This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Jeremy Houck

Child of God, husband and dad. I have everything!

Homepage: http://jeremyhouck.com

Trista and I had been dating for a while, when I finally got the nerve to tell her how I felt about her. We were sitting in my car outside her apartment when I took a deep breath and said, I love you. I said it softly and quickly, that way I could back track if I needed to without too much embarrassment. But, she looked at me and said, I love you, too. That was the happiest moment of my life. I don’t remember driving back to campus, or going to bed, or really anything else that happened that night. To this day, it is one of my favorite memories.

Fast forward a little over a year. We were married and there was a man in the church where we were working that started a vicious rumor about me. When I first heard what he was saying I was mad and wanted to show him how Jesus treated the money changers in the temple. But, my anger quickly turned to dread; I had a new bride and what would she think if she heard this rumor? Would she believe me? Would she believe the rumor? The rumor was untrue, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. I didn’t know how Trista would react, I didn’t know what would happen and I was scared.

I made my way home, and asked my new bride to sit with me at the table, I had something we needed to talk about. I told her what was being said about me, and who was saying it. Before I even finished you could see the pain in her eyes. My heart sank until she said one of the most life affirming things I have ever heard. She simply said, I trust you.

I trust you. Those were words of strength and words of hope. As I reflect on that season of my life, I am struck by the fact that very often love and trust are not the same thing. We love people, we feel certain ways about people, we get all warm and fuzzy, or our hearts go pitter patter. Love is a beautiful thing, a needed thing. But trust is completely different. It goes deeper. People can openly declare their love for one another in one breath and in the very next breath stew in their jealousy because love is not trust. Loving you, feeling a certain way about you, has everything to do with me. But when I trust, that’s a deeper level of intimacy.

This month, Wineskins is taking a look at the book of Revelation. John, the disciple who Jesus loved and the disciple who loved Jesus, has been excommunicated on the Isle of Patmos. The Roman government had chosen not to kill John like they had Peter and Paul. Instead they sent him to a small island off the coast of Greece. It was while John was on the island that he received a vision that he writes as an explosion of Old Testament ideas, symbols, names and themes.

Revelation is a book that is often overlooked or ignored because there is so much that we don’t understand or comprehend. Is it a book about the fall of Rome? Does it talk about the fall of Jerusalem? Maybe, it warns about the Catholic Church or Mohammed, or the war between France and England. Maybe, it is talking about things that have yet to happen.

I am sure that there will be many articles this month that will unpack the different aspects or different views of this great book. What I want you to know is that the book of Revelation is a call for God’s Children to trust Him. It’s has become far too easy for folks to go into buildings and claim that they love God. We sings songs about how much we love God, we have shirts printed or bumper stickers on our cars that declare our love for God. Yet, it’s one thing to feel warm and fuzzy about God and another thing entirely to trust Him.

Revelation invites us to trust that God is able to save us when we are in the midst of a crisis and nothing seems to be going right; when it seems that any choice we make is going to be the wrong choice. When everything is falling apart at the seems, it’s not enough to simply feel a certain way about God. It’s not enough to say, I love God. Revelation calls us to learn how to trust God, completely. Trust His actions or His lack of actions in your life and your situation. And, honestly, that’s a call to a depth in our relationship with God where many Christians come up short. Because while it’s easy to say we love God, it’s much harder to trust Him.

Personally, I like the the way that Rick Atchley described the book of Revelation at the Pepperdine Lectureships back in 2013. Rick said “God has a side. Satan has a side. God’s side wins. Choose your side.” We can trust God, no matter what we are enduring here, because in the end He wins.

At the end of the Civil War, there was a hope that finally the words of the Declaration of Independence would ring true across a nation that was struggling to repair the deep fracture that had occurred when brother turned against brother. The founding fathers had declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. As we now know, that was not going to be the case.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to live outside your culture. And, in the South the culture was not as willing to allow all men and women to be treated as equals. That’s why following reconstruction, the people in the South were quick to implement what would come to be known as Jim Crow Laws and continue the sinful practice of segregation. Under these laws, the southern governments claimed that services, housing, education, and transportation should be segregated because these services would be separate but equal. But, in 1954, the Supreme Court finally ruled that while these services were separate, they definitely weren’t equal. And, yet, even in the face of the Supreme Courts decision, Jim Crow laws still existed and were enforced in the South.

A full year after the Supreme Court’s decision, the buses in Montgomery, Alabama were still segregated with a section in the front reserved for white citizens, while the seats in the back of the bus were reserved for black citizens. That’s why the the events that unfolded on December 1 served as a beacon that would change our world for the better. At 6 pm Mrs. Rosa Parks got on the bus after leaving her job as a seamstress at a department store. She paid her fare and took a seat in the colored section and was seated there when a white man boarded the bus who was forced to stand since all the seats in the designated white section were taken. The bus driver told the four riders in the first row of the colored section to stand. Three of the riders got up and moved farther back. But, on this afternoon, Mrs. Parks simply slid towards the window, refusing to give up her seat. After being warned by the bus driver and still refusing to give up her seat, the driver called the police who came and arrested her.

Later, when describing the events of that December evening, Mrs. Parks would say that when she had made up her mind to do what was right, there was no fear in doing what needed to be done. Her strength would come from the Lord to take a stand, or keep her seat, as long as she was doing what was right. In her example of strength, we learn that if we will just settle in our minds what is right, we will be able to find the courage in our hearts. Yet, still the struggle continues because we have not settled in our minds what is truly right.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are all products of our culture. The plight of the African American, as well as the plight of the Mexican American and Asian American, is a result of a culture that not only tolerated that type of behavior, but at times encouraged the mistreatment. As we continue to examine our history, we are faced with more and more examples of men and women who participated or silently stood by and accepted a culture that devalued people created in the image of God, based on the color of their skin or their gender. While we admire the courage of women like Rosa Parks, the truth is that there are far more of us who resemble the three riders who simply got up and changed seats because that’s what our culture would have us to do.

Paul urges us in Romans 12:2, Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. As the body of Christ, we are called to be a light; to stand against the hatred and evil that seems to persist in our culture and to lead with love. If you really trust that God desires for you to be a part of His Kingdom, that means you will trust in His strength and in His power to do the difficult work of changing your culture, starting in your own little corner of the world. Who knows, maybe Mrs. Parks had been reading the book of Romans when she said settle in your mind what is right and you will be able to find courage in your heart. Maybe it’s time we stopped looking at all the evil that persists in our communities, and settle in our minds what is right and allow God to place the courage in our hearts to make a change. It’s time for our churches, and for all Christians, to take the lead in making our culture reflect the character of God. It will not be easy, but you were created and empowered to do difficult things. It’s time for those who have been saved by the love of Christ, to once again lead with a bold love.

 

My oldest son is in his Junior year of High School, and every day his mom and I are reminded of our responsibility to get him ready to be a productive member of society. We have tried to teach him all of the things that people need to know, like how to change the oil in his car or cook a meal. He and I are reading Hal Runkel’s book, Choose Your Own Adulthood, and having discussion about it over coffee. We are trying to emphasize what it means to take responsibility for his actions and his choices. While I understand I will always be his dad and always be there for conversations and to help him through the difficult times in his life, there is this looming sense that I have a very short time to teach him what I want for him to know.

I grew up in churches from California to Alabama and one of the wonderful things about the Churches of Christ is that they are very familiar. I guess that is true of any denomination or tribe of believers. We all have things that are normal for us. We all take communion every week, believe in the necessity of baptism, understand that the elders are the real pastors and the guy who preaches every week is just the preacher. We meet in the auditorium, we all know the five acts of worship as well as the five steps to salvation, and we would have cringed that I equated the Church of Christ with a denomination. This month, Wineskins is centered around the theme: if you had one message to share with Churches of Christ what would you share? I have come to the conclusion that the message that I would have for my children is the same message that I would have for my church family.

Growing up in the Church of Christ my parents made sure that I was actively involved in the work of the church. I spent Saturdays handing out Bible Call brochures and attended my first men’s breakfast when I was 9 years old. I participated in Bible Bowls and memorized all of the baptism verses in the book of Acts. I was very well versed in the Jule Miller filmstrips; I still instinctively reach out to advance the filmstrip every time I hear a ding. I used to hum Just As I Am in my sleep. I went to a bible college and prepared to spend my life fulfilling the great commission saving the lost heathens that were going to die and go to hell. And, when they wouldn’t submit to baptism or said that they were safe because they had said the Sinner’s Prayer, I just wrote them off to their own reward.

What I have come to understand is that people don’t want to be saved because they don’t really consider themselves lost. For the most part, we are good people, or at least better than the guy who lives next door or the woman who works in the office with me. I have a pretty nice life, I live in a decent home, and have a healthy family. Plus, my schedule is pretty full right now and I don’t have time to go and sit on a pew and look at the back of someone’s head. So, while you talk about salvation and being lost, that doesn’t really apply to me. And, that’s not just the people who are outside your church buildings, but that is true for some of the folks who are inside your buildings as well.

Other people don’t want to be saved because they don’t think they can be saved. If you knew what I had done, or where I had been then you would know that even God couldn’t save me. I have lost count of the times I heard someone say, “If I walked into your building the roof would collapse.” That is just another way of saying that I have gone too far, become too tainted for God to save me.

And, still others don’t want to be saved because they have met us and they were treated with contempt. Instead of finding people who accepted the tax collectors, prostitutes, and zealots that Jesus often surrounded Himself with, they find a self-righteous group of people. Instead of welcoming everyone to have a seat at Christ’s table, we have made our own pharisaical lists of who are welcome and who are not. We have communicated that the church is available to sensible sinners like us.

If I had one message to share it would be this; People don’t want to be saved, they want to be loved. I believe that we lost our way somewhere. We forgot that our call as a church is to love people and introduce them to Jesus. We have traded this idea of loving people for the task of saving people. I get it, because it’s hard to quantify how much we love the lost in the world. Since we cannot measure how much we love folks, we traded the call to love people for the call to go and make disciples and baptize them because we can count baptisms. The result is that we forgot about the call to love.

When a teacher of the law approached Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus tells us what is the most important thing we can be doing in our communities. Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was calling us to meet our greatest need in life. First, He says that we are to love God because it’s the only way that we will find true peace. The second commandment is exactly like the first to love one another because it is the only way that we will bring true peace to the world.

People don’t want to be saved, they want to be loved and that’s what we were supposed to be doing from the beginning. We are called to love people and introduce them to Jesus who will take care of their salvation. If they give their lives to Christ, we love them. If they refuse His offer, we love them. If they don’t understand, we love them. If they return our love with anger and hatred, we love them. We will never get to the point that we can cross love off the list as something that we accomplished back in 2012. Every day we are given the chance to enter into our community and find someone to love, and when people feel truly loved, then God will do what only God can do.

When I turned 40 I decided; in order to keep up with my sons I had to get into better shape. So I did what you were supposed to do, I joined a gym, got an app for my phone, bought some shoes, and buckled down for this life changing experience. The first time I walked in the gym, I was lost. It’s a bit intimidating to see all of these folks who are walking from machine to machine or picking up weights. I decided that I would start on the treadmill, I had at least been on one of those before, and then I would branch out from there. But, this was not like any treadmill I had ever seen, there were buttons, lot of buttons, for my weight, my speed, my incline, and my preferred pulse rate; I must have stood there for 5 minutes looking at these buttons trying not to make a fool of myself before the person on the treadmill beside me said, “You can just press the start button and go faster or slower.”

That day I made a new friend B.J., who was only at the gym for aerobic activity, that’s a fancy way of saying she just came to the gym to get on a treadmill and a bike. She didn’t understand the folks who wanted to lift weights, but “different strokes!” she would always say. She believed that the best way to get into shape was to work your heart, and eat a balanced meal. So, for the first month I would go to the gym, meet B.J. and run for a while, then get on the bike. She answered my questions, gave me advice, and helped make the gym a safer place for someone who had no idea what they were doing.

I was becoming more and more comfortable with the gym, so one day I wandered over to the machines, read the instructions, and met Terry. Terry was an older man who was always hanging out around the machines. I found out that Terry had shoulder problems, and a “machine was the best way for older and injured people to work out.” Terry was the one who told me about muscle groups, he explained that soreness and stiffness were all a part of the process, and he encouraged me to keep working through it. He was a great help to me as I was still trying to figure out what I was really supposed to be doing.

Terry was convinced that I was young enough to make an aggressive step forward, so he introduced me to Tony. Tony was a man who was as wide as he was tall and could bench press more than his weight. Tony had no time for a treadmill or a machine; he was interested in getting bigger and that only happened with heavy free weights. Tony shared with me that tall people don’t get big muscles, but we could still be strong if we worked hard. “We might not be able to look like we have big muscles, but we can all be strong.”

B.J., Terry, and Tony were not the only folks I met at the gym; there was the guy who had a bad back so, he just showed up to stretch and get on the water massage table. There was the woman who just came to eat lunch with the folks who worked there, and there were lots of folks who came in, milled around for 15 minutes and then left. Everyone was showing up to the gym, had a different idea of what you were supposed to accomplish, and were willing to help anyone who wanted to come and get better. I enjoyed my time at the gym, and was given the time to explore, get comfortable, and accomplish some of my goals.

Over the years, I have been a member of different gyms, and even though the locations have changed, I have noticed there are the same type of people at every gym. If you have made a resolution to get in shape, or just be healthier, and join a gym, you are going to find folks who have made great strides in their health and fitness who are willing to help the new folks who look lost. There will be those who only do cardiovascular work, folks who only use the machines, and folks who like free weights. There will be folks who just come to wander around, and those who are there to be social, but they are all there. They show up because they are convinced that their way is the best, and at times, the only way. But in the end they are going to help people who agree with them and those who disagree with them in their effort to get better.

There is a great passage in Acts 15 where the church is dealing with the Gentile question. I don’t want to lean too hard on my gym illustration, but I would imagine that there were many different ideas in that gathering, of what it looked like to be a child of God. There were those who were born and raised in the Jewish faith, who thought the best way to get into shape was by using the free weights. The Jewish proselytes were probably big fans of the machines, while the Gentiles preferred doing cardio. Everyone in the room had their own ideas of what it looked like to get your spiritual life in shape. That’s what makes James’ statement so beautiful. James was not only the brother of Christ, but as a Jew from birth, he was steeped in the culture and belief system of the Jewish faith. It would have been easier, not to mention more comfortable, for James to say that someone must become a Jew and fulfill the Jewish law before they could come to Christ. Instead, he went against his culture and declared “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21).

There will be times when people come to your fellowship, longing for the opportunity to find a community that will love and walk with them. I am sure that there are those who believe the best way to come into a relationship with Christ is through using the free weights of intense study. They love digging deep into the text and believe that anyone who comes to Christ must also dig deep into the scriptures. You also have those who like the machines, they love worship, and spending time together singing and praying. They feel closest to God when they are worshiping Him in times of quiet introspection and corporate celebrations. Finally, you will have those who are invested in the treadmills; they believe that if you are going to be a Child of God you must understand and accept forgiveness, grace, and the love of God. In their minds, the best way to live out a changed life is to show God’s love in acts of compassion and service.

The object of every witness is not to convince people to think like you do, or believe like you do; the object of every witness is to introduce others to Christ. For those who were raised in a family of believers, we often miss how difficult it is to turn to God. Our job is to help people make that transition. People are attracted to Jesus for different reasons, let’s do what we can to help them connect to Jesus; be it on the treadmill, the machines, or free weights.

I have done an awful lot of really cool things in the name of evangelism in an effort to tell people about Jesus. I worked with a church that put our information on those coupon cards that travelling baseball teams sell and we told our members to give them away to everyone you see in the grocery store, or your place of business, or the gym. We thought that every time someone used that card they would see our information.

I had a friend introduce me to QR codes, those little boxes on the sides of products like vacuum cleaners and fishing bait. We designed a page on our website that invited people to our church and told them about us, and about Jesus. We put the code on white business cards and put them everywhere, from bathrooms in the mall to doctors offices.

We had bottles of water with our information printed on the label. During the hottest part of the summer we would go to the parks and hand out bottles of water and otter pops to families.

We had banquets for Firemen and Police officers and their families. We cooked steak dinners, celebrated them and their devotion to our communities, prayed over them, and gave them small gifts. We wanted to say thank you in a very tangible way.

We had block parties for the government assisted apartments that surround our buildings. We pulled out the grills and cooked hot dogs and hamburgers. We set up tables for folks to come and eat a meal with us, we blasted music, and played games for free.

We hosted a Trunk or Treat, complete with hay rides, giant inflatables, and hot chocolate. We made blessing bags for homeless people that had a toothbrush, deodorant, a disposable razor, granola bars, and a little card telling them about God’s love. We adopted the local High School and every month we would take every teacher and staff member a candy bar and a little encouraging letter. We did a prayer walk around the school and would take homemade cookies during their teacher meetings.

While we were busy and happier than we had ever been, there was something that just wasn’t right. Instead of people coming and learning about Christ we gained a reputation of that church who would pay your light bill, or give you a bag of food; we had become a place instead of a people. When people talked about us they talked about a building with stained glass or worse, we were reduced to a landmark: go down past that church and take the next left.

We were left scratching our heads wondering what was the next program or the next ministry that we could start that would give us the best opportunity to tell people about Jesus. We wanted to do something that would give us the best bang for our buck, and would be the best use of our limited resources. That’s when we made a decision to get out of the program and ministry business.

We spent some time in the gospels and we noticed something that had always been there but maybe we were so familiar with the stories we overlooked it. Usually, when we thought of evangelism, our minds went to Doctors or Lawyers with 3 kids who could make financial and physical contributions to the church. But, Jesus seemed to have a different attitude. Jesus went after a tax collector named Matthew, a woman who had five husbands and was living with a man that did not belong to her, a lame man, and ten men with leprosy. This was not just something Jesus did, it was what He told us to do. In Matthew 9:12-14 Jesus says, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”

I am intrigued that the Good News translates the word hamartōlos (har-ma-to-las) as outcasts. I am intrigued because the word outcast makes me uncomfortable. I mean from the very first day of Kindergarten, we live our whole lives trying to be on the inside, to be one of the accepted and popular kids. We began to think that maybe our problem wasn’t that we were not doing the right things, but that we weren’t seeing the right things.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than you can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20). God is an imaginative God. When God looked at the vast, dark, deep earth that had no form, He imagined the beauty of this life. God imagined you, and He imagined not only the penalty for our brokenness, but the payment of Christ’s blood on our behalf. If we are going to be successful in bringing the outcasts to the foot of the cross, then we need to start using our imagination to see the beauty in the lives of others as well.

If you want to be successful in reaching out to your community, then you need to see the single mother who works two jobs to support her kids as someone deeply loved by God. You need to see the drug addict who can’t stop his habit celebrating 10 years of being clean and sober. You need to see the young person who struggles with self esteem making a difficult stand for Christ in your community. You need to see the young couple who lives together and has never been exposed to the best way to build a home celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. You need to see the boy or girl that is really struggling with homosexuality or gender confusion reaching out to other strugglers to share the compassion and love of Christ. Because, that’s what Jesus sees when He looks at you, someone who is struggling in this broken world who desperately needs a Savior.

How would your church family change if you stopped asking your members to see folks as they are, and start imagining them the way that God sees and created them to be. How different would your church look if your members went out and actually met their neighbors? What if they committed to praying for them by name? What if we refused to spend thousands of dollars on the next big program and just taught our teens how to get to know the waitress at Waffle House. When if they spent their time praying for her, and they were truly concerned about what was happening in her life.

How would the climate of your church change if you got out of the program business because Jesus didn’t come to to establish programs and ministries, Jesus came to allow us the freedom to imagine how life will be in Heaven? When we allow our imagination to run wild, we stop looking at why it won’t work and focus on what God is calling us to. The church that Jesus built is a community of love and accountability where we give people enough time to become what we imagine them to be. The Kingdom of God is a place where imperfect and broken people can come together and share their struggles, to help, encourage, and uplift one another. The church that Jesus built is a place where we can see one another not as our worst mistakes, but as people created in the image of God and loved deeply. But, before we can take that step we have to imagine what that would look like.

black frameBook, chapter, and verse was a phrase that I often heard our ministers and Bible class teachers say from the pulpit and in our Bible classes. We needed to have a verse for everything, because, we would often say if God commands it then that settles it. The men and women who helped form the foundation of my spiritual life spoke with assurance about the authority found in God’s words.

In 2004, I enrolled in a hermeneutics class taught by Henry Virkler, who just happened to write the text-book we were using in class. Dr. Virkler used a lot of the same words and seemed to have the same ideas about how to read and understand the Bible that my preachers and Bible School teachers presented when I was younger. He explained that hermeneutics is how we interpret the Bible and that we use different interpretations when we are looking at different literary forms. For instance, we don’t treat a parable in the same way that we treat an apocalyptic writing like we would find in the book of Daniel. Once again, I was struck by the logic and reasoning behind his words.

Even if you are not familiar with the process of hermeneutics, it is a process that you use every time you read the Bible. You use hermeneutical principals when you make decisions about how to apply what you have read. We know we are to read the Bible with an understanding of who wrote a specific scripture and to whom they were writing. We treat Jesus’ words in the gospels differently than we treat the book of Revelation or John’s praise for those who went out and did not accept gifts from the Gentiles in 3 John 7. While we try to be as honest as possible, one of our dirty little secrets is that we still pick and choose what scriptures are commandments and which ones we like to explain away.

Let me unwrap that a bit. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison and the text says that John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah or if there was someone greater who would come later. While John was expecting Jesus to fulfill those passages from Isaiah 11 and 61 where the prophet declares that God would pour out His vengeance, Jesus pointed John back to Isaiah 35 where the prophet declared Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

The next scene in chapter 11 we see Jesus talking to the crowd about John. He says the people were not happy with John who lived a life of self-denial and they were not happy with Jesus because He ate and drank. John the Baptist was not the only one to struggle with Jesus. Like John, the crowd anticipated a Messiah who would come on the scene and use His might to make the world right again. As the chapter closes, Jesus explains to the crowd that it is not just the mighty or the wise who are welcome in the Kingdom, rather the invitation is greater than that. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” While we read this text and agree that Jesus is calling people who are tired and seeking rest, it is that little word “all” that gives us pause.

A few weeks ago I had the wonderful privilege of eating a meal with some friends. At that meal, we were joined by some friends of friends and that’s how I had the opportunity to meet Caleb Kaltenbach who wrote the book Messy Grace. Over lunch, he shared the story of how as a young boy he joined his mom and her partner at a gay pride rally. It was at that rally when he encountered a group of Christians who spit and threw urine on him. Apparently these christians didn’t think that homosexual couples were included in that little word “all”.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was attending a congregation where a man tried to place membership. The problem is that he was a convicted child molester who had spent time in prison. The church refused his membership because they did not believe that child molesters were included in that little word “all”.

We could tell story after story about people who were not comfortable around prostitutes, drug addicts, divorced couples, people of different races, women who aborted children, or whatever designation we want to use to limit that word all. These are the very same people who would tell you that every word in scripture holds the same weight, but their lives tell something very different.

I fully understand the need to be vigilant, I would never suggest a child molester be the deacon over the children’s program. I understand that there are people who sin differently than I do; they sin in a way that holds no attraction to me at all or makes my skin crawl. I understand we all have a desire to be with like minded people who share our racial, social, and economic situations. But more than anything else we are called to follow our Savior who came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). When Jesus called “all” that includes the ones who sin like you and the ones who sin differently than you do.

In Matthew 11, John wasn’t sure that God was going about being the Messiah in the right way. The crowd that gathered assumed that John wasn’t the right one to announce the Messiah and they assumed that this couldn’t really be the Christ. They had grown up with the Torah, they were sure of what the prophets had said, and Jesus didn’t look like what they expected. Almost 2,000 years later we still aren’t sure that God knows what He is doing. We read that Jesus said “all” are invited to come, but does all really mean all?

Not only are homosexuals, gender confused, those who aborted children, embezzlers, alcoholics, molesters, addicts, racists, gamblers, bigots, misogynist, atheists, rule keepers, and rule breakers loved deeply by their creator, they are included in the invitation open for all. This is not a new idea that Jesus mentions in Matthew 11; this seems to be God’s pattern even in the Old Testament. God has always welcomed people with a checkered past to find a place among His people and to eat from His table. The writers of Scripture included the stories of Rahab a lying harlot, Moses a man with an anger problem, Judah who got his daughter in law pregnant, Esther who spent one night of passion with King Xerxes, and a cold-blooded murderer named Saul were all people who many of us would have a difficult time including in that word all. But God not only welcomed them, He used them to bring about His will. That’s what God was doing in the Old Testament, that’s what He was doing in the New Testament, and that’s still why He calls “all” to come to Him today.

What we need to decide is are we willing to take God at His word? If we are willing to believe that God means what He says then we will welcome “all” into our lives, around our table, and into our community of believers?

mind_the_gapI was attending a Christian College in the spring of 1992 where I spent my days struggling with life, and what God wanted from me. Other students seemed laser focused on what they were going to do with their life; I mean they had even been on the four dates that were required before you bought the engagement ring. (I’m kidding, but not really kidding).

During those days I didn’t even own a laser to focus. One minute I wanted to take the sword of the spirit and boldly conquer the world for God. The next minute going back to my parents house and eating pralines on the couch seemed like a viable option. Everyone seemed to know who they were, and more importantly they seemed to know God. Their prayer lives seemed better, their bible understanding seemed better, and their relationship with God just seemed closer which was all a bit foreign in my world. There were a thousand times in my life I felt that God was keeping me at an arm’s distance or just pushed me away all together. It’s hard to worship a God that doesn’t seem to want you around.

I mention the spring of 1992 because that’s when I first fell in love with the book of Acts. I am not overstating my case for poetic license; falling in love was a pretty good description of what happened. Until that spring I simply read Acts, when I did read it, as a history of what happened in the early days of the Church. The book of Acts was the book in the Bible we had to pick apart so we could figure out the pattern God wanted us to follow so we could make Him happy with us. Once we deciphered the pattern all that was left was to do our best so we could get a passing grade on the test. If we could get a good enough grade then God would have no choice but to let us into heaven. Once we arrived in heaven the best I could hope for is that God would be in His palace and I would live out all eternity in my mansion just over the hilltop. My home would be on the outskirts where God would continue be distant and far from me. But I reasoned, living in heaven with God distant from me was a better option than spending eternity in hell.

That’s not the story of Acts, and definitely not the story of Acts 3 where we are introduced to a man who Luke tells us had been lame since birth. Not being able to walk, his friends who would carry him to the temple gate where he could beg for money from the people going in and out of the temple. It was not the life that he wanted, but it was the life that he was condemned to live. We discover in Acts 4:22 that the man was over 40 years old, and every day his job consisted of begging at the temple gate. He did not have the ability to walk, or to be a productive member of society. He simply relied on the mercy of those who were going into the temple to worship.

The reason this man was placed at the temple gate is because he was not allowed to go any further. According to Leviticus 21 people who had any type of defect were not permitted to approach the altar. In 2 Samuel 5:8 King David seems to up the ante and says that the lame and blind are not even allowed to enter the house of God. So by the time we get to Acts 3 you have a man who has never been able to experience fellowship in the temple. He has never been able to hear the reading of the scriptures, or to participate in the festivals, or even enter in to the court of the Gentiles. If anyone felt like God was keeping them at an arm’s distance it was this 40-year-old lame man. I wonder at what point in his life did he lose the desire to go into the temple to meet God and just stared longing for the money that those going to see God could provide.

At the 9th hour of the day business is picking up, folks are rushing into the temple so that they can offer their prayers and the man begins his spiel, “Alms, anyone have alms for a poor man? Show mercy to the lame, help the poor. Alms!” His voice betrays the fact that he is resigned to live his life on the outskirts; as an outsider separated from God. That is until God closes the gap.

Peter hears this man pleading for help and offers him what he wanted most in life but had given up hope of ever receiving. Peter says, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you today, but I have something better. In the name of Jesus get up and walk.” In that one moment God closed the gap. A few moments ago the man was not allowed to go into the temple, he was not allowed to be a productive member of the community, he was not allowed to have a life, and now everything changed. Now because of Jesus this man is whole. Because of Jesus he can enter the temple, and more than that he can get close to God who only moments earlier was so far away.

That story is told time and time again in the book of Acts. We have separated ourselves from God because we refused to believe, refused to trust, refused to accept and the story of Jesus closes the gap. The disciples, who only days before were hiding out and afraid, are now speaking boldly in plain sight because Jesus closed the gap. People are selling their possessions and freely meeting each other’s needs because Jesus closed the gap. Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans are all welcomed at the table because Jesus closed the gap. A murderer risked his life, was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and snake bit because Jesus closed the gap. In Acts 15 the church comes together and decides that since Jesus has closed the gap, we cannot do anything to cause further separation in the lives of those whom Jesus has closed the gap.

We cannot take this beautiful story of what God has done to draw us closer and turn it into a list of requirements or a pattern we must decipher. The story of Acts is the story of Jesus and His love for us. The story of Acts is that God has closed the gap, and finally we are free to get close to Him, the place we were created to be.

Grace-SpeechMy senior year of High School I took a theater class to fill an empty spot in my schedule. Mrs. Hayes taught the class with grace and was very compassionate to a bunch of guys who had no idea what stage right was or how to use voice inflection. Several times during the year she allowed us to participate in some improvisational activities where she would call out a scene and we had to make it up as we went along. After our first try at improv Mrs. Hayes gave the class a gift she desperately wanted us to take to heart. She said, “When you are acting, don’t do anger. Anger is cheap and easy, and you are much too good to rely on something so far beneath you.” Mrs. Hayes tried to open our eyes to a universal truth; when our first impulse is to go to anger we have a control problem. Expressions of anger are a desperate attempt to control someone else when, truthfully, we are not sure how to control ourselves.

Anger and slander like to hold hands; they come from the same emotion and strive to get the same result. As we become more and more connected through screens and keyboards, we are getting more and more isolated. A simple scan through Facebook or Reddit only proves that we have lost the art of disagreeing without being contentious. Have you ever been told, “Don’t read the comments!”? We live in an era where being an internet troll is only bested by our ability to be passive aggressive. Then again maybe it’s not just this generation.

In John 8, Jesus is having another disagreement with the religious elite. Starting in verse 13 the Pharisees said because Jesus is testifying about himself that His testimony is worthless. The conversation takes a nose dive from there. By the time we get to John 8:48 the Pharisees resort to calling Jesus a “demon possessed Samaritan.” This was not the first time they accused Jesus of having a demon or working with Satan. Every gospel account includes a conversation where the Pharisees accused Jesus of not coming from God but in reality coming from the Devil (Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15). When they felt like they were losing ground they resorted to what was cheep and easy.

We use accusatory and slanderous language in an effort to control other people. From a very young age we figure out if we can talk faster, louder, and more aggressively than the other person we can control the situation. It seems at times that the older we get our desire to control only intensifies. When the Pharisees are making these attacks on the character of Christ, it is in an effort to control Him. The crowds were drawn to Jesus and His message of freedom, inclusion, mercy, and grace. If you cannot control the crowd you can at least control the one the crowd is following. These tactics don’t work with Christ, and they don’t work with those who have already given control of their lives to Christ.

I believe that a good working definition of maturity is our ability to say, “I could be wrong.” It is pure arrogance on anyone’s part to think we have a perfect understanding of the truth. We do the best we can with what we have been given. My thoughts and beliefs have changed so much in the last 20 years of this journey. I have left ideas only to return to them later, and found freedom in areas that I did not know existed. Since I realize there is so much that I don’t understand, then I should be willing to give grace to other travelers down this road.

I would like to offer two take aways I believe will be helpful to this discussion of judgement free disagreements. The first is we need to extend grace to those who are where we have been. A few years ago I was at a lectureship talking to someone with a different view than I had. I know they understood my position because they said several times, “I used to think the same way.” What I needed at that time was someone to talk with me using compassion and grace. I needed someone to say, “What really helped me was looking at this passage”, or “What was going on when Paul wrote or said”. I would have been helped on my journey by someone who went slow and loved me enough to help me understand. What I got was dismissive rhetoric that caused me to dig my heels in and distance myself from a better understanding. We need to drop this idea that because we have come to a different view we are somehow more enlightened and don’t have the time to show compassion and grace to those who are struggling in the same minefields we have already traversed.

Secondly, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth; Do everything with love (1 Corinthians 16:14). I am inclined to believe that includes how we talk to one another when we disagree. We can disagree without being a jerk. We can disagree while listening to someone else’s point of view. We can disagree and still love the person we disagree with. We can disagree and consider the fact that we might be able to use this as an opportunity to grow, stretch, and learn because we just might be wrong. I often remind the parents on the sports fields that the 16 year old out there who is doing their best to call your 7 year old’s soccer game is someone’s son or daughter. You need to talk to them them the way you would want someone to talk to your child. That’s also a good idea when you are talking about the Kingdom of God with someone who has a different understanding. The intent of those who are saved by the blood of Christ must be to let their talk be filled with grace. (Colossians 4:6)

imagesWhen I was 16 I got a job at a grocery store. It was a rite of passage in my hometown; you get a job at the grocery store and start making pocket-money by bagging groceries, sweeping floors, and straightening the stock on the shelves. The first week I was on the schedule, I encountered a crisis of faith. The schedule for Sunday had my name on the list.  Didn’t they know I was a Christian? Didn’t they know that I had to be at church? For the first time I had to choose between meeting with the saints and doing something else, and it was guilt inducing.

After talking it over with my parents, I decided if I left as soon as my shift was over I could make it to the evening service. I imagine our church was like every other American Church; Sunday night was a repeat of Sunday morning, except at the end of services we excused everyone who could not be at the morning service to go off to a little room and take communion. That first Sunday after my shift was over I rushed out the door of Kroger and made it to my pew. I sang, bowed my head for the prayers, listened to the sermon, and felt a little grown up when they excused all of the working folks to go off to that little room and have communion. I really thought I would feel justified because I had kept the law found in Acts 20:7. Since God was happy with me, I was pretty sure that He would let me into Heaven. The truth is there was something missing in that little room with 10-15 adults pinching off a cracker and taking a swig of juice before they headed off to the Mexican Restaurant.

That was a long time ago, and thankfully I am not that same 16-year-old kid who believed baptism and weekly communion was the magical key to appeasing an angry God. I still believe there is something awesome that happens at the table. I’m in love with the fact that the early church met every day around the table. I love that Paul made time in his travel schedule to take communion with the Christians in Acts 20 and that he instructed the church in Corinth to make sure that when they came together it was for the better (1 Corinthians 11:17). I love that the early church knew that something special would only happen around the table.

There are a few sacred places on this earth, and the table is one of those sacred places. Everyone who gathers at the table confesses their brokenness and acknowledges their place among other broken people; who may have sinned differently than you but are just as broken. We gather to remember the body of Christ that was sacrificed daily for 33 some odd years, then sacrificed on the cross, and the body of believers that were drawn to the saving grace of God. We gather to remember the blood, the life blood, of our Savior who chose us to be His. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, homeless, professional, student, and retired all gather on equal ground claiming that we belong to one another and to Him. And thankfully we are not left alone in that gathering.

The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 12:22-24: you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands of angels gathered together with joy. You have come to the meeting of God’s firstborn children whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, and to the spirits of good people who have been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the One who brought the new agreement from God to his people, and you have come to the sprinkled blood that has a better message than the blood of Abel.

When we gather at the table there is so much more going on than taking a small pinch of cracker and a sip of juice. We gather at the table and are joined by thousands of angels gathered together with joy. That is mind-boggling for someone who grew up with an unhealthy Touched By An Angel mentality of angels. When we come to the table we are joined by the Angels of Revelation 4 who cry out Holy, Holy, Holy as well as the Angels Deborah sang about who fought for God’s people in Judges 5:20.

The Hebrew writer also reminds us that when we meet at the table we are at the meeting of God’s firstborn children whose names are written in heaven. Our community is a world-wide fellowship. Communities in Brazil, Russia, Cambodia, South Africa, New Zealand, and countless languages, meet to remember the death of Jesus Christ by sharing at the table. They gather to remember the resurrection by experiencing the joy of this community. It doesn’t matter if you are in a small wooden building with 10 folks or you gather around the table with 2,000 of your closest friends, when you meet in that gathering you are joined by the family of God.

That’s why the table matters. It’s at the table where we have the opportunity to meet with God, the angles, those who have gone before us, and His children. The table is where we get to remember our Creator and Savior who saw us at our worst and loved us enough to reach down and bring us to Him. It’s at the table where we are reminded of how deep God’s love is and we are compelled to share that love with others. It’s at the table where we are overwhelmed in the fact that forgiveness is real and available. It’s at the table where we understand that grace is truly amazing. And at the table we are reminded of the faithfulness of God and bolstered in our hope for our future. That’s what happens at the table, that’s why the early church met at the table daily, and that’s why today the table matters.

In 2008 I was working with a wonderful little congregation out in the country. One Sunday morning a man approached me in the foyer after service and said that he needed to talk with me. As an aside here is a little insight when you approach a preacher after a service and say you need to talk we rarely have good thoughts. So we made our way to my office, where he proceeded to tell me that his wife forced him to watch a movie and it had changed his life. Anytime someone get’s their life changed I’m interested, so I asked him to tell me more about this life changing movie.

The movie was Fireproof, and it was about a young couple that was spiraling towards divorce. If you have seen the movie you know that the main character’s parents intervene by giving their son a 40 day experiment, The Love Dare. The premise of the Love Dare is to start acting in loving ways toward his wife; if you really love someone you need to do more than just say the words, you must act in loving ways. What a great premise, and one that I fully believe in. I believe that it is great advice for our marriages and one that goes even deeper. Anything we believe demands action or it’s not really belief. If we believe that we love someone it causes us to move, if we believe that our dad will catch us we jump into his arms, and if we believe that God is who He claims to be we follow Him into the water.

The book of 1 Peter was written by a loving apostle to his brethren who are enduring persecution under the hand of Rome and specifically Nero. Peter’s intent is to reassure the church that he loved, in their faith while striving to encourage them to move them to greater works. In 1 Peter 3, the apostle reminds his fellow believers of the need to continue to work out their faith in the midst of their suffering. In this part of his letter he not only mentions the suffering of Christ, but he also draws on the example of Noah. With this as a back drop, Peter references how they first moved in their faith: The water through which the ark safely passed symbolizes now the ceremonial washing through baptism that initiates you into salvation. You are saved not because it cleanses your body of filth but because of your appeal to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King (The Voice).

In his discussion about suffering, endurance and faith Peter takes them back to the water. His greatest desire is for them to endure their present troubles, so he reminds them of their faith and the movement of their faith. Peter is not teaching about the sacred nature of water, he is simply reminding them of the forward motion their lives experienced because of their faith. Their faith lead them into the water of baptism, not because they were physically dirty and needed a bath but because they realized their brokenness. They went to the water because they had stained their own souls and were appealing to God to make them clean.

Faith requires movement or it’s not faith. The power of your baptism is not found in the water, the power is found in your appeal for cleansing that comes from the grace and mercy of God.

In Romans 6, Paul says that there is a bit of symbolism in the act of this appeal. But, it is so much deeper than mere symbolism; it’s participation. Paul knows that our faith calls us to enter the water so we can participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Our salvation comes from our participation in what happened on a day back in Calvary and three days later when Jesus was resurrected.

Simply put faith is a verb, faith requires and demands action. That’s not an idea that is original with me, James says “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) You might already know that the idea of faith being a verb wasn’t original with James either, it was an idea that He got from Jesus: If you love me, you will obey my commandments. (John 14:15)

If we really believe in Christ, if we really believe that He is the one who can fix our brokenness, then we will follow Him into the water and wherever He leads in this life. The appeal we make at our baptism, is the same appeal we make every day of our life as we come to God for cleansing and follow Him for purpose.