The Wonderful Gift of… Suffering?

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (Philippians 1:29-30)

Philippians 1:29 is one of those verses that makes me stop and shake my head in disbelief. Paul tells the readers of this letter that suffering has been granted to them. Granted? Really? As in, “Here you go. Here’s a big ol’ heaping helping of suffering”?

If you dig into the Greek behind that phrase, you’ll uncover the word charizomai. This word usually implies something that’s freely given for someone else’s benefit. In fact, Paul uses this same word to talk about how God forgave our sins (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 4:32); how we are to forgive others freely (2 Corinthians 2:7, 10); and how God bestows gifts or titles because of His love and power (as in Philippians 2:9). In Luke 7:21, the same word shows how Jesus gave sight to the blind. Free, beneficial gifts.

All those are well and good. So, why would Paul add something crazy like suffering to these other good things? Surely, he has to see that suffering doesn’t fit in the same category as healing the blind and forgiving sin. They don’t even share the same zip code. Right?

Well, Paul’s example shows us that they do. Right near the end of Acts (chapter 27), Paul gets stuck with a stubborn centurion who can’t wait to get to Rome and a ship’s pilot who’s happy to oblige. Paul warns that such a trip will end badly. They ignore him (word to the wise: never ignore Paul). When they run into a storm, things look really, really bad. People are throwing supplies overboard, faces are green, and hope goes buh-bye.

About that time, Paul gets to give his “I told you so” speech, and in that speech, he uses our old friend charizomai. An angel had appeared to Paul and told him, “God has granted you all those who are sailing with you” (Acts 27:24). God had granted him seasick sailors (who wanted to kill the prisoners, mind you) and a stubborn centurion who refused to listen to sense. What kind of gift is that? God could have granted him a miraculous trip to a nearby island—perhaps somewhere warm and not so stormy.

But if that had been the case, Paul wouldn’t have done the other part of this verse: “you must stand before Caesar.” If Paul had been whisked away, in fact, we wouldn’t have the books of Acts or Luke (that chapter is filled with “we” from our good doctor friend who also survived the storm); the sailors and centurion wouldn’t have seen God’s mighty act to save every single one of them; and Paul wouldn’t have taken the gospel to the most important city in the Roman Empire. God gave Paul the gift of their lives so that the gospel would bulldoze on.

And that brings up back to Paul’s suggestion that suffering is granted—a gift. Quite likely, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians not long after being smashed into the rocks. Despite the messy trip (or perhaps precisely because of it), the message of Christ spread throughout the royal guard and people all over Rome. Other Christians got some backbone to speak more boldly (Philippians 1:13-14). Things went boom all over.

The gift of suffering, for Paul and for us, doesn’t seem much like a gift—at first. But the vantage point makes all the difference. Suffering that comes for the sake of Christ always produces a harvest of awesome. That’s because, in addition to the suffering, God also grants us the strength to endure and the chance to see the gospel take root.

And that’s why Paul can truthfully say, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8). That’s not empty boasting from a beaten down man. That’s the triumphant cry of someone who sees what lies ahead.

Sermon: Keep Your Motor Running

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven.” Hebrews 12:1–2

Intro:

  • According to surveys, January is a tough month for many people: holidays over, weather, New Year’s resolutions
  • Treadmill gathers dust, diets fade away, Bible reading plans slip
  • If it’s hard to keep goals for physical things, how can we keep our motors running in our Christian life?
  • This passage gives us the tools we need to keep running the race day to day.

I. Understand Where You Are

  • First, need to understand where we are. Writer has given us an image that’s familiar even to us.
  • Great crowd/cloud of witnesses – refers to the rows upon rows spectators watching a sporting event, like clouds billowing up in the stands.
  • Who are they? Hebrews 11 those who lived on purpose through faith in the coming Savior; not just passively watching but give us proof that imperfect people can make it (not really moral examples, but examples of living from faith)
  • Scripture encourages us, but also helps us understand our true, in-our-face spiritual condition

II. Throw off What Holds Back

  • Strip off every weight, especially the sin that holds us back – back then ran in a much more “natural” way.
  • Sin makes us uncomfortable because our society teaches us not to admit our moral failure (improper relationships, misspoke). But Jesus gave a moral imperative to “sin no more.”
  • Living on purpose for Christ means calling sin what it is—sin. That is, confessing it. Daily, if need be.
  • “Why are you so angry?” the LORD asked [Cain]. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you respond in the right way. But if you refuse to respond correctly, then watch out! Sin is waiting to attack and destroy you, and you must subdue it.” Genesis 4:6–7
  • “For the honor of your name, O LORD, forgive my many, many sins. Who are those who fear the LORD? He will show them the path they should choose.” Psalm 25:11–12

III. Follow the Path God Made

  • Run the race with endurance – it’s a long-distance race, not a sprint
  • Running the mile in middle school (show off, then walk and complain) vs. high school (grade depended on it, ran smart).
  • Mindset matters for runners (won’t meet a champion marathoner who complains every step), and even more so for following Jesus
  • When we get rid of hindrances, we’re running in the path God laid out for us. (Ephesians 2:10)
  • You don’t have to figure it all out. Just go with the running lane that God opens up. (Blockers in football)

IV. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

  • Keeping our eyes on Jesus on whom our faith depends – He set the example for us to follow (do God’s will, help the helpless, receive the prize)
  • Think about why you’re following Jesus each day, your motivation:
  • Your own efforts won’t sustain you.
  • Approval from others won’t keep your motor running.
  • Our faith is meant to be a day-by-day realization of God’s love for us and ours for Him—a deeper and deeper understanding of the gospel and a steady transformation. Progress in the Christian life is a road paved with passion.
  • “And all of us have had that veil removed so that we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

Conclusion

  • The word for witnesses in Greek is “martyr.” All followers of Jesus are called to die—die to self.
  • Jesus said following Him is like picking up a cross, a symbol of death, and going after Him each day.
  • Not easy. But He’s made a path for us, He shows us the way.
  • You can keep going. In this race, God intends for us to win as He molds us each day.
  • “I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” Philippians 3:14

From the Inside Out: Sharing the Unchanging Gospel in a Changing World

[I wrote this about a year ago for a magazine and can now share it here.]

On the south side of Richmond, Virginia, the elderly couple holds their sign and waits fruitlessly. In a place where Saturdays mark fish fries and sidewalk gatherings, they beckon to a church yard sale. In an area populated by weather-worn buildings with rough, hand-painted signs for the “Apostolic Kingdom of Jesus Worshippers,” they offer a pristine mainline church with a name handed down for decades. Around them the community reflects a diverse mix of African Americans and Asians and Hispanics, but the parking lot of the church contains only one skin color—one completely dissimilar to those passing on the sidewalk.

It’s a moment that suits Richmond well, a city where pylons still stretch up out of the James River to hold a bridge that no longer exists, a casualty of the fleeing Confederate army. Here you’ll find many mainline churches with middle-class, aging congregations. Their homes retreat farther and farther away from the little islands they’ve kept up in the middle of rough neighborhoods. Tradition holds them there—but it’s doubtful they’ve seen a new believer in years.

Some area churches have already succumbed to dwindling membership. Only a few miles from where the couple waits, a tall steeple casts an impressive shadow across Cowardin Avenue, and you might be excused for thinking this growing mosque still housed a church. Other former mainline churches boast boarded-up windows, graffiti, and orange notices to keep out.

The River City changed, and when those churches wouldn’t budge, the city changed them.

Hope and a Drug Dealer

Walker’s not the type of guy who would care much about the history of such churches in the city he calls home. The drug-dealer-turned-Bible-smuggler spends his days telling people how Jesus spared his life from his former employer and how the Holy Spirit empowered him to tell Egyptians about Christ without a translator.

His nights only vary because of the location. Instead of speaking to the people in his apartment building, he’s talking about Jesus as a bouncer at a bar. He’s intimidating, and he’s enthusiastic. He’s also evidence of hope, a sign that some Christians in Richmond have realized the seismic shift that’s happening. Instead of boarding up and taking flight, they’re taking the gospel to the people outside.

Pastor Bryan Ogle of Enon Church of God knows something about the importance of this outward focus toward a changing culture. Twenty-five minutes south of downtown Richmond, the community around Enon continues to swell. “The church moved to this location eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “Where we are now is more of a suburb of Richmond. There’s a military base that’s supposed to triple in size. So, just the culture of the area that the building sits in now is much different.”

When he first arrived, however, the church had faced struggles. “The congregation had just gone through some difficult times. They just went through a transition of culture, and some people left. It was a low-morale type environment.”

In many ways, the first steps Pastor Ogle took reflect the purpose statement of the church: “Love God. Love people. Serve the world.” He opened his home to the congregation, inviting them to learn about the vision God had given him for Enon. From there, he’s leading the church through necessary change to better serve the community.

“We’re in the process of not thinking of the church as the way it’s always been. That goes from music to our discipleship approach to just having the church go from a smaller church mentality to a bigger church one. Changing the mentality of how leaders within the church lead. We are in the process of embracing the culture that will lead us into the future.”

From handing out Gatorades at the local Y to hosting a night of camping on the church grounds to special seminars and events, the outward gestures to the changing community are already having a big impact as the church grows.

Hope and a Hurricane

Few shifts in culture, however, have been as dramatic as what happened in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The vibrant community of Homestead Church of God collapsed from about 200 people to 27 following the devastation. Seemingly overnight, South Miami-Dade County shed 250,000 people who left the ravaged area behind.

Their example deeply influenced his desire to reach the “new” Homestead. “I’ve never seen such devotion and raw, pure, self-sacrificial ministry that close. I think most people would have left the community for normal lives. They didn’t. They deserve [much] credit for their tenacity and faithfulness.”

The church he began leading had around 32 dedicated members, but God gave him a vision to remove as many barriers as possible and to create a “gospel-obsessed community that loves God and man with reckless abandon.” Disaster had changed the city, economic adversity had hardened those in the area, but the need for the unchanging gospel is always the same.

Homestead, the post-Andrew Homestead, needed to hear that message, and Pastor Johnson wanted to make it happen. “We considered ourselves a church re-plant. We rebranded [as Life Pointe Church], sold property, re-opened, restructured, and relocated. But, in order to do all that, we had to have the buy-in from our church body and from the COG state office. The process for that [took] several years.”

Even seemingly small cosmetic changes had a significant impact. “As we talked about the future, we improved the facility. We simplified everything by throwing away anything that hadn’t been used in a year. We painted using Starbucks’ colored themes. We re-landscaped. We were broke. So, everything we did was with elbow grease and donated services from new members. The week we painted, we had families show up for the first time saying they had never seen the church before. The physical changes lent credence to and reinforced the vision. As small wins built up, we were able to tackle the greater pursuit of relaunching.”

A New World Outside

According to early results from the 2010 census, the world outside the church building continues to transform. Married couples with children account for only 22% of all households nationally, and “minorities” are no longer minorities in many places. Three million people have left the Northeast, and the Midwest shed another two million—many of them relocating to the South.1

Shifting demographics affect all churches, perhaps more now than in many years. To share the gospel effectively, churches must reach out to the changing realities like Enon and Life Pointe have. Otherwise, the community may increasingly ignore the church—and the message.

Footnote: 1http://adage.com/article?article_id=139592

Who is Your “And”?

Around ten years ago, I picked up two prostitutes at a gas station. Reading that, I’m sure you have certain expectations about my reasons for doing so. But that wasn’t it.

For one thing, naiveté still had me rather tightly in those days. The realization of whom I had picked up dawned on me only halfway to their hotel. You see, I thought they were two women who’d simply been stranded after a night out. Never mind they were wearing short skirts, deep-cut tops, and more makeup than should be possible. I wanted to be a hero. I saw that as my shot.

The realization came as we talked—how they got there in particular. What I hadn’t bargained for was hearing about the person behind the label. Prostitutes are often defined by their job, not by their humanity. Before that car ride, I’d categorized a whole segment of the population into something almost less than human.

So it was with tax collectors in Jesus’ day. They weren’t human—they were tax collectors. They weren’t even sinners. They had their own special category beyond mere sinner: sinners and tax collectors (or flipped in most cases). Perhaps Matthew—one of those worse-than-sinners—even believed that himself.

But Jesus gave him the chance to follow—something the religious people would never have done. Jesus saw all humans equally worthy of death—and all worthy of love.

“Follow me.” Those were probably the sweetest words Matthew had ever heard. He got so excited he threw a party so that other “sinners and tax collectors” could meet Jesus. In fact, God used an “and” (a tax collector) to write a book of the Bible.

Each of us has an “and” (or more than one), a class or group we consider the worst offenders, those too evil to love or minister to. The American church in particular has focused on homosexuals as the “and.” And strippers. And legalists. And … you get the point. Put simply, we use the and to separate ourselves—to make ourselves distinct.

Jesus came to call those who realized they were sick. Most people do, but they don’t always hear that Jesus wants them to follow Him.

I’d love to end this post by revealing how I told the two women I picked up all this—how I showed them the Jesus who loves them. But I didn’t. At that point, I had no idea how sick I was. That came later. Instead, I dropped them off and drove home in shock. They’d ruined how I thought life worked.

Fury Signifying Not Much

I cringe at the image. Cardboard signs, trite T-shirt slogans, and scowling faces brighten news sites under titles proclaiming the indispensable work of the Christian church: “Christians Boycott over Holiday Greeting” and “Religious Sharks Eat Their Own over ‘Xmas.’” (I might have made up that last one.)

Here are thousands of believers—mobilized, verbal, passionate—but about grass and flowers (1 Peter 1:24). Fury comes gushing out for those who dare make Christmas less than what it “should” be, which I assume alludes to an idealized ‘50s version. But the fury simply sustains the caricature of what Christians really do.

If we want a real Christmas, perhaps we should all sleep in caves with cuddly cows and run for our lives from lunatic kings. That’s as real as it gets. Christmas has never meant anything to those not participating in the real why—notice, for example, that the Jewish leaders didn’t go check in Bethlehem even after they told the wise men where to look. Expecting the world to celebrate the “right way” is not realistic.

Something about all this holiday angst reminds me of Daniel, who was enslaved as a boy to be raised under a pagan system. Not only did he serve a non-Christian king, he learned pagan arts, literature, and modes of operation—even his changed name pointed to a false god. His ground-shaking protest? Praying three times a day.

Or take a gander at David. God had made him king, but he never used that title as a source of hubris while someone else sat on the throne. Rather, he tried serving Saul before nearly becoming a kosher shish kebab and refused to attack him when given the chance.

When Herod lopped off the head of Jesus’s cousin, he didn’t spend His energy railing against the king, boycotting, or posting a flaming attack on the despot’s Facebook page. Instead, he mourned and got back to what He loved to do: teach the gospel and help people (Matthew 14:1-14).

If we want people to know what Christmas and, more importantly, Easter mean, jumping up and down and screaming won’t do much. Maybe we should try living those days out instead—and not worrying about which department store misses the mark we think they should keep.

Prayer and mourning make waves—even angry outbursts work on occasion. Really, Jesus would have been justified in showing quite a bit more anger than a whip and some flipped tables, but He spent too much time teaching and showing the gospel.

In other words, if someone refuses to say “Merry Christmas” or uses the diabolical “Xmas,” it’d be great if Christians were too busy serving, loving, and sharing some good news to notice. Yeah, that’s my idealized Christmas.

 

Killing a Cousin

Herod killed Jesus’s cousin. The tetrarch chopped off John the Baptizer’s head because he wanted to save face in front of guests. It doesn’t get much more brutal than that.

Let’s take stock of how Jesus responded.

He did not:

  • Call down fire on Herod’s head.
  • Stage a “Down with Herod” rally.
  • Boycott Herod’s palace.
  • Bemoan the removal of religion from the government (after all, Herod kept John around because of his troubled conscience).

Instead, he did this:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

In other words, He mourned and then got back to having compassion, healing people, and teaching the Good News. Jesus knew His Father will ultimately take care of injustices. But, more than that, He knew what mattered.

While Jesus did take time to condemn the God-deniers and religious frauds on occasion, His more immediate concerns were just that—immediate. As a bereaved cousin, He certainly had justification for going on the offensive. But He didn’t. Instead, His focus remained on something far more important than temporary pains, setbacks, annoyances, or persecution. The Good News, after all, is urgent news; there’s no time for commercial breaks, protests, and infomercials.

So, if someone says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or if atheists plaster billboards all over the place calling the nativity a myth, remember how Jesus responded. Go show some Christ-love—that’s one thing no one can deny.

Here Be Leaders

What do you see? Amid the cars on blocks, the guys lounging on the porch with beer cans and cigarettes, the women with shirts that don’t cover enough, the houses missing windows, the peeling paint, the curling siding—what do you see?

I see two groups of sweaty fishermen worn out from a fruitless catch. I see a tax collector hunkered down beneath guilt and snide epithets. I see a crippled man continually hoping someone will put him into the pool. I see a woman slinking down to the well for water.

Beneath those oil-smears and belly-bearing tank tops are evangelists, leaders, pastors, teachers, singers, and testimonies. Beside the rusted out Impalas are Peters and Philips, Matthews and Pauls. Really.

Jesus saw leaders in the dirty, rejected, and fallen. He saw new life in those who’d settled for the old. And, even better, He taught these people to see beneath the grime too.

Wherever you live, whatever your city, there are leaders waiting. We have to forget what the world says about how and where leaders come from—too many of them are left sitting with beer cans on front porches.

So, what do you see?