Growing Kingdom People – I Don’t Have to Know “Why?”

Growing Kingdom People – I Don’t Have to Know “Why?”

I need grace.

You might have to overlook some of my initial notions to reach the heart of my message.

I recognize it is important for investigators to pursue the question “why?” as it relates to the recent tragedy in Las Vegas. They need to rule out any collaboration with terrorist organizations or deranged associates.  It is important to know how the shooter managed to stockpile his arsenal, and how he was able to transport so much firepower to a hotel suite.  Text and email messages and random conversations with loved ones and neighbors should all be examined and the topics of gun control and mental health also deserve our attention.  I understand these are emotional issues, but we can’t ignore them, even if our convictions remain unchanged.

It is possible we will discover some pertinent answers to the question “why?’ and find ways to reduce the possibility something this horrible will happen again. If nothing more, we may find better ways to respond if it does.

But honestly, I don’t have to know “Why?”

I appeal to my favorite quote from my father, E. Ray Jones, who used to say, “When people do or say things that unchristian I don’t have to know why.” My father made this statement in a moment when he was tired of people making excuses for their bad behavior or the behavior of others.  Perhaps this is because He was raised poor.  His own father, who was a problem drinker, was killed on the railroad.  My grandmother raised my father and his three siblings in a coal town in Eastern Kentucky.

Dad used to say people in his hometown were so dysfunctional if they didn’t have something to fight about they would make up something. One of his town leaders was so crooked when he died they had to “screw him into the ground.”  The “highway to hell” was never far away, and were it not for some strong Christian influences in my father’s life, it would have become his legacy.

Maybe this is why dad didn’t have to know “why?” People can always find a reason for their behavior.  But at the root, the answer is pretty simple: the human race is sinful.  We frequently wander far from God, and we forget who we are and why we are here.  Therefore, we are responsible for the pain we bring into other people’s lives.

Has something changed? Are we more sinful and is this why people’s actions are becoming more sinister and destructive.  It is hard to determine levels of sinfulness, but I am convinced we have begun to erase the “margins.”

What do I mean by “margins?” A margin is the moment in someone’s mind when they decide they are going to put a gun down or pull the trigger.  It is formed by years of cultural teaching in regards to the value of human life, our accountability to our Creator and historical perspectives on the danger of lost civility.  The marginal moment is packed with values, respect for others and basic human decency.  All of these things, or the lack thereof, rush through the human mind as people decide whether or not they are going to act on their sinful desires.

When the margins are reduced or removed, there is nothing left to pull us back to reality. We “snap.”

And countless others suffer.

I think the authorities should continue to answer “why?” Perhaps they will find something useful.

But the rest of us already know the answer, and we can no longer pretend we don’t. We are a sinful human race, and even those of us who wear the Lord’s name have become complacent.  We are drifting away from God and the cracks are becoming obvious everywhere we look.  We  continue to sin, believing what we do doesn’t matter that much, and we insist on our right to relegate God’s work to second place at best in our weekly planners.

But we never see ourselves as a part of the problem because we are basically good people.  We don’t understand what our nonchalant approach to our faith is doing to society’s margins.

Am I getting a little too worked up over nothing?  Perhaps.

But if margins don’t matter, then why do we take drastic steps in almost every other area of our life to squeeze out the best results?  Are we getting too worked up over nothing there as well?

Sure margins matter. In the moment when we make life’s most important decisions what happens in the margins always matters.

It’s up to us to decide whether or not the human condition and the place the Lord holds in our lives is still important.

If we can take or leave Him, or put him in second place when something better comes along.

And if we discover we, or people close to us have forgotten what it means to be a Christian….

…and something unexpected happens…

…I don’t have to know “why?”

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Growing Kingdom People – A Little “Sweetness” Please

A Little “Sweetness” Please

Don’t be dismayed by the current public debate. A new generation has engaged in the political process. Praise God! For a while there I thought our collective brains had died.

It is common knowledge that cultures which appear calm on the outside often have hot magma boiling below the surface. Under the right circumstances these kitchens of anger and frustration can erupt into anarchy. On the other hand, where people constantly war amongst themselves, a void emerges to invite the cruel hand of tyranny.

Somewhere in-between there is a sweet spot where people speak truth into one another’s lives with mutual respect and love.

From what I can tell, Jesus’ kingdom people are the keepers of the sweetness – “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but don’t shut down the dialogue. Facilitate peace when possible and stand your ground when necessary, but always find a way to invest in those who are coming behind you.

In the words of a great prophet:

‘The young girl dancing to the latest beat
has found new ways to move her feet.
The young man speaking in the city square
is trying to tell somebody that he cares.

Yeah, the ones that you’re calling wild
are going to be the leaders in a little while.
This old world’s wakin’ to a new born day
and I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way.

You better help the voice of youth find
“What is truth?” ~ Cash, 1970

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Growing Kingdom People – Hurricanes, Earthquakes and Tornadoes

Growing Kingdom People – Hurricanes, Earthquakes and Tornadoes

“Why are so many disasters taking place right now?”

Have you asked it?

Have you heard it?

I have.  There are at least four possible “quick answers” to this question:

1) The end is near and God is sending us a sign to warn us.

2) We have messed up the earth and we are experiencing nature’s wrath.

3) We are in an unfortunate cycle that just happens to be concentrated in our hemisphere.

4) We are being punished by God for our lack of faith.

Although we are inclined to reject some of these possibilities, they all have biblical validity. Jesus predicts earthquakes, famine and pestilence in Luke 21:11.  Whether He was talking about events in the near future or those at the end of time, they were clearly supernatural signs.

God put us here to manage the earth, and if we have been poor managers we have no one to blame but ourselves. Yes, it is possible we have finally crossed a line and permanently altered our environment.

When we look at natural disasters that occurred in the Bible, we realize some of them apparently occurred naturally, as a result of the processes placed in motion at creation. Granted, the entrance of sin into the human race (the “fall”) might have changed how these processes impact the human race.  But they are a part of life, such as the famine Naomi and her family experienced (perhaps aided by foreign invaders who had a nasty habit of destroying crops) that led to their departure from Bethlehem.

Finally, we are aware God has used natural disasters to pour out His wrath. The flood stands as a testimony to the fact God’s patience is limited.  The Bible assures us the world will never be destroyed again by a flood, but this doesn’t mean God will never supernaturally manipulate the natural means He set in order to punish the wicked.

The only one of these four possibilities we can discern with any level of certainty is perhaps the second, since we can measure man’s impact on his environment and monitor the consequences. However, even here we are unaware of others factors that might be at work and we are limited by a very small window of data within the earth’s history.

So what do we say to people who want to know “why?”

I believe two responses are always appropriate. First, we should always be humbled by natural disasters.  They are a time to remember how small we are and how brief life is.  We must use every moment of our lives for the glory of God and make sure we live with the right priorities because we never know when everything we have worked for will be blown away.

Secondly, we should look for ways to redeem disaster. Disasters provide an opportunity for the people of God to show grace and love to those who are in need.  This is why it is not appropriate to judge those who are suffering when they are doing their best to survive.   It is not our job to determine people are merely getting what they deserve.  It is our job to love them and point them toward the Lord.

We should be humble and loving and have the attitude of the apostle Paul who said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

I hope things settle down and we are spared further disasters in the near future. Even as I write these words Puerto Rico is being slammed hard by Hurricane Maria.

My advice?

Humble yourself and pray. Then ask God how He might use you to share His love and grace to those who are suffering.

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Growing Kingdom People – Those silly weather reporters

Growing Kingdom People – Those silly weather reporters 

We have all seen them. They stand in high water, walk through rubbish and blow in the wind.

They are the weather reporters who stand in the middle of the storm to bring people like us the latest.

Limbs are crashing down.  Rain is pelting the sidewalk.  Someone is driving through two feet of water.

Boy, will they be sorry!

Honestly, I’m not sure they are necessary…the outside reporters, that is.

That’s right. The cameras show us what is happening.  We could still get the same news if they stood in a safer location.

Besides, its dangerous!  Weather reporters get hit by flying debris all the time.

So, if it isn’t absolutely necessary that they be there (which I don’t believe it is), and if it is dangerous to be there, why do they do it?

Obviously, one reason they do it is for ratings.

Storms “sell.” It is much more exciting to see an actual person getting blown to the ground than a twig from a tree floating across the sidewalk.

Oh, we hope they don’t get hurt!

But do we, really?

As long as people stand for a crash at a NASCAR race, we will have reporters standing in storms.

But there is another reason.  There is something to be said for someone who is able to put us in the story as it unfolds. We can’t be there, but they can.  We live vicariously through them. Weather reporters stand in the storm for the same reason correspondents travel with troops in military vehicles.  They don’t want to just “bring the news”.  They want to take us “to” the news.

Sometimes I ponder why Jesus came in human flesh. The Bible says He came to “dwell” with us, and therefore we know He understands our condition.  He also represented us on the cross where He bore our sins.

Yet, there is another reason Jesus came as He did that I often overlook.

Jesus came to “dwell” with us, so He could show me how to “dwell” with others. When you picture Jesus during His ministry, what do you see?

A man reaching out to the sick and outcast?

A teacher walking into people’s darkness to show them the way out?

A suffering servant?

Jesus came for me, but He came for you too. He came for everyone everywhere.

And while He showed us what He was willing to do for us, He also demonstrated what He wants us to do for others.

At His last meal with the disciples before the cross He washed their feet, then said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).

The next time you read the gospel and you find Jesus in the middle of a challenging moment in His ministry, don’t just think of His love for you. He does love you, no doubt!  But realize He was showing you how to love others.

In His famous teaching on caring for the needy, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).

Do you want to stand in the storm too?

You can.

You should.

You must.

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Growing Kingdom People – The First Day of School

The First Day of School

Why is the first day of school such a big deal?

Other than the obvious.

Students are eager to see their friends again.

Parents take pictures of their children in their new clothes.

And their new back packs.

Mom’s cry.

Kids are nervous.

Teachers pray God will give them the grace to deal with challenging students – who have a way of making themselves known in no time.

Why else is the first day of school a big deal? Perhaps…

The first day represents a new start.  Every school year has its trials.  Some are worse than others, but a new year gives both students and their teachers an opportunity to start fresh.  We joke about our “permanent record”, but teachers know squirrely students sometimes outgrow their behavior.  Then there is that intangible connection certain teachers and students make that creates an environment where the “light” finally dawns.  Newness always suggests possibilities.

School brings structure.  Summer is a time to unplug.  The school year plugs students back into the process of education.  This doesn’t mean they don’t learn without structure, or that summer vacation experiences aren’t important to a child’s formation.  But schedules, assignments and expectations hold student accountable to the learning process, and encourage personal growth.  For some children, who have no other structure in their lives, school may be the only place they find others who believe in their success.

School helps parents let go.  Looking back on my experience as a parent, I believe it took me 18 years to let go of my children.  When they were born, my wife and I took care of all of their needs (Ok, my wife took care of them and I helped).  But as they grew, they became more independent with each passing day.  When they left home it was hard to walk into their empty rooms, but I knew they were ready to make their mark on the world.  School was a huge part of the process.

Every school year is filled with success and failure, laughter and tears. Three are fees to pay, supplies to buy, trips to sponsor, and those occasional unsolicited meetings with teachers.

You didn’t have these kinds of meetings with teachers?

My mom did.

Not so much with my older sister.

Or with my younger brother.

I was special.

Your child is special too, and he or she will be fine. It’s all a part of the process.  Keep praying and enjoy the journey as you see God’s potential unfold before your eyes.

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Growing Kingdom People – Overwhelmed

Growing Kingdom People – Overwhelmed

Today our church leadership is researching an avenue for helping a church family impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The situation is serious and will undoubtedly get worse before it gets better.

It seems no matter how much we prepare for natural disasters we are never ready for the “worse-case scenario.” When havoc strikes we quickly discover critical gaps where people failed to do their jobs.  And as the water rises, figuratively or literally, we reach a point where our system are completely overwhelmed and all we can do is pray.

Not that we don’t pray all along.

But unlike action-adventure films where the hero always has one more trick up his sleeve, in real life we can run out of options. At that point we are at the mercy of nature’s fury unless God, in His providence and wisdom, chooses to intervene.

Just so you know, I believe when our options run out and we lose our lives, God is still merciful. He brings us home to live with Him for eternity and He comforts those who are left behind.

I am merely acknowledging the fact we have limits.

We can be overwhelmed.

Of course, it is possible to think we are overwhelmed while we still have options. For this reason we should not give up easily or expect others to take over when we are capable of doing more.  The feeling of being overwhelmed can also come and go.  Today we feel as if we have nowhere to turn.  Tomorrow we wake up rested and catch our second wind.

But when we have been through our second, third and fourth wind and there is nothing left. When we have used up every resource we have.  When we honestly don’t know what to do next.

We are overwhelmed.

One of the most important steps we take when we reach this place in our lives is to approach God and others with an honest assessment of our circumstances. Admitting we need help doesn’t come easily for most of us.  Letting others help is even harder.  If you have ever had to rely on others when you were overwhelmed you know first-hand how humbling it is to let someone else care for your needs.

It can be embarrassing.

Our privacy is invaded.

Word gets out.

And we are sometimes concerned we will never be able to repay people for the things they do.

But here’s a piece of good news, should you ever find yourself overwhelmed: Most of the people who will reach out to help you have been overwhelmed themselves.  That’s right.  In my experience, the vast majority of those who will drop everything they are doing to make sure someone else is taken care of in a time of need have personal experience in the realm of the overwhelmed.

So should it ever happen to you, don’t be crushed by the fact you need others. There are probably people around you who have been waiting for an opportunity to share the mercy God has shown them with others.

This is the way God grace travels down the line. We freely give what we have received, and one day you will have an opportunity to help someone else going through an overwhelming season.

Pray for the good people in Texas. Some of them have already reached the point where there is nowhere to turn.  Ask God to be merciful toward them and to intervene in their situation and deliver them from harm.

I think of these words from a Rich Mullins song: “We are not as strong as we think we are.”

No sir.

We certainly are not.

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Growing Kingdom People – How to Set Others Up For Failure

Growing Kingdom People – How to Set Others Up For Failure

Most of us do well on tests if we know the questions in advance.

I had a professor in college who always told us what he was going to ask on his tests, and he never asked us anything without advanced notice. I always aced his tests.

Another professor didn’t give us the questions, but he gave us a general idea of the “kinds” of questions he would ask on his tests. I usually aced those tests as well (if I studied).

But there was this one professor…

I still get angry!

It was terrible!

He would ask us questions we hadn’t covered in class or in our readings. One semester I was so frustrated I confronted him in his office and he chased me down the stairs with a broom.

Seriously!

Then his wife died and he married my cousin.

Honest!

Didn’t see that one coming.

Anyway, it still isn’t fair to expect someone to know the answers when they don’t know the questions, or when they haven’t covered the material.

So why do we test people without giving them the information they need to be successful? Why do we wait for them to pass a test they didn’t even know they were taking?

I see it all the time.

Wives and husbands argue: “You should have known!”

How?

Good friends feel let down: “You should have known!”

How?

“What I really needed…”

“But I didn’t know.”

“Well, you should have!”

“How?”

Could it be when we set up tests for people without letting them know the questions, we are practicing a form of legalism? Legalism is hypersensitivity to rules that are used to judge others.  When we create a test and judge others based on their performance, isn’t that the same thing?

Then we post the test results by sharing them with others.  Yup.  We set up tests for the people who love us, judge them based on their response, then share the results with others.

Yes, I do it too.

I have discovered I have a lot more grace in my life when I remember people can’t read my mind, see my feelings or know the details of my day. On the other hand, when I have unrealistic expectations, bitterness and resentment start to take root in my heart.

And guess who is waiting to exploit the condition of my heart by destroying my relationships with the people who love me?  The same one who has been setting people up for failure since the beginning of time.

Stop testing people and you will rediscover God’s grace. You will nip bitterness and resentment in the bud.  And if there are others in your life who keep sliding you more tests and fueling your bitterness and resentment, withdraw from the class immediately!  You may not know it, but they are actually testing you.

My old professor wasn’t such a bad guy (God bless his departed soul). And I didn’t fail his class.  He gave me a “B.”

I earned an “A”.

But I’m not bitter.

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