Extreme Jesus Following

Christianity is first and foremost about being like Jesus. The phrase is so familiar it has become a cliché. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what it means to be “Christian”, a term that was first used to describe the believers in Antioch around 40CE. At first, the term was used in derision, or mockery of the early believers. It literally means, “little Christs.” Eventually, however, Christians adopted it to describe themselves as it expressed perfectly their goal in life to emulate their Savior, Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:16).

But what does it mean to those of us who call ourselves Christians today, to live like Jesus did? What kind of commitment does that require of us? Most importantly, as I evaluate my own life, how do I measure up?

The goal of every believer to be like Christ couldn’t be more clear in the scriptures. 1 John 2:6 says, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” We sing songs about it, read books on the subject, we even have fancy, rubber wristbands that remind us to ask the question, “WWJD?” Unfortunately, all of these things haven’t helped me a whole lot in my efforts to live a Christ-like life. If anything, I’ve been overexposed to the idea and need to see things with a fresh perspective.

I recently read about a pastor, Ed Dobson, who decided to get serious about the Christ-like life. He committed an entire year to living his life in exactly the way Jesus did. That may not sound extreme on the surface, but remember, Jesus was a Jew living in 1st century Palestine. That meant following Old Testament laws about eating, clothing and behaviors. For instance, observing kosher dietary restrictions to not mix meat and dairy forced Dobson to give up his favorite chicken and cheese burritos. He observed Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover and he often prayed at a synagogue. He refrained from work and travel on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath and even obeyed the biblical command not to trim beards.

“The hard part,” Dobson said. “Is trying to live up to His (Jesus) teachings.” The most serious part of his commitment came through his serious study of Jesus teachings. Dobson read through all four Gospels every week. He took seriously Jesus’ commands to help the poor and visit the imprisoned. He prayed daily, repeatedly reciting “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” The prayer of a blind man Jesus healed.

“Jesus is a very troubling individual,” Dobson said. “I’ve realized how far I fall short.”

I wonder what my reaction would be if I focused so intensely my efforts to live my life as Jesus did. How far would I fall short? Where am I missing it today? Do I have the guts to find out? One thing I know for sure is I have a long way to go on the journey to become like Christ.

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St. Valentine

Valentine’s Day is a less than a week away. On this day we celebrate love, romance and the beheading of St. Valentinus. Wait a minute, what? Yeah, that’s right. Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th every year to commemorate the death of a 3rd century Saint who was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ. It’s hard to believe that a day meant to remember the faith of a courageous man could be transformed into the holiday for lovers, but as we dig deeper into the story, there are a few connections.

Who Was Valentine?
The true story of St. Valentinus is hard to come by. As it turns out, Valentine was a popular name in centuries past. The name comes from the Latin Valens, meaning strong and powerful. In all, there are around a dozen St. Valentines officially recognized on the Roman Catholic roster. There was even a pope named Valentine who served for a brief period of time in the 9th century. However, it is most likely that the St. Valentinus we celebrate on this day was a Roman priest who lived and died in the 3rd century.

While many legends about St. Valentine have circulated over the years, there are a few notable stories that ring true. He served as a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II who persecuted the Christian church bitterly. Claudius II declared an edict at that time prohibiting the marriage of young people. This was based on his opinion that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers who were more cautious and fearful of losing their lives and leaving their families behind. The Christian faith promoted marriage as a gift from God and Valentinus refused to submit to this edict. He encouraged young couples to marry and helped facilitate this by performing secret marriage ceremonies. Eventually, he was caught and imprisoned for violating this edict.

While in prison, Valentine shared Jesus with one of the justices assigned to his case. This judge, Asterius, had a daughter who was blind. He challenged Valentinus to pray for her to be healed and validate his claims that Jesus was God. Valentinus laid his hands on her, prayed for her sight to be restored and she was healed! Asterius became a believer in Jesus Christ as a result of this.

It is said that Valentinus sought to convince the Emperor Claudius II himself that Jesus Christ was God. As a result of his boldness, the Emperor was enraged and sentenced him to be executed. In the year 269 AD, Valentinus was sentenced to a three part execution of beating, stoning, and decapitation.

“Be my Valentine”
One of the most popular traditions celebrated on Valentine’s Day is the giving of Valentine cards. Indeed, as a nation we will spend close to 1.5 billion dollars just on cards this Valentines Day. This is perhaps the most closely linked modern day tradition that can find its’ origins in St. Valentines story. As the story goes, on the day he was to be executed, Valentine’s last words were written down on a letter addressed to the daughter of Asterius who had been healed of blindness. He signed the letter, “from your Valentine.” Apparently, this expression has inspired the millions of hopeless romantics today who sign off their love notes with his name.

The Making of a Holiday
Around 498 CE, Pope Gelasius chose February 14th, the day of Valentine’s martyrdom, to commemorate his life. As fate would have it, Valentine’s Day fell the day before the Roman fertility feast Lupercalia, a drunken, sex-crazed, orgy festival (think Mardi Gras). During the 5th century, all public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed. However, festivals like these don’t die easily. The activities continued while the official calendar day recognized St. Valentine. Thus the day of the festival and St. Valentine’s martyrdom came to be intertwined.

We have to fast forward to the 14th century before we see further development of the modern day holiday. In his work “Parliament of Foules,” the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked the tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s day (an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention). His poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,” he may have invented the holiday we know today.

Faith and Politics

The church I grew up in had a special guest one Sunday morning who was running for president. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that everyone was encouraged to vote for this candidate because he was a Christian. I thought that sounded like pretty sound advice as a youngster, but now… I’m not so sure.

Let’s get one thing straight; I don’t usually blog about politics. It’s generally a very divisive topic. As a pastor, I’m taking my cues from Jesus who repeatedly refused to engage in political arguments. On one occasion, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus into answering an impossible question, “is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus response revealed his divine wisdom and serves as a guideline for his followers, “give back to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22). Jesus seemed to promote the very first “separation of church and state” position. Not in the sense that he would be against prayer in schools, but he does seem to indicate that there is a healthy distinction to be made when it comes to faith and politics.

After watching Donald Trump stumble through a 2 Corinthians quote a few weeks back at Liberty University, I couldn’t help but think we’ve reached a new low in political pandering to the religious audience. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to see public figures profess their faith. However, it can be uncomfortable when they begin presenting the virtues of faith right alongside their new healthcare program. Think about it, choosing a candidate based on religious preference can be tricky. First of all, every president we’ve ever had in the U.S.A. has been a Christian (at least officially), so how are we supposed to figure out who is genuine and who is just grandstanding? Presidential candidates will make all sorts of promises and claims in order to get elected. Being an evangelist to certain religious groups has proved to be an effective political strategy. Both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama capitalized on their popularity within certain faith communities. It has become a tried and true method to win votes for the election.

I’ve heard some suggest that we can discern whether or not a candidate is a genuine believer based on their morality and their policies. I have a hard time accepting this. Frankly, I’m beginning to think it impossible to find a candidate who is committed to meeting the needs of the poor (a Biblical mandate) who is also committed to protect the lives of the unborn (another Biblical mandate). Furthermore, I’ve noticed that there are an equal amount of R’s and D’s in front of the names of disgraced politicians who have failed to meet basic moral standards. Maybe you’ve noticed this too?

It might sound like heresy, but I’m not convinced that God selects world leaders based on their faith in him, or lack thereof. The scriptures seem to indicate God selects world leaders (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21), however, they also seem to suggest the Pharaoh was his choice, and that Nebuchadnezzar was his choice. I’m not saying we should throw our values out the window when it comes to supporting one politician over another, but neither should we give a hall pass to the candidate who carries a big King James Bible and sits in a pew on Sunday morning. Perhaps more important than electing potential candidates for office is our duty to pray for and honor the ones we have (1 Tim. 2:2). If we spent more time and energy doing this, rather than getting tangled in political debate, our country would be better for it.

Who is the greatest?

I love coaching basketball. From 4th grade all the way up to 8th I coached my oldest son’s teams.  During those years, the boys were in that magical age range where they weren’t too cool for school yet and even though I was an adult, I was still considered a pretty cool guy.

The best part about the coaching experience is the deep and meaningful conversations after practice is over.  Like, who is the greatest NBA basketball player?  Is it Lebron James, or Kobe Bryant?  Lebron James was the odds on favorite at that time with his high flying dunks and super-human athleticism.  However, some of the boys felt that Kobe was the best because he was the smartest player.  I tried to make a case for Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan, but judging by the blank stares on their faces, my players were a little too young to remember any of those guys.

That’s the thing with greatness; it’s so fleeting.  As Solomon says, “there is no remembrance of men of old, 
and even those who are yet to come 
will not be remembered 
by those who follow.” (Ecc. 1:11)  Ouch!  Have you ever felt that way?  That nothing you have accomplished in life really lasts.  During the first practice of the season, the boys wanted to know what my coaching credentials were.  I explained how I had played college basketball and briefly described to them one of my best performances.  They were mildly impressed.  It was just enough to get them to do their defensive slide drills because I knew what I was talking about.  However, a few minutes later I was demonstrating a lay-up and it clanged off the side of the rim.  The looks on their faces said it all.  “The glory had departed.”

Jesus had some amazing things to say about greatness.  “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33)  Based on our ingrained, human value system this statement makes no sense at all.  I’m tempted to just ignore it all together, but I know that whenever I don’t understand Jesus, I am in the dark and I would rather live in the light.  Thankfully, there’s another way of looking at these words of Jesus.  Maybe greatness isn’t something that is attained in this life.  Jesus also said, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Mt. 6:20)  Having this view of greatness causes us to drastically change the way we define the word.

If greatness is a treasure that we store up for ourselves in heaven, then it is not defined by accomplishments, wealth, social status, or the praise of men.  Those are the common things that we attribute greatness to in this life.  If we want to live a great life, we need to have an eternal focus.  What does that mean?  When God’s people live in light of eternity, values change. They use their time and money more wisely, they place a higher premium on relationships and character instead of fame, or wealth, or achievements and their priorities are reordered; keeping up with trends, fashions, and popular values just don’t matter as much anymore. Paul said, “I once thought all these things were so very important, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done.” (Phil. 3:7 NLT).

As I am working through the various decisions I have to make today, the actions I need to take and the way to prioritize my time, I want to be mindful of what is worthless.  Let’s be honest, a lot of things we are deeply invested in don’t really matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.  We worry about what people will think, how much money is in our bank account, or if we have what it takes, but those are momentary troubles and God wants us to broaden our view to see our lives in the light of eternity. Let’s live our lives more eternally minded and give priority to the things that really matter.

 

Nomination Nightmare

A few weeks back my son asked me when the next presidential election was to be held. I explained to him that it was still close to a year away. He seemed confused and rightfully so. With all of the media focus on the nomination process, it feels as though the election should be right around the corner. Nowadays, it’s difficult to discern when we are in the midst of an election year as one election season blends into the next. His next question, however, was much more penetrating. While we were watching one of the debates he asked, “why do these people all hate each other?” As if to answer his question, the nomination process once again dominated today’s headlines. The emphasis was upon how the campaign ads were becoming more fierce and could possibly be the “most negative” of all time – And these people are supposed to be on the same team? I cringe at the thought of what the general election process might devolve into. It makes me wonder, “How are we supposed to hold our leaders in high regard, as the scriptures admonish us to, if they are constantly tearing one another down and bringing out the worst in each other?”

Recently, I read a bumper sticker that heightened my level of concern.  It uses scripture of all things to ridicule the current president of the United States. It simply reads: “Pray for Obama, Psalm 109:8.” It seems innocent enough until you actually read the passage. “Let his days be few and brief; and let others step forward to take his place.” I guess we could all have a good laugh at the thought of another Biblical passage being hijacked out of context, but that wasn’t my reaction. It made me angry. Essentially the slogan is calling on Christians to leverage the words of God to pray for something God is expressly against. As believers, who take the Bible seriously, we should consider carefully how we are instructed to respond to leadership so that we don’t fall into the pattern of this world.

Pray for your leaders
The scriptures clearly teach us to pray for our leaders. 1 Timothy 2 says it most clearly, I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” Notice that the desired result of these prayers is that we would live peaceful and quiet lives. How many of us live in anxiety and fear because of political issues? How many of us resent our leaders? How many of us incite each other to fury over policies we are passionate about? Are we living in peace? The Christians living under the leadership of Rome at this time didn’t picket the emperor. Their only recourse was to pray for him.

Submit to your leaders
Romans 13
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

We might be tempted to think that doesn’t apply when the president, or governor is not our preferred choice for the job, but Paul is writing this at a time when there was no choice. To make matters worse, Paul wrote this portion of scripture at a time when Nero was emperor of Rome. In addition to burning Christians alive like human candles, he’s the guy who fed them to wild animals in the Coliseums. All of the sudden, ObamaCare doesn’t seem so bad!  I’m not suggesting we blindly follow our leaders when they violate God’s word, or lead us into actions that are expressly contrary to the ways of God, but we can spend our days hopelessly lost in debate over how and why this policy is Godless and that law is contrary to what the Bible says and miss Paul’s entire point – pray for and support your leaders.

Hebrews 13, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

It’s most likely the writer of Hebrews intended this passage to be applied to spiritual leaders, but that shouldn’t exempt us from following the same principle in regards to our civil leaders.  Imagine what the president could accomplish if he/she felt like the people in our nation were actually behind him/her placing their confidence in them as God’s appointed leader. It goes both ways whether the president is Democrat, or Republican. What if Christians everywhere were known as those who respected and supported their leaders? Something tells me this would be good and it would produce a lot more fruit than the constant barrage of criticism and personal attacks!

Advent 2015

Last night I found myself tuned in to the “Charlie Brown Christmas” special on ABC.  It’s the familiar old classic where Charlie Brown wanders about, lost in confusion over the true meaning of Christmas.  Charlie is a perpetually cynical character, but this time his cynicism seems particularily on point.  After all, it’s well documented that Christmas has been watered down by the dual threats of consumerism and commercialism. It’s a full time job just trying to guard our minds from getting caught up in the frivolous activities that accompany the holidays.   And though it may sound old and tired (as old as the Charlie Brown Christmas special), once again, this year, it’s well worth our time to explore the true meaning of Christmas.

I’ve been asking myself, “What would Christmas mean to me if I stripped it down to the bare essentials?”  I came across this excerpt from a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancé while he was imprisoned in Nazi Germany.   He was lamenting the fact he couldn’t prepare for, or celebrate Christmas the way he used to.  He writes these words…

“I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious … The poorer our quarters.”

I’m inspired to always keep my attention on the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ.  Ironically, I’m experiencing the reverse of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was going through.  My life’s circumstances seem to be getting better and better year after year.  In light of that, I’m asking myself this question, “is the glorious gift of Christ’s’ birth diminished in the midst of the lavish and excessive gifts I give and receive this year?”  If so, how can I change the experience for myself and my family this Christmas season?

May you find Jesus to be the most glorious gift this year and may the gift of Christ’s birth leave you lacking nothing.

God knows my name

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father refuse thy name… What is in a name?” I must’ve heard that line a hundred times during high school play rehearsal.  It’s a legitimate question.  After all, what is in a name? It doesn’t seem to be all that important. These days you are more likely to be given a name based off of a fad, or trend than anything particularly meaningful.  Sure, we parents like to get all deep and explore the original meaning of the name we pulled out of the 1,001 top baby names book, but in the end all we are looking for is that “cool” factor.  Is the name OG (that means original for those of you without teenagers)?  Check.  Will my child be made fun of on the playground?  Check.  Are there any potentially devastating nicknames to go along with this name?  Check.  Seen in this light, your name doesn’t seem to be all that important.

As I was reading through the book of Exodus, I came across this passage in chapter 33, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”  God is speaking to Moses in response to a request Moses has made of Him.  God had threatened to abandon His people Israel after their continued rebellion and stubbornness.  However, Moses pleaded for mercy and asked Him to stay with them.  Miraculously, God responds favorably to Moses request and promises His presence.  His reasoning?  “I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

There wasn’t anything particularly special about Moses’ name.  In fact, it was an Egyptian name that carried with it the meaning “drawn out of the water.”  His adoptive mother, sister to the Pharaoh of Egypt, gave him the name.  She most likely had no idea what was in store for the baby she pulled out of the stream that day.  But God knew.  His watchful eye was upon Moses.  He shielded him from the decree of the Pharaoh.  He blessed him with a resourceful mother.  He guided him to the porch of the compassionate sister of Pharaoh.  He equipped him with a world class education in Egypt.  He humbled him through 40 years of shepherding in the wilderness.  It’s no wonder upon their first meeting God calls out from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses.”  He knows exactly who He’s talking to.

God was never confused about whom Moses was.  I think it was Moses who had to figure out who God was.  God first introduced Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Sure, Moses had heard a few stories, but he had no personal experience of knowing this God.  In the painstaking process of leading Israel through the Exodus and the subsequent journey through the wilderness, Moses cultivated a friendship with God.  “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”  He reached such a depth of knowledge and understanding in God’s ways that God used the prayers of Moses to bring about His will for the people of Israel.

If God is Righteous and Holy, Gracious and Merciful, Powerful and Mighty, Savior and Redeemer, then Moses knew God by name.  He had been exposed to the ways of God time and time again through the course of his journey.  Out of this depth of knowledge Moses developed a boldness and a courage to ask for the desires of his heart and to expect God to answer.  He was no longer a stranger to the God of His forefathers, He counted himself a friend.  So when God says, “I know you by name” perhaps He is implying that now He will be known as, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses!”