Defending Your Hope

“Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 
Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. 
Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ 
may be ashamed when they slander you.” 
1 Peter 3:15, 16 (Common English Bible)
            Notice that last sentence, “Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you.” Very often in my ministry people express surprise when they are on the receiving end of ridicule and laughter for living a godly life. They somehow have the notion that a godly life results in admiration and respect from others. I wonder what world they grew-up in. It has always been my experience that following Christ with integrity and living a godly life is difficult today. Not because that life is so hard but because it draws so much attention from others – most of it negative. As a child I remember being labeled a “goody two-shoes.” I have never been certain what that expression meant. But I always understood that it wasn’t a complement.
            I am particularly surprised when self-identified good Christians express astonishment when they are “maligned” for their exemplary life and values. Don’t good Christians read the Bible? The Bible has never made it a secret that following Christ is risky business. That wonderful preacher and author, William Willimon once put it brilliantly: “When we follow a man who was ridiculed, hated, spat upon and eventually nailed to a cross we should not think we are going to get off any better.” A Christian lifestyle takes considerable courage. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.
            These few sentences offer encouragement. They are honest that ridicule will follow a decision to live a godly life. But they also tell us that if we remain resolute, maintaining humility rather than expressing haughtiness in a Christian walk those who make fun of us will eventually be put to shame. We need only to remain faithful to the high calling of Christ in our lives. God will take care of the bullies who seek to malign us.
            There is something more, of course, here in these few sentences. Some people who notice our decision to live for Christ will not malign us; they will inquire of us what it is that we have. They will be those who have grown weary of the way of the world and are desperate to go in a different direction. The author of these sentences tells us to be ready to give it away. Recently I stepped up to a Starbucks in the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton. The barista looked into my eyes and asked, “What do you have?” Naturally, I thought this was a clumsy request for my beverage order. “A tall latte, please,” I responded. “No, what do you have?  I see it in your eyes. What do you have?” Then I saw tears in her eyes. She took a break and we prayed together.   



What Love Requires

“Don’t love the world or the things in the world.
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them.”
1 John 2:15
     Initially, this sentence of scripture unsettled me. There is much in this world that I love. Professional football is right up there, particularly the Philadelphia Eagles. This love for the Eagles is demonstrated in the time and resources I have given to the Eagles franchise. Hours and hours are given each season to watching the Eagles play. Often I watch the games wearing Eagles apparel that over the years has cost me a small fortune. During the workweek I show my love for the Eagles by wearing one of two neckties emblazoned with the Eagles logo. Taken at face value, it seems God is offering me a choice, the Eagles or God. I can’t love both. 
     Yet, I was suspicious. Why would God have trouble with the Eagles football team? In the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, God creates everything on the earth and everything above the earth. Then God looked at all of it and said it was good. True, there may be a little self-aggrandizement going on here but nonetheless God admits to being pleased with the world – and even the things of the world. Isn’t it fair for me to love football and still love God? Perhaps initial impressions of this sentence of scripture require a little more scrutiny.
     I once had a wise professor say that if I had difficulty understanding a sentence of scripture then I was to read more scripture. Prayer and paying attention to what I knew about the character of God was also helpful.  As I have already demonstrated, there seemed no reason for God not to like the Eagles or for objecting to my love for this NFL team. So I prayed and read more scripture. In the very next sentence of scripture Paul explains what he means. Paul is speaking about cravings and appetites and ambitions that are contrary to God’s purposes for us. In this world there are values and systems that run counter to God’s perfect desire for us. And Paul’s concern is that we are becoming too cozy with those values and systems. These things of the world hate God and seek to disfigure God’s perfect creation. 
     Then what are we to do? There is really only one answer – continue to grow in our knowledge and love for God. That is how we can tell the difference between those things that God calls good and those things that work against God. Consider this. When we fall in love and marry we continue a quest to know and please our spouse. It would be ridiculous to say to our true love that we don’t have the time or interest in learning their favorite activity or food. Our spouse would be speechless if we say that there are other things we would rather be occupied with than paying attention to them and pleasing them. A relationship with God is no different.

His Purpose

“His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” 
Ephesians 4:12, 13 (Common English Bible)
     Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life is a passionate spiritual autobiography by Lauren F. Winner. Here is the story of a young woman, the child of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, who chooses to become an Orthodox Jew. Yet, following her faith decision, Winner experiences what she describes as an inescapable courtship by “a very determined carpenter from Nazareth.” 1 She eventually coverts to the Christian faith and begins looking for a church in New York City.
     As so many do, Winner writes that she church-hopped, sometimes visiting as many as three churches on a single Sunday. With each church she manufactured good reasons never to return to any of them. In her book she courageously acknowledges that the real reason for not returning to any of them was that she did not want to do the hard, intimate work of actually becoming part of a church. Anonymity was attractive; skirting any responsibility that may come with membership was more attractive still.
     Apparently that “determined carpenter from Nazareth” remained unsatisfied. Church-hopping eventually wore Winner down and she grew increasingly dissatisfied with not being expected anywhere on Sunday morning. With the smallest nudge by a campus chaplain she commits to one church.
     Winner’s story is not unique. Many people today experience the courtship of that very determined carpenter from Nazareth. Yet they fear making a commitment to a particular church. The reasons are many. Some fear the claim such a commitment may make on their lifestyle – both financially and time. Others are simply exhausted by life and seek only to restore their spirit by beautiful, compelling worship without further demands upon them. Whatever the reason, they pop in and out of worship hoping to preserve anonymity.
     The difficulty with this approach to faith is that it is less than what God’s desires for us, much less. What the Apostle Paul wants to make clear in these few sentences from Ephesians is that God’s desire for us is more than spiritual refreshment. God’s desire is spiritual maturity. And the standard measurement for that maturity is Jesus Christ. Pay attention to what Paul says here. God’s method for making that a reality is for us to settle into a particular church and participate in some ministry. It is by our own engagement in ministry – the work of the church – that God completes our growth in Jesus Christ.



Mutual Care

“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” Philippians 2:3,4 (Common English Bible)
     T. J. McConnell, junior point guard for the Arizona Wildcats “makes everyone around him better,” writes Kelli Anderson in Sports Illustrated. Wildcats coach Sean Miller says that T. J. doesn’t really care about scoring. “I think he judges himself by how he plays the game as a true point guard: running the team, passing, playing defense, winning games.” Another team member, 6’3” junior guard Nick Johnson – himself a player of the year candidate – says that you can ask anyone in the Wildcats’ program who their most important player is, and they’ll all point to T. J. “We all like to score, and T. J. gives us that opportunity. He’s willing to make everybody else happy.”1
     The Apostle Paul would point to T. J. as someone the church is to emulate. Ours is a world of rivalry and conceit. Self-interest seems to be part and parcel of everyday life. Humility is rare, and when noticed, often is regarded as weakness. Most unfortunate is that this is also true in the church of Jesus Christ. Pastors compare themselves with other pastors. Church members jockey for power, position and influence. Rarely is this for leveraging the resources of the church for advancing God’s mission. Often it is to advance personal preferences, opinions and taste. In each of the five churches that I have served as pastor, there is someone who regards his opinion as superior to the common wisdom of the leadership board.
     Perhaps the most egregious example of self-importance is a well-known pastor who approached his alma mater with the promise of a rather large financial gift from the church he served on the condition that his name be placed on a campus building.  The gift would be significant for advancing the mission of the graduate school so the condition was accepted.  Apparently, this pastor missed these words from Paul in his personal devotions.
     It seems to me that a gospel-oriented person would pay closer attention to these words in Philippians. Instead of pursuing their own prestige and position, followers of Jesus are called to make everyone around them better – and to care passionately about winning games rather than achieving personal scores. Naturally, in the church, winning games is all about how effectively the mission of God is advanced. T. J. McConnell and the Apostle Paul can teach us much about that.

1 Kelli Anderson, Catching Fire. Sports Illustrated. January 27, 2014, pages 26-32.