Unsalty Salt

Years ago Christian contemporary musician Chris Rice had a song called “Smell the Color 9”. I also remember, “Screen Door on a Submarine” by Rich Mullins on his Songs CD. They have somewhat different messages, but both were fun to listen to. Neither one of them was ever a favorite of mine. However, just the other day Mullins’ lyrics popped into my mind… well, here is a low-res version of the song on YouTube that might refresh your memory of “Screen Door on a Submarine”:

Both songs had people asking, “Huh?” when they first heard the title. While the scriptural truths of those two songs were different, they both remind me of some of the absurd ways that we can present what it means to be a Christian in a post-Christian culture.

One of the metaphors we frequently use is being salt. Today salt has little value, but back in first-century Israel salt was about as big a deal as oil is to us today. Salt was the driving force behind ancient trade routes, battles and geopolitical power plays. Yep. Salt.

Being salt is an idea that came straight from Jesus himself, so it should make sense, right? In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again?” That’s absurd.

First of all, how can salt stop being salty? When asked what to do with unsalty salt a later rabbi advised, “Salt it with the afterbirth of a mule.” Again, “Huh?” Not only is that confusing to most of us, it’s gross! If you know anything about livestock you might find this ancient joke funny. Mules are sterile. The rabbi’s point was that the question was silly. If you ask a stupid question… If salt loses its saltiness what good is it?

Jesus says the same about disciples who do not live out their calling. That idea is absurd. “Faith without works, baby, it just ain’t happening.” That’s Rich Mullins though, not Jesus.

I am certain that most of us do not see our lives or our beliefs as silly or absurd. However, it is silly if we call ourselves Christians, yet we do nothing to fulfill our purpose. God has a plan for you and has equipped you through the Holy Spirit for a specific reason at this specific time. Is your faith “works-less?” If so, why not make 2019 the year when your faith moves from silly to salty.

Tear Down the Walls

President Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches punctuated with one of his most remembered lines.

On June 12, 1987, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called out the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and challenged him to remove the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin for over 25 years. Reagan very pointedly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It’s time for Christian leaders to look around our churches (and maybe in the mirror), examine the religious culture we’ve created and say, “Pastor, sisters and brothers, let us tear down these walls!”
Now I’m not talking about the actual structures! Let me explain. I recently shared a devotional on Luke 15:1-7 for a clergy “Day Apart” with my colleagues from the northwest corner of Arkansas. One component of our discussion had to do with how we see “the lost” in our communities. In my own life and ministry I have often been looking over an institutional wall at non-believers while I reinforce both blatant and hidden requirements for one to become a part of the faith community. Religious institutions often have some peculiarities and rituals that do not favor the outsider. In fact religion (in its most negative sense) acts as a barrier. It repeats the mantra, “That’s not how we do it,” or “You must be new here,” or “Come back when you ______.”
There is a concept in the social sciences that compares two perspectives on seeing the outsider, the other, or in the language from this parable, the lost. It is the Bounded Set and the Centered Set.

When we should be joyfully guiding people closer to Jesus, discipling them to be all that God wants them to be (as a good shepherd would), churches have often been building walls, piling on burdens and requirements and systematically culling the folks who don’t fit in. Jesus shows us the danger of ritualistic religion and dogmatic attitudes in Matthew 15 and 23. He shows grace to a Gentile/Canaanite woman and praises her faith. Jesus calls the religious leaders “Hypocrites… What sorrow awaits you!” There’s some contrast and comparison too!
I have been going through a real learning and refining season as a pastor and one of the things that I see as most important in my role is to be one who removes barriers, breaks down walls and destroys any impediment to people finding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then I fail and fall back into my old way of seeing things, but praise the Lord for His grace! He gives everyone an opportunity, “to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Faith in Jesus is a game changer that we should share with all humankind, not a secret recipe to be locked up for the chosen few.
If you are already a part of a local congregation, how do you and your church reinforce the Bounded Set perspective of seeing the lost? What religious barriers do you see that need to be torn down? How can you encourage those who might be a long way off but heading in the right direction? One thing I love about being a United Methodist Pastor is the privilege of saying “Welcome! There is a place at the (Lord’s) Table for you.” That’s the invitation no matter how far away you are. After all, we were all outsiders until, by grace through faith, Jesus joyfully guided us home.

A Real Power Play

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un – who will come out ahead in this political power play?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and US President Donal Trump might actually be in the same room together for “talks” in the next couple of months. This would be an unprecedented event, one that I will have to see to believe.  It’s difficult to know what kind of power play the Asian dictator might be making. It’s possible President Trump might have some unknown motive (other than his ego) driving him. Regardless of who gains an upper hand in the power struggle over the Korean Peninsula, it will be surreal seeing the two men together in photos or videos given the two leader’s rhetoric this the past year. The desire for power will make people do crazy things.

However, this reminds me of a person who transformed Asia in the late 19th century, James Hudson Taylor. He is remembered as one of the earliest European missionaries to China and the founder of China Inland Mission (CIM). But when it came to power he took a much different approach.

“An easy-going, non-self-denying life will never be one of power.”

– J. Hudson Taylor

Would you post that quote on your Facebook page? Can you say, “Amen!” to that? Are you ready to give up every ounce of power and control that you (think you) have and deny yourself? That’s difficult because usually when people attain some level of power or control, they only want more.

Power, influence, wealth and security all seem to be our life goals in America, but every one of those is a house of cards standing one breath away from collapsing… unless faith is part of the equation, faith in Jesus Christ. But the power, influence, wealth and security that come from being a Christ follower look a lot different from what the world offers. That is the hard part.

That’s the struggle for me and my family right now. We are in a season of being patient, trusting the Lord and denying our own desires to serve His Church. Almost every United Methodist clergy person is going through the same experience. Being an itinerant pastor means that we can’t make a power play and at the same time honor God through this yearly process. We trust that the Holy Spirit and the faithful women and men leading the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will do what is best for our local “mission fields.” After all, we need to practice what we preach! If this is God’s church, then faith must come first. 

James Hudson Taylor, (1832 – 1905) British missionary to China. Beard game, strong!

Today Taylor’s legacy is felt in every corner of Asia because he helped people in the Western culture see China as an uncharted mission field. Now, 150 years later, the church in Asia has emerged as its own powerful mission-sending organization… and God gets all the glory.

The more we wield our own power, influence and wealth, the more we look like the world and the less we look like people of faith. We can trust that God is in control. And if you want to see real power, look to the sacrificial servant leadership of Jesus. He flipped the world’s power structure on its head. He laid down his life for us, the ultimate sacrifice. But it was also the ultimate power play overcoming even sin and death. He’s proven himself worthy of our trust.

Bernie Madoff? A true son of…?

WallStreetTradersDo you have any savings in the bank? Perhaps you have investments in the turbulent stock market. Now imagine that a huge chunk of your money disappeared. Some people don’t have to imagine! They have experienced it first hand. Remember Bernie Madoff? He was once the chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, but he used his role as a financial advisor to cheat thousands of Americans out of billions of dollars. Yeah. That guy.

Now imagine hearing this… “Bernie!” Jesus says. “Quick, come here! I must be a guest in your home today.” What? After a meal together, Bernie’s heart is transformed by the unconditional love of Jesus and he repents and resolves to repay everyone that he has defrauded. “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham” (Luke 19:1-10). You know the story.

When my kids talk about Zacchaeus they sing the song, focus on his height and the “sycamore tree.” As adults we can easily dismiss it as a children’s story, but there is a powerful lesson here. God’s love has the power to transform lives! Thankfully my pre-schooler got that part right when I asked, “Why would Jesus go to his house and eat with him?” “Because Jesus loved him.” Yep. The mercy and grace that Jesus showed during His earthly ministry is the same mercy and grace that he shows us when we truly repent and begin living a Christ-like life.BernardMadoffMed

But it doesn’t stop with us. Our calling is to invite liars, cheaters, broken, depressed and forgotten people to experience God’s transformational love through us. And before we get too proud of ourselves, we need to recognize our own brokenness and our need for a Savior. Without Jesus Christ we’d be imprisoned by our sin and up a tree somewhere. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” If God has truly transformed our hearts, brothers and sisters, loving others (even the Bernie Madoffs in the world), and seeking the lost should be our purpose too. That’s loving beyond!SignJRGBlack300

No “fun” in fundamentalism

Under-the-Banner-of-HeavenI recently finished reading a book by John Krakauer called “Under the Banner of Heaven.” It is a disturbing look into some of the fundamentalist views of the Mormon Church and the violent, destructive outcomes that can occur when we carry our beliefs to the extreme. If you are familiar with the Mormon church, you know about Joseph Smith, the gold tablets, the lost tribes of Israel in America and the doctrine of eternal progression (you too can be a God).

Yes. Those beliefs are a sliver of the views that separate Mormonism from Christianity. Much effort has gone into shaping Mormonism to seem like just another Christian denomination. It’s not. Now don’t get me wrong. Mormons are some of the most upstanding, moral, intelligent, mission-minded, self-sacrificing people in our country. They put most Christian church-goers to shame! But this is not a post pitting Mormonism against Christianity, I am talking about beliefs and taking them to extreme levels.

And, before we get to proud of ourselves, Christians, we need to look in the mirror and study examples like the one Krakauer documented. One can find a cautionary tale interwoven into this book. On the surface, getting back to the fundamentals of what we believe can be a good thing. But fundamentalism of any type can be a dangerous, slippery slope.

Christian fundamentalism grew out of the Protestant church’s response to the liberal theology that sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period many theologians wanted to interpret Scripture based on modern perspectives and the influences of the Enlightenment without allowing any preconceived notions about the authority of Scripture. But many theologians pushed against that idea by arguing that the Bible was inerrant because, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true” (2 Timothy 3:16). God inspired or “breathed” His words into the various authors that He chose to write the Bible.

FundyHellPosterBut now Christian fundamentalism in the 21st century looks a lot more like religious extremism. We’ve jumped into the political arena and sullied the gospel with a desire to earn votes, legislate morality and be in control.  Fundamentalism also smacks of Christian legalism, taking the morality and laws contained in Scripture and making them more important than the message of love and grace found in the gospel. In his first recorded sermon Paul says, “[In] Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:38-39, NLT) He’s talking about Jews, Gentiles and everyone [who is] believing (πᾶς πιστεύων), not just good people.

It can get pretty confusing for folks outside the Church looking in. I hear, “I’ll go (back) to church once I get my life together,” on a regular basis. We have miscommunicated or been misunderstood by many people. In our passion to strengthen our position and convince people that we’re right, let’s forget our own agenda and let the Holy Spirit lead, not a dogmatic, legalistic, fundamentalist perspective. Just like most Mormons would say that the Lafferty brothers and Fundamental Mormonism doesn’t accurately represent their beliefs, 21st century Christian fundamentalism doesn’t accurately represent the true Christ-follower.

So what do you believe? What separates your faith in Jesus Christ from the faith of a Mormon? What about a Bahá’í? What about your friendly neighborhood agnostic materialist? How do we witness about our faith to others? Leave the dogma and political baggage out of it. Grace is great place to start rather than a list of rules, a KJV Bible, attendance requirements and political affiliation. God’s grace expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a good beginning (Ephesians 2:1-10). Trust the Holy Spirit to speak though Scripture! And really, there is no better witness than your own life… depending on what you believe.SignJRGBlack300

The Both/And of Growing Up in Church

My family after church, probably Easter '84 or '85.
My family after church, probably Easter ’84 or ’85.

Did you grow up in the church? Was Sunday worship attendance expected when you were a child? In our house, we were so involved and invested in the children’s ministry that we were often one of the first families to get to church and the last to leave. My parents served the children in our church and community for over three decades. Sunday morning mattered! But Sunday morning was not the only faith-forming part of my childhood.

I remember riding in our van with a caravan of friends going visit people in prison. I heard stories from my dad about sharing the love of Jesus with a man at the local doughnut shop who had fallen asleep on his hamburger. I sang songs that my mother wrote for Vacation Bible School and children’s outreach. I would sit on the steps and listen in on the Bible studies that the grown ups had in our finished basement.

One Sunday my parents volunteered to help a man move from St. Louis down to a place out in the country in Jefferson County. I didn’t hear all the details, so I was surprised when we pulled up and parked our van under an interstate bridge. We helped the stranger load up his belongings (even though they smelled like they needed to stay under the bridge!), fed him and took him to a rehabilitation center far away from the concrete jungle that had been his home.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Being connected and invested in the Body of Christ every Sunday as I was growing up was only part of the equation. Being the Church Monday through Saturday as a kid is what has really shaped my ministry and now drives my faith as an adult. It is a both/and mentality of parenting that should mirror the balance in the church between evangelism and discipleship.

What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?
What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?

Today I had a great time working through this with a colleague in our local church. The tendency is to gradually move from a pie chart that is close to 50/50 – a balance between reaching out to the lost and building up the people in the congregation – to a pie chart that is in the 80/20 neighborhood… 80% serving the needs of the congregation. I have to constantly evaluate my own ministry and my own parenting, otherwise I will suddenly find myself in maintenance mode rather than taking steps of faith into the unknown. What a great opportunity to show my kids that God is there, alive and by our side as we learn to love others more than ourselves.

So what excites you about sharing Sunday morning with your kids? Is there something you can share Monday through Saturday ministry that is making a lasting difference in people’s lives? Is that a part of the equation in your household? Honestly ask yourself what your pie chart percentages look like. You might have already established the fact that Sunday morning matters, but be encouraged and remember the power of serving others Monday through Saturday. As you look above and love beyond, make that a part of what matters in your life and in your family.SignJRGBlack300