Church Sent

10 07 2020

“Thank you for organizing this block party,” our neighbor exclaimed. “You’ve brought us out of our homes. We’re starting to get to know our long-time neighbors.”

So said a man down our street following our 4th of July party. We observed physical distancing, etc., and had 80-100 folks turn out for two live bands, barbecue hot dogs and burgers (individually served), and a lot of getting acquainted.

I have heard reports of others from our church reaching across the street to befriend neighbors. One family made pizza fixings for those nearby and invited them all to bake them and come outside to enjoy the feast.

Others are inviting friends to gather and watch our church services together on YouTube.

I talked with a woman the other day and we agreed that one change many of us could make would be to switch some of our activities from the back yard to the front, or from our apartment deck or balcony to the common area nearby.

Two days prior to our block party, Aimee and I walked over to the apartments near us and invited families (many from the Middle East) to join us. Three families came. (When I apologized in advance for the noisy fireworks, he replied, “Oh that’s nothing. Back home, when we celebrate, we fire machine guns into the air!”)

Rightly, we long for the days when we can gather freely to worship. But let’s not miss the opportunity to shift some of our focus to ministering where God has placed us.

You might be tempted to think Aimee and I do outreach because we are missionaries. I surely don’t question the fact that our life experiences have taught us to stretch our comfort zone and look for opportunities to help others. But I like to think we have grown in this way because ultimately we are just normal people who want to obey Jesus and share Him.

International travel may not ever be the same. Mission trips have been cancelled by the thousands. But millions of families from foreign lands got on airplanes over the last few years and now live near you. Perhaps they cannot leave, or maybe they will soon be asked to depart. Who knows if God has placed them in your city for this season so that they might encounter the love of Jesus through loving Christians?

Showing kindness to strangers is core to our faith. We are often surrounded by new neighbors who have never known a true believer nor heard of God’s love in sending His Son. Isn’t it obvious that God wants us to cross the street in His name? Are we held back by fear or busyness?

These days the Church cannot gather normally. What if we won’t be able to return to normal for a year or more? Will we look back and wish we had made the most of this opportunity to befriend others around us?

The Church is not merely scattered. We have been sent into our extended families and neighborhoods.

welcome neighbor sign

Do you know how I began doing this when I moved into my neighborhood two years ago? By smiling and waving to virtually all my neighbors as they walked or drove by. I mowed my front lawn and pulled weeds to be a visible presence as much as to tend my yard.

When Aimee and I got married, we just continued doing these things. Intentionally we posted this welcoming sign in our front yard. Now, when we learn a neighbor’s name, we write it down in order to hopefully address them personally next time. We’re slowly building trust.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a lifestyle, not a program.

Consider this:

What hesitations emerge inside you when you think of being “sent” to the people around you?

What possibilities stir inside you when you picture yourself crossing over and building new relationships?

Shhh, listen. The gospel is whispering

22 06 2020

The other day I was reading ROADMAP TO RECONCILIATION, by Brenda Salter McNeil, when I came up a quote which I immediately recognized as drawn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

As we conclude our study of that epistle, and as we are currently living through a time of unrest due to discrimination, I wanted to bring this scriptural teaching to our attention.

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
  • that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity

Reading this statement brings to my memory the occasion when I took communion in a church in South Africa. It was a liturgical church, with many mixed ethnicities. The practice was to walk toward the front and receive a wafer from the priest, who would wipe the rim of the communion chalice and serve the next person in line. This was during a period of time when there was much publicity about the HIV outbreak.

I think of that occasion because, like this doctrinal confession, my taking communion with a common cup was, for me, a courageous act of faith.The doctrinal statement which I have excerpted above is a courageous act of faith on the part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Southern Africa during the apartheid era. Called the Belhar Confession, it was formally adopted by the denomination in 1986 as a theological confrontation of the sin of racism. 

Somewhere along the way, many of us adopted the notion that discipleship is risk-free and the gospel anemic. Truth be told, the good news of Jesus and His teachings are dangerous and revolutionary. It calls us to quiet activism, to sacrificial hospitality, and extravagant love.

The body of Christ, connected to Christ the head, is a reconciled and reconciling community. It’s counter-cultural power for good whispers quietly, and many people, even believers, fail to hear its call.

I declare my independence from rancorous diatribes filling today’s social interaction.

I reject the accusatory barbs by Christians, as anti-Christian.

I affirm love which has not lost sight of truth.

I decry divisive prejudice while honoring distinct cultures and views.

I appreciate protest for the “other,” but see greater hope in true friendship with another who is different.

If you would like to read the entire Belhar Confession, click here.
As a good resource for moving forward in reconciliation, see Roadmap to Reconciliation, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil here.

Is God Stirring Your Heart?

15 06 2020

I have had a few conversations with people who have not experienced very much frustration with the shelter-in-place restrictions. Introverts rather love it. But there is another group that have adapted well — those who had already chosen a lifestyle of simplicity, family together, sacrifice, and so forth.

Is that you?

A question arose in me for the first time:

>>>Just as a sacrificial lifestyle has prepared many for pandemic restrictions, is God using those same restrictions to prepare believers for a more sacrificial lifestyle?

As always,

  • Satan intends to spread evil.
  • The fallen condition of humanity has brought discrimination and violence.
  • Disease has threatened with sickness and death.
  • But God is on the move to take these evils and turn them into good.

>>Could it be that one of those good outcomes is the stirring of hearts for more devoted service for our King?

Is this a time to make a significant change of direction? Is God tapping you on the shoulder to invest the rest of your life in His Kingdom venture?

This has happened to me twice.

As a 19-year-old student at Biola University, my career ambition was to be an architect. But God confronted me with the challenge to let my calling as a disciple change my occupational goal. So I altered my direction and majored in Bible and went on to Dallas Seminary.

Later when I was 36, I was pastoring a wonderful church in Arcadia, California. I loved the people and, believe it or not, they loved me and my family. But that tap on the shoulder came again. I knew that 100 pastors would love to assume my role as senior pastor of a growing and unified church. But I was challenged by a missionary friend with the fact that few were willing to go to Africa. So we began to pray and over a few months’ time, we were not only willing to go, we felt we would have missed a grand adventure of faith if we didn’t. So off to Kenya for ten years we went.

“For such a time as this”

You may be in precisely the place God wants you to be and stay. You are already “on mission” right where you are. If that’s the case, stay put and stick with it.

Or you may be out of work and struggling to make ends meet. You may be fighting a health battle that has come your way, and that is your full-time assignment. You may be happy to have a job, any job, and it is taking everything you have. Your mission is to be faithful and content right where you are.

But I suspect that this email is going to land in the inbox of someone who is feeling God’s tap on the shoulder.

You have a good example to follow.

A beautiful Israeli woman named Esther found herself in Persia during a time of global upheaval. Her people were subjugated, yet she was selected as queen of Persia. Through a series of conniving events, a genocide of all Jews was ordered. Only the king could rescind the decree, and only Queen Esther could possibly change her husband’s mind. Esther’s uncle asked her to go uninvited before the king, even though it meant her very life was at risk.

In summoning Esther to this highest of callings, her uncle said,

“Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14b).

Esther’s willingness to see herself as a part of God’s greater plan gave her courage to make a life-altering decision. She went to the king, and God brought deliverance to her people and judgment on wicked perpetrators.

Just as I wrote earlier that we are in an “evil day,” I also believe we are in a day of opportunity. And it is urgent. I cannot tell you how many people have told me they wish they had heeded a call they had from God earlier in life. But they held back and failed to listen, share, and pursue. And other concerns swallowed up their calling.

So I ask you to consider:
>>Is there anyone else who could do your job?
>>What is the more difficult work that few are willing to tackle?
>>If you don’t take the challenge now, when will you?

>>And if you put it off much longer, will you look back on your life and wonder what might have been?

Average people want to return to what was. Extraordinary people want to see what could be.

Sometimes courage shows up in helping others see their place in history, like Mordecai did for Esther. Parents and grandparents are one of the biggest obstacles to young families fulfilling their bold callings. Your greatest sacrifice may be to give permission and blessing. To mentor, pray, give, and release. It’s not too late. Ten affirming words from you could unlock a young dream.

I have not specified kinds of ministry in this reflection. A missional lifestyle is possible and needed on the street where you live and on the continent far away. That’s why we need prayer and godly counsel to gain clarity. That’s why we pay attention to God-given burdens and passions. That’s why we heed the “advice” of physical health, family needs, experiences and competencies. That’s why we heed the signs of our times, and notice new stirrings.

Who knows whether you are reading this today, for such a time as this.

Walking in the Armor of God

11 06 2020

These days there is an upsurge of interest and effort for justice, especially on behalf of African-Americans. Social media, protest marches, and charitable initiatives are focused on bringing change in society — much needed change. I support efforts to bring greater fairness and opportunity to all.

But what if the impossible happened? What if every American had equal income and opportunity? What if there were no urban poor or chronic poverty? Would we then have the just and peaceful society all long for? I don’t think so. 

All the equal opportunity initiatives imaginable would not rid society of prejudice and clinging to privilege. Why? Because our propensity for sin and selfishness would still reside within our nature.

Where must we do the work that can bring real change?

In our Ephesian study, we’ve seen that our real enemy is not other people but the evil forces which inflame wickedness. We’ve looked at each of the elements of the armor of God. All seven elements bring in the good kingdom of Jesus and maintain His ultimate authority over the kingdom of evil.

The armor of God tells us what He is like.
He sends us out to promote truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God. Ours is a God who wants the best for the world and all who dwell on it.

What would the armor of Satan look like and what kind of world are his soldiers fighting to create? Falsehood, wickedness, violence, shame, eternal lostness, and lies.

How vital that we put on the whole armor of God to withstand this destructive strategy of the evil one! 

But how do we actually walk out this amazing armor teaching?
With all the imagery about shields, kingdom, swords, principalities, and so on, how do we actually suit up in Jesus’ victory and engage in His battle?

Is this something best left to expert practitioners in spiritual warfare prayer — who gather in a room with someone oppressed by evil and exorcise the demons? I don’t think so. Paul’s epistle seems to teach the armor of God as knowledge needed by common believers.

I believe it is perfectly okay and helpful to begin each day by putting on the armor of God in prayer. For example, “Lord, I want to put on truth like a belt today. As I go through the day, help me to speak only true words. Help me recognize falsehood and reject it.”

That’s a great way to pray through all the elements of the armor, But there is a lot more to living this out. 

Deeds, Words, Thoughts, Heart, God

Let’s start with actions and work back to where actions ultimately come from. Proceeding backwards…

5. Finally, DEEDS.  Just do it. That is, act out the elements of the armor. Go through your day and tell the truth. Do righteous, holy things. Bring peace. Have faith. Rejoice in your salvation. Study and share God’s Word. Live obediently to all Jesus commanded.

4. Before deeds, watch your WORDS.  Your good deeds can be hijacked by evil words. So speak as God would want you to speak. Zip your lip unless the words are pure, right, and honorable.

3. Before that, direct your THOUGHTS.  Your words follow your thoughts. If you don’t think it, you likely won’t say it. In prayer as a lifestyle, renew your mind. Wicked, lustful thoughts will become strangers to us.

2. Before that, stir your HEART.  The mind won’t be renewed in holiness unless the heart longs for our holy God. Your prayer life can take you into yearning for God. As your longing and love for God increases, your heart will change. Your desire for worldly things will decrease. The rulers of this world will be forced to let go of you.

1. First and foremost, acknowledge GOD as your source.  You and I are unable to truly desire God ourselves. We can only long for Him in response to His love for us. No one seeks God. We’re too self-centered. So we must begin with openness to believe that God is, and receive whatever love He shows us. It all starts with God.

Clearly, putting on the armor of God is not an optional accessory for a few believers. Rather, it is the essential Christian life portrayed in a way that reveals the wicked forces which want us all to fail.

Let’s pursue a lifestyle of prayer which proceeds from God, heart, thoughts, words, to deeds.Walking in the armor starts with the heart that incessantly prays,

“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“Lord, I know you are here. I believe You see me. Draw me near to Your side and give me deeper longing for You.”

Confronting an “evil day”

5 06 2020

As a human family, we are passing through truly unprecedented times with the onslaught of Covid-19.  Some countries are experiencing catastrophic consequences, especially in crowded, poor communities.

On the heels of pandemic came the outpouring of frustration and anger triggered by the senseless killings of three African-Americans in U.S. cities. Protests, burning, and looting has ensued.

Few would disagree that we are living in an “evil day.”  Paul wrote, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph.6:13).

An evil day

  • can be a season, a period of time
  • must be withstood by the people of God
  • is an unusual outbreak of evil against good
  • is connected to, and likely sourced from the rulers of darkness of our age
  • is likened to the wiles (or schemes) of the devil
  • it is resisted and overcome using the whole armor of God

As we saw in the previous study (What’s the real battle?), ultimately the evil day is caused not by people but the wicked forces or spirits which propel them.

Since it is a spiritual battle involving spiritual weapons, we need to know this: 

What are the elements of the armor and what do each of them accomplish?

Some expositors make much of the individual pieces of armor, and liken them to the battle gear of Roman soldiers. There is emphasis too on the body parts that are protected, such as the head and heart. I want to focus on the spiritual impact and necessity of each element, and why they are so vital in extending Christ’s victory and rule.

1. THE ENTIRE ARMOR IS NEEDED. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (6:11).  Note, it is possible to defeat the devil! Victory is possible in the evil day, and every day. This instruction about battle should not cause us to fear, but to fight. We may be vulnerable, but God is invincible.

Paul is going to proceed to mention seven specific armor elements, but I am convinced that they are suggestive of the fact that in Christ we have absolutely everything at our disposal that we could possibly need, beginning with our position in Christ as beloved and blessed (recall our study, Cascade of blessings).

2. WITHSTAND, AND STAND. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (6:13). If you are outdoors when a strong wind rises, you are wise if you brace yourself for the gusts. You withstand.

An evil day, such as the one we are in, requires special withstanding. We must be spiritually alert, watching for the wicked intentions of principalities, and calling believers to stand guard for Jesus’ cause. And having resisted, we must maintain our ground with vigilance.

3. TRUTH, LIKE A WAIST BELT.  “having girded your waist with truth” (6:14)

As Paul earlier wrote, “speaking the truth in love.“(4:15) Truth counters “dissensions, heresies” false witness, theft, fraud, etc. (Gal.5:20)

4. RIGHTEOUSNESS, AS A BREASTPLATE. “having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (6:14)

We were chosen to be “holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph.1:4). As such, we fight adultery, drunkenness, and revelries.

5. THE GOSPEL OF PEACE, AS FOOT WEAR. “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (6:15)

Jesus brought peace, removing enmity between Jew and Gentile. Peace overcomes hatred, bigotry and violence. True peace is not a covering over of simmering hatred, but is true reconciliation which brings inner oneness with the other.

6. FAITH, AS A SHIELD. “above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (6:16)

The wicked one launches “fiery darts” of doubt, jealousy, and outbursts of wrath (Gal.5:20). Faith quenches these flaming assaults.

7. SALVATION, AS A HELMET. “And take the helmet of salvation” (6:17)

Evil principalities tempt us with idolatry, despair, sorcery selfish ambition, and murder. But in salvation, both in being born again, and progressively throughout life, we are delivered.

8. THE WORD OF GOD, AS A SWORD.  “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17)

We possess the word of truth given to us and written down, we hear from the Spirit of God in our ongoing relationship with Him. And we speak the truth as a part of our warfare.

9. PRAYER, AS THE HEART TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY. “praying always…” (6:18ff)

Without prayer, we lose touch with our Master and therefore lose sight of the victory we are promised. Prayer keeps us “watchful.” By prayer we persevere. And by prayer we reach out to encourage all saints everywhere. Prayer gives boldness to speak, even when imprisoned. The relationship with God maintained through prayer energizes every element of our armor.

What does it look like for you to intentionally put on these elements and confront this evil day?