Monday, November 24, 2008

The Bottom Line

Kaleo just finished a 24/7 Week of Prayer, which was wonderful. The evidence of God at work through our prayers was tangible - you could almost taste it in the room as we met for chapels each day. Why is prayer possible, and why is it so wonderful?

Paul, speaking of God's eternal purposes accomplished in Jesus, writes this: "In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence." Hmmm. Imagine that God is a bank manager, and we find him rather intimidating. However, we really, really want to buy one of these babies:

It's a Lamborghini LP640 Coupe, and it sells for a mere $1.5 million if we don't go for too many extras. The problem is, our wallet contains only $1.34 and an expired bus transfer. Thus the need for the visit to the bank manager.

He listens politely to our reasons for needing a loan for $1,499,996.66 dollars, asks a few pointed questions, and then begins to laugh. Quietly at first, just a friendly chuckle, but as we just stand there expectantly his laughter becomes unpleasant, loud and shared by all his fellow bank managers. As he prepares to shoo us out of his office, we grab his attention long enough to say, "By the way, failed to introduce myself. The name's Gates, Bill Junior, and my dad is on his way to co-sign the loan this afternoon."

The laughter dies, identification is demanded, and suddenly attitudes change. We find ourselves back in his office, cappuccino at our elbow and pastries on a side table. The loan is approved, dad signs the bottom line, and we are burning up the Malahat by 3:00 PM in our brand new Lamborghini LP640 Coupe. (Don't ask me why Bill Gates' son would need a loan - it messes up my analogy.)

The point is, how did that happen? Were they impressed by the photo on our driver's license? Decided that we weren't such a bad guy? Decided to trust us in spite of our wallet's poverty? No, Dad signed the bottom line. His name, not ours, is the reason we got the loan.

When we pray in Jesus' name, it is like he signs the bottom line.

Think for a moment what this means. First, the sky is too small a limit. When God was creating the world we live in, he did it with words. "Let there be light!" and there was light. Stars detonated and galaxies swirled at the sound of his voice. He spoke things into being.

So can we, in Jesus' name. Things that would not be, are - because my mother prayed and spoke my character, my choices, my direction in life into being. In Jesus' name. I dare not think of where I would be right now apart from that. What an astounding lot of power God places in our hands!

Second, we can be sure that we will receive what we ask, because we cannot ask outside the will of God when we genuinely ask in Jesus' name. Let's say that instead of the Lamborghini we want to borrow $1.5 million to develop biological weapons to feed to our neighbor's cat, which drives us crazy with its caterwauling every night. Dad is going to raise some tough questions and in the end he simply won't sign. If we know him well, we aren't even going to ask for things like that. His name represents his nature, his values, his truth. Everything we ask for in Jesus' name must line up with who he is.

Finally, we are assured that God's answer to our prayers can be trusted. Bill knows that in spite of your Lamborghini fetish, what you really need is the Koenigsegg CCXR. Which, of course, is what you will get, and find that he is perfectly right. In Jesus' name is found that perfect peace that transcends our understanding and guards our hearts and minds. It is that secret of contentment by which Paul said he could do all things. It is wonderful beyond words.

Bring on the cappuccino and pastries.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Just A Little Bit Much

I feel so unqualified to talk about prayer, because at age 50 I am still a toddler in this area. But I hear many people talk about prayer, and I hear many prayers of students and staff throughout the week, and I would like to discuss two things that make my toes curl:

1. Pray the prayer to receive Christ. I commented, on my own previous post, about the phrase "receive Christ," and you can read my comment if you like. But I can also find no reference, teaching or example of anyone in the New Testament praying in order to receive salvation and become a follower of Christ. Certainly prayer is an important expression of faith, but it scares me that anyone might think that saying a prayer - particularly one repeated after someone else - will save him from hell and fit him for heaven. When we give to prayer the definite article - "the prayer" - are we not saying that this action is what saves us? We might as well add in a few rosary beads and a half dozen Hail Mary's!

An expression of faith that does show up often in the NT is public confession. "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved" (Romans 10:9-10). "Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (1 Timothy 6:12). If we want to call people to respond to the Gospel in a meeting, would it not be better to have them tell the gathering about their emerging faith in Christ? Instead we tend to give them the impression that repeating the preacher's prayer after him is the magical incantation that transforms them into a Christian!

Again I will say, God's amazing waves of grace will not be held back by our traditions, and people do become genuine followers of Christ at these meetings. But others miss the boat. How many say "the prayer" at every opportunity they are given, just to make sure? How many have said "the prayer" and thought it was enough, only to find themselves slipping quickly back into sin and guilt and frustration, because faith in Christ was not involved?

It makes sense that prayer should be an expression of new faith in Christ, and I am not saying we shouldn't pray with the new believer. But let's understand, and make clear to the young follower of Jesus, that faith in Christ is what saves him, and that prayer is only one expression of that faith, among many others such as telling people and turning from sin and following Jesus.

2. Just. I love the TNIV translation of Jesus' parable in Luke 11: "Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.' And suppose the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need" (italics mine).

Wow, approaching God with "shameless audacity"! He invites us to pray boldly, to ask for the things that only he can do, that only he can provide! Then, when he answers, all will know that they have seen God at work.

Fade back a moment and listen to us pray in one of our meetings, long after an exhaustive list of prayer requests: "Lord, would you just work in Francine's heart tonight, just comfort her with your love, just let her know your presence with her..." Beautiful words, but what is with this word "just"? Think I'm exaggerating? Listen to your friends pray next time, and try not to snicker. I bet the average prayer includes the word "just" ten or more times.

Maybe we are trying to be polite with God (is this a Canadian thing, or do Americans use this word too??). Maybe we don't want to ask too much. It seems to me that we think the addition of the word "just" makes our prayers more heart-felt and passionate. I'm glad that God listens to our hearts and not just our words! Because to me, the insertion of the word "just" to every plea is a far cry from "shameless audacity." Imagine that night we ran out of bread: "Uh, neighbor, just a loaf or two of bread for my friends, if you don't mind! If you could just bring it down I'll be on my way. Sorry for the inconvenience." Not in Jesus' story. I imagine the man banging on his neighbor's door, waking half the neighborhood, overcoming his neighbor's protests with his insistence. I am quite sure he didn't say the word "just" even once.

Oh, it is hard to break this habit, and if you can use the word "just" in a shamelessly audacious manner, please go for it. But Jesus has invited us to tell it to him straight, to be clear, specific and to the point, and I think we should take him up on that. A favorite poem to illustrate:

Lord, I crawled
across the barrenness
to you
with my empty cup,

but asking
any small drop
of refreshment.

If only
I had known you better
I’d have come
running with a bucket.
Nancy Spielberg, Decision Magazine, Billy Graham Assoc., November 1974

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Barney On My Underpants

You probably heard the story about the little girl being examined by her doctor, and as he holds the stethoscope to her chest he says, "I think I hear Barney in there!" Her precocious reply, "Actually, Jesus is in my heart; Barney's on my underpants," raises yet another theological question. I have no reason to doubt that Jesus is inside her, and as to where Barney resides we'll take her word for it. But how did Jesus get into her heart?

It is likely that some well-meaning person, answering her questions about Jesus and the cross and heaven, told her that what she needed to do was "ask Jesus into her heart." And by the mysterious grace of God, it is possible that in spite of this cryptic explanation she did find faith in Jesus. So where did this phrase "ask Jesus into my heart" come from?

We made it up.

If you don't believe me, show me where it is - whether by quote or inference - in the word of God. Try as long and hard as you like, and you won't find it. Ah, you are quick to point out Revelation 3:20 - "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." Perhaps you could even sing it to me. Three problems:
  1. This is written by Jesus, not to unbelievers but to the church,
  2. There is no mention of the heart here, and
  3. Even if the heart were mentioned, the heart in Scripture rarely carries the same meaning we tend to give it.
Clearly we know that the Spirit of Christ indwells those who put their faith in him. "God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." But there is no instruction or example in the Bible of him being asked in. Why would Jesus come into a heart full of sin and rebellion? How can this possibly be the needed response to the Gospel of Jesus?

In particular, why are we confusing children with this explanation of the Gospel? I have talked with many people who, throughout their childhood and even into their teens, "asked Jesus into their heart" again and again, afraid that they didn't do it right, or didn't mean it enough, or that he just didn't stick. I have also explained the gospel to some who have never heard any more than "asking Jesus into my heart" - nothing about faith and repentance, nothing about grace and forgiveness - and their astonishment is rather appalling.

But somehow, the grace of God still breaks through. I have a newspaper editorial that I have cited in seminars for years, in which a woman speaks of her memories of praying a prayer at camp and asking Jesus into her heart. The article is full of bitterness, even rage, at what she considered to be deception. Why? Because she knew in her heart that she didn't believe, and knew as well that the response to the Gospel she was instructed to do at camp meant nothing. What occurred to me this summer is that in spite of the incompetent - even dangerous - teaching she received, God's grace broke through to show her the real issue, that she was still an unbeliever, in rebellion against God.

However, that cannot be an excuse for our irresponsible treatment of the Gospel. I have heard several counselors talk about the "damage control" they had to do after a speaker at camp told kids around the campfire to pray a prayer to ask Jesus into their heart. Many of these kids have no idea what this phrase means, or what is the right response to the Gospel of Jesus. Praise God for godly and wise counselors, but how many kids have slipped through and now think they have joined the Christian club - but have never turned from sin and turned to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

An important note: I told the CIT's and others this summer, many of whom were most indignant that they have been misled on this issue most of their lives, not to go after people who use the phrase "ask Jesus into your heart." Instead, become responsible yourself in accurately and clearly proclaiming the Gospel, using the teachings of Scripture and not traditional evangelical jargon. Will kids be able to understand? Oh yeah. Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Maybe it's the adults who just don't get it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Not a Mutual Affair

I'm anticipating some flack on this one, because it is well-used and well-loved, but I have to do it. I can't find a legitimate reference in the Bible to having a "relationship with God." By legitimate, I am not counting the 11 times that this concept shows up in the NLT, and 16 times in the Message. No where else is this phrase found, in the NIV, NASB, ESV, NCV, Young's, CEV, KJV, NKJV or 21KJV, except Romans 2:17 in the NIV - "Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God..." Note: to God, not with God. And nothing to brag about. What has been the effect of this term on how we understand ourselves before God?

If we are going to use the word "relationship," we need to understand that we must be speaking of something less than a mutual relationship with God. There is much in our current books and music that suggests that God is our friend. Practically every movie where God shows up, he is portrayed as a friendly old man, and for some reason usually black. But take a look at what John, the one whom Jesus loved, says about this, and tell me how mutual it sounds:
  • We love because he first loved us.
  • If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
  • You are my friends, if you do what I command.
  • Those who say, "I know him," but do not do what he commands are liars, and the truth is not in them.
  • This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
  • No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only,who is at the Father's side, has made him known.
And that's just John. Paul says, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" He has no need of us as he is entirely self-sufficient; we are desperately in need of him as we have nothing. He exists whether we acknowledge him or not; we despair the moment we lose hope in him. His love and grace are unfathomable: we will never repay him or worship him enough. He yearns jealously for us, but if we do same toward him we become the devil. We might question him, but we will end up repenting in dust and ashes, because he never fails.

He can call us his friends, but do we dare call him our friend? I wonder...

However, if this "relationship" is much less than the mutual thing the word suggests, it is also much more than a Creator/creature relationship. Think of the word pictures God uses to describe himself to those who have faith in him: Father, Lord, Helper, Comforter, Provider. The Diest is wrong to think of God as having wound up this world like a watch and left us to run on our own. He is everywhere, in everything, intensely involved in every aspect of his creation. In him all things hold together; in him we all have our being. He has chosen to love us, but also to be grieved by us, quenched by us, put on a cross by us... for us...

No, I'm sorry: "Relationship with God" will not do at all. No wonder real translations of the Bible never use the term. So what terms do they use?
  • Fellowship with God: More than cookies and church juice after the service. This is to "have things in common;" it speaks of intimate participation and communion. And it's a one way street - we must have things in common with him, or there is no fellowship.
  • Walk with God: Again, to walk with God means to go where he goes. He never tags along with us. It is a lifestyle of following him.
  • Godliness: That consciousness of God that molds our character, values, principles and desires to his. An "old-fashioned" word that is a great loss to the modern church.
  • Knowing God: So deep, no room to describe here.
  • Loving God: Deeper still. And impossible until we have come to know his love for us.
These are wonderful words! Can we not use them, instead of settling for "relationship with God"? It is not as easy to do as one might suppose, as I find myself defaulting to it regularly. But I think we had better do so, before our children's children think that God is only an elderly black man, or woman...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Okay, maybe this is another one that is really no big deal, and I will try not to make it a bigger deal than it is. But I think this issue has greatly affected the world's view of us as followers of Christ, and that does matter.

I don't want to call myself a Christian anymore. If someone calls me a "Christian," I'll take it - like he's called me a "kraut" or a "nerd" or "marbletop." But I don't have to like it. Let me explain.

Although the New Living Translation and the Message use the word "Christian" extensively (38 and 28 times respectively, usually as a substitution for "believer"), it is found in the Greek in only three places:
  • Acts 11:25-27 - "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." Was it descriptive, affectionate or derogatory? Hard to tell. The word itself indicates little: the suffix (“ianos” in Greek) was widely used as the termination of the name of a person belonging as a slave to the household of that name.
  • Acts 26:27-29 - Here Agrippa asks Paul if in so short a time he could persuade him to become a Christian - again, hard to tell his attitude toward the word, but the term is definitely not on friendly lips.
  • 1 Peter 4:15-17 - "If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." Here it sounds as if the appellation is something one might be ashamed of, but can be borne with pride because we really are slaves of Christ.
  • Tacitus - "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators..." Note: he says that the public called them Christians, not that the believers called themselves Christians. However, it does seem that within a couple hundred years they did start to do so.
So the word "Christian" is at best an affectionate nickname, though it seems more likely a derogatory one. What have we done to the word? Turned it into an adjective to paint everything that is in our frame of reference: Christian music, Christian schools, Christian t-shirts. Many followers of Christ are not interested in anything unless it is patently "Christian." "I only listen to the Christian radio station; I only read Christian books."

Is this a big deal? First, the term "Christian" serves to distance us from the world and distinguishes everything about us as distinctly different. Is this isolation what it means to be "in the world but not of it?" Isolation didn't work so well for the early believers, who (Tacitus continues) were charged with the crime "hatred of mankind."

Second, the world still thinks of the term "Christian" as a derogatory word. Ask the average person what they think of when you say "Christian" and they will use words like "intolerant, hypocritical, self-righteous." Ask what they think of when you say "Jesus" and they will describe him as "merciful, authentic, humble." I'm not Jesus, but I am also reluctant to use of myself a term that raises the hackles of the average Joe.

Ironically, I am the author of a book entitled, “The Christian Camp Counselor.” Maybe this will encourage me to do the much-needed re-write, and along with a new title.

So, what am I? The term most often used in the Gospels and Acts is “disciple,” and in the rest of the NT “believer.” I am a follower of Jesus, a believer, a chosen one, a member of the Way, one set apart, a brother. You can call me that. Call me a Christian and I should give you a wry smile and inwardly forgive you.