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Are We Building the Altar?

Are We Building the Altar?

In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real. 

 

The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.

 

Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”

 

Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller,  “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.” 

 

In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way: 

 

Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.

 

While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.

 

Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.  

 

How can Christ Community build the altar?

Keller suggests three altar-building practices. 

 

Recovery of the gospel

It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us. 

 

Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes: 

 

Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.

 

It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.

 

Corporate prayer

The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.

 

As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines. 

 

Creativity

Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.

 

Conclusion

In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire. 

 

But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.

The Grave Injustice of Legalized Abortion On Demand

The Grave Injustice of Legalized Abortion On Demand

This January marks the 49th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision. On January 22, 1973, the highest court of our land circumvented legislative process and declared by judicial fiat that abortion on demand is legal. Discovering a constitutional right to privacy relating to abortion as well as drawing an arbitrary line around fetal viability, the court deemed the unborn less than human, depriving them of the right to life. 

I believe the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade was morally, legally, and scientifically bankrupt. In many ways Roe v. Wade tragically echoes the Dred Scott v. Sandford case decided in 1857, which declared that Americans of African descent were not American citizens and instead categorized as property. This immoral court ruling perpetuated racism and provided the ongoing legal cover for the cultural legitimacy of slavery. 

As a nation we look back at Dred Scott and shudder with visceral incredulity and moral outrage. How could this be? We wonder how the highest court of the land could legally sanction and codify such glaring injustice. We are aghast how a culture could be so easily deceived, callused, and morally blinded. Yet, as a nation for 49 years we continue to legally sanction abortion on demand, justifying it by sound bite pro-choice rhetoric and sleight of hand obfuscations. 

Make no mistake: dehumanization is the same deceptive force that fuels the taking of unborn life. The abortion industry is rooted in a history of eugenics that targets minority children for eradication. We cannot turn a blind eye to the compounding evils of Dred Scott and Roe and their lasting impact on minority and under-resourced communities in our country. 

We must not be deceived by the seductive arguments of “my body my choice,” sex without consequences, and placing career and comfort above the lives of the unborn. Our culture, on the one hand, praises autonomy and self-indulgence above all else, while on the other, dismisses the real needs of women facing unplanned pregnancies. We must be counter-cultural. We must recognize the humanity and value of each unborn life and do everything we can to support each woman walking the difficult road of unplanned pregnancy and motherhood. We must show unwavering compassion both to the unborn and the brave mothers who carry them. 

We also must not be deceived by the supposedly noble goal of making elective abortion, “rare and safe.” Like the immoral slavery industry of old, we have an immoral abortion industry that has no vested interest in making abortion increasingly rare. This abortion industry is driven not only by an ideology deifying personal choice at the great expense of denying the right to life of the unborn, but also motivated by great economic gain. How should we respond to this grave injustice that leaves the innocent in the jaws of death? 

From the inception of Christ Community, we have had an unwavering commitment to uphold the sanctity of life for all human beings, unborn and born. Along with an unwavering commitment to the sanctity of human life, we are whole-heartedly committed to extend compassion to those who have been and continue to be so deeply wounded by abortion.

The Gospel of the Kingdom we embrace as broken sinners like you and me brings the heart-arresting hope of healing and wholeness. If you have been wounded by abortion and would like to talk with someone, please contact one of the pastors at your campus. You are welcome at our church. Our staff desires to be there for you in any way they can. 

How should we respond to the grave and glaring injustice of abortion? Let me suggest a few reflections for us to consider. 

First, we need moral clarity around legalized abortion on demand. We dare not confuse the legality of something with its morality. Legal legitimacy does not necessarily mean moral legitimacy. As followers of Jesus guided by the clear teachings of Holy Scripture, the unborn are image bearers of God, have unimaginable intrinsic worth and are to be cared for and protected (Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5). We are called to protect the vulnerable and give a voice to the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-9). 

Second, in a highly rancorous partisan culture, we must not confuse legalized abortion on demand as a partisan issue. Legalized abortion on demand is first and foremost a moral issue. Regardless of our partisan views and commitments, addressing societal injustice is the responsibility of all of us, both as citizens of this nation and citizens of the Kingdom of God. 

Third, we must continue to advocate with tenacity in the public square, in the halls of government, and in the courtroom for moral laws in regard to abortion. 

Fourth, as the prophet Micah reminds us, we are called not only to do justice, but also to love kindness and walk humbly with God. Moral clarity and properly motivated justice zeal must always be forged and formed in intercessory prayer guided by kindness, compassion, and humility. The moral clarity of our minds must be shaped by the Christ-like love in our hearts, expressed in the truth-laden, yet gentle tone of our voices. 

Fifth, as a church family we have and will continue to work with and support crisis pregnancy centers like Advice and Aid that helps those with unplanned pregnancies and offers support for those healing from the wounds of abortion. We will also continue to advocate for adoption and support birth mothers and adoptive families. 

Sixth, let us pray for a spiritual awakening for our nation and not lose heart (Luke 18:1).  An awakening where the church and people of all goodwill might gain moral clarity and address the most compelling injustices of our time, including the grave injustice of the destruction of unborn human life. Pray also for the U. S. Supreme Court as it decides perhaps the most important abortion case of a generation, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In this case, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to walk back, or even end, the constitutional right to abortion it pronounced in Roe v. Wade. 

For those of us in our church family who reside in Kansas, we have an important  opportunity this upcoming summer to support the Value Them Both Amendment. If you have not yet heard about the Value Them Both Amendment, I would encourage you to become informed and involved as the Lord may lead you. Even the smallest of steps of involvement will make a difference. 

Passing the Value Them Both Amendment is crucial to protecting pro-life laws in Kansas and preventing Kansas from becoming a safe haven for the abortion industry. In 2019 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas Constitution provides an “inalienable” right to abortion–even more radical than Roe v. Wade. One consequence of this ruling is that Kansas’ pro-life laws are in danger of being stricken down by the courts. Another consequence is that if Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level, then Kansas will continue to recognize a nearly unlimited right to abortion. The only way to reverse this tragic course is to amend the Kansas Constitution, and we have the opportunity to do so with the Value Them Both Amendment in August 2022.  

As a church we have been, and will continue to be, non-partisan. However, in regard to legalized abortion on demand, this is not a partisan issue, but a moral one that transcends partisanship. I am grateful for a church family that embraces both uncomfortable truths and compassionate grace. How my heart longs for a day when the unborn will be valued, cherished, and protected. I hope yours does too. 

Giving and Receiving

Giving and Receiving

One of my biggest struggles around the holidays is deciding who I should buy gifts for. Of course I will purchase gifts for my family and close friends, but what about coworkers, neighbors, and friends who are not particularly close? Cynically, I find my gift giving calculus for those individuals on the fringe of my social circle depends on whether or not I expect them to give me something. If I believe they will, then I get them a present to save myself the embarrassment of having nothing to offer in return.

A few years ago, a coworker unexpectedly gave me a gift. In response, I insinuated that I had been planning on giving her a gift at the staff Christmas party the next day. That evening I searched my house for something I could give her and ended up regifting a bag of coffee my wife had received from her workplace. I was struck at how I would rather lie and scrabble to put together a lame, last minute gift than receive a gift with nothing to offer in return. In the end, although I had given a gift, I was anything but generous.

Have you had a similar experience? Do you ever struggle to simply receive from another person without the need to immediately reciprocate? This struggle seems to reveal a lack of trust in the other person or a sense of pride in myself. I either don’t believe that the gift is truly without strings attached, or I want to have earned the approval of the other person to be worthy of the gift. Giving to manipulate someone else or as a means to curry favor is not genuine generosity. This negative view of giving and receiving can restrict experiencing authentic relationships with others and even with God. I find that I can only give what I have received. As much as I might want to be a truly generous person, if I interpret others’ gifts through a grid of mistrust or pride and not let myself experience the generosity of another, I won’t be able to be authentically generous with those around me.

One story that always convicts me of my challenge to receive well is the story of Naaman’s healing from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19). In it, Naaman wants to give Elisha lavish riches in response to his healing, but Elisha would not accept a thing from him. As the commander of the army of Aram, Naaman must surely have known how reciprocity for political favors worked and so did not want to remain in Elisha’s debt. Moreover, as one of the richest and most important men in the kingdom, to receive a gift like this must have broken down his pride. The entire narrative seems to emphasize the humbling journey Naaman embarked on by listening to his servants, being healed in a simple manner (merely washing in the Jordan river), and then being unable to use his immense personal wealth to pay for the healing. This finally breaks through to Naaman when his final request to Elisha is granted. He receives a bag of dirt from Israel so that he might pray to the God of Israel while still kneeling on Israeli soil upon his return to Aram. The only acceptable response to this lavish gift of healing is worship and an ongoing relationship, not actions growing out of mistrust or pride.

This kind of grace that breaks down our pride and builds trust can be seen even more clearly through God’s gift of Jesus for our salvation. I like how starkly the New Living Translation puts it in Ephesians 2:8-10 “God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” 

God’s acceptance of us because of Jesus is not a gift we can earn and take credit for, nor one that manipulates or coerces us. Recognizing this free gift for what it is fosters worship and an authentic relationship with God. Of course, as with any good friend, we will naturally want to give gifts back to God.

Experiencing this genuine generosity from God, that expects nothing in return, will naturally lead us to be the kind of people who give without such expectations. However, this must not be from a posture of pride or mistrust, but from intimacy and thankfulness. 

As we continue through another holiday season of presents and gifts, let us focus and reflect on the true gift of Jesus that we receive without needing to pay Him back. Let’s be comfortable with receiving gifts, even when we have nothing to offer in return. Allowing ourselves to be a recipient of authentic generosity may empower our own authentic generosity toward others.

Should We Return To Normalcy?

Should We Return To Normalcy?

After having our lives so disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing a sense of relief and joyful exhilaration in returning to a more normal life. It is great to be gathering with friends again, worshiping in person with our church family and enjoying fun vacation traveling. But should we return to pre-pandemic normalcy? While not minimizing the great pain, loss and lingering negative impacts of the pandemic, by simply returning to pre-pandemic normalcy we may miss a golden opportunity. Could the rugged pandemic terrain of testing, trials, disruption and difficulties actually be an unusual grace gift to us? 

As the Apostle James opens his inspired epistle, he frames the trials and difficulties that come into our lives as a gift. In The Message, Eugene Peterson beautifully  paraphrases James’ words. 

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4) 

Reflecting on the Apostle James’ words, I would like to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has given each of us at least three amazing gifts.

First, we have been given a grace gift of needed insight into the true state of our spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson describes our faith life being forced into the open and showing its true colors. I have often said that many people (including me) have not been their best selves during the pandemic. While I believe that is a true observation, I also believe there is more we must honestly say. The pandemic crucible has not only amplified our weaknesses, it has, like a mirror, also revealed the true colors of our lack of spiritual and virtue formation. A pastor friend of mine made the comment that the pandemic had uncomfortably revealed to him his heart idols as well as his glaring lack of Christ-like character. The pandemic pried open a revealing window into our inner worlds. What grace gift of needed insight into your life have you been given? What needs greater attention in your inner world? 

Secondly, we have been given a grace gift prodding us to make needed changes in our daily lives. Eugene Peterson reminds us not to prematurely jump back into well-worn ruts of the status quo. For many of us, the pre-pandemic frenzied pace of our overly scheduled, distracted lives was detrimental to our spiritual growth, our relationships, our workplaces, our faith community and our Sabbath rest. Rather than jump immediately back into the unhealthy lifestyles many of us were living before the pandemic, how might we rearrange our priorities and carve out new rhythms that are more God-honoring, spiritually formative, relationally deepening and integrally whole? For many of us our work dynamics have significantly changed and this gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate our workplace patterns, sustainability and effectiveness. A member of our church family whose work had led him to do too much traveling said to me, Tom, I am reevaluating the whole business travel thing. I am going to use video technology more and travel less.”  What grace gift for needed change have you been given? What lifestyle changes do you need to make? 

Third, we have been given a grace gift catalyzing needed growth in our lives. In his paraphrase Eugene Peterson encourages each one of us to let the trials, testing difficulties, and disruptions of a pandemic lead us down the path of increasing growth and maturity. The pandemic has been a time of pruning and while pruning is often painful, it is purposeful. Pruning offers new growth, renewed hope and greater flourishing. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Apostle Paul’s wise and hopeful words. 

“There is more to come. We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”  (Romans 5:3-4)  

What pruning needs to take place for new growth in your life? 

In many ways, the pandemic has been a gift; a gift that brings needed insight, needed change and needed growth. Instead of returning to normalcy, let’s embrace lifestyles that lead to greater relational intimacy, deeper spiritual formation, wiser work patterns and greater human flourishing. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.  

 

 

 

Covid Grace

Covid Grace

A few nights ago I had to tell my son nine times – go to bed. It might actually have been more than nine times, but at some point it was time to stop counting. Whether it was nine or nineteen, I remember the last time I told him – go to bed. The reason I remember the final time is because I spoke with anger, and his facial expression was evidence of my failure. 

I felt awful. I repented to him. That moment it was clear – I had hit the Corona-wall. I am not alone. The day after my failure with my son, I heard from others that they were feeling the same way. 

Living for weeks at home, socially isolated from others, and only leaving our home for necessities is not a way for human beings to thrive. It is a recipe for a father to speak harshly to his son. The result is anger, frustration, getting short with others, and convincing ourselves we now understand epidemiology (we don’t).

Now we must begin to take the necessary steps of reopening our economy. We have complicated decisions in front of us, and we must make those decisions after weeks of being alone, with anger and frustration building over our loneliness. As a society, we are feeling just the way I felt after the ninth time I told my son to go to bed

How should we who live in the way of Jesus respond? What are we called to do at this moment?

Covid grace. 

Someone in my community group made that word up, and I am running with it. I hope that is what Christ Community will be known for in this pandemic. Covid grace. 

What is covid grace? It looks like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Paul wrote these words to people who were embroiled in a debate about eating meat. In that day, almost all meat was sacrificed to a god in a local temple. That meant some Christians thought – we cannot eat this meat because it was sacrificed to an idol! Other Christians thought – we can eat this meat because an idol is just an idol…there is no ‘god’ there.

This was causing division. People arguing and speaking harshly to one another. Not unlike what I see happening right now in our culture as we argue about how to respond to this pandemic as a society. 

Paul’s response is brilliant, and convicting. He says two things.

First, He seeks the advantage of others.

We are all in one of two camps right now. Some of us are high risk, or live with people who are high risk, and we face enormously difficult decisions. I am in this camp. One of my children has a medical condition that puts him at higher risk for severe symptoms if he were to contract COVID19. This is an uncertain and hard time for our family as we make decisions about what is ahead for us. In the midst of our prayers and uncertainty, we have heard Christians say things like – people at risk just need to stay home so the rest of us can get back to life!  For us, it’s not just “people at risk” – that “people” has a name. He is our son. 

Covid grace. 

But I understand. As a pastor I am praying for and speaking with business leaders who are facing enormous challenges. We must re-open the economy. I speak to kids who haven’t been able to see their friends. We were meant to live with one another in community, not in stay-at-home orders. It pains me when I hear people say – those who want to reopen the economy don’t care about the vulnerable!

That is not true. They want to feed their kids. They want to make payroll for their employees. They want their kids to play again.

Covid grace. 

When Paul says he seeks the advantage of others, what he means is that when he goes into a home, he is not ready to make his opinion clear. His opinion was clear. It was perfectly acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols. We are free in Christ!

However, if Paul went into the house of someone who grew up worshipping that idol, and could not in good conscious eat the meat without feeling like he was worshipping that god, then Paul would send them a YouTube clip about how the idol wasn’t really a god. No!

He wouldn’t eat the meat. He would listen to their story. He would probably pray for them. He would put them first. Why?

Because of his second point. Paul wanted them to want Jesus.

In the midst of disagreement, it’s easy for our conviction around secondary things to consume our conviction around Jesus. It’s not that the secondary questions are not important – they are! They matter! How we reopen the economy matters. These are important questions.

But they are not as important as Jesus.

I hope what people see in this time from the church is our passion, clarity and conviction around the person of Jesus. His beauty. His kindness. His Covid grace. 

Jesus, the Son of God who did not go around asserting His rights, His opinions – even though He had every right! Jesus, who did not seek His advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. That is the story our world needs, and it is the story the church has to tell. 

The story of Covid grace.