THE GOSPEL GRACE OF WELCOMING (4)

How Embracing Others with Differences of Conscience Protects Church Unity

The New Testament prescribes many principles aimed at the need to excel in preserving unity in the church (Eph. 4:1-3). One very important such command involves embracing in love those who differ with us in the so-called “gray areas” of the Christian life.

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I first introduced this issue in post #1.

In post #2, I treated the gist of welcoming–Paul’s antidote for unity-destroying judging in the body.

In post #3, I covered the two-fold ground of welcoming: the gospel of God and the judgment of God.

In this final post, I want to conclude with the goal of welcoming–the glory of God.

Remember the climatic verse in Rom. 15:7?

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.

This connects back to the benediction Paul inserts in Rom. 15:5-6.

[5] May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, [6] that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice the therefore in v. 7.

In light of Paul’s prayer for them for God’s gift of endurance to live in harmony that they may with one voice glorify–magnify, make to look great–the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore welcome one another.

As one writer put it, the neighbors are watching. A welcoming, receiving, taking to one another, embracing spirit toward especially those who differ with us on some of these thorny issues speaks volumes in credit to the praise and glory of God before a watching world.

Paul does not nearly concern himself as much with who’s right or wrong. That’s not the point. It’s how we treat one another. His preeminent concern is that we guard the peace, unity and harmony of the community.

At the Promise Keepers Pastor’s Conference in the Georgia Dome some years ago, I actually heard Max Lucado share this piece he wrote:

God has enlisted us in his navy and placed us on his ship. The boat has one purpose-to carry us safely to the other shore. This is no cruise ship; it’s a battleship. We aren’t called to a life of leisure; we are called to a life of service. Each of us has a different task. Some concerned with those who are drowning, are snatching people from the water. Others are occupied with the enemy, so they man the cannons of prayer and worship. Still others devote themselves to the crew, feeding and training the crew members.

Though different, we are the same. Each can tell of a personal encounter with the captain, for each has received a personal call. He found us among the shanties of the seaport and invited us to follow him. Our faith was born at the sight of his fondness, and so we went. We each followed him across the gangplank of his grace onto the same boat. There is one captain and one destination. Though the battle is fierce, the boat is safe, for our captain is God. The ship will not sink. For that, there is no concern.

There is concern, however, regarding the disharmony of the crew. When we first boarded we assumed the crew was made up on others like us. But as we’ve wandered these decks, we’ve encountered curious converts with curious appearances. Some wear uniforms we’ve never seen, sporting styles we’ve never witnessed. “Why do you look the way you do?” we ask them.

“Funny,” they reply. “We were about to ask the same of you.” The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the plethora of opinions. There is a group, for example, who clusters every morning for serious study. They promote rigid discipline and somber expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they explain. It’s no coincidence that they tend to congregate around the stern. There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in prayer by kneeling. For that reason you always know where to locate them; they are at the bow of the ship.

And then there are a few who staunchly believe real wine should be used in the Lord’s Supper. You’ll find them on the port side. Still another group has positioned themselves near the engine. They spend hours examining the nuts and bolts of the boat. They’ve been known to go below deck and not come up for days. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their face. “It’s not what you learn,” those topside argue. “It’s what you feel that matters.”

And, oh, how we tend to cluster.

Some think once you’re on the boat, you can’t get off. Others say you’d be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours. Some believe you volunteer for service; others believe you were destined for the service before the ship was even built. Some predict a storm of great tribulation will strike before we dock; others say it won’t hit until we are safely ashore. There are those who speak to the captain in a personal language. There are those who think such languages are extinct. There are those who think the officers should wear robes, there are those who think there should be no officers at all, and there are those who think we are all officers and should all wear robes.

And, oh, how we tend to cluster.

And then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is thanked and his words are read. All agree on its importance, but few agree on its nature. Some want it loud, others quiet. Some want ritual, others spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate; others meditate so they can celebrate. Some want a meeting for those who’ve gone overboard. Others want to reach those overboard but without going overboard and neglecting those on board.

And, oh, how we tend to cluster.

The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out. Sailors have refused to speak to each other. There have even been times when one group refused to acknowledge the presence of others on the ship. Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board the boat because of the quarreling of the sailors. “What do we do?” we’d like to ask the captain. “How can there be harmony on the ship?” We don’t have to go far to find the answer.

On the last night of his life Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians:

I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching. Father, I pray that they can be one. As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me. (John 17:20)

How precious are these words. Jesus, knowing the end is near, prays one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it, that he prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness. He prayed for their unity. He prayed that they would love each other. As he prayed for them, he also prayed for “those who will believe because of their teaching.” That means us! In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one.

Say no to clustering. Say yes to welcoming.

On Asking Why

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For some reason I don’t usually. Ask the Lord why He lets me suffer like I am right now with my jaw, that is. Well, there was that time in 2005. I had finished cancer treatment with all its nausea and vomiting. My expectation that those symptoms would cease soon after the last chemo blast proved to be wishful thinking. One particularly violent episode turned into a flood of tears and a very loud “Why, Lord?” in my family room.

But for the most part, I’m not inclined to go there. Perhaps one reason lies in what I know the Bible teaches about God’s purposes in the trials He ordains for us. There’s a world of instruction in various texts to that end. For example, that we might grow in steadfastness which would have its perfect result—complete, lacking in nothing (Jas. 1:2-4). Or that we would be able to comfort others with the same comfort whereby we have been comforted by Jesus (2 Cor. 1:3-5). And that we get to identify with the Master in His sufferings because the servant is certainly no greater than He is (1 Pet. 2:21). I could go on.

Another reason for trials in our lives dawned on me recently with comforting intensity. In the middle of HBO2 dive #10, one of the nurse/techs engaged me about what kind if church I pastor. The Lord opened a door for the gospel so big, even I could drive a summary presentation of the good news through it! For once I had the presence of mind to make the most of the opportunity. I laid the truth in love on the man. It almost made my sentencing to hyperbaric oxygen prison palatable. Almost.

And then I thought of Paul’s attitude in Phil. 1:12-13. Writing from prison, here is how he framed his difficult circumstances:

 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.

Now I can’t say that it has become known throughout the whole of Florida Hospital that my treatment is for Christ, but to some extent it is becoming known in the deep wound unit that this is the case. Frankly, that took a good bit of the pain out of this preacher’s jaw that day. Have you considered the possibility that, among other reasons, one why for your trial involves God’s plan for your beautiful feet to bring the gospel of peace to someone in need?

The Power of Kindness

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I finished my day today with a visit to my atheist friend’s house in our neighborhood. Regretfully his wife is dying. Cancer has overrun her body, particularly her brain. Stupid disease. The extended family has camped out for the duration. Hospice has coached all concerned about what to expect. Her body is shutting down. It’s only a matter of time. Once again the the specter of death haunts my 2014, though not at my own doorstep in this particular situation. Sigh.

My wife found me a card this morning to express our sentiments. A small potted plant seemed an inadequate but at least well-meant token to present at the door. For thirty minutes I sat with my buddy with whom I have had numerous conversations about the gospel, at least to this point to no avail, along with his son, and just sought to be kind in loving my neighbor as myself and feeling the weight of their grief. At this point, having said just about all I think I can say in numerous lunches, I am banking on the power of kindness to carry the day in my relationship with this man, whether he ever believes in Jesus or not.

The apostle Paul extols the virtues of love in his well-known treatise on the subject in 1 Corinthians 13. As he begins to describe its qualities, he leads off in v. 4 this way: “Love is patient and kind.” While it seems some in my profession can occasionally forget it, and Lord knows I admit my share of failures in this regard, kindness as a virtue simply must characterize any pastor’s way of relating with others at every turn. Consider 2 Tim. 2:24 – “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone.” My sincere apologies to every one of you whom I have failed over the years in this respect.

As I was reading this evening a section of Alexander Strauch’s book, Leading with Love, I came across this illustration of the power of kindness. It comes from the life of St. Augustine who, in his book Confessions, testifies to the impact, even in his unconverted days, of the kindness shown him by the renowned preacher and bishop, Ambrose:

300px-Augustine_of_HippoThat “man of God” received me like a father and expressed pleasure at my coming with a kindness most fitting in a bishop. I began to like him, at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in your Church, but as a human being who was kind to me (Strauch, 2006, 45).

My dear friend has little to no confidence in my church, that is to say, our beliefs. I pray his confidence in my feeble attempts at kindness may one day lead to an Augustine-like transformation in his life.

Someone has said “kindness is love in work clothes.” Let’s get to work.

 

 

The Flourishing Life

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It was a delight to climb back into the pulpit at OGC this morning after our sabbatical. To get to preach again, particularly on a passage in Psalm 92 that so thoroughly expresses my desires for this next season in my life and ministry, gave me great pleasure. If you care to, you can access the audio here.

I blew through the the eight takeaways at the conclusion of the message. Someone in the body asked me for them. Decided it would make for an easy blog post. Here they are:

  1. One, offer praise to God as the tenor of your life.
  2. Two, gather with God’s people on the “Sabbath” and more. Be a fixture in God’s church. No fellowshipping, no flourishing. Be a churchman and churchwoman.
  3. Three, reject the lie of our materialistic culture and its flourishing-only-for-a-brief-while ways and invest in life-long flourishing commitments that will serve you well to the end of your days.
  4. Four, beware the American retirement dream in terms of having earned endless days in front of the TV or on the golf course. Have a robust theology of leisure to be sure but believe in “rehirement” not retirement. My thanks to David Sims for that play on words.
  5. Five, treasure a church body with multiple generations not just a bunch of folks your own age.
  6. Six, if you are young, badger some old saint until they own you in a mentoring, discipling kind of way. If you are old like me, give yourself away. Invest in the next generation. Declare that he is your Rock to all who come.
  7. Seven, speak up and announce the praise of God when given the chance. Regularly testify to His faithfulness.
  8. Eight, pray this text for me and the rest of our elders as long as you are a part of OGC. I beg of you.

SHOW & Tell

show_and_tell-1

Mega kudos to one of my alma maters. This fall, RTS Orlando sponsored something called “The Current Read.” They unpack their motivation this way:

We believe that the Christian community should be full of thoughtful readers. For this reason, we’ve created a book program called The Current Read that encourages not only our students, but others in the Orlando area, to read a book together, discussing the issues it raises and engaging the topic with the author at a “meet the author” event at the culmination of the program. Each fall, the library staff choose a thought-provoking book for the program and plan events to correspond with the reading.

When I received notice earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity. I ordered the current offering and RSVPd for the author meet-and-greet. That event occurred this morning in downtown Orlando. I happened to engage Mr. Douthat while grabbing a bite in the breakfast line. I asked if I could share something personal with him. He obliged. I proceeded to tell him that I read his thought-provoking book during my recent vacation in Idaho. In so many words, I encouraged him with my testimony of just how much wind the read blew into my pastoral sails. His book, along with other means, convicted me more than ever to hunker down and plow on in my role as a pastor of a confessional church in suburban Orlando where much of what he describes does indeed ail the church. He admitted how humbled he felt at such a notion. His autograph signing of my personal copy of Bad Religion revealed as much. Nice. I might have to start reading the New York Times.

As I listened to his remarks during breakfast, one thing above all stood out. He spoke very strongly about the need for the church of Jesus Christ in this day and age to do more showing than telling in order to win a hearing about its message. The deficit brought about by the preponderance of heresies masquerading as the real deal has so disenfranchised the average American that now more than ever more than not we have to show folks the real thing before we get to tell them about the real thing.

bridge building

My take away is this: bridge building into the culture is a big deal. Doing things like free-parking outreaches and craft fairs and whatever else we can come up with to connect with those outside the church is something we must make a priority as we continue to strive to bless our city and preach the gospel.

It’s time for show and tell with a heavy emphasis on show so we get to tell when God gives us opportunity. Covenant member at OGC – will you pray for the craft fair? Will you serve at the craft fair? Will you visit the craft fair or if not, will you plan to participate in the next available opportunity you have for bridge-building? Titus 3:1 says to be ready for every good work. Are we?

Live Like a Missionary (2)

In my first post by this title, I shared a list of things Tim Keller suggests in his book Center Church for engaging our neighbors with a missionary mindset.

In this followup post, I want to bring the list he suggests for engaging colleagues, coworkers, and friends.

  1. Do recreational activities with them – watch sports (live or on TV at home or in a nightspot); go to a theater show, museum exhibit, art gallery exhibit, etc.
  2. Invite them to join a sports league with you.
  3. Invite them to work out with you at a gym.
  4. Put together a movie night.
  5. Go out of your way to eat with them as often as possible. Invite people over for a meal in your apartment or home or just invite them out to try a new restaurant.
  6. Plan trips or outings – a trip to the beach, a historical site, etc.
  7. If the person has a skill or interest, ask them (sincerely!) to educate you.
  8. Organize a discussion group on something – politics, books, etc., inviting mainly non-Christians.

Last week I got to have lunch with one of my neighbors. We had a terrific conversation about his atheist beliefs. It was another important step in my life-on-life relationship with him toward an opportunity to share the gospel. I have invited him next week to catch a movie with me while Nancy visits with her Mom for her birthday.

Are you embracing your identity as an on-mission Christian by engaging the folks where you live, work, and pray? May Paul’s rally cry in 1 Cor. 6:19 be that of our own – woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel.

By the way, I learned today that about one quarter of all the volunteers signed up to serve at the Chinese Student Welcome Party this Saturday night are from OGC. Way to go, church!

Live Like a Missionary

Yesterday morning our church planter in Salerno, Italy, Jutty Valiquette gave a moving message from Daniel 7 entitled Missionary God, Missionary People. You can listen to the audio here.

Last night, in our monthly concert of prayer, I led off with a devotional from 1 Peter 2:9-10.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The connection between the two texts lies with the word proclaim. As missionaries of sorts in the places where we live, work, and play, God has made us His own for the purpose of humbly proclaiming the excellencies of Jesus to those who don’t know Him. A person with a gospel-shaped identity gets this and lives it out by God’s grace on an ongoing basis.

Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, comments:

Christians should  be engaged with others. Mission for a contextualized believer is a matter of everyday life–of developing nonsuperficial relationships with their neighbors, colleagues, and others in the city.

Then he goes on to offer practical, simple ways to do this with neighbors in particular:

  1. Take regular walks in your neighborhood to meet others who are out and about. Keep a regular schedule. Go to the same places at the same time for groceries, haircuts, coffee, shopping. This is one of the main ways you get to know those who live geographically near.
  2. Find ways to get to know others in your building or neighborhood–through a common laundry area, at resident meetings, and in numerous other ways [like neighborhood book clubs!]
  3. Find an avocation or hobby you can do with others in the city. For example, don’t form a Christian backpacking club, join an existing one.
  4. Volunteer alongside other neighborhood residents at nonprofits and with other programs.
  5. If you have children, be involved at the school and get to know other parents.
  6. Participate in city events–fund-raisers, festivals, cleanups, summer shows, concerts, etc.
  7. Serve in your neighborhood. Visit the community board meeting. Pick up litter regularly. Get involved in neighborhood associations. Find individual neighbors (especially elderly ones) and find ways of serving then.
  8. Be hospitable to neighbors–when and where appropriate, invite them over for a meal or a movie, etc.

Why not prayerfully pick one or two of these suggestions to implement in your own “live-like-a-missionary” life and see what God will do?

Keller also has some suggestions for ways to engage with colleagues, coworkers, and friends. Lord willing, I will include those in my next post.

His Mission/Our Mission

Yesterday’s message from Luke 19:1-10 is now on the website. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I wrapped things up:

Grasping Jesus’ rescue mission to even this world’s lost of the lost summons us to embrace that same mission as our own – grasping the interest He drew, the initiative He took, the irritation He made, and the inspiration He gave. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. He did that with Zacchaeus. He did that with me. If He has done that with you, then He lives within us with the same gospel-shaped, soul-stirring mission to engage lost people that they might be found even as we have been found. As we look to the opening of our building next year, let’s be all the more about making His mission our mission through the power of the gospel.

For more information of the book I recommended at the top of the message click here.

On Being Known & Prayer

Recently I listened to a challenging message by Francis Chan from the Desiring God National Conference called Think Hard; Stay Humble.

He taught from 1 Cor. 8:1-3 which closes with this mind-blowing notion: If anyone loves God, he is known by God.

That led to a cross reference to Gal. 4:9 – But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? Chan observed how it seems like Paul caught himself up short early on in this verse. In talking about the Galatians intimate relationship with God, the apostle started to characterize it in terms of their knowing God but then shifted his field to the significance of God knowing them.

What difference does looking at things this way make?

For one thing it affects motivation for prayer. We can ask God for things, all kinds of things, with confidence that He will answer (though not always as we might wish) because we are known by Him. We have a personal intimate relationship with Him. We call Him, Father (Matt. 6:9). He delights to give good gifts to His children (Luke 11:13).

Pastor Chan gives some amazing illustrations of this reality from his own life. I have experienced some of my own lately.

First, my brother-in-law, who has been effectively out of work for nearly two years, got a job this past week! I have asked the church to pray for this for months now. We enjoyed a sweet celebration dinner last Tuesday night with my folks at the table as well.

Second, two doors have opened for gospel bridge-building in our neighborhood. I’ve had the church praying for this request in the enews for months as well. The answer on this front overlapped with the answer on the first. Nancy and I asked to speak with a few of our neighbors about our situation with another family living with us. We sought to head off any possible difficulties or misunderstandings. It just so happened when we called to ask if we could come over that Sunday afternoon, our next door neighbors were visiting on their back porch with an across-the-street neighbor in their regular 4 PM Sunday visit. When we shared the circumstances they assured us we would get no grief from them AND they invited us to join them regularly on Sunday afternoons! I also discovered that our next door neighbors belong to the subdivision book club and invited me to join the discussion this January. I praise God for a 2 Cor. 2:12 breakthrough in my personal desire to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5).

Does your prayer life lack motivation? It might help to ponder the wonder of being known personally by the God of the universe, an even more important idea than knowing Him. It certainly makes a difference for me. Thank you, Francis Chan.

Gospel in Life – Fall 9:30 Equipping Hour for Adults

I am super jazzed that the leadership team recently agreed to offer Gospel in Life, a DVD/Bible study/group discussion series featuring Tim Keller of Redeemer Pres in New York, during the 9:30 hour for adults this fall.

Gospel in Life is an intensive eight-session (we plan to stretch things out through the end of the year) course on the gospel and how it is lived out in all of life—first in our hearts, then in community, and out into the world.

Here is the video trailer:

We chose to adopt this curriculum for a church-wide emphasis (we’ll be offering another edition of Discover OGC, our newcomer orientation series, as well) this fall in keeping with our mission to do bridge building into the surrounding community for the sake of the cause of Christ.

The subtitle for this series is Grace Changes Everything. Pray with me that God’s grace works powerfully through this curriculum as we continue to seek to be a church on mission in Central Florida.

More information and details coming soon!