Focusing On the Family Doesn’t Help the Church…Nor the Family

Focusing on the family doesn’t help the church… nor the family

Far too often, our children grow up with a church focused around them. Children’s church so they don’t get bored. Youth ministry designed to keep them entertained. Campus ministry that isn’t designed for discipling, just a desperate effort to somehow keep our kids going to church once they leave home.

Family focus has led us to value youth sports over church attendance, family meals over pot lucks, school plays over midweek gatherings. If we find time in the midst of all of our family activities, we’ll go to church. If not, well… family is the most important, right?

Our families need to understand that they need the support of a strong church to grow as they should. If we want to build our families, let’s do so through building our churches.

Want strong families? Teach people to be like Jesus. Want good parent-child relationships? Let them bond through serving other people.

It’s a fine line between focusing on any demographic and pandering.

Regret

ducks on a misty pond
image by Goran Vučićević

I recently ran into somebody whom I haven’t seen in years. Actually “running into” may be exaggerating things. It was more like seeing her in passing, taking ten or so seconds to actually recognize her, and then getting hit with a small tsunami of regret.

I have to admit, that last part surprised me.

When I knew this person, I was not in a good place in my life. I was mentally and spiritually struggling, and I did not treat her well as a friend or Christian should. We had a pretty bad falling out, and it was entirely my fault. This happened half a lifetime ago. I’d like to think I’ve made a good deal of progress as a person since then. I’m much closer to Christ now than I was then, and I’ve prayed over those errors of my past. I thought I’d moved on. I was surprised how little it took to open that old wound again.

Demoralizing Regret

That’s the trouble with worldly regret. Paul speaks about godly regret that leads to repentance in II Corinthians 7:10, and certainly the regret I felt over how I treated this individual prompted me to repent and seek to better myself. But the regret that kicked me the other day wasn’t that kind of regret. It was harsher, demoralizing, and spiritually weakening. It was the grief that produces death in the second half of II Corinthians 7:10.

Removing Regret’s Power

We simply cannot let regret have power over us as Christians — no more than we allow anger, fear, or hatred have such power. Certainly Peter regretted denying Christ. He certainly regretted his behavior leading up to the cross. I’m sure he had plenty of time to dwell on that regret prior to the resurrection, but he never let that regret consume him like Judas had.

By John 21, Peter is moving on with his life. When Christ then reveals His identity to Peter by way of a miracle identical to that of Luke 5:1 – 11, Peter doesn’t shirk away. Instead, he jumps in the water and swims ashore, so he can get to Jesus as quickly as possible. He had sinned. He had regretted, but now he was ready to move on and heal.

Even when it catches us by surprise, regret does not have to consume us, nor should we be afraid of or ashamed of it. We have to face it. Where Judas shows us an extreme example of the dangers of regret, Peter shows us another way. We can lean on God in our times of regret and grow stronger by working through those feelings. Like Peter, we may need to lean on Christ or fellow Christians to help us on the journey.

Every regret is a spiritual challenge to do better, and we move past that regret by facing the challenge and overcoming.

 

Making Fasting Matter

empty plate on a bare table

Have you ever considered the fact that fasting is something Christians do in the New Testament? We often associate fasting with the Old Testament since it had periods of required fasting. The New Testament commands no such observances, but we find fasting listed along other traditions of worship we are familiar with.

Acts 14:23 says:

When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This is toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it gives us an apostolic example of early Christians participating in fasting. In this case it’s coupled with prayer. Acts 13:2 – 3 contains similar language: “They were worshipping and fasting,” and, “After fasting and praying.” The apostles obviously had a tradition of fasting before important spiritual decisions or events.

Jesus also fasted. In the beginning of Matthew 4, we can read that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to facing Satan. I’ve often heard this taught as Satan approaching Jesus at His weakest, but have you ever considered the fact that Jesus might have fasted to prepare for this encounter. Just as the apostles would later fast before important events, here we see Jesus possibly doing the same.

When to Fast

When is it appropriate for Christians to fast? While there’s no hard-and-fast “on the first day of the week” passage for fasting like there is for the memorial, I believe we see evidence that fasting can be done individually or collectively. Both examples in Acts see Paul and his friends fasting together. Just as we can pray both individually and collectively, we can fast alone or together.

Also based on these examples, there’s no prescribed time for fasting. Paul and the apostles did it prior to some big undertakings. Jesus fasted before facing Satan. Individuals in the Old Testament also fasted in times of mourning and repentance. Fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to God, so the best time to fast is when you need that closeness most. That’s why prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. It’s an act of removing something you take for granted or rely on and replacing that thing with God.

What to Give Up

When I think of fasting, I most often think of food. I think you can make the case, however, that fasting isn’t limited to eating.

I Corinthians 7:4 – 5:

A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

When Paul says, “Do not deprive one another…except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer,” it certainly seems like a form of fasting. In this case, the couple fast from physical intimacy for a time.

The point is that fasting requires a serious commitment. It’s not about giving up something trivial for a week; it’s about disciplining yourself by removing something meaningful and important. Like the monetary offerings we see in the New Testament, what you give up is between you and God. Maybe one person will give up all social media for a period of time while another takes their fast more literally and gives up food.

How to Fast

Jesus and Paul both have some guidelines for us when it comes to fasting. For example, Paul warns against self-denial for the sake of false holiness in Colossians 2:18 – 23:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God. If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

Basically, Paul is saying that fasting of any sort should not be outwardly enforced, nor does it serve as evidence of holiness in and of itself. I Timothy 4:1 – 5 makes a similar claim, that we should be careful of anyone regulating specific foods from which to abstain. These things can feel pious, but Paul says they’re not.

Jesus says, in Matthew 6:16 – 18:

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The idea here is the same as Jesus’ teachings on prayer and benevolence. When you fast, it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. When you fast, it’s not my business what you are giving up, unless you need me to know so I can support and encourage you. In fact, Jesus says that no one should even be able to tell we’re fasting based on appearance or behavior.

So What About Lent?

At this point, Lent becomes an elephant in the virtual room. Should Christians observe Lent? My only response is that it’s between you and God. That comes with a caveat: that we all understand that Jesus nor His apostles command the observance of Lent in the New Testament. Then we can apply Romans 14:5 – 8:

One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

If your conscience moves you to observe Lent, then do so in the ways we see Paul and Jesus observe and teach about fasting. If your conscience steers you away from Lent, then abstain. Do not judge the brother or sister who does observe, nor should the one who observes judge the one who does not. Both are acceptable to God as long as their motivations and conduct remain pure.

Fasting, Spirituality, and Self-Discipline

I Corinthians 9:24 – 27:

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

To me this is the at the heart of fasting. It is an act of self-discipline that trains us to be self-disciplined in the Lord. The act of giving something up that is meaningful to you takes self-discipline. Sticking to it for a predetermined period of time takes self-discipline. If you are able to keep your fast quiet, that takes self-discipline. If you’re not letting a fast affect your behavior, that takes self-discipline. All of this helps us bring ourselves under control so that we will exercise self-control in all of our conduct.

Fasting can also bring us closer to God if we really are giving up something meaningful and replacing it with study and prayer. It puts us in a place to turn to God when we might most miss something of this world, and it helps put the things of this world in perspective. Whether you are giving up meals for a couple of weeks or turning off all screens for a month, fasting helps remind all of us that we need God more than we need the things of this world.

 

 

God and the Don

God and the Don

CNN has a fascinating piece about the history of President Trump’s faith.

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation — previously unreported comments that were described to me by both pastors.

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

I think the most troubling aspect, though, is how obvious it is that our current president uses religion as a marketing tool while not actually understanding it. Christian leaders should be able to see through this, but they are either blinded by the power he offers, or — worse — they simply don’t care.

America Needs to Stop the Fearmongering

America Needs to Stop the Fearmongering

“Fear can be useful, important and necessary. It can carry warnings and remind us to use caution. Yet fear should never, ever be used to manipulate. If someone needs fear to sell you their ideas, if their whole message is built on making you fearful, if their only call to action requires scaring you into following, how big is their faith? How big is their god?

“Jesus lived and taught during a stressful political environment. There was plenty for the Jews to fear under Roman rule. Living in an unstable political climate is naturally anxiety inducing—especially for the politically powerless and minority groups. We see Jesus neither dismiss these fears nor dwell in them; He acknowledges people’s realities yet points to a new way forward.

“We need to be wary of fear-based politics, fear-based leaders and—even more dangerous—fearmongering disguised as religion. Fear should never be our main motivation. Fear should never be our inspiration. Fear should never be our sole reason for doing something. If it is, we’re missing the point.”

How many times did God tell His people, “Fear not?”

Running Without Legs

hunterwoodhall

This is based on a sermon I delivered at the South Boone Church of Christ a few years ago. Image of Hunter Woodhall of Team USA 2016.

On January 2, 2008, one of my favorite tech bloggers posted this short anecdote:

On the final day of a trip to Disney World with my family last month, I saw something remarkable: a boy, 4 or 5 years old, with two artificial legs, running around Mickey’s Toontown Fair in the Magic Kingdom. Running. If he had been wearing pants instead of shorts, you’d have simply thought he had a bit of a limp.

He was born without legs, but yet there he was, galloping across the playground on a warm, sunny December morning, every bit as happy, excited, and carefree as every little kid in the world ought to be.

His legs — sleek, lightweight, and impressively dextrous — were inspiring and beautiful. And they were made using technology that simply did not exist when I was his age, one generation ago. Focus solely on current events and it’s all too easy to despair at the state of the world. But science and progress march ever forward, and the world is a better place today than it used to be.

This post caught my attention for several reasons – not the least for shaking my perspectives about this world we live in, for contradicting that, “What is the world coming to?” voice. I really think that sometimes we have grown very fixated on negative things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. Hopeless and pessimistic attitudes can impair our spiritual walking in a way this child’s disability fails to impede him.

Recognizing Our Obstacles

We often go to Ephesians 5 to discuss our Christian walk, and in verse 2, Paul instructs us to walk in love. If we skip to verse 5, he encourages us to walk as in the light, and the apostle concludes in verse 15 that we should walk with wisdom. Love, light, and wisdom should guide our lives. In other words, we should be able to:

  • Clearly see what matters. This is light.
  • Make good choices based on what we see. This is wisdom.
  • Allow compassion for others and for God motivates every step we take. This is love.

Worldly Cares

Unfortunately, there is much around us to tear us away from this walk if we allow it to consume our energy and attention, leaving us sitting along the side rather than progressing toward our goal. We can grow discouraged at crime rate statistics, at political figures, at business decisions, at stock market trends, at individuals or groups who somehow offend our sensibilities.

We argue these issues over the dinner table. We complain about them around the water cooler. We blog about them. We yell at the TV about them, and, in so doing, we are sitting down and giving up. We are forgetting how to walk. We are failing Christ. We are failing our brothers and sisters. We are failing those toward whom we should be examples – and over what? Over things that are temporary and insignificant in the bigger picture.

Matthew 6:19-21 reminds us that the things of this world are temporary and warns us about letting them take hold in our hearts. Also, I John 2:15-17 warns us against loving the things of this world, which are transient and will pass away. Often, we apply these passages to outward temptations and covetousness, but we fail to apply these at a deeper level.

When I argue with and berate you because my politics don’t agree with yours, am I not putting worldly cares first? When I mope and complain about taxes or bills, am I not allowing money to rule my life? In these cases, I have stopped walking that Christian walk of light, wisdom, and love, and I have allowed myself to become helpless along the side of the road.

Back in Matthew 6:31-34, Jesus concludes that we should not be overly concerned with the petty details of this life, relying on God for what really matters, and Paul, in Philippians 4:8 reminds us to concentrate mainly on those things that are virtuous and encouraging.

Helplessness

Additionally, I can permit my own sense of helplessness disable my journey. After all, I am apparently powerless against sin (Romans 3:23). I cannot earn my salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). I deserve death (Romans 6:23), and every sin I commit reinforces the torture Christ went through millennia ago (Hebrews 6:6). I may feel myself a hopeless case. I am expected to walk the narrow path. I am expected to walk in light, love, and wisdom. Yet I find I have no legs to stand on.

James 4:10 tells us that we should humble ourselves before God, and He will lift us up. I Peter 5:6 reiterates this sentiment, encouraging us to cast all worries and doubts upon Him who cares for us. In every passage that recounts our helplessness before God, his grace and mercy is described as negating those obstacles between us and Him.

The imagery of God’s hand is replete throughout the Old Testament, and the prophet Isaiah encourages God’s people with the news that His hand is able to save them from their helpless state if they would but take it in Isaiah 59:1 . We may be unable to walk on our own.

We may be unable to make the Christian journey on our own legs, but remember Jesus in Mark 2 when helping a paralyzed man. He asks the scribes around Him which was more difficult, to make him walk or to forgive his sins. With this man, Jesus does both, and today He gives us the ability to walk with Him because of the forgiveness He offers.

Running Toward the Goal

The child at Disney World was not content to walk, though. Even on his artificial legs, he wanted to run, and he ran so well, he could have fooled those around him had it not been for the shorts he was wearing. Likewise, I Corinthians 9:24 encourages us to run to obtain the crown. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to run with endurance toward Christ, but to do so we have to be willing to lay aside anything that burdens us.

I personally like the account in John 20, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John of the empty tomb, and both race to see it for themselves. John makes it first, but Peter runs right past him and into the tomb itself. For all intents and purposes, these two should have been strangers to each other by now — the disciple possibly closest to Christ and the one who verbally denied Him. Still, they set aside their differences, and they ran toward Christ. We can do likewise. Though we have no legs of our own, through Christ we can run.