The Hard Side of the Gospel

The word gospel means good news. The story of Jesus is the embodiment of a good story with good news for people.

Before you can receive this news, you need to hear the bad news. You and I are sinners. We have broken the law of God and the will of God in our lives. We are not good people, and even our attempts at doing good works are flawed. Things like pride, anger, and judgment fill our minds while trying to be nice. Our failures have been caught on video, and we know the truth. Every single one of us has sinned and continues to do so.

Then it gets worse. God hates sin. The one who created us is the same one who gave us a moral law. It was first written on our hearts as confirmed by our conscience. Next, it was written on stone and passed down to us on paper. We read the words and felt our hearts quicken when confronted with the possibility of disobedience the first time. Then we did, and nothing immediately happened, so we did it again. All the time, God looked on with disappointment and anger. When we break the law of man, we must pay man’s debt. When we violate the law of God, what can we give to make it right?

You and I are part of the eternal predicament. God creates us, and we rebel against him. God says, “Do not do this,” and we do it anyway. God says, “Do this,” and we ignore his instructions. We disobey, and our future deserves punishment, and it makes God mad.

This is the story of the Bible. You and I are not good people. We are failures. We make mistakes. We sin and stand as sinners. You and I are not better than anyone as we all fall short. After we swallow our pride and arrogance and accept this truth, then we feel despair, guilt, and shame. It is a humbling reality to admit that you do not have it all together.

One of the obstacles that stand between people and their creator is moralism. We think we are good people trying to live good lives until we die and meet a good God who is much like us. Unfortunately, that is not the story we find in the Bible in with the Old or New Testament.

This is the hard side of the gospel. We are bad people who deserve a death sentence for the way we have treated God’s law.

Once we accept this truth, then we will find ourselves in need of a Savior. And boy, have I got good news for you. There was a man from Nazareth named Jesus, and his followers call him Savior.

Today is Going to Be A Great Day

I am confident that today is going to be an excellent day.

We have never been older than we are today. With age comes wisdom. No matter how much we have messed up this year, the past month, or the previous day, it has all educated us. We are more experienced than any other day before this one, and we will not let the lessons be lost on us. We are older, and we are wiser.

We all have choices to make every single day. We can look back with regrets, shame, and guilt, or we can look forward with hope. We can take the past and let it catapult us into the future or drag us down to the depths of despair. We can accept God’s offer of grace or reject it for the pain of self-inflicted punishment.

God saw fit to give us another day. We do not have to waste it replaying our past. We are here, and we are ready for whatever comes at us. This is a day the Lord has made. Choose forgiveness, hope, and promise over all other alternatives.

Choose to make today great.

Weekend Reading

It has been over three months since I posted my favorite articles for you to read. Part of that is because of the Covid-19 issues. Many of the blog posts I have been reading are very dated with each new phase of this experience. Here are some of the best ones I have read that are relevant and worth reading. Enjoy

Christian Naivety is Harming the Church’s Engagement with Today’s Culture

WHAT CHURCH LEADERS ARE (REALLY) THINKING IN 2020

What If You Struggle to Forgive Yourself for a Past Sin?

Metaphors and Membership: How Biblical Metaphors for the Church Require Church Membership

Why It Matters Jen Hatmaker Endorses Her Daughter’s Homosexuality

Can We Disagree: LGBTQ, Jen Hatmaker & Dialogue, Part 1

5 Ways Christians are Getting Swept into a Secular Worldview in This Cultural Moment

Everybody else

The False Narrative in Your Head

The most critical voices in your life are often inside of your head. You expect so much of yourself. You have great intentions. Time and time again, you fall short of your desired goals.

Then you remind yourself of it repeatedly. Your inner voice whispers to you, “You are such a fake. You never do the right things. You should be ashamed.” The guilty feelings don’t go away. The ache of inadequacy pulls you down into despair. The memories of your failures are way bigger than any success you have experienced.

Over the past few years, I have learned the expression, “This is a false narrative.” It is often used in social media along with news outlets. A false narrative is defined as a story that you perceive as being true but has little basis in reality. This is not the same as pure fiction. The false story takes real information and then interprets the facts in a fake or imagined way.

False narratives come to us for two primary reasons that I could find in my research. One, they happen because there are insufficient information and an inaccurate assessment. We don’t have all the details, and what we do have can be misconstrued. What I see more is that people ignore part of the information and focus on the one negative part. They remember their failures vividly and forget the successes.

The second reason we are drawn to false narratives is that they elicit strong emotions, even if they are all negative. Anger and fear are the two most significant emotions that people usually feel. They are disgusted with themselves and afraid that one day everyone will find out how big of a screw up they are despite their best efforts to hide that fact.

One of the reasons I encourage people to attend Church every weekend, spend time with believers weekly, and read their Bible daily is so that they can hear the voice of truth. “You have sinned, but all of us have. You are not alone. You are forgiven. You are loved. You can do better. You can’t change the past, but you can make a new future.” These are the words we need to hear over and over to silence the voices in our heads.

The only way to truly conquer the false narrative that plays in our minds is by continually exposing ourselves to the truth. Today, at some point, the words will creep into our minds and slowly pull us down. I encourage all of you to take strength; the narrative is false. Grace is real, and God is writing a new story with each one of our lives.

God’s Work Versus Good Work

Following Jesus leads to a life of good works. No one doubts that principle as a guiding thought for all Christian service. But is it true?

The problem is that we can miss the Godly part of the equation. Following Jesus leads to a life of good work for the glory of God. Those last five words are important.

Jesus teaches this powerful parable in his longest recorded sermon that believers call “The Sermon on the Mount.” He starts telling his followers about how to be blessed in a section called “The Beatitudes.” Then he instructs those listening to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus wants his disciples to have an impact on the world the same way that salt affects food and light overcomes the darkness. The point is clear for us, do good works, and make a positive impression on the world.

Unfortunately, this is where most people stop. The final line of this part of his teaching is of the utmost significance. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16 – NIV 2011) The ultimate goal is for people to worship God because of what you have done. This one statement draws a line for us that we had better not miss.

The difference between doing good work and good work in the name of God is who gets the glory. If, when you are done giving of your time and energy, people walk up and say, “You are such a good person,” then you have just done something good. I would even go so far as to say that if they walk up and say, “Your Church is full of good people,” then they have just performed a good work.

But when people walk up after the work is done and say, “Praise God for his work through you,” then you have done Christian service. When the reaction to your good works is, “Tell me about this Jesus you serve,” then you are on the right track. When the world stops and praises God for your light, then you have done good works for the glory of God.

I watch many people, and their Churches do good works, and for that, I applaud them. My hope is that people will see what we are doing and praise God. Then we are the followers of Jesus.

I Do Not Need Another Label

Do you support, “insert name of single cause movement here?” If you are not a part of the group that stands for/against “insert name of single cause movement here,” then what kind of person are you?

It seems everyone wants to give me a label. These labels often start with “pro” this or “anti” that but are not limited to those.

My simple thought is that I do not need another label. I am a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. That is the label that defines me. My goal in life is to follow him and his teaching, serve him with my gifts and make him famous above everyone else who has ever lived. His words are my guide, even when they are unpopular.

As such a person, I recognize that there are things that are right with God and things that are wrong for believers in him to do. There is also an understanding that life is complicated, and issues have a personal level that makes them difficult to see clearly. Therefore, I expect obedience to him, but offer grace into the matrix of our painful existence. My words are full of both truth and love as I live for him each day.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I do not need another label.

While some labels do fit, those are not the things that define me. My life is more than any single issue. I am a child of God through the work of Jesus to save me from my sins. I believe that and everything I do flows from it. Discipleship to Jesus is my goal, and anything less is only part of the story of my faith.

The movement of the Churches I belong to have always had the motto of “Call Bible things by Bible names.” Well, I am a disciple of Jesus, nothing more and nothing less.

Just Trying to Get Home

Last week I traveled to my mother’s house and back. It sounds like an easy trip, but it takes over eight and a half hours of drive time one way, not counting stopping for necessities.

This journey is consistently full of exciting experiences and near misses. This time we encountered a semi weaving all over the road, another one almost driving off the road, a car flying by at an excessive rate of speed, road construction, a vehicle that almost came to a stop in front of us on the highway for road construction, deer, and a combine driving down the middle of the road unexpectedly. One stretch of highway in Illinois is so rough it felt worse than gravel as I switched lanes with every new series of potholes. Our trip was interesting, disrupted, scary, and time-consuming.

Why endure all of this? One simple fact, I wanted to get home. I wanted to see my mom, and I wanted to return my place here in Missouri.

Life for a believer is much the same. It is a quest to get home. I want to see our Creator and Savior. I desire to spend time in his presence, along with all the other saints in glory. I pray my family is there, and the joy of the Lord will be overwhelming for us all.

This week and this month are sure to be full of crazy and unexpected twists and turns. It’s okay; it is all part of the journey home.

Looking for Jesus Quote

I bought a book almost twenty years ago in a discount bin. I knew the author was a great writer, but I did not know much about her theology. I read through most of the book and was disappointed, but there are two paragraphs in the introduction that made it worth the price of the book. I keep it and reread it every so often as a reminder to me as a preacher. Here it is:

“Using Jesus as a mirror for cultural or personal ideals seems a tendency we can’t escape.  What I learned about him in Sunday School has, I can see, been colored by my teacher’s agenda.  Wanting us to be good, cheerful children, they gave us a kindly Jesus, sitting on a flower-studded hillside, handing out box lunches and comforting aphorisms. He was supposed to be our friend and example.  The songs we sang told us he walks and talks with us, keeps us singing, and doesn’t care what color we are. 

As an adult, though, I have come to distrust those early simple images.  I know that flower-studded hillsides get turned into slag heaps.  That there aren’t enough lunches to go around. That my singing may only be whistling in the dark.  At times, fear has crept over me that Jesus may be no more than a psychological crutch, wish-fulfillment, the result of self-hypnosis. Has the Jesus I am looking for been no more than a grown-up version of the lonely child’s imaginary playmate?  I don’t want to configure a Jesus to fit my private fantasies.  How can I … at the end of the twentieth century, avoid making Jesus into a replica of the qualities I value most?”

– Looking for Jesus by Virginia Stem Owens – pg. 4-5.

Cancel Culture in the Church

If you read anything on social media, you know we are living in what is being called a “Cancel Culture.” That means no matter what you are doing now if you said or did something inappropriate in the past, you are canceled. Your current actions mean nothing because of your past failures.

My prayer is that this thinking will not infiltrate the Church and in the believers who gather each week. I will be honest; if you were to start digging into my past, I am sure you will find a few skeletons in the closest. I tested the boundaries of grace in both High School and college. I have done things of which I am not proud. My sins are many, my mistakes are plentiful, and my failures abound.

The good news is that Jesus’ work on the cross produces a different type of cancel culture. He came to cancel the debt of sin that each one of us owes. It is theologically called “Substitutionary Atonement.” Jesus died in our place on the cross, and our past has been handled. Our sins are gone, grace replaces our mistakes, and we can let go of our failures.

Trusting Jesus as your Savior cancels your past, and your present is all that matters. In a world that is using our history to nullify us today. Jesus nullifies our past so that we can live free today.

Challenges of the Post Covid-19 Church

It was surprisingly easy to shut down our Sunday morning worship programs at the Church. I made several phone calls, sent out an email, and received responses, and finally, the government made the call to have a required lockdown. Once it was decided, we sent out a text and email to notify everyone, posted on social media, and updated the website. The final step was to put together a plan for how to keep worshipping at home. It took two stress-filled weeks, and everything was set for what proved to be the next three months.

Now we are heading back to worship, and it is much more difficult to restart than to quit. Every week we are facing new questions and challenges.

  1. People Got Out of the Habit of Weekly Church. Our Church watched the stats fairly close and noticed an interesting trend. The first month we didn’t meet, people watched the video of worship on Sunday morning. The second month we saw it move to sometime on Sunday. The third month it was viewed some day during the week. Basically, the same number of views, but slowly they moved away from Sunday morning worship time. Now, people are out of the habit of regular Sunday morning worship, and we are starting from scratch with some families.
  2. How Do We Care for the Most Vulnerable? There is still a considerable concern for our elderly, infants, and those with illnesses. These conditions make them vulnerable to Covid-19. As a result, we must continue to practice proper sterilization and safety for them. We know many people do not need the measures we are using, but some do, and we are called to care about those who are the most vulnerable.
  3. Children’s Ministries are the Most Difficult. Providing ministry for children is a massive part of what we do each week. This group is also the least cautious. There is no social distancing with a five-year-old. We want to provide ministry and are taking every safety precaution, but there is only so much we can do. Without children’s ministries, it makes it difficult for some families to attend.
  4. Our Timing Could Not Be Worse. Restarting in the summer is not a dream situation. June is always our lowest attendance month of the year. Not to mention, we have Father’s Day, which is one of the three lowest attendance days of the year. It is followed by the fourth of July happening on a Saturday. Because of work shut down and vacation, that is one of the top two worst attendance days of the year. Reopening in the middle of June is tough, knowing that for the first four weeks, people will already be busy. Couple that with number one, and it makes a perfect storm.
  5. The Unknown is Making Things More Difficult. The number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise. So will we be forced to shut down again? Should we take more precautions? Should more people continue to stay at home? The Lord only knows.

I know this is frustrating for a Church member, but know it is equally exasperating for me as a pastor. The Church leadership and I are doing everything we can to keep things moving forward. This is true, no matter where you attend. Keep praying. Keep yourself safe. And in everything, may God be glorified.