Conversation Starters

On a back road in Southern Illinois, heading home for a Memorial Day visit, I saw these words on a church sign in Thompsonville, Illinois:

Jesus is God’s selfie.

I love clever church signs as much as the next guy. And I understand the desire to engage the culture “where it’s at.”

As long as we don’t allow the discussion about Jesus to end there.

A selfie is just a representation of a person. And every selfie I’ve ever taken is a bad representation of me, at that.

But Jesus wasn’t just a flat, one-dimensional image of God. In a way, mankind more closely fills that role, since Genesis 1 says that we were made in God’s image.

But Jesus was so much more. It’s the hardest thing for our limited human minds to grasp, this concept of Jesus as fully man, but also fully God. Yet it’s the most important thing to remember when we consider what Jesus came to earth to do.

He was fully man, to taste the full scope of human experience. Hunger and thirst. Fatigue. Temptation. Danger. Joy at a wedding in Cana. Sorrow at a close friend’s death.

He was also fully God, to meet the needs of His people that only He can meet. Of course, some of those needs were physical, like food for the hungry and healing for the sick. More often, He answered the unspoken questions of the heart. Questions like, “Who is God, really?

In the end, he did what only God could do. He took the sins of all mankind, past, present, and future, on himself. He willingly laid down his own human life.

And then, he took it back up again.

That is some kind of selfie.

We have a great God.

So kudos to you, Mr. Church Sign Writer, for yet another pithy phrase that captures the imagination of our tech-distracted world.

Together, With a Capital “T”

While we’re on the theme of grandparents…..

What does a seven-year-old like better then a ride around town with Grandpa in his pickup truck on a Saturday afternoon? Not much, especially when that drive includes a stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald’s for some fries. So it was for me on a chilly, overcast day in the fall of 1969. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in that small southern Illinois town that day, but just at the intersection of Sloan St. and Webster St., we passed a man walking on the sidewalk who was about my grandpa’s age at the time (mid-60s). At just that moment, Grandpa made several funny gestures with his left hand. And, to my seven-year-old amazement, the man on the sidewalk did exactly the same thing with his left hand!

I was scared to death to ask my grandpa what had just happened, so I waited until my Mom  (his daughter) was with us. Turns out that Grandpa and the gentleman were both members of the local chapter of a national fraternal organization. Those secret hand signs helped members feel the bond of belonging to a common group.

The need to belong is universal to mankind. “Belonging” leads to feeling accepted, valued and loved. The times of the greatest unhappiness in my life, whether in a job, with my family, or in any circumstance, came when I’ve felt like I’m on the outside.

My son Stephen is the undisputed family leader when it comes to bringing others into our lives. Anytime we’re planning an event or activity, regardless of what it is, Stephen suggests that we invite our friends to join us. To him, it’s not about what we’re doing. Chances are he’s been to that restaurant, movie theater, baseball game, etc. countless times before. No, it’s about enjoying the experience with them. Stephen longs for the experience of togetherness.

As is often the case, Stephen has it right.

God’s design for the Church is the we do life together. But that’s “Together,” with a capital “T.” You see, the Bible tells us that it’s not God’s will that anyone should perish, but that all should repent and be saved through Jesus Christ. John 3:16, that famous passage, says that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, that whoever believes in him would not die but have everlasting life. It doesn’t say that God so loved only part of the world, or that he loved only those who loved him back. Christ’s Great Commission? Go to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations.

Satan would like nothing better than for Christians to treat their faith like an exclusive club. Keep it to yourself, he says. Speak only in terms that other Christians understand.

Because I know Jesus and want to show him my love by obeying His commands, I can’t keep His story to myself. But how do I share Him? For starters, wouldn’t it be great for those who follow Jesus Christ not to speak only in “Christianese” and have secret handshakes? Shouldn’t I bring the message of Jesus’ love and redemption for our sins to those who haven’t heard of Him using terms and cultural context that they understand? Shouldn’t I want to help others see how Jesus is meaningful to them in their lives, right where they are, not just how he is meaningful to me in mine?

It might take more time to share Jesus this way. I might have to listen more to learn about the lives of those who don’t yet know Him. But like Stephen, I long to experience the love and redemptive power of Jesus Christ with them.

A Reminder of Redemption

“If the Son has set you free, you shall be free indeed.”  (John 8:36)

The question came quickly and directly from the Middle Eastern man who had just sat across from us on the DC Metro.  We were in Washington for a Spring Break trip in March of 2007.  After touring the moving Holocaust Museum, we hopped on the Metro at the Smithsonian and headed south to our car, parked in Arlington.  We had been on the Metro for only a few minutes when this gentleman boarded the train at the Pentagon and sat down.  He was in his 40s, dressed in casual American clothes, not appearing to be poor but also without any of the trappings of affluence found on the other commuters on the same train. He had no cell phone, no briefcase, no shopping bags — nothing was in his hands.  He boarded the Metro alone.

I immediately noticed that his attention was fixed on our family as he sat.  After all, a couple with four kids aged 17 to 11 was likely to stick out like a sore thumb among the power suits and military uniforms on the Metro at that particular spot.   And yet, it was the small piece of jewelry around my wife’s neck that prompted this gentleman to speak.

In easy American English, the man said, “I see you wear a cross on your necklace.  Is that a fashion statement, or is it a statement of faith?”  My wife responded that it was most definitely a statement of her faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.  With a smile, the gentleman replied, “Oh, that Jesus, we don’t like him too much, do we?  He keeps us from doing the things that we want to.”   We then explained how our obedience to Jesus comes out of our love for him, how God’s commandments are for our benefit, and how our obedience to God’s commandments frees us rather than restrains us.  Even though the gentleman’s comments suggested that he probably didn’t share our faith, he never once became argumentative, and he listened with a smile the entire time.  He rode with us until the next stop, when without so much as a goodbye, he abruptly stood up and walked off the Metro.

We spent the rest of the ride in a stunned, “what-just-happened” kind of silence. Was this man simply making small talk with a family of tourists?  Or was he seeking the truth, taking a few steps closer to surrendering his life to the one true King?  Was his heart already hardened to the point where he couldn’t hear the Gospel?  We won’t know the answer to these questions until we get to heaven.  But, we were grateful to have the opportunity to share our faith, and to show our kids that it’s OK to do so, even in strange and unfamiliar surroundings.

Sadly, we didn’t talk with the man about the most liberating aspect of faith in Jesus: Christ’s atoning death on the cross and his resurrection that set us free from our sins. In John 10:10, Jesus himself said that he came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly.  That doesn’t sound like restriction to me.  In fact, during his ministry Jesus saved some of his harshest words for the Jewish leaders who placed religious requirements on God’s people, while he showed kindness, compassion, and caring to the sinners he interacted with, which was, you know, everyone.  So, knowing how Jesus felt as reflected in the New Testament, why would Christians ever show the world that being Christian is more about judgment of others’ sins than about Christ’s love and his redemption of our souls?  If our goal is to make disciples, and that should be our goal, then we’re better served by following Jesus’ example.

If you’re a Christian and you wear a cross on a chain around your neck, you’re wearing a reminder of your redemption and the freedom your soul enjoys because of it.  And, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you may get to explain what that cross means to an inquisitive fellow traveler.

Prepare Your Field (Because God’s Preparing His)

One of my favorite characters from the Sherwood Pictures film Facing the Giants is Mr. Bridges (played by Ray Wood), the gentleman who walks the halls praying for the students in the high school as he passes by their lockers.  In case you aren’t familiar with the movie, Coach Grant Taylor (played by Alex Kendrick) coaches a football team for a Christian high school in Georgia.  His team is floundering, he is dealing with disappointments at home, and his faith is wavering.  He’s hearing rumors that his job is on the line.  Entering Coach Taylor’s office uninvited and unannounced, Mr. Bridges first brings a prophetic word to the Coach, exhorting him to stay strong because God’s not finished with him yet at that school.  After Coach shares some of his doubts, Mr. Bridges asks the Coach a faith-building question: If two farmers pray for rain, but only one prepares his field to receive it, which farmer trusted that God would bring the rain?  Mr. Bridges then offers Coach Taylor this wise and Godly advice: “Prepare your field to receive [the rain].”  Watch the clip here.

By telling the Coach to “prepare his field,” Mr. Bridges didn’t mean that Coach should do some extra work on the playing surface in the school’s stadium.  For Coach Taylor’s character, first and foremost, “preparing your field” meant time alone with God, studying his Word and in prayer.  It meant reminding his team that, no matter whether they win or lose, they will praise Him.  It meant challenging strong-willed young men to be all that God meant for them to be, both athletically and spiritually.  And it meant providing Godly leadership both in his home and at school.

If you and I were to prepare our own fields for God’s rain of grace in our lives, our preparations would look much the same as Coach Taylor’s: solitude, study, prayer, action.  But, why should we prepare our fields for rain?  Because God is also at work preparing his.   “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!  They are ripe for harvest.” John 4:35.  All who believe in Christ live under the light of the same Great Commission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matt. 28:19-20 (NIV). By preparing our hearts and lives to be of service to Him, we become available to be used by Him.

No one seeks after God on his own. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 3:10-11 that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”  Jesus himself was even more direct: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44.)  God first seeks us!  So, before we even think of someone as a person with whom we should share our faith, God is already at work in that person’s life, preparing him or her to receive the Word.  Coach Taylor’s experience in Facing the Giants is a good example.  The Coach’s preparation of his own field led to a new unity within his football team, a revival of faith among the school’s student body, and even the healing of a broken relationship between a star player and his father.  Not everyone can be a leader of an organization and have such a large impact.  But we can all join God in the work of soul winning.

Several years ago, my family travelled to another city with a small church group to minister to a people group of another faith and culture.  Before we left, we spent many Sundays after church praying with our team, learning about the faith and culture, and reading Scripture about God’s love for all the world.  While we were at the mission site, we helped teach English to the adults in the morning, and in the afternoons we just spent time with the families, visiting at a local coffee shop, helping their young children with school lessons, playing sports with their teenagers, and just sharing life with them for a brief time. My wife and daughters visited with one of the families in their apartment, and my two daughters (11 and 12 years old at the time) had the privilege of helping the pre-teen daughter in this family make cupcakes for the very first time.  As my daughters spent time with this young girl, she asked them the inevitable question: “Why did you leave your home to come and be with us?”  God had prepared this young girl’s heart for to hear the message of Jesus’ love for her and her family, and my daughters had the joyous opportunity to share with this young girl the reason for the hope we have in Jesus.

Those of you who remember Facing the Giants will also remember that things turn out pretty well for Coach Taylor in the end.  Perhaps a little too well (remember the new pickup truck?).  But that’s OK, it’s a movie.  And, it can serve as a reminder that, for believers in Christ, things always work out very well in the end, when we step out of this world and into His presence.  But while we may not experience as many blessings during a brief period of time as Coach Taylor’s character did in the movie, each of us still has the privilege of joining God in his work of bringing others to himself.