Monday, February 25, 2019

The American Dream Infiltrates the Church, Part I

In America today, we measure the success of a church by its size, influence and popularity.  As someone put it, we have Americanized the church.  We have taken the values of the American Dream and applied them to church.  The American Dream is not hostile to Christianity, but it is not Biblical and the Bible alone is our measure for how we go about the Lord's work. 

What is the American Dream?  Its values, as I see it, are: 
  • Work hard for you will be successful
  • Don't stand still, keep moving forward with new ideas, new paradigms
  • Measure success by increased influence, pay and responsibility
  • Life should be better every decade
  • Cars, houses, country clubs, disposable income are accurate indicators of success
  • Hide the bad and display the good--success covers all areas in your life, right?
  • It's ultimately up to you and about you; a few broken relationships or cut corners are just part of moving on up--ends do justify the means
I watched my dad embody these values his whole life.  He served in Korea and when he returned, he climbed the corporate ladder with no looking back.  He gladly obliged society's expectations.  Two broken marriages, an estranged drug addicted son and an alcoholic wife later, he still didn't look back.  No regrets.

When I asked him to tell me his greatest accomplishment in life, he said, "I joined a country club."  My dad grew up during the Depression and remembered having only 83 cents in a drawer to his family's name.  So, he was certainly a poor kid who made good, with his expensive cars and country club membership. The American Dream gave him tangible values that translated into lifelong goals.  

But my dad was not a follower of Christ.  He accepted Christ on his death bed, as he lay dying of melanoma cancer.  He said he was "afraid," and we prayed together.  He passed soon after.   

I saw the bait and switch in his life.  The American Dream and its values were a kind of religion for many of his generation and beyond.  He worked hard, made the grade and then was reduced down to a man dying of cancer.  All the material acquisitions meant nothing; his son would have nothing to do with him; his third wife could not emotionally cope with his decline, and his friends and co-workers were nowhere to be found.

The bait said, "Do this and you will be HAPPY!"  The switch was, "You will have lots of stuff, but your life will be lonely, without true meaning and a sense that you have not quite arrived, 'cause  there's always some guy ahead of you with more!" 

The truth is quite simple:  The American Dream was no substitute for a relationship with Jesus Christ.  A person's purpose is not material success but a heart filled with peace, sins forgiven and a power to affect change wherever God leads.

How does this tie in with false teachers?  Many of them truly are wolves, knowing full well they are fleecing those who follow them.  How they justify it is beyond me.  They will have to answer to Christ.

But many leaders today are using models that while not openly hostile to Christianity, will, once implemented in the church, lead to man-centered definitions of success.        

The American Dream is not a worthy model for the church.  Why?  Because it is not centered in God.  It is a man-centered value system.  Let's break down the values and see how they are contrary to Biblical values, not because they are inherently sinful but because they keep man front and center.

Work hard for you will be successful:  OK.  Not a bad idea, and it plays out most of the time. 

But, you must figure out what "hard" means.  Late nights?  Six days a week?  Hire more staff?  Pay more?  Pay less?  More contemporary music?  More tech?  How many churches today have staff and pastors working longer and longer hours to meet the needs of an ever-growing congregation?  They believe that if they word hard (defined by the organization) they will see more success (again, defined by the organization) for the God's Kingdom.  

But is this the model Jesus offered?

Jesus heals one man at the pool of Siloam.  One man.  He doesn't set up a Pool Healing Ministry. 

He doesn't go around and touch a bunch of people and then ask them to contribute to His ministry. 

He doesn't set up a small gathering area near the pool and share His words of comfort and healing. 

He heals one man. 

To most churches today, He wouldn't be deemed as "successful." 

After being accused by the Pharisees of working on the Sabbath, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed." (John 5:19-20)

Jesus' ministry was centered solely on His Father and His instructions.  The need was great, but Jesus' obedience to His Father was greater.  

Jesus, in His teaching about Him being the Bread of Life, says, "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me." (John 6:38)

No more and no less. 

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21)

Churches today tout bigger and better programs!  More tech!  Theater seating!  A sanctuary is now an "auditorium!"  See how many people are hearing about Jesus with highly entertaining and high-tech sermons!  Of course, this is God's will!  How could it not be!  Look at all those people!

But we need to be  humbled by this verse.  

God must be at the center of all we do, large or small.  How many churches, if the staff sat down and really called upon God, really read His Word, and really sought His will humbly and earnestly, would look with some horror or consternation on how their church is operating?  They would see how they have metaphorically taken over the "Pool of Siloam" and gone big!  Tent revivals, bottled water and monogrammed towels (for a fee, of course) would be available to one and all!  Lots of traffic, lots of people getting saved (how deep this really goes or how deep the commitment really is, no one asks) and lots of statistics about growth are everywhere!  Posters of vision statements and mission statements are happily hung near the pool.  We now hear about a new church Pool Ministry plant coming to a city near you!  

Wow!  This is huge!

But is it God's? 

Indulge me while we have a quick interview with our Lord about that day: 

Why just the one man, Jesus?

That's the only one my Father wanted Me to heal today.

But look at all that need!  So many people!

But I did not come to just heal the bodies of people.  I came to seek and save the lost.  The one man's heart was ready because My Father told me it was.  I came to do only His will.  At that moment near the pool, that is what I did.  Later I found him and warned him to stop sinning.  That was the real reason I came.  Sin and death separate My Father from His children.  I came to change that forever.  

Oh, OK.  We would have done more.  No offense, Lord, but we have a go big, or go home mentality.  Somehow, we are at odds with You, but I don't know why.

I do.  Working in My name and truly knowing Me are two different things. 

We will continue to explore these ideas in the days ahead.  

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Final Woes

Jesus is going through a list of seven woes, aimed at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. We are on the final stretch. Because the prideful human heart does not change, no matter the era, these woes absolutely ring true with false teachers today. If you think Jesus is being harsh, remember, Jesus knows all too well the nature of the human heart: "Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man." (John 2:23-25) 

Jesus knew the verses in Jeremiah 17:5-10:

"This is what the Lord says:
'Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.'
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
'I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.'”

Do you notice how a person who relies on others to lead and guide him will end up in the desert, as it were?  The council of the flesh will give people a sense of confidence on what they hear or see.  They move in a world of sight--not faith-- and their strength comes from what they receive from others.  

Why then rely on the Lord when I have someone telling me how to go?  The teacher tells me if I do this, then this will happen... This teacher has verses to back up the teaching, so why not?  The teacher is teaching me to depend more and more on the teacher than on the Lord, because, well, this person is so spiritual and it's a whole lot easier to just tune in and watch!  This teacher knows his Bible way more than I do!  The more I learn, relying more and more on externals, the more distant God becomes, and I have to rely on what I know, rather than on an developing an increasingly intimate relationship with Him!
Jeremiah teaches that the such people will not see true blessings when they come, because they are so focused on themselves.  He later, after contrasting those who rely solely on the Lord, sees the heart as "deceitful."   

Full of deceit.  That is what characterizes a false teacher in spades.  It also characterizes those people who abdicate their personal responsibility to seek God and wait on Him for guidance.  It characterizes who trade in their Bible for a "Bible teacher."

Both parties are deceived because their hearts have turned away from the Lord.  But Jesus zeroes in with these passages on the teachers, who should know better, because they have the Word right at their fingertips. 

Here we go:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (Matt. 23:23-24)

Plucking some herbs to tithe is no big deal and takes little effort. But justice, mercy and faithfulness?  That takes work!  The Scriptures brim with passages on those topics, but it takes an honest personal evaluation to say, "Have I been just?  Merciful?  Faithful?  Uh-oh.  No.  I must seek the Lord's forgiveness and make amends to those I have wronged."

How often did the Pharisees do that?  They probably more often than not said, "Nah.  I don't have the time.  My herbal tithe should be good enough."  For who?  You?  But we are not here to please ourselves.  We are to serve God in the beauty of holiness.

A modern false teacher would argue that his or her focus on healing, prosperity, or some other single item focus is biblical. 

But what about justice?  Are you funding organizations that promote justice in those parts of the world where it is sorely lacking?  Rescuing those caught in sex trafficking?  Providing shelter, food, potable water and other basic human necessities rather than buying yet another jet?  Or a bigger house?    

Do you serve with mercy?  Are all those who seek you in a healing crusade healed, or do you shun those whose illnesses might call into question whether or not you actually heal people?

What about faithfulness?  With all that money you collect, do you further the work of God's kingdom, or do you benefit yourself?

In other words, do you honor the whole Word of God, not just cherry-picking those verses that benefit you?

Next up:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Matt. 23:25-26)

Blindness seems to be a drumbeat through these verses.  Blindness to the reality of who these teachers were inside.  Blindness to the real need of others.  Blindness to the real attitudes that God desires and how we are His hands and feet, enacting justice, being merciful and being faithful to Him, no matter the cost. 

Do you not see how your version of Christianity is a satanic ploy to discredit it?  You will go and tell everyone it's their biblical right to have wealth, health and prosperity.  You will preach it, live it, demonstrate it and for many, such a belief will merit credence.  You will make your followers hunger and thirst after this world, but not after righteousness.  Then year after year, when the healing doesn't come, the bank account does not overflow, and life seems to be unceasingly hard, people will give up:  their love for God, their love for each other and their commitment to seek the Lord.  The road to prosperity will be littered with bitterness, unbelief, heart-wrenching disappoint and pain.  Your followers will be crying.  Satan will be laughing. 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matt. 23:27-28)

Satan brings death. I bring life--abundant, overflowing, fulfilling life. I demonstrated how that abundant life works: I utterly surrendered to My Father. His will brought Me joy as I fulfilled His will, spoke His words, and touched humanity with His love. I sought Him each morning, asking Him how I should walk in His ways this day. One day came, and we both cried. But it was the day for which I came. I showed what true surrender looked like My whole life, even when it meant death on a cross. But it also meant resurrection. The same power that brought Me to life is the same I give to you. I am the greatest gift you could ever have. Moths, time and thieves destroy what the world gives. I will never leave nor forsake you.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matt. 23:29-36)

Self-righteousness, grandiose displays of supposed wealth from My hands, no humility and no honoring of My Father and His Word, will lead to judgement. You won't listen to My people who long to take you back into the Word and show you, in love, the errors of your ways. You have your own gospel, laced with pride and deceit. You will not allow opposition in your own organizations. You surround yourself with people who labor with a "touch not the Lord's anointed" mentality, which is just another way of saying that you and you alone have the truth. Whose truth? The prophets of old, whose words still ring true today? Sages? People whose knowledge of the Word utterly dwarfs your own, but you will not listen, for you are convinced of your own superiority in such matters. Your failure to allow the whole counsel of God to live in you will bring judgement.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matt. 23:37-39)

Judgement will come, because My Father is righteous, faithful and just. My words are His mercy to you: to guide, warn and bring life. If you choose death, by glorifying the self, the stones of your ministry will fall, crushing those who have supported you. I come in His Name; I ride into every city of the heart, and greatly desire that you honor Me in everything you say and do. But, sadly, those whose greed, ambition and deceit pervert My Word will one day receive My words, "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matt. 7:21-23) 


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