To be a Jonathan

The Bible is filled with incredible narratives. There are stories of true heroes trusting in God to deliver them from giants to sickness to invading armies. Often the hero, once delivered, takes on a role of new prominence. Joseph finds himself in a pit, in prison, and unjustly treated. But a few years later he is ruling Egypt. Daniel was carried away to Babylon as boy yet quickly finds himself in the favor of kings. Certainly not all stories end with such drastic contrasts. Some record the person simply walking back to a normal life changed deeply by the mercy shown from God.

But there are other stories; those of heroes who sacrifice everything including their lives. There are heroes who follow their God-given convictions to their end in this life. Tertullian once stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We encounter one such hero in an unlikely place. His name was Jonathan.

As the son of a King, Jonathan was in line for the throne. His father, Saul, was the first King of Israel. A head taller than his kinsmen, Saul seemed the perfect choice. His tribe, the Benjamites were accomplished warriors. Who better to lead this nation to victory against the Philistines and others hoping to provide the security and rest God promised. To shorten the story, it didn’t work out that way. Saul fell short in both character and faith. David was anointed and a new hero was in the making. But the son of the king, the heir apparent, was still in the picture. How would Jonathan handle this abrupt change of plan and the loss of his future kingship?

Throughout the latter half of 1 Samuel, we watch the friendship of Jonathan and David grow. On more than one occasion, Jonathan challenges his own father defending his friend who consequently would take his place as king. Jonathan submitted to God’s plan and remained faithful though it would cost him his life. Jonathan died in battle, as necessary, for David to become the king God intended him to be.

Jonathan lived with the bigger picture in mind. He lived with God’s story as the primary narrative of life. He played a critical role courageously and sacrificially. He willingly gave up the crown to be faithful. If honest, the thought of Joseph’s or Daniel’s outcome is much more appealing. A time of trials followed by a long life of leadership and blessing seems more appropriate. But am I willing to joyfully live the life of Jonathan? Are we content to play the role God has for us faithfully without any expectation of the mountain top? We could easily ask the question, why David? With such faith present in Jonathan, why not let him take the reigns from his own father? It would seem to make more sense. And frankly, Scripture doesn’t give us that answer. Instead, God chose to do something quite amazing. He took the seventh son of Jesse from the unimportant town of Bethlehem to begin a line of kings eventually leading to Messiah.

There are so many Jonathans we will never read of, hear of, or personally appreciate. But we can be thankful for the faith of the spiritual giants who’ve gone before us. We rest on their shoulders and the foundation of their faithfulness. And some of us may be called to lay our very lives down knowing the plan isn’t moving our direction. Come to think of it, we all are.

Thoughts on Joseph

The story of Joseph is familiar to many. It is an almost unbelievable story of a young man sold into slavery eventually becoming second only to Pharaoh in the great Egyptian nation. Filled with treachery, the story shows the battle Joseph faces with forgiveness and bitterness. But long before he encounters his brothers who sold him, another battle must have been raging in his heart and mind.

Joseph was a man of integrity. He defined integrity. When tempted with infidelity by his Egyptian master’s wife, he repeatedly refused, even fleeing only to find himself again enslaved. While in prison, his faithful decisions led to him essentially running the prison. He assisted other prisons and one day found himself interpreting dreams two men had dreamed. One dreamer fared well and the other did not. Joseph’s only request, remember me when you are on the outside. He did not remember.

Joseph’s statement asking his fellow prisoner to remember him reveals his humanity. He lived life with extreme highs and lows and in this moment, one can only imagine what was crossing his mind. I think many often wonder similar things in the time of waiting. In unfulfilled moments, I think the greatest temptation exists to leave a life of integrity and chart one’s own course. Even without conscience assent, we can easily push ahead before God opens the door He intends.

But only God sees the whole story. And God knows what we need to be ready for the task prepared for us. Joseph desperately wanted to be remembered yet his fellow prisoner failed to remember…until Pharaoh had a dream. After many tried and no one succeeded in interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, the cupbearer (former prisoner) remembered some guy in the past interpreting his own dream. He offered Joseph as a possible solution and almost overnight the prisoner Joseph became the most powerful person in Egypt.

Two years had passed between the time Joseph pleaded to be remembered to the time he finally was remembered. We can only guess what God showed Joseph during those two years. We can only imagine what lessons Joseph had yet to learn that would prepare him for the position to come. We will never know of the refining he experienced so that he would faithfully represent the One True God to the Egyptian people. All of us encounter those times of “two years” waiting. May we be patient, understanding that the journey is as important as the destination – possibly more so. In the journey, we become prepared for the task. Integrity must be our heart’s cry – even when feeling forgotten.

The full story of Joseph is found in Genesis 37-47.

Peace, Fear and Comfort

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirt, it multiplied.” Acts 9:31

These verses synopsize an interesting time in the early life of the Church. Contention arose in Jerusalem and Saul was looking to “wreak havoc” throughout the Church all over Israel and beyond. However, an experience with Jesus on the road, traveling to Damascus changed all that. For a short time, the Scripture records that peace settled in on the Church as it was being built up.

I have witnessed a similar phenomenon in my life and that of others. There are periods of time where God provides peace. Yet peace didn’t last long in the church, and frankly, doesn’t last in our lives. Throughout the past 2000 years of Church history, there have been periods of peace but many more periods of difficulty and challenge we might call war. Some “wars” within the Church have been and remain legitimate defense of orthodox theology and appropriate expression of faith lived out. Some “wars” throughout history have tragically been inappropriate having little to do with the Gospel or Christ.

The key to this verse, however, is not peace but instead the challenge that follows. They walked in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the church multiplied. These two things seem to almost contradict one another. Fearing the Lord appears to be a lost practice in the 21st century American church. Fear and reverence naturally leads to submission and obedience. A relationship with God should naturally lead our hearts to revere His name and faithfully follow His Word. Living in that reverent fear brings an amazing comfort that the Holy Spirit applies at the most needed times. The story of Scripture iterates the same message throughout its pages. True comfort from God in the face of life’s incredible difficulties only comes when we acknowledge God for who He is and worship. We get a glimpse of the bigger story and find comfort and peace knowing that while storm may be coming – there is One greater than the storm.

When choosing to worship, it seems that the questions of “why” give way to comfort and peace – even in the midst of the war.

The Gospel…Everyday

The word “Gospel” can carry with it powerful connotations. For some, it is the word that enabled freedom from a the entrapment of a destructive lifestyle. Others immediately think of an outdated religious word heard attending services around Easter or Christmas. And sadly, some associate “gospel” with corruption stemming from spiritual abuse often caused by a pastor or church leader. The true meaning of the word is actually quite simple if we can leave the baggage behind. It means “good news”.

For the early believers, the good news was that Messiah had come. Though Jesus appeared and lived in a unexpected fashion, He brought freedom from oppression and hope, eternal hope. He didn’t establish a warring kingdom and liberate the Jewish people from Roman occupation. He didn’t stop corruption nor worldwide abuse or even slavery. He didn’t heal every disease and remove poverty from the vernacular. He did something much greater, He gave us Himself.

Born of the most humble means, Jesus spent His early life in relative obscurity. Though facing all of the pressures and struggles of His time, He remained sinless. He was tempted, as Scripture indicates, in every way, yet remained pure – completely pure. Following this sinless life, He chose to lay it down to pay for my sin and yours. He chose to become a payment to satisfy the very justice of God in the world He created. God sent His Son to die on the cross to meet the standards of holiness the world was designed to work within. Because God is holy, and we have sinned – He made a way. And on the third day, Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin and death and establishing a way for God’s most amazing creation to forever remain in a relationship with Him. It is a relationship built on the sinless life, substitutionary death, and life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is the good news, the story of Jesus restoring our relationship with God when we place our faith in Him. And we need the gospel everyday. Placing your faith in Jesus Christ forever seals your salvation for eternity. You are made new and are being daily transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And it is in that daily transformation that we need to remember the gospel. It is not just good news for our eternity, it is good news for our present. Jerry Bridges in his recent book, Respectable Sins stated it this way; we should preach the gospel to ourselves every day. We should remember that the good news is just that, even though I continue to struggle with sin. When we take time to discover the Gospel each day, two amazing things begin to happen. We live in a constant state of thankfulness remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Second, we learn to live free from the chains of our sin and free to pursue God as we are daily made more like Him.

Today, you will likely hear story after story of bad news. Let’s learn to start with the life changing good news and let the the Gospel bring everything else into proper focus.

The Body of Christ

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:15-16

We often rightly talk about the church as the body of Christ. Scripture clearly teaches about this concept and it is an amazing illustration of the believer’s relationship with Christ. Corporately, we are the body, and He alone is the head.  All of us have a tendency to either want to be the head or be able to influence it. It is a foreign concept to follow One we cannot see nor completely understand. The Israelites shared this same struggle to which they cried for a King, like all of the other nations (1 Samuel 8). The body must have a head, but it cannot be a man. Only One is qualified to lead the body. Only One has the wisdom, foresight, understanding, patience, love, and righteousness to lead perfectly. Understanding this then, leads to an amazing realization. Jesus chooses to use His body to accomplish His work.

The Head, who is Jesus Christ, perfect in every way, chooses to work though hands and feet that will spend their entire lives here struggling with their flesh. It is astounding to meditate on the simple reality that God not only loved us so much to send His Son to die on the Cross, but that He now chooses, in His patient love, to draw humanity to Himself through you and I. With our imperfect voices and lives, He speaks boldly and courageously. In our scattered priorities and busyness, He works to accomplish His purposes. Though I fail, He succeeds, and yet still uses me. The body of Christ is an intricate tapestry of believers gifted to live to the glory of God. Each hand, finger, leg, foot, and even toe is designed for balance to accomplish the work of the Head, who is Jesus Christ.

Thinking on these two truths, we can apply Ephesians 4:15-16. May we grow up into Jesus, who is the head of the body. May we align our lives to imitate Him (Ephesians 5:1). May we walk in such a way that we represent the Head well, whatever part of the body we are called to be (Ephesians 4:1). We are to be built on love and truth we are held together in Christ. Praise God that He chooses to work through His body. He has written us in to the great story of life. Let us play our role well, to His glory.

How strong are your walls?

img_1482.jpg

“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Proverbs 25:28

I vividly recall walking through a grapevine in Israel examining each step attempting to avoid rolling my ankle when my gaze lifted above the vines to notice the remnants of a massive wall on the hillside above. Taken back by the enormity of the wall, I soon realized I was gazing at the remnants of one of the most powerful cities of ancient Israel, Lachish. The city was vitally important, protecting the valley leading to Jerusalem. The city gates and walls of Lachish were enormous and complex providing the greatest assurance of the time. Yet, 2 Kings 18 records the conquest of Lachish by Assyria. The walls of Lachish had fallen and Jerusalem was vulnerable to attack.

City walls were designed for one purpose, protection. An ancient city built without walls would have been easily destroyed and plundered by any invading force. Proverbs 25:28, written in a time of massive city walls, makes a startling comparison: “A man without self control is like a city broken into and left without walls.“ Essentially, a man who cannot control himself is one who is without protection. And I tend to believe that protection extends beyond himself to those he is designed to be a wall for. A man who cannot control his tongue towards his wife and children exposes them. A man who cannot control the integrity of his actions when no one else is watching exposes those closest to him to life’s looting.

Galatians 5, when listing the fruit of the Spirit, lists self-control. God designed us to live by the power of His Spirit enabling us to make choices that have either positive or negative consequences. A man who exercises self-control has an incredible opportunity to provide security to those he encounters, especially those closest to him. Living with integrity by controlling what he thinks, sees, touches, tastes, and hears builds a wall of protection around his own life and those he leads and loves.

God is described in Scripture as a fortress time and time again. He is the place we run to for protection. Living according to His truth builds the walls in our lives. We will still face the challenges of life but our walls will remain secure, built in Him. The rest of the story of 2 Kings 18 describes Hezekiah leading the people to trust the Lord, their fortress. God defeats the entire Assyrian army miraculously. The walls of Lachish had fallen, but the man who walks in self-control, rooted in Christ, will be protected.

In a day of instant self-gratification, how strong are your walls?

Wisdom at Luby’s

Luby’s and I have a definitive love-hate relationship. My wife and I began eating there even before we were married. Dining in Waco always felt eclectic, even at chain restaurants. In other words, eating out was like a box of chocolates. Luby’s, however, was consistent. The food tasted the same, the process never changed, and the cliental, predictable. A few college students and young couples adorned the tables looking for their one taste of vegetables for the month but largely, the restaurant was filled with life’s seasoned veterans.

Looking back now, I wish we had taken the opportunity to simply pull up a chair at each table and listen to the amazing life stories embodied in those seniors. Instead, we observed from our table. We watched some couples struggle to find the right table while carrying a tray full of Luby’s delights. Others quickly nodded to one another when the “right” table appeared, often the last communication that would take place until the meal was finished. Many couples appeared to have a disconnected relationship. It was almost as though they had discussed everything life had to offer and now, marriage was speechless. Others just seemed sad, and even lonely, sitting across the table from the “one” of so long ago.

Every once in a while, the scene would change. As if a new wind blew through the dining hall, we would notice a couple that still gazed into one another’s eyes. After decades of marriage, they were still affectionate, attentive and loving. Those couples brightly defined an amazing word, intimacy.

In the middle of our youth, Jessie and I recognized that two paths stood before our marriage. Only one would continually require our very best. Only one would require focused intentionality and constant attention. And only one would lead to intimacy.

Our walk with Christ is the same. Going on a date (church) with Jesus once a week only reveals a shallow depth to our love and commitment. Paul wrote in Philippians that his life mission is to know Jesus – to foster intimacy with the creator of his very life.

Decades later, will the intimacy I have with Jesus Christ reveal the intentionality and commitment to grow today? Will I look more like Him as the sun sets each evening? My salvation is clear, but the depth of our intimacy requires my very best. He has already given His.

Follow-through

Bowling is one of the most popular sports in America, though some struggle to label it a sport. I would conclude it is a sport because of its competitive nature, score-keeping, some athletic ability is required and it has aired on ESPN (at least ESPN2). While bowling is certainly available to the masses and requires little training to play, a definite chasm exists between casual bowlers and competitive masters. Aside from their designer wrist-guards, highly-personalized bowling balls and shoes reminding all of an era gone by, these men and women truly have talent for hurling a weighted ball at 10 unsuspecting odd-shaped targets.

I remember learning to bowl in 4th grade. Rosedell Elementary began an after-school program and I was enrolled. My grandpa was an avid bowler and my parents still had their bowling paraphernalia of a decade earlier. I thought I might have the gene. After a great deal of time and practice, I learned to hold my own but it never amounted the career I dreamed (ok, not really dreamed). However, the most important lesson I learned from a true expert was to follow-through. You could step the right steps, release the ball well, and even look great doing it, but without follow-though, the ball would likely miss most of the abused ten pins. What I believed about the ball and its trajectory mattered little without good follow-through. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a bowler. But without good follow-through, I was utterly ineffective.

James 2 begins painting a picture of follow-through. He opens the chapter with a challenge to treat everyone equally with love and a heart to serve. The church was no place for partiality. Brothers and sisters in Christ are equal no matter their upbringing, race, socio-economic status or appearance. He then follows this discussion by writing a difficult passage about Faith and Works. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17 ESV) Remember that taken in context, James isn’t discussing salvation but instead refuting ineffective and apathetic Christianity. These Christians were still lacing up their shoes, pulling out their colorful ball, and displayed their league and team colors. But they lacked follow-through.

Scripture is full of mandates to effectively follow-through your beliefs. If we say we really believe something, like Scripture, why do we not live like it? Why do I not? My kids, my neighbors, my co-workers and my friends are watching my follow-through every day. Frankly, they don’t care what I look like or if my ball curves brilliantly down the lane. They are watching to see if the pins fall. They are watching to see if I am faithful to live what I say I believe. Only then will I attract them to this amazing game. Only then will they see that it isn’t a game at all. How’s your follow-through?

Banner

Presidential elections seem to bring out the best and worst in each of us. They are polarizing. Voters choose sides and often vehemently defend their candidate. Yet, inevitably, only months later, disappointment sets it. Historically, the political affiliation the new president holds matters little. Lofty promises and lack of delivery send approval ratings spiraling downward. The speeches made, debates fought and strong campaign posture rallied the candidates troops under the banner of his name. But as reality set in, we recognize again that this is American politics.

However, there is another name by which men and women have rallied. It is a banner which has stood firm through the test of time and pain. This banner has been proven faithful and just even in the darkest times of humanity. From its first flight in Exodus 17 to the victory waved at the cross, the banner still flies today with unfailing faithfulness and the promise of life, real life.

King David, in Psalm 20:7, penned a simple verse, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Imagine a time when military might was measured in cavalry and chariots. They were far superior to the Israelite foot soldiers. The technology of the day rested on the mighty nations such as Egypt and the Philistines. Yet David laid aside the things so easy to place trust in. He acknowledged the appearance of power found in military might and technology could not stand against the name of the Lord. For the name of the Lord was their banner. He was the rallying cry that stood against any enemy. Under that banner, any foe could be vanquished no matter how obscene the odds. He is sovereign!

So it begs the question, what do I trust in? Under what banner do I regularly reside? When circumstances take difficult turns, which banner do I rally to? Which name do I trust? It is certainly easy to proclaim allegiance to Christ. It is far more difficult to live that allegiance practically. I can see the chariots and horses and they carry the appearance of power. But in the end, they will fail to deliver on their promise of security, wealth and power.

His name is the only one worthy of trust. He is the only One who keeps every promise. He is true, always. The Lord is our banner.

Authority, Arrogance, and Control: But its really not a bad idea

The house church movement seems to be gaining some steam throughout America. Many believers, distraught and utterly frustrated with church experience have turned to the house church. The basic definition of a house church is a church meeting in someone’s home. Obviously smaller than most American churches, many house churches seek to recapture the early church experience and community. There is no doubt that good intentions and pure hearts are behind much of this movement but with those come others seeking the antithesis of what the movement stands for.

Speaking in generalities of the American church is akin to calling everything in the ocean a fish. So much discrepancy exists, even within denominations, that it is impossible to paint broad brush strokes in hopes of capturing a true picture of the church landscape. The American church is much more a mosaic than an impressionist painting. That being said, Scripture sets the same standard for each piece of the mosaic. House churches have become one of the newer pieces of the larger artwork. Some will meet real needs and create outstanding community members could not find elsewhere. There is no doubt of its success overseas, especially in persecuted lands. Hopefully, the house church movement will reach those in the darkness and bring them to the light of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that God will use that piece of the mosaic to make disciples and meet needs otherwise unmet. All that being said, common themes are beginning to emerge that send a message seemingly against the very core of the house church origin.

Authority

One pervasive theme throughout is a natural reaction to spiritual abuse from a position of authority. Churches from all denominations have lost the trust of members because of abuse. Pastors and/or Priests have been convicted of sexual misconduct, financial misconduct among various other immoral actions. The wave of abuse has hit American Christendom painfully hard. Yet, the overwhelming majority of Pastors and Priests continue to have a heart for the people they shepherd and lead. For every situation of abuse, there are thousands of men and women giving their lives for those they minister to.

A major motivation of many house churches is a rejection of any authority other than Christ. Christ is the head of the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and no person in spiritual authority should ever attempt supplant that role. However, there is no doubt that authority rested on the Apostles who then placed others in authority to shepherd the churches. Complete rejection of authority is not a biblical concept. Rejection of authority that leads away from Christ is biblical. Yet, we all come under submission of spiritual authority in our lives. We submit one to another and to those God has placed over – even ungodly governments when not asked to compromise God’s Truth.

Arrogance

A quick search of house church networks online quickly reveals the arrogance of many embracing this movement. Many will argue that “real” church happens in homes and the biblical model prescribes home gatherings as opposed to the purchase of land, buildings, etc. The root of such a heart and attitude stands in stark contrast with the initial purposes for beginning such a church. The desire to humbly seek God in close community where all are accountable to one another appears to be the most normal reason given to leave an existing large church and form a house church. However, writing off the former church or proclaiming that all who practice in such “institutions” are false or less than real displays enormous arrogance. Nearly 2000 years after the resurrection of Christ and we are finally get our act together. There is no place in Christianity for such a heart towards brothers and sisters in Christ.

As far as biblical context is concerned, the early church did meet in homes. However, the Bible neither commands nor prescribes the model discussed in Acts and the letters to the churches. Instead, the Text gives principles governing the body of Christ and leaves structure out of the discussion. On top of this, the earliest church met in the Synagogue. Though this practice only persisted a short time, early believers were Jewish and did not consider Christianity a new faith. Jesus is Messiah, fulfilled the law and was worshipped in the context of Judaism.

Control

One final point of contention deals with the issue of control. Leaving an existing church because it doesn’t do what I want or doesn’t meet my needs is simply a control issue. We would do well as Christ followers to spend as much time praying for God’s clear direction for our church as we do complaining about all of the issues we see contained in it. It appears that the newest form of church shopping is simply beginning my own. In doing so, I can structure it to function how I desire. Of course it will be biblical, I am biblical. Understanding this point is being generalized, it is not coincidence that house churches emerge in the most me-centric culture on our planet. The success of the house church movement is out of sheer necessity across the globe in persecuted lands. In America, we begin them because we are dissatisfied with our own local church. Maybe our knees would be a better place to start.

The Church mosaic is large and diverse in America. House churches may add another critical element God uses to accomplish His purposes here. Again, my prayer is such. But let’s not pretend that because I have control, it will be right. God’s church, the body of Christ, does not depend on buildings or the lack thereof. It does not depend on structure or the lack thereof. It depends on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit empowering each member to live the light of the Gospel in the darkness. It depends on an undying devotion to His Word, the Bible. Otherwise, it always becomes about me.