Theological Designations

“The word ‘sinner’ is a theological designation. It is essential to insist upon this. It is not a moralistic judgment. It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God. Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state, people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

My friend Marty recently blogged his way through Eugene Peterson’s (must read) book The Contemplative Pastor. In the course of his blogging, Marty posted an extended version of the quote above and offered his thoughts. Today, I thought I’d do the same because that quote has stuck in my brain for weeks and something that tenacious is a good indicator of Holy Spirit’s involvement.

Peterson articulates something I have known intuitively for a long time, but never had language for. “Sin” and “sinner” are theological terms, not moral ones. For that matter, “saint” is also a theological term and not a moral one. But we are so used to thinking in moral terms (sinner = bad and saint = good) that it requires a considerable amount of conscious effort to rid ourselves of the habit and think correctly about these ideas.

Peterson says, “‘Sinner’ means something is awry between humans and God. In that state, people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgement.”

In the town where I live I encounter an overwhelming number of virtuous sinners. They live decent lives. They pay taxes and vote. They love their families and work hard. They are civically minded and engaged. And… they are sinners, because they refuse to submit to Jesus as their Lord (ultimate authority) and Savior (the only way to the Father – aka salvation). These very virtuous sinners aren’t falling apart at the seams – in fact, they are doing quite well by any moral, ethical or economic standard you choose. But they are spiritually impoverished for they live as enemies of God, His Kingdom and His Christ.

I’m really done with the evangelistic model of trying to convince people they are no-good, dirty, rotten sinners. I’m not convinced it is effective and it isn’t something I’ve been able to make myself do, so how can I expect the people I pastor to do it? So the question I have been asking myself is this – Is there a better way?

I believe there is.

When Jesus begins his ministry, he begins with a call, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus then proceeds to demonstrate God’s power, rule and reign over all the created order – over sickness, disease and death, over natural elements and over demons. Each and every demonstration of God’s power was to drive home the message that God’s Kingdom was breaking in all around them and people had better decide whether to be for God and His King or against them. The decision to “be on God’s side” was shown by a transformed life – living as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and abiding by the laws of that land.

Much of Jesus’s message and ministry bypassed moral objections. His proclamation and demonstration showed (a) that God was very real and very powerful, (b) that God’s Kingdom was invading the sovereign territory of their experience and (c) that to submit to God and His Christ was life and to continue to remain in rebellion to God was death. Jesus’s evangelistic model didn’t rely on convincing people they were sinners or on convincing people how much their Father loved them – He simply modeled that God existed and was Good. After modeling the character of God and explaining what life in the Kingdom was like, Jesus let people make their own decisions.

I think we are called to do the same.

I think we are called to let people know what life in the Kingdom is like, according to the Bible. I think we are called to display and declare the character of our King. I think we are called to proclaim and demonstrate that God is and that God is Good.

I know of no better way to do that than what we in the Vineyard call “Power Evangelism,” that is – using the gifts of the Spirit to provide an unbeliever with a God encounter. It might be prophecy, healing or a supernaturally empowered act of compassion – but whatever it is, it lets that person know that God sees them, knows them, loves them and wants them.

Once people have encountered God, their hearts are open to receiving the Gospel message. It is at this point that a clear, concise and rational presentation of the Gospel is in order. Power evangelism is never anti-rational, it is super-rational, that is, it is rational and experiential and appeals to much more than the mind, but the spirit, soul and body as well. The reason we need to present an accurate Scriptural portrayal of the Kingdom is simple – that person needs to decide wether or not they want to follow Jesus as their King and live by His laws. Some people do. Some people don’t. Either way, that isn’t for us to decide. We are called to present the Gospel, make disciples and teach those disciples to obey what Jesus commanded. It is Holy Spirit’s job to convert. It is our job to make converts into disciples.

For me, this process is what addresses the theological component of “sin,” “sinner” and “saint.” This type of evangelism deals with the issues of allegience, loyalty and the kingliness of Jesus. In the course of this God encounter people might also get a glimpse of their moral short comings, much like Peter did when Jesus provided him with the miraculous catch of fish – that is good, but it isn’t the goal. Our goal is to accurately display the Reality of the Kingdom and the heart of our King and to invite them to “come and see” or “follow Me.”

This is what I have become convinced of and what I intend to put to the test over the next few months. I’ll be sure to write about my encounters and let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading friends.

Prayer Target Challenge Finished

Hi friends,

Thank you to everyone who participated in our 6 week Prayer Target Challenge asking for salvation and deliverance for the men and women of the Islamic State. Life continues to be difficult in the Iraq and Syria as I.S. advances into new territory and consolidates power in existing strongholds. HOWEVER, we also have reports of our Christian brothers and sisters providing remarkable witness and testimony to the Lordship of Jesus, even to the point of death.

Even though the prayer challenge is finished, I invite you all to continue praying for salvation for the men and women of the Islamic State and power for our brothers and sisters on the front lines. This conflict is far from over and the eternal destiny of countless lives hang in the balance. Intercession is our most glorious privilege and our most labor-some work.

In our work of intercession, here is some encouragement for you from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ… And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.”

Whenever we pray, we always pray from a high place – seated with Christ on God’s own Throne and with the full resources of Heaven at our disposal. Intercession is not groveling to an angry or reticent God – it is strategizing with our Heavenly Father for the in-breaking of His Kingdom on the Earth. Intercession is a joyful privilege when we pray from Heaven because, when we see the Enemy’s plans from God’s perspective we understand what David said in Psalms 2, “The one enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them [the ones conspiring and plotting against him].”

God is Almighty. God is Sovereign. What the Enemy intends for evil, He will use for good in the lives of those that love Him. Things look absolutely terrible on the earth right now, but God reigns Supreme over it all. His Kingdom will prevail AND we have a part to play. James tells us, “You do not have because you do not ask.” That is pretty startling really because it means that there are some things God would willingly give us, but only if we humble ourselves enough to ask for them. Things can turn out a number of different ways in the Middle East – I’m contending for the version that brings the most number of people into Eternal Life. I hope you will war for that with me.

Thanks for praying friends.

Ben

Meditation on Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

I’ve recently come to see this passage in a new light. It is easy to get caught up in the grandiose miracle of multiplying bread and to look over the more subtle, but equally important aspects of this passage. It is those less obvious miracles I’d like to focus on today.

The passage starts out, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” What had happened? Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist had just been executed by Herod the Tetrarch.

We’re not really sure what sort of relationship Jesus and John had, but we do know that Jesus said that John “was the greatest man ever born of a woman” and that John was really the only person to understand who Jesus really was. Both had miraculous births and John was the one who prepared the people of Israel to receive the ministry of Jesus. I think it is safe to assume that Jesus and John were fond of one another.

So Jesus, hearing of John’s death, withdraws to a solitary place to grieve. Like anyone who has ever lost a loved one, sometimes you just need time to be by yourself to pray, cry and process. He goes privately to a place no one ever comes to for a time of quiet and reflection.

But the crowds find out about it and as soon as Jesus lands a mob of human need envelops him. These people don’t care that Jesus is grieving – they are too caught up with their own needs. They don’t honor Jesus’s wish for privacy, instead thousands of people travel out of their way to swarm him and seek his blessing.

What must that have been like for Jesus to look over the bow of the ship and see through the mist a vast multitude with their emotional and spiritual vacuums pointed straight at him? What must it have been like to feel the crushing weight of human need and self-centeredness? Jesus would have been justified if he had lashed out at the crowd, telling them to go away so he could process the loss of his friend. But he doesn’t. Instead, his heart was moved with compassion because (as Mark’s version puts it) “they were like sheep without a shepherd” – pathetic, lost, hurting, confused, and scared.

I’m amazed at the miracle of compassion Jesus displays here. He has compassion on the crowd and heals their sick. He teaches them and after a long day of ministry he feeds them, rather than sending them away. When Jesus’s “tank” was on empty he still found grace to minister, to heal and to love.

It sort of reminds me of the story of the widow’s jars of oil and flour in the Old Testament – the ones that felt empty but always had enough to make bread for that day. I wonder if Jesus was thinking of that story when he taught his disciples to pray “and give us today our daily bread”? Was he teaching us to pray and position our hearts in such a way that even when we feel totally depleted we would still be moved with love to serve? It seems reasonable. With God, empty is always enough for a miracle.

Jesus does eventually dismiss the crowds and do business with his grief, so it isn’t that Jesus taught us to never deal with our junk. I just think the main thrust of this parable for us as followers of Jesus is to understand there is always enough in us to minister one more time – no matter how tired, how sad, or how spent because we don’t minister to others out of our own strength anyway. It is just that we are more aware of that fact when we are on rock bottom.

I needed that reminder this week. I needed to see in Jesus that, even on empty, you can still treat needy people kindly and compassionately. Something about seeing Jesus deal with people so tenderly helps me to do the same. Perhaps it is because I am reminded of how needy I am and am humbled by how he interacts with me

Addendum
I feel a little silly adding this, but something in my brain kept nagging me to.

I’d like to clarify that ministering on empty should not be one’s regular mode of operation. I believe the Christian life should have lengthy periods of joy, fulfillment, overabundance of energy and overflowing life because that is what I believe Jesus meant when he said that he came “that we might have life and have it to the full.”

I’d also like to clarify that I think people need to take time for self-care. Some try to bury their feelings and dysfunctions by ministering to others and always being focused on other people – that is unhealthy and doesn’t help anyone because it leaves your junk undealt with and turns the other person into and idol. Some people do indeed need to stop “pouring out” and get their own stuff taken care of.

So this meditation is for those who do take time for reflection and processing, keep a short list with God and still find themselves in a dry season. It is for those of us who can go on, but would just rather not.

Hopefully those disclaimers are more helpful than not.

Thanks for reading friends.

What I Meant to Say: Spiritual Gifts

Yesterday’s sermon on spiritual gifts was wide ranging and fast paced. Today, I wanted to expound on some points and clarify others. I’ll also try to recap the sermon as best I can for those of you who didn’t make it.

Sermon in a Nutshell
Holy Spirit is the gift. The things we typically refer to as “spiritual gifts” are simply manifestations of Holy Spirit’s work and partnership in our lives. Spiritual gifts are “spiritual” because they are gifts of the Spirit, not because they are mystical or deal with the supernatural. Business, government, art, worship, construction, service, administration – all of these are spiritual gifts alongside prophecy, healing and miracles.

Whenever God gives us a gift, it is always a person – never impersonal power. Spiritual gifts manifest as we partner with Holy Spirit to accomplish some purpose or goal – most often our calling and the good works we were created to do. Holy Spirit is not some generic “power source” we plug into, like plugging in your toaster to an outlet. Holy Spirit has thoughts, feelings, desires, plans, purposes and goals – we have to treat him as we would anyone else and tend to our relationship and friendship if we plan on working together long term.

This principle of “people as gift” is also true in church leadership. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that Christ himself gave to the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In other words, he gave us people that have very different worldviews, ways of thinking and goals, but who are called to work with one another for the mutual edification and building up of the Body. We are called to receive one another as gifts from God. Someone can be really messed up and still be God’s gift to you. Someone can fall into sin, backslide or otherwise biff it and we are still called to honor them as a gift and rejoice in what they carry in the Spirit. We don’t affirm their sin, but neither do we wash our hands of them until they “get their act together.”

Clarifications
In the midst of my sermon yesterday, I gave a disclaimer that spiritual gifts are not an indicator of spiritual fruit. (I defined fruit as the observable change in character that comes from fellowship with God and being changed into Jesus’s likeness as described in Galatians 5:22.) I said that someone operating at a high level of spiritual gifting does not immediately translate into a high level of fellowship with God.

The example I used and want to clarify is that I said that we don’t often look at someone who is extraordinarily successful in business or government and assume that they are walking closely with God. I then said that we should apply that same skepticism to others operating at a high level of gifting, be it prophesy, healing or signs and wonders. That was poorly phrased and I think left an impression that I didn’t intnd.

What I meant to say is that someone can be used powerfully by God in any area and that doesn’t mean they are necessarily being transformed into His image and likeness, because they are separate issues. As far as business and government, I don’t think you can succeed at a high level in either without God helping you. And I believe that many successful businessmen and politicians do have intimate and vibrant relationships with God.

I also regret using the word “skeptical.” It conveyed the meaning I wanted but with negative undertones. I don’t want us to look at anyone operating at a high level of gifting and assume they aren’t walking with God. I want us to honor, bless and receive everyone. I just want to caution us against the tendency to look at someone on a platform and assume they are perfectly walking things out in every area of their lives. Mark Driscoll could be a perfect example – he is a highly gifted man. He is highly gifted, and also a man. We shouldn’t be so scandalized by his humanity that we forget to receive the really good and true things God has done (and will continue to do!) through him.

A Point I Meant to Make
Because Holy Spirit is the gift, it means that all of the manifestations of the Spirit are available to us as believers. God is certainly more prone to use us in ways that fit our personality, background and call, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be used in other ways. Furthermore, if there is one particular gift that you would love to operate in, I think there is freedom to ask God to use you in that way. I think you can ask, pray and look for opportunities to use that gift and I believe that Holy Spirit will take that into account because I believe God honors and treasures the desires of our hearts.

So please, don’t feel limited or confined by the results of some spiritual gifts inventory or assessment. At best it is only giving you a snapshot of how God is moving in your life at that point in time. Realize and assume that you are going to change and that God is going to use you in different ways at different times.

What all of us need to commit to is being willing to be used by God in any way to meet any need. Because Holy Spirit lives in you, you can be the answer to any problem you encounter. If someone needs encouragement, counsel, healing or help you can do those things – you don’t have to call in an expert. The important thing is that you know the basics of operating in each of those areas so that Holy Spirit can use you and you don’t take yourself out of the game. That is why we teach people the prayer model, basic relational skills like reflective listening, it is why we should be in reasonable shape and practice listening for God’s voice. I believe it is every Christian’s desire to be a useful and profitable servant – and that begins by being willing to do whatever God asks of us.

Last Thought
I want to see our congregation grow and develop in the use of our gifts, whatever they may be. I don’t want anyone to feel inadequate or “less than” for the way God uses them. I want us to celebrate all of the gifts and learn to call them out in one another. And, most of all, I want us to see one another as gifts. God never gives us an ability without an accompanying responsibility to love and serve the people around us. Gifts are for the good of those around us and we are called to strengthen our love for one another. Part of our inheritance is locked away in the people around us – we are called to set them free and build them up so that we can receive what they have to give. As we do that I think we will see a great shift in the life of our community. I think we will see more and more people attracted to Christ, more and more growth and maturity and more and more satisfaction, freedom and joy in our hearts. And that is something I am excited for.

Thanks for reading friends.

Three Pictures

I had a couple dreams last night that I wanted to share. I use the terms “dreams” loosely, because I’m never sure what to call those things I think of in the times between waking and sleeping, when I’m sort of doing both. The first two dreams I had last night and the last was one I had a few weeks ago and have just been sitting on. If you are someone who has some skill in interpreting dreams, feel free to email me your take on one or all of the dreams below. I’ve gotten some things from them, but I’m always open to hearing what other people get. Thanks.

Handing Out Gum
In this dream, I was in a foreign country on a missions trip. I saw a bunch of kids and was filled with love for them. I wanted to do something special for them, but all I had in my pocket was a 5 piece package of gum. From past experience, I knew that if I gave the package to one of the kids, they would share it with their friends – which is great – but then each kids would only get a sliver of gum, a tiny taste. I wanted to do more than that because I believe God is better than that. So I asked the kids to get all of their friends, all of the kids in the villiage. I told them that God was going to do something special for them, that He had a gift for them.

Hundreds of kids started coming and sitting down in the place where I was standing. I looked at them all and couldn’t believe how many their were, such great need! I also realize that I just had one pack of gum. I don’t remember feeling anxious, just acknowledging the “facts”. Once all the kids were gathered, I prayed. Then I reached into my pocket and gave the first child my only package of gum. He took it gladly. Then I moved on to the second. Again, I reached into my pocket and there was a pack of gum. So I gave it away. On and on it went, each time giving away all I had until all of the kids had received their own pack. Then I reached into my pocket and pulled out five more packs. There were some kids who hadn’t been able to come, so I sent some children to give them a pack too.

After I had finished distributing the gum, I realized that the kids had received different types of gum – mint, cinnamon, fruit. Though I only had mint when I started, that didn’t seem to limit what they received. I knew each kid had gotten their favorite kind because God is that Good and knew them that well.

How I long for that kind of faith! Those are the kind of stories that I want to tell – not in dream form, but from real life. I feel there is more meaning to that particular dream than I have been able to unpack at this point.

The Spigot
This dream was much shorter. It was just the picture of a old water spigot, like there used to be on farms. It was the kind where you lifted the handle and waited for the water to come out. I lifted the handle and had to wait for what seemed to be a long time. I could hear the water coming long before it started flowing. Eventually, the faucet started sputtering and then gave way to a steady flow of cool, refreshing water from deep in the ground.

Desert Transformation
This dream was from a few weeks back.

I saw a picture of someone stranded in the desert. This person had found a small trickle of water that flowed from the crevice of a rock. I knew the trickle, really just a drop every few seconds, would be enough to sustain them. It wouldn’t really satisfy their thirst, but it would keep them from dying.

The dream sort of “split” and I saw two different scenarios play out simultaneously. In the first scenario, the person just kept sitting by the trickle, drinking as they needed and grumbling about their lot. They prayed a lot for God to deliver them or help them.

The second scenario was much different. In this instance, the person realized that the water kept dripping wether their mouth was under it or not. So the person looked around and found some sort of container. Whenever they weren’t drinking the water, the container was catching it. Eventually, the container was full. The person could now have a long, satisfying drink of water. So they did.

The vision progressed and the person was still sitting by the trickle. They had a full container of water, but the water kept coming and dripping onto the ground. The person had a strange idea. They decided to water the ground around where the trickle was dripping onto. They figured they could always refill their container if nothing happened. So the person took their container and wasted it, pouring it out on the ground. The sandy ground drank in the water gladly. Nothing else happened.

The next morning the person saw that a tiny sprout had come up through the sand. They were overjoyed – the first new thing in ages! They continued to collect the drips and water their new plant. As they continued pouring out their water, the plant grew and other plants sprouted up. Soon, the area around their trickle was growing several different plants.

This continued for some time in the dream. I saw the person collect and water and soon their desert had become a little garden. Unbeknownst to the person, as the plants and vegetation grew, so did the flow of the water. It was imperceptible at first, but I soon saw that the drips came more frequently, the container filled up faster and the person was able to care for more and more plants.

The garden grew and so did the flow. Eventually, the garden had become a good sized oasis in the middle of the desert – then something interesting happened. It rained. Once the rain had stopped, I noticed the the trickle had become a steady flow and where it once dripped into the ground and was absorbed, it now began to pool and run in a small stream through the garden.

On and on it went. The gardener collecting water and watering the plants, the flow growing and the rain coming. Soon, animals and bugs and even other people found their way to the oasis. Every addition allowed the garden to grow.

The dream ended with the two scenarios side by side, as if to say – you get to choose.

Prayer Target Challenge: Week 4

Hi friends,

We are four weeks in to our 6 week challenge. Thank you to everyone who has been praying for the men and women of ISIS to come to know Jesus as Lord. While we don’t see much slow down of ISIS activities in the news, we trust that those prayers are not without effect.

I got a magazine in the mail this week from Voice of the Martyrs. The issue dealt with the recent activities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and did a wonderful job of outlining the origins of the group. I highly recommend checking out their site. You can sign up (for free) to receive the newest issue of their newsletter. The title of the copy you want is “I am n.”

ISIS, now just IS or Islamic State, has it origins in al-Qaida. It appears that both al-Qaida and the Taliban kicked out the leaders of IS for their brutality and violence. Now IS is the largest, most well funded extremist group in the area. It has a particularly effective social media strategy that has successfully recruited radicalized Muslims (men and women) from around the world. IS has now captured control of 1/3 of Iraq’s territory in addition to parts of Syria.

One thing the VOM newsletter draws out is how faithful the Christians in Iraq and Syria are. Here are families that could, in many cases, flee, yet they choose to stay. They know that refusing to deny Jesus as Lord is a death sentance, yet they stay to preach, live and care for the wounded. They wake up knowing each day could be their last, yet they get up and go about their business trusting in God – not to save them from an earthly death, but to give them eternal life. The world isn’t worthy of such saints.

Please continue to pray my friends. Pray for the salvation of the IS fighters and supernatural empowerment for our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. I do hope that the LORD protects them, but I also know that they do not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. They are the overcomers, the victorious ones.