Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Be Different!

Proverbs 11:30  The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise.
"I don't see the apostles hiding in their holy huddles, not going into the world to reach people with the gospel, but just focusing on the people in the church!"
"True, but I don't see them doing things that look exactly like the world, in order to attract people, and then trying to sneak the gospel in!"
Two Extremes
Thus begins the wrestling I've had with these two concepts.  The two voices represent two sides of me.  On the one hand, I don't believe Christians should simply complain about the darkness, but not actually do anything about it.  The world beyond the walls of our church is dark, yet, we sometimes stay inside our comfort zones where it's warm and light and comfortable.  We recognize that the darkness is bad, but we don't actually go out with our candles to do anything about it! Jesus said in Luke 8:16, "No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light."  But Paul also said in 2Co 6:17, "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,".
When I used to think about "outreach" or "witnessing" I'd get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It seems so intimidating to go out and talk to people.  I always associated it with preaching on street-corners, but generally that's not what people in America respond to.  So in the search to find out the best way to influence people toward God, I've noticed that people tend to swing between two ends of the spectrum.  And to tell you the truth, when I say 'people' I may just mean 'me.'   Here are the two viewpoints that I swing between.  I can either separate completely from the world, but the problem with that is that I can't win people.  I want to be a witness of what Jesus has done for me, and I want them to experience what I've experienced!  But to do it I need to actually have contact with people who don't know God.  Which can be scary!  But it IS important to bring people to a relationship with God.  I read a book called, "One Thing You Can't Do in Heaven."  That 'one thing' of course, is witnessing.  But then how do I do it?  To influence people should I go out and become friends with them by doing the kinds of things they're doing?  Laugh at their jokes, don't say anything to offend them, etc.?  The problem is that then I'm just like them!  I'm not influencing them, they are influencing me!  I see some churches adopting this strategy.  To bring people they do things to attract them, and become more like the world so that people will come.  So there are these two ends of the spectrum.  Separate completely, or compromise to bring people in.
The two Scriptures I quoted above seem to sum up the battle in my mind, and yet they aren't conflicting.  But if you emphasize one without the other, the results can be disastrous.  Since I've been trying to sort out the balance in my mind, I wanted to vent my thoughts somewhere, and a blog is a great place to do it!
You Have To Go Out...You Don't Have To Come Back
I read a book a while ago called, Battle for a Generation by Ron C. Hutchcraft.  Very good book.  And he starts out by talking about the incredible exciting stories of the Lifesaving Stations on the East Coast.  Before the Coast Guard and all that, there were Lifesaving Stations for ships who went out to sea.  Amazing accounts!  Single-handed rescues!  Committed people spending all night on flimsy boats in stormy seas!  These brave men and women would go out into the ocean when they got calls to rescue people who in bad shipwrecks.  One man went out on a stormy night into the ocean ten times and back to rescue the ten people who were trapped on a sinking ship.  But the thing that struck me most of all was their motto: You have to go out...You don't have to come back. Ron Hutchcraft compared them to the church. What would happen if they waited for people to come to the lifesaving station?  They wouldn't accomplish their goal of rescuing people.  What if they became so concerned about how the lifesaving station looked and made into more of a lifesaving club spending so much time focused on the needs of the workers who were already a part of the lifesaving station and making sure they were comfortable that they completely neglected their purpose of saving people?  Obviously the lifesaving station is there for saving people who are out in the ocean, and in order to do that, the workers needed to GO OUT to rescue them.  It's the same with the church.  Our mission is to save people, so obviously we need to GO OUT into the world to do it.  Matthew 28:19 is the Great Commission not the Great Invitation.
Our Strategy
But HOW do we do it?  The Bible says others need to be saved with fear pulling them out of the fire.  But clearly we can't literally snatch people out of Hell.  Jesus said this, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16)  The verse I quoted at the beginning provides an answer.  I've heard the last part quoted quite a bit when it comes to sould-winning; "he that winneth souls is wise."  But for some reason the first part is left out, even though that is what holds the key to the last part.
Holy=Set Apart
But to explain what I mean, first let me reiterate that we are supposed to be separate from the world.  We are supposed to be holy, and the very word hold means 'set apart'.  The Bible often refers to us as the pure bride of Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:2-4 says something that sums up this concept.  The Apostle Paul wrote, "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.  (3)  But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.  (4)  For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him."  Obviously, in order to be the kind of bride described in Ephesians 5:27, we can't compromise.  Yet we are supposed to be wise as serpents in order to win the world, and it's hard to attract people with no compromise.  Yet, as I once heard a preacher say, "If we dress the pure bride of Christ up like a harlot, those people who are attracted to that, will only be looking for a temporary relationship, anyway."  Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.So how do we reconcile these two things?  We need to go out into the world, and yet we need to be separate from the world.  The answer is that we are supposed to be separate...within the world!  Or as the common saying says, "In the world, but not of it."
Counterculture is the Solution!
My pastor has talked a lot about counterculture.  I read the definition of Counterculture in my sociology book recently.  It's a subculture within a culture that does not conform to the norms of the culture its in.  So its not necessarily antagonistic, but it is deviant!  That's what we're supposed to be, and that's how we're supposed to win people.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul said that he had written before to say not to keep company with sinners.  But in this chapter he clarified by saying that he didn't mean sinners of the world, because then we'd have to go to the moon.  (Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners.)  Rather, the ones Paul commanded to dis-fellowship were those in the church who were living a bad lifestyle, because the church is the place that's supposed to be different from the world!  This is the place where people should be able to find refuge in Jesus' arms and begin living a different life.  Those in the church should be very distinct from those in the world.  The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.  When people see how different we are...that our fruit is a tree of life...they'll want to be a part of that!  But if we look just like them, there's no reason for them to want to be like us.  There's no difference.  In our Bible study, we recently got done studying 1 and 2 Peter, which is like the counter-cultural Christian's guide!  The main point is the conclusion of what I have been thinking about how to reconcile the two verses I quoted from the outset.  We are supposed to be in the world, but our identity is supposed to be like that of the image of the Son of God, very different from the world, which is what will eventually win souls.
Let me finish up with one of my favorite stories from church history.  It's about a monk named Telemachus.  But the interesting thing about THIS particular monk, was that he wasn't satisfied with staying in solitude away from everybody, and he felt God was calling him to go to Rome.  This was in the 5th century, years after Constantine had died.  Telemachus went to Rome, at a time when the Emperor Honorius' armies had just won an amazing victory over the Goths.  They were bringing thousands of prisoners into the Coliseum to be used in the gladiator games.  The monk watched in horror as the people of this supposedly 'Christian' city cheered and roared over the blood being spilled in the arena.  This devoted man of God could scarcely believe the callousness of the sport in which gladiators would march up to the Emperor's box, yell, "Hail Caesar!  We who are about to die salute you!" then as soon as they had a victim pinned would look up into the stands for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  Thumbs-up meant he lived, thumbs-down meant he died.   Telemachus, horrified, leaped into the arena himself, and got between two men who were trying to kill each other, attempting to stop the wielding of their swords.  "In the name of Christ, stop!"  But the frenzied crowd became enraged that someone would interrupt their entertainment and began raining stones down upon the poor monk's head, killing him in the process.  Okay, now let's take a step back from the scene.  At first glance, it may seem like he did little good.  Wouldn't it have been better if he had stayed home with those other monks, continuing his separated lifestyle of prayer and worship?  Or when he got to Rome, shouldn't he have gone along with what the crowd was doing, then later try to make friends with some of the people of the city in an effort to some day influence them towards Christ?  What did going into the very worst place in Rome, and standing out so different, and in such stark contrast from everyone else, really do for Telemachus or anybody else?  History holds an amazing testimony for an answer.  When the emperor Honorius found out what had happened, he banned all gladiator contests from then on, and John Foxe writes, "and from the day Telemachus fell dead in the Colosseum, no other fight of gladiators was ever held there."
I'll close with these verses from 1 Peter 3 that sum up what I'm saying.
1Pe 3:8-16  Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:  (9)  Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.  (10)  For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:  (11)  Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.  (12)  For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.  (13)  And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?  (14)  But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;  (15)  But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:  (16)  Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.
God bless you!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Secrets of the Vine...which aren't really secrets

I just finished reading a book by Bruce Wilkinson (who also wrote The Prayer of Jabez), called "Secrets of the Vine."  I had to start out with that sentence so I didn't get nailed for plagiarizing the title and thoughts here.  And he identifies pretty quickly that they aren't really 'secrets' (because they're written in the Bible for everyone to see) but he did bring it out in a new way I hadn't thought of before.  Now, I know what I'm talking about, and you don't, so you are probably wondering where I'm going with this.  If you're patient, I'll explain.
Recently, I was filling out a character worksheet for a drama class I'm in, and part of it was to identify the character's greatest fear.  On the paper, I was also supposed to talk about the similarities and differences between the character and myself, so naturally I began thinking about what my greatest fear was.  And I went through a couple things in my mind, but then as I was thinking about it, I realized really my greatest fear is not being effective.  I want to make an impact.  I want to do something worthwhile.  I want my life to count for something.  And my greatest fear is not fulfilling that.  I want to bear much fruit.
Bearing fruit was also a big deal to Jesus.  He wants our lives to count for something, and He wants us to bear fruit!  In John 15:8 he says, "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit."  So God gets glory when we're bearing fruit for Him.  There's more than one way to bear fruit in our lives.  I always kinda used to look at that chapter as just about soul-winning, and although that's a big part of it, I think the fruit refers to all that stems from our life in Christ, which glorifies God!  The fruit of the spirit, which is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, etc.  I think, deep down, all of us want to bear fruit.  But sometimes it seems like we're not.  And in John chapter 15, Jesus identifies some main reasons.  In "Secrets of the Vine", Bruce Wilkinson identified a couple stages people can be at.  No fruit.  A little fruit.  More fruit.  And much fruit.  He gives a picture of walking through a vineyard at harvest time and looking at the baskets and seeing no grapes in one, a few grapes in the other, but still not very many, a much more full basket a little later, and then a basket that's absolutely overflowing with grapes.  That's the kind of life I think we're all striving for!  One that's overflowing with fruit!  But we are in different stages sometimes.  As we look at the basket of our lives, we will see different things, and there are reasons for that.  We're all at different stages.
Some people are bearing no fruit.  Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.  Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh away."  Now I always looked at that "taking away" as being cut off and cast aside.  The branch is useless so it's thrown out.  But that's not what the Greek word actually means.  The Greek word is: G142 αἴρω airō  ah'ee-ro A primary verb; to lift; by implication to take up or away; figuratively to raise (the voice), keep in suspense (the mind); specifically to sail away (that is, weigh anchor); by Hebraism (compare [H5375]) to expiate sin: - away with, bear (up), carry, lift up, loose, make to doubt, put away, remove, take (away, up).
And it's the same word used for Simon 'taking up' Jesus' cross, and Jesus 'taking away' the sins of the world, etc.  It means 'to lift up'.  In a vineyard, the vine dresser will look for branches that are hanging on the ground, in the dust, and not bearing fruit.  They can't bear fruit because they're in the dust and getting dirty and are trailing on the ground.  But the vines are worth too much for the vine dresser to simply get rid of.  Too much potential.  Instead, he picks them up, cleans them off, and ties them up to the trellis so that they can begin producing fruit.  This isn't always an easy, painless process.
If you're looking at your life, and you're not bearing fruit and something is stinting your growth, then the first thing you need to look at is if there's sin in your life.  That's the primary thing that will hinder you from bearing fruit.  But you're not alone.  The vine dresser will help you overcome that, and He wants you to bear fruit.  But it may involves some suffering.  Hebrews chapter 12 reminds us that whoever the Lord loves, He chastens.  He doesn't want us to be involved with sin, and He wants us to repent so that we can begin bearing fruit, and He's willing to pick us up and inflict some suffering on us so that we can live up to the potential which He intended.
The next thing Jesus says is, "and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it that it may bring forth more fruit.  Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you."  Now the next stage we might be bearing a little fruit, or more fruit, but we are still going through something.  It may be that God is pruning you, and getting all the distracting, excess, hindering stuff out of your life so that you can bear even more fruit!  In this case it may not be sin, but a "weight" that hinders you and brings you down.
Whereas these last two stages involved God taking initiative by chastening or pruning us, this last stage involves us taking initiative.  "Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches.  He that abideth in me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me, ye can do nothing.  If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered, and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."  This is an imperative point, and it's not easy.  "Abide in me" is an imperative command, and it requires effort.  You don't have to tell somebody to do something that comes naturally, but you do have to tell them to do something that doesn't, like 'eat your broccoli' or whatever.  It's the same here.  The reason "Abide in me" is a command, is because it's something we have to do.  Once we're bearing fruit and things are going good, we have a tendency to focus more on bearing fruit, than on our relationship with God.  It's similar to what Martha did in Luke 10:38-42.  She got caught up in doing things for God, and neglected spending time WITH Him.  Jesus really emphasizes the point here that the only reason we're able to bear fruit at ALL is because of Him. If we begin focusing more on what we're DOING for God, rather than our relationship with Him, (whether its teaching Bible studies or Sunday school, singing at church, witnessing, doing outreach programs, being a friend to someone, doing good works, helping out in a soup kitchen, starting a ministry, or whatever) we will become fruitless.  The less we focus on bearing fruit, and the more we focus on Him, the more we bear fruit!  Even though this sounds like a paradox, it's true!  Because our life flows from Him.  Without Him we can't do anything.  Ezekiel 15:1-4 brings up the fact that while other kinds of trees have uses after they've been cut down, whether for building houses or coat racks or whatever, branches from a grape vine have no use once they've been cut off from the source other than being cast into the fire as fuel.  Once we have been cut off from the source of our life, the source of our fruit, the only thing we're good for is fire fuel.  He's the one who actually causes us to bear fruit.  Fruit will naturally being to overflow from our lives because of the work of His Spirit. But we have to stay connected to Him.
So whatever stage you're at, maybe this little analysis will help you to either repent, trust, or begin abiding more fully in God.  It sure helped me.