Who likes to be weird?

The answer is “no one.” It is certainly a coup for our enemy that the church has been historically afraid to be different than the culture around us. On one level it makes sense: we want to be liked. On the other, it’s a miserable capitulation to our fears: we are already “liked” by the Lord who purchased us. Is there more that’s really necessary?

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).  

The “charge” the apostle Paul speaks of is their instruction, their teaching.  Timothy was serving the church in Ephesus.  That town was full: idols, issues and interests.  It was probably true that you could seek and find just about whatever you wanted there.  Paul sends the young pastor into such a place with a teaching whose aim is love.

Love is acting for the good or the glory of another.  What determines what is good is God Himself.  Still, Paul spends more time in this verse on the motives that drove love: “pure heart” and a “good conscience” and a “sincere faith.”  It is difficult to parse these out as if they were different aspects of the human soul.  The Bible uses “heart” and “conscience” in ways that are often interchangeable.  There are differences to be sure, but perhaps the best we can do is say our love of others should be driven by motives at home in God’s throne room.  

Motives are tricky things.  No one is able to act with the purity, goodness or sincerity of the Lord fully: there will always be a little of me in my love for you.  That is to say we always have a little bit of an angle in our service for each other.  There is always some “how can I benefit from this….” driving what we do. That might explain Paul’s emphasis.

Paul’s charge to Timothy was to penetrate a culture wildly committed to the glory of the self with a message of selflessness.  There really is nothing more odd in our culture than to exemplify its opposite, right? In our culture, the institutions that have bound us are crumbling or our commitment to what they represent has waned.  Now, too many of us are too easily driven by what “I think is right,” what “I want to see happen,” what “will benefit me”…all no matter the cost.

Beloved, if we revive the motives of God to pursue God’s ends, that will be very weird to our culture.  So, weird, in fact, that, by God’s grace and power, we will be able to build a kingdom that will bring down all the rest.  Our culture has no shortage of sycophants. It needs critics but not just critics, examples of what human flourishing really looks like: those striving to be conformed to Christ, courageous in their lives and compelled to serve.

That’s the kind of weird that gets noticed.

Now What?

Beloved, last week was a wrecking ball of a week in our culture.  I want to be honest with you: let’s not pretend that this is just another transition of power for I believe it is not.  I have been a student of politics and this is unlike any of the transitions in the modern era. Something has happened to us as a nation, in part, I believe, because something has happened to us as a church.

Now, established in many levels of government are elected officials who have expressed or demonstrated antagonism towards: the Church and its worship, the unborn and their protection, the gospel and its promotion.

In many of these elected officials, there is evidence of criminal conduct, unethical practices and inclinations towards personal gain.  That isn’t new, but now, through many of these elected officials, the philosophies of man that are directly and openly antagonistic towards the gospel have open doors for influence.  Philosophies such as “critical race theory” and “intersectionality” that promote a victimization mindset and open rebellion against all established norms as a policy including, e.g., tearing down statues, riots, “defund the police” and shutting down worship in churches.  

However, lest we believe our troubles are only found there, we have to recognize that we as a church have for too long given up our prophetic voice in our culture, buying into pragmatic ends that aren’t truly consistent with God’s word and His kingdom.  For example, whereas at one time we judged men unfit to serve by their immorality, many have revised their views and now baptize anything that can bring benefit to our flesh: our retirement, our comfort and our health.

It strikes me that at almost every level, the nation is divided.  How have we become this way?  Beloved, the church is not innocent.  We have not always served the disadvantaged, advocated for the downtrodden, acted for the good of a person’s soul rather than his psychological well-being.  It is complicated to live as salt and light in our culture and we have not been too terribly successful.

In short, now we are reaping in our culture what has been sown since the American Revolution, the Enlightenment, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the Moral Majority of the 1980’s and the ubiquity of the Internet.  Additionally, the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, the opportunism of many in politics as a result, the fear and panic it has engendered in our population, all point to the same thing: as a culture we are no longer anchored to the transcendent.  Every man is doing what is right in his own eyes and not the Lord’s.  And, beloved, we are too often guilty.

So, now more than ever, the church of Christ must be a praying church.  Our prayers, however, must be proper before the Lord.  All along, He has been building His kingdom, a kingdom that stands apart from the kingdoms of men.  Must we pray that our government, academia and entertainment reform and return to promoting what is good?  Absolutely. Every day.

But, the trajectory revealed to us in the book of Revelation indicates our culture will descend away more and more from seeking the Lord and promoting the good.  If we are going to penetrate the culture effectively with the gospel, we must not be ignorant but we must be prayerful.  That:

  1. All faithful citizens, Christians whose allegiance is to the Lord come hell or high water, would be men and women of godliness, compassion, service and courage.
  2. All believers would not be fearful or silent but winsome and joyful witnesses in all our spheres of influence. 
  3. God would strengthen His church to be a place of refuge, wholeness and “home” to our culture as it decays into violence.
  4. The church would be truly discerning promoting what is good and praiseworthy, turning away from idols and temporal promises.

Beloved, this is no time for fear.  But it is also no time for pining after a time in our country when (we think) things were better.  Our cultural rot has deepened and it needs the church to be free from it, finding our home and hope instead in Jesus Christ.  The culture needs to “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2:12) but so does the church!  It needs us now more than it ever has. And the gifts of God in the Word, the Church and the Spirit are more than adequate to meet this cultural challenge.  Let us ask the Lord to fill us with His Spirit that we might be the church our generation needs.

Heaven soon,
Pastor Gabe

COVID-19: lessons learned?

I recently asked on Twitter, “Has anyone given any thought to what idolatries COVID-19 is exposing in the church and our culture?”  Perhaps this is a better way to learn must-know lessons from all of this.  The number of articles on the web connecting in general terms this virus with God’s judgment are few and far between.  Two helpful ones I’ve found are by R. Scott Clark and Chris Gordon.  Both are worth reading as they are neither alarmist nor dismissive.

The bottom line is the coronavirus has simultaneously punched more holes into American evangelical idolatries than anything in recent memory (including 9-11).  Consider the impact of COVID-19.  (These are simply sketches or else this would be a very long post. It’s already long.)

Case #1: idolatry of isolation.  Sure, we’re complaining now because we have to maintain distance from each other.  But why?  Haven’t we learned over the last 15 years or so to be content with social distance?  In the years between 2007 (the first iPhone) and 2020, it’s become more than “OK” to confine our “relationships” to texts, Snaps, tweets, or posts instead of calls, visits or hangouts.  We’ve all seen the pictures of four young adults sitting at a booth at a restaurant each one looking at her phone.  You rarely catch anyone without a phone on his person or within her reach.  I remember reading what I thought was tongue-in-cheek but probably was more true than I realized, when courage for a millennial was defined as “leaving the house without a phone charger.”

Parents would harp on the dangers of time spent in front of a screen for the sake of the eyesight and health of our children.  But even that isn’t the greatest cost (buy some glasses, for heaven’s sake).  No: we were forgetting how to be human.  What has gone unseen is the tearing of the fabric of being human.  As a culture were forgetting we are not designed by God to be isolated.  In the church?  Our level of isolation while perhaps not as great is condemnably close.  For many in the church: out of sight, out of mind.

That is until now.  God’s providence is showing us the dangers, the loneliness, the pitiable condition a person truly is when he chooses isolation. We think human flourishing and social distance can really work.  At least we did.

Case #2: idolatry of health.  This one is obvious.  Perhaps in the church we wouldn’t admit that we idolize our health (which, I think, is easily refuted).  But what do we make of virtual-everything-church?  Yes, I know, now “overreacting” equals wisdom.  “Loving our neighbor” now means protecting him from getting the virus even if we know we don’t have it.  Wait: is that right?  (I tend to think it means going to Walgreens to get Mucinex for a sick congregant but what do I know?)  I think our forebears in church history would take us to task for a view like this.

Who knows really how deadly COVID-19 is?  That’s the problem, truly: it’s “novel” or new so we just don’t know.  Taking precaution is essential but it seems as if we are running for our lives.  “I’m not afraid; I’m just being cautious.”  I hope so.  That’s a really fine line.  I wonder if the virus works itself out in such a way that we are “burdened” by caring for each other exposed: what then?  Christian, is your health or your life more important to you than it should be?  Are you afraid to go out?  Are you looking over your shoulder to make sure you have 6-feet spacing?  That may be idolatry.  (Side note: if we truly get sick, when our idols are overturned and we’re sick anyway, is social distance what we need most?)

Case #3: idolatry of wealth.  Another straightforward one yet more complicated than our personal health.  Livelihoods matter.  People must work because God made us this way and it is the means He’s given to provide for our needs (mostly).  As in 2008, long term savings and retirements are now at risk.  Those on the cusp of retirement or those in fixed income situations are facing serious circumstances.  In cases when the basics of material living are in jeopardy, we must act in relief-providing ways.  All of us (who aren’t reeling from case #2) have the responsibility to stand in the gap for our neighbors.  Now more than ever.

I guess the questions this all forces us to ask are two-fold.  Are we now in financial or material jeopardy ourselves because our hopes were pinned to our accounts that now are being pillaged?  Are church members numbered among everyone else enslaved by debt (credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc.)?  Are our dire circumstances such that we cannot pay what we legitimately owe?  Or, is your lifestyle so exaggeratedly connected to material prosperity that the future scares you?  Treasures in heaven just don’t mean that much to too many people.

The second question to ask is, has the church prepared stockpiles of mercy for those in need?  As the leader of a church I confess ours has not.  Perhaps our own ministry azimuth has been slightly off.  We need to think about this.

Will we “waste” COVID-19 and hope and pray only for a return to sounder, more “normal” times?  Or, will we ask the Lord to show us in what ways we must change the way we view our lives and our faith so that it is God’s kingdom rather than our own that we pursue?