We Are All Wrong: On Jesus and Political Disagreements

15845969_mThe 2016 election is over. Regardless of how you voted, or how you felt about the candidates, I think we all agree that it was an unusually ugly year in the world of politics. Two deeply unpopular presidential candidates managed to wreak havoc on friendships, and even on families.

Perhaps more troubling to me was the discord that this election created among Christians. Between May and November, I lost count of the Facebook posts I saw that questioned the salvation – or at least the spiritual maturity – of Christians who planned to vote differently. The most startling manifestations of this division actually came from some prominent evangelical pastors, one of whom called those who disagreed with his political position “fools,” “hypocrites,” and “namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians.” I found myself wondering if he’d ever actually read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22.

I bring all of this up not merely to revisit the pain of the past year, but instead to ask, “Where do we go from here?” Is there a better way for American Christians to think about the relationship between politics and faith? Is it even possible to disagree without resorting to the type of vicious tribalism that elevates our political identities above our Christian identification?

I think there is a better way forward, and - as usual – we can find the way forward in the Scripture. We don’t need to look any further than the relationships between Jesus and His early disciples. 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain lists of Christ’s original twelve disciples. Most of the time we skim over the lists, or we focus on the names we know the best – Peter, James, John, and the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. But Luke 6:12 tells us that Jesus prayed all night long before choosing the twelve disciples, so He must have chosen each one quite intentionally. In other words, none of them were there by accident.

Yet at first glance, this group looks like it was assembled by a crazy person.

First, let’s consider Matthew the tax collector. Matthew was basically a Roman government employee, who had paid for the privilege of assessing and collecting taxes on purchased goods. Most tax collectors dishonestly inflated their commissions by over-assessing the value of goods, or by taxing for the same item over and over again. Most Jews hated tax collectors, as you probably know. Tax-collecting Jews like Matthew were considered traitors, on the same moral level as brothel owners and thieves.

Second, you have “Simon the Zealot” in the mix. There’s some debate whether Simon belonged to the formal political party called “the Zealots” or whether he was just a rabid Jewish nationalist. Either way, it’s quite likely that Simon hated the Roman government. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have been in favor of violent revolution. Matthew the Tax Collector’s very presence would have been a personal affront to a guy like Simon the Zealot (and vice versa).

Third, you have fishermen, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were working-class individuals trying to make a living. They would have been less than sympathetic to tax collectors like Matthew, while probably having little time or patience for the political pot-stirring of a zealot like Simon.

Finally, you have the scheming Judas, the doubting Thomas, along with some others we know little about.

Jesus puts them all together in one big happy family (ha!) and says, “Follow me.” It doesn’t really seem like a great plan, if we’re honest. Imagine putting your most left-leaning relative, the one who voted enthusiastically for Bernie Sanders, on a committee with the most rabidly conservative Trump supporter in your family. Then toss in your cousin who works in an auto shop and has no interest in politics, along with your rich uncle who’s only interested in politics for how it will affect his portfolio. What would you expect such a group to accomplish? The answer, of course, is nothing. For that matter, it’s questionable whether they’d all be alive after a week together in close proximity.

So why does Jesus do it? What’s He trying to prove? 

He’s trying to demonstrate, at least in part, that their political allegiances have to give way to Christ-allegiance. Matthew liked the Romans being in charge, Simon wanted the Jews to be in charge, and Peter just wanted Peter to be in charge.

Jesus tells them that He will be in charge. Jesus makes a powerful point by putting all of these men together in one group and saying, “Follow me.”

The point is this: Your ways are all wrong, and My way is right. 

Yes, some ways are more wrong than others, but that’s not really the point. Jesus isn’t grading their alternate paths on a bell curve. Instead, Jesus spends the next few years offending the sensibilities of all of these men. One minute He would side with one group’s interpretation of Scripture, only to side with a different group the next time. The Jewish nationalists are frustrated that He won’t support their violent rebellion against Rome, the religious leaders are angry that He won’t submit to their interpretations of Scripture, and those who support Caesar suspect that Jesus is being subversive (although they can’t quite figure out what He’s up to). Jesus simply refused to fit into any of their systems.

In the final analysis, Jesus makes sure His disciples understand that His way is the only way. He won’t share their allegiance with some other leader or a political party. And what’s remarkable is that His early followers got the message loud and clear. Their close association with Jesus made their political affiliations seem virtually meaningless. All of them (except Judas the traitor) spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the King and His kingdom. Their political perspectives are so insignificant that they aren’t really mentioned again after Jesus assembles them together.

Think about that for a moment: The types of things we just spent a year arguing about vociferously – how the government should operate, who should be in charge, how we should be taxed – play virtually no role in the life of the early church. Over time, the first disciples joined with others from even more disparate groups, like the Pharisees and even Gentiles. But they all proclaimed and followed Jesus.

Jesus’ message was simple but powerful: I am the way, the truth and the life. My way is the only way.

All their political and spiritual allegiances had to give way to Christ-allegiance. I’m sure Simon still had opinions about how evil the Romans were (and he wasn’t completely wrong), and Matthew may have privately thought they weren’t all that bad (and he wasn’t totally wrong, even if he was a bit more wrong than Simon). But those views never split the disciples into factions. That’s quite remarkable, if you ask me.

What does this mean for us, as American Christians in 2016? It doesn’t mean that the issues are unimportant, or that every perspective is equally valid. But the relationship between Jesus and the disciples does mean that every single political and spiritual perspective must give way to Jesus’ perspective.

Our primary loyalty is not to our political tribe. All of our tribes are wrong in various ways. They may not be equally wrong, but again, Jesus isn’t grading our alternate allegiances on a bell curve. We are all wrong in various ways. Jesus won’t fit Himself into our systems, because His Way is the only one that’s right. We line up behind Jesus and let the chips fall where they may.

That means that we must never, never, never insist that somebody has to join our political tribe in order to be a disciple of Jesus. And we do not call other Christians “fools” and “hypocrites” for failing to check our political boxes. We might call them wrong, but only if we’re willing to admit the ways in which we are wrong, as well. Wrong in different ways, maybe even in fewer ways, but wrong nonetheless.

Here’s a basic principle: If you are convinced that your political tribe is always right, while other the opposing tribe is always wrong, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus. If you are willing to destroy relationships within the body of Christ or within your family because of somebody’s political affiliation, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus. 

Again, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that all political differences are totally meaningless, especially where those political differences affect clear moral issues (like life, justice, or sexuality). I am saying that even in our disagreements, we seek to line up behind Jesus rather than behind our tribal leaders. If another tribe is wrong, they’re only wrong to the extent that they deviate from the way of Jesus, and not to the extent that they deviate from the beliefs of my tribe.

The beauty of the early church was that such disparate men and women came together under the banner of Jesus, willing to set aside their tribal allegiances to follow Him. They adjusted the way they saw the world to fit the way Jesus saw it, even when it was hard to do. Even when it hurt their pride or hurt their tribe’s standing in the world.

The question for today’s American evangelical church is whether we have the faith and moral courage to do the same. 

(Image copyright: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo)

The True Moral Fallacy of #justiceforHarambe

western_lowland_gorilla3 (1)The death of Harambe the gorilla has taken the Internet by storm. If you somehow missed the story, you can find a summary of it here.

It should come as no surprise that animal activists are outraged by Harambe’s death. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for “justice for Harambe,” insisting that the boy’s parents should be held accountable.

The “justice for Harambe” movement is predicated on the concept that all life – human and animal – is of equivalent value.

Most of us, of course, don’t agree. We object to the concept of human/animal equality in a sort of visceral way, without being able to clearly articulate why it’s wrong. “Of course people are worth more than animals,” we say. “It’s just obvious.” Or this: “If it were your child in that enclosure, you’d certainly feel that his life was worth more than the gorilla’s life.”

Many Christians take their reasoning one step further, correctly noting that humans are made in the image of God, while gorillas are not. But few of us can articulate what it means to be made in the “image of God.” As a result, we struggle to explain specifically what is wrong with the “animals are equal to people” arguments making the rounds at the moment.

Upon close inspection, though, the argument that Harambe deserves justice collapses in on itself. In other words, if humans and animals are truly of equal value, then nobody would be insisting on justice for Harambe at all! 

What do I mean by that?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Harambe had, in fact, killed the child. Animal activists, of course, would be insisting that the gorilla was justified. After all, the boy invaded his home! When their environments are invaded, gorillas feel threatened and they rip people to bits. That’s just what they do. There would be no “justice for the boy” movement. Nobody would ask Harambe to go to jail, or pay a fine, or make restitution in any way. After all, he’s a gorilla. The boy and his parents should’ve known better.

But wait a second. Isn’t this a double standard? Why are humans held accountable for killing gorillas, but gorillas are not held accountable for killing humans?

Here’s why: Because we all recognize that humans and gorillas are not, in fact, morally equivalent. We don’t hold gorillas morally accountable for their actions. If they pose a threat to a human being, we restrain them or even kill them, but that’s not a punitive measure. It is a practical measure. The zoo employees who shot Harambe were not trying to punish him or to set an example for all the other gorillas. They were just trying to protect a child’s life.

This is why the concept of “justice for Harambe” contains a deep moral and logical fallacy. The entire movement is built on the premise that people are morally superior to gorillas. Those asking for justice for Harambe recognize that people should be held accountable for moral decisions, but gorillas should not. Gorillas do not have the ability to think morally, even if they have the ability to think rationally.

Let’s imagine another scenario for a moment: Think of the biggest, strongest man you can imagine. Maybe The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now imagine that the man’s home is invaded by an unarmed 4-year-old child. Would that man be justified in ripping the child to pieces with his bare hands? No? But why not? After all, the child has invaded his home! The man is big and strong and angry and startled – shouldn’t he be able to kill the intruder? Of course not. He would go to jail for that crime. He might even face execution.

We hold the man accountable because we understand that he has the capacity to act morally. He is not driven solely by instinct. He must not allow his size and strength to dictate his actions. We expect more of the man than we do of the gorilla. That is because there is more to the man than there is to the gorilla.

Here’s where we come back to the concept of the image of God. To be made in the image of God is – at least in part – to be capable of reflecting God’s moral character. Because we are made in the image of God, we are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). Humans are superior to animals because we are made in God’s image, and God’s image includes the capacity to make moral choices.

Because Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, He punished them when they disobeyed Him in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t disobey God because they were stupid; they disobeyed Him because they were rebellious and evil. We might call a gorilla dangerous and stupid, or gentle and playful or any number of other things, but we never call it evil. We do not attribute good and evil to animals, because we recognize that they are not morally responsible. Even animal activists recognize that, although they do so unconsciously.

Hence the irony of insisting on justice for Harambe, when we would not ask the same if the gorilla had committed the same offense. People can be evil. We all agree on that. Gorillas, on the other hand, can only act according to the nature of gorillas. They act on instinct. And if that is true, then people are superior. Their lives are more valuable than those of gorillas.

It’s not that gorillas have no value at all. It’s just that their value is less than that of a human being. From a Christian perspective, we recognize that being made in the image of God confers upon us a great deal of value, but also a great deal of responsibility.

While the death of a beautiful gorilla is sad, the waste of a human life is even sadder. While the life of a gorilla might bring us joy for a few years, the life of a human being can last forever.

While we strive to be kind to all of God’s creatures, let’s never forget the eternal nature and immeasurable value of humanity, created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s son.

 

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Election Season is a Big, Ugly Selfie

1429012887-monalisaducklipsMy seventh grade school picture was horrifying. My hair was a wavy rat’s nest, my braces cast a blinding glare, and my face was oily and reflective.

The photo was so terrible, in fact, that I insisted on a retake. I told the photographer, “I want a new picture.” He looked at the original picture, then he looked at me, and then back at the photo. “What’s wrong with the first one? That’s what you look like,” he replied, in a stunning display of poor diplomacy. “It doesn’t look like me at all,” I said.

At that point, the photographer winked at his assistant and replied, “Sure, son. We’ll take a new picture.” So he did.

Guess what? The new picture looked exactly like the first one. It turns out that I really looked like that. The problem wasn’t the camera, and it wasn’t the incompetent photographer. The problem was that I looked like a seventh-grader. There was no magical camera angle or lighting combination that could fix my problem.

That photo was an accurate, although unpleasant, reflection of reality. It was simply what I looked like.

Many of us find this year’s presidential race to be as horrifying as that photo. “How are these our choices?” we lament. “Where did these candidates come from? Can we ask for a redo?” We watch in dismay as the political rhetoric of our nation degenerates into name-calling, threats of violence, overt racism, greed, and fear-mongering. Candidates who once seemed extreme now seem downright statesmanlike. How did this happen?

Here’s the bad news: Election season is a giant national selfie. It is an aggregate picture of our nation’s values. This year’s election season has been a particularly ugly selfie. It’s the sort of selfie you never wanted to post on Instagram, but you accidentally shared it anyway. And now it’s everywhere, and all your friends know about it, and you cannot escape it. “Do I really look like that!?” you ask. Yes. You really look like that.

Before we rail against “those people” who support whichever candidate most horrifies us, we should take a long look in the mirror.

Whenever I find myself lamenting that the debates this year are more like a terrible reality television show, I have to remember that I used to watch Celebrity Apprentice, and I found it pretty entertaining. In small measure, I created the values that created this election cycle. I actually helped arrange our national hairdo for this terrible selfie.

Whenever I’m dismayed by this year’s politics of greed and covetousness, I have to remind myself how often I’ve coveted my neighbor’s house or car or vacation destination.

Whenever I start to despise the xenophobia that has become a defining factor in this year’s election cycle, I need to remember the times I’ve turned away from people who aren’t like me, people in need, simply because they made me nervous.

Whenever it bothers me that Christian voters support a wide variety of non-Christian policies – on both sides of the aisle – I have to ask how faithfully I’ve been involved in the task of discipleship. Am I teaching and modeling the values of God’s Word for the next generation? If not, is it any surprise that most evangelicals hold heretical theological beliefs and support unbiblical political positions?

The values of our candidates reflect the values of the nation’s electorate, and that includes Christian voters as well. We know Jesus, but we aren’t immune from cultural assimilation.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this ugly election selfie is that it highlights how poorly we love our own neighbors. The most common remark I’ve seen on social media during this election cycle goes something like this: “Who are these people who support X candidate? I don’t know anybody who supports that guy, yet millions of people are voting for him!”

That statement is a testimony to our failure to know and love those around us.

How have we so efficiently isolated ourselves from anybody who disagrees with us that we can’t even fathom that such people exist? In our minds, people who hold opposing political views are barely rational. They exist on the level of animals who cannot possibly be reasonable human beings. In a supreme act of dehumanization, we literally question their existence. After all, nobody could be so subhuman as to support that person. They must not be real.

And we wonder why this election is so divisive. We wonder why we can no longer have reasonable discussions about politics. Why do political rallies turn into fistfights? Why are people incapable of listening to opposing viewpoints without throwing punches or disengaging altogether?

It’s because we have failed at the most basic of Christian responsibilities. We have failed to love God, and we have failed to love our neighbors. As a result, we find ourselves with leaders who reflect those same failings. 

What’s worse, we don’t even recognize ourselves when we look at the picture. “That doesn’t look like me,” we protest. “Take a different photo.” Ah, but it does look like us. We just don’t like the way we look.

Election season this year is a living embodiment of the worst impulses and sins of our nation. We see the values of our country displayed in bright and living color, and we cringe. On some level we know that’s our own image staring back at us, and we really hate seeing it.

So what can we do?

I suppose we can slowly work on the problems that made this selfie so ugly in the first place. We can pray. We can try to learn and model the values of God’s Word. We can listen to people. We can love our neighbors and try to understand them. We can get out of our homes and off of our phones and actually talk to people about why they disagree with us. We can share the good news of the gospel with a desperate and lost world. We can invest in the next generation, teaching them how to know and reflect Jesus Christ.

And, of course, we can pray. We can pray for wisdom and we can pray for spiritual transformation. We can pray for leaders who reflect the best aspects of our cultural values, rather than the worst.

Who knows? Maybe the next national selfie will look at least marginally better.

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The Words A Father Needs to Hear

best-friends-1241017“You’re a good dad,” she told me. “Like, a really good dad.”

It was the end of a long day, just like every day in the life of a busy family with three elementary school kids. We had finally completed the hour-long process of making sure the kids had all taken baths, prepared their backpacks for school, completed their chores, and brushed their teeth. Like most nights, I had a couple of rough moments, in which the going-to-bed chaos exposed a few of my more unpleasant personality traits. I was tired, and so were they.

Miraculously, though, I had time to read to each of the kids before bedtime. Halfway through the funny story I was reading to my 8-year-old daughter, she and my son both began to giggle. Then I started to giggle, and our reading time spiraled a little bit out of control. We were laughing so hard that we ran out of time to finish the story.

I tucked them into bed and walked into the living room, grateful for some time to rest. That was when my wife said those words:

“You’re a good dad. Like, a really good dad.”

I’m not sharing her words because I think I’m an amazing father. I’m sharing her words because I needed to hear them, and I suspect there’s a dad in your life who needs to hear them as well. It may be your own father, or your husband, or just a friend of yours. Like me, he needs those words, because most of us harbor a quiet fear that we’re not really good dads.

We hear all the time how important it is for children to have “good fathers,” but rarely do we hear what it means to be a good father. We see the articles and the statistics implying that the very future of Western civilization hinges on our ability to be good fathers, and we silently think, “If that is true, then the world is doomed.”

What does it even mean to be a good father? We know how to measure success on the baseball field and in the boardroom, where the rules are fairly well-defined.

But fatherhood? Where do you begin? Just for starters, how do you figure out when and how to discipline your children? How do you know if your kids are old enough to talk about sex, drugs, or popularity? How can you be certain you’re spending enough time with them? Or if you’re smothering them? Are there things they need to know that you aren’t teaching them?  How much of what they do reflects on your parenting, and how much of it reflects their own personal choices? Will they copy your bad habits, your bad attitudes, your bad choices? What about your good ones?

There are thousands of books about fatherhood, written by studied experts with doctorates and their own research teams, but they’ve barely scratched the surface.

Imagine trying to construct a scale model of the Eiffel Tower from a block of pine, in the dark, with only your bare hands and a butter knife. That’s what fatherhood feels like most days. It’s hard to define success, and you often feel ill-equipped for the few parts of it that you do understand.

So you can imagine why an encouraging word at the right moment means so much. You can imagine why those simple words, “You’re a good dad,” made a deep impact on my heart.

And I wonder if the fathers in your life hear words of encouragement often enough? We all know, of course, that only one Father is perfect. Your husband, your father, your friends – they are all flawed.

But if those men in your life are trying to be good fathers, tell them you notice. Remind them that being a good father consists of being faithful in the middle of thousands of little moments, mostly witnessed by only a few little people.

Moments like helping your daughter with her math homework and resisting the urge to yell. Like explaining to your son why, if he really must pee when he’s playing outside, the backyard is preferable to the front yard. Like laughing at a bedtime story when you have a thousand other worries and you just want to sit down for awhile.

Tell the fathers in your life that those moments matter, and you’re really glad they’re showing up for them.

Your words of encouragement may seem small, but I guarantee they’ll make a difference. 

There are no perfect fathers, but I’ll bet you know one or two good ones, men who are trying their best to know and reflect their heavenly Father as they raise children. Take a moment today or tomorrow, look one of them in the eye, and say, “You’re a good dad. Keep it up. Do not grow weary in doing good.”

I guarantee he will hear you, because those are words he needs to hear.

Three Reasons Jesus is Better Than Santa

santa-claus-1443403This is a guest post by Brian Fisher, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church.

I like Santa. That is, I enjoy the idea of a guy from the North Pole riding a sleigh pulled through the air by reindeer, dropping off presents around the world in a single evening. That’s kind of fun to think about. But the reality is that Jesus is far, far greater, and it would be tragic if we were to lose sight of Jesus in all of the wrapping paper on Christmas morning. So here are three reasons that Jesus is better than Santa.

1. Santa drops into your house, through the chimney, only once a year. He comes at night so that you never actually get the chance to lay eyes on him or speak with him. He eats your cookies, and drinks your milk, and most years leaves you with stuff that you don’t really want. On the other hand, Jesus comes into your life, and He never leaves. He is always present, eager to be with you, when you are happy, or sad, or holy, or even sinful. What a friend we have in Jesus!

2. All the stuff that Santa drops off only lasts for a short period of time. The fruitcake rots (in 10-15 years); the clothes go out of style, shrink, fade and grow threadbare; and worst of all, the toys break. All that Jesus gives is eternal. He gives the only gift we really want or need, and it is a gift that just keeps giving, and giving, and giving – the gift of eternal life!

3. All of the stuff that Santa drops off is given based on a condition – “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” How do you know, from year to year, if you have been good enough? Only the coal in your stocking at the end of the year reveals the truth that you just didn’t measure up. But the permanent presence and gift of eternal life given by Jesus is free – absolutely free. You’ve never measured up to deserve such generosity, but Jesus loves to give to the undeserving. That’s just who He is. He certainly is far, far greater than the bearded man in red velvet suit!

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The Word of God is a Dangerous Thing

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ReDiscovered Word

(Hebrews 4:12)

The Word of God is a dangerous thing. 

You and I open it up, hoping to understand God, or maybe to find a little bit of inspiration to make it through another day.

When we open those pages, though, something else happens.

God’s Word opens us instead.

Living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, the Scripture cuts us to the core. The cuts are deep and painful, but redemptive at the same time.

Read it often enough, and we discover something unsettling: we cannot predict or control what God will say to us. And the changes He makes will be deep and painful. But they will also be right.

Our values will be turned upside down. Our self-righteousness will be shattered. Our plans for the future will change.

When we approach God’s Word with open ears and submissive hearts, we will be changed. 

Perhaps that is why so many keep His Word at arm’s length. It’s safer when it’s consumed in small doses at manageable times. It’s less frightening when we simply use it to satisfy our curiosity, or to justify our preconceptions. If we don’t get too close, it won’t open us up.

And that’s a safer approach. But it’s not a better approach.

It’s tragic, in fact, to have access to the very Word of God and yet to never allow it to do its work. Because when we let it transform us, we find something deeply satisfying: His way is better than ours.

Our old values need to be discarded. Our self-righteousness needs to be shattered. Our plans need to change.

His ways are infinitely better, but we resist them anyway. Still, his Word waits for us. Living and active, perfectly good, and powerful enough to change us.

If only we will let it. The process is painful, but the outcome is always good.

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5 Recent Christian Albums Worth Hearing

Writing a blog post about one’s favorite recent Christian albums feels a little bit like writing about the best brands of VCRs for 2015. I’m aware that most people nowadays simply stream their music from Pandora, Amazon, Spotify, or some other service. It is increasingly rare to purchase an album from your favorite artist – or some newly discovered one – and savor it fully.

However, I was one of those kids who used to buy new cassettes, and later CDs, and play them on repeat until I got bored of them or had to replace them. I would grab the liner notes (another sad casualty of our digital age) and eagerly read them while I listened to the songs.

Like many people, my enthusiasm for discovering new music took a hiatus while my children were small, mostly because there was precious little time or quiet space to actually listen to music. I’ve always been a fan of artists whose lyrics are more contemplative and thought-provoking – Rich Mullins is my all-time favorite artist – so identifying music I love requires more concentration and space than I had when there were babies and toddlers at home.

This year, though, I have found or rediscovered a number of artists whose recent albums have deeply impacted me. Here are five new-ish Christian albums that I recommend: 

Burning_EdgeAndrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn

This is hands-down my favorite album of 2015. From the first song to the last, Peterson weaves a story of loss and redemption, pain and healing, and death and resurrection. I’ve listened to it on repeat for several weeks now, and continue to find it deeply moving. Songs like “We Will Survive,” “The Rain Keeps Falling,” and “My One Safe Place” speak poignantly of the joy and sorrow that often permeate one’s middle years of life. Like an Old Testament prophet, Peterson always manages to shine a beacon of hope through the middle of life’s darkness. The title song, “The Dark Before the Dawn,” fits perfectly with “The Sower’s Song,” which concludes the record. Both speak of the power of God to bring life from death, and both are beautiful descriptions of Christ’s return and coming kingdom. This album is highly recommended.

Garrels_homeJosh Garrels, Home

I’ll admit that, for me at least, Garrels was an acquired taste. His vocal stylings sometimes make his lyrics difficult to understand unless you listen very carefully. But it’s worth the work. Garrels uses imagery throughout this album that is tied closely to the story of the prodigal son, one of my favorite biblical parables about grace. Even the title of the album reflects the theme. My favorite track is “At the Table,” a heart-breaking tune about the return of the prodigal: “Come on home, home to Me, and I will hold you in My arms, and joyful be; There will always, always be a place for you at My table, return to Me.”

needtobreatheNeedtoBreathe, Rivers in the Wasteland

If you listen to Christian radio, you’ve heard NeedtoBreathe. Their upbeat style of Southern rock is fun to listen to, even when you can’t understand what they’re singing about. That said, it’s worth taking the time to hear the lyrics, as well, because they are thought-provoking and well-crafted. These songs are about finding purpose and real community in a world that sometimes feels meaningless and isolated. Not to mention that “Brother,” probably the biggest radio hit on the album, is my kids’ favorite tune right now. If you want to get your family dancing in the kitchen, give this one a try.

unfettered_ross_kingRoss King, Unfettered

In the spirit of full disclosure, I know Ross, since he has led worship at my church periodically for the past couple of decades. He’s a rare songwriter, one who seems able to move with skill between writing worship albums and singer-songwriter projects like this one. His most recent album is his best to date. My favorite song is “What Kind of Person,” in which he identifies with the sins of various biblical characters and then ponders why Jesus died and rose again “to save the kind of person that I have always been.” Ross centers on the person and character of Jesus, along with the hope that knowing Him brings in the midst of loss and trial.

sara_grovesSara Groves, Floodplain

Like Josh Garrels, Groves has been an acquired taste for me, and I don’t think I really “got it” until this brand new release. Her themes revolve around the concept that sometimes the line between pain and hope is fairly thin. “Some hearts are built on the floodplain,” she says, meaning that some people see the waters of doubt and fear rise regularly, but that they can also see the Lord plant hope and character and love in the midst of those struggles. I admit that I’ve only listened to this one through twice so far, but it’s already a new favorite. Perhaps the most poignant track is “My Dream,” in which she relates her grandfather’s story of falling asleep each night for years to the image of Jesus standing in his driveway, welcoming him home, not angry but running to greet him in the midst of his doubt and fear. Be prepared to cry if you buy this one.

There you are! Five albums I hope you’ll enjoy. Happy listening! Also, are there others you’d recommend? Feel free to include them in the comments below. 

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The Biblical Command We Ignore

Philippians_BibleConsider this question for a moment:

What biblical command is so difficult that we don’t merely disobey it, but we also routinely ignore it? 

It’s probably not what you think.

After all, we Christians try to steer clear of sins like sexual lust, gluttony, and drunkenness. When we fail in those areas, we usually acknowledge our sins and ask God for the strength to do better.

Most of us try to avoid dishonesty, gossip, and outbursts of anger. We understand how damaging those sins can be, so we try to avoid them also.

But there’s one biblical command that is so tough that we regularly ignore it, and we sometimes even question whether it’s possible to obey at all. Yet every time we disobey it, we’re committing a sin just as real and damaging as the ones I’ve listed above.

What’s the command I’m talking about?

Rejoice. 

Take a moment to read the verses below:

“Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, oh righteous! And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” – Psalm 32:11

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” – Psalm 118:24

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” – Philippians 4:4

“Rejoice always.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16

Those are just a sampling of the many, many verses in the Bible that call us to rejoice. Not just to rejoice sometimes, but to rejoice always.

It’s a direct command from Scripture. It sounds like a fun command, actually. Maybe that’s why we tend to view it as a suggestion rather than as a command. After all, who doesn’t want to rejoice? Nobody would choose to lack joy, right? And if we don’t feel like rejoicing, it must mean we have some good reason to be grumpy or whiny, right?

Actually, wrong. The command specifically tells us to rejoice always. Even when we think we don’t have a good reason to rejoice.

“But how?” you ask. “How can I rejoice when I have so many good reasons not to?”

That’s a real quandary. There’s no way to side-step the reality that life can be quite hard. Our relationships don’t meet our expectations, our bodies don’t work like we want them to, our jobs disappoint us, and so on.

Joy seems like a luxury reserved for those who have easy lives. Something for people who don’t have real problems to worry about, people whose lives are all sunshine and roses.

It would be easy to convince ourselves of that, if only it wasn’t the apostle Paul who told us to rejoice. Paul, the guy who was beaten, shipwrecked, ostracized, starved half to death, and imprisoned for sharing the gospel.

How did he do it? How could he possibly rejoice in the midst of all of that? And how can we, even in the midst of all of our problems?

The secret is found in the little phrase that Paul attached to the word “rejoice” in Philippians 3:1 and 4:4.

“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul wrote. 

Rejoice that God is good. Rejoice because Jesus is alive. Rejoice in the truth that He loves you. Rejoice that you know Him. Rejoice in the fact that He’s coming again to undo sin and death forever.

Even in the middle of your worst day, you can rejoice. There is always, always, always, a reason to rejoice. That’s why Paul says to rejoice always.

Joy is not the same as pretending your problems don’t exist. “Rejoice” is not code for, “Suck it up and paste a smile on that face.” Biblical joy acknowledges the pain of living in a fallen world, but then looks beyond that pain to the hope found in Jesus.

For too many of us, we read the command to rejoice and simply ignore it or disobey it because we find it unrealistic. Maybe we even find it offensive.

“I’m just complaining about my kids because parenting is hard. Don’t tell me I need to rejoice.”

“My job is terrible. My spouse is a jerk. My air conditioner is broken. My cat hates me. How dare you tell me to rejoice?”

But we miss the point when we respond that way. Paul tells us to rejoice precisely because our lives are hard. He tells us to rejoice as a way of reminding us that nothing is more powerful that God. When we rejoice in the Lord, we learn to trust Him. We deepen our faith in His promises and our appreciation for His character. And we encourage others to do the same.

Yes, it’s hard to do. Yes, we don’t always feel like it.

And yes, that’s why we really need to obey anyway. The God who raised Jesus from the dead can gives us the power to do the impossible.

Rejoice. In the Lord. Always.

Shall I say it again?

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Are We Building a Road or Just Scraping Dirt?

IMG_0970(This is a guest post by Brian Fisher, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church.)

Today a friend said to me, “Brian, you should wash your truck.”

My response: “What’s the point?”

I admit that my truck is a mess. But here’s the rub – our city is currently rebuilding a long stretch of road that leads to my house, and all the dirt I wash off my vehicle will just be restored hours later. So, as I reasoned when I was a child, Why bathe if I will get dirty again so soon?

Homeowners near and far cheered when the process began and the earth below our lunar-like pathway was laid bare. For years the road across this fairly flat stretch of earth has driven like a roller coaster, with alternating patterns of yawning caverns waiting to swallow smart cars and their not so smart drivers. We were happy at first, but now we have grown sad and impatient. So far all we have seen is a small crew scraping dirt, then adding dirt, then scraping dirt, then adding dirt. So much activity, but so little progress. Do they really know how to build a road, or do they just know how to scrape the dirt? As we sit in long lines with dust swirling around us, we wonder if perhaps someone, somewhere has lost sight of the big idea. “Your mission, O road-building crew, is to build roads, not just to scrape the dirt! Build! Build! Fulfill your mission!” 

What about us, Church? Do we know how to build roads or just scrape the dirt? Do we remember our mission? Our road to build is called the Great Commission. We are the only crew. We are the only hope the world has to discover and travel the road to life with God.

Jesus’ final words are famous words…and easily forgotten words. We drift toward producing great amounts of activity, while making little progress toward fulfilling our mission from Jesus. He said, “…as you are going, make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” His exhortation assumed that we would get going and keep moving. His exhortation assumed that we would pursue the lost around us. His exhortation assumed that we would learn, from the Spirit and from one another, what to do and how to get it done.

So challenge yourself. Do you know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Do you know how to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples? Do you know how to invest your life in another life, so that together you learn to more deeply love Jesus and serve His kingdom?

Church, let’s get moving! Here are a few resources written to point you in the right direction, to fan the flames of your passion and to grow the skill in you to fulfill your mission in life:

The Lost Art of Disciple-Making by Leroy Eims

The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman

The Great Omission by Robertson McQuilkin

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courtney Anderson

Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor

Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot

Love, Mortality, and Aggie Football

11230612_10156141018410160_4599014232661230164_oI didn’t grow up watching Aggie football. My parents both went to Oklahoma, and neither of them were ardent fans of college football anyway. I remember watching college football each year on Thanksgiving, when we visited my mom’s family in Oklahoma City. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were die-hard Sooners. At least once, my grandfather (whom we called Ghido) took us to a game in Norman. All I remember about the game is that Ghido, who was a prominent attorney and later a judge in Oklahoma City, seemed to know every person at the stadium. I came to realize over the years that he seemed to know everybody wherever he went. He was one of those rare individuals who could walk into a room of strangers and quickly turn them into friends.

Still, Ghido loved his family above all else. He especially loved his grandchildren. There were nine of us, and each of us believed we were his favorite.

In a sort of ironic twist, it was my love for my Sooner grandfather that eventually cemented my love of Aggie football.

I came to A&M in 1994, following in my older brother’s footsteps. We were the first Aggies in our family, so when A&M played Oklahoma that September, I made sure to be at the game. OU entered the game ranked 15th; A&M was 16th. Since A&M and OU were not in the same conference at the time, the matchup had only been recently revived. OU won the game in 1993. In 1994, A&M had their revenge and beat OU 36-14.

When I got home from the game, I decided to call Ghido and harass him a little bit. My grandmother answered the phone. When she told my grandfather to come to the phone, I heard him say, “Tell Matt I’m not here.” She told him that he’d better come to the phone right that minute and talk to her grandson, a demand with which he complied (he was really never able to tell her no). I gave him a hard time for a few minutes, and in his gracious way, Ghido said, “You guys have a good team and a good coach. But these things always go back and forth.”

A&M won the next three times they played Oklahoma, but as Ghido predicted, the series swung the other way in 1999. A&M and OU were both in the Big 12 by then, so we played each other every year. OU absolutely decimated A&M, 51-6, in Norman that year. Ghido called me to remind me that “these things go back and forth,” but then followed it up by saying things were sure to turn around for us.

Over the next ten years, A&M only won once, leading me to think that “back and forth” was no longer an accurate description of the rivalry. Ghido never forgot to call me when his team won. Not a single time. I think he even began to feel a little bit sheepish about the calls, since he was on the winning end of a very long streak. And yet he always called nonetheless.

Over time I realized that the phone calls weren’t about football. They were about him and me. They were about a young man from Generation X and a old man of the World War 2 generation, who stumbled upon a shared interest, an inside joke that cemented our love for one another. I grew to love his calls after the game every year, even when the Aggies lost. I’d wait by the phone and look forward to hearing his voice gently razz me about our team. And I know that on the few occasions I got to call him, he eagerly waited by the phone, although he’d always pretend that he was trying to sneak out of the house before the phone rang.

In 2006, my wife and I were living in College Station again, having moved back from Dallas in 2004. It occurred to me that I’d never actually attended an A&M-OU game with Ghido, even though we had watched one or two of them on the same television. So I called to invite him to the game that Fall. He was 85 years old at the time. My grandmother had passed away a few years earlier, and I had a feeling that our time with Ghido was running short as well. I didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity to see the game together in person.

My grandfather sat with me on the west side of Kyle Field, the old “former student” section. He was a bright red speck in a sea of maroon. Ordinarily, a fan of the opposing team sitting right in the midst of home team fans would face some ribbing, maybe even some hostility. But this was Kyle Field, home of the friendliest fans in college football. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather had a way of winning people over. By the end of the first quarter he was friends with everybody sitting within speaking distance. Since we ended up standing through most of the game, my fellow Aggies periodically checked on Ghido. “Are you doing okay?” they’d ask. “Need any more water? Can we get you anything from the concessions stand?” He stood for the entire game, with the exception of halftime, although I could tell it took a toll on his knees. He just didn’t want to miss a minute of the action.

The Aggies ran out of time that day, losing 17-16 to Oklahoma in a nailbiter that turned into a heartbreaker. As always, Ghido said something like, “You guys have a good coach. It will turn around again eventually.”

As I’d feared, that was the last time I would attend a game with my grandfather. He died in 2012, just after A&M entered the SEC. Oklahoma won their final matchup in the Big 12. Other family members tell me that he talked about attending that game in 2006 for years, how he and his Aggie grandson shared a rivalry that somehow turned into an alliance. To this day, it’s one of my favorite and most poignant memories.

Less than two months after Ghido died, A&M played OU in The Cotton Bowl, and this time the Aggies won 41-13. After the game, I reached for the phone, and then remembered he was gone. For seventeen years, we’d talked to each other after the game. This time, A&M’s victory was bittersweet.

Moses wrote in Psalm 90 that “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength, eighty” before we “fly away.” My grandfather had 91 good years before he flew away. 

These days, when I watch Aggie football, I often reflect on the bond it created between me and my grandfather, and on the fleeting nature of life on this side of eternity. I remember what my grandfather taught me through those yearly phone calls, that the people we love matter so much more than any game. I remember that our days pass quickly, so we’d best use them wisely.

Another great sage, King Solomon, says to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Because time flies. Three or four hours and the game is over. Seventy or eighty years and so is your life. And then eternity beckons. As a pastor, of course, my calling is to point men and women to the reality that Jesus is risen, to the truth that eternal life is found in knowing Him.

I’m an avid Aggie football fan these days. But I’ve transformed in more important ways since that first game I watched in 1994.

I now understand from experience that time is short. I know in a deeper way how much people matter, how significant our time is with those we love. I remember that eternity awaits us all, so the wise among us prepare for it.

Lessons God drove home through Aggie football and phone calls from my grandfather. Unlikely teachers, but the greatest wisdom often comes from unlikely sources.

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