Saturday, November 24, 2012

Holy Ambition

Took my heart away from money
Ain't interested in fame--
And I pray that'll never change
Ambition is priceless
It's something in your vein...
by Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, aka "Wale"

What do you think of when you hear the word ambition?  What does it look like and what picture/scenario comes to mind?  Is it someone in a suit at work early and staying late hours?  Is it a medical or law student scheming to sabotage other students grades so that they can be ranked #1?  Is it an athlete staying in the gym after others have left or a coach with glazed over eyes still reviewing film from last week's game?  Is it a young, impoverished child idolizing and imitating gangsters and gang-bangers (there's actually a difference) for their ill-gotten gain?

One online dictionary defined ambition this way, "an earnest desire for some kind of achievement or distinction, as honor, power, fame, or wealth and the willingness to strive for its attainment."  This definition caught my attention because it makes clear that ambition, while closely associated with the idea of desire, is not in itself the thing being chased after.  But ambition is the thing that determines how fierce and faithful we are in the chase itself.  Ambition is not what we race for, it's what determines whether we will run the race well or not.  It was an important insight for me because most of the images associated with ambition have been negative and self-glorifying to the harm of others.  But clearly, ambition need not be a detriment nor must it be strictly secular.

The Apostle Paul writes,
"and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, 'Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand."
Romans 15:20-21

In verse 24, he makes known his desire to pass through Rome on his way to Spain, which to anyone alive at that time would represent the western-most part of the world!  Paul's burning passion, the thing that ran through and in him was preaching the gospel, specifically where Jesus was not yet known.  And this was not for some kind of "Me First-ism" or a self-righteous means of glorifying himself above other evangelists.  His stated reason for this entrepreneurial focus on gospel proclamation is to honor the prophecy that he quotes from Isaiah 52:15.  So Paul is propelled into preaching either because he sees his ministry as a fulfillment of that scripture or because he is entirely confident in God's providential power to bring the verse to it's manifestation.  Either way, the Apostle to the Gentiles is a fantastic example of a man with ambition but for the sake of God's glory and "Advancing the Kingdom Agenda".   

What about you, friend?  What's in your vein?  What is your ambition and how does your passion reflect your love of and loyalty to God?  Many say that they have made themselves available to God to be used by Him.  That may sound spiritual, but it also may indicate a rather passive approach towards Christian service to me.  Where is there any evidence of your own willingness to take hold of a Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-empowered, God-honoring task?  If it's not there, or if you're not sure, it's certainly worth the time to seek God in prayer and in His word to discover the glorious purpose for which you were created and a holy ambition to carry it out.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Will of God... Thanksgiving

“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is THE WILL OF GOD for you in Christ Jesus.”
1st Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Thank you”. It's one of the first things we are taught to say. Not only one of the first but one of the most repeated lessons we must learn from our parents/guardians. As infants, we were not only unable to say it, but probably beyond our capacity to understand what thankfulness really is. After all, weren't we “entitled” to food, shelter, and clothing? Children must be reminded to express gratitude because it isn't natural to them. As cute and adorable as they are, they are also self-centered and sin naturally.

Are adults really any better though?

We rarely think of gratefulness as a spiritual discipline (if you think about how hard it is to be grateful at times, you'll agree that discipline is the right word!).   But a life of thankfulness towards God is embedded in all of the Holy Scriptures. Whether it is the sacrifices of Abraham (Gen. 12:7, Gen. 14:18-20), the psalms of David (Psalm136), Jesus thanking God before breaking bread (Matt. 14:19) or the letters of Paul (like Thessalonians)- giving thanks to God is the natural expression of the God-centered life. When we forget to thank God, it's usually because we are too focused on self.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men... for although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God NOR GAVE THANKS to Him...”
-Romans 1:18-25 (read for context)

Yes, when God's wrath is poured out on humanity, it is in part because of their lack of gratitude towards Him. We often forget to thank Him because He's been so faithful that we come to expect good from His hands because of how good he's been over the years. That speaks to His love for us, but also, our human tendency to prioritize self over God.

Giving thanks for ALL circumstances seems difficult to imagine. But this IS the will of God for those who are in Christ. Think of Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament from a prison cell. He was even thankful for his imprisonment. Why? Because it reminded him that although he was locked up, the gospel was still unchained ( 2nd Timothy 2:8-10). The church could continue without him so he gave glory to God by encouraging the next generation of leaders like Timothy. 

"I thank God this Thanksgiving Day for clarity", said Pastor Henry Gaston during our TNMBC Thanksgiving Day service.  I thank God for clarity too.   He has revealed His will with total simplicity so that we are not stumbling in the darkness.  The will of God for you and I on this and EVERY day is to give Him thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Nature of Saving Faith

The Roman Catholic cartoon above lampoons the protestant doctrine of "Sola Fide": justification by faith alone.  The image concedes that faith is the engine behind works but claims that protestants disconnect faith in God from works.  Unfortunately this kind of misrepresentation convinces many who assume that when one makes a distinction between two things they are also and invariably disconnecting those two things.  

They're wrong.

Consider the body: muscles and tendons are distinct.  You would be wrong to say that muscles are the connectors and tendons contract/elongate to make motion possible.  Clearly, each has its own function but neither is found alone- they're symbiotic.  Think of blood: you would be wrong if you thought that white blood cells carried oxygen and red blood cells fought against disease.  Again, blood has distinct parts (don't forget plasma!) and while we can discuss the elements that constitute blood, we're not separating them.  We simply recognize differing roles although they are united.

Considering the 2nd chapter of James, we understand that many have confused the writings from verse 14 to 26 as being in contradiction to the writings that have come to us from God through Paul (especially in chapter 4 of Romans).  But this is an oversight due to poor comprehension of the passage in James.  Let's look at some of the verses as rendered from the NIV:

"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, "you have faith; I have deeds."  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that--and shudder."

It's clear that James is talking about a person who has not merely made a distinction, but also a disconnection between faith and works.  Not only that, but the kind of faith that's in view here is not the vibrant, dynamic brand that reveals the rich deposit of trust and confidence in God.  James is talking about mere mental assent which only qualifies a person to be in rank with a demon.  For a fuller discussion on the different types of faith, I recommend the article entitled, "Faith Defined" from Ligonier Ministries.  The "faith" that is simply mental assent says, "I believe" but stops there.

The nature of saving faith is revealed in works that come from and are in line with trusting the message that comes from God; specifically the gospel.  The Apostles as a group along with the earliest disciples went about preaching and teaching on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  They didn't merely huddle in corners memorializing their Master.  The obeyed His command to go and make disciples as expressed in Matthew 28:18-20.  Their deeds were fruit, rooted in faith, not severed from faith.  This is the pattern in Christ: faith produces deeds.  Saving faith says, "I believe, and God empowers me with the grace to do". 

But James explains that this pattern isn't merely a New Testament thing, it's simply a God-thing.  It's always been the case that those who believe will "do" from their believing.  They always act on their faith.  James, like Paul, points to Abraham who believed God enough to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  Genesis 15:6 makes it clear that Abraham believed God's promise to give him innumerable descendants.  And yet, he trusted God enough to offer up his one and only son.  Hmmm... sounds a little familiar...might be pointing to a message that we must believe too... and then live in a way that lines up with that belief.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Will of God... Sexual Purity

The following is a re-post from the TNMBC Young Adult Bible Study Group on Facebook from June 9, 2011

"It is God's will that you be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;"
1st Thessalonians 4:3

A college student I know was very happy in her dating relationship.  As far as she was concerned, everything was perfect.  Her boyfriend was very attractive, excelling academically, active in young adult ministry at his church, well-liked by her parents, etc.  So she was very serious when she asked me how to know whether or not it was "God's will" for them to be together.

She certainly hoped so  because one of the wonderful qualities of their relationship was that they had already discovered that they were "sexually compatible".  Okay...

I had to share the passage above in order to explain why from a biblical perspective, she and her boyfriend were NOT "in the will of God".  She was very shocked to discover this since she was very convinced all was well.  After all, they were in a loving, long-term, and monogamous relationship and had always been 'very careful' in their sexual exploration (not very careful to obey God's law... but very careful in other ways, apparently).  

What I ultimately discovered was that she was looking for some kind of sign or confirmation that God had already given the green light on a decision she had already made.  And this is the major temptation for us all:  as fallen and sinful humans, we are naturally rebellious and routinely seek out an excuse or a rationale to exalt our post of view as right even when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise.

In another passage, the Apostle Paul says, "But among you there must be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity... (Ephesians 5:3).  When he says, 'not even a hint', there's not a lot of breathing room, is there?

The issue is bigger than sex.  It's about sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit empowers us to be less and less under the power of sin by making us more and more like Jesus in thought, behavior, and character.  Being holy means being separate, and set apart for God's purposes.  In a generation where seeing it all and doing it all by/before age 18 is acceptable and applauded, the Christian is challenged to stand out and invite ridicule for what many call "out-dated and old-fashioned".  

But if you're a believer in Christ, it's personal.  You were bought and ransomed from sin at the cost of Christ's blood.  You are no longer your own, therefore, you honor God with your body.  It's God's will.

Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1st Corinthians 6:18-20

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gospel of God vs Gospel of Man

"We cannot escape our destiny nor should we try to do so.  The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia.  In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the Dark Ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The American people have a genius for splendid and unselfish actions.  Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind."  We are indeed, we are today, the last best hope of man on earth."
-- Ronald Reagan, The Shining City Upon a Hill, 01/24/74

How many times have we heard lines like the one above from U.S. Presidents?  I remember the first time it really struck me.  I was sitting on the couch in my shared apartment in Silver Spring, MD during the 2000 presidential election season.  I heard George W. Bush say something like, "America is the greatest force for good in the world".  My friend who I was living with at the time was not a Christian, nor was he a U.S. citizen.  It struck him as a bold comment to make.  I was wondering, "Isn't the Church the greatest force for good in the world?"

But today, I'm pretty sure that both candidate Bush and I were wrong.  America isn't "the greatest force for good in the world".    Neither is the church.  Nor is it free elections, a laptop for every child, universal healthcare, reversing global warming, the free market, a return to traditional values, etc.  All modern U.S. presidents at one time or other have put forth some grand statement that puts individual freedom, international cooperation, or America itself as "the greatest force for good.  So what's the right answer?  It's the gospel.

But which one?

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of God in power the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 1:1-4

We all know that the word gospel means, "good news" and many have heard that the Greek word itself is euangelion.  But what many don't realize is that the first century readers of the New Testament would have recognized euangelion or gospel from a completely different context: Roman imperialism.  Yes, the term was a familiar one that would have indicated any of the following among other things:

1.  Yet another victory for Caesar or his agent over a military enemy or new conquest
2.  The arrival of Caesar to your hometown or region
3.  The crowning of a new emperor which would mean that the previous Caesar was now divine

So the gospel of Rome was fully and firmly founded in the faith that her emperor was godlike and had power to not only preserve the empire, but to extend it.  And that extension was certainly for the greater glory of Rome to be sure.  However, it was also for the betterment of mankind.  You see, the Romans saw other peoples as barbarians and savages who needed to be conquered so that they could learn the ways of enlightened Rome.  Sound like anything you've heard over the years?

Caesar Augustus, who had one of the longest and most peaceful reigns over the empire had coins with his face and this inscriptions on those coins like:  The Savior of the World, Augustus- Son of God, Salvation is in no Other Name, etc.  When you compare this to Acts 4:12, you come to some shocking conclusions about the counter-cultural, in-your-face nature of the Apostles' preaching and teaching.

So this isn't just about Rome and the USA- but the truth is that every nation, has a "gospel".  The goals of every administration in government and the platform of every political party- all of them are announcing what they believe is good news for all people.  It's the gospel of the City of Man- humans and the nations they build are exalted above and independent of the sovereign God- the only true God.  They may never say so openly, but what else can we conclude when national leaders point to their country as "the greatest force for good"?  Oh yes, be assured that the City of Man speaks of god, but it's a god who helps them, serves their purposes, and never rebukes but always rewards the City of Man with divine "blessings".

But Paul brought forth a totally different gospel.  It's not the gospel of Rome, not Caesar's gospel, not the gospel of Athens and Greek wisdom, not even the gospel of Moses and the law- but the gospel of God.  And that gospel is not without a King.  It is completely consumed with Christ- the true Israel and thus, the true Son of God.  Eternally existing in the form of God but born as a man and now revealed as divine via resurrection.  This King also conquered-- not by killing others, but by dying to self and denying His rights.  He was glorious but lived for the glory of another- His Father.  He was ruler of all but came not to be served, but to serve for the benefit of His servants.

That's good news!

The gospel in our Christian usage has simply swallowed up the Roman version of it.  And no wonder, for it is the Father's announcement entrusted to believers to declare the rulership of Christ over sin and death via the cross and now among His people/Bride, through the Holy Spirit.  Think about what kind of boldness was necessary for Paul to write a letter to believers living in Rome- the very heart of the empire- announcing the gospel of God, not the gospel of Caesar.  What are the implications for believers... especially those living in capital cities today?

In closing, I know it's Election Day 2012.  And I'm not here to diminish what goodness there is in the relatively peaceful transition of power that takes place every four years in this country.  It is, in fact, something to celebrate.  As one who has lived overseas, I have a very special appreciation for this aspect of American living.  But I do want to encourage you to consider how important it is not to be deceived into embracing Americanism, one-world globalism, the world is getting better through scientific advancement-ism, we can solve our problems by working together-ism, etc. as the "gospel" of what will make the world better.  The promises (electoral or otherwise) made by the City of Man may be well-intended but are ultimately empty and doomed to failure.  It is the City of God that we look to as the "best hope of man on earth".  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Politics Still Matter For Non-Political Christians

"So far, I don’t see evangelical Christians being very shrewd about the political world, shrewd enough to protect their own interests with a candidate who can’t win without them. And that’s the reality. Romney can’t win without you; it’s not that you can’t win without Romney. May we never forget the order of things! And may we never stop thinking carefully about what “winning” is. Winning isn’t the election of a Republican. Winning is the advancement of the gospel, the sewing of a biblical vision of the ‘good life’ in American life and culture, the strengthening and spread of the cause of Christ through His Church, a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. That’s a far loftier goal than either electing Romney or defeating Obama, and it doesn’t depend on who “wins” the election when neither candidate really represents you."
--Thabiti Anyabwile 

I am truly grateful to Brother Tyrell Samuels who let me know about the wonderful article where the above quotation is found.  I'm also grateful and encouraged that Pastor Anyabwile, while somewhat disgruntled at the selection between the major political parties, wasn't endorsing a total retreat from politics altogether.  Instead, he confessed his own need for a "new political sojourn".  Many Christians are  feeling a lot like a certain 4 year old girl who has gotten a lot of press lately-- we're all tired of President Obama and Gov. Romney's campaign.  But hopefully you'll find a few reasons to stay engaged with the process during AND between elections.

1.  A nation's politics reflects a nation's respect for the truth.  Think about it.  Would we be seeing half-baked commercials if either major party actually respected the public?  The American voter has been treated to two major distortions that have a smattering of truth in them: A) President Obama doesn't think entrepreneurs "built" their own companies  B) Gov. Romney was lumping/mingling war veterans and the mentally disabled in with his statement about "the 47 percent".  

But we live the time of "gotcha" politics-- it's not about discovering what a person really means in context.  Politics is about how to snatch your opponents words to make them fit YOUR narrative.  This means that the politicians and their handlers know that most citizens are either too lazy, distracted, disinterested, etc. to research a claim for themselves.  Or, it could mean that they are certain they don't have to convince "the base" with truth.  Just give them reminders of what they're already indoctrinated to believe (Republicans will kill old people and love the rich, Democrats will make us look weak in Foreign Affairs and destroy business, etc).   

As Christians, we dare not be deceived into thinking that this kind of problem is self-contained in politics.  When people totally mangle the Scriptures because they've always heard but never read "judge not, lest you be judged" for themselves, it's the same disease but in a different realm.  A fever at work is a fever at home too.  Therefore, if we're willing to stand for truth in our churches, demanding contextual accuracy in the pulpit, we ought to demand it from public officials as well.

2.  National politics is a main contributor to the use and abuse of language.  "A woman's right to choose".  "All military options are on the table".  "Government shouldn't choose who you should or shouldn't love".  "Perhaps I misspoke."  We could go on and on.  There are dozens of phrases that are now "political-speak" and Christians had better be aware of those statements.  If nothing else, the disciple of Christ who is hoping to broaden their influence for Christ needs to stay on top of these mind-bending statements so that they know how to counter them.  For example...

One of my least favorite among the jargon is the statement, "A woman has a right to do as she pleases with her body."  This is political-speak for, "If a woman wants to end the human life in her womb, she has a right to do so."  But the earlier statement is used because of the implications for the so-called "pro-life" position.  If you're against elective abortions (an elective abortion means that the abortion procedure is  not necessary to save the life of the mother), it means you want to control a woman's body and think that she shouldn't have a say over her own body.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As a "pro-life" libertarian-leaning individual, I firmly support a woman's right to do what she wants with her body.  I'm against that woman harming the body of another- specifically the human body that is naturally housed within her as a result of sexual relations.  I don't need a Bible verse to prove that a fetus (which is the Latin word for "infant")  is alive-- that's why they have to kill him/her.  I don't need a pastor to know that the baby is a human (human parents can't make anything else).  So unless someone can produce evidence that an unborn child committed a capital offense, they shouldn't be executed- especially without due process.

I'll mention this in passing:  I am equally displeased with the idea that a candidate can be "pro-life" and at the same time endorse preemptive military strikes.  The kind of carnage produced by unnecessary, unconstitutional wars (no declaration of war by congress), doesn't come from a truly pro-life perspective.

3. Political images are carefully chosen to make arguments that could not be won with words.  If you live in Maryland like me, you've recently been flooded with flyers regarding Question 6 and "marriage equality".  My wife and I had noted how the first flyers were simply beautiful pictures of the First Family and some quotations about "the freedoms we hold dear".  No actual content on the issues, just pictures and the imperative: Vote  Yes on Question 6!

But then I saw a more recent flyer.  It had a picture of newborn twins and presumably the same twins as children.  The two pictures talking about how much the same they are being born minutes apart and that the law should treat them equally.  But then, the twins are adults in the third and final picture.  It is then that we are told one of them is denied her dream and because she's a lesbian, the laws are unfair for her.  Therefore, we should vote "yes" for question 6.    

It's a stroke of genius because what's said in pictures could not be successfully argued with words.  The photos in that arrangement with that narrative backdrop implies that the lesbian was "born that way".  And so, through no fault of her own, her behavior and choices already locked in, she needs my vote to set her free to marry.  When you have a good photographer and a decent writer, you don't need a scientist.  

Remember the Zeitgeist movie?  Much of the power in that presentation was the similarity of imagery between mystery religions and early symbols associated with Christianity.  In modern America, images aren't merely evidence.  Pictures are proof.  I know Zeitgeist is already considered old, but trust me, there's another documentary coming that will go viral and shake many.  

So as I see it, the political realm is a crucial one for Christians to participate in because it's a barometer for where the nation is and is headed.  I'm going to vote because God could have given me Haitian parents who were in Haiti at the time of my birth.  But He didn't.  He gave me Haitian parents who lived in NYC so I know I'm a U.S. citizen by His sovereign choice.  I don't think He made me a citizen so that I wouldn't vote.  That's my conviction.

The vote is a public expression of a private opinion.  So, if you choose not to vote and have good reasons, I would urge you not to keep those reasons to yourself.  Have the courage to influence the various circles you are in and be willing to both speak and listen.  If you are a Christian determined to vote, I challenge you to worship God (not the government) with your vote.  Honor Him by having a free conscience, being assured that the platform of the candidate you choose is as close to God-honoring, biblical principles as possible.  Don't worry about which candidate wins, make it your aim to vote to the glory of God.