Scandalous Parenting

I’ve been writing small group studies through the Gospel of Luke this semester. So I’ve spent the past five weeks praying through, fasting over, and reading about Luke 1 and Luke 2. Those two chapters are concerned, primarily, with two families: John’s family, and Jesus’ family.

In both cases, the parents were devout. John’s parents were devout to the letter. His father, Zechariah, was a priest, honored with the extreme opportunity to serve in the Jerusalem Temple. And though we initially saw Zechariah’s doubts,  he praised God as soon as he saw God’s incredible plan unfold.

Jesus’ parents were devout to the letter. Even when Augustus’ census forced families across the Roman Empire to travel, Joseph, who was not yet even married to Mary, took his young fiancee, and her unborn child, across the Palestinian desert to his hometown, per the Roman Imperial decree — because they were going to do the right thing, regardless of the suspicious murmurs that would be sure to happen once he arrived back in his hometown of Bethlehem.

Later, Joseph and Mary made sure to consecrate Jesus, and Mary, according to the Jewish standards. And we find out, too, that this family, though poor (we know they were poor because of Mary’s sacrifices, which were animals for the impoverished), they traveled to Jerusalem every year, for Jesus’ first twelve years, to celebrate Passover.

Devout. Loyal. Worshipers. It’s startling to find that Luke spent no time on the trivial.

John, who lived “in the wilderness” was a child of anticipation, waiting for deliverance, like Israel did in the years preceding their entry into Canaan. This is how he spent his childhood — waiting for the movement of God. I wonder if we are encouraging our kids, while they are in our care, to wait, daily, on the movements of God.

And Jesus spent a week, once a year, listening to the Jewish scribes. These boys grew up in homes where the parents knew the value of worshiping the Lord.

American parents are challenged in difficult ways, in a Disney-world utopia, where we can provide iPhones, expensive cars, meals at restaurants, personalized bedrooms, and individual Netflix accounts for our kids.

We give them these things, and still have the audacity to think they are deprived.

We even start leaning on churches, then, to continue the fun, thereby ensuring our kids learn that the value of their faith is built on the corruption of a personalized experience at their every turn.

The gospel I read is filled with suffering. Bearing burdens. Total depravity. Total dependence on God. Mission. Mobility. Devotion.

I want to be a dad who leads his family as did Zechariah and Joseph. I want my kids to learn to wait on the Lord, and to anticipate the times they listen to the Word. And I want the parents I know to do the same.

In America, this is scandalous parenting.

Because if we become scandalous parents, we will see the explosion of the kingdom that Luke shares in the first few chapters of Acts of the Apostles. The kingdom will flourish when we sacrifice these candy-land desires, die to ourselves, and surrender our families to the sovereignty of God.

Lord, help us to no longer chase fun, and help us to chase joy. Help us to be scandalous parents.

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Three Years Without Cable TV

I cancelled my cable service three years ago.

And it still has been one of the best decisions I, and my family, have ever made.

After our first year, without cable TV, I wrote four posts to describe the process. They were great journeys in writing for me. They are raw, I think, but were certainly written out of passion and intensity. They are a little bit funny, a little bit satirical, and a whole lot serious. And in 2011, I wrote one addendum on what I believe to have been a spiritual battle, and my subsequent failure of such.

Here they are, again, for you. May they inspire you a bit today to think about what you allow your eyes to see.

Part 1 :: Television and Life: The Beginning of the End of My Cable Subscription

Part 2 :: Television and Life: The Philosophical Reasons We Cancelled Our Television Subscription

Part 3 :: Television and Life: My TV, My Movies, and Jesus

Part 4 :: Television and Life: What I’ve Done Since Canceling My TV

Part 5 :: Name: The Name of God and My Mistake

Does Your Body Look Like This?

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27; NIV84)

There is great freedom in this verse. Can we truly comprehend it’s implications?

No part is greater than the other. The body does not function in its Spirit-given way, even if one part is missing.

Let’s begin with Paul’s written words in 1 Corinthians 10 in today’s reading.

Destructive Divisions

He wrote of dire consequences that would befall the believing community, if any one, or any group, took sides and became divisive.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did —and were killed by the destroying angel. (vv. 6-10)

If Paul stressed anything in this letter, he stressed unity. As of the writing of this letter, the Corinthian believers looked no different from their culture. For a brief passage of writing, after the verses quoted above, Paul wrote about food. Again.

He first discussed this matter in 1 Corinthians 8. In chapter 10, he told the believers that meat from pagan temples became the food of demons. Much happened in those temples, and after these feasts, that often included various sexual behaviors the believers knew to be sinful. One thing, in those feasts, usually led to another.

(That’s probably why, in the passage above, he criticized the sexual immorality that happened after everyone ate and drank together.)

Paul, though, offered them the concession that they can eat meat, but they should be careful, and restrain if they are told it was part of a pagan sacrifice. Their identity was on the line.

Dangerous stuff here. Divisions over meat led to divisions over lifestyles. The church was in crisis.

Paul then turned to public praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11.

Men and Women and Public Worship

Both men, and women, are doing so in public. That is not the problem Paul addressed. He had no problem with such public acts and displays of worship. Women and men did both, in public.

Roman pagan worship involved extensive displays of attire, and head coverings were part of such. Both men and women covered their heads, especially if they were active leaders in a sacrifice to their god. Paul’s words, in 1 Corinthians 11, were not so much about giving different instructions for men and women in public worship, but rather, that their public worship should be distinct from what surrounded them.

In Roman culture, both genders had head coverings. In the Christian community, those rules no longer applied. Not only does he suggest that only women should cover their head, in v. 15, Paul further seemed to state that a woman’s hair is sufficient. In other words, neither should have to cover their heads any longer.

Their worship should look different. And their leadership structure should be different. Paul wrote that “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (11:2). But before we stretch that too far, and use it facilitate the leadership structure of a fallen world, remember Jesus’ words about leadership, when the mother of James and John wanted them to have leadership positions in the kingdom:

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28; NIV84)

The way of leadership is service and self-sacrifice. Not decision-making and authority. And those are Jesus’ words, not Paul’s. Earlier, in Matthew 20, Jesus said this:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:16)

The fallen world takes positions of authority and “lords” them over others. Not so in the kingdom. Again, from Paul’s own words, he never took issue with men and women doing these acts of worship in public. He just wanted those events to be distinct from Corinthian pagan worship events.

They were to be united in their distinctive worship.

Paul then emphasized that the kingdom fellowship meal, as they currently practiced it, was a chief symptom of their disunity.

Sharing the Kingdom Meal

When they met together, or, perhaps when all the house churches met together at various times, their factions and divisions were visibly apparent. They had turned the communion meal into something similar to Corinthian meal celebrations which surrounded the worship of various gods. Meals led to drinking, which then led to a variety of awful things.

Paul has already written quite a bit about their meals. It’s almost so much, that it’s starting to wear me out.

The believers in Corinth, again, allowed so much of their culture into their practices, that they, again looked no different from their surroundings. Communion is a recognition of our own participation in the kingdom of God with other believers. If it is anything else, then it is dishonorable. We are all redeemed before God, all having sinned and been extended grace.

Our communion meal is a proclamation that the death of Jesus, and the message of the cross, is our only adhesive.

But here’s the point. For them, and for us.

One Gift-Giving Spirit

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13; NET)

We should bring no stress or worry to the body of Christ. We all belong, as God gifted us.

We should never be stressed or pressured or recruited to be a part of the body we were not meant to be. This verse shatters the myth of ministry recruitment.

Who are we to show others where their gifts are? We may lead them there, and they may, in fact, realize that God has, in fact, gifted them in that way. Even so, God gave them that gift, and they would’ve realized it, with or without our guidance.

And often, we lead them into a particular ministry, then struggle to keep them there. Is it possible that we are trying to force them to serve in an area where they are not spiritually gifted?

All sorts of companies have made lots of money by helping pastors recruit and keep ministry volunteers. According to this passage, though, there are no such things as ministry volunteers. Because if people are gifted to serve in a particular area, you won’t need to do anything to keep them there. The spirit of God takes care of that.

If you’ve been part of a ministry, and have since left, feel no guilt. That is not the gift God has given you. But don’t be quiet and isolated. God has gifted you with something, and you are obligated to use it, not just for your personal use, but to help the body of Jesus function in a broken world. If God has gifted you, he has also made a place for you, and your gift, in the body.

The spirit of God gives us the ability to know our gifts. No one needs to tell us.

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Our greatest failure is listening to God’s spirit in our lives, and in our churches. The body of Christ is not about divisions. It’s not about gender leadership. It’s not about cultural carbon-copied celebrations. It’s about a beautiful organism that only God can build.

Here is how The Message puts this:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:

wise counsel

clear understanding

simple trust

healing the sick

miraculous acts

proclamation

distinguishing between spirits

tongues

interpretation of tongues.

All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

There is freedom here! We do not have to search for a place to belong! God has already shown us!

As the body of Jesus, then, we should act in conjunction with each other, celebrating the differences, and not marginalizing them. Doing so is — as Paul wrote often in Romans, and now in 1 Corinthians — is politely telling God that we are much better at organizing his own church than He is.

May that never be so!

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You can read the previous posts here. Thanks for stopping by.

Why Religion Always Fails

The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. (Romans 8:2, 3; The Message)

Day forty-four, in a 90 day reading of the New Testament, hangs on the passage above.

And it succinctly explains why religion will always fail.

But, let’s define religion for a moment.

Religion is a human-authored theology that is attached to the message of grace. It is any system that becomes exclusive in its belief, to the point that it places anyone in a state of judgment if there is any disagreement.

That definition, by the way, is completely biblical. It is fashioned from Jesus’ conversations with the Pharisees. And it’s fashioned here, by Paul’s words in Romans 7 concerning the “Law.”

But what is the “law”? It was part of the covenant, given by God to the Israelites, when God rescued them from Egypt. It was their part of the covenant that was to be kept.

God rescued them. They followed the law’s demands. And heir law was also a religious requirement, but it was so heavy, with animal sacrifices needed often for transgressions, that it was abandoned within three generations of its giving.

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:10, 11; NIV84)

It failed. And that was the point. It couldn’t be completely kept. Here are Paul’s words, from our reading today.

For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (Romans 8:17-20; The Message)

But the fault wasn’t the law. The fault belonged to the human race. We are incapable of following, completely, any law. Which means that we are incapable of following, completely, any religion.

Earlier, Paul even called the law good. Holy. And it was. It was given by God — yet given by a God who knew his own creation couldn’t keep it.

But many of us still hold on to our religion, and we hold it tight. I dare say that most quibbles, in church fellowships, come from people who haven’t completely separated grace from their religious belief.

Want to know why? I think it’s because religion is predictable. It’s a standard. It’s the way of our parents and grandparents. It’s so heavy, and so comfortable. It never changes. And any new life breathed into religious establishments is met with heavy suspicion.

Can’t have too much excitement while leading worship. We can only sing the hymns. We can only sing the contemporary songs. Can’t preach about giving. Every public assembly must have an altar call. Women should only teach children. But a sixth-grade boy, who is a Christian, can lead a public prayer. We must have a five-day, four-hour-a-day VBS, every summer. We must teach the “essentials” of salvation in every bible class. We are musically minded, and we need musical notes with our lyrics. All men must wear a tie to church. And khakis. Women need skirts. And we’ve got to hammer these truths to our kids when they are old enough to walk. By the way, I give my money here, so I expect my demands to be met.

See what happens, though? We make our religion an idol. It takes the places, and quick, of the amazing, crazy, redemptive message of grace. Grace frees us from these things! Or, at least, it should.

It’s no wonder that the American church is losing members. Religion is an idol no one wants to follow. People have enough restrictions in their lives. They don’t want it when they come to Jesus.

Yet we’ve turned places of worship into controlled systems at the expense of grace.

This law, this religion, became a force of sin, too, for the Israelites. If we exalt in our own lives, religion will become a force of sin for us, too. Paul wrote as much.

The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me. Without all the paraphernalia of the law code, sin looked pretty dull and lifeless, and I went along without paying much attention to it. But once sin got its hands on the law code and decked itself out in all that finery, I was fooled, and fell for it. The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. So sin was plenty alive, and I was stone dead. (Romans 7:8-12; The Message)

But God did something special through Jesus. He crucified religion. He sacrificed himself to atone, fully, for every requirement and demand of the law.

And our tendency to create religion, again, in our own towns, is our failure to fully grasp the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, he was sacrificed for sin, even the sin produced by religion.

It was as if God said, “Enough.”

And this is the new life we’ve been given. Not merely a new life, free from sin. But a new life, free from religion.

If our fellowships add anything to the requirement of a life transformed by Jesus, then those requirements are religious, and therefore, by the sacrifice of Jesus, deemed unnecessary. And even sinful. Because when we make those additions, we make our own fellowship an idol.

Our ministries, our programs, and our ideas should, right now, be sacrificed at the altar of grace. Projects and calendars make our fellowships look more like pagan organizations than the gathering of transformed people.

People, transformed by grace, through the spirit of God, will always supersede any calendar filled with events. Our church fellowships will stop maintenance for the believers, and instead make disciples that will transform lives, families, churches, and neighborhoods.

The spirit of God, by the way, is what does constant maintenance in our hearts. We shouldn’t need a church fellowship, preacher, worship leader, or pastor, to do that. That is the job of the Comforter.

How about a moment of assessment. Are our programs making disciples? Or are they just attracting people to our church from another church?

We look, somewhat, like the Jewish people in Paul’s letter. Here are his words:

And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. (R0mans 9:30-32; The Message)

What more can we add to grace, though? Nothing.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:

They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:31-39; The Message)

The Best Children’s Ministry Ever

Today is day seven of our reading through the New Testament. The reading is from Matthew 19 through Matthew 21 today. Thanks for joining me!

In Matthew 18, Jesus begins an interesting conversation about children. He tells his disciples that “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Again, drawing on the Jewish idea of a coming kingdom, with royal guards and soldiers and servants and palaces and land and subjects and a king, the idea that a child can enter the kingdom is a complete paradox.

How can a child enter a vast, protected, walled kingdom?

I couldn’t help but think of one of Pixar’s short films, “One Man Band.” A little girl is ready to drop a gold coin in a wishing well, until two street musicians began to compete for that one coin. But her reaction is worth the time, and it’s the sort of stuff I think of when I think of a child. Take a look.

There are a few references to children and families in these chapters. Here are the two big ones from Matthew 18:

  • If you welcome a child in the name of Jesus, then you welcome Jesus. (18:5)
  • If you harm a child, then you’ll die a slow, awful death. (18:6)

In Matthew 19, then, a similar conversation takes place. We find some parents (presumably) bringing their children to Jesus, to “place his hands on them and pray for them.”

My, how cultures (and parents) have changed.

We now ask much different things from Jesus.

We ask for competitive children’s programs. We ask for monthly calendars with multiple events. We ask for retreats. We ask for trips. We ask for the most fun and adventure they could ever have.

Because we now think that an expansive program will be what lends a child’s attention to Jesus. We want them to be part of the most popular event in town, because we believe that’s what it would take to keep them faithful. Even while membership in the American church is proving otherwise. People are leaving in record numbers.

Yet all these parents wanted, in Matthew 19:13, was for Jesus to touch their children and pray for them.

They weren’t asking Jesus to take their children to an awesome convention or seminar or movie or swim party. They just wanted Jesus to speak words of prayer over them.

And if we want a model for an awesome children’s ministry, then we really need to look no further than Jesus’ reaction. He beckoned these children to come, and rebuked the disciples who thought these little ones had no place at the feet of Jesus, or in the kingdom.

Jesus’ most shocking action was giving the kingdom of God to these children. And not his disciples.

And then he touched them.

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In Matthew 19:20-28, the mother of James and John makes an unusual request. She wanted special treatment for her sons, and hoped that Jesus would offer them the two seats next to Jesus in the kingdom.

And, again, Jesus’ idea of kingdom isn’t quite what everyone else was thinking. While she thought of a palace and thrones, Jesus had no such intentions, and remarked that if they wanted the special place their mother requested, then they, too, must give their lives as a ransom for many (19:22).

James and John were probably teenagers here. Maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. They had grit and passion. But their mother still wanted special treatment for these two young men who were old enough to live on their own.

Jesus said earlier that entrance into the kingdom came through innocence. He said here that innocence leads to the willing sacrifice we will make in our lives.

And here we find the perfect model of a student ministry, which is not leading teenagers in awesome retreats and programs, but teaching them that suffering and sacrifice is the way of discipleship.

Jesus just doesn’t play around.

But that’s not all.

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He rode into Jerusalem, and people shouted praises to him. One of my favorite verses in Matthew comes in Matthew 21:10, when Matthew writes this:

… the whole city was stirred …

The entire city of Jerusalem, with a population of around 30,000 people, was shaken at Jesus’ entrance into their city.

He went straight to the temple, and in what may have been his first, and only, revolutionary moment, he overturned tables and angered the merchants. But Matthew wasn’t as concerned about this experience as he was about the reaction of the Jewish teachers who saw everything that happened.

Picture it. Tables are overturned. Lambs are running through the square. Doves have been let out of their cages and are flying. Lots of chatter and anger from these merchants. They kick the dust of the ground when they chase their rolling Roman coins. And while this scene erupts, Jesus leaves the hubris of his action to heal both a blind man and a lame man.

The “teachers of the law” who are there do not seem to be concerned with Jesus’ violent reaction to the merchants, though. Nor do they seem to be upset at the miraculous healings.

They were most upset at the reaction of the children.

There were children who saw everything, who were in the temple, and they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

These children praised Jesus. They couldn’t help it. Their immediate response was to worship.

But look at the scene through the eyes of these children. They just watched Jesus do some really crazy things. He chased merchants from the temple. He then healed two well-known, paralyzed men in the temple.

What they witnessed would forever change their lives.

And Jesus, probably sweating from overturning those tables, and still trying to catch his breath while he healed these two men — maybe wiping dirt from his forehead with the sleeve of his cloak — only answered the critique of the teachers by explaining to them that God had already ordained these very children to praise and worship. And I think he smiled when he answered them.

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I am a daddy. My life has been blessed beyond words by my daughters. All four of them.

I want their relationship with Jesus to be like what happens in the lives of the kids in Matthew 19. I want to bring them to the Word of God to be touched, and to be prayed over. I want them to make a decision that will transform them into people who are willing to sacrifice and give, even beyond what is expected. And I want them to see such radical transformation in the lives of people that they just can’t help but praise Jesus.

It doesn’t take any Americanized version of the gospel to make this happen.

It doesn’t require packed calendars and competitions and memory verses and perfect attendance in a Sunday school program.

It doesn’t require a week-long VBS.

And it shouldn’t require the most fun a kid can have in a day.

Because the kids and teenagers in Matthew 18 and Matthew 19 and Matthew 21 didn’t have any of those things.

It takes a relationship with Jesus. It takes parents who just want their children to be moved by Jesus. And it takes parents who want their kids to see, with their own eyes, how Jesus can heal the most broken.

Jesus loves the little children. He gave them his entire kingdom.

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Thanks for reading. You can find all the posts I am writing as I read the New Testament by clicking here.