here’s the humbling part.   my righteousness will never exceed that of the pharisees.   they were too good at it.   their law-keeping was impeccable.   their religiosity was stellar.   their spirituality was superior.   geez.   i probably commit more “sins” before noon most days,  than a rank and file pharisee committed in a month.

but what i lack in religious behavior is made up for in grace.

i cannot make myself  right with god by my own rule-keeping.   i cannot account for my own sin by doing things that god will notice.   i cannot make god love me more  by jumping through spiritual hoops and saying,  “daddy,  watch me!   daddy,  watch me!”  

i cannot balance the scales with god by fulfilling the commands of the sermon on the mount.   that can only be done by faith…by trusting that jesus’ death on the cross,  alone,  is sufficient to make me right with god.

here’s the terrifying part:   the words of jesus in the sermon on the mount are not mere religious ideas.   he did not speak these words and expect them to fall on deaf ears.   i don’t think his intent was to go through an empty exercise of laying out a lifestyle of total surrender to the kingdom…only to have his followers “spiritualize” the teaching or write it off as “unrealistic”.

are you ready to face your fear?

A gift to me

tonight,  there was a small group of us who went out and sang some christmas carols with/to a couple of our fellow north pointers.   susan is in the midst of her most recent hospital confinement…this one is going on three months and when she can go home is still a mystery.   joan is enduring a long recuperation at home after open-heart surgery.

both are improving.   both are women of deep faith and confidence in the god of bigger pictures.

we all left them inspired and encouraged.   it was short,  but it was real koinonia…the sharing of common life.

here’s what i came away with,  tho.   both susan and joan sang the songs.   i mean they sang the songs.

neither of them have shared life with our church family on sunday mornings in months.   they have missed the joy of seeing familiar faces and joining their voices with family friends to sing of the greatness of god.   they have missed the mutual encouragement that can only found when the body of christ is together.

as they sang,  i could see that their hearts were full.   and when they sang the words,  they believed them.

christmas carols in our culture have been sucked of their meaning.   joy to the world as background music to beer commercials.   o holy night as part of the movie sound tracks for brainless,  sophomoric films.   o come,  o come emmanuel playing over the loudspeakers in malls,  the great temples of holiday opulence.

don’t shoot me,  but i even saw a victoria’s secret commercial,  with models seductively mugging the camera to silent night. unbelievable.

to say that these grand hymns of faith have become nothing more than cliché,  would be an understatement the size of the story of santa claus…

what a confirmation of faith and joy of fellowship i found in simply watching two ladies sing christmas carols from deep within their souls…not because the songs were part of an annual holiday tradition…but because the words of those songs spoke truth to their spirits and confirmed the anchor they are each holding on to:   that the god of power still breathes redeeming grace into impossible situations.

Silent night, holy night

Song of God, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from Thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace

Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

Jesus, Lord at Thy birth


Another thought about enough…

But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.   2 Corinthians 12:9

can you honestly say that the grace of god is enough for you?

we love talking about the greatness of god and the blessings he floats down on us.   right on the heels of answered prayers and good fortune come our praises extolling the power and love and protection and provision of a sovereign god who is in control of everything…the keeper of promises and prince of faithfulness.

but what about when difficulty comes your way?   does your song change?   most of the people i’ve been around in my life complain and whine in the bad times…and speak of how awesome god is in the good times.

human nature?   probably.   is it right?   no way.   the problem?   we miss the point.

life is not designed to be viewed through the lens of good and bad. as long as that is what we do,  we will be controlled by circumstances and driven away from what is really needed:   to be able to know that the grace of god is enough.   to know that jesus…and the surpassing contentment that comes from simply living in his presence through whatever comes our way…is enough.

enough. the great equalizer.

Really?

don’t know if you heard about this.   here’s the link to the whole story so you can read it for yourself.   here’s the short version:

right after her pole vault secured the district championship for her school  (the very last event of the meet),  the girl was disqualified and the championship was awarded to the other school because the opposing coach went to the meet officials to point out that she was breaking a rule.

the rule?  the california interscholastic federation has a rule that says no jewelry can be worn by a student-athelete during a competition.

the jewelry she wore?   a thin, string friendship bracelet.   that’s it.

by pointing out the infraction,  the opposing coach was able to strip the win away from the opposition and secure the district championship for his school…crushing the girl,  dumbfounding everyone,  and sending his own team into a victory frenzy right out of the grip of defeat.

you really should read the whole story for yourself.

i have a lot of feelings about this one.   and i see both sides.

rules are not made to be broken…they are there for a reason.   rules create a level playing field for everyone  (not just in athletics)  and provides the framework for personal discipline and commitment to the goal.   holding people  (not just athletes)  to a standard and imposing the penalty for breaking the rules is a lesson we all have to learn.

it is certainly a lesson this young girl will never forget.   the pain will last a lifetime.

the flip side is all about the other life lessons this coach could have taught…sportsmanship,  grace,  kindness…goals far greater than winning titles…lessons of forgiveness and success and values far greater than trophies and legalism.

life is seldom black and white.