Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Good isn't enough....

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." - Matthew 5:13-16(NIV)

If all I have done with my life is convince others that I am a good person, a person to be trusted, than I have utterly, miserably failed in the one calling around which all the rest of my life was supposed to circle.  If the "good deeds" of this life that I carried out were credited only to me, than I "missed the mark."  All the praise and the accolade I may receive to my person is meaningless, unless it is turned heavenward.

"In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." - Matthew 5:16(NIV)

I have spent most of my life being involved in volunteer or professional ministry in the church.  Outside of that circle, as a Christian my life is supposed to be a light in a world corrupted by sin.  I am to serve others because Christ serves others.  I am to love others because Christ loves others.  NONE of these things are supposed to point to ME but to HIM WHO SENT ME!

I was told by a non-Christian friend of mine that, though this person does not believe, he knows I'm "one of the good guys."  At first, I was flattered... naturally I was!  But as I thought about it... about the implications, I wondered, "What if that was all he ever got from me, that I was 'one of the good guys?'  What if all he ever saw was me, when it was only Jesus who could change his life?  What if I have gotten in the way of the ministry God has given me?"  All the kindness I showed him in the world, all the care and discussion and friendship... would be meaningless.  Because at the end of the day he'd still be in hell, and I'd be the one who didn't "make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5).

And I guess that's the point I want you to take home as you read this; that is the HEART of the issue.  People live and die outside of the grace of Jesus every DAY!  As we go through our lives, there are people on the path to HELL that we pass right by because we're afraid to speak, afraid to be judged, afraid to be wrong or challenged or rejected.  It's like watching a man starve to death because we're afraid they won't like pb&j.

We hold the keys to LIFE people!  Look at the people that you pass every day.  Really look at them!  Look at the students in your class, the people on the sidewalk, the families at the mall or grocery store or at your sporting event.  The knowledge you have in Christ will save their lives.  All that is necessary is for you to speak!  

It's not enough that people like you or think you're a good person  At the end of the day, you cannot save them.  Only Christ can.  He is the one who stands in the brink; who bears us into the presence of God every day of our lives.  Don't be content to stand there and watch the dying pass.  Be the breath of life from God, Himself.

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God." - 2 Corinthians 2:14-17(NIV)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scent of death...

For me, it always happens when I'm out and about around sunset/twilight, especially on a cool, fall evening with just the slightest bit of a breeze that falls short of chilling you.  The sunlight reaches little fingers of orange gold around the edges of my sunglasses, the mountains are turning blue with evening, everything is starting to still as creatures of the day settle down and creatures of the night haven't yet emerged.  Trees with changing leaves seem to glow in the final light of day.  In that moment... everything seems poised in perfect stillness, and I think of this passage, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20).  What does this mean?  Those beautiful fall leaves, that golden orange sunlight on my face, those blue mountains, that clean breeze... all of it... shouts, "GOD IS REAL!!!  HE IS HERE, IN THIS MOMENT!! AND HE IS WONDERFUL AND POWERFUL AND PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL AND THE SOURCE OF THE ONLY PEACE YOU CAN EVER KNOW!!"

All of this amazing world around us knows who its creator is, but you know what's funny?  The one thing in all creation that God most wants to know and love Him... is the one thing in all creation He allows to reject Him.  Human beings.  In John 3:16(NIV), we read, "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."  God loved the world enough to come to send Jesus to die for us while we were "enemies of God" (Romans 5:10).  Yet, at the dawn of creation, He gave us a choice to follow Him or ourselves with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  He gave us everything - even His heart - and then gave us a choice... knowing what our choice would be.  We chose to follow ourselves, and every horrible and awful thing that has happened since is a result of this choice.

With the coming of Christ, though, there was a shift... a change.  All who believe in Christ "have eternal life" (John 3:16) and have been "reconciled to [God] through the death of his son" (Romans 5:10).  But with this comes something else:

"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." - Jesus in John 15:19(NIV)

In other words, as Paul puts it in 1 Peter 2:11(NIV), we are "aliens and strangers in the world."  In light of this, another thought comes to mind: if we are "aliens and strangers" and "the world hates you" because  Jesus has "chosen [us] out of the world"... why do we expect things of this life to go smoothly?  We are  hated by this world.  2 Corinthians 2:16&17 says we are literally the "scent of death" to "those who are perishing."  When horrible things happen to us, and we turn to God and demand an explanation... we are asking Him a question He has already answered: the world is against us.  Every single dark and awful situation we face reminds us that this world is not our home.  It reminds us we don't belong here.

So, when these horrible things happen, remember that you are an unwelcome alien here, and call to mind this passage from Hebrews 12:1b-3:

"Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Powerless to save....

Today, our pastor baptized a little baby boy.  I wanted to start this entry with this amazing thing that is baptism... but I'm overwhelmed by sorrow even as I try to write it.  God gave us this beautiful thing in baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit of God actually comes into our bodies.  Even as a little baby, this boy who could not yet speak was being filled with the grace and mercy of Christ.  What a perfect reflection of what grace is!  

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." 
- Romans 5:8

Just like a baby, who cannot feed himself, dress himself, or even relieve himself without help... we were - are -  helpless to save ourselves from death in sin.  Yet, Christ came and died for us.  He "saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-8).  What hope, what joy at the Baptism of a little child, who faces all their future with the power and life of God residing in him.

What brings me sorrow is what happens down the road.  This little child grows, they learn to walk... they learn to talk... they learn all the necessities for sustaining this body.  But the world doesn't stop there.  The world teaches them to hate, to fear, to lust, to be greedy and selfish... It whispers "you're not good enough, unless you do...." or "no one loves you, so you better look out for number one" or "the world is out to screw you over, so you better make sure you get them first."  Or maybe it just says "you can do it on your own.  You're strong.  You're smart.  You don't need _______."  In other words... the world fills this child's head with all its nonsense... and tries to drown out the voice of God whispering truth from their heart.

Working with youth... I see the impact of the world's lies on them on all the time.  It breaks my heart to see how quickly Satan strikes with all the burdens of this life, trying to snuff out this glorious life that God has given them through the death of His son.  It's very discouraging sometimes... What do you speak into the life of a child when they feel like they have gone through years of hell and God hasn't helped.  How do you encourage them with the hope of Christ when their reality right now seems so far from Him?

It reminds me... I am not the one who can save these kids.  All my fine words and training in faith education and kindness and caring will never be enough without this:

"I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me." 
- Jesus (John 14:6)

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
 - Jesus (Luke 21:33)

“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."
- Jesus (John 10:7b-9)

Jesus is the key to all of this.  He is the only one who can save.  Not me.  All other things will cease... all other things are powerless to bring salvation. What I cling to is this great promise, this promise I pray the broken children of this world will never cease to hear from me... this one promise without which life has no meaning:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
-Romans 3:38-39(NIV)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Calling obsessions....

People collect all sorts of things, from your standard, run-of-the-mill stamp or coin collection, to things a little more odd: like belly-button lint and celebrity hair (yes, people actually collect hair that once was connected to the scalps of famous people.)  If you're like me and have walked into an office lined with figurines from a much-loved TV series, then you know that sometimes our little collections can turn into obsessions.  Most of us have had at least one, and as long as you're not the collector who tackles famous people on their morning jog to make off with a hunk of hair, you're probably not hurting anyone with it.

However, there is an obsession we have in the Christian world that I think is causing harm, and we don't even recognize it.  That obsession... is our fixation on a concept known as "your calling."  Don't get me wrong, calling is an extremely important concept that is a part of the life of every believer, but it is my belief we have taken something that was supposed to be a blessing in our lives, as well as a means of blessing other people, and have made it into a burden on the necks of believers.

Before I explain my point, I want to highlight that I am working from a Lutheran (LCMS) perspective of calling, where "calling" equates to "vocation."  Vocation, from this perspective, is not necessarily what we could call a "career" or "job," though it does include those things.  More generally, vocation is  whatever legitimate labor we carry out in our day-to-day life, with a "legitimate labor" being any action we carry out that does not go against the life God has called us to in the Bible.

Already, this definition is touching on the point I'm trying to make.  We have convinced ourselves that "calling" implies the one thing in our lives that we were made to do, and until we are doing that one thing, we are in a sort of holding pattern where we are getting prepped to do that thing.  This leads us to thinking that, unless we're doing that "one thing," we are not engaged in things that truly matter or that we are not where we "need to be" at the moment.  Yet what does scripture actually say?  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31(NIV):

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

Wait a minute...does that mean... that my eating and drinking are to God's glory?!  How can this be?!  As a Christian, when you eat a steak or carrot, who is benefiting?  Well, you, for one.  This food is being used to sustain the life of a person that scripture calls "the light of the world" (Matthew 4:14).  This food is allowing you to continue living, to go out into the world and shine the light of Christ into a world "in darkness" (John 12:25).  What is more, by eating, you are blessing everyone that worked to provide that food.  You bless the check-out lady at the grocery store, the stocker who put that food out on the shelves or in the cooler for you to buy, you're blessing the guy who manages the stocker and the check-out lady, you're blessing the guy who owns the grocery store, you're blessing the trucking company that shipped the food to the store, the trucker who drove the truck, the gas station attendant who the trucker paid to get the gas that runs the truck, the guy who owns the gas station, the guys who fix and maintain the truck, the guys who make the parts for the truck, the guys who ship the parts to the guys that fix and maintain the truck, the guys who ship the oil, the worker on the oil platform, the owner of the oil platform, the company that makes the parts for the oil platform, the engineers who designed the oil platform, the guys who build the oil platforms, the farmer who raised the cow or carrot you ate, the farmer who raised the feed the cow ate, the company that made the fertilizer for the carrot, the water company that the farmer buys water from to water his crops or cows, the company that makes the cars that all these people use to get to work or at work, all the way down to the kids and wives and husbands who wear clothes, buy their food, go to school, and have electricity because all the way down the line, a little Christian somewhere in the world bought a steak at the local grocer.  With one little action, as a Christian, you blessed thousands of people you will never know, just by living out the life God has given you.  Sure, you weren't preaching at the pulpit on Sunday morning or teaching kids arithmetic or shaping policy on capitol hill... but you were changing people's lives none-the-less.  Wherever you are, "whatever you do," you are living out "calling."

Now let's get on to the heart of the issue: the calling, if we must put it that way.  What about your career field?  What about that one thing you are trying to figure out you are supposed to do, as though God has this one thing for you to do, and if you don't find it your life was wasted.  One of the verses I hear cited a lot in support of this view is Jeremiah 29:11(NIV):

"'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.'"

This a beautiful passage, one that has given me hope in many very unpleasant situations, but I don't necessarily think we have understood this passage rightly when we have cited it to prove God has a specific plan for our lives in regards to that ONE career choice we need to make.  Keep in mind this was written in the Book of Jeremiah, an Old Testament book, and a prophetic book none-the-less.  This was written in a time when Israel was about to be conquered and enslaved by Babylon, and when Israel would be looking forward to a promised Messiah who would deliver them.  What I'm getting at is: Christ had not come yet, and this book was reminding people of the promise of His coming.  Wasn't Jesus God's ultimate "plan" for humanity's good?  Doesn't he allow for prosperity, doesn't He give us hope and a future we would otherwise not have?  In Christ, we have hope in the knowledge that God loves us and has done everything to bring us back into peace with Him.  We know that life does not end in death, but that we have eternal life with God.  We know that one day, all suffering and hardship will cease when God perfects all things.  These things ARE our promised hope and future.  Jesus was and is God's plan for us.

Does this mean I think God has no calling for us?  By no means!  But I think scripture more clearly supports that whatever God-pleasing thing we are doing right now is our calling.  We aren't waiting for some future thing to do with ourselves, we are living out calling every day.  

Now, legitimately, I won't say that means every Christian has a calling to do everything.  In 1 Corinthians 12, it is clear that not everyone has the same gifts, though they all are equally important to the whole of Christianity.  When God created you, He gave you certain gifts and abilities that are unique in the way they are combined in you.  Necessarily, then, there are certain things in life that you are more suited to than someone else with a different combination of gifts.  But that still does not mean there is only one thing by which you could serve God and humanity.  You have options, and as long as your focus is on using your gifts to serve God and other people, whatever you choose (even if it's different things over your lifetime), be assured you are living out your calling, and that God is using you to bless this world:

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." - 2 Corinthians 2:14-15(NIV)