Faith, Life, Ministry, Uncategorized, writings

Manure and Church Bells

The US is not the only country with a “cultural Christianity” problem…

From Christianity Today news article:

The French government has passed a law protecting the “sensory heritage” of the nation’s countryside. Vacationers and tourists will no longer be allowed to file official complaints or sue over crowing roosters, manure smells, or early-morning church bells. In 2018 a visitor to the village of Jettingen complained about a 5:40 a.m. bell. The villagers voted 427-73 to continue ringing it, though mass no longer takes place at that time. In 2019, someone sued Saint-Chartres in Vienne over the volume of the 7 a.m. bell. An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.”

Christianity Today, April 2021 Issue

Okay, so several things are going through my mind as I read this gleaning of worldwide religious news. First off, who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place, n’est pas?

Who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place n’est pas?

But the main thing that gets me is the last sentence. “An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.” Now, taken by itself, that is not such a surprising statistic if you know much about the religious habits of Western Europe. It is increasingly secular in most aspects, though it retains a good deal of religious customs and traditions. Western Europe in many ways has what I would call a “secular Christian” culture, but little “Christian” practice. What’s amazing to me is that the government, from the national level all the way down to the ity-bity villages, would pass laws to protect this religious heritage when many fail to practice that religion.

In the US, we have some similar trends. The percentage of those who observance of religious traditions, particularly Christian ones, has been declining gradually for the last several decades. It began accelerating before COVID and early indications are that church attendance will decline by around 15% nationwide as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic.

But there remains a cultural tug, especially for those of us of white European ancestry to keep certain cultural aspects in place. Especially in rural, white America, there is a religious element to much of what we do, even on a secular level. Folks who have never darkened the door of a local church building complain about sporting events on Sunday, even as those events are often led by otherwise church-attending people. There is the drumming up of support for the “culture wars” every major holiday season over whether the local municipality should be allowed to have a manger scene or not.

And my question, as a Christian Minister, is, “Why?”

I think there are several reasons, and to each their own, but what I have noticed over the years is how people are satisfied with a Christian veneer to culture if it makes no significant demands on their lives or challenges their choices. We will endure, even cherish, the 5:40 a.m. church bells if it means we are not actually expected to attend an early morning church service.

It reminds me of the religious Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Now while these Pharisees would be the ones who got up for the early service, they would also neglect matters of the heart. Jesus compared them to beautiful tombs; they seem great, but inside there is spiritual death. That is what happens when we settle for a veneer, an outer appearance, rather than the real deal.

So as a history buff I say, “Good for France!” But as a follower of Jesus, I say “Get your butt to Church!”

Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, Ministry, writings

Secret Pain

One of the themes that I’ve often connected to in God’s Word is the idea that eventually secrets will be made know. It’s something we often relish when we’ve been wounded by others: the idea that the truth will eventually come to light, either in this life or the next.

As a pastor, I’ve used the verses that back this idea. Numbers 32:23 says “be sure your sin will find you out.” Luke 8:17 says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” Luke 12:2 says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Never mind the context for most of these verses refer to the judgement at the end of time or the mysteries of the Gospel (that God would use those considered foolish by the world and accept those deemed “unacceptable”), part of us relishes the idea that right will prevail and what is wicked will come to light and be punished.

And while I at times find that comforting, I also find it incredibly disconcerting. You see, just as others have done things in secret, so have I. God is causing me to relish the thought less and less. God has been dealing with my heart that my desire for the “truth” to come to light is dangerously close to seeking revenge or a misguided belief in “karma” which is a totally wicked concept fully foreign to the Christian life.

The truth is, we all do or have struggled with secret sins. Sometimes when we hear that phrase, “secret sins”, we easily think of some salacious sin or social taboo. But in reality, any sin or temptation we don’t share with others is by definition a secret. That temptation to tell your boss what you really think… The second look you take at someone who’s not your spouse… Hating your neighbor… All of those can be secret sins. So the next time you wish for someone to get their just desserts, remember how that can cut both ways.

But there is another kind of secret that God knows about… Pain. And that’s what I really want to focus on.

God sees your secret hurts as well. David says this in Psalm 56:8, “You have kept count of my tossings (or wanderings); put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” David recognizes that God is keeping track of David’s sufferings and sorrows. He knows the pain that David experiences.

God knows the pain you carry as well. The shame you struggle with from enduring abuse. The miscarriage that no one knows about. The struggle of same-sex attraction that you felt you could never open up about with your Christian brothers and sisters. The pain you carry from hearing what people “really thought” of you. The accusations that were false. The broken heart that you never even journaled about. The pain of unfulfilled dreams. The sorrow over a wayward friend or loved one. God sees this. He knows. He cares.

And someday, he will deal with not only secret sins, but he will deal with secret pains. Those apart from Christ will have their secrets made known at the judgement. But those who are in Christ have the promise that is found in Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, not pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

So, friends, let’s take comfort in that God sees our pain, he knows our hurts. Jesus, who lived among us, sympathizes with us and has experienced much of the same pain we have. And someday, he will make all things new and there will be no more pain.

Critics, Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, writings

An Imperfect Bride

I am a pastor. I realize that’s a major newsflash to many of you. Many of us think of a pastor as the guy or gal who teaches or talks on Sundays at a church building and does funerals. But as a pastor, my calling isn’t just to a particular congregation or local church, but to The Church, the collective of Christ’s followers, world over.

Can I tell you a secret? Promise you won’t tell: “Church People” aren’t perfect. In fact, they are incredibly flawed. No, I’m not revealing something private, no breaking of confidentiality here. It’s an open secret. No local church is perfect. The capital C Church isn’t perfect. Here’s why: The Church isn’t made up of buildings or pews or fancy windows or steeples. The Church is made up of people. People are broken and people are messy.

And because we’re imperfect, we hurt people. We hurt each other. There are countless stories that I’ve heard– and likely you have too– about “church people” saying or doing horrible things. Ranging from all kinds of abuse to simply being rude, the spectrum of pain inflicted by “church people” is broad and can be very deep.

I’ve been hurt by the church and I know that I have also hurt the church. Folks, well intentioned I’m sure, have hurt me and I have, I am certain, hurt people. Oh it’s rarely intentional: a careless remark here, a grumpy face there, a missed call that was forgotten, a special occasion missed. It happens. It’s not right or good, but the Church is an imperfect bride.

Bride, you say. Did I miss the invite to the nuptials? (And Yes, I’ve also caused pain by failing to RSVP.)

In Scripture, the Church is called to Bride of Christ. Jesus death on the cross was, in effect, paying the bridal price or dowry common at the time. And the price was high because Jesus purchased with his blood all who would someday call on his name and follow him. And like most spouses, he ended up with an imperfect bride.

I don’t endorse all Carlo Carretto said or wrote, but man, he hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following describing the imperfections of the Church:

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.

And where should I go?

The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto

But, Jesus isn’t content to leave us imperfect. Writing to husbands, the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:25-27 (ESV)

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Friends, we’re not that Church just yet. Someday we will be. But until then, we’re broken people who tend to hurt others if we’re not careful.

And to my friends who have given up on Church but still believe in Jesus… Don’t allow the pain caused by broken people to prevent you from seeing God do something beautiful. Let me put it this way: you may love me, but if you despise my bride, we’re probably not going to be all that close, no matter how much you proclaim your devotion to me.

Yes, the Church, both local and universal is most definitely an imperfect bride. I am an imperfect pastor. And you, yes you reading, are also imperfect. Let us not excuse our imperfections, but may we ask the Lord to give us a greater love for imperfect people and healing for pain caused by them.

Just maybe, that’s the way He will remove the blemishes.

Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, writings

Do We Love Jesus?

“Before Jesus commissioned Peter to be a shepherd, he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” He asked him again, “Do you love me?” And a third time he asked: “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). He have to hear that question as being central to all of our Christian ministry because it is the question that can allow us to be, at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident.”

“Look at Jesus. The world did not pay any attention to him. He was crucified and put away. His message of love was rejected by a world in search of power, efficiency, and control. But there he was, appearing with wounds in his glorified body to a few friends who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand. This rejected, unknown, wounded Jesus simply asked, “Do you love me, do you really love me?” He whose only concern had been to announce the unconditional love of God has only one question to ask, “Do you love me?

— Henri J. M. Nouwen In The Name of Jesus

How often we seem to be intoxicated with leadership, with control, with influence. But Jesus isn’t asking us to show our results. He’s asking us to show him love. We can work hard and get people to church. We get people to sign a petition. We can even get people to share nice scripture verses on Instagram. But do we love Jesus? Not the idea of Jesus, not the American Jesus, not the Republican or Democratic Jesus… But Jesus. Do we love Him?

Don’t be so quick to answer. Reflect. Do we love Him? Are we truly devoted to Christ Jesus above all else? Or is He just a side dish on the buffet line of life?

Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, writings

Three Types of Spiritual Weeds

There are two kingdoms in this life:

The kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness; the Kingdom of Heaven, and that of our enemy, the devil Satan. And at the end of the day, the end of your life, the end of the age, you either belong to one or the other.

But, what seems like a clear either/or proposition is not that simple. You see, in the Parable of the Weeds, or, as I am going to keep calling it, the “TAREable Parable” (copyright pending), Jesus says there is the wheat but growing alongside are weeds. The wheat represents sons and daughters of the Kingdom of God, and the weeds are people who actually belong to the kingdom of the evil one.

By studying the parable a little deeper, you discover that the weeds are a type of plant called darnel that mimic wheat. Looks just like wheat and their roots are easily entangled. In fact, it’s not until it gets close to harvest and each plant is producing its fruit, that you can tell the difference.

You see, darnel is dangerous. It doesn’t just look like wheat, but it is prone to a fungal infestation that can lead to some nasty side effects if consumed. If wheat and infested darnel are milled together and the resulting flour consumed as bread, the darnel can lead to a serious complication resulting in what appears to be intoxication only it can lead very quickly to death.

To recap: Darnel looks like the real thing but it is a counterfeit. Not only counterfeit but dangerous. Wheat=good, darnel =bad.

Fake believers, counterfeit Christians, don’t only appear to be something they aren’t but they can be dangerous. Thankfully, our Lord promises at some point to rid the world of the crop of weeds and thus ensure safety. But in the meantime, the darnel is still causing harm. And it is heart-wrenching to experience as well as observe.

Fake believers, counterfeit Christians, don’t only appear to be something they aren’t but they can be dangerous. Thankfully, our Lord promises at some point to rid the world of the crop of weeds and thus ensure safety.

As I study Scripture and learn from other believers, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a spectrum of false Christians that ranges from the deceived to the deliberately destructive. For the sake of clarification and argumentation, I’ll share the three main categories that I find in life and in scripture:

1. The Deceived. There are many people who for various reasons think they are “on good terms with God” only to be blinded. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says “… the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”. For what it’s worth, I think this is probably the majority of “weeds” in our culture in the USA.

We have so many people that think that because they have some notion of a higher power that is vaguely similar to the Judeo-Christian concept of deity, have at least a notion of “traditional values”, and celebrate Christmas and Easter that they are born again believers. They talk the talk and will even use some occasional theological terms. Heck, they may even say grace before a meal.

They are sincere, but sincerely wrong. Perhaps well intentioned, but because the Holy Spirit hasn’t changed them, their spiritual DNA isn’t going to produce wheat. If it is producing anything, it will be more of that darn darnel.

2. The Deceptive. These are folks who for various reasons, intentionally or not, fake a walk with Christ. They are more self-aware than the previous category of people. They have an inkling that they don’t measure up to the Biblical descriptions of followers of Jesus. Yet, they will put on a mask on Sunday. And a heck of a good front on social media. They will even share scripture verses and say “God Bless You!” when someone sneezes. But they know full well they aren’t living for Christ. In my estimation, these make up far fewer than the “deceived” but there are quite a few of these weeds in the field. These are the hypocrites of Matthew 23 and elsewhere.

Why? Often times it is social pressure. For decades in our culture, if you wanted to be liked or well respected, you would go to church services on Sunday and if you weren’t a genuine follower of Christ, you knew you had to pretend to be one so people would patronize your business, come to your cookout, or vote for you in the next election.

As society becomes more and more anti-Christian, we are, thankfully, seeing this idea disappear. In many places in our country it is becoming less and less culturally important to attend church, so in a lot of cases these weeds are dying off.

But we still see it in people who feel pressured by family members who are believers. Maybe it’s the wayward son or daughter from a Christian home who want mom and dad to be proud, but they are just faking it.

Maybe it is the person who began to spin a good yard of being the “good kid” and now they find themselves a volunteer or even on staff of a Christian organization or local church. They have to keep up the façade if they want to keep their job or their social circle.

3. The Deliberately Destructive. These are folks who are under the wholesale influence of the evil one. I wouldn’t say possessed, but the enemy has a lot of control and influence in their lives. These are ones who will intentionally infiltrate the flock to purposely sow discord, entice others toward sin, bring destruction in their paths.

I would love to say these people don’t exist. I mean what kind of twisted person would intentionally try to sabotage the Kingdom of God? What kind of person would intentionally teach false doctrine? Who in their right mind would do some of this stuff on purpose?

I think this is why this category, though I would estimate it to be the fewest in number of the three, is so dangerous: we don’t want to believe it is real. We want to believe the best about people we love and care about, so we convince ourselves that they are well-meaning but deceived.   

Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, talks about these people when he says, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4, ESV).

So, which kind of person are you dealing with? That person in your mind as you have read this… Which one are they? I don’t think we can fully know until harvest, until it’s too late. And that’s ok. We need to be on guard for the darnel.

But we also need to pray. Pray that if they are deceived, that the Lord would open their eyes and their hearts to Him. Pray for the deceptive to have a conviction from the Lord, a holy rebuke that brings them to genuine repentance. And pray that the Lord would safe guard us from the deliberately destructive.

I would love to tell you that Jesus is able to save all of these, that the Holy Spirit can do a work transforming the darnel into a good crop of wheat. I believe that I have seen it happen in the case of the deceived and the deceptive. What about the last category? I don’t know. I don’t doubt the saving power of our Lord Jesus Christ, but I do seriously doubt that a heart so hardened, so dark, would ever be receptive to the life-changing message of the Gospel. But I hope I am wrong.

So, friends, there are two kingdoms. But there is also some nuance. Just because someone hasn’t truly accepted Christ doesn’t mean they are a wolf. But it does mean they need to repent and trust Jesus.

So, friends, there are two kingdoms. But there is also some nuance. Just because someone hasn’t truly accepted Christ doesn’t mean they are a wolf. But it does mean they need to repent and trust Jesus.