Unity, Separation, Societal Norms, and the Gospel

One of the themes of the letters of the Apostle Paul is unity.  For example, in Ephesians 4:1-6, he says,

“Therefore, I, as the prisoner in the Lord, encourage you to walk worthily of the calling to which you were called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; one body and one Spirit, just as you were also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, the one who is over all and through all and in all.”

Notice the stress on the unity factor?  Why?

I believe it goes beyond just a practical expression (how can the church function if it is not united) to something much deeper and at the root of one of, if not THE one, direct result of sin entering the world – separation.  

Before sin entered the world, separation was not known on earth.  All three existing relationships (God/humanity, humanity/humanity, and humanity/creation) were in perfect harmony and communion one with another.  No strife, no conflict, no shame, no hiding, no separation, and other than male and female, no other distinguishing characteristics were found within humanity.

So, when sin entered, separation, as a direct result, also made its initial appearance and has maintained a ever-continuing presence on the stage of history.  There are now numerous characteristics which can cause labels to be placed upon people, which often lead to a segregation of people, whether intentional or unintentional.

As a direct result of segregation, I believe certain mindsets or prejudices become commonplace about certain people groups.  For instance, I know people who think there is a direct correlation between a person’s skin color and predilection toward criminal activity and, therefore, that person needs to be watched closer than someone else of a different color of skin. 

From all of this, cultural and societal norms are often established.  These norms guide what one is supposed to do or not do.  And these norms can even be based upon a religious code.  In certain groups, even the act of entering a bar was looked upon as a shameful act.  From these norms, proper behavior was established.

This type of thing was also true in Jesus’ day.  The religious leaders of that day had established cultural norms for the Jews, norms that were based upon what we know as the Old Testament.  And a person’s commitment to God and level of spiritual maturity was based upon how well s/he maintained those norms.

The gospel, though, works to break down those barriers.  Even Jesus himself went against the societal norms of the day INTENTIONALLY!  One time, instead of taking the approved route around Samaria (because coming into contact with and interacting with Samaritans was forbidden), Jesus went through Samaria and, stopping at the well of one city, began a conversation with a Samaritan woman who was living in an adulterous relationship.

Think about how many norms Jesus “violated” in doing this.  He traveled a road good Jews were expected to avoid.  He was in a region good Jews were told they were not to be.  He engaged a Samaritan in conversation.  He conversed with a woman with an adulterous lifestyle.  Then he interacted with the WHOLE town!  He did all this so that he would have opportunity to share himself with this woman and the people of this town.  Jesus could not have cared less about the number of societal norms he was violating in doing this.  His good news, the gospel, transcends all societal norms.

But how many times in the present and recent history have people used societal norms and expectations to shape the gospel?  A “good” Christian wouldn’t go there.  A “good” Christian wouldn’t do that.  A “true” Christian would only do this.  A “true” Christian wouldn’t interact with those “people.”

I remember a conversation I once had with someone one summer after worship.  I mentioned that I was planning on mowing my yard that afternoon.  This person (jokingly) said to me, “You’re not to supposed to mow your yard on Sunday!  That’s working!”  My response?  “I’m a pastor; I work every Sunday!”  We shared a genuine laugh.

But at one time, the societal norm of certain activities not being allowed on Sunday was prevalent.  I remember while in college at a conservative Christian college that working or shopping on Sundays was strongly discouraged.  What I found very ironic was that though this was the mindset, the administration saw no problem with forcing its own employees to work on Sundays in the dining hall.

Because the gospel transcends all societal norms, even those established by the church, these norms cannot be allowed to limit the scope and reach of the gospel.  That means potentially going places and doing things that, while not sin in God’s eyes, that would be viewed as wrong by some in the church.  

For example, I have read of a ministry known as “JC’s Girls.”  The women of this ministry go into strip clubs and gentlemen’s clubs and minister to the women performing in them, with the goal of sharing Jesus’ love with them and see them leave this lifestyle.  There are those who would say that this is not allowed because it is a place which is taboo for a “good” and “true” Christian.  But these women have not allowed human-made norms of behavior to keep them from the ministry to which they believe the Spirit has called them.  This is “Samaria” for them.

It is crucial for the people of God to not allow norms to be used in restricting the reach of the gospel.  When these norms are allowed to keep God’s people from meeting people where they are and with the expectation that those people should and must come to us, the reach of the gospel is restricted.  And this just cannot be allowed for if it is, this just furthers separation, that direct result of sin.

Where is your “Samaria?”  Who are “Samaritans” for you?  Maybe that is the place to where and those are people to whom God is calling you.  If so, don’t let cultural norms established by the church to keep you from going and interacting.  God is above the church and the gospel transcends the church. 



What do words truly reveal about a person?

Yesterday, I had to take Margaret back to campus, a 90-minute drive.  During the trip, I was listening to ESPN Radio.  ESPN was getting ready to broadcast a baseball game between Baltimore and Boston at Fenway Park in Boston.  Part of the discussion was today’s running of the Boston Marathon.  This is the first running of the marathon after the bombing at the conclusion of last year’s running.

As I was listening, they were replaying some of the interviews with those who were there and close to the explosion.  And that is what caught my attention, and one comment in particular, which set me to dwelling upon something.  One person, who was close, said something like this: “God was taking care of me because I didn’t get hurt.”  

I guess when I heard this statement, what I heard was that this person’s not getting hurt was evidence that God was taking care of her.  If that is the indicator of “God taking care of” someone, then did God not give two-hoots about taking care of three 20-somethings and one 8-year old boy who were killed?  Even though she most likely didn’t realize it, inside this person’s comment I see an underlying attitude that it is one’s circumstances and situations that determine whether or not God is “taking care of” someone.

Some time ago, as I was preaching from Acts, I talked about something in chapter 12 that I found quite interesting.  In that chapter we are told that the church was praying for Peter who had been imprisoned by Herod, who was preparing to behead Peter, and that God sent an angel to rescue Peter.  It is a common view that through this God was demonstrating that He was taking care of Peter.

But what about James?  Before we are told about Peter’s miraculous escape, Luke mentions that the Apostle James was beheaded by Herod.  If our attitude is that God taking care of me means I escape hurt, injury, or even death, then did God just abandon James and allow him to be killed?  And when Peter was later in life executed by “reverse crucifixion,” had God decided that He no longer cared about “taking care of” Peter?  Or how about any of the other Apostles or martyrs for the faith?  

Hearing this woman’s quote reminded me that we must be careful in how we say things.  Our word choice can oft-times reveal what our true attitudes and perspectives are concerning different things, even if it is one which we do not truly realize we have.  What must be remembered is this: our language can be a window into our heart.  Jesus said in Matthew 15:17, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.”  

Our word choice has an ability to reveal our true attitude and perspective on things, situations, and people, and God as well.

The longer I’m in the pastorate and the longer I really reflect on different things within the church (how we say things and how we do things), I am coming to the conclusion, more and more all the time, that it is common for people to say and do things and not truly realize what could potentially, albeit unknown or realized, be the attitude or perspective or its foundation.

This whole thing, over the past few years, has really driven me to examine and understand what my choice of words are truly saying and revealing about my perspectives and beliefs.  And I’m sure it will continue.

Carrying out God’s original mandate

One of God’s original mandates to humanity (Adam and Eve) was to care for and nurture creation.  Since I believe that it is God’s intention to bring things full circle, meaning that He intends to bring things back to the way He originally intended them (perfect harmony/fellowship/communion in all three types of relationships: God:humanity, humanity:humanity, humanity:creation).  As spiritually adopted children of God through belief in Christ and as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, it is important for us to demonstrate the qualities of our Heavenly Father and His kingdom here in this physical realm, one of which involves this original mandate.

This means that of all people, Christians should be concerned about caring for the environment and the earth, balancing the use of it to provide for our needs and the nurturing of it so that it continues to provide for those needs.

There are ways for churches to lead the way in this.  First, as much as is possible, use ways that reduce the use of consumable resources.  For example, how much paper is used when digital versions are available?  I realize that not everyone has access to digital copies of those things that originally were done on paper, but for all those who do have this access, ways should be created for them to receive these things (like newsletters, mailings, worship bulletins) and they should be encouraged to use those ways rather than paper copies that are just thrown away.

Which leads me to a second corollary way: recycling.  How much paper, from those newsletters, mailings, and worship bulletins, are not recycled?  Up to just a couple of months ago, I, myself, was not recycling like I should.  I am thankful that the city of Fort Dodge, due to some changes in the recycling system, made recycling easier to do.  So, I have been doing much more recycling which is a way to care for the earth.  I just saw a suggestion that a recycling bin could be put at the entrances of the sanctuary into which people could put their bulletins if they no longer want them and would, after taking them home, just throw them away in the trash. 

And this leads me to give a “Shout Out” to First Baptist’s youth leader, Connie Johnson, and her group known as TBD (To Be Determined).  Connie is very active within the caring for and nurture of the earth mandate from God.  One of things that she and the youth would like to do is create a public space that is filled with fruit-bearing trees and other plants that produce different edible goodies.  It would be public and open to anyone to come, free of charge, and pick good, healthy food for his/her family, because healthy food should be a right, not a privilege of only those who can afford to eat healthier.

Connie has already been in communication with our honorable mayor and he loves the idea.  And there is a potential, very large space on the east bank of the Des Moines River that might be used just for this type of undertaking.  It would definitely give an aspect to the Fort Dodge community that very, very few communities possess.  And I find that exciting for our community.

How can you, as a child of the living God and Creator of this earth, carry out His mandate?  Maybe it’s recycling; maybe it’s changing how you receive certain mailings like bank statements or bills; or maybe it’s a different way.  Whatever it may be, I encourage you to consider different ways and then carry through on them.

Craving “Experiences”

According to Piper Jaffray’s 27th semi-annual study into teen behavior (as examined in http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2014/04/american-teens-dont-hang-out-malls-anymore/8857/), the number of visits by teenagers to malls has dropped by 30% over the past decade.  Furthermore, the report states, “Restaurants have become a gathering place and teens are increasingly suggesting they prefer dining out to other forms of status brand spending. We see restaurants as the next generation hang out for teens.”  According to the article, “The study finds that modern teens are more interested in ‘experiences’ than name-brand clothes.”

So, teenagers and 20-somethings, while still spending money on “stuff,” view “experiences” as a higher priority and demonstrate this through their spending habits.  

Many church leaders have, at some point, run across research that shows that the current generation (teenagers and 20-somethings) are leaving the church in droves.  I wonder, in light of Jaffray’s study, could it be that many of that generation are not finding in a church what they crave?  Do they not find “experiences?”  Do they experience something they find uninspiring?

What I have found in typical human behavior, not just in the current generation but in all generations, is that if something excites or inspires, people will go to great lengths to be present.

So, that lends me to this question, “Just how often and to what level do people have an experience of encountering God when in our church gatherings?”  What are they truly experiencing?  What and/or whom do they truly encounter. 

I’m not trying to say that we should cater to some emotional desire, but when someone has an encounter with the living God, shouldn’t there be excitement and inspiration?  

I remember an experience that Graham Cooke once mentioned.  He was still living in England at the time and was a guest at a worship gathering of a different church from his own.  As he sat in the sanctuary, he and God started having a conversation about the “dryness” of the worship.  In Graham’s words, it was dead – listless and lifeless.  Graham started throwing a pity party about being there and experiencing that.  How Graham said God responded I found priceless.  (and I paraphrase)  “Graham, you are a guest here.  You come once and you don’t have to come back.  These people expect me to show up every week!”

So, if you were at a worship gathering of a church yesterday, ask yourself, “Did I truly encounter God yesterday?”  And if you answered yes, then answer this question: “How did I encounter God yesterday at that worship gathering?” 

Did what you experience yesterday more closely resemble the characteristics of a funeral or a fulfillment of an obligatory act rather than an encounter with the almighty God?  

The God we worship is the God of life.  The God we worship is the God of creativity.  The God we worship is the God of inspiration.  The God we worship is the God of excitement.  The God we worship is the God of celebration.  The God we worship is the God of joy.  The God we worship is the God of the unexpected.  The God we worship is the God of all power.  The God we worship is the God of music.  

The God we worship is the LIVING God.  

Shouldn’t our worship then reflect that Jesus is truly alive rather than still in the tomb?

Shouldn’t our worship gatherings then more closely reflect His presence?  Jesus told his disciples that while the bridegroom was with them, they should rejoice.  Well, the bridegroom, because he lives in us, is always with us.  Shouldn’t we then respond accordingly in our worship?

And that gets us back to the craving of “experiences” as a very high priority.  This current generation is craving “experiences” and we serve a God who encounters and gives incredible “experiences.”

Let us demonstrate that; let us demonstrate life, because that’s who God is.


Is American Citizenship Regressing?


The content of the above article reminded me of one of my favorite movie quotes which comes from President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, in the movie, “The American President.”  In a speech, President Shepherd says of American citizenship, “America isn’t easy.  America is advanced citizenship.  You’ve got to want it bad cause it’s going to put up a fight.  It’s going to say, ‘You want free speech?  Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'”

While Brandeis University has the right to choose to whom it will or will not give honorary degrees, it is my view that the reasons for retracting this honorary degree to this woman demonstrates the regression of American citizenship and the foundations upon which it is based.  This woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a staunch critic of Islam and its treatment of women, grew up “in a strict Muslim family, surviving a civil war, genital mutilation, beatings and an arranged marriage.”  And even though it doesn’t say it, I take from the context of her quote that the genital mutilation, beatings and the arranged marriage resulted because the home of her youth held to a strict adherence to Muslim teachings.  She has spoken forcefully against her experiences growing up in this type of Muslim home and the view of groups within Islam that subjugates women to second class citizens and sees them experience violence all in the name of religion.

In response to her experiences, “in 2007, Ali helped establish the AHA Foundation, which works to protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture, according to its website. The foundation also strives to protect basic rights and freedoms of women and girls. This includes control of their own bodies, access to an education and the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, the website says.”  Imagine the uproar in this country if Christian leaders tried to get laws passed that are similar to those in Muslim countries where women do not have basic rights and freedoms in control over their own bodies, education, the ability to work outside the home and control their own income.  The uproar would be loud and it would be vehement and it would be continual and any attempt to restrict it would be met with the strongest opposition.

In case you missed some of the quotes from those opposing Ms. Ali receiving this honorary degree, let me quote some here.  

From senior Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Muslim Student Association: “This is a real slap in the face to Muslim students.” “A university that prides itself on social justice and equality should not hold up someone who is an outright Islamophobic.”  Ms. Fahmy, what about those Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that have no true concepts of social justice and equality for women due to their strict interpretation of Islamic teaching?  Have you or will you response as vehemently to real life oppression due to a certain view of Islamic teachings as you have to Ms. Ali?  If you haven’t, maybe you should go live in a strict Muslim country for a few years where you wouldn’t even be allowed to attend an university, let alone be allowed the right to speak out against something with which you disagree, all because you happen to be a woman.  Then re-examine your statement in view of that experience.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations: “It is unconscionable that such a prestigious university would honor someone with such openly hateful views.”  Mr. Hooper, do you also consider countries which follow a much stricter view of Islamic teaching concerning women as hateful?  Or do they get a pass from you because you view it as their “right”  to treat women in such ways and you really have no problem with it?

Joseph Lumbard, chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies: “This makes Muslim students feel very uneasy.”They feel unwelcome here.”  Mr. Lumbard, I know this probably will sound harsh, but, “welcome to the United States where someone’s view might make someone feel uneasy or unwelcome.”  That’s life in this country.

If having someone who opposes your views is something that makes you feel unwelcome, you need to re-examine what it means to live in this country.  This country was founded upon a person’s right to state or advocate for things that just might offend you and/or make you feel unwelcome.  If your view of what it means to be a citizen in this country entails that no one is to say anything that you find offensive, I strongly suggest that you go back to American Government class and restudy what citizenship in this country entails. 

This woman is a staunch advocate for women’s rights and freedoms in places and environments and cultures which seek to continue to either restrict or totally remove them.  If you find that offensive, and if you are of the opinion that you should never have to encounter someone who believes as strongly as you in a view 180 degrees opposite of your own, then I would strongly suggest that you once again consider what it means to be a citizen of the United States and live in this country.

It is “advanced citizenship.”  Get over your being “offended.”  It’s part of what makes this country so great, that no matter a person’s view, opinion, or stance, she or he has the right to have it and publicly state it as long as it does not incite violence or threaten physical violence.  

In my view, this is just another example of American citizenship being “wimp-ified.”

And if you are unable to handle someone advocating a view with which you strongly disagree, I strongly suggest you stay home.  A harsh statement?  Yes, but that’s exactly how I feel.


This is real religious persecution

Just imagine you sent a text to me, a Baptist minister, that somehow insulted Jesus.  Maybe, in public or private, you used His name as a type of swearing.  Maybe you somehow did some type of desecration to a copy of the Bible.  Now imagine being turned in to the authorities, arrested, and charged with the crime of blasphemy for doing any of these things and potentially facing the punishment of execution for it.

Hard to imagine?  Well, hopefully in this country it would be, but in other countries, it isn’t hard to imagine because it is reality.  Take Pakistan for instance.  In a recent story from the BBC, a Pakistani Christian couple allegedly sent a text to an imam in which they somehow insulted the prophet Mohammed.  The imam file a complaint, the couple was arrested, charged with blasphemy and potentially face execution for this dastardly and heinous act.  Now while if they actually did as alleged, it probably wasn’t a smart thing to do, but should it be criminal, let alone something punishable by death?  Absolutely not, but this is the reality in countries which truly don’t appreciate or have the right of religious freedom.

In 2012, a 12 year old Christian girl was arrested for blasphemy.  After being detained for several weeks in a high security prison, she was released and she and her family subsequently fled to Canada.

And this is one of our allies in the region.  

The right of religious freedom, which includes the right to choose to which faith we will adhere or to also not choose a faith as well as advocate, support, and build it through proselytizing, is cherished in this country.  It is unfortunate that this right is not seen in the same way in other countries with whom we are aligned.

I wonder how a country’s not valuing the same rights we do should impact our relationship with them.