Monday, December 30, 2013

No Longer Could I Serve in the Military

I have never served in the military. However, I've always thought in a positive manner about being a part of the United States' armed forced. It seemed natural to want to support and defend our country. For much of my life it was something I never questioned. I had seen, and still see, many Christians in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, etc. Frankly, it wasn't an issue.

My thoughts have changed radically over the past few years. No longer could I serve in the military at any level or in any position. I realize this is somewhat theoretical in nature; it's not as if recruiters are knocking down my door to get to a 43-year-old. Regardless, I couldn't and wouldn't ever be part of the military. Even if the USA was invaded by another country as part of total war I would not join the military.

I've come to this conclusion after thinking long and hard about Jesus' teachings. Specifically, I've been pondering both what he said about and how he acted toward his enemies. Jesus teaches us much in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Some Christians limit the meaning of this verse to only the helping of people reach spiritual peace with God through the gospel; however, in light of what Jesus says later in Matthew 5 this seems like too narrow of an interpretation.

In Matthew 5:38-47 Jesus expands on what he said in 5:9. Our Lord says, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Jesus says a lot in those verses. Much of it can be summed up in the startling phrase, "Love your enemies." I believe this is one of Christ's most counter-cultural and counter-world statements. It gives us a view of how radically different the Kingdom of God is from the kingdoms of this world.

One of the primary things the military does is fight against enemies. In light of what Jesus says here, how could I take up arms against enemies of the USA? Can I love someone and shoot him at the same time? I don't see how the two can possibly fit together. Furthermore, I don't understand how I could be part of the support network behind the soldiers. If I'm assisting them in doing their job, which involves killing others, then I'm at least partially responsible for any deaths caused.

Did Jesus actually live out what he said? How did he treat his enemies? Did he even defend himself? The answer is a resounding "No!" Read any of the trial and crucifixion passages from the gospels to see this. For example, Matthew 27:27-31 says, "Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him."

Jesus was living out what was written of him many years before as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:7, "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth."

In the end my conclusion regarding military service is quite simple. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. How could I possibly serve in the military when I might be ordered to kill someone in the name of the USA? Killing and loving do not mix. Therefore, I could no longer serve in the military in any capacity whatsoever.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Rest on Sundays Since It's Not the Sabbath

Please forgive me if I've written about this previously, but I just cannot get over the irony. Simply put, now that I no longer view Sundays as the Sabbath I get more rest on Sundays.

For most of my life, as a kid and later as an adult, Sundays were busy. We got up, put on our "Sunday best," and "went to church." This included both Sunday School and Worship Service. Then we would usually do the same thing again at night, except this time we didn't have to dress up (not sure why). We were busy for God - or so we thought - on what we considered to be the Sabbath. On what we believed was God's ordained day of rest for us we kept busy all day.

I now realize that Jesus Christ is our Sabbath rest. How freeing this is! We are no longer under Old Covenant regulations and practices. Jesus fulfilled the law so we don't have to. He has also freed us from sin to live restfully in his great grace. Christ is our 24/7 Sabbath rest.

Now Sundays are actually restful. Sometimes we get together with friends, but sometimes we don't. We relax a lot. We don't dress up. We read. We take naps. We watch movies. We play games. Sometimes we stroll around Savannah's historic district or go to the beach. We don't worry about being busy for God. Because of this, we actually rest.

I thank the Lord that his rest is not limited to one day per week. Since the Sabbath never ends, we can truly rest in Christ at all times - even on Sundays.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What If Conservatives Actually Won the Culture War?

Many Christians today are busily fighting the American culture war in support of the conservative agenda. Just watch Fox News for a little while and you will see this to be the case. It's all about the cross of Christ wrapped in the American flag. It's about achieving some sort of "Christian America" through political means.

But what would happen if the conservatives actually won the culture war?

What if gay marriage was completely outlawed?

What if the Ten Commandments were restored to governmental offices?

What if prayer was reintroduced to public schools?

What if everyone started saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays"?

What if Republicans won back the presidency and both houses of congress?

What if the Tea Party became even more influential?

What if crosses were restored to government properties?

What if the military continued to get bigger and bigger?

What if Obamacare were repealed?

What if alcohol and cigarettes were prohibited?

What if more and more people began "going to church" again?

What if most Americans truly began to consider this a "Christian nation"?

What would happen if conservatives actually won the culture war? The answer: NOTHING.

Nothing would happen because all the things listed above are simply outward acts. They reveal nothing about a change of heart. They stem from a political agenda. Jesus Christ had no earthly political agenda. He certainly wasn't a Republican or Democrat. He wouldn't fit either party.

Jesus Christ came to change the hearts of men and women. Heart change leads to behavioral change, but it leads to a heart of love. It leads to caring for others. It changes society through one loving act at a time. It doesn't change it through some sort of conservative political agenda.

Let me say it again: if the conservatives won the culture war nothing would really change. At least nothing pertaining to the Kingdom of God would change (which is the only Kingdom that really matters). Some things might look different on the outside, but in the end nothing would change our greatest problem: the wickedness of the human heart.

I implore my brothers and sisters in Christ to love others sacrificially for the cause of Christ. Let's show Jesus' love through acts of selfless service. This is how society is truly changed. Let's stop wasting our time on conservative politics and the culture war. It amounts to nothing.

(Addendum: It's quite clear that I left abortion off the above culture war list. Abortion, I believe, supersedes the conservative political agenda because it deals with life and death issues and is an utter abomination. It is the one issue where I believe political means should be used to change, if possible, governmental policies. If some say I am being inconsistent for focusing on this one issue, then so be it.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jesus Is Not the Bible. The Bible Is Not Jesus.

We all know, of course, that Jesus Christ and the bible are not the same thing. Jesus Christ is God the Son, one member of the Trinity. He purchased our salvation. He is worthy of our worship. The bible is none of these things. The bible is the written revelation that God has chosen to give us. It is a great treasure that tells us much about God and his creation. We even learn a lot about ourselves as we read it. Despite this, the scriptures are not worthy of worship because, obviously, they are not God.

We all know these things.

Despite this knowledge, there seems to be much confusion among a great number of American evangelicals about the difference between Christ and the bible. Specifically, they treat knowing the bible as if it is knowing Christ. If you spend any time looking through the Christian blog world you will see this. There is an inordinate emphasis on the importance of knowing the bible. This suggests that those who have the most knowledge of biblical content are also those who know Jesus the best. This is simply false.

A certain mount of basic knowledge is required to know Jesus. However, beyond that point discipleship is more about obedience than about head knowledge. I'm not trying to create some sort of false dichotomy. It is good to both obey Christ and know scripture. However, obedience is far more important.

Additionally, knowing Jesus is about a relationship. There is a moment-by-moment knowing him and walking with him. A deep knowledge of the bible is not required for a deep knowledge of Christ. In my life I've come into contact with Christians who seem to know Jesus better than I do even though I know the bible better than they. On the flip side, I've also met people who know tons of bible but hardly seem to know Jesus at all.

I write this post simply to exhort my brothers and sisters in Christ not to confuse knowing scripture with knowing the bible. Gaining knowledge of the scriptures is not an end; rather, it is a means to an end. That end is knowing Jesus better.

We can come to know Jesus better through reading the bible. But we also grow closer to him through prayer, through mutual edification, through service to others, and through suffering for him.

The bible is wonderful, but it is not Jesus. Jesus is the key to understanding the bible, but he is not the bible.

Let's not confuse the two. Knowing Jesus and knowing about Jesus (through scripture) are not the same.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

As for Christmas, Live and Let Live

Arguing over "the real meaning of Christmas" has got to be one of the most foolish things we Christians do.

Through the years I've been all over the spectrum on the meaning of Christmas issue. I began with the typical American Christian practice of mixing Christian and secular traditions. I happily enjoyed celebrating both Jesus' birth and Santa Claus' arrival.

Then I went to seminary and became a big time "JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON" guy. I think we even had a car magnet that said something to that effect.

Sometime after seminary I found out about Saturnalia. This showed me that Christmas, at least to some extent, had pagan roots. While Christ's incarnation is certainly worth cherishing, the actual Christmas holiday was not exactly that. It's all at least a bit confusing.

About the time I learned about Saturnalia, I also began reading my bible to see how the early church lived and functioned. This led, as has been well chronicled here, to my resignation from professional pastoring. It also showed me that the early church was not concerned with any sort of festival focusing on the birth of Christ. Rather, the early church looked much more intently at the death and resurrection.

In light of all this there was a short period of time when I didn't think Christians should celebrate Christmas at all. In particular, the pagan roots and capitalistic excess bothered me (the excess still does).

Now I've finally come to a new point as far as Christmas is concerned. My view is let's simply live and let live. As Christians, we all love Jesus and want to live for Him. Christ wants and demands that His church be united. It's a great victory for Satan when we fight over issues as silly as "the real meaning of Christmas."

We have much more important things to be concerned about. These include building one another up in Christ, proclaiming the good news to the lost, and caring for the needs of the poor, sick, and needy. These are all things we can easily unite around.

Therefore, feel free to celebrate Christmas in just about any way you want. If it's just about Jesus' birth, then go ahead. If it's only centered on Santa, feel free. If, like most folks, it is a mix, then enjoy it. If you decide to abstain from the whole thing, then be my guest.

Let's just not argue/fight about it. Let's also avoid passing judgment upon one another.

As for Christmas, live and let live.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Only Two Kinds of People

"There are two kinds of people in this world: followers of Jesus Christ and potential followers of Jesus Christ."

A few minutes ago it struck me that only two kinds of people really exist. I posted it on Facebook, but I wanted to write about it briefly here, too. The two kinds are those who are in Christ and those who are potentially in Him.

The greatest difference between people is not skin color, socioeconomic status, language, geographical location, political party, favorite sports team, or even whether or not they like bacon. The largest difference carries significance far beyond all the others. That difference is one of eternal salvation.

Our tendency is often to think in terms of "Christian" and "non-Christian." I think it is more helpful to think about people as those who know Jesus and those who potentially know Jesus. This is not simply a matter of semantics. Rather, the words we use often hint at our frame of reference and even shape it to some degree. When we think of unbelievers as potential believers, it also helps us think about how we can influence them positively for Christ.

I believe that God predestines all he chooses to salvation. I also believe that the gospel message is for anyone and everyone; all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Exactly how these truths fit together is beyond my small brain. Therefore, I want to remember and I encourage you to remember that anyone who doesn't know Jesus Christ as Lord has the great potential to do so.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Five More Great Things About Running

On Saturday I ran in the Savannah River Bridge Run. This race acted as motivation to help me get back in some semblance of shape. Although I felt awful at the very end of the race, the experience as a whole was very positive. I blogged about it in my previous post Running, Beer, and Fellowship.

Running is a great way to exercise. Racing is a blast and motivates. I highly encourage any and all of you to take up running if you are physically able to do so. Here's a short list of five great things about running:

1) Almost anyone can run.

The vast majority of us know how to run. As long as we don't have some sort of significant physical problem, we can get our legs and lungs going. It's not complicated.

2) You can run almost anywhere.

I walk out my front door and I'm immediately able to run. I don't have to travel to a gym, pool, or track somewhere. This saves on time, effort, and expense.

3) Running doesn't require specific skills.

Almost all children learn how to run at a very young age. We know how to do it for the rest of our lives. Running doesn't require lots of practice on specific skills such as dribbling a basketball, putting a golf ball, or balancing on skis.

4) You feel great after you run.

Sometimes I feel bad when I run. However, a few minutes after I finish I feel great. It has something to do with endorphins racing around inside the body. This feeling lasts for several hours. It's sort of like a natural drug with no negative effects.

5) When you race you get to compete against everyone else.

One reason racing is fun is because everyone does it together. This past Saturday I raced against men, women, and kids. Runners ranged from beginners to experts. In how many other sports do you get to compete against truly elite athletes? In running you do (although you probably only briefly see them at the start and then at the awards ceremony). It is a hoot to run alongside everybody.

Running is terrific. If I haven't convinced you, then ask my good friends and fellow bloggers Alan Knox and Bobby Auner. They'll tell you the same thing.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Running, Beer, and Fellowship

Today I ran in the Savannah River Bridge Run. It was my first race in several years and I'm pleased with how I did (finished the 5K in 26-27 minutes and didn't collapse). My employer (JCB) was kind enough to pay the registration fee and provide T-shirts (see photo above). About ten of us from JCB ran in the race. Some posed for the above photo. That's me on the far right looking like a giant; everyone else is actually short.

As a bonus, several of the runners wore silly costumes. I saw Elvis Presley before the race. Near the end of the race I ran past a guy dressed as an elf; shortly after this a Gene Simmons impersonator ran past me. He was dressed in full KISS gear and was even carrying an American flag.

After the race our JCB team hung out for a while in the finishing area. There was music, food, soda, and beer. Everyone else in the group grabbed a beer. So did I. Not only did I grab it, I also drank the whole thing. My purpose in this was not for the taste (it was actually a sort of gross light beer). Rather, I wanted to spend time with some co-workers and do what they were doing. If I hadn't had a beer things would have been awkward. By having a drink with them, we were all able to just stand around and fellowship for a while. I hardly knew any of them prior to the race. It was a great opportunity to start some relationships.

Just a few years ago I probably would not have had a beer. I would have viewed my not drinking as some sort of righteous stand for Christ. What a bunch of poppycock. Part of the reason some non-Christians are turned off to Christianity is because some Christians just act so weird. Let me make this clear: there is nothing wrong with Christians drinking alcohol. The sin comes when drunkenness begins.

As followers of Jesus, we need to do whatever it takes to build relationships. It is often through these relationships that people are willing to hear about Jesus Christ in a meaningful way for the first time. I'm not suggesting that relationships are a means to an end; they are an end in themselves. However, they also offer tremendous opportunity for sharing about Christ.

So, I ran a race, drank a beer, and had some nice fellowship. It made for a good morning.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Kingdom is Not About Guns, Republicans, and Limited Government

I cannot adequately express how tired I am of Christians fighting the culture wars. It is exhausting to hear about Christians wrapping the cross in the flag, rallying for the Republican Party, and demanding their "rights." By listening to some, you'd think that that the right to bear arms is a gospel issue. You'd also think that the Democratic Party is the spawn of Satan himself. I'm disgusted by the amount of energy and emotion so many believers spend on these sorts of issues.

The Kingdom of God is not about secular politics. It is not concerned with conservatism, limited government, military engagement, taxes, etc. Rather, the Kingdom of God is concerned with us glorifying God through living as his children. God desires changed lives not through governmental influence but through the power of the gospel. Real change for the better in society does not come through decision making in Washington, but rather through the Holy Spirit changing hearts.

When we let the scriptures, and not politics, inform the way we live, we see something far different from the American dream. We see the people of God as people who give up their rights. We see people who expect persecution. We see people who understand that they are resident aliens who temporarily live in a strange land. We see people who understand that their citizenship is in heaven. We see people who never feel too comfortable in this society because its values are so different from that of the Kingdom.

Let's spend our time and energy where it really matters: on Kingdom priority issues. What are those issues? I'm talking about caring for the poor, sick, and needy. I referring to building up our brothers and sisters in Christ (and being built up by them). I'm talking about boldly and lovingly proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. I'm pointing to living holy lives in the midst of a wicked world.

God's Kingdom is not of this world. We must remember God's priorities and live according to them.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kindness is Key

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)

Kindness is something that doesn't get much attention in Christian discussions. I'm not sure why this is the case. When we look at the life of Jesus Christ, we see the kindest man who ever lived. When Jesus dealt with the poor and needy, he kindly took care of their needs and proclaimed the Kingdom. When Jesus confronted the religious leaders, he spoke the truth to them that they needed to hear (the leaders did not view this as kind, but Jesus did have their best interests in mind). During the three years with his disciples, Jesus taught and showed them more than they ever could have imagined.

We see in the above passage from Galatians that kindness is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, if we are in the Spirit, we will display kindness in our lives. This should be a natural outflowing of a life transformed by Christ.

When I meet someone for the first time, the signal that they are a Christian is usually their kindness. I don't ask them their theological positions. Rather, I see a nice person who is looking out for the needs of others. I see someone who listens. I see a person who puts other people before self.

Just because a person is kind does not mean that he is a Christian. We've all met kind unbelievers. However, it is a good clue.

I'm not suggesting that we take part in some sort of random-acts-of-kindness nonsense. Rather, we should take a look at our own hearts. Are we truly kind people?

The church would be much more positive in nature if we would all focus on being kind to one another. The world would also take notice if we'd be kinder to them.

I don't mean for this post to seem sappy. Rather, I'm pointing directly to what our lives look like. Do they match up with what we read in Galatians 5:22-23? When others look at us, do they see kindness?