Merry Christmas from Behind Enemy Lines

At various times throughout church history, Christianity has enjoyed a “home field advantage”; a time when the broader culture was aligned with Christian principles.  Times such as the end of the pagan Roman Empire, Europe at the height of the Reformation, Latin America during the rise of Catholicism, and even the volatile Middle East where Christianity was much in the mainstream for the first 600 years after Christ.  Of course, a home field advantage can have the downside of a cultural form of Christianity rather than the real thing and abuses under all of these favorable systems are well documented.  But as a whole, a culture moving in the general direction of Christian principles and ethics is a good thing.

In the United States, we have enjoyed a more prolonged home field advantage than most nations.  From the first Pilgrims to the Great Awakenings to the rise in church attendance following World War II, Christian ethics and morality have been a priority and value in American public life.  As a child, I attended public grade school where teachers led prayer before class and there was a general cooperation between society and church and school regarding at least the symbols of Christianity if not always the exact lifestyle.

If you have been paying attention lately, you know that our home field advantage is long gone in this country.  Not only are we now the “visiting team”, so to speak, but we are actually more like a resistance movement in Enemy occupied territory.  And for believers in the United States, this is an uncomfortable new reality to come to grips with.  We are alternately angry, sad, and distraught at the new level of profanity overtaking this country.  (Profanity as the opposite of sacred, not as in swearing.)  American culture is becoming profane, in the biblical sense, to its core.  With in-your-face and over-the-top immorality, violence, sexual confusion, and general mayhem abounding in our movies, television shows, video games, advertisements, and entertainment, in general, and people still have the gall to say that a nativity scene is “offensive”?  Are you kidding me?

When we look at the world wide picture, we soon realize that this departure from Christian norms is nothing new.  It is as if Satan has annexed the U. S. to his already existing territory.  Europe is in a long cold winter of post-Christianity.  Africa, despite decades of education and aid, is mired in gender injustice and corruption and continues in the centuries-long tradition of fatalism regarding death, disease, children, and life as a whole.  Palestinian believers are squeezed by the Israeli occupation on one hand and the rise of militant Islam in their territories on the other.  Even in heavily Catholic Latin America, religious symbols are disappearing.  Just this week, I received a Christmas card from a friend in Uruguay in which he commented on this new reality in his country:  “Christmas Day” has become “Family Day” and “Holy Week” has become “Tourism Week”.  Small change, but multiplied many times over, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Satan has the current home field advantage throughout most of the world.

And to be honest, this has probably, more often than not, been the case throughout the history of the world.  (For my overseas friends who are rolling their eyes at this angst of Americans when their present countries have been like this for decades, I apologize.  This is new territory to us.)  So, should we take our ball and go home and huddle together waiting for the end to come?  What are our marching orders in Enemy occupied territory?  We will answer that question with a trip to our hymnal, a sci-fi children’s book, and Burkina-Faso, West Africa.

Our marching orders are to proclaim truth and practice love.  It is that simple.  Jesus said, “Satan was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).  Deception as in “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) is Satan’s standard operating procedure.  Our defense against this deception that has taken the world captive is the truth.  Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

When the Jews responded with, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”, Jesus continued, “Truly I say to you everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:33-36).  The message of hope for a “world in the grip of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19) is God’s truth; the truth that sets us free from sin’s power.  Truth is not just about knowledge.  God’s truth is to experience deep in our core His incredible promise of a life set free from sin’s power.

Martin Luther captured this theme in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”.

“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.”

The word that “fells the devil” is the word of truth, God’s truth.  In this world of spiritual and moral confusion, we must consistently present the truth about God, the truth about man, the truth about sin, and the truth about salvation, rescue, and deliverance.  One truth that I feel is particularly needed for our day is the promise of power that comes with the new birth.  The power of of a new creation, a new nature, a new identity, a new Spirit, and a new heart.  The Christian life is not about life improvement, it is about a life brand new; a life of the heart set free.

But our truth must be expressed in love.  Love is the antithesis to Satan and the world system he rules.  Love is the opposite of Satan’s character and action.  Love is the mark of a Christ follower.  When we practice love, we not only emulate our Father and His Christ, but we also offer the world something unique, something Satan can never acquire, something over which Satan has no control.  When we see our home field advantage disappearing, we are tempted to try to grab it back through political rhetoric, anger, hand-wringing, intimidation, and insult.  But these are empty weapons in our war with the devil.  Our only weapon of first and last resort is love.

In the children’s sci-fi classic, A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace go to the planet of Camazotz to search for their missing scientist father.  Once there, the young Charles Wallace is captured and eventually captivated by the evil IT.  Meg, his tween-age sister, is fended off in her rescue attempt of her brother by Charles declaration that she has nothing, no power, that IT does not already possess.  In her back and forth confrontation with Charles and IT, Meg discovers that she does have something to offer.  Love.  Love is the answer to Charles’ rescue.

“Charles, I love you” Meg proclaims.  “My baby brother who always takes care of me.  Come back to me, Charles Wallace.  Come away from IT.  Come back, come home.  I love you, Charles.  Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.”

Meg’s love set Charles free, and before long they are back in their front yard united with their family.  God’s love, shining through us, is our best weapon to help people break free of Satan’s power.  “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (I Jn 3:18).

It’s easy to become discouraged when we see and experience Satan’s world-wide influence.  But take courage, the body of Christ is not dead.  His literal body sits at God’s right hand interceding for us, His children.  And His body on earth – his literal physical representation to the world – is us, His children.

In Burkina-Faso, our daughter and son-in-law clearly landed behind Enemy lines when they settled in the capital city of Ouaugadougou.  But rather than be overwhelmed by poverty, gender injustice, and corruption, they stepped back and listened to the voice of their Captain.  Annie wrote in a recent email about her desire to assist women in maternal care.

“God is helping me each day to overcome my fears in the reality of the graphic nature of maternal care in the third world.  It’s something you have to slowly get used to….not desensitized to, but just “able” to see it, and see through to how to help instead of becoming paralyzed by the overwhelming nature of it all.  He works on my heart a little each day as I think and pray more and more about it.  When the flood of how big this issue is wants to wash over my heart, I remember God is big, loves each woman on an individual level, and I think about this quote from Mother Teresa:

” ‘I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual.  I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one.  So you begin.  I began – I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.  Just begin – one, one, one.’  Mother Teresa.”

The power of love is a power unique to the church.  It is a power the world knows nothing of and is powerless to stop.  It is a power that is being exercised a million times over across the world by your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And it is a resistance movement that is literally “destroying the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:9).

May I encourage you?  Do not give up hope.  We are called not only to keep up our hope, but to be the hope as well.  We are the last great hope for this world, not we in ourselves, but “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  Jesus came on that first Christmas as the hope of the world.  He has left us – you and me – on this planet to be His physical presence in the world.  By virtue of Christ in us, we are the hope of glory for the world.

Merry Christmas from your friend in the resistance movement.  Keep the flame alive!

Is Everyone Included?

Last post we focused on the corporate church situation.  Now let’s bring this idea of celebrating diversity in the church down to a personal application.  If you are like me, certain personalities rub you the wrong way.  Certain individuals strike you as difficult people.  In my former selfish approach, I usually avoided these people, hiding behind my introvert nature.  But by God’s grace, I have opened up to the diverse variety of personalities that are the body of Christ.  I have discovered that it is so easy to be blind to our own personality quirks but quick to notice something amiss in others.

Two things have happened as I have moved out of my comfort zone.  First, my life has been enriched by this interaction.  My church experience has a new fullness as I embrace all the personalities, gifts, and talents that make up the body.  I see more value in other’s gifts.  Just as we are often most comfortable with folks of our personality bent, we can also slip into the idea that giftedness like ours in not only most comfortable, but actually most valuable to the body.  But when I read the Word it becomes clear:  the body needs all the gifts.

The second result is that I am now more sensitive to and able to encourage my new friends.  Certain personalities on both the quiet and loud end of the spectrum are unfortunately often avoided in our church situations and I believe we should go out of our way to draw these people in.  A legitimate and felt need in our community of believers is to “know and be known”.  And it is incumbent on us in the church to make sure this is happening.  Can I encourage you?  Go out of your way to befriend the person God brings in your path.  Let your smile, body language, and greeting say, “I am glad you are here.  I am glad I saw you this morning.  I am glad you are in my life.”

You know, one of the things Jesus was accused of over and over again was that He was too inclusive.  Let’s join Him in his inclusive message and actions and celebrate the diversity of His beautiful body – the church!

Embracing All the Gifts

In I Corinthians chapter 12, Paul compares the church and its members to the physical body.  Paul starts his discussion with this simple comparison.  Just as the physical body is one body with many parts, so too the church is one body (of Christ) with many members.  And just as with the physical body, each member of Christ’s body is different and gifted for a unique function and contribution to the church.  The beauty of it all is that “God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (vs 18).  God Himself has placed you in the body for a purpose.

To summarize the main points of Paul’s analogy, no part of the body should consider itself inferior to another.  Conversely, we should not look down on others as less important than ourselves.  And we should not desire to be a part of the body that we are not.  Every individual and unique member of the body is crucial to its function.  “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (vs 17) and so on.  So crucial is each part that we should never say to another, “I have no need of you” (vs 21).  But I wonder if, in subtle and subconscious ways, this is exactly what we say to each other.

As I visit with people, especially young people, across the country, folks are looking for a way to exercise their gifts and talents in the church.  They are looking to extend the church’s reach through their various circles of influence.  The churches themselves, however, are often going the other direction; streamlining and eliminating ministries in ways that suggest not every gift is needed.  For example, when the church choir disappears, what happens to those with the gift of song?  When the adult Sunday School classes are dissolved, what happens to those with the gift of teaching?  When the service projects go away, what happens to those with the gift of helps?  Focusing on doing a few things well is great for businesses, but it does not fit the church, the body of Christ.  The church is made up of diverse members with diverse gifts and all should be embraced.

A young missionary working overseas shared with me her joy at being asked by a team of nationals to join them in planting a new church.  She has the gift of encouragement and had an integral role in helping the local leaders get their new ministry off the ground.  The joy in her voice as she shared her story was unmistakable.  Why?  Because she had been asked to contribute to the cause of Christ in a specific way that matched who she is.  She not only felt needed, she was needed!

My own ministry experience has been marked by great highs and disappointing lows.  The highs were generally marked by being asked to do something I was made to do and the lows usually involved serving in an uncomfortable role; not uncomfortable because it was difficult, but uncomfortable because it was not where I felt that I had something to contribute.  Maybe it was far from my giftedness or just a place where I was filling a slot and not really feeling needed.

Now, let me make clear, as we mature in the Lord, we move beyond our natural talents and develop ways to serve in all kinds of areas even those we thought tedious.  We should always be willing to be stretched by God into new areas of service.  We should never become a prisoner of our personality or our own self-evaluation.  We should always be open to new challenges and opportunities to serve.  But as leaders helping spur our members on to maturity, a good place to start is helping them find their “sweet spot” in the church and develop that avenue of service.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

One of the beautiful aspects of being connected with believers as members in the body of Christ is the celebration of our diversity.  When we love well, our differences become causes for celebration, not barriers to inclusion.  This is one of the unique features of the church.  The church is not a social club where membership depends on a shared trait or interest.  We are not an affinity group.  We are a body.  Listen to Paul’s description of the church in I Corinthians chapter 12.

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body is not one member but many” (I Cor 12:12-14).

“If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any less a part of the body.  And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?  If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (I Cor 12:15-18).

“If they were all one member, where would the body be?  But now there are many members, but one body.  And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’  On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it” (I Cor 12:19-24).

But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.  Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (I Cor 12:24-27).

It is incredible to me how, after almost 2000 years of human history have transpired, this passage could have been written to today’s church.  Maybe that is because it was written to today’s church.  Themes like celebrating our diversity at the same time as practicing our unity, God forming the individual parts of the body as He desired, the danger of declaring “I have no need of you”, jealousy mixed with inferiority as to our part in the body, each suffering when one in the body suffers, and each celebrating when one is honored all have application to our contemporary church; application that we will explore next time.

Hating One’s Parents?

Last post, in the comments, Nancy brought up Matthew 10:37 and appropriately so.  “He who loves father and mother more than Me [Jesus] is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37).  In the parallel passage in Luke chapter 14, Jesus uses even more striking language, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26).  This seems to be in direct contradiction to the point of our last post – we love God by loving our families – so what gives?

It is important to understand the words of Christ in the context of His overall message.  Throughout His ministry,  Jesus extended – and to his listener’s ears – pushed the limit of the law of love to a radical model of unconditional love that, for example, includes forgiving our brother an infinite number of times (Mt 18:22) and loving our enemies of all stripes (Lk 6:27).  With that kind of expansion of love taught by Jesus to include even our enemies, it would seem to contradict Himself to suggest denying love to those closest to us.

Additionally, Jesus supports love of parents in his complaint against the Pharisees in Mark 7:9-13.  When talking about the Pharisee’s tradition of allowing a man to say to his parents in need, “The money I have available to help you has been set aside for God, so you are on your own”, Jesus condemns this action as not honoring one’s father and mother.

With that background of support for love of family, what is Jesus saying in Matthew 10 and Luke 14 about loving family less and hating one’s parents?  Just as the pursuit of wealth can come between us and the kingdom of God (think rich young ruler of Mark 10:21, 22 who when commanded by Jesus to sell all that he had went away “saddened for he owned much property”) so too family ties can become a barrier to following God.  I believe we honor and love God by loving our families, but never by putting them ahead of God’s leading in our lives.  For example, do we deny God’s call to come to salvation because family disagrees?  No.  Do we ignore His instruction in the path He has for us because family cannot accept it?  No.  But we can always respond in a loving way and trust God to work in the hearts that don’t agree with God’s call on our lives.

Back to Luke 14:26, I don’t believe Jesus is asking us to “hate our parents” in a literal sense.  What Jesus is saying is discipleship is serious business and we dare not minimize His point.  The context of the two verses we opened this post with is Jesus’ focused teaching on the cost of discipleship; the need to take up our cross and follow Him.  The story of the Pearl of Great Price and many other parables and teachings of Jesus emphasize that our first allegiance is always to Christ and His kingdom.  The “hating one’s parents” is Jesus using the most jolting and arresting language available to him to make His point; our first allegiance as Christ followers is to Christ and His kingdom.

What is interesting to me is how, as the New Testament revelation progresses, it becomes clear that one of the ways we demonstrate our allegiance to Christ is by the way we love our wives (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” Eph 5:25), by the way we love our family (“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” I Tim 5:8), by the way we love our neighbor (“If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” James 2:8) and by the way we love each other (“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” I Jn 4:12 and about a hundred other love one another passages).

Love of family and love of God, as presented last time, are not competing loves.  They are both part of our pursuing all that God has for us in this wonderful adventure of being His child; loving Him as our Father and loving our wives, children, parents, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in the Lord.