January 28, 2008

Leaders are Held to a Higher Standard

Near the end of high school, I felt God calling me into full-time ministry. After a lot of wrestling with God, with myself, with how that would all play out; I followed. I spent five years in college learning some of the ins and outs of ministry, studying the Bible, Greek, Hebrew, theology...just gaining a foundation, and by the end of that time...I still felt inadequate. I felt like I needed more.

So I enrolled in a Master's program. I assumed, like most people do, that college and advanced academic study enhances your knowledge about the topic and answers the questions you have. I expected all this study to answer my toughest questions about God and the Bible, and, in a way, it did answer those questions. What I didn't expect was that it would give me more and harder questions and fewer and fewer answers. You have a lot more questions, but at least they are better questions, tougher questions.

The more I learned about God and the Bible, the more I realized the Sunday School answers, given by well-meaning Sunday School teachers, didn't cut it. They were inadequate, and sometimes created more problems than they answered.

These are shortcut answers. They get the person to stop asking the hard question, but do not really answer the question. Sunday School answers are necessary and important in one way...they give us some kind of answer when we aren't ready intellectually, spiritually, emotionally for the deeper answers. But we can't get stuck in those simplistic answers.

Many people who grow up in the church leave the church because they want more than the simplistic Sunday School answers they have received. The simplistic answers aren't cutting it any more, and no one seems to be talking about the deeper ones. They can't talk about the deeper answers because they don't know how to deal with the harder questions and deeper answers. They have stopped growing, and sometimes view the questioning as doubt.

I have a ton of questions. Some day I will sit down with God and ask Him all of them. As for right now God answers many of my questions with "trust me and follow me." So that is what I do. I trust and follow.

This has forced me to hold on to some things about God even when it isn't crystal clear that what I believe about Him is true. For example, I believe that God is loving, merciful, cares for sinners, and is gracious and forgiving. But when I look at the Old Testament and some of the things that happened, I have to struggle to believe it is the same God.

I think many of us do.

The story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus is one of those stories.

Nadab and Abihu

Leviticus 10:1-2, "Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

A little later in Leviticus 16:1 it says, "The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD."

In order to deal with this passage effectively, we have to stop and remind ourselves that God is loving, forgiving, and merciful. But we also have to remember that God is Holy and Just. We have to start by believing that God is not going to arbitrarily murder someone.

These two passages say that Nadab and Abihu were put to death because they "offered unauthorized fire" and "approached the Lord."

They offered "unauthorized fire."
This means they took fire from a place they weren't supposed to, and used it to burn the incense before the altar of God. Priests were to burn the incense using coals from the altar of God. These coals were holy because God lit the fire of the altar himself. The priests were commanded to never let this fire go out so that the fire would not be the common place fire used to cook food and keep a person warm.

They approached the Lord
This indicates they may have tried to enter the Holy of Holies when it was not their right or responsibility to do so. One time per year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies. He would be wearing the garments that symbolized his penitence and sorrow for sin. Smoke from burning incense would conceal him, and he would bring the blood of the sacrifice. In later times, the high priest would tie a rope around his waist, just in case he died while in the Holy of Holies, so that other priests could pull him out.

At first glance these seemed like such small infractions; not something that deserved death, but I think the answer lies in the fact that their sin is about more than just the actions they took.

Leviticus 10:3 hints at this deeper meaning. Immediately after Nadab and Abihu are struck dead Moses says to Aaron, "
This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: 'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.' "

A better wording might be, "All who approach me are to regard me as Holy. I will be respected in the sight of all people."

These young men were not "bad" men. They were privileged to be part of the Elders of Israel and to eat and drink in the presence of God. Exodus 24:9-11 says, "Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank."

They were part of the preparation of the tabernacle.

God chose and ordained them as His priests. And, being a priest is where I believe our clue to the severity of this action lies.

Being a priest carried with it a tremendous responsibility.
As priests they:
represented the people to God (sacrifices, feasts, celebrations, prayer and intercession)
represented God to the people (administration of Torah, spoke His word to them)

But here we have two priests (men who represent God to the people and the people to God) who take God and his commands lightly, and treat God as common place. By using unauthorized fire, they treated God as common place and willfully disobeying Him in front of His people! By approaching the Lord they took a responsibility that was not theirs. It was the responsibility of the high priest, and only the high priest, to enter the Holy of Holies.
They did things their own way, and expected God to accept it rather than follow the ways He prescribed.

This is more than just a sin...this is an irreverent disregard for God and His commands and a treating of God as common place...by His own priests in front of the people. If God's priests were going to treat Him in such ways, how were the people going to treat Him?

God recognizes the fallibility and sinfulness of people; even those who are to serve Him. He had no false expectations that His priests would live a sinless life. He knew they would sin. He knew they wouldn't always get it right, and they too would need atonement. In Leviticus 16, Aaron is commanded to sacrifice a bull every year on the Day of Atonement for his sin and his family's sin before entering the Holy of Holies. Hebrews 5:1-3 says, "Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people."

There was no expectation of perfection, but He did expect respect. He did expected His priests to regard Him as Holy. To be holy means to be set apart, reverenced, awed, respected. We can replace the Holy with any of those words. "I will be awed by those who approach me." "I will be reverenced by those who approach me." "I will be respected by those who approach me."

I think their punishment was harsh because they were God's priests, His leaders, and they treated Him as common place and without the proper honor due Him. The ultimate God of the universe, by nature of being God, deserves respect and obedience, and those who claim to be leading the people in His name should never treat God as common or presume on His behalf.

A couple of years into my college experience, one of my religion professor was upset at the class because so many were skipping class. Finally, after he couldn't take it any more, he stepped around the podium and said, "You wouldn't go to a doctor to have your appendix operated on if you knew he had skipped class the day they taught how to operate on appendices. You owe it to your future congregation to be present in this class. You are getting grades for a better report card or even a better church. You are working as a workman for God."

That day I realized what it meant to do my best to bring honor and glory to God in my academic life. This passage reminds me that in my role as a leader, as follower of Jesus in my everyday life, I am a representative of God before the people. I must ask myself, Am I bringing the proper honor and glory to God? Or, am I treating Him as common place?

January 24, 2008

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Isaac Newton

There is a cartoon I saw while starting my last church plant. The cartoon pictured three or four people sitting around a table. The caption read, "Even in new churches old habits die hard!" One of the characters had a speech bubble that read, "But Pastor we didn't do it that way last week." Little did I know how true this cartoon really is.

There is something in us that simultaneously hates and longs for the "way it has always been done." We hate the word traditional, but run out and buy white wedding gowns, rent tuxedos, and hold large traditional weddings. We like the words new and innovative, but usually stick with the "tried and true" waiting till it is tested and out of beta. People go to churches that offer contemporary music and rock-style bands, but sing the loudest when the old hymns are sung. We like both old and new.

For some reason, the distance of time creates a form of era-amnesia. We seem to remember the past in a much better light than when we actually experienced it. We look to past jobs, past relationships, and past experiences and forget the pain, the stress, and the troubles. It is as though our minds want to only remember the good times. Maybe it has to be that way. After all, people wouldn't want to remember anything if they also relived the pain of that experience. We try to forget those experiences that cannot be remembered without re-experiencing the pain involved.

People find history, the known, the traditional comforting. Change, while it happens all around us, disorients us. We want some things that don't change because that brings comfort to our world.

There must be some middle ground. There must be some way that gives a healthy respect for history and yet builds toward to the future.

The Bible has a great understanding of history that helps us. It continually reminds the readers that history is important. History is meant to be remembered, honored, learned from, and built upon, but there is no sense of longing to return to some fabled "good old days." The Hebraic culture saw history as moving forward and progressing. It was important to remember, but it was not meant to dominate or be a goal to return to that history. History was the foundation upon which everything current and future was built.

In fact, when the children of Israel longed for the "good ole days" they were considered disobedient. Why? Because they weren't following God toward the goal that lay ahead! Ezekial puts it very bluntly, "So you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when in Egypt your bosom was caressed and your young breasts fondled." They weren't looking to the things of God they were looking back to some perceived better day. But this wasn't anything different than their forefathers who followed Moses into the wilderness. They longed for the comfort of Egyptian slave labor. They forgot their suffering at the hands of Egyptian slavemasters. There seems to be a sinfulness to looking back.

History is the soil in which we are planted. It is the soil in which we are rooted. We continue to grow and reach new heights, not because we are so good or innovative or even different from those who have gone before, but because we are standing on the shoulders of great men and women that have gone before us.

Many think it a dishonor to change the methodology of those giants of the faith, but it is more dishonoring to stagnate and not to build on what they accomplished. Some believe that this person or that person left us the perfect system. They believe that by changing what the person did you are saying the person "didn't get it right." In reality, the change is only possible because the person built the foundation in the first place. It is an extension; moving forward in the spirit of what that person accomplished.

This serves as both impetus and warning to church planters, young leaders, and pastors. We must move forward missionally, but we must also honor the foundation of those who have gone before. We really are not doing anything all that cutting edge and different. It does look different than at times in the past. It has different verbage and technology. But we aren't the first to use contemporary music (see Martin Luther) or any of the many other things that we think qualify us to be called innovative.

The problem is that most generations have enculturated the Gospel to their time and audience, and then stopped growing. They failed to keep moving forward, missionally, and became content with the changes they had made over the previous generation.

I guess the question for us is not only "What do we need to do to present the Gospel to our culture?" but also, "How will we continue to change our presentation so that future generations will be able to receive it as well?"

January 23, 2008

Even Janitor's Can Have High Goals

When my friend Tim finished shoveling the snow at the church, he set his sights on higher accomplishments!

January 18, 2008

We Need More Than Band Aids

This past summer my daughter learned to ride her two-wheeler without the training wheels. It took several days and quite a few crashes. For each crash her knees acted as the buffer between her and the ground. I thought her knees would fall off. She would get up, sit next to me for a few minutes, and then get back on the bike. When we got back to our house I applied the mandatory 326 band aids to her knees, and, probably more beneficial, mommy would provide the necessary kisses.

The band aids worked for my daughter's skinned knees, but wouldn't work for more serious problems. We would be upset if our doctor applied a band aid to our stomach to "cure" an ulcer. The ulcer is a deeper problem and requires a deeper fix. He needs to use something more than just a band aid.

I don't mean to demean the lowly band aid. It has its place. No medical invention has replaced the cheap, quick-fix a band aid provides. The band aid, however, can't replace the deeper healing of a prescription (and sometimes the prescription is just a more expensive band aid) or surgery. We would drop the doctor if a band aid were applied for such a serious illness.

But sometimes we take this same kind of short cut in our lives. We sometimes apply band aids when we should be applying a scalpel.

Be Transformed

The Apostle Paul told the church in Rome, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." The remedy they (and we) needed is more than just a temporary, quick-fix solution. They needed something deeper; a transformation by the renewing of their minds. T

Their sinfulness, while forgiven by Jesus' sacrifice, needed a deeper work. They needed to apply God's forgiveness and allow the Holy Spirit to change them; to change them at their deepest level. Jesus' forgiveness was the beginning, but, to use an old churchy word, they needed sanctification (spiritual growth; becoming mature). In order to enact the greatest change you must work at more than just a surface level.

This deeper work requires more than just a quick-fix. That may seem like a "no duh" kind of statement, but I don't think it is. We live in a culture that believes anything worth having is worth having now. We have fast food restaurants that outsource their drive-up window order-taking because it cuts 30 seconds off the wait time. 30 seconds! I have rarely sat in a fast food line hoping for an extra 30 seconds...better food maybe, but not 30 seconds. But that need to hurry and get IT faster seems ingrained in us. The quick-fix fits the "right now" mentality, but doesn't really accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

Many take that "right now" mentality and try to apply it to their lives. They look for a band aid to get them where they want to be. They try to quick-fix their way into a deeper relationship with God. But spiritual growth and maturity does not work like that. It takes time and effort. I think that is why Paul often referred to spiritual growth as to athletic preparation. It is the long, slow, day-in-day-out work that enables the athlete to succeed.

More Than A Band Aid Living

How many times have we applied a band aid rather than the necessary scalpel needed for a deeper work? Have we taken the cheap, quick-fix rather than invest the hard work necessary to make real changes? I have been guilty of doing this in my spiritual life...expecting that next great revival or retreat to help me grow closer to God. I have done this in my leadership...just expecting people to follow. I have done this with many areas of my life, but I have learned a very important lesson.

Quick-fixes never work on the deeper problems!

In fact, anything worth doing is worth doing right, to steal a cliche. If you are going to take the time to address a problem, go to the root of the problem and start working there. Getting to the deeper problem doesn't mean people stop making mistakes. It just means that the quick-fix mentality is surrendered in hopes of discovering a more permanent solution to the problem. The goal is to get to something that is lasting and effective.

A few months ago I wrote about getting more consistent in my devotional life. I needed to stop expecting the next great move of God to fix my consistency problem, and just become more consistent. I stopped whining about not being able to get up early, and started going to bed early and making myself get out of the bed in the morning. I had to actually MAKE myself get out of bed. In time it became easier. I started spending consistent amounts of time with God, and as I worked on becoming more consistent I actually BECAME more consistent. I took responsibility for my part of my spiritual growth, and God was faithful to hold up His end. He was working before, but now I was allowing Him to work even more because I was available.

As I became more consistent, I realized how weak all the band aids had been in the rest of my life. They hadn't really accomplished anything of lasting value. They had stopped the bleeding, but they hadn't cured the root problem. So I began to apply this to the rest of my life, and, while I am not perfect at it, things have improved in many areas.

Here are a couple things I have learned:

1. Getting cured at a deeper level often hurts. Just like surgery. It hurts for a while, but the end result is far healthier.

2. I have to take responsibility. I can't blame anyone else for my problems. I have to take responsibility and put in the effort required to overcome my own desire to get it over with.

3. Real cures take time. I am not going to be able to be super-Christian, super-athlete, or super-leader overnight. If it smells like a rat...

What are some areas of your leadership that may need more than a band aid?
What are some areas of your spiritual life that may need more than a quick-fix?
What will it take for you do the deeper work?

New Design

It has been a while since I redid the look of my blog. In fact, I used to change it every couple of months. With the change in Blogger format, I wasn't able to find the right format.

I have to give props to BlogCrowd.com. They have some really great blog templates, and I was able to adapt the Misty Template to these colors and pics.

What do you think of the new look?

January 10, 2008

Not Good, But Not Bad Either

Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the movable type printing press, and he changed the printing world forever. His invention made mass-printing of books easier. Gone were the days of hour upon hour of painstaking hand copying or carving the letters into a block of wood (much like creating a rubber stamp)! The printer could simply insert metal letters and mass produce one page after another. The letters could then be reused; a true innovation in printing.

I don't know of anyone who would say the printing press was a bad idea. But for all the things gained, very few realize or care what was lost. There was a craftsmanship and artistry to creating books prior to the press. Scribes spent hours not only copying the words from manuscripts, but added phenomenal artistic design. Binders sewed and glued and created one-of-a-kind covers.

Significant Change
Probably the most significant change is that we became a reading culture. There were people who read prior to movable type printing press, obviously, but the mass-produced page was the first step in moving us from a spoken word storytelling, word-of-mouth culture to a printed page culture. While there are people who can tell a great story in today's culture, we have lost the art of the spoken word storytelling.

There are many revolutionary inventions that have changed the culture that could be argued to be not good, but not bad either. Cars, now an almost necessary part of existence, enabled us to travel many miles, opened up the world around us, and made travel much quicker. Cars have also brought pollution, financial headache, and insulates us from the human interaction that is part of foot or animal transportation. Computers make information more accessible, but also online predators. The list could on and on, and could include cultural movements as well.

Everything Costs Something

For every advancement in technology and every major move in culture and philosophy something valuable has been gained, but something valuable has also been lost. It isn't that technological advancement is bad, it is just that its use caused something to be very valuable to be left behind.

I was thinking about this as it pertains to churches.

Sometimes in the drive to grow larger churches we miss the opportunities we have at each level of the church's growth and development; we fail to enjoy the current stage because we are always looking and driving toward the next stage. We forget that for every growth barrier broken something valuable is gained, but something valuable is also lost. In moving from a house church to meeting in a building, we see God reaching more lost people, we know the excitement of serving others, and we have the stability of a place to meet with others. But we loose intimacy, accountability, and have to spend more time developing the program and services.

One friend of mine, to put it in business terms, called it a cost analysis. You weigh the pros and cons of a particular action and then decide if it is the way to go. But I don't think it is that cut and dry; it isn't that something is necessarily good or bad...they are just different. They are both good and both bad for different reasons. I don't think it is fair to classify it even as a pro or a con as that seems to indicate good and bad. This is also a realization that moving from one phase to the next means the birth of one thing, but also the death of something else.

Is it wrong to be a big church? No. Is it wrong to be a small church? No. Is it right to be either? No. They are just different and both have their own positives and negatives.

Finding Your Own Way
Too often we like to castigate others who don't see our way. Or, because we don't want to be so boldly rude, we simply say things like..."Big churches are just impersonal"..."Healthy churches are growing churches"..."All the big church cares about is numbers"..."You get what you lead." While all these can and sometimes are true, they also hide a criticism that is unhealthy for the Body of Christ.

I have heard some church leaders so bold to say that if you can't lead in a certain way then you shouldn't be in ministry. (This is not saying that the church has no say in whether you become a pastor or not. I believe that if a person is truly called, the Church will recognize that calling, and if, after several places, the Church will place you in ministry you may need to reevaluate God's calling. It may be a more general calling to ministry as we are all called to do the ministry of the church, or it may be to a particular niche and not full-time ministry.) What is that person supposed to do with the call of God on his/her life and the leading of God to a particular place and position?

The secret, I think, is for each minister to seek God's face, and then follow Him. He or she is responsible for obedience to God'ss leading whether that is to a house church, or small, medium, or large church. Once in a particular ministry we are called to produce fruit; which may mean growth, but may mean something else in that particular location. Often I think it has less to do with growth than it has to do with faithfulness in whatever situation God places you. If you begin to grow...are you faithful? If you begin to lose people...are you being faithful? There is no room for laziness.

What do you think? Do you think we sometimes push forward to things ahead and miss out on what is presently being done? Do you agree that something good can be gained at the expense of something else that is equally good in different way?

January 7, 2008

Politics in the Pulpit

As we enter the new year and look forward to the next presidential race, Out of Ur and Christianitytoday.com has a very informative article about Politics from the Pulpit.

Allan R. Bevere, author of the post, lists the things a church may and may not do:

1. Pastors may personally endorse a candidate.

2.Pastors may also personally work for a candidate and contribute financially to his or her campaign. No church may contribute to a campaign.

3. Pastors may even endorse a candidate in print, such as in a newspaper ad. The pastor's title and the church s/he is affiliated with may also be listed for the purposes of identification.

4. Pastors may also preach on moral and social issues (abortion, gay marriage, economic matters, etc.) which, depending on the pastor's views, may by implication throw support behind one candidate over another.

5. Churches may organize voter registrations and drives as long as they are directed at all eligible voters and not only toward voters of one political party.

6. Churches may hold forums where candidates address the issues.

7. If a candidate visits a church during worship, he or she may be introduced publicly.

8. Churches may host candidates who may speak from the pulpit, as long as that candidate is not directly endorsed or urges the congregation to vote for her/him.

9. Churches may distribute non-partisan voter guide giving information on where each candidate stands on the issues. Churches should be warned about using guides that come from outside sources as they may be deemed to be partisan.

10. Churches may use their premises as voting stations.

As we enter the political season, I remind myself that the Church, while it has a responsibility to vote and participate in the election, should not expect a political candidate or government program to do its job. God calls us to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and to start a grassroots movement of holiness. Since morality moves from the inner person to outer practice, changes happen only when the inner person is transformed not an exterior law enforced.

January 5, 2008

What I Have Found Helpful

I just learned that Google has made available a share page from their Google Reader app. Whenever I read an article or something and feel it is valuable, I share it, and you can go an read that article.

I have had an application on the side of my blog for awhile, but Google now gives you your own page. It looks great.

If you want to check out some of things I have found useful enough to share, check it out here. Topics are VERY varied.

January 3, 2008

We Are Shopping Ourselves Out of Jobs

I just ran across this article on Fastcompany.com...The Walmart You Don't Know.

In the article Steve Dobbins, CEO of Carolina Mills say:

"People ask, 'How can it be bad for things to come into the U.S. cheaply? How can it be bad to have a bargain at Wal-Mart?' Sure, it's held inflation down, and it's great to have bargains," says Dobbins. "But you can't buy anything if you're not employed. We are shopping ourselves out of jobs."

How is that for an apt description of American Consumerism.

Is Walmart to blame for America's problems? No, but they, along with others, are a symptom. It would be too easy to blame them. They make a very large target.

They are a symptom of a much deeper problem...our desire to have more...to be more...to define ourselves by what we own...to have the right image...a deep sense of emptiness...a deep-seated lack of fulfillment.

Do you think the Gospel has anything to say to this?