Context

I don’t know about yours, but my Facebook news feed is often flooded with memes quoting the Bible. Most of the time it’s just a singled out verse by itself, with little to no context. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) I could go on. There are a lot great of one liners in the Bible and I am sure you have a few favorites. One of the more common verses I see, although not exactly inspirational, is Deuteronomy 22:11 which commands God’s people not to wear clothing made from two different fabrics; a seemingly senseless and burdensome rule on the surface. Memes that highlight verses like these are often used to make Christianity look bad and without understanding them in their proper context they can do just that.

So it got me thinking, what do we need to fully understand some of these cherry-picked Bible verses? Here are some thoughts below.

  1. Dive Deeper

When we see a stand-alone verse, we often take it at face value. While its ok to appreciate the beauty of individual words and sentences, it’s never ok to stop here, which is what too many of us do.

I think in some ways this is a reflection of our culture. We are used to getting information via small bites. We live in a world of tweets and snaps where we share our thoughts in 140 characters or less.

The problem, however is when we don’t investigate any further. When it comes to something like a tweet or status update, it’s easy to control what you want your audience to see. It’s easy to make your side of the argument seem like the right side, as you delete and re-word your perfect one-time statement. Of course some tweets aren’t so artfully crafted and they get politicians and leaders in trouble. Their main rebuttal is that their words were taken out of context. In a way they’re right, by their very nature tweets are out of context of a larger picture. Exploring the larger context always sheds more light on the statement (but it doesn’t always redeem what was said!)

We could do ourselves a lot of good by researching further into the things we see online, tweets included. After taking in the phrase, sentence or verse for what it is at face value, we have to remember the surface level meaning of any statement is often very limited; think of it like one small part of a larger conversation that needs to be uncovered or the rest of the lyrics to your favorite song.  Next time you think of your bible favorite verse, read the chapter it’s in, read the book it is in and even go so far as to connect it with other verses in the other testament. There is a saying that the Old Testament is the good news announced and the New Testament is the good news revealed. When you learn to connect the two, your Bible study becomes so much richer.

  1. Cultural Application

So many things are lost on us when we do not understand the culture of the original Biblical audience. Parables of fig trees, lost coins and Samaritans are so much better understood in light of a Jewish culture.

Not only that, we also tend to interpret scripture through our own culture. Instead of applying the Bible to our culture, we apply our culture to the Bible. We even do this with the nature and personality of God. The phrase “God will open up a door” typically assumes that God wants the same door open that we want open. A million-dollar business deal is a good thing in our culture, so God must want that too, right?

One of the best examples of this is something that kind-hearted and well-intended people say to me when they find out I am nearly thirty and not married. “Oh, well, God will send along the right person.” Instead of putting all of my hope in these words, my response is balanced with honesty, “maybe He will, maybe He won’t and either way is ok.” For some in our culture, falling in love is the ultimate prize.We have no shortage of romantic movies, love songs and fairytales. 

 Don’t get me wrong, marriage is a beautiful thing and is even a reflection of the Trinitarian relationship itself. However, to say it is the be all-end all or that you can’t be happy without it, isn’t biblical.
In fact, Paul tells us that it is a wonderful thing to be single so that we can increase our devotion to God all the more (See 1 Corinthians 7). So, biblically speaking, faithfulness to God is the ultimate prize.  (Side Note: So maybe instead of telling teenagers to wait to have sex because God has someone special in store for them, we should tell them instead to not have sex unless (instead of until) they are married because that is what faithfulness to God looks like. I digress.)

When we think we know what God would do in a situation or how His word applies to our lives, we must always pause and ask ourselves if we are fitting God into what our culture says is important.

  1. Original Language

How many times have you heard a pastor talk about the original language of a verse, as they pull out a whiteboard and mesmerize you with their apparent bilingualism? Thankfully, you don’t need to be a Greek or Hebrew master to understand the Bible. However, I would highly recommend learning a few of the original words here and there. This can easily be done by using what is called a concordance. When you know some of these words, verses take on a whole new meaning. For example, 1 John 4:8 simply says “God is love.” On the surface this seems like an easy sentence to understand, but watch what happens when you put it through our culture. It might become mushy, romantic or even worse, cute. Love is more ambiguous in our culture than you might think. Is God love like “I love chocolate” or is He love more like “I love the color orange” When you discover that John uses the word “Agape” for love in this verse you understand the kind of love he is referring to is a sacrificial love. It’s a love seen through action. When you understand that the culture and original audience he was writing to was struggling with telling apart true Christians from false prophets, it takes on an even deeper meaning.

So there you have it, some thoughts on how we can study God’s word within its context. Yes, it takes a little bit more work, but the understanding and life application you walk away with is so much better. Am I saying to stop memorizing your favorite verses? Absolutely not. I just want to encourage you to fully understand their meaning before you make it your favorite.

Keep Moving

Is it weird to be excited for surgery? No, I’m not excited or looking forward to the cast, the pain or the physical therapy. Yet as my time comes to a close here at Brown City Camp and the nervousness in the back of my mind grows louder and louder, another thought brings some comfort. 

This thought follows what feels like endless miles of trudging around on rocky dirt roads and making my way from campsite to the chapel and from the chapel to the youth compound.

It’s the hope that maybe next year this won’t hurt. Maybe next year I won’t have to ask for so many golf cart rides or take as many sit down breaks

I am having a surgery that honestly I probably should have had years ago, but I was always too scared. A lot of my childhood memories include hospital visits, IV’s and crutches. So many that I resolved to avoid it all when I turned 18 and could legally make my own medical decisions. 

I declared that I would never have another surgery and that I would always be able to bear whatever foot pain came my way. In a way, I wanted to pretend my disability didn’t exist and just live a medically low-key life for a while. I thought I deserved to spend some time on medical vacation.

It wasn’t until 2012 when I had to have a non-optional and life-saving surgery that I truly realized the benefits of good doctors and yes even sometimes surgery. I’m sure there is a spiritual metaphor in here somewhere. Something about how we all have issues that sometimes we think are easier to carry around than to deal with?

But I’m not here to share a metaphor with you. I’m here to be honest.

I often am in more pain than I let on. It’s not some “I’m a guy, I have to be strong” motif. I just know that I have to keep moving. I don’t like to sit still, I never have. I’m one of those people that would rather have a slightly too busy schedule than to be under booked.

I guess the way I look at it is this: When I was born there was a good chance that I might never walk at all. God stepped in and although I look awfully silly doing it, I can walk from point A to point B. God has designed me in a way that says I have somewhere to be and I am going to keep walking every step along that journey.

So many of you have reached out to support me and it means the world. I ask for your prayers; that you would empathize with my nervousness and rejoice in the potential of the future.

No matter what happens, our God is good! 

Like an Unforeseen Kiss

I am an obsessive planner by nature. I want to know exactly where I am going, what I am doing and when I am doing it. That might all sound pretty normal at first, but here is where I take it to the next level; in college I would take all of the syllabi from my classes and put them into one master calendar for the year. I would give myself five days for essay papers, three to study for exams and at least two weeks for final projects. It would take me hours to plan all this out, but I honestly believe that it saved me time in the long run.

Even now I find my phone calendar filled with at least half a dozen or so reminders for each day. It’s a trait that I hope makes parents feel more comfortable leaving their kids with me for a week long mission trip and cuts out some of the curve balls that could come our way. It’s also a trait that causes a lot of anxiety and frustration.

Over time I have had to accept that in reality it is impossible to plan for every little thing. Even when I started putting our youth mission trip schedule together (some six months ahead of time) I put a disclaimer on it, calling it a “Tentative Schedule” instead of a permanent one. It was a reminder not just to parents, but myself as well.

Much to my delight, I’d say 95% of that schedule held true during the week. Yet, my favorite moments and the highlights that come to mind were those 5% that only God could have planned. Perhaps a better way to put it, is that God planned 100% and then some.

The first unplanned (by me) moment came when we were outside and one of our students noticed a car with a flat tire on the street running parallel to the church. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to do something about it. Whether she knew it or not, I have no doubt that was the Holy Spirit convicting her to go. I wanted to help her follow through on being obedient to that prompting, but knew little about changing tires. So in total opposite of my planning nature, I said “let’s go.” We grabbed some bottled water (one for the woman and one for her dog) and I grabbed a guy who knew how to change a tire.  It became a bit of a fiasco, but the bottom line is we were able to get the woman back on the road and spend some time praying for her. More importantly, that student saw what can happen when you followed through in obedience to the Lord.

My second favorite moment also involves helping a student follow through on a prompting. After touring the Detroit Institute of Arts, we got back on the bus and it refused to start. “Let’s pray for the bus!” one student suggested. I climbed aboard the bus and asked her if she was serious. All the students agreed in unison that we should and so we held hands and told God our need. Two attempts later, the bus fired up. Again, students experiencing a God who is faithful to obedience.

Finally, my last favorite moment was a bit more personal. Throughout the week, each of the pastors on the trip took a turn giving the sermon during the evening worship experiences. I volunteered to give the sermon at a combined service with the church we were working at. Like a good pre-planner, I wrote the sermon almost two months in advance and began meticulously memorizing it. However, as I sat in service, I quickly realized that two things were not going to work. First, I had planned on my audience being mostly teenagers. While our group was teenagers, their group was mostly adults. Second, what I planned was low-key but what I was experiencing in this church was high-energy. It was my own “follow in obedience” moment and I am glad it did. I don’t mean to brag about my performance, but I do want to brag on the Holy Spirit guiding me through it.

Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

We could never out-plan God. He sees a bigger picture on a larger canvas than we could ever imagine. I don’t think it’s bad to plan out things the best we can, but we can’t remain too ridged. Openness and obedience to a God who can see it all is what He asks of us.

The Heart of Judas

In youth group we are wrapping up a six month study on the twelve disciples. It culminates this Sunday by looking at the most notorious of the group, Judas. Even just the name which ironically means “Jehovah leads,” signifying the ambitions his parents had for him, brings up thoughts of treachery.

We know a few things about Judas. First, we know that he was one of the twelve disciples chosen by and choosing to follow Jesus (Matthew 10:4). Second, we know that he played the role of treasurer for the group and in that role stole money from the group (John 12:6). Third, we know that he betrayed Jesus and it also involved receiving money (Matthew 26:14-16). Finally, after betraying Jesus, the Bible tells us that he felt remorseful and hung himself (Matthew 27:1-5).

So, based on these facts can we answer this question: Is Judas in Heaven or Hell? It’s a question I left our students with last Sunday as a cliffhanger. Of course, the easiest and perhaps most accurate answer is, “I don’t know.” We have to remember that we only get a glimpse into the life of Judas from the Bible. The ending of the book of John is a good reminder that there are probably a lot of details we just don’t know:”Jesus did many other things as well, I suppose if they were written down not even the whole world would have enough books to contain them.” (John 21:25)

We must never be too quick to condemn someone’s fate. Even as I write this about Judas I keep a dose of reluctance in my back pocket. However, just going based off of what we see in the Bible, I would place my bet on Judas going to Hell, but the more important question is why? The answer might seem obvious at first, but it probably isn’t what you think. Did he go to Hell because he betrayed Jesus? No. Did he go to to Hell because he committed suicide? No.

Two Old Testament verses can help us understand what to look for: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) and “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

We must always keep in mind the real issue at hand. Thieves don’t go to hell because they steal, gay people don’t go to hell because they are gay, liars don’t go to hell because they lie. People of all sorts go to hell because of hearts that were never redeemed, whatever their sin may have been. God has called us less so into the realm of condemnation of sin and more so into the business of redeeming of hearts.

Judas had a heart problem. He was dealt a deck of cards and played his hand selfishly. Judas needed to “give Jesus his heart” but what does that abstract Christianese phrase mean exactly?

In simple terms, it’s a takeover.

In John 13:27 during The Last Supper, Judas partakes of the bread and the Bible says that in that moment “Satan entered into him.” Satan cannot enter into the heart of someone who has surrendered it to Jesus. See 1 Corinthians 3:16, Romans 8:9-11.

Apparently, despite having followed him for years, Judas never fully believed in Jesus or failed to grasp the concept of grace. We read that he was remorseful of his decision to betray Jesus, but remorseful isn’t the same thing as repentant. The former is about feeling guilty and hopelessness, the latter is about grace and change.

What is scary is that we too can fall into this same trap of following Jesus but never fully surrendering to him. We can perform all of Christianity as a routine without even really trying too hard, but that isn’t enough.  Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” 

It’s all about redeeming hearts and sharing a grace that covers a multitude of sin is the method by which its done.

The Don’ts of Youth Ministry

Don’t act their age-

When I first ventured into youth work I thought to myself, “Man, I have to impress these kids! I have to show them that I am cool and up to date. To be sure, youth workers should always try their best to stay up to date with the latest teen trends and culture, but we should we try so hard to be cool? Some of the best advice given to me by a fellow pastor was “act older than you are.” He meant this in the context of working alongside parents, but I think it’s good to apply this same advice to working with the teenagers in our youth groups too. We have to remember that the young people we are working with are getting older. They are becoming adults; you aren’t becoming a teenager again. Ever. Sorry. In the midst of this growing process, they need mature, safe adults they can look up to more than they need an adult trying too hard to act silly.

Don’t do the work for them-

Just recently I asked a couple of teens I was taking out to lunch to bring money for the get together. That alone was a deviation from the norm of the church just paying for it. I don’t mind treating students to a meal when the budget allows for it, but asking them to pay turned into an even better opportunity to teach them some planning and budgeting skills. When one teen texted me back asking where we were going because they were trying to plan how much money to bring, I suggested the two of them get together and negotiate on a place. Apparently their peace talks fell short because I was then asked to name a few places we could go. Being more than confident in their ability to work it out, I directed them to Google Maps to find nearby restaurants. It sounds like such a little thing but going from picking for them and paying for them and transitioning to allowing them to work together to plan and budget was a skill building opportunity that was too good to pass up. Like I said above, these students are becoming adults so it’s only responsible that we think of the skills they will need when they, right before our eyes, reach that point.

Don’t run a classroom

I absolutely shudder at the words “Sunday School” Teenagers spend every day of the week 9-10 months out of the year in classrooms at school, they don’t want to do it on the weekend too. So when I was told by students, “You run it too much like a classroom” and “You go into your teacher voice when you give a lesson,” I knew something needed to change. My personality is planning and structure. I want a list and I don’t want to deviate from it. Unfortunately for me this style screams “classroom” to teenagers. So I’ve been learning to de-structure and allow more time to just hang out. A long term goal is to be at the point where they are doing the teaching, but what’s interesting about that is we would never get there doing it the old way where I just sit elevated in front of them as the teacher. Instead, they need more time sharing stories with each other in preparation to share God’s story with each other.

 

Hearts that Need Redeemed

I have never been more aware of using a public bathroom. For years the only thought I had ever given to the experience was checking the blue sign to make sure the little stick figure didn’t have a skirt and using my shoe to flush the toilet to avoid the cesspool of who knows what on the handlebar. That last part will always be important, but some in our culture are slowly wanting to take away the first of those two concerns for me by telling me it doesn’t matter if the little stick figure has a skirt on or not.

But the truth is, it does matter.

Being male or female is rooted in the very image of who God is. The joining of the two is a reflection of the trinity and our full makeup, from our head to our toes, is a work from the palette of an expressive creator.

The twisting of these designs is no doubt a result of the overarching grip Sin has on us. We must always remember that and really how could we forget? It’s everywhere we look; every time we catch a cold, whenever we feel pain, we are keenly aware of how Sin has changed everything. God created us in His perfect image and any variation from that is a result of Sin.

You may have noticed I capitalized Sin. We must learn to differentiate between Sin and sin. The former being the overall state of things in chaos, the latter being the choices we make.

Too often Christianity has only focused on one half of the above when it comes to difficult subjects such as homosexuality or transgenderism, namely that they are sins. The rest, that people have felt these struggles since birth as a result of Sin, we have tried to deny and even condemn out of fear of touching the subject with a fifty-foot pole. Tragically, our fear has been at the expense of the people themselves.

I believe at some point the church, in order to keep moving the gospel forward, will have to admit that some people do in fact feel attracted to the same sex or even that they were born the wrong gender. Not only that, they have felt this way all their lives and cannot just “shake it off”as some less than compassionate Christians have suggested they do.

Those kind of suggestions aren’t helping or portraying Jesus in a very good light. We must also remember that the feelings themselves, unless acted upon, are not sin but a result of Sin. As such, we can set aside our worrying that we will be condoning sin or legitimatizing sin when we are talking about the subject and realize instead that we are just acknowledging Sin’s existence and trying to figure out the best approach to helping who it has affected, which really is all of us.

Honest conversations, grace and encouraging faithfulness to biblical manhood and womanhood over letting our feelings dictate us is a good start. The great commission reminds us that no matter what twisted thing we find our culture wrestling with next, the solution is the same. It always has been and it always will be. The solution is active Christians speaking the life-changing grace of Jesus.

There is a passage in Luke where Jesus and his disciples are going through a Samaritan village, but after the Samaritans turn out to be less than hospitable this happens:

When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village. Luke 9:54-56

There is an entire back story as to why the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. Essentially, the Jews viewed Samaritans as half-bloods because they intermarried with non-Jews. They also looked down on them because they mixed idol worship with Judaism.

James and John were right to stand up for their faith, but they were wrong when their zeal was at the expense of the people they were supposed to be sharing the gospel with. Instead of seeing hearts that needed to be redeemed, they saw sins that needed punished.

Jesus knew the bigger picture. He knew there wasn’t time for anger and hatred and so He moved on to the next village. He lets us in on the  bigger picture during another interaction with a Samaritan:

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14

Let us too, like Jesus, see the bigger picture and quench the thirst of God’s creation which as Paul puts it, “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22) with the grace of Jesus. The grace we have been given ourselves simply doesn’t allow room for shaming anyone and to be honest we just don’t have time for it.

 

I love you but I just can’t smile

Have you ever played the game “Honey, if you love me will you please, please smile?” It’s a popular children’s game so I’m sure you have. I remember playing it at summer camp. We would stand in a circle early in the morning, the fog just starting to dissipate as the undertow of the thick humid heat began to scorch the ground. “Let me demonstrate,” I would say, walking up to the kid with the least amount of self-control; the one who stayed up the previous night laughing at every fart sound his bunkmate could muster up. “Honey, if you love….” Immediately the kid’s cheek would deflate as a spray of spit-expelling laughter came out.

The goal of the game was to try and make the other person laugh. If they could manage somehow to keep a straight face after you finished your part, they then had to reply “Honey, I love you but I just can’t smile” without breaking their stern character.

It’s just a silly game, but it turned on a lightbulb for me today during my devotional time.

John 14:21 “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

I kept picturing Jesus going around the circle begging, pleading, “Honey if you love me, will you please, please smile?”  One after another His children, broken down by life’s messes, replied “Jesus I love you, but I just can’t smile.” Jesus tries again, “But I love you, the Father loves you, I want to show myself to you.” His child falls to their knees in defeat “Jesus I just can’t…”

It’s a sobering thought, but I wonder how many people are feeling that way today. Overwhelmed, defeated, burned.  We have let the stresses and knock-outs of life become our driving force instead of love. We know God’s commands, but sometimes it feels like too much. They become burdensome. Instead of principals that guide our life, we try to somehow squeeze them into our own navigating.

We must allow them to saturate our very core until they flow out naturally. We must become driven by love. We should keep these commands not just to “follow the rules” but as an act of love.

We need to practice saying “Jesus I love you and I will smile” even when it’s hard. When we act out of love instead of sin, our relationship with the Father begins to sync. The Son who is obedient to His Father then shows himself to us as we are invited into reciprocal relationship of the trinity.