Could It Be The Greatest Tragedy?

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17 As he went out into the street, a man came running up, greeted him with great reverence, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?”  18-19 Jesus said, “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”  20 He said, “Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!”
21 Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
22 The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.
Mark 10:17-22 (The Message)

I do not want this edition to become a battle arena of which experience of tragedy is the worst.  All tragedies are painful and that pain is real and must never be minimized.  We are not in a spitting contest folks.  I am not even suggesting that your individual tragedies are unimportant, because they are.  I have wrestled and struggled over this post more than any other.  But could it be that the greatest tragedy is to love Jesus, but on our terms?

The focus of this blog, and the reason the Spirit prompted (more like pushed me kicking and screaming) is to take our focus off of what we think it means to be a real Christian by making the story of our life bigger than the story of our local churches by entering the narrative of the Story of The Kingdom of God.  And today’s edition is about asking the question:  Do we love Jesus, but on our terms?  How you and I answer this question determines how big, or how small, the story of our life becomes.  Does the narrative of our life tell a story as big as the Kingdom of God, or is our story as small as the small amount of real estate our life covers?

Look again at this passage we call “The Story of The Rich Young Ruler”.  He is called rich, meaning he has experienced financial success in life.  But his wealth is not mentioned until the end of this encounter with Jesus.  Look at his initial encounter with Jesus.  The Message says he shows “great reverence” and other translations says he “kneels” or “bows”.  It is obvious, at least to me, this young man recognizes at the very least that Jesus is someone special because he senses that Jesus holds the answer to the deepest need of his heart:  “How can I find unending life?”

I know the translations say eternal life but the Greek word used here is interesting.  There are two particular Greek words translated as “life”, bioswhich means physical life; we get our word “biology” from this word; and zoe—which means life that is full with purpose and meaning.  What I am trying to say is that this man is not asking “How do I get into heaven?”  He is asking Jesus, “How do I find life that has lasting purpose and meaning that begins right now?  I don’t wait to wait until I get to heaven.  I need it NOW!”

Others had been around Jesus but no one asked the question that He loves to hear:  “How do I find unending life that has purpose and meaning starting right now?”  And when this young man came to Jesus with that question pay close attention to how Jesus responds:  “Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!”  Can’t you see the great big smile on the face of Jesus?  Finally, someone asks the question that is at the core of why Jesus became one of us.  Jesus came as one of us so that any of us, all of us could experience zoe life to the max.

Obviously this successful young man loved Jesus because he brought the question of his heart to Him.  But when Jesus gave him the answer, it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear.  In that instant this young man realized by while he loved Jesus, it was on his terms.  And when Jesus upped the ante and raised the bar, this young man knew he was unwilling to let go of his bios life in order to take hold of the zoe life.  Look at how he leaves the presence of Jesus, the presence that once offered him hope:  “This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”

This is the epitome of the greatest tragedy.  This passage from Mark’s Gospel has led me to believe and become convinced that the greatest tragedy in life is to love God but on our terms.  And here is why:

1.  He turned away from the only Hope!

Everything points to his quest.  He knew the life he was pursuing would not get him to where he needed to be.  There is only one hope to find this life.  He choose to walk away from that Hope for life that could be rich with purpose and meaning.

2.  He rejected the only Cure!

The Message puts this man’s spiritual condition with very clear words:  “He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”  He could not “fix” what was wrong with his heart, but Jesus could.  Yet he chose to reject the cure for his pain and emptiness.

3.  He walked away from the only Life!

He accepted a life that he wasn’t was designed for, a life that did not meet his created purpose.  His created purpose, and our created purpose, is to join in with all that our Heavenly Father is doing.

Any experience that meets the definition of “tragedy” is awful and painful.  But I see that the greatest tragedy for any human heart is to love Jesus but on our terms.  Why do I call it the greatest tragedy?  Because Jesus will not accept us on our terms and this means only one thing.  We do what this rich young man did:  we walk away from Jesus.  To walk away from Jesus is to walk away from the only One who loves us enough to die for us.  And that, my friends, is the greatest tragedy—to be so close to the zoe life, one word from zoe life but walk away from it.  Jesus will never accept love on our terms.  He is too good, too holy, too majestic for such a love.  Such a love, a love on our terms, is unworthy of The Eternal One!

We cannot experience the life for which we are created by loving Jesus on our own terms.  Those who know me know that I love to ask questions, even to the point of being annoying.  But I must ask you, the reader, as I often ask myself:  Do you love Jesus, but on your own terms?

Love God with all your heart; love others the way Jesus loves you; and make sure all the glory goes to Him!

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Are You A But? Don’t Be A But!

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Most of the time, well, practically all the time, the title of this blog is spelled with an extra “t”–“Don’t be a butt!”  What we usually mean by this statement (putting it nicely) is “Don’t be so critical!”  “Don’t be so ignorant!”  “Don’t be so mean!”  “Don’t be so judgmental!”  “Don’t be so stinky!”  Well, that’s not the word I’m using, but the meanings could be applied to my thoughts today.  So be forewarned, I could become offensive.  And if this post doesn’t offend you, keep reading future posts because I will get around to you in due time.

No, I am thinking about a certain passage that has this left-handed right-side-brain pastor with some more musings about The Kingdom of God.  The passage is Luke 9:57-62 and it sounds like this from The Message:

57 On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

58 Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”  Jesus said to another, “Follow me.”

59 He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.”

60 Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”

61 Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”

62 Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”

Most of the time we “backwards collar types” (that means preachers for the uninformed) use this passage to talk to those who are “lost” and need to make a decision for Jesus right now.  And the Grace Pharisees like to use it in the same way.  What?  Grace Pharisees?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  Sounds like it, but there is a new Pharisee in town, actually in the church, who feel it is their duty to determine who is worthy of Grace.  Ain’t that a hoot!  Worthy of Grace!  They must have fallen out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down.  Oops, I may have just offended someone.  Oh well, if the shoe fits…

Today, I want to apply this passage to the Churchians and the Tenured Pew Sitters.  Only  someone who has their head buried in sand cannot see that the Western Church is in serious trouble, which is what inspired me to even start this blog.  In all fairness to the Churchians and the Tenured Pew Sitters, I do believe that they want to see this downward spiral (because it has become more than a trend) stop and reversed to significant growth.  They sincerely want to see the sanctuary full every Sunday.  They want to see every classroom in use and full of Sunday School students of all ages.  They want to see more programs and more than enough volunteers to handle a myriad of ministries.  They want to see people outside their church oohing and aahing over all that’s happening at their facilities; so much so that they will just rush in to join and be a part of it.  BUT…

  • But don’t change anything as it is now
  • But make it like it was in 1960
  • But don’t make me give up what I like
  • But don’t ask me to get out of my comfort zone
  • But don’t expect me to do it
  • But don’t fill this place up with all “those” people
  • But don’t expect me to fast and pray
  • But make it easy
  • But don’t make me give up my sin because it’s not all that bad
  • But give us a pastor and staff who can be successful doing it our way
  • But, but, but, but….(can you think of other “buts”?  Add them to the comments below)

Some may think I’ve gone on out a limb, a very thin and fragile limb, this time.  BUT there are those comments by Jesus:  First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”  And No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”  Did you find it?  God’s Kingdom!  You cannot add a “but” to God’s Kingdom.  Either He rules completely over your life, your activities and your congregation or He doesn’t rule.  In which case, it is no longer God’s Kingdom in your congregation, but YOUR social club.

Do not be a BUT!  Jesus is right!  (Isn’t He always?)  Our business is life and it is urgent!  So seize the day!  Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way Jesus loves you.  And make sure that all the glory goes to Him!

#8: Wrong priorities

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(This is the third in a 10 part series.  Number 7 will be released tomorrow.  If you are just starting to read this series, you will need to start with Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church! first, then #10: Choosing Religion Over Relationship  and #9 Ignoring That We Are In A War before reading this one)

A careful examination of the focus and operations of many struggling churches reveal that one of the significant causes of their declining membership, attendance and impact on community is that they simply have endorsed and embraced the wrong priorities.  And what breaks my heart the most is that those churches sincerely think they have the right priorities.  Churches with the wrong priorities are not deliberately attempting to kill their church.  The sad fact is they believe, believe with all their heart, that by their strict adherence to these wrong priorities, somehow there will be a turnaround in membership, attendance, and impact on their community.  They are looking for leaders who will have the skill sets to gladly and proudly march them backwards to the 1950’s, when membership, attendance and community impact were at the highest.

There is only ONE priority that any church really needs to change the current downward spiral.  Do you know what it is?  I think I just heard someone say, “Put God first!”  In congregations that have plateaued or declining if asked they would say that they are putting God first but continue to decline.  I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that the #1 Priority for the church should be The Kingdom of God.  Some of you just said, “But isn’t that what I said when I said the one priority the church needs is to put God first?”  Maybe I’m just being my Annoying Self when I put this out there for your consideration.  Who knows, maybe I’m turning into a heretic in my old age.  But what did Jesus have to said about what should be our ONE priority?  Let’s look at Matthew 6:24-34 from the New Living Translation:

24 “No one can serve two masters.  For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.

25 That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear.  Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds.  They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them.  And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

28 And why worry about your clothing?  Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

31“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat?  What will we drink?  What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

34 So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

The cause of the decline of the Western Church, again this is how I interpret what I see, is that first word, rather the lack of seeing that first word–seek!  According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word used was zēteō.  It has several usages and the one that caught my eye is this one:  “to seek after, seek for, aim at, strive after”.  In these latter years I have this deep sense from God that we are missing so much, too much, by overlooking that phrase, “The Kingdom of God”.  A Kingdom requires a King but here in the good old U.S.A., we fought a war so that we would be free from a King.  And so, we have this problem of declining membership, attendance and influence and the reason I see is that we tend to operate the local church more like a democracy and less like the Kingdom.

I realize that some of my fellow pastors can act like a ruthless dictator, but the fact remains that God has called us into HIS Kingdom, not our democracies.  What does all this have to do with the wrong priorities?  Glad you asked, and I will gladly give you an answer.  Churches that are losing in membership, attendance and influence are 99% of the time churches that have forgotten the purpose of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  And the purpose of this Kingdom is defined by Jesus when He declared in John 10:10

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.

If we follow the example of Jesus, giving life happens when we come to know their deepest needs and then offering what we have to meet those needs.  If they are hungry, give them food.  If they are homeless, give them shelter.  If they have trouble reading or can’t read, we teach them how to read.  If they are lonely, we build relationships with them.  Everything about the Kingdom is externally focused on others, those outside the Kingdom, those outside the church.  And herein lies the problem.

The wrong priorities seen in declining churches is that its members see themselves as the consumers of what the church offers.  I dare say that you, the reader, have heard someone say, “Well I quit that church because they just weren’t meeting my needs.”  The pastor, the programs, the staff, the music, the ANYTHING–it’s all about them consuming what is produced in the church buildings.  They do not seem themselves as the “providers” of mission, but the consumer of services.

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Every program, every ministry, every mission, every activity is to be focused on them, the members.  When the pastor and/or staff fails to serve them, it is time to get rid of them and find someone who will.  Consumption, consumption, consumption!  All this consumption has led to the decline in membership, worship attendance, and most of all, community impact.  Programs are not to serve the members.  Staff does not have the responsibility of serving the members.  And the Mission does not exist to meet the needs of the members.  When the focus is inward, it is leading to the eventual death of a local congregation.

But there is good news:  When the focus is outward, when the local congregation readies itself to meet and welcome those who are not in church YET, the decline is reversed.  We are called to serve the Mission of the Kingdom of God, not be served by the Mission.  We are called to become the providers of Mission and not the consumers of ministries.  To become once again people who impact communities with the power of the Kingdom of God we have to change the focus–from self to others.  When our focus is outward and outside the walls of the local congregation and on those who are among the least, the last and the lost, the local church will grow in membership, attendance and best of all, grow great in impacting their community with the Gospel.  Of this I am confident, absolutely confident, because our King said so:

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

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