Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?

If we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus.

I watched the Chapelstreet church service today and listened to the sermon by Jeff Frazier in Batavia, IL. It was just what I needed to hear. Not that it tills new ground; it covers familiar ground from a new angle. It avoids the ruts of old, tired ways of thinking and finds fresh new ground (for me) from which to approach how we see Jesus.

The sermon today was inspired by Matthew 9:9-13.[i] You can read it in full at the endnote below. In summary, Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth where he was sitting to follow him, and Matthew responded by following him. That was the extent of the initial story

Then Scripture jumps to another scene: Jesus reclining at a table with “many tax collectors and sinners”. We are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the interim. It could be that Matthew invited all his friends, who were naturally other tax collectors and “sinners”, to met Jesus who had just connected with him.

The focus of the new scene, though, isn’t on Matthew anymore. The focus shifts to the Pharisees who ask the disciples why Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.

Before I describe how Jesus responded to them, I want to focus on the fact that the people who had a problem with Jesus were the religious people. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people according to the religious insiders of his day.

This is nothing new. I have written often about the Pharisees, Jesus and tax collectors and sinners. In fact, I wrote on the same subject just two weeks ago. (The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today)

It isn’t a new thing to realize Jesus defied categorization; he shattered expectations and common ways of thinking. He challenged everyone he met to see the world differently, but we sometimes forget the radicalness of Jesus in our routine orthodoxy.

I dare say, if we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus!

Back to the story: in First Century Judea, tax collectors were traitors and sell-outs. They were Hebrews who collected taxes for the Romans and used the authority of the Roman occupiers of the Hebrew Promised Land to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were hated by good Jews. They were outsiders in their own community.

As outsiders, they naturally associated with other outsiders (“sinners”). Thus, for Jesus to establish a relationship with Matthew – and worse than that: to “hang out” with other tax collectors and “sinners” – was scandalous. It was unthinkable!

When Jesus heard the Pharisees challenge the disciples to explain why Jesus was associating with “such people”, Jesus famously responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:12-13

This is a familiar passage to us, but I think the application of the message is sometimes lost on us today. I think we can fall into the trap of the Pharisees in our thinking without even realizing it. Thus, we need to be challenged to see things from a different angle, just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the first century.

Again, these are not new thoughts, but the the change of perspective (for me) comes courtesy of Paul G. Hiebert. Born to missionary parents in India, he became “arguably, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”.[ii]

When he moved back to the west, he wrestled with questions like these: What does it mean for an illiterate, Hindu peasant to know Jesus? How much of their old life and traditions must be left behind?

Having observed missionaries in India, he concluded that the western mission movement was importing too many western traditions and thoughts. He saw the need for thinking outside the western box – like Jesus encouraged the followers of his day to think outside the box…. or rather, outside the circle, as we will see.

Continue reading “Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?”

Listening While White: Respecting the Image of God in People of Color

Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people.

I feel like I need to begin this with a request to “hear me out” (at the risk of appearing apologetic). I am a white, evangelical Christian. The title recognizes who I am. I realize as I wade out into these waters that they are treacherous today. Many are the rocks on which ships with good intentions have been dashed.

Should I even have to say that people of color bear the image of God? I shouldn’t have to say it, but I feel I need to say it nevertheless. Why?

That impulse, alone, signals to me that something is not quite right.

I just read that slavery is “the original sin of the United States”. It colors our past (pun very much intended). It continues to leave its imprint on the present. I have to admit to finding some truth in that statement.

Obviously, race is the subject of this article. But not just race. I am writing about Christianity, generally, and the church universal and global.

If any group ought to be able to speak with wisdom into the race issues that we continue to face, it should be the Church, right? Yet, we see as much segregation in the church as a whole as we do in society.

Spoiler alert. God has been orchestrating the entire course of human history from the beginning to this end:

“A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….”

Revelations7:9

This is God’s endgame. Are we onboard with the plan?

This is the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers. (John 17:20-23) Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people. (Eph. 2:14) God began working though His Holy Spirit toward His endgame soon after Jesus died and rose again, working through Paul and the disciples to break down the wall between Jew and Gentile. (See Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius)

We won’t participate in achieving the unity for which Jesus prayed without recognizing the big picture – the kingdom of God – and the foundation on which we all stand – Jesus. Given the purposeful prayer of Jesus for unity among his followers, disunity that exists in the Church means we have failed in some way to focus on the things that should unify us. We have allowed differences that shouldn’t matter to divide us.

If the endgame includes people “from every nation, tribe, people and language”, then we should not allow those kinds of differences, at least, to divide us. Racial matters should be a non-issue. We should be one in Christ, right?

Continue reading “Listening While White: Respecting the Image of God in People of Color”

To Be Known and to Fully Know God is the Great Purpose of Our Lives

To whom does God say, “Depart from me. I never knew you?”

Have you ever wondered who are the people to whom God may say, “I never knew you; depart from me”?[1] If you are like me, those words ring ominously. We might be tempted to gloss over them, because they are uncomfortable to consider, but there they are.

These words contrast with the verse that inspires this article, which informs the title to this blog piece. But first, I want to focus briefly on people whom God never knew. Jesus described them for us.

They are people who prayed to God, “Lord, Lord.” They are people who prophesied in God’s name. They are people who cast out demons and even did “mighty works” in God’s name. They are highly religious people, but they didn’t “do the will of the Father who is in heaven”. (Matt. 7:23)

What does that mean?

For starters, it means that religiosity is not a ticket to heaven. Public piety is not anything that impresses God; if anything, it may even be repulsive to Him.[2]

Power and influence and doing things that amaze people, even if done in God’s name, are not keys to heaven.  An eloquent speaker who can bring people to tears and repentance is not, thereby, assured of any place in God’s kingdom. The prophet and the teacher who speak the very word of God are not, by virtue of the gift of prophecy or knowledge, assured of eternity with God.

In the “Love Chapter” of the Bible (1 Corinthians 13), Paul says,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

These realities are at once sobering and liberating. Nothing we can “practice” or do will propel us into God’s heaven. We are saved by grace, though faith, of course (Eph. 2:8-9), but even faith that can move mountains is of no gain to us by itself.

And here is the kicker – not even sacrifice, not even the sacrifice of our own bodies, by itself gains us anything.

David knew this when he said, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” (Ps. 51:16)

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Laying one’s life down might be considered a sacrifice, yes; but it done out of love it is more than merely a sacrifice. It isn’t the act itself that is important, but the motivation, the inspiration, the desire behind the act that matters.

Jesus is the ultimate example of love. When he sacrificed himself for our sakes, he didn’t do it to earn some heavenly brownie points. He gave himself for us out of love for us. He gave himself to us for our benefit. This is love, which focuses not one the benefit of the sacrifice to himself, but on the benefit for other another.

“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) Legalism and fundamentalism and dogmatism and doctrine and theology can never save a person. It doesn’t matter how much we do, or how much we know, or how accurate our understanding is when we have not love.

God, who we are to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24), is love.[3] All the Law and the Prophets are summarized in this one statement: Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:40) Thus, Paul says,

But if anyone loves[4] God, he is known by God.

1 Corinthians 8:3 ESV

This is the verse that got me thinking about these things today. If you love God, you are known by God. The people of whom God will say, “Depart from Me; I never knew you”, are people who don’t really love God. Their motivation was wrong.

Continue reading “To Be Known and to Fully Know God is the Great Purpose of Our Lives”

Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family

Some values evident in the original church family have been lost over the years in western culture


Rebecca McLaughlin, in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, made an observation that inspires my article today. I make references to many people, often the same people over and over again, who inspire my thoughts. I am indebted to the many serious Christian thinkers who have plowed ground that make it easy for me to walk the paths after them.

About a third of the way into the ninth chapter (Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?), she talks about loneliness and singles in the church. She strikes some real gold – some nuggets lost in our modern culture. I’m afraid that we have developed traditions over the years in the west that have plowed under values that once informed the early church.

A tradition of rugged individualism and self determination that is, perhaps, unrivaled anywhere in the world, is inbred into our American culture. Our suburban lifestyle is uniquely American, with our manicured lawns separated from our neighbors by fences and hedges. These are, perhaps, the gentrified vestiges of the farmstead claims staked by American pioneers against world, enemies and neighbors alike.

We circle the wagons today around the family unit, which has increasingly come under “attack” from secular constructs of village-raised children and re-imagined, more inclusive family structures to fit changing societal mores. These things changes have caused conservatives and Christians to double down on the traditional, American family construct.

Traditional, though, is normative, and norms change. Not more than 150 years ago families looked different than they do today. In fact, they looked a little more like the modern family than the average person might realize.

From not long after the first generations of New World immigrants came ashore, families and communities of families began to migrate, drifting south, west and sometimes north, clearing areas for homesteads. The ever changing family compositions can be traced from one decennial census to the next. Not may households remained static from one census to another.

My father, who researches genealogies, shines some historical light on the norms of the frontier movement in writing books about those migrations. From census to census to census, the story is told.

Family units were ever changing in combination of husbands, wives, children (both minors and adults). Family often included a grandparent, niece or nephew, neighbor or border. Children were born; children died; children moved away and moved back. Spouses died. They we replaced by new spouses or neighbors who helped with the children and then became spouses… or not.

One of the main challenges of doing genealogical research through the 19th Century is in determining the relationships of all the people in those from one decennial census to another and tracing the changes from decade to decade.

The Industrial Revolution began to change the composition of family units into more static and defined structures that eventually became the “traditional” American family.

What we assume to be the traditional family unit today is of relatively recent vintage. The Little House on the Prairie is more of a sentimental, re-imagining of the way it was than history. Even then, we get a hint of the interdependence of community that was much more intimate than our anemic sense of community today. This is true even with greater distance separating homesteads than a thin veil of fences and hedges distinguishing suburban lots.

The distance that separates people in modern western life, however, might as well be miles. We live as if we don’t need our neighbors, and we largely don’t even know them. Those fences and hedges might as be walls.

In that sense, the observation that McLaughlin makes reveals the back-filled soil of modern western culture that covers an ancient value that has been plowed under in the process of all those years of western development.

Continue reading “Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family”

Where Is God in the Messiness of the Church?

I have never participated in a perfect church and have never met a perfect person, yet I believe in a God who is perfect and who is perfecting us, His people.


Toward understanding and healing the wounds of the church, I write this blog piece. The context is the very public struggles of two mega-churches in the Chicago are where I live. Last year, Bill Hybels resigned as the head of Willow Creek Church, after allegations of misconduct came to light. Just today I read about James MacDonald deciding to step down from leadership of the Harvest Bible Church in the wake of a lawsuit and allegations of poor leadership.

The two situations are different, though they both involve allegations against longtime leaders of two of the largest and most prominent churches in the Chicago area. Bill Hybels is accused of inappropriate relationships with women in the church. MacDonald is accused of mismanagement of money, heavy-handed leadership and related allegations. Both situations expose the nature of the human side of the church and the prevalence of sin in the church, even at the leadership level. (The Catholic Church is not alone in this respect.)

In the 1980’s, I became involved in a church that I thought, at the time, was the “perfect” church. It was a vibrant engaging church community. Worship was spirit-led and dynamic. The leadership was charismatic and inspiring. The church community was tight-knit and familial. This church had planted many other churches that were also thriving and growing. I spent 6 years there and knew the church intimately.

It wasn’t as perfect as I first thought, of course. People are people, even people who go to church. Within a year of my leaving to pursue what I believed God was directing me to do next, the church was splintering, disintegrating and falling apart. My pastor, the man who married my wife and I, divorced his wife within a few years of our leaving. Neither he nor his wife are involved in a church today (as far as I know).

We were devastated. This was over 25 years ago, and it still puzzles me. The coming apart at the seams of this church that I viewed as a model of what churches should be impacted me more than I would care to admit.

I realize now that I had invested more of my spiritual capital in the church and its leaders than I should have.

A friend of mine, a fellow church-goer, has been struggling with issues in his church – the leadership in particular. I have listened to him, recognizing the disappointment and disillusionment in his voice. Though I don’t know the details of the issues he has had with the leadership, I do know that he feels cut adrift; he is hurt; his faith is shaken. He has stopped going to church. He isn’t sure he can trust Christians anymore, and he is struggling to make sense of his experience. I can relate.

We left the last church we attended because of leadership, trust and personality differences that affected the people to whom we were closest in that church. Our friends were financially and personally hurt by leadership in the church. We felt we needed to stand with our friends and support them as they drifted away from the church, unable to remain in a church led by people who could not be trusted with their spiritual well being.

These are just the experiences I have had, but I don’t think I am alone in having difficult and painful experiences in churches and with the leadership of churches. Church is a messy business.

Many people turn away from the church and even from Christianity because of similar experiences. How many times have you heard someone say they don’t go to church because Christians are hypocrites? And the fact is that Christians are hypocrites!

But that shouldn’t be the end of the story.

Continue reading “Where Is God in the Messiness of the Church?”