The relational pre-requisite to deeper understanding of gospel

At our last YMCA preview service I preached on one of our core values: gospel-centered. We looked at this passage from Colossians 2:1-5

I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

Because I only have a limited amount of time, and I try to have one major point for each sermon, I wasn’t able to discuss the relational component of the passage. Instead I’ll be highlighting that core value this Sunday when I preach on Ecclesiastes 4. But one aspect of this passage that struck me was the relational prerequisite if folks want to get to a deeper understanding of the gospel.  For instance, Paul’s goal that the recipients of his letter “be encouraged in heart and united in love” was “so that they may have full riches of complete understanding.”

You cannot get very far in understanding the gospel without healthy Christian community. In fact, what this verse tells us is that a Christian community who doesn’t love each other well, will miss out on understanding the riches of the gospel. If they are not united in love, they will miss out on experiencing love from each other and experiencing the love of Christ. Divisive folk get a little relationship and consequently only experience a little of Christ. Not that He loves less, but we may experience His love less.

The final goal of Christian community is not Christian community but Christ. It’s not less than a community united by love, but a community that is growing in love of its Savior. You can have a community that loves each other and yet does not grow in love of Christ. Relationships are not a gospel substitute but should point you to the gospel. If you demand relationships to be the bottomless treasure that only the gospel is, you will be extremely disappointed. You’ll think something is wrong with the relationship. Yet the problem is that you have made the relationship the main thing. You will become frustrated and angry. Relationships should point us to Jesus, who is the “lovely source of true delight.” If your relationships point you to Jesus, you’ll find satisfaction in both relationships and in Christ. If you use Jesus as a means to get relationships, you’ll find satisfaction in neither. If you value church community more than Christ, you’ve reversed the order. Many people taste and experience the community of Christ before they experience Christ. That is beautiful and we should expect any missional oriented community to expect this. But it is never loving to leave people in such a place.

Personal gospel study and prayer is required but is not sufficient in itself to fathom depths of gospel. In other words, you can’t simply go off and study the bible and other helpful books by yourself, and expect to go all that deep into the gospel message. It’s like having one hand tied behind your back. If you’ve ever been in a good community group, you know that others bring out riches that you had forgotten or didn’t know existed. More often than not I walk away from teaching and leading a group with greater knowledge simply because I’ve listened to people give different answers to my questions than I had anticipated.

 

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On Joe Staley, writing scripts, and discerning gifts

San Francisco Offensive Tackle Joe Staley wasn’t always an offensive tackle. He was one of the players who tried to avoid getting tackled, after he caught the ball. In high school he played wide receiver. 

But everything changed in college.

I started out as a skinny 200 pound wide receiver coming out of high school,” Staley said. “I was a sprinter and all of that stuff. I was really fast. I ran a 21 in the 200. Then I got fat. I went to college. Brian Kelly came in my sophomore year. Played tight end my freshman year in college. Brian Kelly came in and said ‘We do not use tight ends in our offense but we want to keep you on the field in some way. We are going to move you to tackle.’ I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed, gained weight, busted my butt and got drafted.

He was a first round draft pick and is now playing a prized position Left Tackle, in the Super Bowl. Not exactly how he would have “drawn it up,” but I don’t see him having any problems with the “script.” Here are a few thoughts.

1.) Sometimes, or rather quite often, the scripts that are written for us by God are far different than the scripts we draw up for ourselves. But they are always better. Not better in a more lucrative, more high profile way (although they may be sometimes like this one), but better in a redemptive way. God will always make the script redemptive, and He will do it in at least two ways. First of all, He is redeeming you from the power of sin and using your situation in unique ways, which may not (I can’t prove this part but I think its true) be the case in a different situation. But secondly, and sometimes this is actually easier to see, your script is redemptive for others. This perspective is more easily forgotten.

In II Cor 1:3-11, Paul explains that his affliction (not the way he would write his script if he had a say), opens the door for God’s comfort, which can be experienced in all situations. But his afflictions and the comfort which follow has become part of Paul’s script SO THAT others can be comforted. The script God writes for individuals is not only for individuals but FOR OTHERS. My depression, and back surgery at young age, were/are intended not only for my comfort and redemption/sanctification but for the comfort, redemption/sanctification of others.

I’m aware of individuals coming to faith simply because of the affliction/comfort of another. Affliction/comfort is evangelistic at times. Our scripts aren’t over. We know the end. We just don’t know the middle, but we know that God has our good-and the good of others through us-in mind more than Brian Kelly had Joe Staley’s best interests in mind.

2.) Transition from the front to behind-the-scenes. No position in football is less glamorous then offensive lineman. They are usually fat, wear knee braces, and no one knows their names unless they give up a sack or get a penalty. No position is more glamorous then wide receiver. Running backs don’t last that long. Receivers get more miles, and thus more publicity, and contract extensions. Yet few positions are more important than offensive lineman. They can make QB’s and running backs look good. They can make wide receivers look good because they give them time to get open. 

Sometimes public spiritual gifts are more valued today, as they were in Corinth. Preaching is important, but without evangelists bringing folks, who would there be to preach? To go from a public ministry like leading a bible study to something more behind-the-scenes can be tough. I love this honesty.

I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed… 

It was hard. He cried. He almost left. I wish there were more “almost’s” in churches today instead of the quick flight to somewhere else that “truly appreciates me and my gifts.”

Now this transition may just be for a season. There may be new opportunities and gift development. Or it may be for a career (like Joe Staley). But remember behind-the-scenes-gifts are every bit as important.

3.) Gifts are best discovered and developed in community. It took someone else to recognize that Joe Staley wasn’t going to be a productive wide receiver at the college level. It wasn’t Joe. He wouldn’t have made that choice. Spiritual gifts inventory tests can be quite helpful. But they are no substitute for asking someone, “Where do you see me best serving and being used?” Other people are fallible. But so are you and I. The more folks involved in discerning spiritual gifts, the less fallibility (as a general rule).

I’ve never been a fan of Brian Kelly. But I’m thankful, as I’m sure Joe is, that he loved Joe (or perhaps the success of his offense) enough to tell him the truth and get the most out of his gifting.

Brady Quinn, Real Relationships, and Aunt Bessy’s Hemarrhoids

I have to say I never was much of a Brady Quinn fan. First of all he came from Notre Dame, and then there was some weirdness with he and Tebow in Denver. But after yesterday, count me among the converted.

In case you didn’t hear, Kansas City Chief’s linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide at the Chief’s complex this past Saturday. The Chief’s then turned around and played the next day without their starting linebacker and beat the Carolina Panthers.

What “converted” me was not his ability to help lead his team to only their 2nd victory but what he said in the post game comments. Comments that had nothing to do with football but instead everything to do with relationships.

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn told reporters after the game.  “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.  When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?


“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.  Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

Here are some of my thoughts on his comments.

1.) First of all, I love how he is willing to try and learn anything from this malfeasance without assuming blame. Several folks noted that they deemed nothing wrong with Belcher or his relationship with his girlfriend. But obviously there was something wrong with Belcher, if not with Belcher and his girlfriend. And it is clear that someone knew about these problems and was seeking to do something about it. Apparently…….

That detail was among the troubling revelations about a relationship that had more problems than previously realized. According to Kansas City Police Sgt. Richard Sharp, the team knew about their issues and was “bending over backward” to help.

And so it cannot be construed in any way to be the fault of Brady nor any of his teammates, nor anyone else that Belcher followed through on such machinations. In my mind he avoids the “We can’t learn anything from this” and the  “It was our fault and his blood is on our hands,” response that comes with situations such as this. Yet why not try to learn from the situation?

2.) In regards to “what we can learn,” his wisdom exceeds his age (and career touchdowns) by a wide margin. More specifically as how it relates to truth in relationships.

When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?

A. Do you mean it? I appreciate his challenge to ask and answer questions with a deeper concern for the truth. We could all do a better job at that. As Christians who live in the time after Jesus’ first coming and before His Second Coming, we experience both the joys of redemption accomplished and applied to us now, and but still groan and long for the final redemption of our bodies in new world then (Rom 8:18-27). So we can say, “Yes I’m doing well,” or “No life is rough right now.” Both are consistent of our Christian experience now

B.Truth WILL ONLY be divulged in safe relationships. The deeper and more personal truths will only be revealed in really safe relationships.  Surface relationships will lead to shallow truth about someone. What you will/can tell about yourself and what they will/can tell you about themselves is probably only going to happen, at least on a regular basis, if you and they engage in deep and safe community. And deep and safe community only results when folks make time and commitment to be in such a deep and safe community.

C. Deep relationships don’t necessarily lead folks to know you. 

I’ve been in community groups where I’ve come to know stuff about people. Sometimes more than I wanted to know (though I’m glad I did). I’ve been in community groups, as well, where I’ve known next-to-nothing about others. In such cases if they were to divorce or murder or commit suicide, or become depressed, I would have no idea. And that is sad but true. Deep relationships and community may be available and offered but just the presence of such a community does not mean folks will automatically take advantage of it. You and I may be in place to share our lives but stay silent or on the surface.

On the flip side you or I can be a part of a deep and safe community, but others may not divulge any poverty of spirit, material, joy, etc….Some folks, even despite deep and safe community, will divulge nothing. And it will be to their great loss.


D. Deep relationships and community always involve you taking the lead.

If you want to take seriously Brady Quinn’s concerns, and he’s only reiterating what it means to love your neighbor (you probably have heard that one before), then there is something you can do which may foster others being honest about their struggles. Someone has to take the lead. Such deep and safe communities/relationships don’t automatically spring up. People will only go so far as you lead them. Yes there are exceptions for the guys/gals who wear hearts on their sleeves (or jackets for this time of year), but as a rule, people have to be led to share truth. And often they will only share something that is on the same level as that which has already been shared. For instance if you share, “I need prayer for Aunt Bessy, because she has hemarrhoid surgery,” then don’t expect to get back an, “I’m struggling with my child right now, as he is in a very difficult phase in my life, and I need prayer to love him through this, because right now I don’t.” Aunt Bessy’s hemarrhoids will be covered in prayer, but the struggle of a parent to love his/her child will not. You won’t even know that problem exists until you take the lead in sharing your personal struggles first. And this is hard. Very hard.

Deep relationships and community take time of course. But time alone is not enough. No one makes the “jump” unless you first lead them.

E. Technology and actual relationships don’t naturally coexist. They don’t appear to fight like cats and dogs, but the latter slowly loses that fight unless we intentionally value and prioritize real relationships. Emails and facebook can be very helpful, but they are at best only supplemental. You don’t know someone, nor are you known by status updates. You know and are known by spending time together. The question is, “Is it worth it?” Brady says yes, and I think the “one another” passages in scripture suggest he didn’t say it first. Again this is hard, and we have to get creative amidst certain seasons of life (and no matter how creative we get, some seasons don’t afford much community/relationship development), but well worth it in the end.

We could all benefit from Brady’s advice to intentionally put ourselves in the path of potentially deeper relationships not only to know but also to be known. Who knows what good could come? I would say a lot.

Consider me a Chief’s fan for the rest of the season.

It’s not time to go solo: "spiritual but not religious?"

Spiritual can have lots of meanings today. I’ve heard it used in ways that I’m pretty sure the framers of the word never intended. I went to a “spiritual” church, one that told me the future. My personal favorite is one I heard during a foreign study trip in college: “The most spiritual people I know are atheists.” Hmmm…..

But then there are more common and more widely accepted uses of the term “spiritual.” I guess it means I believe in God, but not “organized religion.” How organized are you willing to go? Are Quakers too organized?

Anyhow….

Everyone has heard the age old euphemism “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Not long ago the CNNbeliefblog ran this article “My take: I’m spiritual but not religious.”  A non-pastor gives some helpful insight. That thinking needs retiring.

1.) It’s helpful to realize that beliefs like this have a root. They don’t just come out of nowhere. People don’t just say, “I’m spiritual, not religious” without having already adopted some deeper picture of reality.

It is within the context of today’s anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate – in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being – that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.

2.) While mega churches are not bad per se (probably many are much healthier than smaller shrinking ingrown churches), have profited from the most from this therapeutic driven, shallow, doctrine-less philosophy and way of life? This guy thinks so.

The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.

3.) Why does the “spiritual, but not religious” philosophy matter? The organized religion of Christianity has made possible a number of things we all hold precious in Western history and culture. Why should we embrace a worldview that won’t allow for such creations?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.


4.) What happens when we jettison sin? If we don’t call “sin,” sin, then we don’t change. It is bad for us. It is bad for our families. It is bad for our neighbors, co-workers, etc….We accept an extremely selfish picture of ourselves with less concern on how our “sin” keeps us from loving others.

The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.

Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience “nice things” and “feel better.” There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

This is what I think when I hear “spiritual but not religious”
 
1.) I rightly hate the hypocrisy of professing Christians (or you fill in the blank _____), but those people are beyond redemption. I’m so much better than them that it’s waste of time to associate and gather which such people. I hate pride but I live just as pridefully.

2.) I rightly hate the negative experiences I’ve had with organized religion. I know people will hurt me in the same way with a new church because all churches operate in the same fashion. I won’t give them the pleasure.

3.) I rightly hate people making up rules and telling me what to do. But I clearly know better than everyone else how to live and don’t need any input in my life. I’d rather discover the truth for myself, even though the truth I discover will be completely shaped by what I want it to be.

4.) I would much rather serve myself than to serve other people and be concerned about their good. What matters most is what makes me happy. If there’s some happiness left over, I’ll try to do something nice for someone else.

5.) I don’t want or need a community that can love me and speak truth to me. I don’t need to be loved or to love. I’m a rock. And an island too, by the way.

6.) I worship God how I want to worship Him. If He exists, he’s just happy to have someone as good as me pay Him a bit of attention. He likes it when I go hiking or fishing.

7.) My time is my time. I’m obviously busier than you are.

“Organized” churches have really done lots of damage to a number of people. As a result many have, like Vanilla Ice, felt “it’s time to go solo.” But in the end, “spiritual not religious” is the height of arrogance, selfishness, and foolishness.

The joy of putting God’s glory in missions before your problems

I just read this morning about Paul’s thorn in the flesh from II Corinthians 12. Would love to know what that “thorn” was, but nevertheless realize that information is actually quite immaterial. That’s why he boasts in “weaknesses, insults, persecutions, difficulties.” A number of things could fall into those categories.

One of my thorns is my house in FL. Can’t sell it. Can’t refinance it because I’m too far under-water on it. And every so often, I get news that something is broken that is NOT under the home warranty. I’ve pleaded with God to take it away from me, but its just not happening now.

At the beginning of missions week, I got notification that the garage door which I had already spent a few hundred dollars to get fixed in January is broken again. Not under warranty, again.

On the way to the missions prayer meeting, it was WHAT I was thinking about. As I walked into the church it was WHAT I was thinking about. But I asked God to change my heart, because I wasn’t able to change it, and as usual, He did. To Him be the glory!

Here are some things I learned from last night’s missions prayer meeting. Ultimately, what I learned was how God’s Kingdom advancement can be so incredibly helpful, practical, and personally devotional.

1.) A Concern for missions (God being glorified by people who do not yet know Him in places where they haven’t heard or responded) keeps you from focusing on your own problems. God receiving the glory due His name where He’s not-as opposed to limiting the focus to the needs of others-is the fuel for missions. But a very helpful side affect is that we end up losing ourselves-and our problems-in that passion. The most self-satisfying thing you can do is to take your focus off yourself and onto God. The idea of “I need to first take care of myself,” then I can take care of others might be from Oprah but not Jesus. I still have to find someone to fix my garage door in FL. Again. Yet God’s developing a greater passion for missions in us increases our joy in His Kingdom coming down even when my garage door won’t go up. There is joy to be claimed and experienced if we look not inside, but outside of ourselves, at God’s active work in the world-of which he allows us to play a part-today.

2.) Need for community. I can’t develop a passion for missions or a passion for God by myself. I really do need others. When I prayed that God would change my heart, He decided to use His people to play an integral part. A woman at the group was a Voice of the Martyrs representative in our area. She let us know that the Northern part of Nigeria is now one of the persecution “hotspots.” She let us know that it appears nearly 5,000 Christians lost their lives over Easter. Wow. I needed to know that. And I needed someone else to tell me that WHEN she told me that. Never forsake your own need for community; and let that need drive you to community even if you don’t feel like it or have other things to do.

If you’re connected to Redeemer, come on out to the rest of the Missions Week as we have a dinner Wed and Friday night at 6 pm. Bring dessert or salad on Wed and dessert or chips on Friday.

The tension of spiritual gifts

The local church functions as a church only when its members are exercising their spiritual gifts. And below is a passage to remind us ALL gifts are vital for the health, mission, and multiplication of more churches.

1Cor. 12:14   For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?  20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
We need constant reminders that the public positions like teaching and preaching are not to be viewed as more important than more behind the scenes gifts like encouragement, mercy, hospitality, discernment, etc….But I’m realizing that even when gifts are believed to be equally important, there is still an issue. Knowing that alone doesn’t help people get along. For instance, we can recognize the need for the diversity of gifts, but getting along within that diversity of gifts can become quite labor intensive. Someone gifted in teaching may not get along as well with someone gifted in evangelism; both can recognize the importance of the other, but they still don’t live harmoniously.
We know that the Spirit doesn’t give ALL gifts to each individual person. You wouldn’t need community if that were the case. Instead he chooses to gift particular people with particular gifts. So not everyone is gifted at everything. Nothing new there. But what I’m beginning to think is that what makes someone gifted at one thing, makes them not so gifted at another, and in turn makes them more annoying to another. 
The person gifted in evangelism may not be as gifted in discipleship. He/she may be great at meeting, and making new contacts, have a boldness in sharing his/her faith, and see great fruit in his/her evangelism (new disciples are made). However that boldness might make them less tactful within the body of Christ or less patient with others to grow in their faith. The adventure of sharing the gospel, could make the laborious work of teaching or teaching prep seem like busy work. When you put these two people together on a team, what makes them so uniquely gifted, can be the very thing that causes friction between them. One is more bent toward reaching those outside the church and the other toward building up the body (although all believers are called to play some role in both). 
The person administratively gifted paired up with someone who is more creative and merciful, can obviously bring some tension. The creative merciful person might get his/her feelings hurt simply because he/she is more empathetic. What makes him/her merciful, is the very thing that might make him/her not good as a leader/administrator And what makes him/her creative, is what will drive the administrative person nuts. 
 
This is obviously true with personalities, but I’m beginning to think its also true with spiritual gifts.
The solution is to recognize not just that we are different and need each other, but that the very gift that makes us effective in one area, makes us ineffective in another. The very thing that makes us good in one area can (it doesn’t always) then make relationships with those of differing gifts quite difficult.
But then we really do have to celebrate the gifts of others and recognize that if they were the way we wanted them to be, they wouldn’t have the same gifting and personality and wouldn’t bring to the body of Christ what we need them to bring (via the Spirit of course). And we need their gifts, even when their gifts will can bring tension.  We have to celebrate all the gifts, recognizing that differing gifts will bring both blessing and tension.

Peanuts, Utilitarianism, and the Gopsel

A few weeks ago we at Redeemer faced a concern with our new building (we face a new, or a bunch of concerns, issues, problems each week-but still thankful to have a building!): fellowship time snacks had peanuts. We have several kids who have severe peanut allergies, so it took our session no time to make Redeemer a peanut-free zone from here on out. Pretty much a no-brainer as there really wasn’t anything to talk about.

But the ethos behind the decision is something worth another look.

A few hundred years ago a philosophy developed in England called Utilitarianism. Attributed in large part by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, it’s not too much more than just using common sense: do what provides the most good for the greatest number of people. It is also called “the greatest happiness principle.” That sounds like a good idea at first. Get the most bang for your buck.

But the problem is that common sense is very often antithetical to the gospel. Utilitarianism says, “We 200 people can enjoy the peanut snacks and you 2 kids can stay away.” Those are good odds and lead to lots of happy people stuffing their faces with delectable peanut filled snacks. By keeping the peanuts, we’d have more happy people. Potentially. But that’s not applying the gospel.

Jesus talks about leaving the 99 for the 1 sheep who is lost (Matthew 18). Jesus talks about taking care of “the least of these,” not the “most of these (Matthew 25).” The strong in the faith (probably in the majority) need to keep in mind the weak in the faith (probably in the minority-I Cor 8). Those with families (clearly in the majority) were to invite foreigners and those without family (clearly in the minority) to certain feasts (Deut 16). The Christian ethic is just not a utilitarian ethic.

Now with this case of peanuts, it’s pretty simple. We don’t want to physically hurt kids. Or anyone for that matter! But what about cases where it is not a life and death matter? I’m talking about legitimate needs, not preferences by the way. Do you function according to a utilitarian ethic or a gospel centered ethic always looking to the needs of the few instead of the happiness of the most?

Another example was shared to me by my closest friend some years ago. The group wanted to go to a certain beach while on a camping trip. One member of the group couldn’t make it to the desired area because of a disability. Some grumbled that, “Everyone else would enjoy this beach better.” My friend held fast to his decision of NO. They went to a different beach that wouldn’t single out the disabled lad. The majority would serve the minority. That’s a gospel ethic as opposed to the utilitarian ethic.

There will be other instances where you will as a parent or leader have to make decisions in areas not as cut and dry as peanut allergies. Most Christians tend to be more utilitarian than gospel-centered without realizing it. But it shows. Believe the gospel, apply it, and know that God is honored when the least of these are loved.