Category Archives: Culture

Winning the Culture Wars.

Evangelicals and conservative Christians are apoplectic with last week’s Supreme Court ruling and if you have to ask which one you’re not paying attention. Using social media, pastors, leaders, and laity alike decried the ruling and insisted it represented another chink in America’s moral armor. Some even claimed the decision would expedite God’s imminent judgment on the nation.

Widely embraced by evangelicals and orthodox Christians, the heart of this message has flourished for decades and always blames society for the unraveling of the nation’s moral fabric. From the secularization of public schools, the explosion of the abortion industry, and the filth of Hollywood, to the radicalism of colleges, growing antagonism toward God, and the celebration of hedonism, many Christian voices insist America’s pending downfall is due entirely to increasing immorality outside the church walls.

Tellingly, Christians often fail to consider the possibility (or likelihood) that the church owns as much responsibility for the nation’s moral decay and God’s pending judgment as does secular society, perhaps more. Despite this, the church and individual Christians have contributed significantly to the dramatic shift in our country’s values. In fact, absent our complicity the nation would not have fallen so fast and so fully into the moral abyss it now finds itself, nor would it be in jeopardy of experiencing God’s immediate correction.

In what ways are we, as Christians, complicit? We have created classes of sin and determined that some sins are worse than others. The worst sins are those that offend the church and pious Christians. Such sins are widespread in society and easily identified as the cause of God’s anger. They represent all that is wrong in the world. But for these sins, we insist, our nation would be ready for Christ’s return. The church quickly and forcefully condemns these sins and describes them as scourges to society.

In contrast, another class of sin fails to raise the church’s ire. Though denounced by the Bible they thrive in our hearts and our sanctuaries. We wink and nod at these sins, giving little more than lip service to their eradication from our lives. We ignore the manifestations of these sins in our church leaders and ourselves. They are de facto acceptable and go unchallenged.

An excellent example of this class of sin is pride. Officially the church and serious Christians agree it must be uprooted from the heart and cast out. Sermons are preached against it and universal agreement exists that it offends God. Many Christians even know Scripture that highlights its danger – for example, ‘pride goes before destruction.’ Nevertheless, it endures and flourishes in the Christian heart and within church walls: in the pulpit, the choir, and in the congregation.

Doubters need only listen to language used by ministers, worship leaders, and lay Christians alike. ‘I’ and ‘me’ predominate, with a special emphasis on the work Christ is doing them. The celebration of self within the Christian community has reached epidemic proportions and shows no signs of slowing. Of course, spiritual narcissism hides behind a mask of false modesty, feigning humility while feasting on self-exaltation.

Another excellent example of this class of sin involves idolatry. We know it is wrong. Pastors openly preach against it. The Bible strongly condemns it. Yet it survives and thrives in our hearts and churches. Our love for the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it has to offer is difficult to deny. It is obvious to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues who love the world unashamedly and see that same love in us.

So how do we avoid cognitive dissonance without admitting our hypocrisy? We simply tell ourselves we don’t love the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it offers. Despite evidence to the contrary we insist our love for Jesus knows no bounds. And if the overwhelming majority of our time, income, and energy is spent chasing the world and everything in it, we rationalize away the implications of that fact by declaring that God wants us to enjoy ourselves, have fun, and be happy. Nothing wrong with that even if such pursuits define us, consume us, and remove any doubt as to what we’ve made lord of our lives.

If we are serious about preventing moral bankruptcy from ruining the nation, we must keep in mind several important truths. First, genuine change always begins with a transformation of the heart. Always. Imposing morality by judicial edict or legislative fiat never produces substantive, enduring change. It only masks the real problem: sin. Only Jesus removes the stain of sin and empowers authentic and permanent transformation.

Most believers understand this truth and yet still focus a disproportionate amount of time and effort fighting cultural wars at the statehouse and in the courtroom instead of in the prayer closet. This misplaced priority needs to change if we want America’s moral landscape to change. The issue is primarily a spiritual problem and we ought to wage the battle using spiritual weapons such as prayer, service, intercession, and evangelism. Ignoring these disciplines all but guarantees the nation’s moral implosion.

Let’s also recall that God was willing to spare Sodom if as few as ten righteous were found therein. Wouldn’t He apply the same principle with us? I imagine so. Rather than fretting over the sins of others, then, let’s instead redouble our efforts to live righteous lives that honor God. If enough followers of Christ do so we may yet see the nation spared from approaching wrath. Rejoice then, that God gives us an opportunity to stand in the gap for our nation.

And remember, the die is not yet cast. There remains time for the nation to reverse course and avoid the ruin that awaits if we continue down our current path. Doing so, however, will require Christians to take the lead. We must recognize our responsibility for the situation, confess our sins (individually and collectively), repent from our iniquities, and rekindle our love for the Lord. We ought also pray for God’s mercy, intercede for the nation, and pursue Him with single-minded purpose. If we are unwilling to follow this prescription, then we have no right to criticize the culture for its failures. We will be as responsible as secular society for the nation’s collapse. More so in fact, because we had the chance to stop it but chose to remain ensconced in our sin instead.

Time for Justice Department to Apply Real Deterrents to Bank Malfeasance

Why does the Justice Department continue to provide mere lip service in holding big banks accountable for egregious financial crimes instead of aggressively prosecuting them in a manner that will substantively deter future malfeasance? Too often Federal prosecutors adopt a ‘wink and nod’ approach to crimes on Wall Street rather than acting vigorously to eliminate them. The most recent example involves four of the world’s largest banks: Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays PLC, and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

According to reports the four will plead guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to manipulate global financial markets, specifically foreign currency markets, over a five-year period from December 2007 to January 2013. Though the four (and a fifth bank, UBS AG) will pay fines that approach $5.8 billion, none of the banks lose their ability to continue trading in the markets in which they committed their violations. Moreover, the Federal Government refuses to hold bank executives personally responsible for the collusion and for allowing an environment of illicit conduct to thrive.

While we expect Republican administrations to coddle the thieves of Wall Street, things were supposed to be much different with the Obama administration. He promised to go after those wolves much more forcefully than the previous administration and put an end to illegal activities that enrich the über-wealthy and often threaten the stability of our economy. Instead, we get more of the same despite newly confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s claim that the penalties are “fitting” and will “deter” future illegality.

Nonsense! Until Justice bans violators from participating in future business activity in those markets in which illegal activity occurred, no bank is properly incented to curb its appetite for illegitimate profits. And until it holds bank executives personally liable for the conduct of their traders, the environment for such illegality will continue to thrive. The Justice Department needs to quit behaving like one of the boys in the Wall Street fraternity. Instead of administering modest slaps on the hand and declaring victory it needs to bare some real teeth and adopt an adversarial posture against those banks who repeatedly commit financial crimes, which means banning banks from future activity in markets where an offense occurs and prosecuting bank executives criminally and requesting lengthy prison terms for those found guilty.

Anything less is just more of the same. And that is very disappointing considering all the fanfare President Obama generated in (rightfully) targeting bank malfeasance.

Jesus’ Radical Teachings can Transform the World

Does the world appear increasingly turbulent these days, with our planet on the precipice of collapse? Witness the geopolitical storms raging across the Middle East and building in Europe and Asia, while the United States remains locked in unprecedented partisan gridlock – threatening our long-term viability. Widening economic disparity, burgeoning social injustice, and radical worldviews have sparked protest and fueled hatred across the globe, quickly spreading like some sociological virus. Volatile stock markets, brazen violence and climate change plague our nation domestically, while scarcer resources, government instability and accelerating terrorism threaten the global community.

In such a cauldron of chaos perhaps it’s no surprise so many fear for the future and raise legitimate questions in the face of these escalating troubles. How do we stem the tides of violence, abject poverty, income inequality, hatred, and abuse? What can we do to confront the ideological radicalism flourishing across the globe and spawning a growing number of terrorists outside the Middle East? How can we eradicate the epidemic of exploitation, injustice, and sociopolitical tyranny dominating our educational, governmental, and commercial institutions? Where can we turn for guidance in resolving the problems crippling our country and threatening to destroy it from within and abroad?

For answers, we need look no further than the teachings of Jesus. His iconoclastic message remains as relevant today as it did two thousand years ago and possesses the power to transform societies. The profundity of His message, however, is not imposed at the tip of a spear or the barrel of a gun. Instead, Christians model it by embracing the difficult and revolutionary ideas He taught two millennia ago – which much of the world still considers foolish and weak. But it is a message that has the power to turn the world upside down. Consider three lessons from His ministry.

Love your enemy. Jesus initiated His ministry with an extensive mountaintop sermon in which He commanded His followers: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV). What a remarkable contrast to the message taught by ISIS terrorists, urban gangs, and elements of American pop culture. Those sources demand retaliation against anyone who insults, subverts, humiliates, or disrespects them or their worldview. They insist on exercising swift and severe vengeance on the offending party – harm, kill, or destroy, it doesn’t matter, as long as retribution occurs.

Jesus challenges His disciples to adopt an entirely different posture when cursed, hated, persecuted, or exploited. We are to love, bless, pray, and do good to anyone who treats us so shamefully. Is He serious? Does He really expect us to treat well those who harm us – to bless them, lift them up in prayer, and shower them with love? Yes, that radical response is exactly what He wants from us. For that is where the power of God resides. That power not only transforms us to look more like Him, it ultimately defeats the power of hate, violence, bitterness, and abuse.

How might Jesus’ command affect your behavior today? Instead of cursing and engaging in road rage when a driver cuts you off, smile and wave politely. Instead of harboring resentment and plotting the downfall of a colleague who has taken credit for your work, pray for her success instead. Instead of directing a flurry of snide remarks, engaging in gossip, or holding a grudge against someone who treats you with contempt or intentionally humiliates you in front of others, compliment them publically and identify opportunities to help them. Though it sounds counter-intuitive, real power lies in such acts of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

Serve others. The mother of two of Jesus’ disciples requests her sons be seated at His left and right hands when He ushers in His kingdom. In response, Jesus says: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NKJV).

Again, the contrast could not be starker with what the world teaches. Every civilization shares a common set of expectations for great people. They rule over others, they exercise power, and they are served. They are easily identified in every community, industry, and geography. They command respect, demand fidelity, and reprimand the insubordinate. They are politicians, executives, entertainers, professors, the rich and the powerful. The world operates the way it does because these men and women operate the way they do.

Jesus rejects that worldview and institutes a new paradigm for His followers. Those who want greatness must serve others. If you want to be first in His kingdom you need to submit to Him and operate as a slave. As believers a servant’s mentality ought to define our interaction with others (great and small). That may sound crazy. You might consider it a ridiculous and radical view. And indeed it is. But it also represents the expectations Jesus has for those who love Him. Such behavior sends a clear and resounding message to society: The kingdom of God operates on an entirely different set of principles than those employed by the world.

Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? Then identify an opportunity or two (or three) to serve someone every day. Don’t limit your service to friends and loved ones. Serve strangers, the marginalized, the hurting, and the desperate as well. You may find it embarrassing at first because serving others often requires considerable humility, especially when serving the less fortunate, the mentally ill, and those that society deems losers. The more society esteems you the harder this will be. But it is what the Lord expects. It is best to begin making it your practice today.

Die to live. Perhaps the most counter-culture of all Jesus’ teachings it might also be the most powerful. Outlining what it means to follow Him, Jesus declares: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity” (John 12:24-25, NLT). We never really live until we die – not a physical death but a metaphorical death to ourselves. We lay our hopes, dreams, interests, career, and plans at His feet and commit our lives fully to Him – submitting to His call the entirety of our lives. It is in death, Jesus informs us, that we bear spiritual fruit and maximize our impact for His kingdom.

He calls us to sacrifice our lives for others even as He sacrificed His life for us. In our symbolic death we are liberated from the heavy burden of societal and family expectations and are freed from the greed, pride, selfishness, and desires that drive our dreams and influence our choices. Instead, we embrace a spirit of generosity, sacrifice, humility, and service. As we do we become more like Christ and less entangled in the concerns and temptations of this world, allowing us to make a difference in the world.

What are some examples? Consider the following: moving to global hotspots as an ambassador for Christ to shine His light into communities consumed with darkness; switching careers to work with non-profit agencies to address suffering in developing countries; spending vacations serving others on a mission trip; downsizing our lifestyles to funnel more of our income to ministries that share the Good News with others. Those are just a few but there are thousands more.

Many considered Jesus’ teachings radical and revolutionary in His day. Why would any sane person willingly love his or her enemy, serve others, and die to self? Two thousand years later society continues to describe Jesus’ teaching in similar terms because it contrasts so dramatically with the foundational principles of the world. Moreover, the lifestyle He calls us to live exposes the weakness of the world’s ideology that produces so much turmoil, violence, hopelessness, and exploitation.

Let’s show the world a better way, the way of Christ. Let’s demonstrate true greatness by serving others. Let’s respond to hate, violence and mistreatment with love, kindness, and forgiveness, and offer others a glimpse into heaven. And let’s die to self to show the world what Jesus looks like. What better way to honor our Savior?

Church, Culture & A Nation’s Decline.

A growing tendency exists in the Christian community to assign blame for our country’s condition on a culture we view as increasingly wicked and immoral. From nationally recognized Christians who speak for millions to religious politicians seeking to galvanize voter support, from pastors preaching to congregations to individual Christians posting on social media accounts, there is more agreement than ever that society-at-large is responsible for the deteriorating state of our nation. These voices insist that the eventual collapse of our country will occur because society has turned its’ back on God and chosen to chase sin instead.

While this message enjoys broad support in evangelical and conservative Christian circles and finds an enthusiastic and receptive audience on talk radio, at conservative political events, and in many Christian churches, it suffers several serious flaws that ought to concern us as believers. First, it ignores any culpability of the church for the nation’s condition. Second, the message disregards relevant biblical truths that reveal the proper role the church plays in transforming culture. Third, it reinforces secular society’s perception that the church excels at pointing fingers and is filled with self-righteous hypocrites. Finally, it buttresses the misperception that publically castigating society is an effective strategy for igniting spiritual change.

I think one reason attacks on secular society’s escalating immorality are so popular is because it places the blame and focus on them, not us. If they did not reject God our nation would be better off. If they sinned less we would enjoy more of God’s blessings. If they were Christians like us everything would be grand. Implicit in this thinking is that society bears full responsibility for our nation’s moral descent and approaching moral bankruptcy. We (the church and churchgoers) are blameless. Our faith absolves us from culpability. Consequently, we need not examine our lives for ungodly behavior or ask God to reveal our hidden sins.

Unfortunately, such reasoning does not confirm our holiness or proximity to God. It simply fuels our spiritual pride. We convince ourselves that Christians are the only thing delaying God’s immediate judgment on the nation, not His grace or mercy. Such arrogance on our part does as much to separate the nation from God as the decadence of society. God hates vanity as much as any other sin. We would do well to remember Jesus’ advice to His followers.

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-16, NLT).

Notice two important truths in that passage. First, we are called to live in a manner that glorifies Christ and offers a visual contrast to the lifestyle embraced by the world. God uses lives of humility, service, love, forgiveness, and godliness to draw others to Him, as they witness our behavior over time. He calls us to live as lights on the hill and salt in the culture, not as bullhorns incessantly informing society how bad it is.

Second, Jesus tells us that if salt loses its flavor it is worthless and will be discarded. A society awash in sin, then, says as much about us as believers as it does about the culture. We are losing our flavor, our light is dimming, and we are at risk of being trampled underfoot as worthless. But instead of falling on our knees before the Lord, repenting, seeking forgiveness, and asking Him to remove the sin from our lives, we choose to yell at society, disparage its’ immorality, and place on its shoulders the blame for our country’s condition. Why won’t we awake to our own sin and confess our role in weakening the moral foundation of the nation? For the same reason society refuses to accept its role or confess its sin: Pride.

That’s why we affect so little change when we point our collective church finger at society and issue accusations. It looks at us and laughs derisively. It knows the Bible well enough to know that Jesus did not take that approach to reform Israel. Instead, He invested His life serving others, loving the marginalized, discipling a handful of followers, and praying throughout the night on a regular basis. As a result, His life did more than change Israel it transformed the world. Once we embrace the radical, sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus, society will sit up and take notice. And we won’t have to shout a single word to get their attention.

While the church may find this message uncomfortable and challenging, I hope many view it as encouraging and hopeful as well. It is intended to awaken believers so we might be used of God to stir society. Sadly, if experience is any indication, many Christians will respond in a manner that mirrors society’s response to public rebukes from Christian leaders. They will take umbrage, disagree, and insist it is only an opinion (and a lousy one at that).

But if we are serious about bringing revival to this country and genuinely want to see our nation adopt God’s standards, we need to avoid shouting at society and casting it as the villain responsible for our condition (remember, the only yelling Jesus did was directed at religious leaders he described as hypocrites). Let’s instead consider the challenges above, examine our hearts, and do a better job following Jesus’ example. Once we allow God to turn our lives upside-down, we’ll be in position for Him to use us to do the same with our nation. And that’s something we can all get excited about!

America’s Least Favorite Bible Verse.

Many things divide our nation. Political affiliations separate us into segments of blue and red, depending on whether we support Democrats or Republicans. Professional and college sports fuel rivalries between fans of different teams. Wealth separates us by zip code and neighborhood depending on where we can afford to live. Religion sends us in different directions on weekends to worship whatever God we follow, if any at all. Issues of national importance often are viewed through the lens of race, gender, education, and age, frequently tearing us apart instead of bringing us together. Of course, not all differences are divisive and most are reflective of the healthy melting pot America represents.

One commonality, however, unifies our nation almost universally – in large cities and rural communities, across religions, races, and age groups, among political parties, and within most neighborhoods whether rich or poor. That unifying theme is a love for the world and the things in it. We may disagree on what aspects of the world we love or how we manifest that love but nearly all of us love it deeply. Evidence of this truth is all around us, in how we spend our time and how we invest our income. Some examples might prove helpful.

We love entertainment. From YouTube to Netflix, music to television, sporting contests to cultural events, video games to social media, we cannot get enough entertainment. While the genre and medium vary considerably, our thirst (perhaps lust) for entertainment appears insatiable.

We love stuff. While the stuff we love and the brands we buy differ dramatically between individuals, Americans love acquiring the things of this world. And it’s not enough just to collect stuff; we want the best, most popular, and coolest brands: Apple, Givenchy, Beats, Mercedes, Breitling, Neiman Marcus, and Hermès. We insist these are not luxuries but simply a part of being a real American. Laptops, i-pads, cell-phones, chic cars, large-screen televisions, double lattes, and six-dozen pairs of shoes are necessities. And the more we acquire, the more we realize that we require more necessities.

We love pampering. Our definitions may vary but we love being ensconced in luxury. Spa treatments, pedicures, and deep tissue massages to forget the rigors of work. Resort vacations to alleviate stress. Patronizing those businesses that make us feel special and understand our need for comfort. We gravitate to retailers, merchants, and brands that recognize our importance and meet our physical, emotional, and psychological needs.

I could go on but you get the picture. More than ever, a love for the world and all it offers unites us as a nation and represents the American dream. It probably sounds crass and we may resist that truth but the evidence is overwhelming. We love the world and the things of the world.

This may not sound at all troubling to most Americans who probably agree with the above assertions and might even celebrate them. Heck, yeah, we love entertainment, stuff, and pampering. But who cares? Indeed, for secularists and those of other faiths, a love for the world is nothing to be concerned about.

But for those who claim to follow Christ, it is a topic of grave concern – or at least it ought to be. Scripture addresses the issue on numerous occasions and we would do well to reflect on relevant verses, to understand God’s perspective. Perhaps the clearest and most compelling passage comes from the apostle John. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17, NKJV).

John leaves no room for ambiguity. Do not love the world or the things of the world. Simple and straightforward, right? Yet on reading that verse many Christians reject it (‘I don’t agree with what it says’), dismiss it as legalistic (‘I am free in Christ to do whatever I want, which means I can love the world and the things in it’), or insist they already adhere to John’s advice irrespective of how they live (‘I don’t love the world or the things in it. End of discussion.’).

Still, many believers who claim to prioritize their faith and take it seriously have little interest in understanding and applying the truth of this passage. Why? Because it discomforts us and requires wholesale changes in our lives. It is a very disruptive verse that, if followed, will radically alter how we spend our time and invest our resources. And let’s be honest, most of us have no desire for radical alterations to our lives. So we ignore or reject the truth embedded in that passage.

Perhaps the most disingenuous response, though, comes from believers who contend they have no love for the world or the things in it. Despite drowning in a sea of stuff, entrenched in entertainment activities, and living in the lap of luxury (by global standards where abject poverty thrives), they refuse to admit the truth. They are so deeply in love with the world that they have convinced themselves otherwise to avoid having to undergo a lifestyle transformation consistent with John’s verses.

So why does God wants us to avoid loving the world, its’ pleasures, and the things in it? Does He simply want us to live an ascetic life so we are miserable? Does He want His followers to suffer while the rest of the world enjoys lives filled with fun and indulgence? Not at all. He calls us to avoid falling in love with the world for two reasons. First, the world distracts us from following Him. When we fall in love with the things of this world, they take God’s rightful place in our hearts and minds. We focus on serving ourselves and pursuing our interests instead of serving the Lord and pursuing His plan.

Second, a love for the world consumes the focus, time, and resources that properly belong to God. When we resist the temptation to love the world we are set free to love God fully. Jesus explained it like this, “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 both God and money” (Matthew 6:24, NLT).

Sadly, many of us believe we can serve God and the world simultaneously. Or we believe we can love the world and all it offers while pretending and claiming to love and serve God. But Jesus makes clear that such an arrangement is not possible. To avoid any confusion, He outlines a very simple litmus test for identifying our one true love. “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:21, NLT).

So ask yourself: ‘Where is my treasure?’ How do you spend most of your free time? Where do you invest the majority of your financial resources? In the things of the world or in the kingdom of God? Your answer reveals your real love. If you don’t know how to answer, look at the evidence around you. It is probably overwhelming.

Faith Lessons from the NFL.

With the NFL Conference Championships now concluded and the Super Bowl only a week away, what an appropriate time to explore what Christians can learn from the NFL, in particular the Seattle Seahawks historical comeback against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday. While any comparison between sport and faith is tenuous, the dramatic outcome of that game represents an ideal metaphor for understanding several truths from Scripture. Here are three important spiritual lessons gleaned from that memorable game.

1] For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required. Jesus spoke these words about faithful stewards in a parable to His disciples (see Luke 12:48). In football, those players in whom the team invests the most resources (largest contract) ought to have the biggest impact on the game. In Sunday’s match-up Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay quarterback with the biggest team contract, was expected to be the playmaker who delivered a victory for his team. Instead, his lackluster performance contributed more to the team’s loss than any Packers player, evidenced by the abysmal six points off of five defensive turnovers.

Similarly, those believers whom God has given the most are expected to faithfully steward those resources for His Kingdom. Sadly, this truth has been lost on many of us – corporately as a church and individually as believers. Blessed with incredible wealth the church regularly chooses to direct a vast majority of God’s resources on beautiful buildings and programs that often have a tangential relationship to the gospel, all the while neglecting the biggest need of all: taking the gospel to the entire world. Most churches spend less than ten percent on global ministries and bringing the Good News to people who have never heard of Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy.

Not surprisingly, many churchgoers adopt this model in their own lives and with their own resources, refusing to tithe or giving very little as a percentage of their income. Like the church, they direct nearly all their income on themselves, acquiring more and nicer stuff, and pampering themselves with luxury and comfort. That mindset has infected the church so severely it is destroying it from within and is representative of the unwise and unfaithful steward. We would do well to reevaluate how we employ God’s resources and make sure we use them to proclaim His message of hope, love, and forgiveness locally and abroad.

2] Everyone plays a role, so be ready. The play that turned everything around for the Seahawks was a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. The placeholder scrambled to his left and floated a wobbly pass twenty yards downfield to a wide-open third-string tight end who had not caught a pass all year. The two players perhaps least likely to connect on a passing touchdown had a tremendous impact on the game. Without them executing that play the comeback never begins.

Similarly, God has a plan for each of us no matter how insignificant we seem. He wants us involved in His game plan not sitting on the sidelines offering excuses for why we are not impacting the world. Are you sitting on the bench with regards to your faith? Do you remain silent about your faith when talking with friends, family, and work colleagues? Are you disengaged from sharing God’s love with the marginalized, destitute, and haters in your community? It’s time to get in the game and make a difference. Paul tells us to be prepared at all times to share the gospel with others (2 Tim 4:2). Are you prepared? Do you act on that preparation? You need not be a pastor, eloquent speaker, admired author, or engaging extrovert to have a substantive impact for Christ and His Kingdom. You need only have a servant’s heart, a willing spirit, and an authentic love for the Lord. Ask Him to reveal opportunities to serve, love, and teach others in His name. He’ll answer your prayer and soon you’ll be making a real contribution.

3] Don’t presume the outcome. This is, perhaps, the most critical lesson of all. With less than three minutes to play in the game nearly every Packers fan believed their team was headed to the Super Bowl. They led by twelve points, which meant the Seahawks needed to score two touchdowns in a game in which it had only managed one touchdown over the first fifty-seven minutes. Fans were probably already booking flights and making hotel reservations so they could see the Super Bowl in person two weeks later. After all, what could go wrong? Well, as Packers fans soon learned, just about everything could, and did, go wrong. The Seahawks pulled off arguably the most impressive last-minute comeback in NFL playoff history and defeated the Packers in overtime. Green Bay fans were devastated. How could something so certain end in such misery? Fortunately, their emotional turmoil will subside as life goes on.

Jesus informed His followers of a similar scenario playing out on the day of His second coming. He explained that many who claim they are Christians and profess Him as Lord will not join Him in heaven (see Matthew 7:21-23). This will come as an unbelievable shock to them. They will protest vigorously and insist He reconsider, reminding Him of all they have done to deserve heaven. However, the absence of a personal, robust, and healthy relationship with Him prevents them from enjoying eternity in heaven. Like Packers fans from last weekend, these men and women are devastated. They, too, were certain of the outcome – that they would spend eternity in heaven. Like Packers fans, they were wrong. Unlike Packers fans, their turmoil does not subside and life does not go on.

Are you a Christian? Do you consider Jesus, Lord? If so, take time to study the Bible regularly and understand His expectations for those who follow Him. Learn who He was, and is, and live according to the pattern He established. Most of all, cultivate a love for Him. Consistently carve out time in your schedule to worship, praise, and serve Him. In the process you will learn what it means to make Him Lord and develop a relationship that precludes you from getting shocked when He returns.

Snakes in the Pulpit

While waiting in line to order lunch yesterday I overheard a conversation between a pair of young adults standing in front of me. One had rolled up her sleeve to display a new tattoo encircling her upper arm. She explained to her friend that she had requested a fierce snake weaving its way around her arm and in a striking pose above her bicep. Instead, the body-art specialist created something that resembled a thick worm resting lazily around her arm. She was upset and felt betrayed. She complained that the tattoo artist oversold his expertise and now she had to live with the consequences. Rather than impressing friends with an intimidating serpent baring its fangs, she was subject to guffaws and ridicule. The resulting reality was radically different than the outcome promised.

Sadly, a similar scenario plays itself out in many churches across America every Sunday. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unscrupulous pastors preach sermons as unreliable as the promise of the tattoo artist, telling parishioners exactly what they want to hear irrespective of whether the message has any foundation in Scripture. Like the dodgy designer of body-art these pulpit pretenders say whatever is necessary to close the deal – and keep their pews packed. For them, the role of pastor is not a vocational calling to serve God but an occupational opportunity to exploit. They possess the oratory, charm, and resilience of an elite salesman and use those attributes to finagle their way into unsuspecting congregations.

Unlike the unprincipled tattoo artist who left a (mostly) permanent reminder of his fraudulence on the arm of the young lady, the churchgoer who embraces the deceitful teachings of a dishonest pastor risks eternal consequence. For that reason individuals should rigorously examine a minister’s message before accepting it as truth and living accordingly. They ought to confirm it comports with Scripture, for no decision is more critical.

So what does the Bible tell us about these spiritual snakes disguised as selfless shepherds? Let’s consider several passages that address the issue of false teaching to understand how these messengers of deceit operate and how to avoid falling prey to their lies.

The apostle Peter informs us “there will be false teachers among you who will secretly bring in destructive heresies… and many will follow their destructive ways.” He then notes, “By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NKJV). Peter highlights several important points about those peddling lies in the church.

First, false teachers exist, are active in the church, and introduce their heresies in secret. They are not easily identified and their deceptive words are wrapped in reasonable sounding rhetoric. As a result, many blindly follow their instruction and end up on a spiritual path that leads to eternal destruction. Peter leaves no room for ambiguity; dishonest pastors lead many astray. It is imperative, then, that we listen carefully to what we hear from the pulpit, we understand what the Bible says, and we ensure the two are aligned.

But why do some preachers deceive their audiences and assert untruths as the Word of God? Peter explains that it is because they operate from a position of covetousness. They speak whatever words advance their agenda, even if it costs supporters their souls. They care not about bringing people closer to God, expositing Scripture with integrity, and living the gospel. Success, stature, prosperity, and influence motivate them. They love the world and the things of the world. They prey on the innocent, naïve, and desperate to fund a lifestyle of comfort, excess, and privilege.

However, those who follow agents of deceit are not entirely exculpated. They bear a degree of culpability for failing to exercise vigilance in validating what they hear aligns with God’s Word. When we abdicate that responsibility and simply hope the man (or woman) behind the lectern preaches truth we demonstrate spiritual irresponsibility. We must scrutinize what we hear on Sunday morning, at Bible studies, and what we read in Christian books and compare it with Scripture. If we don’t, we risk establishing a foundation of faith built on shifting sand.

In some instances, though, churchgoers demand false teaching and recruit ministers who preach appealing messages that contravene truth. These are people who “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NKJV). Many regular church attenders have no interest in hearing God’s Word. They insist on finding a pastor who shares humorous anecdotes, spins a good yarn, and makes them feel warm and fuzzy each Sunday. Biblical truth causes such persons to recoil with disgust. They want a snake in the pulpit spitting out spiritual poison.

Unfortunately, ministers who preach accommodating sermons are becoming increasingly common as are churches that demand them. Many will find this trend encouraging and celebrate the shift away from biblically sound teaching in church. But for those who want to learn God’s Word and ground themselves in truth, the development is disturbing. They must remain diligent to ensure their pastor preaches the entirety of the Bible instead of distorting selected passages. They must exercise caution in arriving at their spiritual beliefs. Otherwise they may find their faith is the spiritual equivalent of a thick, lazy worm that disappoints.

The most misunderstood Bible verse.

Dozens of Bible translations exist today with no single version commanding a majority of sales in bookstores. Among pastors, preferences vary widely among a half dozen dominant translations. Readers and pastors alike gravitate to different versions based on perceived accuracy, readability, style, and reputation. Not surprisingly, no consensus exists as to which Bible translation is best.

So when the Christian community overwhelmingly selects one translation to quote a particular Bible verse, we ought to ask why. Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is that the preferred translation tells us what we want to hear – it underpins the narrative we choose to believe. The fact that so many churchgoers can quote the verse from memory reinforces this inference. But such a prodigious consensus should concern us when the espoused opinion aligns neatly with what our secular culture teaches. We ought to examine more closely any such verse to determine its true intent rather than hasten recklessly to a popular perspective that indulges our desires and biases.

Jeremiah 29:11 is such a verse. One of the most recognized and oft-quoted Old Testament verses, 29:11 plays a prominent role in how many Christians define and live their faith. Unfortunately, its influence flows from a misunderstanding of its meaning. A little context around the verse is instructive. The people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon and are disheartened. The Lord has just informed them that they will remain there for seventy years. As encouragement He reminds them of two things in verse 11, their exile is part of His plan and those plans reflect their best interest. It is a difficult message to digest because it goes against the prevailing view that God will rescue His people quickly and keep them from suffering.

Let’s look at several translations of the verse. The NASB states: “’For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” The NKJV versions explains it like this: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Finally, the NLT translates the verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [I’ve highlighted the key word difference in each].

All three translations make clear that God’s plans offer hope and are for the welfare/good/peace of the Israelites. But first they must endure seventy years of captivity (see verse 10). All is clear, right? Well, not so fast. Instead of understanding the verse as it’s intended, many believers embrace an entirely different message using the NIV translation. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Emphasis added). We focus on the word ‘prosper’ and insist it means that God wants His followers to enjoy wealth and prosperity. That perspective, however, fails to understand the context. It ignores the fact that their exile will continue, which is not at all what they want. So God shares a truth we would do well to remember: His plan often runs counter to our desires but is in our long-term interest. Therefore, we should never lose hope.

Frequently, we dismiss that truth. Why allow context and intent to distract us from the message we want to glean from Scripture? We want a God who blesses us with prosperity, coddles us with comfort, and frees us from discomfort. So we scour the Bible for verses that reinforce that mindset and validate our yearnings. If the truth gets lost in the process, so be it. That’s a small price to pay for enjoying a message that tickles our ears.

Sadly, the predominant view of Jeremiah 29:11 is predicated on deceit, just like the false teaching of the prophet Hananiah earlier in chapter 28. He dies two months after pontificating lies in the name of the Lord. He had told the people of Israel that, according to the word of the Lord, God would rescue them from captivity within two years. His deception cost him his life. It is a valuable lesson. We need to exercise caution in deciding who and what to believe. Pastors must diligently teach the truth, irrespective of whether people agree.

One reason the prevailing view of 29:11 finds such an enthusiastic audience in this country is because it fits with the American dream. We want to enjoy ‘the good life’ as much as our unbelieving neighbors. We want the American dream and God’s will to be one and the same. But they are not and nothing in Scripture supports such a position.

I encourage readers to examine Jeremiah 29:11 on their own. Read through the entirety of chapters 28 and 29 to understand the context and learn what God is saying to His people. Study several translations to glean the message. Most of all, resist the temptation to interpret the verse through the lens of your fleshly desires. Instead, ask the Lord to reveal His truth to you through His Holy Spirit. As you do, His word will come alive in a way you may never have experienced.

Investigative Reporting: RIP

The new Jeremy Renner thriller, Kill the Messenger, purportedly recounts the discovery and subsequent reporting of the CIAs involvement in the distribution of crack cocaine to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s. While the unraveling of this controversial arrangement offers an interesting historical narrative, the more compelling storyline is the response of the national media to journalist Gary Webb’s explosive report. Instead of investing resources to dig further into uncovering the extent of the government’s involvement, elite media outlets instead focus their sights on destroying Webb’s reputation and providing cover for the CIA. It is a shameful stain on the legacy of investigative journalism.

Sadly, that approach has marked the journalism profession during the tenure of the Obama administration. Rather than dedicate relentless effort to exposing acts of deception, malfeasance, abuse, incompetence and political intimidation, the media have decided to protect the White House. They demonize and sully the reputation of any reporter or bureau with the backbone to investigate stories unfavorable to the administration.

This embarrassing abdication of professional duty has dire consequences on America and the corridors of power in Washington. It emboldens officials to lie, deceive, and act in the interest of the president and his party instead of for the benefit of the American people. Aware the national media will pursue no rigorous, independent investigation of their misdeeds, the administration operates with a license to advance their agenda by any means necessary, truth and legality be damned.

In contrast to the cozy, symbiotic relationship that currently exists between the White House and media, previous administrations encountered more aggressive correspondents. Journalists acted as attack dogs and bloodhounds on the scent of any inappropriate conduct in the Executive branch. They pursued stories tirelessly, irrespective of whether they agreed with the policies of an administration. Now they behave like lapdogs, content to rest comfortably and digest whatever narrative the president offers.

I applaud investigative reporters of yesteryear who revealed transgressions committed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Their dogged determination to uncover the story and expose the crimes and deceits of government officials is commendable. We need a healthy, vigorous, and skeptical press for our government to operate optimally. It is as critical to good governance as a strong and independent judiciary.

Reporters need to return to the days of asking, what is the truth, instead of asking, will this story hurt the administration I support? That dramatic shift in philosophy changes the reporter from an investigative journalist to an administration advocate. We have too many of the latter. What we need now are more of the former, trained to pursue their profession with passion and integrity. What we need now is investigative journalism to rise from its slumber and hold administration and government officials accountable for any and all misdeeds.

Signs of End Times – Part I

I traveled regularly when I worked in the corporate world and occasionally I would experience a flight delay. In one instance a severe storm swept through the area I had been visiting causing a two-hour delay. Since I had not eaten yet, I walked to a restaurant just around the corner from my gate and ordered dinner. In an effort to optimize time I pulled out my laptop and began working on a presentation.

After an hour I poked my head around the corner to see if the weather had further delayed my flight. Imagine my surprise when I noticed no one in the waiting area and the gate information sign had been updated to reflect a departed flight. I hustled to the gate agent, asked about my flight and learned it had just left. Apparently a brief break in the weather allowed the pilot to secure clearance from air traffic control to depart. The airline had loaded passengers quickly and then left the terminal.

I protested and asked the agent why she hadn’t made an announcement on the PA system. She informed me that she had made several such announcements. Evidently I was so focused on getting my work done that I had not heard the updates. I had allowed something of secondary importance, my work, to distract me from that which was of primary importance, going home. As it turned out, that was the last flight out the day and I missed it. I was left behind.

God knows how easily the things of this world distract us. We get focused on things of secondary importance such as our careers, education, reputation, entertainment and even our friends and family. Often they distract us so much we lose focus entirely on the one thing of primary importance, our relationship with God. Our time with Him diminishes to a point of such insignificance that we are unable to hear His voice. The cacophony of voices demanding our attention prevent us from hearing His guidance for our lives and His instruction for our decisions. We do not hear Him sending us a message just I did not hear the gate agent make her announcement over the PA system.

Unfortunately, failing to hear and respond to God’s call carries far greater consequences than failing to hear an update on a flight departure. We risk missing the return of Christ and failing to join Him when He takes His followers to their eternal home. Billions of people will miss that ultimate journey because the world distracted them. Sadly, many of those will be folks who thought they were following the Lord all along.

I think that risk of distraction is why Scripture informs us of the signs that reflect end times. God wants us ready when His Son returns to gather His people. He does not want us caught unprepared and therefore left behind. Let’s examine a biblical passage (2 Timothy 3:1-5) that identifies some of the signs of the end times and see what we can glean from it.

In Paul’s second epistle to Timothy he observes, “in the last days times of stress will come,” (2 Tim. 3:1, NKJV). Certainly many in the world are experiencing significant stress in their lives today, perhaps unprecedented for some. Paul then proceeds to list a number of sinful behaviors that people will manifest in later days. Of course, all of these sins have been evidenced since the beginning of time. In today’s world, though, they seem to be growing exponentially in frequency and intensity. Here are several he mentions that appear especially germane in our world today. You may want to consider whether you reflect any of these behaviors in your own life.

People will be lovers of themselves. With the explosion of social media, reality television, and the phenomenon of the selfie, it is rather obvious that our culture has fallen in love with itself. People love to promote, adore and celebrate themselves, and encourage others to join them in their acts of self-aggrandizement. Our society has become crazed with becoming famous, popular, and esteemed by others. We have evolved into a culture that celebrates self. The danger in this is that intense love for self precludes the presence of God – who demands we love Him supremely.

People will be lovers of money. Greed. Our society lusts for money with increasing ferocity and money has become the dominant motivation for much of our nation. Political, corporate, educational, and cultural leaders seem to base their decisions on what generates the most income, not on what is best for others or on what is right and wrong. That has had catastrophic consequences on our nation and will contribute significantly to its impending economic collapse. America’s love for money has reached idolatrous levels and God abhors idolatry. Greed is destroying our culture and, sadly, the church along with it.

People will be boasters, proud, and haughty. Arrogance has evolved into an art form. Athletes talk smack to one another and exclaim they are the greatest. Politicians speak of themselves in glowing terms and insist we revere them. We emphasize to others our educational pedigrees, our career successes, and our achievements in the world. Listen to conversations around you and many focus almost entirely on themselves and their accomplishments. The emphasis on me, me, me, has become an epidemic in our nation’s dialogue. It represents pride, which the Lord loathes. This sin is especially notable in that it has infiltrated the church, contributing to its declining power and influence in the nation.

People will not exercise self-control. This sin seems to capture the overall condition of our world today. Everything seems to be out of control. The economy, the government, world affairs. Even the weather appears out of control. But the lack of order in these areas is merely symptomatic of the lack of control exercised by those managing the economy, operating the government, and leading world affairs. Our inability to control our behavior, spending, dialogue, attitudes, and anger have generated the conditions ripe for war, corporate exploitation, governmental abuse of power, exploding debt, and severe weather extremes. Sadly, our leaders are trying to solve the symptoms without addressing the cause: our lack of self-control.

People will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. While Christians may readily agree this applies to our nation, I encourage them to reflect on whether the sin exists in their own life. Most believers pursue pleasure with the same fervor and focus that non-Christians do. Most Christians enjoy entertainment as much as the secular culture and take relaxing vacations, follow sports, enjoy spa treatments, and participate in fun activities as frequently as non-believers. The fact is, most of those in the church love pleasure every bit as much as our unchurched neighbors. We justify it by insisting the pleasure we pursue is godly fun and not the sinful pleasure the world pursues.

But Paul does not distinguish between the two in this passage. He simply asserts that people will love pleasure rather than God. And that is the connection we fail to understand. Our love and pursuit of innocuous pleasure is as dangerous as the non-Christian’s love and pursuit of wicked pleasure. Why? Because both distract us from God and loving Him. As Christians we may profess to love God but our pursuit of leisure, fun, and adventure often reveals our true love is pleasure.

That will offend many who will insist God wants us to have lots of wholesome fun and any other view is legalistic. But that is not what Paul teaches. When we direct most of our free time toward the pursuit of pleasure, it is evidence we love pleasure – and as a result do not love God. We have become distracted by the lures of this world and are in grave danger of missing God’s call when He returns.

Based on Paul’s signs that return is very likely in the near future.