Long, Long Shadows and A Light


Sin never stops where you think it will. 

Your repeated anger leads to latent bitterness which leads to relationship-destroying gossip.  

Your pornography-viewing leads to unmarital sex which leads to one parent raising a child in isolation which leads to crippling resentment.  

Unchecked sin always spreads, and kills where it does.  Like cancer.  

But one of the beautiful mercies of God is that He has given us a community where sin and its scars can be dealt with.  

The church.  


Churches are little cities of imperfect people, people who have been miraculously remade and who, by the grace of a very real and very compassionate God, continually confess and continually turn from the sins they still commit.  They know who they were (spiritually dead evil people), they know who they are (spiritually alive people being slowly made more and more like Jesus), and they know who God is (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who love to save sinners).  And because of these 3 things, these little collections of Gospel people are able to bring wicked and broken and scared and angry humans into their midst and minister to them.  Serve them.  Help to stop the bleeding in their lives.  

The world is home to all stripes of sinners who are in different stages of the pain or disarray or death that sin brings along as its trail.  And there is no one else who can get to the root of the chaos or who can apply supernatural salve to the wounds of all this sin like the church can.  She has been given the Good News that can heal and can save people from their evils, and from the evils that were committed against them.  She can rescue them from the worst of the violence and the trouble and the affliction of this world.  

Which is great, because this is not Mayberry.  This is a world of adultery and ulterior motives and hearts who will cast those they love aside for pleasure or power.  This is a world where sin has left some long, long shadows.  Sons deserted by their fathers, marriages in flames because of selfishness, grown men and women who don’t know how to be men or women.  And there in the heart of this world stands the church, giving the hope and the truth and the life that only she can give.  

This world needs her.  The single mothers and the heroin addicts and the workaholics and the shallowest of womanizers need her.  She is a city on a hill.  

She is where they can come for possibility.  For hope.  For adoption into a forever family.  She is where they can sojourn for all of the things that only Jesus can hand over.  

For everyone trapped in what sin has spoiled, churches are households of transforming mercy.  They are families of forgiveness.  They are little peoples of honest confession and honest love and honest Gospel.  

This is a world of long shadows.  Because sin never stops where it whispers it will.   Sin never keeps that promise.  

But the God of the Cross has given a light that can beat those shadows back.  His church holds that light in her hands, for any and all to come see.  

How to Kill a Church

  
I love the church. Christ’s bride.  The ekklesia, God’s called out people.  He died to save her and I want to live to serve her.  And in my couple of trips around the block as a church member, church planter, church elder, there are a few poisons I’d love to see get big, skull-and-crossbones warning labels so local churches don’t accidentally ingest them.  The most beautiful, God-honoring of churches can be disintegrated if you introduce the right toxin (see Revelation 2-3).*

*Note:  Some churches also just die a natural death, by God’s good will, having done nothing obviously, overtly sinful or wrong.  No single local church lasts forever.   Churches have God-ordained lifespans.  What I’m warning against is “churchicide,” or, if you prefer, church suicide.  

Some ways to kill a church:

  • Get each person in the church to have his main concern be his role or reputation.  The church will either disband within 6 months or stay together out of spite and be insufferable for 20 years.  Each of the people who leave this church or who stays in her just to grumble will be perpetually disgruntled that they didn’t get to do or be what they wanted to do or be.  And whatever you do, don’t let any of the people’s attitude be like this:  

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

Philippians 2:3-7

  • Get them away from the question “Is this true?”  Make them instead always, always, always ask “Will this work?”  And then get them to think it “worked” if their unbelieving friends and neighbors liked it.  Before you know it, they’ll go from trying to bless people because they want them to know their Maker (Christlike) to trying to get people to like them because that means whatever the church did must have “worked” (retail-like).  If you can get the church to make her decisions based solely on the world’s reactions to those decisions, you’re one or two steps away from turning the church’s leaders into a roomful of TV executives trying to figure out which type of new fall show will draw in their key demographic.  
  • Get the church to look in all the time.  Make them thoroughly and completely overwhelmed with the church structure and the internal systems and programs.  Get them to think only about the people already in the body.  No church can outlive its current members if no new members are made.  It’s simple math.  So you can kill a church by attrition if you get it to stop obeying Jesus’ commands to preach to the unbelieving and make disciples.  This method takes a little patience of course, unlike introducing outright heresy or getting a leader to fall into a massive scandal, but it’ll get you to the same end.  A church who doesn’t care about making new Christians won’t outlive her current Christians.  

Let me pull my tongue back out of my cheek, now:  Don’t let any of these things begin in your church.  And if they’ve already begun, pray and work like crazy for their removal.  

The church is a blessed thing.  And the cities and countries of our world desperately need local churches to minister to Gospel-believers and send them back out into the darkness, as well as to preach Christ’s Good News from the pulpit and the pew loud enough for all to hear.    

I’m short, love and protect the church.  

Jesus died to do the same. 

The Last Set of Jitters

  
Two things happened.  One was fun and good, the other personally devastating.  

The bad one first.  

Instead of finding my identity in Christ’s forgiveness of me, His giving me new life and a spiritual home and family, I often cling to and locate my worth in being respected and admired by others.  My family, my peers, even strangers.  It’s sin, it’s harmful, and I’m in a long process of repentance over it.  God has showed it to me time and again, but I’m stubborn and stupid, and so I continue to go after this thing as though it’ll make me truly happy.  
So, three times in the last two weeks He’s let me get humiliated.  Or at least each one felt like humiliation.  The nature of the breakdowns doesn’t matter, but they were painful.  Embarrassment, shame, and self-loathing crushed me for hours and hours after each one.  When you were in school, did you ever have a project to present and thought that you had one more day to go home and knock the thing out but then, as the class started, heard the teacher say, “All right let’s start the presentations with _______,” and look at you?  They were like that.  

So, after at least one of these rough moments I felt crippling shame.  I felt lifeless.  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  

What you worship is the thing that, if taken from you, you’d fee like you couldn’t go on.  

Okay, so now the good thing that happened.  

We moved.  We bought our first house.  I’ve never lived in one place more than three years, and now I have a real “permanent address” to put on all those forms for the very first time.  So I sat on the front porch of our rented house in the morning sun last Saturday, waiting on the U-Haul and my friends and family, and I thought about how my kids probably won’t ever have the moving day jitters.  When I was growing up, we moved every couple of years, and I remember that nervous happiness of getting to start over somewhere.   There was a fun, hopeful anticipation of a new neighborhood, and a new home.

So as I waited for the moving day help, that good thing helped to drown the bad one.  I started to feel my shame and self-loathing get a little duller, like when a toothache or a pinched nerve or a migraine starts to slip after you’ve taken a painkiller.  And thankfully I was either too tired or too blessed to fight it.  The moving jitters, maybe the last set I’d ever have, reminded me of something good and true:  Those of us who love Christ are going home.  For real home.  

There will be a day of great anticipation and seriousness and excitement and goodness that will be much brighter and better than that sunlit morning when I was waiting to show my kids their new crib.  A day is approaching where the King will remake the earth and her stars, and then put His people in her brightest city, lit to the high heavens by Him.  We’ll love each other and be loved by each other, love Jesus and be loved by Jesus.  We’ll sing and we’ll pray and we’ll serve and we’ll be served, and every last cause for shame and guilt and fear will be thrown out into the darkness.  

That home is coming.  

Where there is no sin, there is no shame. Where there are no false gods, there is no fear.  

Our Jesus is coming to give us and be for us all we could ever possibly need, and everything we should want.  

I’ll wrestle with my embarrassment tonight, but I wanted to remind myself of that, and remind you, too.  

For those of us who have trusted in Jesus, home is around the corner.  

Two Ways to Love Our Cities

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In Acts 2-4 Peter and John love their city in a Godly way by (at least) doing two things. Two things that most of the people around me in 21st century America would tell me are irreconcilable. Diametrically opposed.

1) They care for some among the city’s weak.
2) They proclaim to those in the city their sins.

For what it’s worth, I’m proof that both are vital. I needed love and affection and compassion in my broken and out moments, but I also needed someone who had seen the light to boldly tell me of my evils. I can tell you from experience that a narcissistic drunk doesn’t just need a friend. He also needs someone to tell him that drunkenness leads to death, wrath, and judgment. Peter had Godly affection for the weak of his city of Jerusalem, and he also told the people of his city that they had sinfully killed the Savior.

Here’s some of Peter from those chapters:

“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and the elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by Him this man is standing before you well.”

“You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And His name – by faith in His name – has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in presence of you all.”

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Hatred, indifference, greed, homosexuality, idolatry: It is unloving or cowardly to leave our city in the dark about the death they bring and the wrath they store up. We help sinners by telling them that God has saved us from our sins, and that He can save them from theirs. We do not help them by hoping that they’ll somehow figure out on their own that they are sinners and that Jesus offers them salvation.

But Peter and John also loved this crippled man outside the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. When he asked Peter for money Peter didn’t disdainfully tell him to get a job, or uncomfortably look the other way. Godly love is bold enough to call sin sin, to proclaim the Good News to its neighbors, and to care for the overlooked or incapable. It is true enough and big enough to do things the world doesn’t believe should go together. After all, the world doesn’t understand how a judge can be a Father.

It is an incomplete Christian who will not take a stand, when given a chance, on sin and the only One who can wipe it away. And it is an incomplete Christian who will not ever lift a finger or open his wallet for those who have little or no way to help themselves.

Nursing homes, foster homes, mental disability facilities, middle schools, and drug treatment centers in our cities are filled with people who could use a Christian hand or our Christian sweat. And office buildings, construction sites, restaurants, and city halls in our cities are filled with people who desperately need to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter demonstrates two ways a Jesus-follower can love his city in a truly Godly way, here. We should courageously warn sinners of the wages of their sins and the free Gospel offered to them, and we should reach a merciful hand out to those image bearers who can’t help themselves. Our cities may not know that both are loving, but those who are added to our number will be singing gratefully with us into eternity. And that’s more than enough.