Sunday, July 26, 2015


America seems obsessed with superheroes. This summer, I’ve already seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-man. We love stories about people with superhuman abilities, who can do the things we can’t do. Marvel has just released a list of upcoming movies for the next few years[i], including more Captain America, Spiderman, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers. Add to this list newcomers to the silver screen like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange, and it should be an interesting few years in the theater.

Real-life heroes are far better, though. These men and women reach beyond themselves to do remarkable things in our world. According to the History’s Heroes website,[ii] the top ten heroes of all time (from bottom to top) are: Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Helen Keller, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Shakespeare, George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln. People like this inspire us to greater living. Most of them also demonstrated humility before God. When I read this list, I’m glad to find no athletic giants, popular singers, or movie stars. Apparently, people realize that while superstars like this enjoy fleeting fame, they do not really inspire us to greatness.

Paul and Barnabas are among my list of heroes in the Bible—not because of the great things they themselves did, but because of their ability to let God do great things through them, and because they could be humble about it.

Acts 14:3 (NASB) gives a picture of the attitude of the evangelists: “Therefore they spent a long time…speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” They understood that they could do nothing by their own strength. Rather, it was the grace of God, working in them. Yet frequently their reward was not adulation, but attempts on their lives. So they were forced to continue traveling as they preached.

At Lystra, the Lord healed a man who had been unable to walk. The people of the Greek city were so awestruck by Paul and Barnabas that they begin calling them Zeus and Hermes, and tried to sacrifice to them. Yet the preachers refused to accept the glory given to them. Verses 14-15 (NASB) say, “…When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God….’”

Unfortunately today there are lots of religious leaders who want elevation to hero status. Along with fame comes wealth, which is what many want. According to, evangelist Creflo Dollar has a net worth of $27 million, while Binny Hinn and Joel Osteen both have a net worth of $40 million. Even our own beloved Billy Graham is worth $27 million[iii]. Not that money is evil—but it does have a way of going to your head. Then there are the religious leaders who are into power, which often comes with wealth but often doesn’t. Some tiny churches with small-time pastors, elders, and deacons exercise extreme control by manipulating their membership with guilt and fear. So for them, it isn’t about money, but it is about elevation to god-status.

What we need today are servants who are willing to let the power of God flow through them without being corrupted by it. We need people who are less concerned with their own stardom than they are interested in keeping God on the throne and glorifying His name. During this time of year, many churches are selecting leaders and servants such as deacons, teachers, officers, and committee members. I pray that churches will select women and men who demonstrate humility before God and others.

Paul and Barnabas knew that serving God wasn’t about being honored. In fact, God showed them how much they would suffer for His name. In verses 19-23 they were stoned nearly to death by an angry mob. I wonder—if our leaders knew that suffering might be part of the deal, would they sign up so quickly to their places of honor? We need people who are willing to lead, serve, and even suffer for the cause of Christ, not people who simply want to be superstars.

Proverbs 15:33 (NIV) says, “Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor.” We need servant-leaders who still fear God, and who remember their proper place at the feet of Jesus. In The Disciplines of Life, V. Raymond Edman writes about the kind of humility we need today in church leaders:

Father, where shall I work today? And my love flowed warm and free.
Then He pointed me out a tiny spot, And said, "Tend that for me."
I answered quickly, "Oh, no, not that. Why, no one would ever see,
No matter how well my work was done. Not that little place for me!"
And the word He spoke, it was not stern, He answered me tenderly,
"Ah, little one, search that heart of thine; Art thou working for them or me?
Nazareth was a little place, And so was Galilee."[iv]

[i] Cinema Blend.  “Upcoming Marvel Movies: Phase 2 And Phase 3 Title List And Release Dates.” Kelly West.
[iv] The Disciplines of Life by V. Raymond Edman (Minneapolis: World Wide Publ., 1948), p. 209.  July 24, 2015.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

“God’s Chosen People”

In the beginning there was one garden, one person, and one God. With all that oneness going on, things were pretty smooth. But pretty soon there were two people, and that’s where communication began breaking down. Some have labeled Eve as evil and blamed the first woman for the downfall of man. Yet I’m not convinced that the original sin was Eve’s bite of that forbidden fruit. Rather, I think it was Adam’s failure to communicate with his wife that led to her susceptibility to the serpent’s scheme. Adam and Eve already lacked unity in their marriage before the tempter offered the apple. As their distrust of one another turned into full-blown rebellion, they were cursed and cast out of Eden. Among other curses suffered by all creation, Eve was told, “Yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you (Genesis 3:16b)[i].”

Feminists and chauvinists have been arguing about this fraction of a verse for thousands of years. Some contend that husband-rule is God-ordained. Others say that, contrary to ever being part of God’s plan, division in marriage will naturally result in one partner with unfulfilled intimacy needs, while the other exercises manipulation and power. The natural outgrowth of the Fall is that Adam said, “It wasn’t me that sinned—you took the first bite. Thus, you, woman, are spiritually beneath me and I’m God’s chosen one in this marriage.” Men—God’s chosen people!

Then, from the day that the nations were divided at Babel, one or the other has most likely felt it was God’s chosen people. Religion professor and author Joseph Campbell says, “Every people is a chosen people in its own mind. And it is rather amusing that their name for themselves usually means mankind.” For example, the Sioux call themselves “The Lakota.” In their language, “Lakota” means “people.” That means that they can say, “We’re people and the others aren’t really people.” So in their own minds, they are the chosen people. Most people groups do this—they view themselves as the insiders and everyone else as the outsiders.

The Lakota were not the only people who did this. Abraham became the Father of God’s Chosen People, whose entire history was marked by the way they distanced themselves from the nations around them. Paul told this story to the congregation at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.[ii] When they asked him to speak, he began with God leading the Israelites out of Egypt. He talked about Moses and Samuel and David and how God had called them to be His Chosen People. But then he introduced Jesus as the Messiah. Suddenly, Israel was not chosen to be God’s favorite people anymore—just the vehicle through which Jesus came to bless the world.

Then, Paul really ticked them off when he told them that the Good News wasn’t just for the descendents of Abraham, the inheritors of Moses’ law: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39).” Paul made them angry when He told them that forgiveness came not through them being good and obeying the Law, or by the ritual sacrifices that they thought made them clean. Wholeness and holiness didn’t come through separating themselves from “sinners.” Forgiveness and freedom come through faith in Jesus—and anybody can have faith.

Jesus modeled God’s love for us. Jesus healed those that the religious leaders called “unclean.” He associated with “sinners” like tax collectors and prostitutes. He welcomed the outcast. He cared for Samaritans and Romans and others that pious people would never dream of condescending to know. Jesus’ disciples continued their Master’s practice of reaching from Jerusalem and Judea, into Samaria, into the uttermost parts of the world. An Ethiopian Eunuch and a Roman centurion were among the early converts who were “outsiders.” It astounded Jewish Christians that the Holy Spirit could come upon Gentiles. This is the message the Paul preached that got him into so much trouble in Pisidian Antioch: that God does not discriminate, that we can all be God’s Chosen People through faith in Jesus Christ.

When the religious leaders heard this message, they rejected it, indignant that Paul would challenge Israel’s special place of favor in God’s eyes. But Paul insisted that God doesn’t play favorites. As a result of this rejection, Paul and Barnabas announced, “We are turning to the Gentiles (v. 46).” From that time onward, Paul became a missionary to Gentiles. This is the deciding moment where Christianity became predominantly a Gentile faith, no longer a subset of Judaism.

When Paul said that he was turning to the Gentiles, he was really saying, “I’m turning to the outsiders, the outcasts, the marginalized.” This is the declaration that every Christian needs to make. We must realize that anyone who believes and receives Christ can be a Chosen Person of God—no matter their sin and no matter their background. I pray that the church today will shed its phariseeism and be more like Jesus who said, “I was a stranger, and you invited me in…Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me (Matthew 25:35-40).” To be truly Christian means to follow the word of our Lord, who commanded us, “I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles, That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth (Acts 13:47).”

[i] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.

[ii] Acts 13:13-52.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Smoke and Mirrors

          I am an unabashed fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and am also an admirer of Peter Jackson’s movie franchise based on Tolkien’s works.  In The Two Towers, there’s a scene where Theoden, king of Rohan, is visited by Gandalf the good wizard.  Much to his dismay, Gandalf discovers that his one-time friend has been possessed by the evil wizard Saruman, who seeks to control him.  In addition, Saruman’s lackey, Grima Wormtongue, has become the king’s advisor, whispering deceptions into his ear and manipulating every decision he makes.  Gandalf confronts Wormtongue, takes control, and casts him out.  Then he frees Theoden from Saruman’s spell, and the king is able to breathe the free air again.  Once more, he can lead his people, defend them, and live in honor.

            In Acts 13:4-12, Paul and Barnabas had a similar encounter.  Instead of a king, it was a Roman proconsul named Sergius Paulus, and instead of a wizard and his lackey, it was a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas.  A proconsul was the governor of a Roman province, appointed by the senate for a one-year term.  Sergius Paulus have been successful, because evidence shows that he actually served for three years.  We don’t know all about the relationship between the proconsul and the sorcerer, but it seems that Elymas served in some sort of advisory capacity, perhaps as a religious leader.  He was determined to keep Sergius Paulus from receiving the Gospel, because that would make him lose the considerable power that he had gained in the region.  Interestingly, Paul cursed him with the same punishment that he himself had experienced—temporary blindness.  Just like Gandalf who drew Saruman from Theoden like posion from a wound, Paul and Barnabas exorcised the sorcerer’s demonic control from the proconsul’s life.  Sergius Paulus received the Lord and was set free from manipulation at the hands of the blinded sorcerer.

            We need more Gandalfs, more Pauls and Barnabases, in our country today.  We spend so much time listening to the Wormtongues and Elymases all around us that we fall victim to their manipulations.  Just as the king and proconsul were held captive by deceptive voices, so the people of America fall prey to the whisperings of those who would mislead us by smoke and mirrors. 

            Everybody knows the expression “smoke and mirrors.”  It refers to the practices of illusionists who want you to believe that they have some real kind of power.  A puff of smoke distracts you or conceals what is really going on.  Mirrors bend light to alter your perception of reality.  Mirrors also get you focused on yourself rather than on the thing that matters most.  When you’re dazzled by yourself, it’s hard to see what’s going on next to you.

            Today’s charlatans use the same tricks of the trade.  The media blows smoke whenever it wants to distract your attention, and wherever it wants to distort and cover up the truth.  Politicians use mirrors to get you to focus on yourself, your issues, your needs, and your own special interest group.  Then, individuals get caught up in all the smoke and mirrors and become sorcerers of their own, regurgitating whatever they’ve heard others say, and adding their own hatred, intolerance, and prejudice to the mix.  Facebook is plastered with smoke and mirrors.  And for those who are less technological, car bumpers serve the same purpose.  We become part of the propaganda machine for whatever cause we mindlessly support.  Oh, how we need Gandalf and Paul and Barnabas!  Oh, how we need Jesus to set us free from the spin doctors of our society!

            Recently, the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in all fifty states has raised an outcry among many conservative evangelical Christians.  The fact is—it’s a done deal, whether you wanted it or not.  To continue the fight and complain is to waste valuable energy at best,  At worst our arguments employ smoke and mirrors tactics to divert attention from the fact that Evangelicals have the worst divorce rates in the nation, with my own Baptist denomination leading the pack![i]  Instead of conveniently pointing our fingers at others and shouting about those evil sinners who are violating biblical marriage, we ought to quit using smoke and mirrors to distract ourselves from the fact that we really need to be taking a good look at ourselves.

            People are in an uproar over the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, upset that WalMart is no longer selling it, and that the Dukes of Hazzard has been taken off TV.  We argue whether it should fly over government buildings or whether it should be on monuments—so much argument that KKK rallies are at an increase and Confederate monuments are being vandalized.  People are dead wrong on both sides of the issue.  The fact is that our smoke and mirrors are covering up the fact that African American churches are burning in the South and that racial tensions are escalating out of control.  And while we’re talking so much about the Confederate flag and gay marriage—have you heard the word ISIS lately?  It seems like we’re so busy fighting with each other that we’ve forgotten who the real enemy is.

            And this is what the enemy wants—to get us turning on each other and forgetting that America leads the world in incarcerations and suffers from a plague of police brutality.  Christian churches and denominations have gotten caught up in all the rhetoric, too.  As long as we can wave our rainbow and Confederate flags, we can take our eyes off of issues like poverty and Biblical illiteracy, lack of commitment, and lazy spirituality, consumerist discipleship, and a narrow conception of the Gospel that continues to define the Church as an institution rather than an organism.  Oh, how we need Jesus! 

            In John 9:39 (NASB), Jesus says, "For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”  We need to remember that it is for judgment that JESUS came into the world—not for judgment that WE are in the world.  We need to quit throwing punches at the people we think are our enemies, and quit trying to convince them to see things differently.  It’s not our job to make them change, because it’s Jesus who opens the eyes of the spiritually blind, and Jesus who blinds the eyes of those who think they see.  And you might be surprised at the ones who are really blind and who can really see!  So go ahead—have your opinion on social issues—but declare your independence from the need to fight about it!  Leave it to God to convict your neighbor.  That’s God’s job.  You—just love your neighbor!  That’s your job.

[i] Sylstra, Sarah.  Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage?  A new study says Protestants are more likely than non-religious Americans to divorce, but some disagree.  FEBRUARY 14, 2014.  July 4, 2015.