Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Greatest Commands?

It is humbling to know that the entirety of the Law is wrapped up in two commands from God: to love the LORD with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Later, Jesus would say that we should love our neighbor as He loved us - raising the stakes, if you will.

At the same time, keeping the Father's commands is how we demonstrate our love for Him (John 14). And His commands, you see, are fully wrapped up in loving Him and loving each other.

Sadly, in many cases we are guilty of actually scorning those that God asks us to love - no, not those outside the kingdom, but those IN the kingdom! Often, this scorn is over issues elevated to an importance that does not exist in the Scripture.

Scorn for a brother or sister in Christ...!

Can we really afford to treat each other in ways we KNOW are sinful over issues that remain in constant and irreconcilable debate? Is that the goal of New Testament Christianity?

If we learn absolutely nothing else from our journey through the Old Testament, it should be clear that the only thing that is important to the Creator is the dedication of our hearts to Him - and Him alone. That, of course, is not just a verbal exercise, but is exemplified in a genuine and sincere service to the King and His kingdom.

Remember, even Jesus himself admitted that the hypocritical Pharisees knew the Law (Matthew 23:1). It was the condition of their hearts that earned the Lord's disdain.

Election Blues

I know a lot of good Christians are concerned about the November presidential election and I’m right there with them. I sometimes wonder, though, whether the country would really be the better for it, whether the cause of the Kingdom would be any better served, if everything turns out the way we’d like.

When we have “our people” in power don’t we tend to relax a bit? It’s an unstated assumption, I think, that if we can just get our party in, the group that we think best represents our values and makes policy accordingly, then it can turn our country around and reverse our culture’s moral decline. When this happens, when it goes the way we deem as “ours,” the sense of urgency seems to ebb. It’s a natural tendency. (We show it in our fellowships even. We hire a team of qualified ministers, then kick back in our designated pew, write our weekly check and leave the rest to our professionals.)

This all ties in with something I wrote recently about how political action is truly powerless to bring change in the place where change must occur if it’s going to work its way through the culture – the hearts of individuals.

Make no mistake. I shudder to think that a President of the United States could believe it is morally acceptable to take a premature baby who has survived an unsuccessful abortion, even as it cries for its mother, its tiny lungs filling with new air, and toss it aside to die. For a President to hold this position, invoking the so-called “right” to choose as including its protection, the practical consequences may not be great. We’ve so perfected this cruelest of expedients that it seldom fails the first time. What does this belief say, though, of a candidate’s underlying worldview? It’s frightening. Chilling, really.

But again, God often gave wayward Israel the bad leaders it deserved, men who indulged their own and the people’s lusts for all manner of pagan excess, even child sacrifice. As a nation, we’ve become practised in similar rituals. We sacrifice our children to the god Choice. The altars are built by black-robed men, but to our own specs -- all to ringing chants of “rights” and “freedom.”

The point: If we don’t like our leaders, it may be that we’re getting our just desserts as a nation. As Christians, we should certainly pray for our country. Come November, we should go to the polls and do our duty as good citizens, voting as our consciences guide us. Then, whether we get the outcome we want or otherwise, we should forget about it. Put it out of our minds, for all practical purposes, rejoin our brothers and sisters and get on with the hard task of taking Christ to a country that no longer knows its right hand from its left.

Because it’s in the trenches of everyday life, not the marble halls of power, where souls are won and cultures are changed.

Friday, August 29, 2008


God is Lord…Lord of all…heaven and earth. There is nothing that is outside His reach or vision or power. He is before all things, the start and the finish, and everything in between. Nothing happens to you, in you, through you or around you that He doesn’t know. And, there is nothing He can’t control. He is, and He is Lord.

Do you believe this? It’s easy to nod your head at this screen. I did as I typed the words. But, do you live by it?

If God is in control, if He is truly Lord – specifically, Lord of my life – why do I feel stress? Why do I worry? Why do I race through each day and forget to count the blessing of it? Why do I battle the same temptation again and again and again…alone?

The sun rises at God’s command. It sets because that’s what He decides. He blesses what He blesses and He punishes what He punishes; this is the lesson in Israel’s fall. He is, and always is, Lord. He just wasn’t their Lord.

Is He your Lord? Are you accepting His command over your life, your specific situations? He is Lord over your problems at work. He is Lord over your strained relationship with your child. He is Lord over your finance and your marriage. He is Lord.

He is Lord. You need only to declare it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shoe-Polish Epitaphs

“Rest in Peace. You will be missed.”

Teenagers scrawl various sophomoric proclamations on their car windows with shoe polish, but I noticed a couple recently of a more sobering sort – memorial messages to fallen classmates. Some kids apparently had died in a tragic car accident and their friends honored their memories with a few words in white shoe polish on their windshields.

The thing about shoe polish, of course, is that it doesn’t last. It washes away after a while and is gone forever. Most of the statements that can be made about our lives, truth be told, are little more than shoe-polish epitaphs – remarks that are doomed to fade away because they have little significance in the eternal scheme. The only statements about us that will really matter in the end are those describing our relationship to the eternal.

Enoch’s epitaph was simple and moving: He walked with God. That’s the only kind of epitaph, the only summing-up statement, that can transcend its ephemeral medium and last through all tomorrows.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A New Heart and a New Spirit

Our Daily Bible reading this week has ventured into the book of Ezekiel, where God's anger against Israel continues to be revealed. In direct contrast to what we often assume about God, his anger is not incidental or without great justification. Quite the contrary, God has been overwhelmingly patient in sending a message of repentance to his people, and, instead of listening to His prophets' message - a call to repentance - the Israelites choose to listen to other false prophets who suggest that "all is well; those other prophets are just negative naysayers."

There is a warning for us in this teaching from the Old Testament (see Romans 15:4). When we are comfortable, enjoying the luxuries of life, and seemingly all is well, it may be good to ask if we are pleasing ourselves or pleasing the Lord. Are we hearing what we want to hear? Do we disdain the Lord's message: to repent, to come out of the world, to be God's people?

At the end of Ezekiel 18, God says, "Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and an new spirit." This Old Testament admonition is a powerful message for me today - to seek out a new "heart" and a new "spirit." It reminds me of the words of Paul in Romans 12:2:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.

A recurring theme in the Old Testament is Israel falling into idolatry - even though God, through his covenant, has promised them blessing beyond comprehension. Thankfully, we don't have that challenge we?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Managing Relationships in the Kingdom

Brothers and Sisters, the most important thing we can do at Open Door is to manage our relationships. Is this shocking to you?!? Some might say that obeying the doctrine on baptism, or confession or repentance is more important, but -- since, as members of Open Door we are already Christians -- I would submit that "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39) is a command (that we must obey) that points right to the need to effectively manage our relationships, including how to form relationships, how to maintain relationships and how to fix broken relationships. I think this command is one of the most important we can heed in the body.

For now, we focus on the maintenance of an existing relationship, and for our text we turn directly to Matthew 18:15 -- "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." This one verse is like a handbook for keeping our relationships healthy and vital. It is also difficult.

By and large we are chickens in managing our relationships. Usually, we talk about people that we have an issue with (or vice versa), rather than obey Christ's teaching on dealing with sour relationships. Notice the key word in this text: "Go."

The onus of responsibility in mending a relationship is on the person who is hurt or has been offended. Why? My own experience has been that more often than not, the "offender" usually doesn't even realize that they've hurt or offended me. Now, that brings up an important point before we "go." Here it is: don't be petty. Many of us walk around with a chip on our shoulder, just waiting to be offended or hurt. Get rid of the chip. Make it a goal to become "unoffendable." Since we're not perfect, people are going to say and do things that will hurt us, even when they don't mean it. So, be gracious.

  • Go Promptly. Time does not heal all wounds. Go as quickly as possible.
  • Go Personally. Don't use email; don't use the phone. Go to them directly.
  • Go Privately. Until you sit face-to-face with the person, don't talk about them or about the problem.
This is mostly common sense, but our fear of going to people with our hurts overrides our common sense in many cases. However, Christ's way is the best way, and in hindsight, our fears are usually unwarranted.

God will not bless a bickering church. If we can't maintain our relationships with each other, how do we expect to maintain our relationship with God? (Matt. 6:14)

I have been witness to Christians working out differences before and I have successfully practiced Matt. 18 myself. It works! Here are some tips for making this meeting with a brother or sister work better:

  1. Sit down in a comfortable, private setting if possible.
  2. Ask the person if you can share something with them that is difficult for you to share.
  3. Ask them if they will be a good listener for a few minutes as you share. In other words, don't create an expectation that you want an immediate response; after all, immediate responses are usually defensive.
  4. Let them know that when you are finished sharing, you will be a good listener too.
  5. Now its time to share: As gently as possible, share the words or actions that YOU OBSERVED the person do that hurt or offended you. Speak only for yourself.
  6. Let them know how you feel. Own your feelings. They are yours, not anyone else's.
  7. When you are finished, be quiet for awhile. If the other person doesn't speak, just relax and let them think. Think along with them. Pray also! Silence can be uncomfortable, but it can be very effective. Don't rush the process!

Seven is a good number to stop with, but the sum of the matter is to be as good at listening as you are with sharing. Try to understand. Don't demand an answer or response on the spot. You might have totally surprised your friend with this revelation.

In most cases, you will "win your brother over" with the gentle sharing and careful listening behavior that you exhibit. In some cases, you will find out that your brother did not even mean to hurt or offend you, which means that you never "lost" your brother in the first place. Typically, things get resolved on the spot. Not only that, but this kind of face-to-face reconciliation strengthens relationships in many cases.

As I think back, most of my very strong relationships have had a hiccup or two along the way. Following the Lord's method was meant to maintain and strengthen relationships. Having seen His ways at work over the years has confirmed our Creator's wisdom and love for us. His ways are not always easy, but they are always best. Having witnessed these principles put to work just recently between brothers, I have been encouraged at where we are going at Open Door. I am just as encouraged about how we're going to get there. Week by week we make a commitment to practice Biblical principles with regards to leadership, servantship, and relationship. Come, share this commitment with us. Together we can make a difference.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What Was Wrong With Lamar

Something was wrong with Lamar.

There just had to have been. To commit suicide is bad enough. But to do it that way -- to walk out to a dark highway, to pick out the next pair of emerging headlights, to turn toward them, waiting, and then at last to step in front of them. I’d like to think that their eyes -- Lamar’s and the driver’s -- locked in that moment before impact. And the horror in hers helped drive the haze from his, granting him a nanosecond of clarity, time for one urgent “Forgive me, Father” before he had his life crushed out of him.

But that’s just wishful speculation. All I really know is that something was seriously wrong with Lamar.

What was wrong with him, of course, is what is wrong with me and you. I did a post last week about a writer who became fascinated with the preserved remains of a two-headed calf and how she came to associate that freakish image with our own divided natures as sinful human beings. She described how the calf’s own deformity had apparently worked to destroy it, how its one perfectly formed head had embraced life, and how its other head, misshapen and hideous, had sought death, to the point even of spitting out all the nourishment its counterpart took in.

The idea was put forward that we are all two-headed calves -- creatures burdened with split natures, each of our halves working against the other, always at cross purposes. There’s an answer to our internal division and it involves a Cross and a purpose. But if we do not avail ourselves of it, the death head will win out like it did with Lamar. It is only by the Cross that we will find life and wholeness.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Prophet's Curse

One of the definitions for a prophet is "a spokesman for God." In the Old Testament, the prophets of Israel received inspiration from God and were commanded to preach repentance to a drifting nation. These men often foretold the future -- for nations and for individuals.

In re-reading about the prophets, as a part of our weekly Bible study groups, I have come to appreciate these unique men in a deeper way. Of course, their own people did not appreciate them. Society viewed these men as misguided zealots, troublemakers, misfits, unsophisticated, and even insane. All were persecuted (Acts 7:52); many were slain for their preaching. Interestingly enough, many times that were posthumously viewed with reverence, once their preaching had been silenced and they were gone from the earth.

Although not directly inspired, today's gospel preachers are spokesmen for God. As they read, study and preach and teach -- remaining faithful to God's Word -- they are no less His prophets than those men of old that we read about.

They are also often viewed as misguided zealots, troublemakers, misfits, etc.

Faithful preachers command us (yes, they have that authority as they speak the truth in love) to be pure, faithful, love each other, love the Christ, and repent from our sins.

Faithful preachers command elders to shepherd the flock, to visit the sick, to pray for the church, to teach and set an example.

Faithful preachers point out the "exceeding sinfulness of sin" and the destination of the lost if they do not obey the gospel.

Like the prophets of old, the prophets of today are not perfect. Sometimes we -- like the Israelites of old -- want to point out their imperfections so that their message of repentance is obscured. We want a reprieve from our conscience so we rally ourselves against their imperfections and allow ourselves to become indignant at their humanity.

It's easy in that environment for a preacher to feel alone (1 Kings 18:22). It's easy for the preacher to feel like no one is listening (v. 21). Recently we read about Elijah and his confrontation with the "prophets" of Baal. What intrigues me about this confrontation is the response of the congregation when Elijah challenges them: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him."

The Bible says, "But the people said NOTHING."

The next time a spokesman for God challenges us to be more Christ-like, to shepherd, to renounce the morality of the world, to resolve disputes, and to love each other... what will be our response?

The prophet's curse is that he is often not appreciated until it is too late. Thank God for men who preach, teach and live lives to encourage us to change; thank Him while you still have breath.

Thank the men themselves for overcoming their own insecurity, loneliness, and humanity to speak God's truth to us; thank them every week.

At Open Door, we are privileged to have two wonderful preachers. If you are blessed to hear them week by week, THANK THEM. If you have not had the opportunity to hear them, come and see.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Culture And How To Change It

I notice in today’s paper that one of our Oklahoma state lawmakers has proclaimed herself "a cultural warrior for Judeo-Christian values."

While I have no doubt that she means well, I think her statement springs from a sentiment that has taken deep root among American Christians in recent years -- the idea that the best way to get our morally adrift culture back on the right course is through political action.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about laws and government and who our elected leaders are; we certainly should be. But if that becomes our central concern, we are focusing on a symptom and missing the real problem, which goes much deeper. Real change for good occurs on an intimate personal level, as individual hearts come to realize their alienation from God through sin and find reconciliation in Jesus Christ. That and only that is how individual souls, and by extension groups of people, will find their bearings.

As long as the individual hearts of our country are turned away from God, it is going to be reflected in their collective whole -- the culture at large, of which our laws and governing institutions are but an emanation. Laws are top-down solutions to problems that originate at the bottom of a society: the individual hearts of its members. Laws are necessary but they are ultimately ineffective at getting at the real source of corruption. Even if you could somehow magically transform all our laws overnight to reflect Judeo-Christian values, it wouldn’t change one single solitary heart and our society’s slow backwards drift into spiritual narcolepsy would continue unabated.

As for this particular lawmaker, whose intentions I’m sure are noble, if she is committed to the cause of Christ, she would serve it much better by spurring her fellow Christians to get out of their church buildings and take their message to the streets, getting involved in their communities through acts of service -- not acts as ends in themselves, but as avenues for reaching individual hearts with the Good News about Jesus.

That, brothers and sisters, is how you change a culture. Anything else is confusing effects for the real cause.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Two-Headed Calf

Wrapping our finite earthbound minds around infinite spiritual concepts is tough and that’s why metaphorical language is almost always necessary. To that point, I ran across a striking image recently that I believe offers an excellent depiction of our central dilemma as fallen creatures and I wanted to share it: It comes from a chapter in Alan Jacob’s excellent new book “Original Sin,” in which Jacobs recounts the true story of author Rebecca West’s journey to Yugoslavia in the 1930s to work on a history of the country. At one point, West and her husband visit a museum where they discover several oddities, including:

“...a stuffed two-headed calf in a glass case, an animal ‘strangely lovely in form,’ so that ‘it was a shock to find that of the two heads which branched like candelabra, one was lovely, but one was hideous…’ The museum’s custodian affirms that the calf lived for two days ‘and should be alive today had it not been for its nature.’ West’s husband expresses puzzlement at this statement, and the custodian explains that when they fed milk to the calf through its beautiful head, its ugly head spit the milk out, so no food got into its stomach, and it died. This account prompts West to meditate: ‘To have two heads, one that looks to the right and another that looks to the left, one that is carved by grace and another that is not, the one that wishes to live and the other that does not; this was an experience not wholly unknown to human beings…’”

Observes Jacobs of this story: “The whole history of Yugoslavia, West comes to think, is the story of a two-headed calf, and maybe the whole of human history … ‘[Quoting Alexasandr Solzhenitsyn] The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.’ In other words, each and every one of us is a divided self, a two-headed calf … (West) sees with an absolute clarity our innate dividedness, the immovable and constant presence of an ever vigilant ugly head, always determined to expel nourishment and thereby to reject life and to choose death instead …”

A two-headed calf! It’s an image right out of a carnival sideshow. But like effective metaphors can do, it should stick with you, giving your imagination something concrete to work with in helping you make sense of a difficult spiritual subject. I know it has done so for me.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I Want It Now!

In our "what's in it for me today?" society, we have been conditioned to solve all problems in the space of a half-hour sitcom and look for immediate success in every endeavor, lest we be viewed as a failure. Christians -- just like the world --are a "want IT now" kind of people, whether "it" is the latest gadget, a bigger house, a newer car, or immediate success in our latest personal or church venture. Is such thinking Scriptural? Is it even rational?

Examples of this "right now" philosophy are apparent everywhere you look. Newly married couples, just graduating from college, are buying homes bigger than their parents have ever lived in. Car payments today are more than mortgage payments were 20 years ago. Our financial sector leads the way with this type of thinking. Wall Street demands that company results improve quarter after quarter with no slack or slip. And why not? Mega investor shareholders want a return on their money RIGHT NOW. No longer can Americans "build a great company" that provides stable, measured earnings over the long haul. Profits must increase quarter after quarter at all costs. Any deviation from this expectation is met with harsh, immediate action in the form of lay-offs, spin-offs, mergers and other forceful action in the public eye. Unfortunately, hidden in the executive suite, leaders are often pressured to falsify statistics, hide expenses, and keep two sets of books in order to maintain the appearance of ever-improving "shareholder value". Slow, steady improvement is sacrificed for the sake of the appearance of bold, immediate results. Nobody in America is immune to the "I want it now" mindset.

As I said previously, we're guilty in the church of demanding immediate, successful results in all of our endeavors. Every year a new set of programs is implemented with the expectation that these innovations will attract and keep an ever-growing number of people; have to pay for that new building, you know. The mass market, "want it now" mindset has invaded -- yea permeated -- the thoughts and actions of the church. As one preacher said, "We spend what we don't have, to buy what we don't need, to impress people who really don't care." How do we, as Christians, stop this madness?

Read the Scriptures.

Jesus spent 30 years preparing for a 3 year ministry. The Old Testament prophets spent most of their lives preaching to a nation that wouldn't listen, and would kill these mouthpieces for God. Hear Stephen in Acts 7:52: "which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute..." The apostle Paul spent all of his adult life preaching Christ, with the constant fear that his converts would fall back into the world. At the end of his ministry he wound up a martyr. Peter, James and others are said to have been similarly executed. Did their "success" come immediately? Were they even successful in the world's eyes?

My view of Scripture is that the church of today (collectively and individually) needs to re-examine how we define success. The world defines success in terms of fine clothes, leather upholstered automobiles, square footage, executive titles, and stock portfolios -- all things that give an impressive appearance FROM THE OUTSIDE. Our love of these things is an abomination to God (Jas. 4:4).

God measures success from the inside - out. Personal success (in God's eyes) starts with a humble walk before Him (Micah 6:8). We must take ourselves off of the throne. We must remove ourselves from the center of our universe. We must recognize who and what we really are. Isaiah characterized himself as a man of "unclean lips" living among a people who were the same way (Is. 6:5). Paul -- the greatest ambassor for Christ the ever lived, called himself a "wretched man" (Rom. 7:24). Instead of comparing themselves with our neighbors, we should become like these servants of God: comparing ourselves with God's ideal and seeing ourselves for what we are: miserably flawed people with no hope outside of God's undeserved grace.

Today, we need to recast our vision of ourselves as both individuals and congregations: we are works in progress, slowly learning and growing day by day. Paul's admonition in Romans 12 to become "living sacrifices" is totally at odds with the language and philosophy of the world. We need to become honest with ourselves and with each other: "transformed by the renewing of our minds" in order to "confess our sins to each other" and not to "grumble against each other" (James 5:9).

At the Open Door church, we are blessed to have two ministers that strive to preach, teach and live God's Word out on a daily basis for our benefit. They are not perfect men, but they labor in trying to teach us how to become like Christ (Rom. 8:29). Spiritual success will be measured by individual transformation, community service and souls knit together in love. Don't you know that a congregation on such a journey will be a light to the world? It might take years to make this journey, but God doesn't measure things in years like we do. Let's get back to the Bible way of doing things. Let the Scriptures define success. Let's be patient and appreciate God working with us as we make the journey.

Interested in joining us? Come and see.