Peter, Revolutionary, Sellout, Champion of Grace

Yesterday on the ERLC blog, I continued my series on speaking with grace in the public square: 

For several hundred years, basic Judeo-Christian values have held a dominant place in Western culture. But things are changing. While the Church is experiencing explosive growth in the Global South, the West is rapidly becoming post-Christian. For many followers of Jesus, this new reality is unsettling. Suddenly, long-accepted views on issues like marriage and sexuality are now viewed as intolerant, even bigoted.

Though the post-Christian paradigm is new in America, it’s not new in the history of the Church. There are very few moments in history where the surrounding culture affirmed the Church’s values. God’s people have always been a counter-cultural movement. Jesus, in his final discourse on the night before his arrest, warned his disciples about the possibility of social marginalization and physical persecution:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:18-20).

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” –these words are as relevant to us as they were to the disciples. But they are words that don’t exactly go down easy. It’s human nature to want to be liked and yet, the call of Christ is, at some level, to embrace the role of a subversive, an outsider, a revolutionary. The gospel upends the dominant social order, always confronting and provoking.

So the question for followers of Jesus is not if we’ll face opposition or why we’re facing opposition, but how should we react when the culture winces at our message?

In my view, we typically adopt one of two equally misguided attitudes. We are tempted to worship at the altar of acceptance and willingly jettison core Christian teachings. The last several years have seen the rise of novel interpretations of Scripture, hoping to align shifting sexual mores with biblical values.

At the other end of the spectrum there is an equally dangerous posture. This is the temptation to proudly wear the badge of cultural provocateur. In this worldview, controversy is king and no rhetorical weapon is left unsheathed in the war of ideas.

But are these the only two choices for a follower of Jesus? I believe there is a third way, a more biblical approach to engaging culture. We see this modeled in the life of one of the most enigmatic characters in Scripture: Simon Peter.

In a 24-hour space of time, Peter was both the provocateur and the culturally timid. He pledged undying loyalty to Jesus and in a fit of defensive rage, lopped off the ear of a Roman soldier. And yet it was also Peter who sheepishly denied the Lord, not once, not twice, but three separate times. He was both a zealot and sellout in the same night.

Read the whole thing here:

The One Thing Your Team Needs . . . That Only You Can Give

“Nobody has ever told me that before,” she said to me. Her tired voice and tired posture betrayed years of faithful ministry work that had gone unnoticed and unappreciated. It was my first week on the job as a Senior Pastor and I had much to learn about shepherding God’s people. But one thing I carried with me from childhood, something my mother taught me repeatedly, is the value of a simple “thank you” to those who work with and for you. So I said thank you to this church lady for volunteering every week for one of our key ministry programs.

Leaders of all types have one thing to give to their people that nobody else can give: encouragement. By this I don’t mean flattery that withholds useful criticism and coaching. I mean a simple affirmation of their gifts and their contributions. Even if you’re managing people who make a salary and shouldn’t have to be rewarded with praise for performance, you should still let them know periodically that they are valued and appreciated. If you’re a pastor leading mostly volunteers, your gratitude is even more important. Volunteers don’t have to give you their time and money, they do out of belief in the cause.

Sometimes Christians withhold praise from a kind of Pharisaical moral platform. I’ve heard longtime believers say, for instance, that we shouldn’t clap after someone sings in church, for fear that this person might “get a big head and not give glory to God.” For one thing, God never tasks you and me with the “Glory Watch” of others. What I mostly hear in Scripture is that any identification of pride is to be a Spirit-directed self-discipline. In other words, if there is anyone’s pride who needs to be kept in check, its my own, not the dear saint who labored to give us some music on Sunday. And of course we have Jesus’ own example of praising John the Baptist, calling him the greatest man who had ever lived (Matthew 11:7). One wonders if there was a know-it-all disciple within earshot who felt Jesus went a little far in his praise. Jesus also lamented that only one out of ten healed lepers expressed their praise to him. Ironically it was the Samaritan, the least likely object of a healing by a Jewish rabbi, who felt the weight of his miracle enough to offer praise. Often its those who expect miracles who lose the wonder when they actually happen. Lack of gratitude, far from a minor character flaw, is at the root of man’s disobedience from God. Satan’s enticement of Eve began with the premise that God was withholding good and in Romans, we see the Apostle Paul finger this insidious sin as the root of human rebellion (Romans 1:18-32).

Those of us who have experienced an even greater miracle, whose souls have been cleansed by Jesus’ healing death and resurrection, should be among the most grateful. Not only toward God who, through Christ, rescued us from death, but also toward those who He has sovereignly placed in our lives. Those who we are privileged to work with and around, the loved ones we live with, and friends who enrich our lives. For leaders, especially, gratitude should be a discipline. There are words we can speak to those who look up to us that only we can speak, words that mean more coming from our mouths than anyone else’s. A son shouldn’t assume his father loves and values him. He should actually hear, regularly, that his dad actually loves and values him. Employees shouldn’t wait years to know their worth to the company. They should hear it, not in flattering, untrue ways, but in real, tangible, specific instances.

I have found, personally, that gratitude is like a muscle. I must discipline myself to exercise it regularly. So I must remind myself to daily affirm those I’m called to love at home, my wife and children. I must remind myself to notice something special about my staff. And I must regularly remind my friends how much I appreciate them.

I have found that when it comes to encouragement, I needn’t worry whether or not my praise will “give someone a big head.” The rough and tumble world already takes care of people’s ego quite well without me. Plus, I’ve found that it’s usually me with the biggest head and uttering words of gratitude lets out some of the air.

Speaking with Grace: The gospel and the way we speak

Over at ERLC.com, I’m in the midst of a series of blog posts on speaking with grace in the culture. Here’s the second in this series: 

Mark DeMoss is a longtime public relations consultant who has represented some of the most well known evangelical figures such as Jerry Falwell and Chuck Colsen. DeMoss has also served as an adviser for several presidential candidates.

In 2009, conservative DeMoss teamed up with liberal Lanny Davis to create the Civility Project. Both men, informed by their Christian faith, were deeply convicted by the caustic rhetoric consistently employed by both sides of our political divide. The two men sent letters to every sitting member of Congress and every governor with a simple request. Would each public servant sign this simple pledge?

I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

I will stand against incivility when I see it.

The Civility Project spent several thousand dollars and launched an extensive PR campaign. But after two years, DeMoss and Davis shut down the effort. Only two politicians signed on: Virginia Congressman Frank Wolff and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. In an interview with the New York Times, DeMoss expressed his disappointment, particularly with his own tribe: “The worst emails I received were from conservatives with just unbelievable language…some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call.”

It’s easy to react to this story with typical outrage at Washington. It’s easy to be cynical about the American politician. But maybe we should ask ourselves if the problem of incivility is simply a fault of the political class or a reflection of the larger culture?

Some evangelicals use the state of political discourse to advocate withdrawal from politics. But, if we’re to embrace the full impact of the gospel, we’re to love our world like Jesus loved the world. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6), we’re told to pray for God’s will to happen “on earth as it is in Heaven.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just a ticket out of hell for believers, but the reversal of the curse, the sign that death, sin and the enemy have been defeated and that Christ is coming back to renew and restore his world. The Church, then, serves as a window into a future kingdom.

A few years ago I read a book that really helped me consider a third way. City of Man, written by two political veterans, Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, advocates principled, but wise engagement. I had the chance to interview both men on my blog. I asked Gerson why weary evangelicals should still care about politics and culture:

“Because the Bible teaches that God is the author of history and isn’t indifferent to the realm of politics and history. In addition, politics can have profound human consequences. It matters whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. The idea that people of faith can take a sabbatical from politics to collect their thoughts and lick their wounds is a form of irresponsibility. It is, in fact, an idea that could only be embraced by comfortable Christians. Particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, there is no sabbatical from the failures of politics.”

This thinking lines up with Jeremiah’s instruction to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Thousands of miles from their homeland, a minority in a pagan culture, God’s people were instructed in Jeremiah 29:7 to plant roots in in a world that was not their home: But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is a great call not to be indifferent to the plight of their communities and their nation. Loving our neighbors and our cities means we should have an active role in shaping society. In this way, applying our understanding of Scripture to cultural questions obeys the command to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31). By “seeking justice and loving mercy” we demonstrate our obedience to the God we love (Micah 6:8).

In recent years, evangelicals have reprised the phrase, “common good” to communicate the goals of civic engagement. Christians should not keep quiet in the face of suffering. We should be voices for the voiceless, motivated not by the pursuit of power, but a genuine desire for the welfare of our cities. Sometimes this means interfacing with issues with widespread cultural agreement. But at other times it requires a certain gospel-infused courage to tackle issues that cut against the cultural grain.

It’s beyond the scope of this particular blog series to examine the specific issues of importance. Rather, I’d like to talk about the way we speak. If the gospel compels us to love our communities, then it’s not enough to let our voices be heard. We must commit to applying the gospel to the very words we chose.

The power of your words

In my first post for the ERLC.com website, I wrote about the power of words:

Imagine a resource with endless supply that can be leveraged for unbelievable good or incomprehensible evil and distributed instantly through global networks.

What is this resource? It is the simple commodity of words.

We were told as children that words could not hurt us, but that is not true. Words have power.

The universe was created by the word of God (Heb. 11:3). God used words to instruct the children of Israel, literally writing with His hand on tablets of stone (Exod. 31:18). It is through the Scriptures—written words inspired by God, chronicled by man—that we learn of God and find faith (John 5:39; Rom. 10:17).

Jesus, the gospel writer John says, is the living word of God (John 1:1, 14). As a man he was sustained by the very power of God’s Word (Matt. 4:4). As God incarnate, His last words on the cross, “It is finished,” satisfied the wrath of God and secured the faith of those who believe (John 19:30).

The wise Solomon wrote that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Prov. 18:21). James, the brother of Jesus, said “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:10).

Words lit the fire of the Reformation and inspired the American Revolution. Words have sent people to the death chamber and stayed the hand of execution. Words have begun wars and ended wars.

Words can be instruments of healing or as destructive as “sword thrusts” (Prov. 12:18). Most of us have been both inspired and wounded by them. Words of Scripture. A speech. A sermon. Song lyrics. Lines from movies. A teacher’s encouraging remark. A loved one’s angry outburst. A friend’s sincere compliment. A rebellious teen’s nasty text.

Words hold weight. We know this. So, as people of a Book (the Bible), as followers of the Word (Jesus), as children of a God who speaks, how then shall we think about our words?

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