The Gospel Love of Foster Parenting

March 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm

In order remain licensed as foster parents, Kristi and I not only had to go through the intrusive and long application process, we have to do continuing hours of training every year. So, not only do we open up our homes, our lives and our hearts to children in need, we have to continue to jump through hoops to have the privilege of doing so. But I digress.

This past Saturday, we attended a 6-hour training. As might be expected, some parts were more helpful than others. But the thing I most clearly came away with from the day of training wasn’t part of the training at all. Instead, it came from thinking about the fact that, in many ways, foster parents have to beg to open up their lives and how much that is an embodiment of the Gospel. I kept thinking of 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, where Paul commends the Macedonians who begged for the chance to serve:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, [2] for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. [3] For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, [4] begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—[5] and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.

I had to spend six hours of my Saturday in order to keep a baby we love. The Macedonians begged in order to give more money than they could afford (don’t show these verses to the Financial Planners in your church family)! What compelled them? Paul tells us in verse 9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Grace. Grace compelled the Macedonians to go to great lengths to seek opportunities to give and serve. Yes, Foster Parents have to earn the right to give of ourselves, but why would I complain about jumping through some hoops when grace reminds me that Jesus “for the joy that was set before Him” gave everything. He became poor so that we might become rich. How could the Macedonians not give exuberantly? How could we not joyfully pursue the opportunity to serve?

During one of the sessions, the teacher made a remark to the effect that foster parents don’t have the option of not opening their hearts to these foster children. These are kids who need love, stability and consistency and love. You have to love them knowing that they can’t give anything in return. You may have them long enough that they learn to love you in return. But you may not. Not only can these children not repay you, they may bring troubles and headaches, visitations, appointments, health issues, family issues, legal issues with them. Some of these kids may even resent you for trying to love them and let you know it. But they need love whether or not you want to give it. They need it more than you need to keep it.

What a beautiful picture of the love God has for His children. We take Him for granted. We rely on ourselves when things go smoothly and call out to Him when we need help. We complain when He doesn’t do things the way we think He should. We resent Him when He disciplines us. And yet He relentlessly loves His children. He pursues us when we want to run. He stands by the road, looking over the horizon for our return, running out to meet us when we’ve spit in His face.

Foster parenting is hard. It requires sacrificial love. But it has reminded me of the beauty of a Savior who has led the way of sacrificial love, taking on death so that we may live. How could we also not strive to serve?

Be The Church (GCM Collective)

March 2, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Be the Church from Caesar Kalinowski on Vimeo.

Breaking Bad, Groundhog Day, And 3 Ways To Live

May 1, 2012 at 6:46 am

Kristi and I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (don’t worry, not all at once). The series follows the trajectory of Walter White, “an underachieving chemistry genius turned high school chemistry teacher” who, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, turns to using his chemistry expertise to provide for his family after he’s passed, by producing the “the world’s highest quality crystal meth” (quotes from IMBD).

As you might guess, the show is pretty dark and increasingly violent. And yet, it’s also got a healthy dose of the rubberneck syndrome. When you drive by a car accident, you can’t help but look. The viewer becomes transfixed as White’s lies pile on top of one another and his illegalities compound until he finds himself locked in a battle with an international drug kingpin, the Mexican cartel and it seems like there’s no possible way out.

It is a fascinating picture of the impact and depths of sin. Though White started with good intentions (wanting to provide a legacy for his family after he was gone), he chose the path of sin (if I may use such terms, and, since I am a pastor, after all, I may) in order to try and fulfill those good motives. And it becomes increasingly obvious throughout the four seasons (we are waiting for season five!) that White doesn’t just have cancer, he is a cancer. His attitude and actions draw everyone around him into his world of lies and danger. His actions are never isolated and always impact those he loves.

Contrast this with one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays Phil, an arrogant, insensitive weatherman who begrudgingly barrels through life belittling everyone he comes in contact with. Phil finds himself trapped living the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over and over and over until he finally gets it right, going through the day sacrificially, thinking of others before himself and finally getting the girl. Needless to say, it takes him a while before he finally gets it right.

Though Groundhog Day is meant to be a heartwarming romantic comedy (which it is), as a follower of Jesus, I am fascinated by its undercurrent; the idea that if we just get everything right, if we just do the right things, then we’ll be alright. Granted, Phil does seem to have a heart change but the idea seems to be that the day is not going to change until he gets everything right; as if there’s some magic formula of events and actions that he has to get just right. Which he finally does.

I mention these two scenarios because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Tim keller calls the “three ways to live.” Many Christians are under the notion that there are two ways to live in the world, God’s way (Christianity) and Our way (rebellion). But, Keller reminds us (most powerfully through his treatment of the parable of the Prodigal Son(s), Prodigal God), there are actually “three ways to live” and two ways to run from God: “irreligion,” the younger brother in the parable, or Walter White and his increasing rebellion and “religion,” the older brother or Phil who has to do the right things before he can move on.

I am fascinated by finding portraits of both brothers in pop culture. Walter White may initially want a good thing (to care for his family) but he chases it by making crystal meth and ultimately finding himself involved in murders, cover-ups and money laundering. It’s almost as if his sin is swallowing him alive but he keeps chasing it. This is exactly how many people go through life, chasing money and security at any price necessary, even destroying themselves and those they love in the process.

Phil the weatherman, on the other hand, finds himself in the unwanted predicament of having to “get it right” before he can move on. This is exactly what many people here when they hear Christians say “come to Jesus.” They hear us saying: “be good people” and “do the right thing,” which translates to them as: “if you obey, then God will accept you, so you’d better get your actions in line.”

But, as Keller reminds us, there are actually three ways to live. The Gospel cuts right through our irreligious rebellion and unfettered pursuit and pleasure and the shackles of religion, trying to get our behavior right so that we can be right with God.

If we don’t understand the difference between the Gospel and religion, we are setting people up for a false encounter with Jesus. On the one hand, those people with iron-clad self-will might actually begin to change some of their behaviors and, once they do, they will begin to pat themselves on the back, gain a false sense of God’s favor and begin to look down on those who don’t live as well as they do. We’ve all encountered judgmental Christians (“judgmental” and “Christian” are terms that shouldn’t make any sense when put together and yet, sadly, we’ve all experienced it). Or, on the other hand, people will not be able to live up to Jesus’ standards and walk away, saying things like “Well, I tried that Christianity thing and it just didn’t work for me.” Or worse yet, we will set people in the horrible position of trying to meet standards they can’t and perpetually feeling judged by God because they’re just not “good enough.”

But the good news about Jesus isn’t that we can get good things through rebellion or that if we obey, God will accept us. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God didn’t come to them and say: “OK, listen up: Here’s 10 Commandments. If you keep them, then I’ll rescue you from Egypt.” No, it was the opposite! He redeemed them, and only then took them to Sinai. Before giving them any “rules,” God reminded them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:1). The Gospel says: “I am accepted, therefore I obey.”

Everywhere we turn, our culture is struggling to make sense of both ends of the spectrum. Pop culture is filled with glorifications of sin, but it is also filled with misguided efforts at religion. We Christians need to do a better job at humbly but boldly showing how neither will lead to satisfaction because both are actually ways of running from God. But I worry that the reason so few Christians make this distinction (especially between the Gospel and religion) is because so few Christians actually understand it. Many well-intentioned Christians are clutched in the talons of religion rather than flying in the freedom of the Gospel. If we don’t get it, how in the world should we expect pop culture to get it?

Missional Communities And The Gospel: “Don’t Just Make It Clear, Make It Real”

April 30, 2012 at 7:29 am

Francois de la Rochefoucauld famously said: “The only thing constant in life is change.” Life is not static, it is dynamic. We mark the passage of time through the changing of the seasons, we measure our lives by the roadside monuments to change; births, marriages, career changes wins and losses.

God tells us that a life following Jesus is also a process of change. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that those who belong to Jesus are being transformed “into the same image” (the image of Jesus; we are being made more like Him), from one degree or glory to another. In other words, not only have we been changed at salvation, we are being changed as we continue to follow Jesus. As much as I’d like to stop an marvel how it is that Paul can say we have any degree of glory from which to be transformed in the first place, I want to focus instead on the idea that he simply expects continued transformation to be part of the Christian life.

Scripture uses the imagery of growth and maturation to describe the process we often call “sanctification.” In short, salvation is pictured as a new birth (John 3:1-15). Paul says that the church works together so that we can all attain “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). The goal is that everyone will be “presented mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We know that this process of change, of becoming more like Jesus will not be complete until “he appears” and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

All of this seems to me, to imply that the Christian life should be a process of active growth. When children are passive, when they simply sit and watch television all the time, they don’t develop the way they’re supposed to. Metabolism and growth slow. I worry that we have created a church culture where the excuse “oh, he’s just a baby Christian” has become all too common. I worry that we have created a church culture that has lulled people into passivity, making them dependent on on paid professionals and isolating them from the power of the Gospel in everyday life.

In his wonderful series on Preaching To The Heart, argues that the point of preaching is not just to make the Truth clear but to make it real. In other words, preachers should be applying the Gospel to the motivational structures of the heart while people are there listening. If you’re not sure what he means, I highly suggest listening to this series. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of Keller’s idea. I believe that it applies, not just to preaching but to the very ways in which we “do church.”

I’m not convinced that there is only one right model of church. In fact, I believe in contextualization and I love the fact that the Church is such a beautiful tapestry of different backgrounds and approaches all coming together. And yet, I do have lots of reservations about the “come and see/bigger is always better/consumer-driven” approach that seems to have become the default. I worry that it simply reinforces the false division between the “sacred” and the “secular” and enforces the false notions that the “spiritual” aspects of life are our “quiet times” and what happens at the church building. We see lots of teachers making God’s truth clear to people, but I’m not sure we really see it becoming “real” to people.

If you’re not sure what Keller means by the distinction between making it “clear” and making it “real,” Keller references Jonathan Edwards’ A Divine and Supernatural Light, where Edwards argues:

“There is a twofold knowledge of good of which God has made the mind of man capable. The first, that which is merely notional … And the other is, that which consists in the sense of the heart; as when the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it.  In the former is exercised merely…the understanding, in distinction from the… disposition of the soul …Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace.  There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness.  A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.”

In other words, someone can intellectually know that honey is sweet without having tasted its sweetness. But you cannot taste its sweetness without also knowing intellectually that honey is sweet. In fact, once you’ve tasted it, the intellectual knowledge becomes “more real.” Psalm 34:8 urges us to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” I am concerned that our passive approach to church (sit in a pew, sit in a class, sit in a study, etc.) has led to many people being able to intellectually describe God’s sweetness without having ever actually tasted. We need to do a better job in the church of creating contexts where people have the chance to actually taste God’s sweetness, to see Him in action, to rely on His power.

Much of Jesus’ ministry happened “along the way,” and in community. In fact, as Jesus traveled through life with those He was discipling, many of his “ministry opportunities” might have been what we would consider distractions. I’m becoming convinced that we need to marinate people in the Gospel, get them outside of the church walls in community and on mission (yes, this is an argument for missional communities).

If the goal of the way we do things is not just to make the Gospel clear but real, then I believe Sunday morning can no longer be the organizing principle of our local churches. Before you jump to condemnation, I’m not saying we shouldn’t value Gathering, and preaching and singing and prayer and fellowship or even church structure, just that it doesn’t seem to be the best way to make the Gospel real in people’s lives.

We need to intentionally place people where they are living in community and on mission while becoming fluent in the Gospel. This happens best in smaller groups outside the church walls and helps people come to grips with what it means for the Gospel to be real. We desperately need the Gospel to live in community, where “that person” pushes our buttons and my coffee table was just broken and people didn’t clean up after themselves and where people can speak the truth in love to me and we can bear one another’s burdens. We desperately need the Gospel to live on mission, living everyday life with Gospel intentionality, learning to live through the lens of missionary eyes.

I don’t have time or space to fully unpack the idea of missional communities (or GCM’s as some call them) here, but I do want to urge church planters, pastors and Christians in general to ask: is the Gospel simply “clear” in my life or has it become “real.” In order for this to happen, I believe we need to move beyond Sunday-driven church as we’ve known it and redeem the everyday, where God seems to do most of His work already.

  • Visit the GCM Collective website
  • Read Total Church by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester

Who Do You Think You Are?

April 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

I remember, years ago when I was in seminary, I sometimes felt like I didn’t fit in. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great seminary experience, but I’m not really a “suit and tie Southern Baptist” type of guy. Add to that the fact that I had never lived anywhere other than Phoenix and I really wasn’t sure what a “pastor” should “look like” and it was a very interesting time in my journey.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with a lot of stereotypes; of what a Christian should “look like” and what a pastor should “look like.” And I’ve come to realize that my experiences are not isolated. I’ve talked to many people who’ve confused other people’s expectations with God’s expectations. Because God often speaks to us through other people, we sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between the two. So, when everyone around us dresses a certain way, acts a certain way, votes a certain way, listens to certain music, watches certain movies, whatever it may be, and we look up to those people as Christians (or maybe we don’t even look up to them, we just see them as a bunch of Christians), we begin to think that we should dress and act the same way they do, even if we don’t really feel comfortable; even if that’s not really us.

Christian subculture is some of the worst at creating and facilitating stereotypes. We can be some of the worst offenders at trying to get a square peg through a round hole and equate our cultural expectations with holiness. We’ve seen this in its extreme form as we’ve tried to equate exporting “Western Culture” with “missions.” So we send Sunday School materials and “praise and worship” chord charts and even suits and ties (OK, that one may be exaggerated, but then again, maybe it’s not) to parts of the world that have no concept and don’t need to have any concept of such things.

But Christians should have the most humble confidence to truly be themselves, to be unique and to live in freedom. But why don’t we? Why don’t we experience that freedom? To be honest, it’s because we don’t really, truly believe the Gospel in our hearts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we don’t “trust in Jesus for salvation,” but when Jesus says in John 8:32 that “the truth will set you free.” The other side of that coin, then, is that we sin because we choose to believe lies. We choose to believe that our acceptance before God is predicated on all sorts of other things than Jesus. Our identity tries to find fulfillment in work, money, sex, recognition, whatever it might be, but it’s often anything and everything other than our identity with Jesus.

One question I often ask people is: “If you picture God looking at you, how do you picture His facial expression (but don’t picture God too much because we don’t want to break any commandments!)? More often than not, people struggle with that question, answering with things like: He’s upset or loves me because He has to or, He’s impatient. But, remember when Jesus goes out to John to be baptized, and, as He comes up out of the water, the Spirit as a Dove descends on Him and a voice comes from Heaven (Mark 1:4-9). Do you remember what the voice said? This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.

What if we had the confidence to live in the freedom that, because of Jesus, the Father says that of us? That we are adopted in to God’s family and our acceptance is not based on how well we fit other people’s expectations but on Jesus?! I have four sons and I love them all equally. It is tempting sometimes to try and make them all fit in to one mold. But why would I do that? They are four awesome and unique individuals and part of the job of our family is to help them understand their uniqueness rather than make them feel like they constantly have to “fit in.”

Or think about the question: “Who are you?” So many of our first answers are about our jobs or our roles. But what if we experienced our identity as God’s child through adoption in Jesus? We are no longer the things we do, we are a child of God who is loved and accepted and encouraged to find our unique voice. And when we find that unique voice, we are freed up to love and serve others more powerfully because now, our identity is no longer wrapped up in their acceptance of us but we now have the freedom to shower on them the love God has showered on us.

There is much more that could and should be said on this idea but it is my desperate desire that we would create and nourish environments in which people are encouraged to find the humble confidence of true Gospel identity and where we celebrate our differences rather than enforce sameness.

FLDS, “Sister Wives”, Religion And Gospel

March 17, 2011 at 8:52 am

My wife and I have been watching the TLC show Sister Wives. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints polygamist family.

Kody Brown has four wives, and of course, this is the premise of the “reality” show but it’s not the polygamy that has me so interested. Throughout the several episodes that we’ve watched, Brown and his wives have made several references to how they try to live “good, moral lives.”

They point out how they don’t drink alcohol, they don’t smoke (they don’t drink, they don’t chew or go with girls who do), they don’t watch certain movies, etc. They prided themselves on their family life and raising their children with good ethics and morals. All the while, living in a polygamist family.

Several times, they explained their polygamy in religious terms, though without going in to detail. And this is what interests me; not really the polygamy but their good morals driven by religious belief. Over the years, (with the help of Tim Keller and others), I have come to understand the distinction between “religion” and true Christianity (what I’ll here call “gospel”). This is essential to understanding that all who call themselves “Christians” are not necessarily so.

When asked about their beliefs, the Browns repeatedly point to their “good behavior.” Now, this could be because their on a national television show and need to limit their “religious language,” but I don’t think so. The Duggars often openly speak about Jesus. Instead, I think that it is a fundamental difference between LDS understanding and biblical Christianity; between religion and gospel.

Before we examine that difference, perhaps we should clarify our terms a bit. I realize that many people think of Christianity as a religion. Insofar as it is a system of beliefs about how to approach God, that may be partly true. But the Bible often actually opposes Christianity (gospel) from religion. Tim Keller in his fantastic book King’s Cross makes the distinction this way:

“Imagine two people, both trying to obey the law of God, yet they operate from these two opposing paradigms. Both want to keep the Sabbath day, but in one case the obedience is a burden, an enslavement; while in the other it’s a delight, a gift.”

Keller adds:

“Most people in the world believe that if there is a God, you related to God by being good. Most religions are based on that principle, though there are a million different variations on it. Some religions are what you might call nationalistic: You connect to God, they say, by coming into our people group and taking on the markers of society membership. Other religions are spiritualistic: You reach God by working your way through certain transformations of consciousness. Yet other religions are legalistic: There’s a code of conduct, and if you follow it God will look upon you with favor. But they all have the same logic: If I perform, if I obey, I’m accepted. The gospel of Jesus is not only different from that but diametrically opposed to it: I’m fully accepted in Jesus Christ, and therefore I obey.”

The Brown’s comments about avoiding certain behaviors (smoking, drinking, etc.) while indulging in others (polygamy) is a perfect indicator of religion as opposed to gospel. Keller explains:

“In religion the purpose of obeying the law is is to assure you that you’re all right with God. As a result, when you come to the law what you’re most concerned about is detail. You want to know exactly what you’ve got to do, because you have to push all the right buttons. You won’t gravitate toward seeking out the intent of the law; rather, you’ll tend to write into the law all sorts of details of observance so you can assure yourself that you’re obeying it.”

In other words, we’ll pride ourselves on avoiding certain behaviors all the while being guilty of pride. The Browns found self-justification and acceptance before God in their behavior, their morals. In a sense, religions like LDS argue that since they obey, they are accepted. Though many Mormons speak of Jesus and of grace, it is only operative “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). This is drastically different from the gospel of Jesus which says that, because we are fully and finally accepted because of the Jesus and His work, we obey. Our doing flows from our being and, because we are already accepted, we obey.

Though Sister Wives set out to profile a polygamist family, they have also pointed out for us, one of the differences between LDS beliefs and biblical Christianity, between religion and gospel.