Friday, March 25, 2022

On Evangelism

 I planted the seed,  Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

-1 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

I’ve had a coffee cup sitting on my desk for 30 years or so now. I don’t much drink coffee, but I like the cup, so it’s full of pencils and pens. I can’t remember exactly where it came from, but scrawled on the side in blue are these words:


I guess the joke is that for a guy like me, who can’t even spell those other titles, PREACHER is just fine. 

     In my own little neck of the Christian woods, Preacher and Minister are used much more than Pastor or Reverend. (I didn’t even have to look up the spelling!) The gist of the argument has been that Reverend isn’t a biblical title and Pastor applies to elders, though I think the main point of it is to differentiate ourselves from groups that use those titles for their clergy.

     There’s another one that we do use sometimes that I’ve never intentionally applied to myself: Evangelist.

     While in the New Testament evangelist just means “one who announces good news,” in our world it means…something else. It calls to mind bad suits and blow-dried hair and smarmy appeals for money in the name of Jesus. It makes people think of someone trying to sell the faith like a used car with too many miles on it. “Evangelist” is what those guys who roam the country selling miraculous cures call themselves. It's also the title worn by the perpetrators of some of the best-known church scandals of the last 50 years. I do believe that Christians should be all about announcing the good news of Jesus. But that word just doesn’t communicate anything good outside of the church.

     Even the word “evangelism” has been tainted by it. While in church we still think of that word in a positive sense, I can assure you that no one outside the church thinks of it that way at all. The vast majority of the non-Christian world would consider evangelism manipulative. (And sometimes it has been.) I think the attitude of most of our non-Christian friends and neighbors about being “evangelized” (ugh) is summed up by a quote attributed to George Carlin: “Religion is like a pair of shoes.....Find one that fits for you, but don't make me wear your shoes.” Trust me, if the shoe was on the other foot you’d feel the same way.

     Here’s a secret, though; in my experience, most of us who are Christians don’t like the idea of evangelism either. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths. It does feel manipulative. It borders on coercion. And it can bring us into conflict with friends, family members, people with whom we have to work. Sometimes we’re made to feel guilty about it — we love people more than we love God, we don’t care about the lost, we don’t really believe in the gospel. But the fact remains that most of us don’t like “evangelism” and therefore don’t do it.

     Doesn’t it feel good to admit that?

     Listen, I don't think it’s a bad thing to want to avoid conflicts in the name of Jesus! What good does it do to have fights with people about the gospel? What good does it do to win an argument with your dizzying intellect and comprehensive Bible knowledge if the only thing your “target” takes away from the encounter is that Jesus makes people into jerks? Some of us derive far too much satisfaction from people disliking us, thinking that it’s persecution because of Jesus when it’s really just that you haven’t been very likable. 

     “But the gospel’s too important to worry about peoples’ feelings,” you say.

     Exactly. It is important. Which is exactly why you should worry about their feelings.

     Still — we have that nagging sense, don’t we, that the gospel should be shared? We still believe that as Christians we should tell others about Jesus, even if we know more about how we don’t want to do it than how we should.

     I had a conversation with someone just this week, in fact, about that very thing. So maybe, in slightly adapted form, what I said to this person might be helpful to you, a person who believes equally that the gospel should be shared and that the way the church has often gone about it has been counterproductive.

     First of all, it seems to me that, as in most things, how you listen is more important than exactly what you say. I think that it’s often best to begin conversations about faith by asking a person what he thinks about God, Jesus, church, etc. Sometimes we’re in a hurry to talk about what we believe, but finding out what the other person’s beliefs are will often open doors to further conversations that leading with your own beliefs will slam shut. And not with an agenda; don’t ask if the only reason you care about the answer is as leverage to get them to come to faith. 

     Sometimes something like “Did you grow up going to church?” can start some discussions, especially in the right context, like maybe you’ve just mentioned something happening at church, or talking with someone from church. That can also be something people don’t want to talk about, though, depending on their experience.

     Or if that seems too deep too fast, you could just ask them if they want to come to church with you. That’s just a “yes” or a “no,” and maybe a little easier than jumping right into a deep conversation about faith and stuff like that. It can also lead to more, at their pace. A lot of times they’ll ask “What kind of church is it?” That gives you the chance to say more, and you can be as specific or general as you want. (My next post will be about being a visitor-friendly church.) 

    I’d also want to emphasize that the context of their lives makes a difference in how you approach them. The gospel is more than just, “You’re a sinner, and Jesus died for your sins. Now admit you’re a terrible person so Jesus can save you!” Sometimes people are feeling like terrible people, and the gospel can be very good news to them. But there’s so much more to it. Know what people are going through: illness, grief, depression, work problems, family issues, or what have you. Then you can talk to them about how your faith has helped you in times like those. 

     But, listen, please — none of this should be read as strategy. Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t share the gospel with them from “impure motives”;nor are we trying to trick you,” he assures them. People to whom you would tell the gospel story are human beings, and the gospel doesn’t need our embellishment. I’ve been guilty before of treating people more like sales prospects that human beings. Don’t make that mistake. Listen and ask questions because you care. Hear what’s being said. Then ask God to give you words that will lift up Jesus and communicate the good news free of prejudice — even your own.

     Finally, I’d want to remind you of this; God is involved in this process. Sure, he’ll use your words — but he’ll also help you know what to say. Maybe you’ll be the one to plant the seed of the gospel in the corner of a person’s heart. Maybe you’ll water it. But if and when it takes root and germinates — well, that’s God.

     Just be a preacher. Just be one who tells the good  news of Jesus as only you can, when you can.

     That will be more than enough.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Getting Rid of Your Script

 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders  instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

     He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites…

-Mark 7:5-6 (NIV)

To most people who are at all familiar with the New Testament, the word “Pharisee” has negative connotations. In the Gospels, after all, they are the opposition to Jesus. While there are individual Pharisees, like Nicodemus, who believe in Jesus, and in Acts Paul and an unspecified number of Pharisees become believers, in general they are mostly portrayed as conflicting with Jesus.

     Historically, the Pharisees were the group that helped make Judaism a faith that could survive the loss of its temple during the Babylonian Exile, by replacing the sacrificial system with the study of the Torah, the Law of Moses. Through study, a person could be an observant Jew without ever having seen the temple or offering a sacrifice. By Jesus’ day, though there was a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem the Pharisees generally felt it was corrupt and unnecessary. 

     I think we Christians have kind of adopted a caricature of the Pharisees derived from their opposition to Jesus. They had a conviction about doing what the Bible said — and about the rules that they had set up in addition to what the Bible said. That first thing we should be able to relate to, as people who feel studying and obeying Scripture is really important.

     That second thing, their rules, is what usually brought them into conflict with Jesus. 

      In Mark 7, Jesus calls them hypocrites. That’s a word we know. We use the word almost always to mean someone whose behavior doesn’t conform to the moral standards they profess to have, and we usually assume that said person is aware of the inconsistency and doesn’t care because he’s insincere. The Greek word came to be used, by Jesus’ day, to refer to a stage actor. That fits pretty well our use of the word; it’s a person who makes a big show of their religion and piety, but who doesn’t really mean it. Someone who’s playing a role.

     But notice why Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. It’s not because they’re saying he and his disciples should wash their hands before meals and then not washing their hands themselves. They’re consistent in what they say about the practice and what they do. They wash their hands. Their walk matches their talk.

     He calls them hypocrites because they’re the spiritual descendants of the people Isaiah condemns — they honor God with what they say, but in their hearts, down deep at the core of who they really are, they’re far away from him and from what he wants. They’re very concerned about things like hand-washing and far less concerned about justice and mercy, some attributes that Jesus thinks are much closer to the heart of God than the condition of their hands. They’ve developed a whole set of traditions about hand-washing and other picky practices — based, true enough, on the Law. But a few verses later, he shows how they “violate the word of God” — one of the Ten Commandments, in fact — “for the sake of their tradition.” Their rules, their traditions have actually become more important to them than obeying Scripture. They “worship [God] in vain,” Jesus says, because they’ve stuck his name on their traditions and rules. While they honor God with what they say, they've actually made him the spokesmodel for their own brand of religion. People could look at a Pharisee and say, “He must be really tight with God — look how often he washes his hands.” Their lives, and what they teach others are about the rules they’ve developed instead of love for God and neighbor.

     Two scary things about this. One: These are the Bible guys. They’re hard-liners on obeying Scripture — after all, that’s where their rules come from! (Or at least that’s what they think.)

     Second scary thing: They are not, in general, insincere. They truly believe what they’re saying. It’s not that they’re necessarily trying to deceive people. It’s just that their rules have made them more concerned about following the script they’ve written — and getting others to fall in line with it — that with actually honoring God from their hearts.

    I’ve been in ministry nearly 30 years, and every year I get at least 5 calls from someone who’s visiting from out of town and wants to know if we’re a “faithful Church of Christ.” And then they ask me about some specifics. If you know Churches of Christ, you can probably already tell me what those specifics are. In case you don’t, here’s the list: Do we use instruments in our worship services, have women leading our worship services, take communion each Sunday, and have elders?

     I’ve never once had anyone ask me if we care for the poor or the sick or the hungry. I’ve never had anyone ask if we go into all the world and preach the gospel to all people. Or love our neighbors as ourselves. Always at least some of those four questions that have to do strictly with the way we’re organized and what happens in our worship services, answered by two “no’s” and two “yeses”, in that order.  

     Now, I think those people are almost without exception good, compassionate, loving people who want to follow Jesus every bit as much as I do. I just think they’ve been handed a list of rules — a script that they think they have to follow in order to be good, faithful Christians. 

     The danger, when we make Christianity into following a script, is that our lives can become all about the script, and getting others to follow it too. And that’s when we’re playing the role of Jesus-follower without actually following him. And, worse yet, teaching others to do the same.   

     So I keep thinking: In what ways does Jesus want his disciples to be different? He calls their attention away from playing a role — however well-intentioned the role might be. He tells them to throw out the script the Bible people want them to follow. “What comes out of a person is what defiles them,” he says. Following a script only has to do with what we appear to be. But it can’t change who we really are. That’s only known in what comes out of us in our words and actions in unguarded moments, what thoughts we cherish and enshrine in our minds, and ultimately what we really, truly think of ourselves. That’s where things get interesting for Jesus — when we can recognize who we really are when we aren’t playing a role and let him go to work on us for real. That’s when we can change, and that’s when we can really begin to help others get to know him.

     So I hope you’ll ask yourself what script you’re following. How is that script keeping you from acknowledging who you really are, the good and the bad? Because that’s the you Jesus wants to know. Other people might want the script. Jesus wants the real you. 

     Get rid of the script. Get in step with him instead. 


Friday, March 11, 2022

Highways in Your Heart

 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
      they are ever praising you.

-Psalm 84:4 (NIV)

The Christian Chronicle’ Eric Tryggestad has done some excellent reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and especially the effects of it on Ukrainian Christians and churches, in his feature “Good News in Ukraine’s “Real Winter.’” The story is real about the devastating consequences of Putin’s war, but also has a lot to say about the hope the gospel shines in even so dark a corner.

      Part of the story has to do with Christians who are making the painful decision to leave their homes, their loved ones, their churches, and their lives to escape the most intense fighting. One of those who has left Kharkiv, Julie Kachuk, wrote these words in a social media post: 

“Will I ever see my mother again? We are scattered all over the earth. … I'm just crying, I can't hold back those tears. Should I be ashamed of it? Now my home is a suitcase and a path. The way to where you don't know yet ... We are pilgrims. I know only one thing, that God is leading somewhere ... I know only one thing, that our connection with each other is in our heart. All I know is that the power of gratitude for everything, the power of prayer and faith in the best, forgiveness ... keeps our hearts in love for God, for life, for people …”

In case you’re wondering, Julie is now safe in Warsaw

     Reading Julie’s post, as she leaves her life behind, I’m reminded that there are much worse things in the world than the things I routinely complain about. Her words remind me of the Psalm

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
    who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
    it will become a place of refreshing springs.
    The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.

They will continue to grow stronger,
    and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem. (Psalm 84:5-7)

In another part of her post, Julie says: “There are only wounds that do not heal for a long time, but these wounds will also grow poppies.” I’m not familiar with that figure of speech, but I think I know what it means: that wounds heal, that pain is temporary, that beauty often comes through it. Julie says that she’s having trouble believing that’s true, that she doesn’t even want to believe it — maybe because it feels like it trivializes what she and so many others are going through. I can relate to that, in some ways. I know it feels like writing a post on what’s happening in Ukraine without emphasizing the pain, the grief, the loss, and the magnitude of the atrocities being committed runs the risk of minimizing the absolute terror, dread, grief, and anger that people like Julie are feeling. No, she shouldn’t be ashamed of her tears. Neither should Olga, a client in our food pantry who fears for her children and grandchildren still in Ukraine. Neither should anyone who’s having to walk away from the life they’ve known into something they don’t know. 

     So resist the impulse to turn away from the news about this. Please, feel free to shut out what politicians and talking heads on TV news have to say about it. But don’t miss what the real journalists are doing as they chronicle for history the terror and death a dictator is visiting on an entire country, for no reason other than his own ambition. Don’t fail to note who stands with him — even here in the US — and make sure they have to answer for their support. We need to see how bad things are.

     But that doesn’t mean we give up hope. Julie hasn’t. “My home is a suitcase and a path. The way to where you don't know yet….I know only one thing, that God is leading somewhere.” When you’re a pilgrim, when you aren’t sure where your path leads, then you focus on what you do know. You might not know where you’re going, but if you’re a believer you know that you’re following God’s lead. You know he’s in front, blazing the path. You know he’s behind, watching your rear. 

     In Psalm 84, verse 5 says more literally, “Happy are those whose strength is in [God], in whose hearts are highways.” It might be that sometimes the highway is the place to be. On the highway, we learn where our strength really is. Oh, the lives we’ve gotten used to can be so nice, comfortable, familiar. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by the people we love, in settings that make us happy. But those lives are more temporary than we’d like to believe, aren’t they? And when home is a suitcase and all you know is a path to…somewhere?…, well, that’s when you start to discover what’s permanent. What can be trusted forever. What will never fail. And that list begins and ends with our God. On the highway, we learn that there is still life away from what we’ve come to know as our lives. 

     Few of us understand a tiny fraction of what Julie’s going through right now. But I’m betting that very few of us as well are always living the life we’ve imagined for ourselves. Things happen — and will happen — that you’ve not expected, that you never wanted to see. And we learn, in those moments, whether there are highways in our hearts, whether we know how to live as pilgrims, whether we’re willing to believe that there is joy on the road with God that we’ll never know sitting comfortable at home among our illusions of untouchability. 

     When highways are in your heart, then you really do know your destination. Oh, you might not know what your next way-station is, but that’s OK, because that’s not home anyway. Home is what God has for you. Home is the life he has made possible, in his grace, love, and faithfulness, through Jesus. Home is his presence through the Holy Spirit. Home is his people gathered in worship, service, and care for one another. When you know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, then valleys of weeping can become places of refreshing springs and wounds really can heal and poppies really can grow in the scars.

      Pray for Julie. Pray for Olga’s children. Pray for the people of Ukraine. Pray for God to protect them, to heal their wounds, to dry their tears. To set them securely in homes.

     And learn from them what to do when your life leads you to the highway, when what you know and trust has been replaced by a suitcase and a path. Know that God is leading you somewhere. Stay connected with other pilgrims. Develop the habit of gratitude; if you look, you’ll always find reasons to thank God. Pray. Forgive. And keep God’s love in your heart to give you the reserves of love you’ll need for those around you. The psalmist says the highway will make you stronger with every step, until you arrive before God.

Click here to give to relief efforts in Ukraine.      

Friday, March 4, 2022

Birth Pains

 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. 

     You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 

-Mark 13:7-10 (NIV)

I am, for obvious reasons, far from an expert on birth pains. 

     I was, once, an interested observer, and I can tell you that my wife was not particularly focused on those pains. The reason why, of course, is right there in the phrase “birth pains.” Something bigger is happening. Those pains are the necessary prelude to something new and wonderful coming into being. That doesn’t mean they hurt any less. But it does mean that it would be a mistake to so fixate on that pain that you forget what’s happening.

     Jesus’ disciples asked him at least once about the end of the world. Jews in their day, like many religious people in our own, had a hard time imagining that God would allow the world to spin on indefinitely, filled as it is with unrighteousness and injustice. They thought some judgment, some apocalypse, was inevitably coming, and they thought that maybe their religion might allow them to understand when and how it would happen. They thought maybe the Scriptures contained clues that they could work out. Seemed sensible to ask Jesus about it. 

     I imagine they were disappointed when Jesus said, “I don’t know.”

     It’s human nature, I guess, to look for a higher meaning in war and in natural disaster. So some religious people have resurrected old ideas — ideas I remember hearing as a teenager in the 80s — that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might fulfill some prophecy of the end times. I understand wanting to believe that, because it also probably would mean that at some point God would intervene and destroy the invading army — and while he’s at it, all the sinners — end this world, and take all the good folks to Heaven. And we almost always, I suppose, assume we’d be in that latter group. 

     Jesus says, though, that “wars and rumors of wars” aren’t to be taken as signs of an impending apocalypse. That’s not to say there won’t be one: Jesus did say that “people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” He promised that he would “send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” He just didn't think that “wars and rumors of wars,” nation rising against nation, was anything other than business as usual. “Such things must happen,” he said. “These are the beginning of birth pains.”

     Now, that can be misinterpreted. Please hear me, I’m not saying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no big deal. It is. It’s a big deal because it’s injustice on a massive scale. It’s a big deal because it brings about loss of life and traumatizes generations and creates a humanitarian crisis and contributes to poverty and hunger and lack of medical care all over the world. It’s a big deal because it risks creating all those things on an even larger scale if Putin’s war spreads. It’s a big deal because people are suffering, and our Lord wants us to have compassion and help ease the pain and grief of the Ukrainian people however we can. When Jesus calls wars like what’s happening in Ukraine right now “the beginning of birth pains,” he doesn’t mean that they’re inconsequential. He means that they are signs that something is happening. 

    But not what we tend to think. The Russian aggression against Ukraine is not a sign that some obscure verse in Revelation or Ezekiel or Zechariah supposedly predicted. It isn’t a sign that we should make a pilgrimage to a mountaintop somewhere to wait for the Lord’s return, and it’s certainly not a sign that it’s time to hide in our holy enclaves and wait for the end to come. It should remind those who believe in Jesus that through God’s kingdom breaking into the world, new life is coming.

     Jesus says his people ought to be doing what we’ve always done. “Be on your guard,” sure. “Be watchful.” Stuff is going to happen. Sometimes persecution will come. How is any of that different from how it’s always been for believers in Jesus? It happened to Jesus, why not us? It’s always been part of the Christian experience that important relationships can be lost and rulers can take exception to us. Just because that’s so rarely been the American experience of Christianity doesn’t mean it hasn’t been the experience of Christians all over the world off and on for, oh, about two thousand years.

     So Jesus tells us that “the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” I take that to mean that, though the temptation for Christians in times of trouble is to withdraw from the world, that’s the last thing we ought to be doing. A woman doesn’t give up and go home when labor pains get intense. She pushes through. She does the work, because she knows that joy is coming. It’s the same with us. We know what’s coming, so we can’t be distracted and discouraged by the birth pains in our world. Not when there’s preaching to be done.

     I didn’t say being preachy, and neither did Jesus — there’s a difference. I don’t think Jesus was envisioning setting up a PA system on a street corner somewhere and letting the fire and brimstone fly. I think, maybe, we ought to pattern the kind of preaching we do on the kind Jesus did; go be with hurting, grieving people, help them mourn and heal, and tell them of God’s love and show them what it looks like. The gospel, for Jesus, isn’t “here’s what to do to be saved.” For him, it was always “the kingdom of God has come near.” He was its envoy, and now we who claim to wear his name are, and our job is not to tell people how far away they are, but how near God is. 

     I think of Elsa Springer, who our church helps to support in Germany. Muslim refugees in her town have heard about Jesus and have experienced the love of his people through the work the church there does among them. I think of Christians in the Book of Acts, forced to leave Jerusalem because of persecution, who took the gospel with them wherever they went. I think of them, and I think that the events in Ukraine, terrible as they are, should be seen by believers as another opportunity to embody and proclaim the love of God in Jesus and the hope of the gospel.

     Christ will come one day. But until he does, it isn’t today. When he does come, he doesn’t want to find us staring up at the sky waiting for him. He doesn’t want to find us hidden away from the world. He certainly doesn’t expect to find us on the side of those oppressing the weak. May we be always on the watch. But may he catch us proclaiming the gospel through our words and actions, the good news that God is near, that sins are forgiven, that injustice will not go unresolved forever, and that wars will one day be at an end.

     There won’t even be a rumor. 

     But, today, a war rages. Bullies think they’re in charge. The innocent and vulnerable pay the price. May we, like our Lord, be there too.