Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Shocked & Grieved... Yet Hopeful

Our town is reeling. Over the weekend, thousands of Santa Cruzans were alerted through social media and TV that an 8 year old girl had been abducted. The search was on. Volunteers got involved. Parents were praying with their kids for the safe return of this little darling.

Then the news came in. Found dead. In a dumpster. 15 year old boy in custody as the prime suspect.

Wait, what?! What happened to the prayers? What happened to the community rallying in support? This is not how this story was supposed to go. Thousands were praying for a miracle and this is what we get?  Not only no miracle, but a more horrific outcome than most had feared.

Where do we go with this? How do we process it? Where was God when we needed Him? Where was God when she needed Him?

I don't know.

That can sound hopeless. But it's not. What we need isn't answers, but comfort and hope.

The lie assaults us with each headline. God isn't there. He doesn't care. You were a fool for hoping and believing in Him. Fear grips us. Dread and grief consume us.

But we don't need to be afraid. Jesus has beaten sin and death (2 Timothy 1:10). He took it on Himself and then carried it to Hell where it belongs. And when Jesus came out of the grave, He proved that sin and death cannot and will not ultimately win. On any given day, evil might seem to have the upper hand, but its days are numbered.

But we might not feel triumphant today. We might even be angry that we need hope and comfort. And that's OK. We have suffered a terrible tragedy. Our hearts are broken. And God requires nothing of us in this moment. In the midst of such suffocating grief, God sits beside us and offers us hope. We whispers the truth that can carry our ambushed hearts through the grief until we land on the other side.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" John 11:25-26 
What we'll find on the other side will blow our minds. Maddy will be there. And so will Jesus. Every nightmare will come untrue.

Jesus wants His followers not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Although we are grieved, we are not hopeless. Jesus made a way so that days like this are not the end of the story. We ache. We pray. We weep with those who weep. We don't deny the pain caused by evil. But in the midst of it, we hold onto His promise.

There will come a day when He will wipe every tear away. There will come a day when we will laugh together with those who have gone ahead of us. We'll shout with joy and embrace without remorse. It will seem like not a moment was missed. And we'll have forever and ever to enjoy together. Love uninterrupted. Joy unstained by grief.

Between now and then, we have days that are still tainted by death's shadows. So let's keep encouraging and comforting one another. Because days like this aren't the end of the story.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sharing Jesus Clearly

This is how we tend to view salvation. A line that must be crossed.

 Once we're saved, we're "in."

We feel bad for people who are "out." And we want to bring them "in." It's well intentioned. But it's not what Jesus did. Jesus went to people who felt like outsiders and He took His stand with them.

Jesus takes His stand with us. He comes to us, no matter where we are. He doesn't expect us to cross any lines to come to Him.

This is how Jesus talked about salvation. He's the source. He offers us love, acceptance, and forgiveness. No line to cross. It's an invitation into relationship. It's OK to begin following Him before we understand or believe the stuff He teaches. There's no high-bar to reach. No threshold to cross. Jesus is just a whole lotta awesome.

Jesus never put prerequisites on His invitation to follow Him. But that's sometimes what we accidentally communicate. We can end up talking too much about how it all works or the stuff we think people could do that might be helpful. The theology. Saved by grace through faith. The stuff that can help us grow. Going to church. Reading our Bibles. 

I love all that stuff. But I've learned to love it because that's where I've come to understand and connect with Jesus. If we're not careful, we'll end up offering and explaining the STUFF of Jesus rather than offering and introducing people to Jesus Himself.

When we're sharing the gospel of Jesus' forgiveness, we want to share it as a relational thing. Jesus Himself is offering forgiveness. Because He loves us. It's not an abstract theological concept. It's a personal offer based on a personal sacrifice.

He understands and accepts us right where we're at because He's been in our shoes. Wherever we're stuck. Wherever we're hurting. Wherever we're broken. Jesus' invitation is what gives us the hope and strength to rise up and begin the path toward healing.

Notice how some dots aren't aware of Jesus. They might be "closer" to Him than some of us who are following Him. They might be very compassionate toward the poor. They might be very loving toward their family. But they don't know He's the source of the good stuff in their life. He's given them that heart. And they don't know that He wants to help them where they feel stuck. Our job is to help everyone understand how awesome Jesus is so they can begin following Him.

Jesus said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). Our job is just to lift Jesus up by sharing with our friends how much He means to us. He will take care of drawing their hearts as we share.

For some thoughts on how this understanding can improve our perspective on what church is all about, check this out.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Sharing the Good News Clearly

A few hours ago I was privileged to support someone as they made their decision to put their trust in Jesus Christ. This man's son is part of our church and he asked me to come speak with his father since he had only hours or days to live.

When we're sharing about Jesus with people, there are many things that could be said about how awesome He is and all that He has to offer us. I want my heart and mouth to always be full of great things to say about Him. However, when we're wanting to share about His greatest offer -- which is forgiveness of sins -- we want to do so clearly and concisely.

The New Testament spells out the gospel ("gospel" means "good news") of Jesus Christ over and over again. For example, Paul spells it out clearly for the church in Corinth:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 1 Corinthians 15:3–5
Notice that Paul says that this gospel of forgiveness is of "first importance." This is the most important thing for us to understand for ourselves and to communicate to our friends.

Jesus died for our sins. We deserved punishment, but He took our place. If we will choose to believe that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins, we can be forgiven, washed clean, and welcomed into the family of God.

Sometimes we forget to make that point about believing in Jesus for forgiveness really the main point, so that it's clear. Below are some of the more confusing ways I've tried to share about Jesus in the past. They all have elements of truth in them, so they're all good. But they're a bit confusing if we're trying to communicate the main point really clearly and concisely.
  • "Ask Jesus into your heart" - This approach is the most common mistake I've made and heard others make. It sounds nice on one level, but it's very confusing on other levels. Especially for kids who tend to be very literal. But the biggest problem with this approach is that the issue of sin and forgiveness is missing. The main message of the gospel is about our sin and Jesus' forgiveness, not where Jesus resides.
  • "Give your heart (or life) to God" - This is a great concept. God does want us for Himself. Giving our lives fully over to God, however, is a life-long process. We do it again, and again, and again. This is a separate issue from salvation. Salvation is about what God gives to us, not about what we give to God. God wants to give us forgiveness. All we must do to receive it is to choose to believe that Jesus suffered and died so that we could be forgiven. He was perfect, so He didn't have to die. He chose to allow Himself to be sacrificed so that you can I could be forgiven. If we've truly understood His forgiveness, then our natural response will be to want to surrender our lives to Him. So the concepts are connected... but they're also distinct.
  • "Make Jesus your Lord and Savior" - The savior part is great. The Lord part... well... let's just say we're all working on that, right? If we're trying to clearly and concisely share the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can leave the "Lord" stuff out. Jesus is Lord not because we allow Him to be, He's Lord because God has given Him that place. As I learn to agree with what God has declared, my life will change. But that's a different issue from salvation. That comes as I simply and humbly accept His forgiveness, which is granted to anyone who will choose to believe that Jesus died in their place.
  • "Pray this prayer" - Sometimes we can get so focused on getting people to pray a particular prayer that it begins to feel like a ritual or a superstition rather than a simple understanding and statement of faith. The specific words we use don't matter at all. It really doesn't matter a bit if we say "Amen" at the end. I think it is helpful to encourage people to pray to God to acknowledge their choice to believe and to thank Him. But it's way more important that they use their own words than that they're left with an impression that there are a some magical series of "correct" words to pray. The only things that matters are:
  1. Do I understand that I have done wrong?
  2. Do I understand that I don't deserve heaven / forgiveness because of the wrong I've done?
  3. Do I believe that Jesus suffered and died to pay the price for my forgiveness?
Note: Most of the New Testament encapsulations of the gospel also include a part about believing that Jesus raised from the dead. For instance:
"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Romans 10:9–10
While it is absolutely important that Jesus was raised from the dead, I don't usually emphasize this point when I am trying to share the gospel quickly and concisely. For instance, the man I spoke with today was in a lot of pain and was having difficulty staying focused, so keeping it concise was important.  From my perspective, in our culture, the more difficult part of the gospel message is believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins. From my experience, if someone is able to put their faith in Christ for forgiveness, I've never seen them struggle to believe in the Resurrection. That's why I don't make it an essential part of the most basic presentation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Loving ISIS

Perpetua guiding the gladiator's sword. Artist unattributed.
The world was not a friendly place for the early church. Both Jewish and Roman culture rejected the Jesus-followers as a bizarre cult which threatened to undermine their cultures. The Romans wanted people to worship Rome and the Emperor. The Jews wanted people to worship at the temple and follow their rituals.  Jesus-followers were infuriatingly indifferent to both systems. They just kept talking about Jesus.

Loving Our Enemies?

Instead of shaming or fighting their enemies, the early church considered it a privilege to die for the sake of Christ. They saw it as an honor granted by God to follow in Jesus footsteps. They were given the opportunity to die for their enemies. To show them God's love and compassion by willingly laying down their lives.

That's why they were called "martyrs." The word "martyr" means "witness."

Historians have almost universally agreed that it was the martyr's courage (and sometimes even joy) that caused the Roman persecution backfire. While many spectators cheered the gruesome spectacles, lots of others were sickened and convicted.

For example, consider the story of a young woman named Perpetua (pictured above). Her executioner was so shaken by her bravery and noble demeanor that when he couldn't follow through with his duty, she helped guide his shaking, hesitant sword to her throat. She was utterly confident that she had nothing to fear in death, so she was free to do the most loving thing possible in the moment... which was to help the poor soldier do his job. Wow.

How does all this relate to loving ISIS? Check out this video:

God's Heart for Arabs

God has an amazing place in His heart for Arabs. Check out Genesis 16.  This is the story of Hagar and Ishmael, who is the Arab's ancestor.

This is the first time Jesus ("the angel of the Lord") shows up in the Old Testament. Hagar is a mistreated slave-woman. Isn't that just like Jesus? He always takes His stand with the outcast, with the rejected, with the mistreated.

But His heart isn't just for the oppressed (Hagar and Ishmael), but also for the oppressor (Sarah). Jesus encourages and strengthens Hagar and sends her back to Sarah. He doesn't do this primarily for Hagar's benefit, but for Sarah's. Just like God sent Perpetua into an unjust situation in order to win the Roman's hearts, God sent Hagar back to Sarah to win hers.

Jesus' prophecy regarding the Arabs in verse 12 ("He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone...") is not a condemnation. God makes similar statements about Himself. He stands against everyone at times, too! No, this prophecy from Jesus to Hagar was given as an encouragement to her heart. He's saying, "Don't be afraid for your son. Sarah's mistreatment will not crush him. I will strengthen him so that he will be able to stand up against whatever injustice he will suffer."

Sometimes this chapter gets overlooked. Patriarchal and racially elitist interpretations of the Old Testament tend to focus on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the most important characters in the storyline. To be sure, they are important!

But what if such elite men are less important than we've made them? After all, Jesus appeared to Hagar first. Also, the literary structure of this section contains hints that this story is the most important and central narrative of the surrounding 10 chapters. If that's true, then what's the message we're supposed to get?

The End of the Story

The world tends to divide itself between "good guys" and "bad guys." Right now ISIS is being cast as the villains in the world's narrative. Some of that is justified. ISIS is doing bad stuff. But we do bad stuff too. We all love to justify ourselves by pointing at someone who is worse than us. ISIS justifies the wrong they're doing in precisely the same way we do.

If we understand that if we were born in the Middle East we ourselves or our own sons or daughters might have gotten caught up in ISIS's evil, if we understand that the wrong that we do is of the same nature as the wrong that they do, if we understand that we as an entire race all need God's forgiveness... then we are freed to love God and one another with all our hearts.

That's the picture of what will happen in heaven (Revelation 7:9). Every tribe and nation standing together in worship. No more divisions. No more hatred. No more rivalries. Everyone utterly astounded by Jesus love and forgiveness which heals and unifies us all in worship of the one true King.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Independence Day!

Today we celebrate the United States' Declaration of Independence. This painting shows Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams working on a draft of the Declaration. It's most famous for this sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This is the genius of America. People are created for freedom. When we are free to make up our own minds and follow our own passions, we flourish. No society in history had previously been formed with this concept at its foundation.

It's a day worth celebrating. It was a great day when brilliant minds which had been influenced by the truths of Scripture summoned the courage to form a new kind of government. One that would seek to set people free rather than control or dominate them. The ideals of secular humanism are rooted in Scripture. That's why it's flourished in societies that have been saturated by Biblical teaching.

But the world isn't all rosy. And as great as our nation is, it isn't the hope of the world. The Bible presents a worldview that is both more optimistic and more pessimistic than anything else the world has the offer.

On the one hand, the Bible says that the world is moving toward a grand conclusion. When He returns, Jesus will vindicate and consummate every good work, every noble endeavor. Nothing that has been done out of love for God and for humankind will be wasted (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is no room for hopelessness or cynicism in Scripture.

But at the same time, the Bible is brutally realistic about our capacity for evil. In fact, the more righteous and enlightened we believe ourselves to be, the greater our capacity to wreak havoc. One example among many is the concept of Manifest Destiny, which was widely believed in the 19th century and used to justify the slaughter of the Native Americans.

We see the hope and the anguish predicted in the Bible every day in the headlines. The light is getting brighter and the darkness is getting darker. People who are convinced of their own righteousness commit unspeakable atrocities. But those who are humble are strengthened by God to love and serve with a courage and conviction the world has never imagined. This trajectory will continue until we see Christ return in glory.

With God's sobering truth and unshakeable hope as our foundation, let's celebrate. Because He loves us, God has set us free. He has designed us for love, and love must be free. Love that is coerced is not love at all. If we're not free to reject God's love, then we're not free to accept it either.

Freedom is the foundation of our great nation and of our faith. Freedom to choose. Freedom to love.  May we choose well. And may we love well.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:16

Thursday, June 11, 2015


So fun this morning to celebrate our oldest son's graduation from elementary school! What a great achievement!

For every kid on that stage, their entire elementary "career" came into clearer focus. What had been a jumble of friends and homework and field trips and study and play, day after day, year after year -- it all added up to something significant today.

Some kids were given awards. Others gave speeches. There were laughter and cheers, handshakes and hugs. It was clear that every student felt a sense of achievement. All was as it is supposed to be... truly glorious.

Every celebration whether a birthday, wedding, or graduation is a tiny foreshadowing of the greatest Event that is yet ahead for each of us:
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15 
Every good parent encourages and challenges their kids to give their all. We want the best for them, so we encourage them to give their best. On any given day, that might not seem fun. But on graduation day, it all makes sense. Every kid graduated and so all were happy. But where some kids had just made it through, others had given their all. Those who had given the most were obviously filled with the deepest joy.
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Matthew 16:27
It will be no ordinary human handing out flimsy diplomas and awards on that day. Every authority and every prize is just a foreshadowing of the true King of the Universe who will hand out priceless and everlasting crowns to His beloved.
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. Revelation 2:10
In that final (or will be the first true?) moment of pomp and circumstance we won't be able to resist giving all the praise back to Him. It is God who gave us life and it is Christ who has redeemed our lives. The fact that He has given us a part to play and work to do is to His glory, not ours.
They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:10-11
While I can't prove it from Scripture, I feel pretty sure He will tell us to pick up our crowns and get back to work. Who knows what adventures will lay ahead on the other side of glory! But for all those who are pressing forward and believing for more, we won't ever look back. We'll be grateful for this lifetime of "elementary school," but we'll be even more eager for the joys that are ahead.
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Do You Like Santa Cruz?

A couple days ago I was chatting with a neighbor who mentioned some difficulties with living in our town. For instance, he has taken heat for his love of hunting. 

"Do you like Santa Cruz?" he asked.

"Yes!" I said. "To me," I said, "Santa Cruz is like Miracle-Gro. It's a rich environment for creative ideas and lifestyles. We're a passionate, intelligent, creative bunch of folks. If ideas are like seeds, then this town is like fertilizer. Doesn't mean you'll like everything that grows, but at least you get to see it for what it is!"

That said, there's room for improvement. For example, our passion for "tolerance" is misplaced. As evidenced by my friend's discomfort, "tolerance" stops short of its intended goal. Although it claims to make a safe place for all people, people who are "tolerated" can still feel unsafe and unwelcome.

A better idea than tolerance is "kindness." This idea challenges us to hear and understand people rather than merely tolerating them. True community is a place where people can feel accepted in spite of their differences. "Kindness" challenges us accept people even if we think they're wrong.

"Tolerance" tends to either produce timidity (because we're afraid of saying what we think lest someone get offended), or snappiness (because we think speaking our mind is the highest ideal, even if people are hurt in the process). "Kindness," on the other hand, encourages us to ask questions and share ideas because we care.

"Kindness" is challenging because it requires self-control. When I disagree with someone, I'm tempted to treat them unkindly because their perspective feels threatening to me. But if I control myself and respond kindly, then I can grow in my understanding of the person with whom I disagree. 

In just under two weeks our church will kick off our annual Vacation Bible School. Our first day's theme is "Love." The verse of the day is Romans 12:10, 

"Love one another deeply. Honor others more than yourselves."

Jesus showed us how to do this better than anyone. Where our natural instincts drive us to fight against people who disagree with us, Jesus showed us how to love people even when they hate us, right until the bitter end. 

If lots of us would aspire to kindness, our town (and world) would be a better place. At The Coastlands, we're working hard to do our part.