Friday, May 6, 2011

Training for the Mission Like a Navy Seal

Most Americans are very proud of our Navy Seals, who this past Sunday were able to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in America for the past 10 years. It ends a decade of searching for the man who perpetrated so much evil on our nation on September 11, 2001, and also before and after that date, both here in the United States and against our citizens around the world. 

So we salute the courage and commitment of the Navy Seals who went on this mission, along with all of our military men and women who put their lives on the line in service to our country and liberty around the world. Many of them - along with others working behind the scenes and even some civilians - have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives to protect our people and our freedom. We honor and uphold them with our ongoing support and prayers.

With the successful elimination of bin Laden, we've seen the importance of the right training and equipment for a vital mission. These soldiers trained and sharpened their skills because they would be facing an enemy who would use any means to resist them and indeed, kill them. If captured, these Navy Seals knew that they would very likely be subjected to torture and eventually death at the hands of terrorists who have taken innocent life all around the world. They are dealing with people who are evil. They have to be prepared - they have to be trained and equipped in order to survive and win.

The Church is in a similar battle against evil. Jesus gave us a mission to accomplish, a battle to fight, if you will. He said to go into the world and make disciples - make followers of Jesus Christ - and the process of making disciples involves baptizing them, but also teaching them; training and equipping them to also go out and be one of God's 'soldiers' on the front lines of battle.

The battle is against evil. It is spiritual evil, but it is made manifest in our daily, physical lives. It It is experienced as selfishness, greed, hunger for power, sexual abuse, lying, and stealing. It is in self-destructive behavior like worry, fear, self-pity, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Jesus called us to share the good news that he can defeat evil within us and in our world when we follow him and obey his commandment of love. Jesus makes it possible to fulfill the the Old Testament covenant ideal: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:28, New Revised Standard Version). 

The Church has become squeamish about military metaphors in recent times. But it wasn't that long ago that the church worshiped with songs like "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Soldiers of Christ, Arise" (both of these are still in our hymnal).

The sad fact is that today, the Church is failing to accomplish the mission for which Jesus called and conscripted us. We fail to understand that, while we have new freedom in Christ, we are under his authority as our Commander-in-Chief; he has commissioned us to train and equip for the mission.

How do I know we're failing? Here's one disturbing statistic: while 80% of the American public claims to be Christian, and affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, only about 20% are in worship on any given Sunday. Someone recently said, "Christianity is dying in the West in the shadow of church steeples." 

George Barna, head of The Barna Research Group, is one of the most respected analysts of our culture today. In his 2010 research, he identified six "Megathemes" related to Christian faith and our culture. I want to briefly mention three of them:

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans - especially young adults. For instance, Barna Group studies in 2010 showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other examples include the finding that few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence.

2. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ.

3. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people. Christians have bought into this propaganda, and fail to see how much we could continue to influence our culture for good.

Barna's research confirms what many pastors are seeing: their church is failing to fulfill the mission. In many churches, our ministries and budgets aren't focused on making disciples at all.

Pastors are sidetracked by all kinds of busy work and fruitless activity - nothing more than entertainment designed to draw a crowd on Sunday, or therapuetic pats on the head to help ineffective Christians feel good about their broken lives so absent of anything recognizable as Christian discipline.

The apostle Paul saw the spiritual leader's ministry very differently. Paul wrote:
"Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-13, New Living Translation)

Today, we Christians are so focused on God's grace that we've gotten lazy - we think that because God is loving and gracious, we can slide through life. But we have failed to understand that God's grace is useless if it is not appropriated. That is, we must cooperate with God's grace, working with grace in order for it to change us and make us like Jesus Christ.

God's grace "equips" us through worship, Bible study, accountability, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. Unless we engage in this kind of training and equipping on a regular basis, God's grace is useless.  Please read that last sentence again. Like military training, spiritual training and effectiveness takes discipline: effort, time, attention, and priority.

My concern as I look around our church is that there are many persons I know are Christians; I don't doubt their faith in Christ. But they are not committed to getting trained and equipped for the mission of the church. And they aren't equipping the next generation - their children - to live a victorious, mature and fruitful Christian life. In many cases, they are literally pushing their children away from faith, by making other activities a higher priority in their children's lives!

I know this because of irregular worship attendance patterns. I know this because their children are at sports training on Sunday mornings more often than they're here for spiritual training in Sunday School.

I know because I'm watching Christians in my church struggle in their marriages, deal with alcohol abuse, have financial problems, and just "live" with a lack of the joy of Christ on their faces. Instead I see worry, criticism, anger and a sense of being overwhelmed by their daily circumstances. Is this all we as Christians have to offer to a lost world?

Until we the Church -  the body of Christ - begin to put God's grace to work in our lives - through serious Christian disciplines like weekly worship, passionate prayer, serious study and sacrificial stewardship - we will not experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. We will not bear the fruit for the gospel due to the Holy Spirit working through us.

God's work simply will not get done;
evil will continue to win - in us and around us.

I pray that you will sense God's conviction as appropriate in your own life, and you will repent and make the necessary changes in your life in order to become " a soldier of the Cross":

Am I a soldier of the cross,
a follower of the Lamb,
and shall I fear to own his cause,
or blush to speak his name?

Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
while others fight to win the prize,
and sail through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
to help me on to God?

Sure I must fight, if I would reign;
increase my courage, Lord.
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by your Word.

By God's grace, for your sake and for your children's sake, please...get connected, start training, and

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The 21st Century Woman: Trying to Have It All

I have two questions for the ladies out there:

One: How many plates do you have up in the air right now?
Two: How full is your plate? Any room left for “dessert”?
(IOW, for the things you really like and enjoy?)

I guess what I'm really asking is this: Is your life crazy right now? Do you wish life could be simpler?

My wife, Kathy Jo, subscribes to a magazine entitled Real Simple. The subtitle is Life Made Easier. But I find it ironic that a magazine entitled Real Simple has, in the most recent issue, 256 pages! (An issue from several months ago had only 172 pages.) Shouldn’t a magazine called Real Simple only be about 10 or 12 pages?!

Isn’t this a perfect reflection of our culture today…and what most women are dealing with? (I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of the readers and subscribers to Real Simple are women.) And what the magazine claims as it’s purpose or goal—to help you simplify your life—seems to get lost in it’s size and scope…it would take you all month just to read the whole thing!

And when I opened one issue, what I saw in the first 15 pages were pictures of perfect women – hawking make-up products, fitness items, fancy cars, jewelry and other stuff – these gorgeous women would put the average woman right under the laundry pile; she will never look as sexy these airbrushed models; she is never going to be shaped like these skinny minnies!

What a downer!

What this magazine tries to say in around 200+ pages every month, the gospel writer Luke edits down to one paragraph; five verses, eight sentences! That’s it. All you really need to know to live simply, yet significantly. You'll find this advice for simple living in Luke 10:38-42. It's the account of Jesus going to visit two sisters, Martha and Mary:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (from the New Living Translation)

Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is just sitting around (with the men, can you imagine?!) and Martha wants her to help in the kitchen! Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the “better portion.” Because Mary’s focusing on Jesus, she has been set free from the anxiety and worry that has Martha so troubled.

Martha is worried about food portions;
Mary is worried about soul food portions.

Martha is caught up in the game that we get caught up in: someone important is coming to her home, and she’s trying to impress them. We are so concerned about what others think of us – we will go to great lengths to impress people.

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, former president of Asbury College, makes a great observation about our concern to impress others:

“Many of us have a fetish about appearance. I am not talking about clothing and external appearance, although that can be part of it. I am talking about wanting to impress other people all the time, refusing to lose in front of other people, choosing not to accept even second best … What insufferable bondage it is for us and for those we love when we have to look good at every social engagement and in every situation.”
—from This Day With the Master

You've got to cut Martha some slack, though. Because Martha was right to question Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet – women in that culture didn’t become disciples and study scripture – they served the men! Martha was trying to comply with the conventions of her day - she was trying to meet what she assumed were everyone else's expectations of her as a woman. What expectations, what stereotypes today are binding you, squeezing you into a mold that isn’t from God? Note what the apostle Paul says about this in Romans 12.2:

"Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." (from the New Living Translation)

Jesus gives Mary (and Martha!) permission to break out of the old stereotypes and expectations - the world's behaviors and customs - in order to receive something better, something that truly fills the inner life. Martha is in the conventional role – it is Mary who is not being a “productive member of society” according to their criteria. But it is Martha’s anxiety and worry that are keeping her from enjoying the fact that Jesus is right there, he is available to her for a relationship and for spiritual nurture.

So imagine something with me: think of your life as a plate (we always talk about our plate being full, so you understand the metaphor)…your plate starts out empty; you can put anything on it that you want...or you can let others load it up for you as well…

When you’re putting those “portions” on your “plate” – ask yourself:
• Is your plate too full?
• Is all this stuff on your plate healthy?
• Is all this stuff going to give you “indigestion”?
• What would happen if you left some of this food on your plate—or dumped it down the garbage disposal? Would the world end?
• What are you putting on your family’s or friends’ plates?

• Have you left any room on your plate for Jesus, the “better portion”?

Jesus promises that there is a better way to live than constantly overloading your life’s “plate” with more and more! Are you ready to leave behind the old behaviors and customs - the stereotypes and expectations other have for you? Are you ready to sit at Jesus' feet and learn a new way of living - are you ready for the "better portion" - some real soul food - on your plate?

Stay Connected,

Pastor Mike