The Meaning of the Cross

Image result for crucifixion

“For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing and denying the Lord, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.” Isaiah 59:12-13

I participated in Lent for the first time this year. It is not a tradition of my church, but I’ve known many friends from other denominations who “give up” something for Lent. Although the tradition has never held a special meaning for me, there has always been a part of me that somehow felt left out because my family didn’t participate. Of course, there is another part of me that takes pride in being different from so many other Christians in this respect. So this year I compromised. I decided to give up something for Lent that was different from what anyone else gave up. I gave up Netflix.

Ok . . . maybe it wasn’t the most creative choice I could have come up with, but it was a sacrifice for me. And if Lent is all about putting distractions aside to focus on Jesus’ sacrifice, it just made sense. What I learned surprised me.

Not being able to watch my favorite shows on Netflix turned out to be a easier than I thought. After the first couple of weeks, I found that I hardly missed it, and I was able to spend more time with God and with other people. I actually started to think that this change was making me holier. But then Holy Week arrived, and I realized just how unprepared I was. I hadn’t changed in that 40 days. I was still the same stubborn, rebellious man I had always been.

And it hit me that no matter what I give up, I will be just as unholy and undeserving of God’s love as ever. And that’s ok because Jesus didn’t die for those who deserved him; he died for those who needed him. And that’s why I’m going to celebrate his resurrection tomorrow. Not because I’m a good person but because Jesus loved me and because his death mended the rift I caused by my sin.

That is the meaning of the cross and of the empty tomb. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And by his death he opened the door for us to enter freely into the presence of God. I can find no better words than the famous verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the worlds, he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

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Why Millennials Need to Grow Up

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” Hebrews 5:12

Millennials get a bad rep. We are known as the “Me Me Me Generation” and the “Peter Pan generation.” Although these labels may be unfair, I think there is also some truth to them. At the stage we are at in life, it is tempting to enjoy all of the freedoms of adulthood with none of its responsibilities. So many of us end up straddling the middle-ground between childhood and adulthood, and it’s not a new problem. In fact, I think C.S. Lewis described our predicament pretty well in The Last Battle, the final installment of his Chronicles of Narnia. Susan, one of the original four visitors from our world to Narnia, becomes too caught up in her social life to have time for Narnia. Another character explains, “She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll  waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

This is the reality for many millennials. We don’t have children or aging parents who rely on us, but we do have disposable income and relatively few debts. It feels as if life is ours for the taking. And that’s why older generations see us as selfish. Here are a few areas in which I think young adults can improve.

Spend Time with People Who Are Not Your Age

In school, we were surrounded by people our own age. Although it’s natural to continue “flocking” with others in our age group, it can be severely limiting. I have made friends with some incredible people who are in their fifties and up. Seek out the wisdom of elders, not just because you need it but because they need our perspective as well. They are our connection to the past, and we are their connection to the future.

The same goes for the younger generations too. If you don’t have kids now but hope to someday, why not practice your parenting skills now? Spend time with kids and teenagers in your family or your church. Babysit. Help out your youth ministry. Volunteer at an after-school program. There are so many ways to invest in kids, and it’s easy because most of them will think you’re awesome simply because you’re a “big person” who is giving them attention. And speaking of volunteering . . .

Volunteer Your Time

As young professionals, we have more free time than most. And what do we do with that time? Binge-watch Netflix? Play weekend-long tournaments on Xbox? That is not living. Living is loving and serving others. And to do that we need to get off the couch. Get out and find a need you can meet. You shouldn’t have to look far. There are needy people everywhere. You don’t have to leave the country to see the effects of hunger, racism, AIDS, or human trafficking. However, you might have to leave your personal boundaries that filter out people of other economic, educational, or cultural backgrounds. Find a cause that fires you up, and even if it takes more than you thought you could give, even if it requires you to do things that freak you out, you just might be changed by it forever. And if you don’t know where to start, try a local church. And that brings me to my last point.

Stay in Church

Our generation is making a mass exodus from the church. And I get it. The church fed us fun and excitement for our teenage years but very little meat. If you’ve ever been to a youth group that was just trying too hard to be relevant, you know what I mean. When we were craving solid food, we only got milk. There was a time when I wouldn’t even consider sharing my personal doubts and struggles with other Christians because I was so afraid of being misunderstood or judged. Thankfully, God led me to people I could trust, and with his help I have been able to leave my church baggage behind. But even if you are still nursing wounds the church has intentionally or unintentionally caused, that does not give you the right to leave. If anything, it gives you the responsibility to stick with the church in order to make a difference for the next generation. To (mis)quote John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church.”

Get involved in a local congregation. That means becoming a member and helping out wherever you are most needed. If you have a knack for teaching, sign up to teach a Sunday School class. If you are a good cook, help with the church picnic or the hospitality ministry. If you would like to see a ministry the church doesn’t have, start one yourself. But whatever you do, don’t be a pew-warmer. Understand that no church is perfect because every church is made up of imperfect people. But be humble enough to work with those people in spite of their mistakes, hypocrisy, and sinfulness.

There are a lot of young adults who are doing these things already. In fact, many of those who are currently making a difference in the church right now are in their twenties and thirties. So ask yourself, where do you fall? Don’t just go with your knee-jerk reaction. Think about it. I am sure you can find at least one area in which you have room to mature. I know I am not doing my best in all of these areas. It is our responsibility to change others’ perception of millennials. So let’s grow up.

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What fruit are you bearing?

“What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” Isaiah 5:4

It has been quite a year. This year I have seen a crisis in Ukraine, another war in the Middle East, and a deadly disease that has affected half the world. I saw all hell break loose in Ferguson, Missouri and a restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I became an official member of my first church, said goodbye to a good friend, made a new friend unexpectedly, came out about a life-long struggle I had kept hidden, and accepted a call to the ministry. I worked a lot, prayed a lot, read some good books, and watched far too much television.

With all of the ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, it’s hard to find the meaning behind it all. But one thing is certain. I am not the same person I was a year ago. God is working through every moment of my life to make me into the person he wants me to be.

Isaiah paints a lovely picture of the the hand of God at work. In reference to the nation of Israel, he describes the vineyard of the Lord. “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”

I can almost see God clearing out the debris in my life and replacing it with seeds of love and of righteousness that he causes to grow. But the story doesn’t end there. Isaiah says that God “looked for [the vineyard] to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Despite all of the good things the Lord put into his vineyard, its fruit was bad. Why was it bad? Is God a bad gardener?

No, the fruit was bad because the vineyard had a mind of its own. Remember, Isaiah is actually talking about the people of Israel here. Israel rebelled against God. That’s why Isaiah says that the vineyard produced “wild grapes.” The takeaway here is that people become who they are due to a combination of the circumstances God puts in their way and the choices they make.

We can either submit ourselves to God’s will and allow him to finish his work in us, or we can tell God to buzz off and go our own way. But the Bible gives countless warnings against those who reject God. A few verse later, Isaiah tells how God will deal with the vineyard full of wild grapes. “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

But what does the Bible say of the one who honors God? “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” That is why we must reflect on our lives, consider what God is teaching us, keep his word in our hearts, and commit to keeping our lives in line with his plan. If we do this, each year will be better than the year before, as we grow in his grace.

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What is Christmas?

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

I’m sure a lot of bloggers are sharing their thoughts on Christmas and what it means to them today. As with all of the “big” questions, there are many right answers to the question, “What is Christmas?” but there are also some wrong answers. Today I would like you to know what Christmas is not.

Christmas is not a chance to shamelessly demand all the gadgets and clothes we’ve been pining for all year. It is not an excuse to spend all our cash and run up our credit card bills at the mall (or online). And it is not a time to be selfish.

It is not the one perfect day of the year, and it is not a vacation from responsibility or an escape from all of the unpleasantness of life. Christmas is not a denial of war, sickness, or grief.

Jesus did not intend for any of those things when he came to earth. In fact, let me tell you some facts about his birth. The night the Son of God came into our midst was not a silent night, and I can guarantee it was not peaceful. A stable is probably the last place any mother would want to give birth, surrounded by animals and filth, but that was the only space available. The humbleness of Jesus’ birthplace illustrates the significance of his coming. He left the splendor and glory of heaven to inhabit a world that was not worthy of him, knowing that many would not welcome his coming. He came not as a conquering king, as the Jews expected, but as a carpenter turned traveling preacher. He did not bring a message that was easy but brought condemnation on those who were considered righteous. He did not claim to be one of many ways to God but the only way to God. He received a death sentence he did not deserve, but death could not keep him captive. He did not renew the world instantaneously but left his disciples to begin the church, which would carry his gospel to the world.

Christmas has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with Him. It is a time when we should consider what Christ has done. It is a time for us to thank him for coming to be with us. And it is a time for us to look forward to his second coming.

I pray that you may experience Christ this Christmas. Whether it is for the first time or the ninety-first. He is the reason we celebrate. Without him, not only Christmas but our very lives are meaningless. Thank God for Christmas!

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Joining the Conversation

I don’t like watching the news. Or reading it for the matter. It seems to always make me depressed about things I can’t control. But when the protests broke out in Washington and New York this weekend, I couldn’t ignore them. Even I could see that something critical was happening in our nation.

When I first heard about the Michael Brown case, I dismissed it. It was tragic, but it didn’t have much effect on me. I didn’t agree with those who accused the officer who shot Brown of being a racist, but I also figured that was their business. I didn’t realize that the outrage over Michael Brown’s death and the jury’s refusal to indict the officer was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past few days, I have taken some time to look into the events leading up to Saturday’s protests. I was disturbed by what I found. I heard the voices of so many African-Americans who felt marginalized and denied of justice, and they were angry.

Since last weekend, I have begun to question my assumptions about race relations in our country. I had thought they were fairly good and gradually getting better, but these events proved otherwise. The truth is, I’m sure I would have noticed this issue if I had been willing to look. Just because I have not personally been affected by racism does not mean it doesn’t exist. And if I continue to ignore it, someday I will pay for it.

My point is this: as tragic as the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner were, one positive outcome is that they drew my attention to the race issue. I cannot say if those incidents were specifically caused by racism, but they have opened a debate on the subject. And a heated one at that. I am no longer willing to turn aside from that debate. I am willing to listen to what my fellow Americans, both black and white, have to say. I am willing to work toward reconciliation. I am willing to do my part to make peace.

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Here am I! Send me.

“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.'” Isaiah 6:8

I know I’m not a good person. I don’t always do the right thing. Some things I have chosen to do even though I knew they were wrong. Other things I have chosen not to do even though I knew they were right. Some things I have done thinking they were right only to realize later that my motives were all wrong. And then there have been times when I simply don’t know what to do. But I can think of a few times in my life when I know I did the right thing because, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do.

A few weeks ago, I had a moment like that. I realized that the only thing I could justifiably do, given the circumstances, was to go into full-time ministry.

This is the point where I expect my readers to make up their mind whether or not they want to finish this post. Some of you may be intrigued. But for those of you who think this post won’t be relevant to you, I encourage you to stick it out. If you must, skip to the last paragraph. Once you’ve read my final thoughts, you may judge for yourself what I have to say.

For the rest of you, I’d like to let you in on how exactly I got to that moment. You could say I’ve “felt called” to some sort of Christian ministry since I was about 12 years old. But for almost as long, I have been painfully aware of the fact that I’m not the, er . . . pastoral type. It’s not that public speaking is a problem for me. I actually enjoy speaking to a crowd. It’s just that most of the pastors, teachers, and youth workers I’ve seen are so . . . out there. They’re friendly, energetic, and for lack of a better word, cool. Those were not the words people used to describe me growing up. Thoughtful, maybe. Intelligent. Hard-working. But far from the “life of the party.”

What’s more, I heard so many of peers express dreams of going to Bible College and becoming a youth pastor, that I sort of got turned off to the idea. I guess I’m not a very good follower. Instead of trotting off happily to Bible College with everyone else, I decided to take aim at a “real job” and study mechanical engineering.

Needles to say, I hated engineering and barely lasted a year in that major. I went in the direct opposite direction by choosing Communication instead. But that first year of college was pivotal for me. I learned two valuable lessons. One, there is no”type” for ministers. I met a youth pastor who was about as far from the stereotype as you could get. He was soft-spoken and a little nerdy but had a big heart. The youth group he led was small, but the teens loved him, and I could see the impact he had on their lives. Since then, I have met several other ministers who simply don’t fit the mold. I’ve learned to appreciate the diversity of people God calls to his service, equipping them for the work they must do through his divine power. For even the Apostle Paul said “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”

The second lesson I learned was that I felt most alive when studying, discussing, and teaching the Word. This has continued to be my passion, but for a while I was still afraid to follow it. My argument was “Every Christian has a responsibility to make disciples. But we also have the responsibility to work for a living!” Adding to this attitude were the voices of many trusted friends and family members who kept telling me how smart I was and how I shouldn’t let all of that intelligence go to waste. This made sense to me, so I figured I was better suited for academia than the church.

But God has a way of getting his point across. Sometimes he has to take away the things you love most to make you realize that you don’t need them. A few months after graduation, all of my carefully laid plans for grad school went down the toilet. I had a mountain of undergrad debt, no financial aid and no job. Desperate, confused, and almost in despair, I ended up withdrawing from the school I had planned to attend and taking a job in a warehouse in my home town. What followed, to my surprise, was the most life-changing year I could possibly have imagined.

I continued to attend the church where I had grown up, but that congregation had changed since I was young. At first I wondered if I should look for a church that would better fit my needs, but then it hit me that God wanted me to meet the church’s needs. I began looking for ways I could serve the church. I organized a prayer walk and started a young adult Bible study. People began to see me as a leader, and I rediscovered the joy of Christian ministry.

Despite all of these signs, I continued to resist the idea of ministry as a career. I had so many questions. “What if I can’t find a job?” “How will I pay off my student loans?” “What if I can’t relate to the people I’m trying to minister to?”

But one question rang out far louder. “If I don’t do it, who will?” During that year it became clear to me that the church was hungry for leaders. I saw the harvest as plentiful but the workers few. If this was the situation, there was only one thing I could do. It wasn’t a question of when how or why I would go into the ministry. It was simply a question of whether or not I would obey the call. In that moment, I answered, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

So for those of you who skipped to the end, first of all, you should go back and read the rest of the post. I mean, really. Stop being so lazy and do it. Done it yet? Ok, good. Now here’s what I want you to know. You may not be called to full-time ministry yourself. But I want you to carefully consider what God is calling you to do. Are you resisting his plan because it doesn’t make sense to you or it requires you to give up something you love? Let him have his way. Because after all, he always gets his way in the end.

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So when you say, “love your neighbor,” you don’t mean HIM . . . right?

“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your hear and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:27

What does the phrase “Good Samaritan” bring to mind? A nice person? A children’s story? The title of a sermon? While the story of the Good Samaritan has developed that connotation through centuries of teaching and retelling, it was meant to be a very serious illustration.

You see, in Jesus’ day, stories were not just meant for entertainment as they are in our culture. Stories were often a medium for spiritual or moral instruction, both for the educated and the common man. The recipient of the Good Samaritan parable was of the former category. He was, in fact, an expert in the law. This man was so intelligent and so knowledgeable in the Jewish law that he decided to put Jesus to the test and try to make him look like a fool.

He must have been ready to strike down whatever answer Jesus gave to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus threw him for a loop by asking him a question. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man’s training didn’t fail him at this point. He gave the perfect answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus did the last thing this “law expert” expected. He agreed with him! “Do this and you will live.”

Frustrated that Jesus had managed to end the debate before it began, the man asked another question. “And who is my neighbor?” You may think this was a dumb question. That this great man must have really been grasping at straws. But it was actually fairly legitimate. The word neighbor in Hebrew meant more than someone who lives near you. It could be translated as a companion, friend, or associate and was used in a variety of contexts. It was fair for the law expert to ask, “Who am I really supposed to love?”

But once again, Jesus didn’t give him a straightforward answer. Instead, he told a story:

A Jew was walking along a busy street, minding his own business, when he was suddenly attacked and robbed. Naked and bleeding, left for dead in the gutter, several people passed him by. Even those who were considered religious were too busy to stop. But then finally a Samaritan, someone who was supposed to be his enemy, stopped. These two men had no business even talking to each other because of their cultural differences. But disregarding this social rule, the Samaritan tended to his injuries and set him up with a place to stay.

Jesus concludes his parable with another question. “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” He turns the man’s question on its head, as if to say, “You’re asking the wrong question! Instead of asking who am I obligated to love, ask how can I be loving to those around me. The man lying in the gutter was basically the farthest from a neighbor the Samaritan could find. He had no connection to that man. He didn’t know his name. They weren’t even the same nationality! But nevertheless, the man was in need, and the Samaritan chose to see him as a neighbor.

I hope this changes your understanding of the command to love your neighbor. If you look around, you should see people lining the gutters of your neighborhood. People who have been mistreated, stepped on, and abandoned by the world. These are not the people anyone naturally feels love toward. In fact, they may seem like the most unlovable people you can find. But God commands us to love them just as we love ourselves. The magnitude of such a commandment is completely overwhelming. It’s not possible to love everyone! But with God all things are possible. That’s what is so awesome about this story. That it requires us to depend on the Holy Spirit to fulfill the command of God.

May He give you strength to love those around you with the love of God.

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