Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Crossing In Traverse City

For about 9 years now, I have taken my youth group to JPUSA, a community of Christians in Uptown Chicago dedicated to sharing the love of Christ in both word and deed. I never leave there the same as I showed up. I have been challenged and encouraged by their dedication to embody the presence of Christ among the overlooked and marginalized in our society.  
     In addition, they are a very artistic community. One of their bands (there are about 10 of them), a celtic Christian band called The Crossing, is coming to Church of the Living God in Traverse City on March 11 (6:00 pm; $5 tickets at the door).  I'm excited about finally being able to host them and bless their ministry.  Here is a more detailed interview I did with Pete Lathrop at WLJN this morning:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Theologies of Poverty and Prosperity

"Every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to use it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God." - Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 5:19
There is a great conversation in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Perchik is talking with his future Jewish father-in-law, Tevye.  Perchik, as a good Marxist, thinks economic inequality is the cause of all social ills.  His outspoken opinion leads to the following conversation:

“Money is a curse from God.” -Perchik
“May He smite me with it, and may I never recover.” - Tevye

     That line always makes me laugh, but it's actually not the best theology.  Solomon wrote, “Two things I ask: Keep deception and lies far from me,  give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me my portion, that I do not become full, deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Don’t let me be in want and steal, and profane the name of God" (Proverbs 30:7-8).
     Solomon, who is legendary for his wealth, learned a lesson that is hard for those of us without his money to grasp:  money is not the answer.  In fact, money can make us forget the One who brings us true wealth.  On the the other hand, poverty's not that desirable either, because our temporary lack can make us bitter toward the One who is apparently not interested in our wealth at all.  That middle ground of wealth is one of provision without excess; needs without hardship.

     The New Testament does not focus as much on the connection between physical abundance and God's blessing.  In fact, the New Testament clearly establishes that any situation in life can be a blessing. At the beginning of the book of James (perhaps the first epistle written to the early church), we read that wealth and poverty can both be a trial - and a blessing:  "Let the poor who lead a humble life rejoice when they are raised to a higher position; but the rich should rejoice in being brought to a  lower position of humility.  It is a good reminder that riches will pass away like flowers in a field.   The sun rises with his scorching heat and dries everything up, so that flowers drop their petals and the beauty of their appearance perishes.  In the same way rich with all their prosperity will fade away." (James 1:9-11)

 Point #1: If you’re poor and you get rich, awesome.

    I think we instinctively agree with this.  Any time we overcome a trial and come out the other side, that’s awesome.  It doesn’t have to just be money.  It could be working through a difficult situation in your marriage, or having a season where you and your kids find peace; maybe you are finally pain-free, or you reach a point where the lingering effects of your past addictions or sins fade more then ever before. Those are all good things.
    If you were once poor, but are now rich, that’s reason to rejoice.

Point #2: If your rich and you become poor, that’s awesome too.  It’s a great reminder that money is a bad savior.
    This is not so instinctively correct.  Is James serious?  Losing ground is a blessing?  Well, yes.   This falls under the “consider it all joy” category at the beginning of James.  It reminds us that we cannot worship the wrong things.

Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is "finding his place in it," while really it is finding its place in him.  -  C. S. Lewis

    Rough spots in marriage can sometimes be a blessing. Maybe we will start looking to God instead of our spouse to “complete us.”  Pain can sometimes be a blessing – maybe it makes us seek medical help we need, or it reminds us that our bodies are temporary things, and we shouldn’t worship health and beauty either.  In the same way, if you were once rich but you are now poor, you have reason to rejoice.

Wealth is a thing God can give or not give.  A Theology of Poverty (everybody who follows Christ should be poor since money is so bad) is no more biblical than a Theology of Prosperity (everybody who follows Christ should be rich because money is so good).  Neither one sees the message of scripture in its entirety.  

Monday, February 20, 2012


 But whoever studies and knows God’s perfect law of liberty that brings true freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard and seen about themselves, but actually changing because of it—they will be blessed as a result of their honesty and obedience.  Real faith, the kind that honors God, expresses itself: it reaches out to the homeless and alone, and works to keep itself pure in the midst of a godless world.         (James 1:25-27)

   Ever watch kids play when one of them makes up the rules as they go along? Their freedom with the rules has robbed the others of the freedom to enjoy the game, and usually of their good attitude.  This in turn robs us parents of the freedom to talk with little Bobby’s mom or day while the kids play.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Ever driven with someone who apparently has no sense of the rules of the road?  Stop signs are pause signs, speed limits are silly, merging is an opportunity to show people you aren’t scared, double yellow lines are mere suggestions, maybe even blood alcohol levels are irrelevant.  Their freedom is robbing others of the ability to drive free from the worry of accidents.  It might rob their family of money if they have to pay a fine.  It might even rob somebody of their life.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Or perhaps you know someone or have experienced yourself what happens when addictive behaviors result from freely chosen decisions.

   When your freedom destroys you and hurts those around you, you need a different definition of freedom.  A true exercise of freedom simultaneously brings life to us and brings life  others.

    As followers of Christ we are freed from the bondage of sin. We are released into the “perfect law of liberty,” not into the perfect lawlessness of liberty.James’s perfect law of liberty does not mean, “Do what you want.  You now have free access to the world without having to think about anybody but yourself. ”  It means you had once been a slave to things that were breaking you down and ruining you and those around you, but God in his mercy has shown you how to be released from that bondage and live in such a way that God is seen in and through you.

Friday, February 17, 2012

I Can See The Moon

My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon. — Japanese poet Masahide

The advice of James in the first century translates very well into a 21st century offers the same challenges. 
     "As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Or think of Job’s perseverance, and what the Lord finally brought about for him.     There are people teaching you falsely about the character of God as it relates to trials, temptations, and suffering. Don’t be misled and deceived.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.  Every  good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who shines His light on you.  He does not change like shifting shadows.  God gave us life through His word of truth, that we might be the beginning of a new kind of creature – his most important and prized possessions.
    Be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains?  You too should be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return, when you will finally be delivered from all of these hardships.  Stand firm, and don’t give up hope; His coming – and your deliverance and reward - is near."  (compiled from James 1 and 5) 
Persecution around the world is still a very real part of the Christian experience.  2011 was not a kind year. From the LA Times: 
      “At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service….”
“Hundreds of nomadic Fulani herdsmen launched coordinated attacks on three Christian villages—Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, just south of Jos—about 3 a.m. Sunday.  Reports on the death toll differed wildly, with some placing it at about 200 and others reporting 528 killed and thousands injured.    The killers planted nets and animal traps outside the huts of the villagers, mainly peasant farmers, fired weapons in the air, then attacked with machetes…”
     In the West, we don’t face this kind of persecution. We are blessed to live in a country where not hearing “Merry Christmas” at Walmart makes the news. That may reflect a change in our culture which may one day bring us to a point of more overt hostility, but it's not suffering. 

     We live in a culture where we face temptation for things that are hostile to our faith.  All around we see and hear compelling stories of lust, greed, selfishness, and rebellion.  This does not make America unusual, but it does make America difficult.  The most beautiful and the most popular among us glorify lifestyles that certainly tempt us to participate.  

     A trial is something in our life that causes us discomfort– physical or emotional.  It is something we have to suffer through rather than enjoy.  These are not things that tempt us to sin, but rather things that can refine us. Trials can be sent by God.  David wrote in Psalms 66:8-12 (NIV):
” Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance
    There are other sources for trials too.  We face the daunting challenge of living in a world in which Satan is like a ravenous lion ; a world in which “all of creation groans as it waits for redemption”; and a world in which we make bad decisions and just have to “reap what we sow.” 

Sometimes, the source of our trials are obvious.  If I need a new car because mine has broken down after 500,000 miles and its just run down or Michigan happens to win a bowl game, that’s just life as “creation groans”.  If I don’t study and I fail a class, that’s  my fault. Sometimes, the source can be tough to gauge. David says he went through prison and “fire and water” because God tested him.

     Here’s where James’ advice to see the big picture is important. I can’t always see the reasons for the situations in my life.  In fact, I might often misunderstand what’s going on.

  • My car breaks down (bad)…I miss an interstate pile-up (good)
  • My girlfriend dumps me (bad)…I find real love (good)
  • I lost my job (bad)…a better job opens up (good)

   James does not spend time talking about if trials and temptations come.  Though he explains why we sin, He doesn’t spend time talking about why we have trials.  That just seems to go with the territory of being alive (for general trials) and being a follower of Christ (for trials we face because we are Christians). The main question is not if or why, but what is God doing in the midst of it?

Our joy will not come from knowing what started our trials; our joy will come from seeing what God can do with them.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Joy of Trials

James 1:1 "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings."
     Two key cultural events that had a “scattering” effect:  Persecutions had begun, and a major famine had hit.  The persecution had scattered the Jewish Christians, and the famine had hit what has recently been referred to as the “99%” pretty hard.  James continues:
James 1:2-4  "In spite of what you might think, there is joy in facing the tests and trials of life, as well as dangerous afflictions of many kinds.  When your faith is tested, your endurance has the opportunity to grow.  Endure so that you can experience the full effect of  these experiences, so you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
So far, James is only referring to difficult situations in life.  Many translations say “temptations,” this verse specifically refers to the testing of our endurance and your faith.  This is calamity of any kind.

  •       Relationships fail
  •       Jobs disappear
  •       Health struggles
  •       People die
  •       Friends go to jail
  •       Spouses leave
  •       Cars breaks down 
  •       House need repair
  •       People gossip
      Sometimes, even the faithful living out of our commitment to Christ puts us in trying situations.

    These are trials. But James says we can find joy in the midst of them if we understand what God is doing.
James 1:13-18  "When tempted to sin, you have to stop saying, “God is tempting me.”  God cannot be tempted by evil, and he doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil.  Each person is tempted when they are lured and then carried  away by their own desires and lusts.  If you nourish the lust conceived in you, you will eventually give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, will bring death to you. Blessed is the one who patiently endures both temptations to sin and trials of hardship because, having passed the tests, that person will receive the victor’s crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who keep on loving him."
    Anything God puts into our life will be good and perfect, intended to accomplish His good and perfect will.  God won’t send temptations to sin, but even when we give in He does not remove himself from our struggles.

     God can bring something good from things that would otherwise destroy us.

   The good that God intends is maturity, completeness, and the “victor’s crown of life,” which seems to carry with it a sense of not only receiving an eternal reward, but finding a place of really living in this life as well.