Why So Isolating?

June 19, 2017

iso cell phone

I was reminded again recently while grocery shopping with my wife in our local ubiquitous gigantic one-size-fits-all store about how things have changed within my lifetime. As a child I have fond memories of walking the few blocks from my house to our neighborhood grocery market—Lucky Food Store in Greenville, MS. It was small but adequate. Folks frequenting this store knew each other. I could go there unaccompanied at a young age, browse for comic books on the rack while feeling safe and at home. It was a community of sorts.

I felt none of that familiarity in Wal-Mart. No knock on them—it is just the way of things now. It also made me contemplate what is next. Soon it appears the need to shop in the big stores will transition out. On the horizon is online grocery shopping. Need milk and bread? Just order it up on the website and have a drone deliver it to your door. Convenient for sure, but healthy? Maybe not.

What is getting squeezed out in our technology is contact with people, relationship and community. In all of the convenience we are increasingly isolating ourselves.

Everyone seems to have their own personal screen. Just look around the next time you are in a public space. You probably will notice more folks looking down at their phone than interacting with each other. This occurs in homes as well. Vanishing are our dinner times together or even shared TV watching. We are segregating by our own streaming preferences—just me and my screen.

And when was the last time you enjoyed a nice telephone chat with a friend? We text, message, tweet, and maybe still email. They all serve a purpose. Social media is here to stay, but no amount of proficiency with or time spent on social media replaces the benefits of personal contact.

Then there is this. It seems that even the old standby business lunch is fading and being replaced by people eating alone at their desks.

So why my lament about all of this?

God created us not to be isolated, but for community and he created a community for us that we call church. From the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Our trending isolationism is not healthy emotionally, physically or spiritually. God’s community was designed for personal relationship, hospitality and fellowship. Those cannot be experienced through a screen.

Sure it gets messy sometimes (just read any of Paul’s New Testament letters), but it is worth the struggle. The community and connectivity we enjoy in Christ is but only a glimpse of the fully realized and shared kingdom of heaven that is to come.

This post is not meant to be a deep study of the dangers of our increasing trend for isolation or a detailed discussion of the need for community together as believers.

Certainly it is a lament—loneliness is more common than we imagine—but it is also meant to hopefully spur us to rethink our own tendency to isolate—if we do.

So, invite someone to lunch. Demonstrate hospitality in your home. Put the screen down and engage someone the next time you are in a public area. Enjoy a meal together with your family. Call someone on the phone just to chat. Start up a conversation with a fellow shopper in the big box superstore. Go to church—regularly. Meet someone new there. Hug an old friend. Celebrate God’s community. Discover the blessings within it.

It is not good for us to always be alone.

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The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.


God Isn’t Fixing This?

December 3, 2015

I rarely venture into politics or any type of analysis on national events. It mostly is a no-win situation with wide opinions and endless, usually unproductive debate. I love my country and feel blessed by the freedoms and privileges we enjoy. But I love my God more and realize that his kingdom is about much more than the United States of America. The truth is—that regardless of what happens here or what we become—his kingdom endures forever.

Fortified by that, I try not to be an alarmist concerning the course and future of my country. Nevertheless, I do feel concern as I see us systematically removing values and concepts reflective of God from our society. There are real and lasting consequences to this.

I see them in the latest tragic shooting in San Bernardino and its aftermath. Specifically I am thinking of the headline in The New York Daily News that proclaimed:

God Isn’t Fixing This!

The writer of the article—to me—seems to be using the shooting to mock politicians asking for prayer while making an appeal for gun control. The point? Since God is not fixing it, we need to by taking away guns.

I will let the gun control part of the article be discussed elsewhere.

My thoughts are on the headline. It creates questions for me like, “Why do we even expect him to fix it?” Or, “Why are we calling upon him now, when we have pushed him to the margins in almost every other way?”

Having pushed God out of the public arena means that we have also pushed out his values. What would an emphasis on “love your neighbor as yourself;” or “do not murder;” or “for where you have envy and selfish ambition; there you will find disorder and every evil practice;” or “hatred stirs us strife, but love covers all offenses;” or “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you;” or “learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause,” (I could go on and on—literally) do for our societal narrative and behavior? It was said long ago of another nation and people, but it remains ever true:

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people. 

Even if someone is skeptical about the whole notion of God, it would be difficult to deny the positive impact his precepts would have on a society who has forgotten how to treat each other with respect and dignity; who politicizes everything; who exalts and celebrates the vulgar while minimizing and ridiculing the civil; who reward the loudest and most belligerent while ignoring those with no voice; who create and foster an atmosphere of hate and then somehow is shocked when it explodes onto the innocent.

Perhaps God is trying to fix it, but we simply are not listening.

 

 

* Bible verses cited in order: Mark 12:31; Matthew 5:21-24; James 3:16; Proverbs 10:12; Matthew 5:44; Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 14:34

 


The Cross is Enough

October 21, 2015

It is not my goodness. I have none. I am just a filthy rag.

It is not my ability to keep a law or perform good deeds. I consistently fall short at rule keeping.

It is not my mastery of morality. At this I am a failure. My flesh is weak.

It is not my winning personality; good looks; athletic prowess; charisma or intelligence. Those are all fleeting, inconsistent and limited.

It is not my expert homiletic or exegetical skills. These remind me of what I do not know.

It is not my church and our ability to produce a welcoming atmosphere or quality worship. Another church nearby likely offers something even more appealing.

It is not even the Bible. Yes, it is divine, inspired, and living. It contains the will of God. It is to be heard and heeded, but as essential as the Bible is to our faith–it is not enough.

It is the cross. The old, rugged, bloodstained, despised, and awful cross of Jesus—it is enough.

As Mercy Me sings in their amazing song (check out the entire song below):

No matter the bumps
No matter the bruises
No matter the scars
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless
No matter the hurt
Or how deep the wound is
No matter the pain
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

The proclamation of the cross pleases God. The Apostle Paul whose goal was to “preach Christ and him crucified” had this to say:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.*

The power of God to save; to make whole; to transform; to give hope; to heal wounded hearts; to persevere; to vanquish guilt; to discover worth; to mend brokenness; to make you flawless.

By God’s grace the cross is enough.

Praise God the cross is enough.

*To see the entire context of these scripture references read 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.


Put Some Clothes on Already!

February 10, 2015

Yesterday I checked out one of my favorite news websites. I go there regularly to be informed about world events–unfortunately it is usually not very good news. Yesterday the bad news was accompanied by something even worse–a picture of the revealed backside of an aging pop star!  Her Grammy “outfit” (meant to shock, no doubt) was all about exposure. I don’t know if I was more aggravated by the picture or that the news site posted it.

News? Really?

Of course it is all about eyeballs on their site and clicks on their ads. Both the site and the pop star mutually benefitting from all of the “exposure.”

But when are we going to get enough of this? Celebrities spilling out of their scant clothing; publically exposing private parts; “leaking” sex tapes; etc.–all to generate a little buzz and keep themselves somehow relevant? That is all sad enough, but when it starts headlining news sites next to the latest bulletin about terror threats?

Enough. Put some clothes on already!

I have two young daughters. I really do not want them influenced by this kind of behavior. It is not to be celebrated. It is not cool. It is vulgar. It objectifies women. It is not freedom. Rather it is a symptom of slavery to sin.

I said it. It is sinful.

It is misguided. It takes the beauty of God’s creation and corrupts it.

It damages girls because they can grow up thinking this is acceptable and how they should dress if they want to be attractive. It damages boys because it trains them to view girls as little more than objects on display.

Is there a chance we can rediscover modesty?

Modesty by definition is about drawing undue attention to yourself. Certainly exposing flesh qualifies. In New Testament times it was more about extravagant dress–elaborate hairstyles and way too much bling. In that context we find this teaching:

What matters is not your outer appearance–the styling of your hair, the jewelry your wear, the cut of your clothes–but the inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in. (1 Peter 3:3-4 MSG)

Maybe we will reach some kind of tipping point as a culture–where exposure becomes overexposure and enough will be enough. I don’t know.

In the meantime, let’s work to emphasize the value of what God delights in by demonstrating and teaching that gracious, gentle inner beauty to our young people.

Yep, I am getting older and this bothers me.

What is ironic is that the pop star with the missing material in her costume is exactly my age. She should know better.

Put some clothes on already!

 

 


“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)

 


Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

January 13, 2015

Middle crossIt was the middle ground; the high ground; the holy ground.

There he was—humiliated, exposed, and dying—up on that hill in-between two thugs. It was bloody ground; unwelcoming ground; it was holy ground

It was holy only because of him. The innocent lamb at the slaughter. He shouldn’t have been there; did not deserve to be there; but there he was. God in the flesh—up there on the middle cross dying under the devastating weight of my sin.

Literally, volumes have been written about Golgotha. I am not going to uncover anything new. I will just share what I see right now:

  • The middle ground—between the thieves. Symbolism aplenty. Jesus in the midst of all of us sinners. We surround him. Will we hold him in contempt as one thief did or will we recognize the Son of God among us and seek his grace as the other one did? Another view of the middle ground—where we are called to live, daily. (See a host of Scripture references—1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:5.)
  • The high ground—I think Jesus lived his life here. He never lowered himself to engage in or respond to the manipulative tactics used against him by his enemies. He could have called down legions of angels, but amazingly he refrained. He always did the right thing even though he was tempted otherwise. Of course, we all know the discipline this requires because we have been asked to do likewise. “Let us do good unto all men,” is the exact wording of the Golden Rule type, take-the-high-ground expectation (Galatians 6:10).
  • The holy ground—the best way I know how to express one truth this reveals to us is exactly how Peter did: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Being holy is not about being better than anyone else; it is about doing my best to be like Jesus.

I am just as broken as the two criminals who died with Christ that day on Calvary, but I do not want to be stuck in my brokenness—I want to be stuck right in the middle of God’s love with Jesus on that high, bloody, holy ground of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon.

It is my only hope.