Archives For faith

 

Sure I was a little overweight.  That’s my point.

That being said, AWANA shouldn’t have tried so hard to break me.  I was only 10.  I wasn’t cut out for this.

We did some cool stuff, for sure.  There was the day we broke the world’s record for the longest banana split, laid out in the church fellowship hall like a long snake made out of PVC pipe halves and aluminum foil.  Hundreds of gallons of ice cream.  A truck full of bananas.  Hershey’s syrup in gallon jugs. Whipped cream and cherries.  Good times.

I also remember the relay race where we were given straws, and told to run the full length of the gym to a 2 liter bottle of A&W Root Beer sitting at the other end.  We were supposed to drink it as fast as we could through the straw we had been given, and then sprint back to our sweaty, belching elementary school aged teammates at the other end.  Do you know what happens when you sprint 94 feet, slam a bottle of A&W in 14 seconds of frenzied frothy sucking, and then run BACK across those 94 feet?  Three things are a certainty… (1) You will have root beer in your sinuses.  It has to go somewhere.  This will make you sneeze, which will hose anyone in the vicinity with a sharp spray of carbonated snot.  (2)  You will belch.  Long, sonorous, resonant belches that will echo off the walls of said gymnasium with an echoey fortitude that should garner the respect of any 7th grade boy.  Unfortunately, you will be surrounded by 74 other elementary students of both genders whose own fortuituos uncontrolled belching will drown out the magnificence of your own.  Add to that the sound of all the 3rd and 4th grade girls who are crying because they have root beer in their sinuses, and you have a cacophony through which the most violent of belches has trouble being singled out.  (3) Bloating.  Enough said.

So that was awesome.  High fives all around to the dudes who thought up that relay race.  Good times.

But the bulk of my memories  from my days in AWANA are more sinister in nature.  I still break a cold sweat when I hear a coach’s whistle blow.  Sure, they sold it to us as a “game.”  Sure, it was supposed to be “fun.”  But it was genius in its calculated simplicity.  Profound in its energy-quelling capability.  Rendering us limp and compliant, it became the favorite “warm-up activity” for all of our bible coaches.  Perhaps you, too, have been subjected to its soul-crushing  efficiency?  Many of you former Puggles and Cubbies and Sparks know EXACTLY what I’m talking about…

The Circle. *ominous tones here*

Basically, four students are fitted with flags hanging from a belt around their waist.  They are squared off at a co-equal distance from one another at four points around a large circle on the floor.  There they wait.  Breathing heavily.  Dreading the sharp blast of the coach’s whistle that will signal the start of their Ordeal.  The running of the proverbial gauntlet.

A clock ticks. Somewhere overhead, the distant screech of a bird of prey.  Muscles quiver. A whistle pieces the silence. It has begun.

What follows is basically 12 minutes of sprinting.  The goal is simple… be the last guy with a flag still attached to your belt.  We set off at a dead run, counterclockwise, scrambling and striving to grab the flag of the poor victim in front of us.  Meanwhile, we are being chased from behind from the captain of the track team.  I mean, if there were 3rd and 4th grade track teams… that’s who is behind you.  This is not a game of wolves chasing geese.  Oh no.  This is a game of wolves chasing more wolves. Carnivorous, snarling, hungry wolves.  Wolves scraping and clawing at that little red flag hanging from your belt, like the last vestige of your dignity.  The physical manifestation of your athletic prowess.

I hated the circle.

We played this game for 45 minutes.  Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. Set. Breathe. Whistle. RUN! Fail. All roads leading to fail.

So this is coming to mind now as I start my Seminary year because I’ve been reminded again of a core, absolute, life-changing truth about the Gospel that I will give my life for.

Jesus comes to us.

Let’s make the AWANA Circle of Pain a picture of spiritual well-being.  It’s a giant circle, with all of your friends and family and preachers and teachers and youth group leaders and your brother who is agnostic.  They are all lined up around that circle ready to run – to prove their worth in the spiritual arena.  Except for your agnostic brother, of course.  He’s just siting there in the path – he’ll probably trip up a number of those who try to run by.  But everyone is there.  Breathing hard.  Clock ticking.  Waiting for Jesus to blow His whistle.  Ready to run to protect their flags – the true measure of our spiritual wellness in America.  The flag that shows everyone that we’re just as spiritual as the next guy.  We try just as hard as the guy in front of us.  At least we’re not like that guy behind us, struggling to catch up.  Everyone is getting tired, sure.  We’re exhausted.  But we can’t lose our flag.  We can’t show everyone our weakness.  Got to run a little harder.  Catch the guy ahead.  Try harder.  Strive.  More.

Hear this.  If you don’t know Jesus yet – really know Him – then don’t think this is what the Christian life is all about.  As if we all are measured against the morality norm of the church culture.  As if we have to run the race like we’re trying to beat the saints alongside of us.  As if its all about us doing this thing we have to do.

And if you DO know Jesus, you may need to remember this… it’s time to give up.  Get out of the circle.  The standard is not whether or not you maintain your flag anymore.  You have no flag.  Jesus took your flag with him to the cross.  In this race, you don’t compete against men.  Your standard is perfection.  The goal is unattainable perfect holiness.  You can’t win.  It’s too hard.  It’s actually impossible.

Jesus comes to us.

The measure of our worthiness has nothing – nothing – NOTHING to do with how fast we run the race.  We don’t need to try to catch up to the spiritual superstars running ahead.  We don’t need to fear the jaws snapping from behind.

Jesus brings rest.  Jesus brings life.  Jesus gives you an identity, a hope, a future.  Jesus ran the gauntlet in your place.  By His stripes – not your striving – you are healed.

AWANA leaders, hear me now.  You have my sincere thanks for the Bible lessons.  Thanks for the ice cream.  Thanks, too, for the uncontrollable belching and sinus headache.  But you did not break me.  You and your circle of shame.  A substitute has stepped forward to take my place.  I see him over there walking the circle – talking to everyone by name – collecting their flags.  The scramble is over.  I’m not running anymore, always struggling to maintain position, and never reaching the goal.  It’s over.

Thank God Jesus comes to us.

 
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“AWANA tried to kill me :: carnivorous wolves and the gospel” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“Seriously, dude. This is no big deal. You’re gonna love it.”

Kyle looked like he was going to bazooka barf.

“Sure, it looks terrifying from down here… but up there it’s nothing.  94 mph isn’t as fast as it sounds… and the ride’s so smooth… just like riding a bike up and down hills, man. Only WAY more fun.”

Kyle nodded his head nervously and blew out a little puff of air.  First time on WILD THING at Valley Fair.  The cars roared past us in a blur, and he shot a glance at me.  I nodded reassuringly.  Before he had time to think about it any longer, we had made it through the line, and it was time to step into our own car.  Right in front.  I told him it was best this way for his first ride… being in front made the initial 207 foot drop feel like riding the escalator down to the first floor at Ridgedale.  He was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

Kyle swallowed hard.  The cheery voice of a Valley Fair staffer boomed from a nearby bullhorn.

“Please keep your hands inside the car at all times and secure any loose articles…”

“You’re going to be fine, Kyle.  This is a blast. No worries…”

Down came the pneumatic safety bar, securing us into our seats with a click. And before he could say “aeroacrophobia,” WILD THING lurched forward.

[pause]

“…Kyle, this is the scariest ride I’ve ever been on in my life.  I thought I was going to die the first time. Almost flew out of my chair.  You  better hold on tight, man. The front is the worst, too.  I can’t wait to see your face coming over the top of that first huge drop. You can’t even breathe, it’s so fast. I hope you don’t black out, dude.  They usually lose two or three kids a day on this thing…”

I’m a horrible person.  I know.  And it was so awesome.

I tell this story for two reasons… first of all, because every time I remember Kyle’s face at that moment, just cresting the initial free-fall into the abyss, my heart floods with mirth.  So much so that I did the same thing to my mom.  That story isn’t quite as funny.

But I also tell this story because I think it makes a great metaphor for the way some people think of God and the way He wants to mess with us.  Can’t you just imagine it?  God is walking you through the line, on your way to the next adventure for Him.  Maybe you decided to resign from your job and pursue seminary.  I mean, that would be crazy talk, right?  Or maybe He really IS sending you to be a missionary in Africa.  Or maybe you’re going to have that talk with your brother after all.

You’re in line for the ride, and your knees are knocking, but you can hear God’s voice…

“…good works which I HAVE PREPARED IN ADVANCE for you to do…”

“…don’t worry about anything, pray about everything…”

“…nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus…”

“…I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly…”

It’s almost your turn to step into the front car, and you begin to confront your deeper fears… the ones you didn’t realize were there all along.

Is this really what God wants me to do?  Am I hearing this right?  Am I in the right line?!  Or worse yet… is it possible that this IS the right line, but God has been reassuring me – leading me here with false promises of peace and safety – for a ride that might be dangerous, or disturbing, or painful?

God doesn’t promise peaceful circumstances.  He offers peace inside when your fall is the farthest.

God doesn’t promise safety.  He promises to be with you in danger.

Yes.  This is your line.  His promises don’t change when the ride is rough and the drop into the unknown is terrifyingly precipitous.

God won’t pull a bait and switch.  Like I did to my friend Kyle.  And my poor mother.

God loves you beyond imagination, and He doesn’t want you to spend your few remaining days comfortably ensconced at the food court with a funnel cake.  There is Kingdom work to do, and this ride really might be a scary as you think it will.  King Jesus will give you direction, and He’ll walk you to the line, and fuel you with His truth as you wait. As you prepare.

And then He will get in that car with you, and grab hold of your shirt.  Because from what I can tell, this ride has no safety bar…


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“rollercoasters, the will of God, and how I almost killed my mom” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

sin

August 11, 2011

August 7, 2011. Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN.  Genesis 3  ::  James 1:13-15  ::  Romans 5:8-11

What is the consequence of minimizing the gravity of sin?  That’s the question we sought to answer with this week’s message at Living Hope.  The truth is, “sin” is sidelined by the culture outside the church, because it presumes a normative moral standard.  Our culture is instead more comfortable with Postmodernity’s individualism and moral relativity.  Even inside the church, we want to make our own rules.  Even in churches where SIN is preached without pulling punches, it sometimes seems to hardly make a difference in the lives of those in the pews.  God forgives, right?  Is grace so commonplace, so cheap, that it has dulled us to the effects of sin?

SHAME.  FEAR.  BLAME.  PAIN.  DEATH.

If we minimize the gravity of sin, we won’t be reliant upon God for the grace of sanctification and transformation, and we will not be holy.

Click on the tab below to stream the audio…

 


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“sin” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

superchristian

August 11, 2011

June 5, 2011.  Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN.

If anyone can be considered a Superchristian, it’s the apostle Peter, right?  He was a man of action.  He was a hero.  And we need heroes, don’t we?  But we are risking a lot when we expect our heroes to be more than men.  We are risking a lot more when we set ourselves up as a Superchristian to be looked up to by… the regular Christians out there.

Even Peter was an embarrassment.

A man of action.  A hero.  An embarrassment.  And then… REDEEMED.   The world needs a hero.  Are you that hero?  I hope you know better…

Click on the tab below to stream the audio…


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“superchristian” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

the hour has come

August 11, 2011

May 29, 2011.  Living Hope Church in St. Michael-Albertville, MN.

Dinner is over.  The most memorable dinner of their lives.  Jesus has washed their feet.  Sent Judas out into the night.  Instituted the first Communion.  And something BIG is happening.  The disciples know it.  Jesus’ prayer proves it.  The hour has come.

Click on the tab below to stream the audio…


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“the hour has come” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers.  That close to home.

The truth is… church music is terrible.  And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring.  But often… it’s kinda… bad.  Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music.  It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior.  These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church.  Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.

But great music might help.

As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all.  I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field.  Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art.  Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful.  I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.”  I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team.  I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.

And yet my ears are tired.

I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community.  He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches.  I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.

Crowder, Tomlin, Hillsong, Passion, Sovereign Grace, Maher, Brown, McMillan, Hughes, Redman, Gateway…

It was interesting.  And kind of sad.  I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again.  I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song.  I still wonder that today.  And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.

Are God’s ears tired?

This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se.  I just hunger for something fresh in church music  that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time.  And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either.  Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me.  Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy.  It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?

I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3

“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”

I see three important elements here.  Freshness.  Skill.  And Fervor.

Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship?  If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…”  You’d be almost right.

Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command.  God wrote it.  He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”

He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”

But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King.  God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked.  He wants us to play skillfully.  When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about.  Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.”  In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One.  Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.

And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord.  YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God.  But we are also exhorted to shout.  LOUDLY.  Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well.  But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in?  How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith?  God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him.  As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.

Freshness.  Skill.  Fervor.

The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.

I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful.  I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting.  And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations.  Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”

Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor.  Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands.  Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare.  And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Can you relate?

If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.

But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude.  Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.

It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.

The trump card.  The non-negotiable.  The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus.  And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.

I’ll end this with a story.

One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church.  He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key.  Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.

Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock.  How would he feel in front of 300 more?  Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus.  One hurdle at a time, I told him.  Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front.  We prayed together.  And Stan sang.

With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling.  “I come to the garden alone…”

My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar.  It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember.  Stan sang an old song badly.  But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.

Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish.  More than art.

So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations.  I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.

But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus.  Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing.  Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.

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“church music is terrible :: how to make it better” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

So you’ve been way up there on the mountaintop with God, right?  So close. Your life has changed and it’s going to be different from this point on. From this mountaintop experience forward. You promise.

Can you relate?

This week over 1,800 people have been gathered in Estes Park, CO, for the 2011 Association Free Lutheran FLY (Free Lutheran Youth) Conference to worship, hear the Word of God preached and taught, and to grow in their faith.  Friday night FLY wraps up, and 1,800 souls will descend from a literal mountaintop experience with God.

Buckle up. You’re about to re-enter life with the low altitude dwellers again.  Life among the normal people.  With all the same stresses and disappointments and temptations that seemed to be at a safe distance when you were up there – so close to Him.  And you may be worried that the glory is going to fade.

Moses had a mountain top experience with God, too.  Exodus 34.  He would go up on the mountaintop (Mt. Sinai… not Eagle Cliff) and talk to God face to face, like talking to a friend, and when he came back down from his time being so close to God, his face would literally GLOW. Totally freaked people out. But everyone knew He had been with God, and it changed him.  Moses was LITERALLY letting his light shine. Hide it under a bushel no. He was gonna let it shine.

How about you? Up there on the mountain with God.  Are you gonna let it shine?  Is your newly bolstered faith going to freak people out?  I hope so. God’s love for us is so undeserved and so mind-blowing when we understand God’s wrath and our position as an enemy of the Holy One… and in that hostile state, Jesus suffered the humiliation and pain of the cross until he was dead.  God died.  As a substitution and atonement for OUR sin.  Why do we walk around among the low-altitude dwellers as if that truth is just another facet of our complex personality?  Shouldn’t it be THE DEFINING TRUTH that animates everything else about us?

But you… sure, your face is all shiny now with the nearness of God, but you know that normal is just around the corner.  Listen, even Moses could relate.  Look at 2 Corinthians 3:13…

“Moses… would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.”

In other words, his shiny face would eventually begin to dim at  lower altitude.  The evidence of the nearness of God would fade, and Moses didn’t want people to see it.  He didn’t want them to see His return to “normal.”  He wanted the glory.  He wanted the nearness.  He wanted to shine.

And you’re up there with God, hearing Him talk to your heart, singing to Him with newfound abandon.  And you don’t want the return to normal.  You fear the descent. You want to shine.

LISTEN UP, YOU ON THE MOUNTAIN WITH GOD! You don’t have to fear the descent.  Jesus came and established a new normal.  You can shine with a peculiar supernatural confidence that doesn’t come from you at all, but from the King of heaven Himself.  There is a new covenant in Christ.  We are image-bearers, and now LIGHT-bearers for Jesus.  Powered by the indwelling Spirit.

And this isn’t just for the FLY attenders.  I remember years ago sitting across the table from a friend at Applebee’s, trying to talk him out of filing divorce papers.  “I used to be so close to God,” he said.  He talked with his hands. “Now I’m way back down here, and I used to be way up here.  I just feel like it would take me so long to get back up there again.”

Can you relate?

Here’s the truth that we have such a hard time believing…  There is no mountain to climb. Jesus died.  It is finished.  The verse in 2 Corinthians 3 that I shared about Moses is preceded by this one, verse 12…

“Since we have such a hope we are very bold, NOT LIKE MOSES, who would put a veil over his face…”

With Jesus, everything changed forever.  Now we have confidence to enter the presence of God and to stand before Him SPOTLESS, because Jesus is our Redeemer, and now He is our Advocate.  He paid our price.  We don’t need to offer sacrifice like Moses did.  He WAS the Sacrifice.  He IS the Sacrifice.

Check out verses 16-18…

“But when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another…”

WHOA!  No veil! No shame!  From one degree of glory to another… you just keep getting shinier.  Don’t fear the descent.  You have access to God RIGHT NOW in Jesus Christ.  The veil is torn.  He is the Door.  He is the Way.  Life is in Him, and it accessible to you right now.  No mountaintop required.

God bless you when you sense the very real nearness of God.  And God bless you when you can’t.  Because the truth is, the old normal has been blown away in Jesus.  The new normal is shining like the sun.

Why do we worry that God might only fuel people on the mountain top?  God isn’t only with you on the high places.  Jesus promised us, after all, “And LO, I will be with you always…” (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself there.)

You’re good to go.  Since you have such a hope, you are very bold. There is no mountain to climb.  Don’t fear the descent.  Let it shine.

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“moutain top descent :: no bushels allowed” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

I was mowing the lawn and listening to a message from Rob Bell.  I remember the spot. I was between those two pine trees in our yard where it is hard to twist the mower into the right position without scratching up your elbows on the branches.  I remember it, I think, because sometimes when you hear something significant that grabs your attention and rings your proverbial bell (no pun intended), the moment is preserved like a snapshot.  I had to stand still for a moment.  The implications were deep and far reaching. With the muted hum of the mower fighting for my attention behind the earbuds of my iPod, Rob’s words rang in my head, and my heart began to swell in resonnance…

“The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

I think… I think this is right.  I really do.  I think not only is is right, it is important.  In fact, I think the evangelical Church has often hurt the cause of sharing the gospel and loving people well because we’re too busy judging those who aren’t even on the team.

Let this idea ring in your mind a bit.  You – your church – are not called to pour out judgment on the unbelieving world.  How does that make you feel? Are you nodding your head in agreement?  Are you concerned – blood pressure rising – because this sounds like cheap-grace pandering to the lowest common moral denominator?  Or option three… you honestly don’t know what to think. Should the church proclaim the high moral values that the Bible makes clear, or do we save the moral judgments for the pulpit on Sunday morning?  Or… is there another way?

Just take note of how you feel. “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

If you have a problem with Rob Bell, get in line.  Thousands of blog posts and articles have and will continue to examine Pastor Bell’s theological positions with regard to orthodox Christian beliefs.  This is not one of those posts.  This isn’t about the man.  It’s about the idea.  “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”

Why does this matter?  Because the world is broken. People are hurting.  Marriages are stressed, and as people who are far from God try to find peace through relationships, chemicals, distractions, and financial sucess, they often realize that in their core… when it’s quiet… something is still unsettled.  God wired us with a conscience and with a need for peace that can only be met by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

So many people are wounded, lost, scared, and faking it. They need God’s love, and they already know they don’t measure up.  They know this isn’t working.

So this becomes a discussion of church methodology, and personal evangelism, and just how we ought to relate to our coworkers and fellow soccer moms and little league dads and neighbors.  I believe that grace and love, in and because of Jesus, has more life-changing power than moralizing and finger-pointing.  If you want to assure that your gay neighbor will never set foot inside the doors of your church, just treat him with contempt.  If you want to be sure that the twenty-something administrastive assistant in the cubicle around the corner from you who just moved in with her boyfriend feels unwelcome to come to your church, be sure to offer your unsolicited opinion about shacking up.

Now before you think I’m a conflict-avoider who is advocating a jello-for-backbone approach to morality and culture, let me be clear:  I’m a huge fan of living out your convictions with clarity and integrity.  I’m not saying we should have no discernable values. On the contrary.  I am saying that I agree with Rob Bell here in that just BECAUSE we have strong moral guidelines – Biblical guidelines – we are not necessarily called to FOIST those moral guidelines on those who are not yet a part of the Kingdom of God through a relationship with Jesus.

Real-life parallel: Isaac, our 10-year-old, made the Texas Rangers this year.  Plymouth, MN, Little League style.  His coach is a man’s man, a leader, and is all about developing disciplined young men of character who also happen to be outstanding ball players.

Games start at 6PM.  Players need to be on the field at 5:10PM.  Players who arrive at 5:12… sit.  This is about Team values.  It’s about being there when you’re told to be there.  It’s about discipline.

As a Seminary student coming into the end of a crazy busy year, I haven’t been able to stay through every 2-hour game this season.  Often I come in half way through the 3rd inning to cheer on the team.  Never once has the coach chewed me out for lacking the proper degree of passion for the game or for having the wrong priorities.  Why? Because I’m not on the Team.  Now, I don’t enjoy the benefits of the Team either.  If I jogged out to second base some game-day afternoon, expecting to cover the infield for the boys, Coach would have some direct words for me, I’m sure.  But neither does he hold me accountable to the Team rules.  When coach yells “Hustle!” between innings as the boys take their positions, he’s talking to the Team, not to me.

Too simple?  I mean when we talk about morality and spiritual guidelines, aren’t there ETERNAL consequences on the line?

Yes.  There are eternal souls at stake. So we better get this right.  In fact, Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 5 that not only are we not to judge the unbelievers we rub shoulders with, we ought to intentionally build relationships with them.  THAT is the Biblical plan.  No bullhorns.  Relationships. No contempt. Love. We are not the world’s moral police.

Save your judgement for those inside the church who call themselves “brothers,” but refuse to live by the Word and the Spirit.  There is a place for judgement – within the relational family of the local congregation, where we sharpen each other in love, with humility, and with the goal of redemption.  Look at 1 Corinthians 5:12-13…

“For what have I to do with judging outsiders?  Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside.”

We can’t expect those who aren’t children of God to live like they are.  If we do, we risk alienating wounded, broken, hurting people who are searching for peace and don’t know how to find it.

It is true that Peter’s message in Acts to the unbelieving crowd in Jerusalem pulled no punches.  “You killed God.  Repent…” he said.  And it is also true that many spirit-led, Christ-honoring revivals have been sparked by the clear message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”  I know this is true, and I don’t discount that God uses clear Law and Gospel preaching even to reach the hearts of strangers and outsiders who have never thought they would set foot in the door of a church.  Sometimes, the Spirit leads, and the Law must be preached.

But I’m not talking about revival meetings and street-preaching miracles here.  I’m talking about Thursday afternoon. I’m talking about work tomorrow.  I’m talking about that guy who waits tables with you and is far more open about his personal romantic expoits than you’d ever want him to be.  Those people don’t need policemen to fix them first.  They need to be introduced to Jesus now – while they are yet sinners – because Jesus is pursuing relationship with them now.  As long as it is called Today.

The Word and the Spirit will do their refining work on the hearts of those who are on the Team.  But let’s not hold the crowd outside the fence to the Team standard.  Let’s invite them onto the Team first.

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“players, coaches, and dads :: a christian guide to finger-pointing” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It was like a punch in the gut.

I couldn’t breathe.  I just sat in the pew next to her with my jaw clenched.  There were eternal consequences here, I thought.  I couldn’t belive this was happening.  I could feel her retreating from the church – retreating from Jesus.

He was a potential candidate for the now vacant Senior Pastor position in the church where I served as the Worship and Arts director.  He was being seriously considered for a call, and this was his day to preach.

She was a relative of a relative.  Visiting our church.  She NEVER went to church.  But this was her day. Prayers, the Spirit, and circumstance brought her here.  Could have been the most important day in her life, and she didn’t even know it.  She was wounded, hurting, lost.  She needed Jesus.  She needed “Come to me, all who are weary…”

He was a jerk.

It is one thing to preach the Law in all of it’s sterness to awaken the souls of the complacent and pierce the hearts of the defiant IN ORDER THAT they might receive the life-giving Gospel truth: Jesus has already paid our penalty, we have hope, it is finished.  It is another thing to revel in the preaching of the Law.  To wield it like a clumsy weapon, clubbing the saints and the searching alike.  As if guilt were a better indicator of healthy spiritual life than love.

I realized early in the message she would never come here again.  Truth be told, I had decided early in the message that if he took the call, I would not come here again, either.  But now I felt hope slipping away and angry walls being built, brick by brick.  He was railing. Railing against those who would defile their body with tattoos. Spit in the face of God by piercing their bodies, His temple.  Those who would wear their sin proudly like a badge of honor in their dark clothing and Doc Martin boots and heavy eye make-up.  How shameful they were. How disgusting their vanity and rebellion must look to God.

She shifted uncomfortably, uncrossing her legs to lower her Doc Martins under the pew.  Her plaid flannel sleeves weren’t long enough to cover the ink spilling down her forearm and onto her wrist.  She was ashamed.  Then she was angry. Then she was gone.

I have never – NEVER – forgotten the lesson of that day, but I’ve never written about it.  Here I am in a Lutheran Seminary, learning how to divide all of scripture into two distinct categories:  LAW and GOSPEL.  God has given us the Law to kill our self-reliance and to point us to the cross.  And as a fifth (sixth… more than that?) generation Lutheran, I’ve been taught that the Gospel without the Law is cheap grace.  People need to be confronted with their sin before they are ready to receive the Gospel.  True conversion involves repentance. We die to self before we are reborn.

But…

That “but” has big implications.  I have feared pushing against centuries of Lutheran orthodoxy and thousands of Spirit-led theologians who would warn me that in this regard, there are no “buts.”  Law, then Gospel.  LAW, then Gospel.

But…

Sometimes, people already know they are broken. Sometimes, people are aware that they don’t measure up. Sometimes people come to church expecting God to view them the way this clumsy, angry, mean-spirited preacher viewed them.  And to them Jesus says, “Come…”

Why is this? It is because He created us to be in a relationship with Himself, for His glory and our enjoyment.  It is not unholy or selfish to seek to enjoy God.  He crafted us with a longing to be satisfied.  And NOTHING satisfies like the enjoyment of God Himself.  As we express that enjoyment in worship, thanksgiving, service, obedience, and praise, God gets glory.  And the two great longings in the universe are simultaneously met.  Man hungers to be satisfied, God desires to be glorified.  And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

So I look at the great God-story of the Bible.  And I see how it all points to Jesus.  And I believe it is the GREATEST truth in all of time – and that people everywhere need to hear it.  And I look at the beginning of the story.  And I see God there, “In the beginning…”  And I see the beginning of man.  And I notice something important…

Adam was created in God’s image, bearing His likeness in a personality and a desire for relationship… and God said it was very good. They walked together in the garden and had face-to-face relationship.  It was very good.  And this is the relationship mankind was created to have with God.  This was God’s intent from the start, and it is His desire now.

And all of this is solidified before Genesis chapter 3.

Why is it we start out as preachers and street evangelists, wielding our bullhorns and pointing our fingers from the pulpits, and we start at Genesis chapter 3?

“She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

Tragedy.  Horror.  Shame.  Separation.  Judgment.  Brokenness.  Pain.  Death.

It is true.  Because of that day, and because of all of the days between then and now that man has spent serving himself instead of our gracious creator God, everybody takes their first breath on earth as a sinner.  Disconnected from that “walk in the Garden… and it was very good” relationship.  We are hopelessly broken and unable to make our way back to God.  And that is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the centerpoint of history.  And that is why people need Jesus – to be rescued from themselves.  And that is why well-meaning evangelicals swing their clubs of condemnation.  They want people who don’t even realize they need saving to be saved. So the Law must do its heart-breaking work.  To break up the hard-packed earth of the hearts of men, so that the Gospel seed might take root and grow and bear much fruit.

But…

Sometimes people are broken and they know it already.  Must we always skip over the first two chapters of Genesis?  Must it always be LAW, then Gospel?

The message I have heard for so many years often sounds like this… (1)  You are a sinner. Your sin is ugly, and it separates you from God.  There is nothing you can do to avoid eternal judgment.  You are condemned by your sin. (2)  Jesus came to pay the price for that sin. On the cross, your sin was crucified with Him.  When he rose from the dead, He announced once and for all that forgiveness has triumphed.  Because of Jesus, we are forgiven, and we can be with Him in heaven forever.

You know what?  This isn’t the whole story. I submit that when we LEAD with the LAW, we beat up already wounded souls.  Not every time.  But often. Way too often.  I propose proclaiming a message, over a lifetime of biblical preaching, that looks more like this:

(1)  God loves you.  He created you for a purpose. God is zealously pursuing a relationship with you, and He will rejoice over you when you turn to Him.  This is what we are here for.  To enjoy the love of God.  God is a pursuing God, and you are made in His image.  He wants to restore you to your created purpose.

(2)  Sin mucked it all up. God is Holy and can’t be around sin.  He is righteousness, and He cannot tolerate sin.  Therefore, your sin separates you from Him, and nothing you can do can change that.  You will never be “good enough” for God.

(3) In light of Genesis 1 & 2 – in light of your created purpose – God made a way to redeem your soul.  Jesus death on the cross was payment for your sin.  Repent of your selfishness and self-reliance.  God has been pursuing you because He longs to be in relationship with you.  Jesus is the answer.  There is hope for even you.

Evangelicals will face judgment for the souls they have driven away from God with their clumsy handling of the Law.

Yes, the proud need to be broken.  But not by us.  By the truth of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And not all who hear us preach believe they don’t need God in their life.  Some come to hear because they simply have no idea how to find Him.  Some come to hear because they already consider themselves a screw-up.  Those people need to hear Jesus call, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”  And they need to know God is pursuing them.

Some of you are clenching your jaw right now.  You feel this is dangerous ground, and that I stand at the precipice of a slippery slope.  We cannot soften the full weight of the Law.  We cannot compromise. We cannot settle for “gospel-light” just because it’s what people want to hear.

I submit that your uncomfortability may come from the evangelical culture you have been steeped in.  What I am saying is rooted in scripture. God created us as deeply valued sons, born with a purpose first.  THEN sin broke the ideal.  First God created and it was very good.  THEN sin separated us from Him.  Some people will reject God because the church FIRST reflects His judgment rather than His love.  I believe more souls will be willing to hear the truth of their sin and their need for Jesus if they FIRST hear the truth that God loves them, considers them deeply valuable, and that he is pursuing a restored relationship with them out of his zealous love for us.

It’s not all about us.  It’s about Him. And when more souls are saved, and more hearts are set free and restored to their created purpose, God receives more glory.  He loved first.  It has been this way since Genesis 1 and 2.  Not just since the 3rd chapter, when we stood condemned by our sin.

So back to that day in the church pew, with my jaw clenched, and the tat-covered, lip-pierced girl sitting next to me…

I wonder what would have happened that day if the message surprised her, instead of confirming her suspicions.  “Yep, I am rotten.  Yep, the church is all about making sure I know that.  Yep, I thought this would be uncomfortable.  No way am I coming back to hear this stuff again.”

What would have happened if she would have heard how valuable she is to God?  That there is hope for her, and that she has been created by a God who knows her personally with all of her failings and rebellion, and still pursues her.

Tomorrow (Friday, May 13), a number of Christians on Twitter will be using the hashtag #4Giveness to connect with those outside of the church who have been pushed away from God by His people.  If this post resonnates with you, read this from my friend Chris Goforth, and join us tomorrow.

Too often the people of God have beaten people up with the Law as if WE don’t need it anymore, and it is meant to be applied as judgment to the sinners “out there.”  Too often we have stiff-armed people, making the gospel difficult to reach by way of a long trail of guilt and shame.  Jesus says “Come…” It is simple.  It is very good.

It is time to tell people that God is loving God who is pursuing them.

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‘we don’t need to beat up the broken and stiff arm sinners :: can i still be a lutheran?” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“What?  Shut up!”

Needless to say this seemed totally inappropriate.  I wasn’t even talking to her.

“I am not!  You always do this.  Get out of my…  No.  YOU are the one who…  No.”

I just want to get through this grocery line, man.  Buy my bananas and loaf of bread and diet tonic water. I just want to get through the day without arguing with a crazy stranger.  It’s kind of a goal.

“Stop it!  Stop it!”

She’s not looking at me.  She’s looking glassy-eyed straight ahead.  This is at first a relief.  Then it only ratchets up the weirdness.  She’s not talking to me… but there’s no one else around… so…

“This conversation is over.  I’m hanging up.  Goodbye!”

*facepalm*  BLUETOOTH. Couldn’t see the tiny receiver tucked into her ear under her hair.  I don’t like it, man.  The world is full of people talking to themselves, and it’s getting harder to tell who hears little voices in their ear because of technology and who hears voices because they’re a few pickles short of a jar.  I’d like to propose that bluetooth earpieces come with a little stick that extends over your head with a small, tasteful bright orange flag flying, so as to alert the world that you are hip, not simply nuts.

So we’ve established that there is “bad” talking to yourself.  If you’ve ever been around true (as in, non-bluetooth enabled) talking to yourself, we can agree… it’s unnerving.

But there is another kind of talking to yourself that I am sold-out for, passionate about.  It’s the kind of crazy we need MORE of in our churches. Last month I wrote two posts on sermon preparation (here and here).  One of my friends left a comment and shared this quote from John Calvin:

“If the preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.”

Amen!  I mean, as it applies to me. I wish no ill to befall my fellow pastors trying to serve their congregations with fresh insights from the Word of God week after week.  I mean no harm to the Sunday School teachers who wrestle their gaggle of 13 fourth graders to attention each Sunday morning.  In no way do I want injury to befall the bazillions of small group leaders who are trying to lead Bible studies week to week with no formal training, wondering if they are qualified to serve but gladly doing it anyway because they love Jesus.

I am you. All of you who handle the Word of God and try to share it’s power and insight with other people.  So I’m writing as a fellow crazy person, believing that somehow God can use me and my limited intellect and wavering allegiance to teach His people.  It’s crazy, because, who am I to be a leader, a teacher, an example?  I’m a broken mess.

And therein lies the mystery and the genius of God’s Church. His Word is alive, and it speaks today.  His Spirit is the true teacher. We human preachers and teachers and Bible study leaders…  we’re just His servants, serving other servants.  Not higher than.  Not holier than.  Side by side.  All sinners in need of grace and all being reformed into Christ’s image for the sake of God’s reputation, not ous.

So as a fellow servant… who happens to teach the Bible some times… I want to let you know something about me.

I talk to myself.

I’m a rookie preacher, you know.  A first year of Seminary under my belt in the next couple weeks.  So as a preacher, I’m got a lot of learning to do.  We all know the difference between a preacher who seems to be “up there,” just doing his own thing, and those preachers who are talking right to you.  Like the Bible is piercing through the religious veneer and the “I’m at least as put-together as the guy next to me” front we wear to church, and messing with our heart itself.  I only have one life, after all, and it’s already half spent.  I don’t want to waste a minute giving random religious self help talks, or even disconnected exegetical Bible lessons that fail to pierce the fog between the pulpit and the pew.

I’m praying the the voice of God and the nearness of His Spirit are unmistakable when I preach.  And that’s crazy. I’m nobody.  But God uses nobodies all the time.

Maybe it’s because the “have-it-all-together” crowd doesn’t feel that reckless desperation for God to be behind the wheel.  I don’t know.  But I do know that God has tons of refining work to do in me.  And the times, it seems, when my teaching makes the deepest impact or resonates with the greatest connection between my notes and the people facing me are the times when what I am teaching has grown out of a deep realization that God is working this truth out in ME.  When His Word has broken through my walls and reached my inner self and shined the light on my dark corners… then I am ready to teach.  When God has spoken to me, then I’m ready to speak to my fellow servants.

So if you’re me… a fellow teacher in the Kingdom, trying to rightly handle the Word of God and realizing how daunting that responsibility is, rember this:

It IS as crazy as you think it is that God would speak the truth of His Word through cracked pots like you and me.  Lunatic fringe crazy.  But that’s part of the genius of His plan.  He knows that we’re a mess, and that leaves lots of room to teach us about His character and power and grace.

Don’t spend this one life you have making religious speeches.  Get into the Word where God can break our heart and make it soar.  Be moved and changed… and THEN teach.  Not before. The church needs more preachers and teachers and Bible Study leaders who think it’s crazy that God would use them.  That crazy keeps us desperate.  And His power is made perfect in weakness, not in self-reliance.  That’s why when I get get up in that pool of light in front of my friends and fellow servants, notes in one hand and Bible in the other, I pray and pray and I remember that I’m not up here simply to talk the talk in their direction…

I’m talking to myself.


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“i talk to myself :: keeping the crazy close” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.