Relationship – not Religion

When we look at the history of The Church, we expect to see examples of genuine passion for the Gospel of Christ. And we do. But we see so many other, lesser things as well. Through the centuries, The Church has been used to advance many personal agendas and wage countless bloody wars. The words of some prophets-so-called were less about Christ and more about self-promotion or ideological propaganda. 

Some social reformers and oppressors will wear the authority of The Church the way hunters don camouflage, farmers pull on coveralls, or surgeons wear masks. For them, The Church serves a purpose. Its mention disguises the work in progress or protects the worker from contamination. When the desired goal is achieved, the garb is discarded. It was never central to the purpose at all.

The history of faith is riddled with this sort of abuse. That is regrettable, because it detracts from the intensity of the beauty of genuine faith-inspired transformation. The Church will change any society it touches, but not every change perpetrated in the name of The Church was the work of the members of that mystical body. Affiliation with some denominationally sanctioned structure [or one of its non-denominational cousins] has never made any person a member of The Church. That spiritual connection is the outworking of a relationship with the Church’s Founder and Finisher.

To the world, the church is an impure and marginally reliable source of aid and information. While it might upset some to hear me say so, I stand in agreement with that reading. I am not the judge of people’s hearts, but I know full well that some who come in the name of The Church are not, and never have been, spiritually connected with Jesus. Even those of us who apply our strength and our intellect to walking humbly before the Lord sometimes misstep or mis-think. God is perfect, but we are not.

I do not spend a great deal of energy correcting those who, with the best of intentions, make mistakes in the Lord’s name. One greater than I will see to their refinement. I do pray for discernment to see through the masks of malicious charlatans whose purpose in claiming the name of The Church is to draw good-hearted folk away from the Word and to dis-empower the Gospel preached among us. Enemies of the truth cannot be friends of God.     

Not every voice that claims to speak for God speaks the truth. It is the nature of evil to bend the truth and warp the message. When the truth is offended, it is the enemy who is at the gate, even if the speaker is wearing the guise of The Church. God send us Christians in name and in truth.

Many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will mislead many… At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.

Selected words of Jesus from Matthew 24

The Valley of the Shadow

Covid 19 is real. I have seen it close up, and I have watched it create an annoyance for some, and a devastation for others. Yes, the death rate is small, but the infection rate is huge, and with new strains, it is even more pervasive. Yes, it has been politicized, as has nearly every other aspect of the human experience in this generation addicted to divisiveness, but it is experienced at a more basic level than political affiliation or lack thereof.

I know people for whom life has been significantly altered by this virus. A loved one was taken. Nest eggs have been shattered. Acute symptoms have become chronic. Family dynamics have been crippled. One friend has recovered, but without a sense of taste or smell. He now looks at the table spread with his favorites and tries to remember the simple joy of a good meal.

Yes, we are all weary to the bone from dealing with this sickness. Yes, the anger that rages between the mask Nazis and the rabid anti-maskers grinds us down as much as the virus itself. I am so tired of people yelling at each other as if any of us had the power to stop this thing down with our anemic efforts. I cannot count the number of times I have watched people in stores and restaurants handle their masks improperly. I know that they are compromising any effectiveness the mask would offer to them or to me. Still, I don my mask to increase their comfort level, and go about my business. Why would I antagonize them further?

We are doing the best we can. These are hard times for most of us. Can we not offer each other a bit of kindness? If misery loves company, let us at least commiserate.

Are better days ahead? I hope so. I pray so. On some level, I believe so, at least for most of us. But not for some. Take time today to consider the fear in a neighbor’s eyes and offer that neighbor some consolation. Look looming poverty square in the face and wound it by sharing with others. We are a community, even in this fragile time. With all the pressure to stand apart and forgo the simple tonic of human touch, can we not offer some modicum of compassion?

Today, find the time and opportunity to brighten someone’s day. We are all in this same valley, walking in this same shadow. Catch sight of the Good Shepherd and offer what comfort you can in His name. It will do you good. Indeed, a little kindness will refresh us all.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

David’s Shepherd’s Song – Psalm 23 – NASB
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The Value of a Life

What is the value of a human life? How is that worth assessed, and can its value be altered? Is every life of equal value, and if not, why not?

Most people say they believe that every human life is of equal value. But saying what we believe is a far cry from living it out. If we infer people’s true beliefs from their behavior, we soon realize that most folks value some lives more than others. For some, the rich are of greater value than the poor. Why not? They have more buying power and can impact more lives. For others, the intelligent are of greater value than the simple. Are they not? The future is shaped by their thinking and acting. Others see the skilled as more valuable than the unskilled. Of course! Without them we are thrown back to chasing our lunch with sticks and stones.

We may espouse a doctrine of equal worth, but we live as if each person falls somewhere along a value continuum. I am of greater or lesser value based on my potential or capacity for impact. You matter in the scheme of things to the extent that you can change or maintain the quality of the community around you. We are not equal in each other’s eyes, though we are in each other’s words.

God help us. We have forgotten that the image of God is set in the core of every human life. From the helpless unborn about to begin the journey of life to the aged who have lost the capacity to perform the simplest acts of self-care, we are all of sacred worth, not because of anything we can do or any power we wield, but simply because we are.

Can this value be eroded? Can it be lost altogether? We cannot be robbed of this worth, but we surely can sell it or give it away. If we are so foolish as to deny our signature place in creation, whether in a grab for power or a misguided attempt to elevate the balance of the natural order, we cheapen ourselves and deny the intrinsic value of others.

Let us live into our worth. Let us recognize who we are and whom we represent. Let us refuse to be reduced to serving things that have no life in them, or to following the examples of those who have become morally impoverished for the sake of fiscal plenty. It is not just our worth at stake, after all. When we have passed off the scene, our shadow or light will persist. Let us be less than content to speak the truth – let us live out the truth in the lives we lead. Let us value every spark of life and work to improve the lot of every person who crosses our path. 

Surely, I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.

(God to Noah in Genesis 9:5-6 NASB)

What do you See?

Stop and think this morning. What do you see in your head when you think of a person who affirms the authority of the Christian Scripture? If an individual believes that people’s philosophy and behavior can and should be conformed to the will of God as expressed in the life of Jesus Christ, how do you perceive that individual?

Sometimes we get confused on this issue, and that confusion is, I am afraid, contrived. There are people out there who are not above the deliberate bending of public opinion against others whose only symptom of antisocial behavior is that they embrace a belief-set that differs from the speakers’. Such speakers are enemies of peace who bend the truth, and they have two camps of prey. They victimize those on whom they focus their propaganda, and they victimize the people who innocently believe them. Such people are at least liars and at worst verbal terrorists. They are also lost souls, and because of that I pray for them.

What have you been programmed to see when you hear terms like evangelical or traditionalist? Do you see white sheets, cone shaped hats and burning crosses? Do you see barbed wire enclosures with armed guards protecting a fringe group from non-existent governmental persecution? Do you imagine lily-white hate-mongers who hold midnight meetings to keep their neighborhoods safe from border crossings?

Open your eyes. See your neighbor who volunteers to serve soup at the homeless shelter. See local businesspeople and laborers who pay their taxes, trade solid work for fair wages and donate time and money to enrich their public schools. Watch as people of every race and hue join hands and hearts to worship the God who reigns over us all. See people who spend time on their knees in prayer for their enemies and would rather absorb a thousand insults than raise their hand against those who call them violent.

Yes, if you look hard enough you will find extremists scattered through every human expression of faith and philosophy, but to define an entire category of people by its worst example is dishonest.

Do not let the enemies of the faithful confuse you. Do not fall into the trap of stereotyping the Bible believing Christian as a racist or confuse the humble followers of a sovereign God with fringe groups who hi-jack the faith. Let us all be honest in our arguments. Let us refrain from misleading and extreme statements. Let us walk in kindness and compassion and recognize each other’s deep desire to do good and live into the grace of the Kingdom of God.

I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh… The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Paul in Galatians 5:16, 22-23 NASB

Mercy and Accountability

There is great power in simple confession. It is amazing how liberating it can be to come clean and accept responsibility for mistakes made and good works left undone. Of course, it matters a great deal to whom one confesses and what response follows the confession. Confession to a critical, judgmental, or litigious person or group compounds problems rather than resolving them. The same confession made to a person or gathering of persons who have embraced their own imperfection and understand the joy of reconciliation with God and the Church, produces a flow of forgiveness and acceptance that disempowers the sin and permits the repentant sinner to make purposeful restitution to anyone who has been harmed by the acts or inaction being confessed.

Among our responsibilities as a gathering of the Church is the belief in and practice of mercy and grace. Because we live in the atmosphere of Christ’s mercy, we forgive. Because we are filled with Christ’s grace, we encourage each other, and empower them to move past old failures to new success. Actions [and inaction] have repercussions and consequences. Sin scars. But the gift of confession is that the consequences do not compound. Scars are always preferable to festering wounds.

If the congregation with which we fellowship is loving, forgiving and healing – let us confess our faults and be healed. If our gathering is not loving, forgiving and healing – let us confront that systemic sin and lead each other in the direction of Kingdom thinking. We are all sinners. We can all be forgiven and restored.

If we are seeking to connect with a congregation, let us give that quality – the practice of mercy and grace – a high priority. A congregation may have a comfortable setting, high quality music and an eloquent speaker, but in that place is the Gospel actively speaking out to recognize sin and gently, patiently, move us away from it? If not, walk on by.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.

James 5:16 (New Living Translation)