We Will Understand It All By And By

March 18, 2020

Last Sunday at Levy–for our first live-stream only worship due to COVID-19, I presented a message from Romans 8, centering around verse 18 which states:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 

Then this week I discovered an old article I had written also based in this text which I had totally forgotten (funny how God works like that). I am not sure when I wrote it, but it does demonstrate how, as long as we are in the world we will have trouble (to paraphrase Christ). In it I reference the old hymn, “Farther Along.” So, I thought I would share that article here.

Tempted and tried we are oft made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long. 

This song lyric echoes the thought many of us are having currently. With all of the world turmoil increasing daily and all of the domestic problems escalating, many do wonder. In some ways it has always been this way and always will be. The early church struggled through persecution and frustration to never-the-less expand the kingdom. Some gave their lives as a result. I am sure they likely wondered why things were so then, only now to understand better. One day we will have a broader understanding as well. As for now we are called to have faith–faith to trust in and rely on the blessings of God. Some of these blessings are shared with us in Romans 8:16-39. Blessings that are guaranteed to help us overcome and understand. If not now then by and by. Here is what we have in Christ:

  • Adoption–“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Think of that! We are the sons and daughters of God. He has adopted us (see also Ephesians 1:5) and put us into his family with our brother Christ. No matter how tough our world may get–no one can take this away.
  • Inheritance–“heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” We share equally with Christ in all of the vast treasure of heaven. Unfortunately, because of the fallen world, suffering is included, but just for now. This is how we can endure through the suffering because we know one day God has something new and much better in store.
  • Future Glory–“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” That wonderful verse again. It is the by and by part, which enables us to maybe understand a tad bit more. Whatever hardships we face now are minimal compared to this glory (see also 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Hope is found here–real hope–that should serve as an anchor for us to hold on to and endure. God has something renewing planned for his entire creation–including us and it will be glorious.
  • Victory–“Now in all these things we are more than conquerors.” In Christ we have heavenly resources that nothing can stop–not a war, not a recession, (not a virus!), not anything! Nothing will separate us from the love of God and the glory awaiting us in him.

Now with all of this in mind we can begin to view world events and domestic problems differently. God is still in control (vs 28). In him we have steadfast hope. And while things may not be as we like, don’t worry. We will understand it all by and by.

When we see Jesus coming in glory. When he comes from his home in the sky. Then we shall meet him in that bright mansion. We’ll understand it all by and by. 

 

 

 


The Learning Curve

October 31, 2019

In the previous post I referred to the ministry learning curve as frustratingly fascinating. I think that description nails it. Fascination and frustration seem to partner up frequently in ministry.

I entered full-time ministry with a great deal of idealism (which I have never completely shaken). I possessed noble ideas about how as Christians we would all be united in passion and purpose; together in commitment and dedication; that the church would always be striving to be better, to grow, and mature; and if we simply followed Scripture that this would be the happy outcome. Couple that with the fact that I was also convinced that I possessed the answers on how to make this happen and as you can guess, my idealism quickly collided with realism. So began the learning curve.

And so I present some of the twists in the curve I have discovered:

  • I gotta be me. As a young preacher I had my preaching heroes. After hearing these brothers fire me up at workshops, meetings, and lectureships–I would return to my church with my best impersonations. Then I waited for the expected tremendous response–and usually got crickets. How I wanted to be those guys in those keynote moments enthusiastically charging up the masses! Except it just never happened quite like that. Eventually I learned to simply be me–to allow God to use my personality and giftedness–not me attempting to channel someone else. I think it has worked out okay so far. I have never keynoted the masses at a nation-wide event (once I was told that I needed to “specialize” in something other than local preaching–write a book–in order to catapult myself into well-known keynote status), but God has rewarded me richly with wonderful relationships with several churches–that accepted me for me.
  • Change happens slowly. This, for me, falls under the frustrating category–even now as I realize its merits (well usually anyway). I recall once storming out of a men’s meeting overwhelmed with impatience. The topic was building maintenance, no one was making a decision, and I had world-altering evangelistic plans to propose! As I dramatically exited I think I uttered something like, “You will have the best building in town, but no one in it!” (Talk about grace. Somehow I kept my job.) So while it will always be my personality to move quickly, most churches cannot and remain healthy. Rash, quick, forced change generally brings trouble and often explosive division–which is usually counterproductive to the kingdom. Healthy churches do change, but over time– an evolution rather than a revolution–all being led and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. Realizing this I have had to make sure that my agenda as the preacher is also shaped by God’s will and fits squarely into the personality and goals of the church I serve–while at the same time encouraging the church not to settle for status quo but rather to continue to mature and grow. Often it is not an easy balance, especially with my impatient personality, but typically it is for the best. The church is like a big ship. It does not turn on a dime, but it does turn. The challenge is to make sure the changes bring health and growth for the church and glory to God.
  • Everyone will not always be happy. Yea, I figured this one out fairly quickly. Folks have been unhappy with me for years! At one point my sermons were too targeted to youth; then before I knew it my sermons were not reaching the younger generation. I have been called “liberal;” was criticized for teaching too much on love; and was once told I was making things up–that what I preached was not in the Bible (even as I turned to the text in question). I have seen unhappiness with elders; with song selection for worship; with youth ministers; with how much time I spend (or do not spend) in the office; with the color of paint; with how to use the church budget; with Bible class topic selection; once even over the type of car I purchased; and with–well the list could literally be exhaustive. And unhappy people leave–feeling frustrated, betrayed, hurt, angry and letdown. (Note–almost all preachers take it personally when someone leaves the church. It is a reflexive reaction–even if it has been handled corectly and even if needed to happen for the sake of those leaving–it always stings. If you cannot understand that check out my next post in which I will try to open the window into what it is like being a preacher). Some of my worst and most personally painful ministry experiences have been people unhappy. With all of my heart I wish this could be different. My idealism kicks in still and I wonder why we can’t work through our unhappiness together as iron sharpening iron to emerge even better and stronger? I don’t like this twist in the learning curve, but it is there.
  • God blesses sincere effort. In my preaching ministry I have always tried to be sincere, if not smart. And looking back I realized God blessed that. It really is the only way to explain my journey. Usually calling an idea presented by an elder, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” would not go very well or engender good relationship, but God protected me through that due to his grace living within that eldership. Almost always living out the nightmare of a divorce would not be something a church would endure with their preacher, but the Skyway Hills church in Pearl, MS did–and saved my life in more ways then one. Then later another church, Gateway in Pensacola, FL, was the first to invite this divorced preacher in after another church rejected me, stating, “we cannot see a divorced man in this role.” And now God has blessed me to be a part of this wonderful family at Levy. The only way I can explain it is: I have just tried to do my best through it all–my own immaturity; frustrations; brashness; ignorance; sin; arrogance; insecurities; divorce; hurt; stubbornness; weakness; ego and pride–to sincerely share a message from the Lord. And I have been blessed beyond measure by God and his marvelous people.

After all these years I remain firmly on the learning curve–perhaps a bit further down it for sure. But it still can be frustratingly fascinating and I’ll be the first to admit that I have even more to learn. I am just thankful that God and his people have not given up on me yet!


Can We Still Celebrate Us?

May 22, 2018

Honestly I hesitated to even write and post this article. It is complicated in the churches of Christ these days (starting even with how we tag ourselves–is it with a big “C” or a little “c?”). Recently the Christian Chronicle (the major newspaper of our tribe) featured articles detailing the complications.

But complications among us is absolutely nothing new. Just check out our history–complications almost seem to be what has defined us. For a movement that originated from a call to “go back to the Bible” and rally around it–historically we have not been that unified.

But we endeavored and actually at points in our history, thrived, even in spite of our complications. I celebrate that history. It was forged by people of tremendous faith who were dedicated to following Jesus to the best of their ability and understanding. At our best we were a movement dedicated to honoring God and his Word; a body who highly valued church and what that meant; an evangelistic people who were driven to share the Good News about Jesus; a church who sincerely desired restoration and revival. At our worst–well that is where the complications come in. They divided us. We could not agree on how to interpret Scripture. We drew lines. We hurt people.

Today, I see both our best and worst tendencies being replayed. I see growing, vibrant congregations making huge differences in their communities for Christ. I see dynamic faith being lived out daily. I see sacrificial hearts practicing pure religion in reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. I also continue to see churches dividing over our complications; unhealthy rhetoric fueling these complications; and to me anyway, an imbalance–more focus on the complications than on the Savior–in some cases.

It is the imbalance that gets to me. Either I must double-down on the “old paths” or I must embrace whatever change is next–not much middle ground. Even the majority of our brotherhood gatherings now seem to parrot this approach. Depending on where I am I will either hear about how the church is going into apostasy and full of heretics or how the church must embrace a completely new identity or be doomed.

Is there any place left that just celebrates us? That simply highlights who we are and the good kingdom work being done through our churches across the globe–without having to dredge up the complications; without having to be accusatory; without having to make any statement other than “Christ and him crucified?”

Perhaps there is no room left for middle ground anywhere in our ever increasingly hostile and partisan culture. Maybe I am only kidding myself in still seeing some merit in our traditional approach to Scripture while also realizing that some evolution and change is necessary and healthy (always has been–our movement has been far from static). And maybe I am only dreaming to think that we can look past our complications, get over our differences through the grace of God, love and accept one another just as we are and find a way to celebrate us together again in an uplifting and encouraging fashion.

My favorite historical figure in churches of Christ is T.B. Larimore. He lived during a time of explosive complications within our body–yet he steadfastly refused to participate, choosing rather to emphasize Christ in his preaching and celebrate his beloved church wherever he went. Often he found that middle ground difficult to navigate due to the consequences of the complications coming at him from every direction, but he soldiered on. I like what he was saying then:

My position is to preach the word wheresoever and whensoever Providence directs or duty demands. Always hew to the line, but never hack toes or chop fingers intentionally.

My earnest desire is to keep entirely out of all the unpleasant wrangles among Christians…I propose to finish my course without ever, even for one moment, engaging in partisan strife with anybody about anything.

Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all those who do not understand these things exactly as I understand them? They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me; but I will never refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them–NEVER. 

I propose never to stand identified with one special wing, branch, or party of the church. My aim is to preach the gospel, do the work of an evangelist…

Is there a place among us today for keeping out of all of the wrangles of our current complications, of not engaging in partisan strife; of just preaching Christ without hacking off toes; of celebrating the best of us and our history while at the same time striving to learn how to be even better in sharing Jesus as a church with our world?

If so–that is where I want to be.

 

* Quotes are from two books: The Man From Mars Hill: The Life and Times of T.B. Larimore by J.M. Powell and Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church by C. Leonard Allen

 

 

 

 


Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.


Being a Kingdom Citizen

December 15, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #12

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 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. (Romans 12:1-2)

The context from which the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 originate is crucial in understanding the text. Overall, he continues with the practical application of his theological presentation in the first eleven chapters. That presentation demonstrated unequivocally God’s eternal will in giving the non-Jews the same access to his blessings the Jew enjoyed for generations. It was no longer about genealogy or racial pedigree. It was now about Jesus and in him all are saved. Therefore the infighting; the prejudice; the judging; should stop and each should learn to accept the other in Christ. He is the transforming agent. Learn to view yourself as “living sacrifices” to God through him. Embrace the transformation as kingdom revolutionaries. Forget about the old and embrace the newness Jesus offers. Live daily as citizens of the kingdom!

That concept—citizens of the kingdom—is definitely in play in the Romans 13 text. Beyond the overall context of this letter, there is another to consider that was a major contributor to the strained situation in the Roman churches. This was the civil disobedience evident among parts of the Jewish community in Rome. It had earlier created the banishment of the Jewish population of Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 A.D. (in which Apulia and Priscilla were caught up- Acts 18:1-2.). Knowing this and the damage it caused the Jews, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within a community. He did not want the church to get caught up in such civil unrest. This was not the kind of revolution Paul envisioned or desired for Christ followers.

A Kingdom View of Government

So he lays out how the kingdom revolution looks lived out within the parameters of the Roman governmental system. At this point in history Rome was an Empire, not a republic. It was not a democracy. Citizens had some rights (such as Paul). Non-citizens did not. It was not a representative government. No elections (as we understand them) were held. Justice could be fair, but it also could be brutal. Quite often rebellions broke out to challenge the “Pax Romana” in oppressed areas within the Empire. Some groups like the Zealots thought it was their birthright to overthrow Roman rule. Paul’s presents quite a different (and revolutionary) alternative in Romans 13:1-7. It is primarily about being a citizen of the kingdom first. Nations come and go. Governments change. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom enables a different perspective about governments and empowers the revolutionary values of the kingdom to be lived out effectively within any type of governmental system. From the text we learn:

  • A positive picture of government. It is to be seen as established by God for the purposes of punishing wrongdoers and as such it serves God’s purposes.
  • Rebelling against the God-ordained government equals rebelling against God and brings about a judgment.
  • “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advice because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (think Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) The Christian’s responsibility within their governmental context is to “do what is right” – not just for fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do (“conscience”- vs. 5)
  • Doing what is right includes paying the various taxes required by government and paying your debts.

This is all connected back to the previous verses about doing what is “right.” Couple this with other NT texts (Mathew 22:21; John 18:36; 1 Timothy 2:1-3: 1 Peter 2:13-17) and it is clear. Citizens of the kingdom do not take up arms and rebel against earthly governments (even if they can be unjust and cruel—like Rome). That is not the revolution to which we are called. Instead our revolution involves doing the unexpected in this situation—submitting; obeying the laws; living quiet lives, but in so doing upending the injustice and revolutionizing our communities anyway.

Love is What Fuels the Revolution

It is not through swords, spears, bullets or ballots that Christ’s revolution triumphs. It is through the “continuing debt to love one another” lived out within the citizens of the kingdom (Romans 13:11-14). It is our debt to our world. All of the commands are good—to be embraced and practiced, but it is love that truly demonstrates the presence of God in us. Living out God’s love is the power that fuels the revolution and it will (and did in Rome’s case) transform even nations. Nations know how to handle hostile rebellions, but they do not know what to do with cheeks turned and love returned for hate. Evil is not used to good in reply. The revolution of God is weaponized through love. The essence of that is Christ on the cross. If we can capture that kind of love—even in our small doses—we will revolutionize our worlds.

Paul understood this perfectly, so he urges immediate action. The hour had come for the Romans to wake up; stop all of the unproductive bickering; the sin that continued to hinder them and recognize the time for revolutionary action was at hand! Darkness needed light shining within it!

Revolutionary Clothing

He moves from one metaphor to another—and a fitting one to close our study. “Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” This brings us full circle back to Galatians 3:26-28. It gets back to identity. Not Jew, not Gentile, not male, nor female, not slave, not free, not black, not white, not Republican, not Democrat, not even American—our primary identity is in Christ. We wear his clothes. We reflect his values. Our citizenship is first and foremost in his kingdom. We seek it first. As a result we are transformed into disciples who follow his unorthodox and revolutionary teachings—turn the other cheek, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, take the loss, be wronged, go the extra mile, etc. We understand how “blessed be” is this approach. We also understand how subversively revolutionary and incredibly powerful it is. It changed the world once and it will again and again as we live it out.

Perhaps we need to freshen up our kingdom wardrobe and do some waking up of our own. “Because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Have no doubt about it. There is a revolution going on!