Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to be a witness in your own home

The other day I was doing an interview with an 8th grade boy from a nearby Catholic school.  I’ve done several of these interviews in the past, and this one was arranged by his mother. She told me over the phone that it was the boy's father who would bring him to the interview.  Now this 8th grader, who I'm going to call Andrew, had a lot of good questions for me…I got to share about the core convictions of the Reformation, and among these: grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, and Christ alone.  When we were close to being finished I asked one more time, “Do you have any other questions?”  “No,” he said, but then turning to his Dad he said, “Dad, do you have any questions for Pastor Steve?”  That was a first!

In all the interviews I have ever done like this, no child ever asked a parent if she/he had a question for me.  The father seemed caught off guard by his son’s question: “No, I don’t have any questions for Pastor Steve.”  The son pressed further: “My dad’s an atheist,” he added.  That opened the door!  He proceeded to tell me about his unbelief…and yet respect for Jesus and his moral teachings.  He also said that his wife was a strong Catholic, but that he did not share her beliefs. I challenged him to keep asking questions, and shared with him that I too went through a time of questioning and that it helped me find answers.  I invited him to give me a call if he ever wanted to talk further before they walked out the door. 

I share this story because it describes a common situation...a family in which one of the members is not a believer (more thoughts about that story in a moment). Jesus cares about the spiritual life of our home.  The first place that Jesus wanted his disciples to bear witness to him was in Jerusalem.  That is, he wanted them to start at home, with those they knew best. Sometimes the hardest place to be a witness to our Lord is among those who know us the best!  Now the Bible tells us that God is at work through us to bless our not-yet-believing family members as we do six things… 

You can begin by keeping your commitments: Paul’s advice to Christians with unbelieving spouses is to be faithful in our commitment.  In other words, be someone who binds the family together, not someone who pulls it apart! (1 Cor. 7: 12-16).  In Corinth, Christianity was a radically new phenomenon in what was an overwhelmingly pagan city.  No doubt there were many new Christians with unbelieving partners. This put tremendous strain on the relationship. The Christian partner has a whole new set of loyalties, new priorities, new desires.  A follower of Christ is “a new creation”!  But if your spouse does not share that experience, you’ve probably felt misunderstood, frustrated, even torn in two.  

Then consider things from the unbeliever’s perspective.  I read about a Cape Town brain surgeon in this situation who said that his wife “was no longer the person with whom he had originally fallen in love and decided to marry; and that there was now another “Man” in the house to whom she was always referring every decision and consulting for advice and instruction.  He felt like he was no longer the King of his castle: that Jesus was giving the orders and setting the pace” (David Prior, The Message of First Corinthians, p. 125).  

In response to this very real situation with which we too are familiar, Paul encourages commitment to the marriage for one powerful reason…consecration.  Paul literally says, “The unbelieving man is consecrated, made holy (hegiastai) by the woman” (14) and vice versa.  The unbeliever does not cancel out the faith of the believer; quite the opposite -- something special happens between the unbeliever and the Lord.  There is a sanctifying process going on that can result in your partner experiencing new life in Christ.  And it’s not only your spouse who is hegiastai, but your children as well who are blessed and consecrated by your commitment.  "What about those who have already divorced?" you may be wondering.  Let me encourage you to be the Lord’s peacemaker as you seek to bring His peace and healing into the heart of your separated family!  

Secondly, pray for them in difficult times: Luke describes a time when Jesus was teaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee.  Now I’ve visited this synagogue, and Peter’s house is a very short distance from it.  No doubt, he was thinking of his mother-in-law that day who despite her closeness to the synagogue, could not be there because she was suffering from a high fever.  Immediately after the service, Peter brought Jesus down to his home:  We read in Luke 4: 38-39 that, “Jesus stood over her and rebuked the fever and it left her.  Immediately she got up and began to serve them.” Peter’s faith in bringing Jesus to his mother-in law reminds us that even if our family members cannot or will not come with us to Jesus, we can bring Jesus to our family members or close friends as we pray for his help. 

I clearly remember that it was when my best friend’s mom in elementary school got very sick that I first began to share with him about my faith in God and began to pray for him and his family.  It opened a door and planted a seed.

Thirdly, show love and respect:  The theme of honor and respect are everywhere in the Bible. In Ephesians 5: 21-6:4, Paul urges us to practice mutual submission, honor and respect out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21).  Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord….Husbands, love your wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  Children are to obey their parents in the Lord.  Parents aren't off the hook either: Fathers do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”   

When you honor your spouse, when you show love and respect to your children or to your parents…you are planting seeds of faith, and showing them the character of Christ.  I’m convinced that one of the reasons my 94 year old grandfather came to faith in Christ was that my mother tirelessly served and helped him in his older years.  She loved him into the Kingdom. What a witness!

Fourth, teach your children without apology:  Prov. 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it.” One of our duties as parents is to bring our children to Jesus, just as parents brought children to Jesus to be blessed by him (Matt. 19:3).   Some parents believe that taking their children to church is nothing more than “brain-washing.” My reply is that our brains are going to be washed by something one way or the other. There is no such thing as a values-free or values-neutral society.  If our children are not taught Christian values, they will be taught secular values by default – the message that life is without purpose, that there is no right or wrong; that having more stuff is the key to happiness, that I have a right to satisfy any and every desire; that the commitment of marriage is boring; that violence is the way to solve problems.

Lisa and I were talking about the state of our schools with a neighbor and the quality of teaching, which I think is very good.  But I began to think about the privilege of sitting at the feet of the Teacher…whose words and works have changed the course of history. Jarislov Pelikan, Prof. of History at Yale says, “Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries.  If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?”  Why we would we withhold that knowledge from our children?  A Chinese professor told me that she wanted to read the Bible because she said you cannot understand western culture without it (Note: Jesus was not "western" but "middle eastern."  Regardless, he has had touched men and women from every culture and tribe).  Teaching our children about the words and works of Jesus Christ is not foolish…it is wisdom itself.

Fifth, honor God and his sovereignty over them: Jesus challenged us to love him more…than earthly family (Matt. 10:37).  He was even thrown out of his home town, but it didn’t dissuade him from his mission (Luke 4: 23-30; Luke 8:19ff.)  Jesus shocks us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).

To love Him more than family means that we keep the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  We can make a god of our families, our success, or our children’s success.  As followers of Jesus we are aware of  the larger priorities of the Kingdom.  It’s not all about the success of my family…it’s about serving the King as members of his family.  When we put Him first…it is a witness to my spouse and my children that there is a larger world, a world of need into which we are being called to serve and make a difference for the King. But let me underscore that loving Christ more than family does not mean neglecting them.  We are to love him more, not instead of our families. As his followers we continue to be called to care for, honor, and love our families with the love he pours into our hearts.  When we love him first, we learn from him how to love them best.

Finally, invite your family…to meet Jesus: There are many stories in Scripture of family members bringing loved ones to the Lord.  Joseph (Genesis 50), you’ll remember, was the vehicle through which his entire family was brought into a deeper relationship and understanding of God’s forgiveness and provision.  Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus saying, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:35-42).  Did Andrew, or his mother, plan for his dad to come to my office with his son so that he could ask a few questions and get another perspective?   It dawned on me later that week that this is exactly what happened.   He was set up!  

Someone I care about very much is my hero when I think of the principles we spoke of today.  Her dad was very hostile to the Christian faith.  He would put pieces of paper at each place setting on Thanksgiving with the following words typed out:  “Please do not pray in my presence or thank God for this food.  It is an insult to the hard work I did to put it on the table.”  I’m speaking, of course, of my wife Lisa. Nevertheless, Lisa’s mom continued to love and stay committed to her husband.  She and her children prayed for him, and showed him deep love and respect.  When Wally threatened to disown Lisa if she went to Fuller Seminary to study psychology, she went anyway because she believed it was the right thing to do. It was costly…and when she decided to marry a pastor, she endured the additional hurt of her dad not attending our wedding.  Nevertheless, she continued to love Wally.  Gradually, we began to see his heart soften toward us, though seemingly firm in his unbelief.  The end of the story?  We have hope!  We found a locked file cabinet after he died with everything we ever wrote to him about the Lord.  And we have reason to believe that Christ met Wally in the moments before he died… and that Wally did finally come to know that Jesus is Lord….but that is another story.

Jesus wants to consecrate your family through you too!  Think for a moment about someone in your immediate family, or a close friend who you know that you need to pray for; a child, a not-yet-believer; someone struggling with doubt or tragedy.  What is God calling you to do this week to express his grace and truth? Why not begin with prayer.  Pray for the power to love, forgive and respect your family, especially not-yet-believing family members.  Pray for an opportunity to share your story of God’s work in your life.  And offer up a prayer of faith that the God -- for whom all things are possible --  is at work in your family even when it may be difficult to see! 

King Jesus, give me courage to be your disciple and to boldly join you in your mission.  I confess my fear that truly following you may separate me from my family and close friends; or that I may fail to represent you well.  Help me to trust that you can bring the people that I love into your kingdom, whether through me or apart from me.  As I love and honor you before my family and friends – may they hear and see you.  As I commit myself to them, pray for them, love and respect them, teach them about you, and share my testimony of your work in my life, may they know you as Savior and Lord, and the blessing of walking in your ways.  Jesus, I trust your word when you say that in losing my life, I will find it again.  I therefore surrender not only my life, but my hopes and dreams and deepest longings for those I love, and pray that we might be joined together in your spiritual family, forever.  Amen!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sent to be a Witness

A popular college application asks, “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” How would you answer that question? These were some answers: The building of the pyramids, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln at Gettysburg, D-Day WWII, the assassination of JFK, Woodstock, the first moon landing. One person said, ‘my parent’s wedding.’  I noticed that many said "a day in the life of Jesus Christ," and in particular his crucifixion and resurrection.

Jesus told his disciples in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses.”  Now, the definition of a “credible witness” in a court of law is “someone who has personal, believable, first-hand knowledge of an event or who has told the whole truth.”  The reason I am a follower of Christ is that I find the testimony of the gospels to be believable, credible, accounts of what eye-witnesses heard and saw concerning him.  None of us were “eyewitnesses” of Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection.  But as followers of the King who are filled with his Holy Spirit, Jesus promises that we will bear witness to him. Jesus shows us what this looks like in Matthew 9:36-10:10.

From the beginning we must learn that witnesses share the heart of the King (Matt. 9: 36, 10: 5-6) When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples…. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

In Matt. 9:36 we learn that because Jesus has a heart -- a heart of compassion for people; and because Jesus suffers for and with people, he sends us on a mission to them.  The word “compassion” translates a Greek word (splachna) meaning “to be moved from the gut.”  Listen! You can’t be a witness to Jesus until you are moved by the heart of Jesus.  Jesus had a gut-level compassion for the sick, for the grieving, for the lonely, for the hungry, for the rebel and the spiritually lost.  

Secular sociologist Rodney Stark has written a brilliant book, The Rise of Christianity, in which he describes how Christianity arose from a small group … to become the dominant force of the Roman Empire in a short time. He presents factors that would have contributed to this great movement towards Christ. One of these factors  was the two devastating epidemics in the second and third centuries. If those who were affected were cared for, there was a good chance they would survive. But often when a member of the family contracted the disease, the other family members left that person uncared for and left their homes for places not affected by the disease. The Christians, however, did not do this …. They cared for their own family members and also cared for those who were left behind by their family members. Stark points out that the willingness to suffer in order to care for the sick had a part to play in large numbers of people in the Roman Empire turning to Christ.  It was their compassion, that showed through and bore witness to the heart of Christ.

I want to emphasize that Jesus has compassion for the lost.  Jesus sent his disciples to the “lost sheep” and he told his most famous parable about the wayward son who returned home in repentance to his welcoming father who declared, “My son who was lost has been found.”  The Greek word apolwlota (apololota) does not mean “lost” in the sense of “strayed” or “missing” but lost in the final sense of “perished” or “dead."  When Jesus looked around him, he saw lost people, he saw “perished” people.  He saw people who were truly endangered…spiritually, suffocating under the weight of sin, wandering far from the grace and truth of God (Romans 3: 23).  One of the things that neutralizes our witness for Christ is the denial of our own lostness…that we are lost and in need of the King and his kingdom.

Two young college-age men, not members of this church, came to me in a single week to talk, and what they told me in so many words was:  “I’m lost.  I have done things that I regret.  I need help.”  My heart was moved by their stories as I listened; but I have to tell you…both of them were about the age I was when I was experiencing my own spiritual struggles, my own lostness…and so I was able to share with them not only the hope of Christ; but the hope that Christ brought to MY life and the truth that he came “to seek and save the lost.”   Friends, we have to pray for compassion… a heart that cares about the sick and the grieving and the lonely and the hungry and the rebel.  We have to pray for compassion for those who have lost their way and are running far from God.  But first we must come to understand that we are lost…that we are without hope accept in God’s sovereign mercy; that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).  

Witnesses speak the words of the King (Matt. 10: 7)  As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  A witness, as we said earlier, is someone who testifies to what he or she has seen, heard, or experienced.  Now there is no doubt, when we look at the ministry and the mission of Jesus and his disciples, that they used their words.   And they continued to use their words, even after Jesus was crucified.  If there was ever a time when Jesus’ followers should have kept quiet, it’s when he was put to death… and yet after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they continued to speak with tremendous courage.  Historically, when Christians are under persecution, they speak up, they tell others, they spread the word!  Paul asks the Christians in Rome, “How are they to believe in one whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”  In 1 Peter 3:15 we read, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

To speak out and share in our own words what Christ has done for us, to stand with him and speak for those things that advance his kingdom; this is one of the most critical things we can do as his followers.  Often this will be in the midst of ordinary events and circumstances….as we walk in relationship with others, listen carefully to others, and share our deepest convictions, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes the call to bear witness to Jesus will come at the most unexpected moments, moments that we have to be ready for....

On the bus a few years ago, returning from the Hollywood Bowl, a couple who had been drinking too much began getting into a loud argument.  The wife continued to badger her husband who was standing up, and I could tell that it was about to get physical as she stood and began to grab him more forcefully.  Lisa and I and our two friends (a therapist, a pastor, and a social worker) were staring at each other, wondering what to do?  Then, without thinking, I found myself on my feet, taking hold of her hand, and asking.  “May I pray for you?”  I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but then the words came out of my mouth:  “Lord I pray that you would bring peace into the heart of this woman, and her husband.”  She sat down and began to get quiet.  I soon discovered she was from Burbank, and that her children had attended the preschool where my dad had been pastor!  After we got out of the bus, they hugged me…though they were far from sober, or out of the woods. 

For many of us, being a witness in this way is difficult because we have not really thought through what, if anything, we would say about our experience with Christ.  A witness tells others what he or she has experienced and seen…not what someone else has experienced or seen.  In our church's Lifegroups we are preparing our testimonies.  The idea is to think about your life before knowing or really following Christ; then to think about how and when you came to be an apprentice and follower of Jesus; and how your life with Christ now is different because of him.  Remember these four things:  Keep it short / 3 minutes, since people tend to switch off after that. (2) Keep it personal without preaching.  Use “I” and “we,” not “you.”  (3) Keep it real. Share how Christ has helped you through times of failure, difficulty, doubt, or other personal challenge. (4) Keep Christ central.  They need to follow Him, not you!  

Finally, witnesses do the works of the King (Matt. 10: 8) Jesus said, Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  You received without payment; give without payment.”  In other words, I want you to do the things that I do.  I want you to bring healing to the sick, life to the dead, bless those who are on the margins of society, confront evil in all its forms.  As you received the overflowing grace of God from me, so I want you to share it with open hands. 

Through our daughters, we have come to know a family whose young daughter was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.  The news was devastating for the family, and incredibly stressful for the parents.  We felt that we should be praying for this family who were not part of any church community.  Of course, “Susan” knew that I was the pastor at St. John’s but Lisa and I both felt that there was more that we needed to do to be a witness to them.  Through it all, this little girl’s mother continued to talk about the excellent care she was getting at UCLA and in particular one compassionate and calming nurse that was her primary oncology nurse. You can imagine that you get to know your doctors and nurses pretty well through an experience like this…and at one point their daughter’s primary nurse mentioned that she went to St. John’s and was talking about our youth group.  It was "Dianna" -- an oncology nurse in our own congregation! That day, “Susan” called up Lisa and said, “I found out that our favorite nurse is a member of your church!”  She went on to talk about how gentle and compassionate and professional she was with her daughter.   I have to tell you that it seemed to us to be an incredible answer to prayer.  Here was a family that we cared about very much… a family who knew that we were praying for them, but who had been keeping a safe distance from the church.  Dianna’s care of Susan's daughter was a kingdom advancing act…one that demonstrated, in a tangible way, the King’s love for this family. Jesus said, “let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Because of Dianna’s faithful work as a nurse who loves the King, and our friendship…they are experiencing the light, the compassion, the truth, and the goodness of the King and his kingdom.

So, the question we began with was, “What historical moment or event do you wish you could witness?”    If you had asked Jesus’ disciples that just before his ascension they would have said, “We would like to see the golden age of Israel again when she was in her glory.  Lord can we?  Can we see that in our time (Acts 1:6)?”  Jesus’ response was “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has established…but you will receive power and you will be my witnesses.”  In other words, you’re not going to dwell on the past…you’re going to witness history in the making…right now.  And they did.

So let’s go out there and make history…let’s pray that this week is a week in which Jesus himself makes an appearance on this earth through our Christ-honoring words and works.  That as we share his heart, speak his words, and do his works…someone who is sick is healed, someone who is grieving is comforted, someone who is lonely is loved, someone who is hungry is given bread, someone who is lost and running from God finds hope and eternal life.  Let’s go do what Jesus’ people do, let’s do the job we’ve been called to do…let’s go make history…as his witnesses…and to God be the glory.  Amen!