Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

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Ash Wednesday Reflection 2017

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Hey everybody.  Sorry this is a day late but I was unable to post this yesterday because the day got shorter than expected when I spent two hours running and then 1 hour trying and failing to make ashes for our Ash Wednesday service (more on that in the next few days).

But the following is a very cleaned up version of what I tried to share during the homily portion of our Ash Wednesday service last night.  I hope you enjoy it even if it is a day late!


 

The first time I observed Lent, it had nothing to do with Easter.  It was September of my Junior year of high school.  My youth pastor had awakened in me a desire to pursue a holy life and I wanted to work on becoming a better person.  So on August 31st I hatched a plan that for the 30 days of September I would give up television, movies, video games and secular music (which meant the Oldies station).  I would read at least three chapters of Scripture a day, compliment five people and do one act of service.  And I would keep a journal of it all for accountability’s sake.

So for the entire month of September, that is what I did.  I kept a yellow notebook journal with lists of every good deed, every compliment, every Scripture passage along with some written thoughts.  It was in my hands at all times.  People would ask about it but I would not tell them what it was because it was my secret.  Also, I knew even then the whole thing was pretty nerdy.  But the project itself went well.  I didn’t miss one compliment, performed 30 small acts of service and didn’t relapse to the television or the oldies station.

It was only a few months later, in late January, that I found out about Lent, the forty day period for fasting, discipline and prayer.  Since the yellow notebook project had worked so well I decided to do it again for the forty (actually forty six) days of Lent.  This time I used a red notebook and once again I didn’t miss a day, even the Sundays which are supposed to be “feast days.”

I repeated it again the next September and the next Lent after that.  I planned on doing it forever until the crazy, hectic schedule of college life put an end to it.  I have still celebrated Lent every year, just in less intricate ways.

As I have been thinking about that first September with that yellow journal, I have also been reading, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider which everyone really must read.  Kreider devotes a large section to the early church’s catechesis processes whereby everyday Roman pagans became tried and true and baptized Christians.  Kreider reminded me of what I have always known, that Lent was not originally conceived for the mature Christians.  Lent was more a part of the evangelism process than it was the discipleship process, though it certainly said a lot about discipleship.  Today Lent is something the mature, Super Christians do but originally it was designed for brand new, not yet baptized Christians who wanted to know more and be more like Jesus.  The forty days were intended to help these new, curious Christians figure out what Christianity was all about before they committed their lives to it by baptism.  In short, this forty day period of discipline, fasting and prayer was the means by which they were apprenticed into Christianity.

Over time each new Christian was expected to have a mature mentor and eventually those mentors began fasting during Lent as a way of journeying alongside and bearing with the new Christians.  Over time even those who were not mentoring new Christians began fasting during Lent as well so that they too could be with the new believers.

I don’t want you to miss the very profound point that all illustrates.  Even though Lent was not intended for them, the mature Christians commemorated it every year, not as a sign of their Christian maturity, but as a sign that they were willing to be weak to help the weak.  Once a year they wanted to pretend to be brand new Christians again.  They wanted to arrive at Resurrection Morning as if they were experiencing God’s grace for the very first time.  They were willing to “start over” as it were on their faith journey and become as children again, taking forty days to remember their sins and experience their weaknesses so that on Easter morning they could share more fully in the baptism of the new believers.

This is relevant for us because I have noticed that a funny thing happens as we mature in the faith.  As we get further and further away from our own baptism we begin to forget about grace.  The further we get from our “come to Jesus” moments, the more we forget the true nature of grace and the true meaning of our baptism.  Put another way, as we mature we become self righteous and proud, forgetting that we too were once wretched. Therefore, the ashes tonight are not signs of how mature our Christianity is, but signs that we want to remember our beginning, return to our roots and be humbled by our weaknesses again so that grace can grab hold of us anew on Easter morning.

For me, this means that when I receive the ashes tonight I am once again a junior in high school with all the awkwardness that comes with.  I am sitting again in my room on a hot August night, facing my own weaknesses, ashamed of own my sin and humbled by my own inadequacies.  Once more I am 17 years old and feeling the weight of holiness’ call and not quite sure what to do about it.  So I fast a few unhelpful practices, vow to commit a few helpful ones and take up a yellow journal, all so that I can work out my own salvation because, after all, it is God who is at work in me to will and to act according to God’s wonderful purposes.  And, as I did so many years ago, I again trust only God to deliver me to a grace filled Easter morning.

The Man in the Arena

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We are now three weeks away from the end of 2016.  And what do I say?  What do we say?  What can anybody say?  I guess we can start with the shared understanding that this year happened.  It did.  I think we all agree there.

Because it happened I suppose it is up to some of us to comment on it whether for better or for worse.  And I certainly do have remarks to make considering both the cultural journey this year and my own personal journey.

For starters, yesterday I read the 96th book that I have read this calendar year!  It was a ridiculous book about Generation Z and how hard it will be to reach them with the gospel, especially considering most of them still wear diapers and throw food across the room.  Be that as it may, I am actually going to achieve my goal of reading 100 books this year!

This was also the year I completely paid off my student loans.  This should have been celebrated with cheers and laughter and champagne (or the Nazarene equivalent, Sparkling Cider).  Instead the student loan provider sent me a letter detailing how much money I had just given them over the last 5 years.  Let’s just say it would not have paid for a house but probably I could’ve afforded half of one with it.  On top of that over the last two months I have realized that I spent the equivalent of 10 years and $120,000 becoming educated for ministry and despite that massive investment I can barely afford health insurance and only contribute mere penny’s to my 401(K) every month. To add insult to serious injury a denominational leader explained to me last week the cruel reality that despite 10 years and $120,000 I am still not old enough to be of much use.  The sparkle disappeared from my cider and has put me in a foul mood ever since.

Reading 100 books in one calendar year didn’t come with sparkling cider either.  For sure it will stand as my single greatest accomplishment of the year and for that I am proud.  However, I am more cynical now than I have ever been about my own ability to have any grasp on truth.  Reading that much from such a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds has awakened me to just how deep the chasms in our world run.  We don’t just disagree about the color of the sky.  We disagree about what constitutes “sky” and just how to define “color.”  Our culture is in a mess.

So this great grand goal of reading 100 books has deprived me of the joy of thinking I actually had something to say or to contribute to this world.  How do I tell people the sky is blue when they disagree about “blue?”  This has made preaching difficult because, as I have all ready written elsewhere, I am not sure of the veracity of anything I say from the pulpit.

But people are still trying to tell you the sky is blue or gray or green or whatever and they are as arrogant as ever in assuming they are right and they alone have the monopoly on truth.  Most of them don’t even have college degrees and haven’t read one book this year.  But here I am having completed 95 books and paid off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and still completely unsure I have anything worthwhile to say.

The thing is, we have become a culture of arm chair quarterbacks who never played football.  We are critics without cause.  I realized we were in a mess when I was listening to cable news pundits critique the US President about what he should have said.  They were not taking issue with what he actually said but instead what they thought he should have said.  It suddenly occurred to me that we have become so violent in our slander that we now think we have the authority to tell people exactly what they should say.  And we claim we are for liberty and freedom.

With that in mind, this year has not been a complete loss for me.  I would never be so pessimistic as to claim that.  In fact if there is anything I have read this year that has given me great help it is this quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech:

I have thought long and often of those words this year and as we look to 2017, I have learned that what we need moving forward are more readers and less writers.  We need more doers and less critics.  We need more governors and less campaigners.  We need more listeners and less talkers.  We need more actual quarterbacks and less arm chair quarterbacks.  We need more men and women actually in the arena, faces marred by dust and sweat and blood but also marked by a more outstanding courage, a courage that courses through their veins and inspires us all to a better, albeit more humble, greatness.

And as the popular Christmas song sings out, “Let it begin with me.”

Why Ministry is About Slavery and Why That is Not That Bad a Thing

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Over the last year I have gone through a very uncomfortable and vexing process of losing my religion and finding it again.

I hope it goes without saying that “my religion” isn’t the Church of the Nazarene and her doctrines, polity and preferred ethic.  I did not lose or even really question any of those in the last year.  I also hope it goes without saying that “my religion” is not a set of doctrines or creeds or religious structures.

My religion is humble love a love that submits to all, (see Ephesians 5:21 and also 1 Corinthians 13 and also 1st John and also the entire Bible).  Not surprisingly, this sinful world has still not come to grips with humble, submissive love.  In fact, there many who still crucify those who dare preach it and I have been crucified more times than I can count.

This world is also filled with a variety of self help leadership books and “self made” leaders.  As I dealt with my crucifixions, I read those books and talked to some of those leaders.  They all give the same basic and well meaning pep talk.

“You are the leader.  You have the title.  You have God given authority!  So just tell them your vision and force them to follow it no matter the cost!”

The problem with the pep talk is that isn’t biblical.  It flies in the face of the humble, sacrificial love prescribed to us in Scripture and modeled to us by Christ.

There are also practicality problems that stem from a total lack of respect for positional authority in the 21st century.  Titles are liabilities, not assets.  If you have one you are immediately suspect.  The Church of the Nazarene is even worse.  In our polity , I am the only person who is actually paid money to be at church.  The church board cannot fire me outright but they can vote to change the locks of the church so I can’t get in and they have no legal binding to continue to pay me to be their pastor.  They can vote to reduce my paycheck to zero and throw my family out of the parsonage.  Furthermore, the members of my board are more liked and respected than me and have more relational authority simply because they have been around longer and don’t have pesky authoritarian titles like, “preacher” or “senior pastor.”

Still, the pep talkers sounded wise enough and what they advised was being reinforced in well marketed leadership books that are given to me for free.  So I gave in.  I cast my vision and tried to force people to follow it, not backing down from the brutal fights that ensued.  Things got bad, really bad.  There were four hour long conversations that went nowhere and ended with all parties offended.  There were accusations and gossip.  There were long sleepless nights, not so much caused by the conflict but by the reality that I had just taken everything I believed in and flushed it down the toilet for a model of leadership that is not biblical and does not work in the 21st century.

Don’t listen to the pep talkers or even read the books.  If you are in ministry, you are a slave.

But that is a great thing because that is exactly what Jesus became.

Paul spells it out poetically in Philippians 2.  “Though Jesus was in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be added, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

A chapter later Paul infers that because of Jesus’ slavery, he is also a slave.

The role of ministry, dating clear back to Jesus, is not about having authoritarian titles and using them to cast vision and force people to follow them.  It is about slavery.

To be a pastor means absolutely no freedom except the freedom of knowing the suffering of Christ through enslaving myself to the following:

First I am a slave to God.  This means that even if I did have the luxury of positional authority (and some pastors still do) I absolutely cannot use it without violating the ethics of the Bible.  To “lord it over” others is contrary to the heart of God.

I am a slave to my family.  This is one of the most frustrating and debilitating, but also one of the most life giving.  I am certain that I would be 30 times more effective in ministry if I were single.  I do not say that lightly.  I really believe it.  Over the last month I have tried to be pastorally present to no less than 6 people or groups of people.  These were people who were going through very tough situations, situations that needed attentiveness.  In every case my children were screaming in the background or running up to me begging me to fulfill their latest desire.  I constantly have to cancel important things because my kids can’t thrive in those settings and we can’t afford child care or baby sitters.  I am not complaining though because there is this horrible day not too far on the horizon when my children will move across state lines and forget to call me on my birthday.  When that happens I at least want to know that I cancelled important things to play with them at the park and that their relationship with God is strong enough to see them through the situations life will throw at them.

Finally, I am a slave to my congregation.  As I detailed above they have all the power.  I am a slave to their political and theological views, having to be constantly worried about offending them.  I am also a slave to their calendars.  If they don’t want to show up or don’t have time to show up to very important meetings, they will not come.  I am a slave to their expectations for a pastor.  I am contractually and morally obligated to analyze how I am measuring up to them.

All this means that when they schedule an event right over the top of my birthday, an event I believe will provide long term benefits for my congregation, I humbly submitted myself to it, knowing I wouldn’t get any birthday present, birthday cake or even anybody singing “Happy Birthday” to me but also knowing that the church would benefit from it..  What did happen was an angry congregant stormed into the church first thing on my birthday, in the middle of the event, and told me, “I thought God would kill you for what you said in your sermon a couple Sundays ago.”

I was frustrated about that for a couple days.  How could a pastor have their birthday on a Sunday and not have it acknowledged, not have the church make a cake or give cards and presents and have a leader chew him out over one stray line from a sermon, all while several people looked on and not one came to my defense?  In the moment I apologized and changed the subject, defusing the situation.

Then I spent time in prayer and self reflection and remembered that God didn’t call me into this gig to invent new ways of “lording it over” or find new means of being offended, but to be sacrificial and humble.

God has used situations like that to slowly restore my religion.  I have recommitted myself to letting God work humble love in me and reject the constant calls to “lord it over.”  In so doing I have re-found the freedom I once had, the freedom that the Apostle Paul calls, “participation in his sufferings,” so that we might obtain “the resurrection from the dead.”

The Psalms sing it better, “those who sow with tears with reap with joy.” (Ps. 126:5)

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Assertive, Aggressive and Passive Agressive

Standard

Right before I got married we met a few times with one of my pastors to go through the motions of premarital counseling.  My pastor was in an unenviable position because I had all ready gone through both premarital and marital counseling courses and passed them with flying colors.  More than that, I had recently taken them, which of course means I was an expert on the subject!

I also believe that I had interrupted a very busy time in his life or maybe he just trusted our all ready strong network of mentors.  Either way we only met a few times and didn’t talk about much.

However, there is one thing that stands out 8 years later.  During one session he explained to my wife and I that there is a marked difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  He explained that being assertive is merely explaining your wants and needs clearly, firmly and politely.  Being aggressive is more sinister.  It is attacking the other for perceived failures or sleights.

I have now been in ministry much longer than I have been married and have found that this little lesson doesn’t just apply to marriage but to all human relationships, particularly those in the local church.  Our off line culture right now seems to be inundated with a sort of passive aggressiveness that masks itself as “being polite.”  In turn our online culture (see Facebook and Twitter) seems to be inundated with a sort of over aggressiveness that masks itself as “assertiveness.”  Neither attitude is very Christlike.

So I have compiled some fun examples illustrating the difference between being assertive, being aggressive and being passive aggressive.  Some of these are meant to be humorous.  All of them are meant to be illustrative.  None of them are taken from any of my ministry contexts.

Passive: Pastor, your sermon was fine.  It was just.  .  .great.

Aggressive: That sermon sucked just like all your sermons!  When are you going to say something valuable?!

Assertive: You know I really struggled Sunday to figure out what you were trying to say.

Passive: Oh, your a Mets fan.  .  .well, okay, that’s.  .  .interesting.

Aggressive: Why would anyone cheer for the Mets?  Don’t you know that whole franchise belongs to the dark Lord?!  Repent immediately or perish!

Assertive: I assert that anybody who cheers for the New York Mets should repent immediately or perish. (:P)

Passive: Well if you all think we should paint the fellowship hall green then, whatever, do what you want.

Aggressive: Green is a lousy color.  Why would you ever do that!?  We cannot do that.  Nobody will come to our church if our fellowship hall is green!

Assertive: You know the carpet in that room is all ready red and we don’t have the money to replace it quite yet.  The green might make the whole room look like 1970’s Christmas and I am not sure that is the aesthetic we are going for.  Why don’t we consider a more neutral color or not paint until we saved up to do the carpet too?

Passive: Live your life however you want but I think all sinners are going to hell.

Aggressive: You are violating all the laws of God’s sacred scriptures and insulting God and are going to burn in hell if you don’t repent.

Assertive: You say you try to follow Jesus’ teachings and I believe that but how do you reconcile Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” with the things you are saying about and doing to Lisa?

Passive: Well if you want to turn our church into a coffee shop instead of a church go ahead!  I don’t care.

Aggressive: Coffee is black.  Black is the devil’s color.  Coffee is the devil.  You are the devil.  You are turning our church into the devil’s house.

Assertive: This may seem like an easy decision but it is going to cost some money and change the atmosphere and climate of our church.  I’m not sure we want our worship atmosphere to resemble the atmosphere of a coffee house.

I hope at least some of those helped.  I know that being politely assertive is a hard mark to hit but I believe we, including myself, can all do better!

Have a great Thursday!