First Love
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
-Revelation 2:1-7

Do you remember when you first became a Christian? Or, if you’re like me and were raised in a Christian home, can you recall that time in your life when you made the faith your own? For many of us, those are the moments of the birth of new life in our souls, of freshness and forgiveness, of a passionate love for Jesus burning in our hearts. It’s the moment of first love, when God reveals himself to us with grace and clarity, and we finally understand how deeply loved we are by our Creator — that is when our love for God explodes out of our hearts and flows out into the world around us through our words and actions. We love God so much that we just can’t hide it!

Let’s be honest: It’s hard to stay in that place. It’s difficult to maintain that level of passion and emotion over the course of our lives. I told Jesus this in prayer the other day. I said, “Look, it’s hard to love you when you’re not physically present on the earth. I don’t mean that you’re hard to love, because your character and the things you’ve done for me — how can I not love you? I’m just saying that it’s difficult to maintain this love in your absence.” I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, I’m just trying to guilt Jesus into returning right now! (It’s not working.) I recognize that I was speaking purely from an emotional level (frustration, disappointment) in that prayer, and that Jesus’s absence is no excuse to not be present to the passion of our love for him. After all, he has given us the Holy Spirit to be with us, and he is always urging us back to our first love.

But the world tends to distract us from our love for Jesus. The tedium and monotony of our daily routines, the triviality of consumerism, and the banality of entertainment have a way of dulling the senses — especially our deepest feelings for our Savior. The more that our love for God is at the surface of our souls and not buried beneath the anxieties and distractions of modern life, the more we will feel a passionate love for him. I am not as passionate about God when I spend a lot of time on my phone. There’s something about that screen that can pull me away from the One I’m supposed to feel most passionately about. Love isn’t a feeling, of course, but we do feel love. We have an emotional response to love and our presence to it, and the more in touch with that love we are, the more we will feel it on an emotional level. Love is like heat, and the closer we get to it the more it triggers our spiritual senses.


Love is like heat, and the closer we get to it the more it triggers our spiritual senses.

What Jesus is after from the Church in Ephesus, and from us, is that they become present to the passion of their love for him. It’s not that they don’t love; it’s that they have grown cold to love. Their souls have become distant from their first love, and a great chasm of fear and rule-keeping has opened up between them and Jesus. They didn’t fall off the path, necessarily, they just forgot why they were walking on it and who they were following.

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Any good Protestant will tell you that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. That is a powerful truth that frees us from the futile cycle of spiritual perfectionism, which is a fruitless attempt to earn our way into God’s favor. We are not saved by the good things we do. We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. But here’s the question you have to ask yourself: Do I know what faith is? When the New Testament authors used the Greek word pistis to write about faith, are you thinking of faith the same way that they were thinking of pistis? Because if the only thing by which we are saved is faith, then we ought to know exactly what it is. There’s a lot riding on this.


If the only thing by which we are saved is faith, then we ought to know exactly what it is.

You might be thinking to yourself, “The Bible tells us plainly what faith is: it’s the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” Yes, that’s true. The author of Hebrews talks about faith in these terms. But this is not a definition of the word faith as much as it is a description of faith in a believer’s life. Faith is experienced as the present reality of a hoped-for future based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith is a life lived in resurrection hope, and in this way, the life of faith is its own proof for the existence – and especially the death, resurrection, and ascension – of Jesus. But you can see that this is a description of Christian faith, not a definition of the apostolic usage of the Greek word pistis.

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I don’t know much about the refugee crisis, or why President Trump has issued an executive order to close our borders to people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. I’ve read the executive order, but I couldn’t parse the political or social implications of it for my children. The global political situation is beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the causes of the war in Syria. I can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I’m not sure there is a difference anymore. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed are filled with posts of varying degrees of outrage at Trump’s executive order. I don’t know whether I should be outraged, and if so how much, because, in our post-truth culture, I don’t know who to trust to explain this to me.

When the chaos and confusion of our culture swirl around me, my instinct is to lash myself to the only fixed point I know – Jesus Christ. He is my Rock, and the one on whom I can rely in distressing times. When I don’t know how to move forward, I try my best to find Jesus and just follow him. While I cannot speak to the complexities of holding political office (particularly the office of President), I believe I have something to say to my fellow Christians, particularly my evangelical brothers and sisters.

The world is a dangerous place. It has always been this way, though some of us in America have not had to experience the kind of imminent threats that people in Syria deal with today. But the reality is that death, disease, and suffering are never far away. Whether the threat is from a microscopic virus or a bloodthirsty warlord, there is much in our world to make us afraid. Fear is, more often than not, the rational choice.


Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus.
But it is not a choice that Christians are permitted to make. Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus. All of life is an act of discipleship, therefore all of life must be a demonstration of the agape love Jesus exemplified in his life, and most completely at the cross. The Scriptures are clear: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our own love may be imperfect, but if the Holy Spirit dwells within and among us, then so does the perfect love of God. The Church is the place where fear does not get to have a voice because the melodies of God’s love are too loud, too strong, too catchy.

As the people of God, we do not have a choice between fear and love. We are compelled to love and commanded to reject fear. Fear must never be our rationale for any decision, large or small. We cannot support public policy that rejects refugees because one of them may (by the tiniest of chances) be connected to a terrorist organization. It is impossible to faithfully follow Jesus by carrying your cross while at the same time deny hospitality and refuge to those in need because you are afraid that they might mean you harm. Jesus knew what the Romans were going to do to him, and he overcame the fear he expressed in the Garden by steeling himself toward the cross. Why did he do this? Because he loved the world – even the Roman soldiers who crucified him!

Perhaps there really are terrorist agents trying to sneak into this country through the refugee process. Jesus didn’t command us to be unwise or naive. But in the absence of clear information, we must not assume the worst of others. We must love without fear. We must welcome the stranger; after all, how do we know we aren’t secretly entertaining angels? We must provide for the needy, because as Jesus himself said, when we do this we are doing it for him. We must love others and entrust ourselves to God.

I admit, that’s not a very good public policy. But I’m a pastor, not a politician. My primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States of America. I’m not calling on the state to enact a more Christian policy. I’m calling on the Church to act more Christianly. Don’t be afraid, Church. Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy, death itself. There is no one, then, that we should fear; but there is everyone that we can love.

Identity politics are a hot button issue these days. Self-identification has become a vital component, not just of personal understanding, but of social politics. It seems that we can self-identify as anything we want, without respect to our physical bodies. Identity politics are about the soul, we’re told, not just the body. What’s on the inside is what truly counts.

What makes this so interesting, for Christians, is that it sounds like Christian teaching. We believe, of course, that the heart is the focus of regeneration, that sanctification flows from the inside (from renewed thoughts and desires) out, and that becoming like Christ means imitating his character, not simply his actions. A Christian would have no trouble agreeing with the statement: What’s on the inside is what truly counts.

Identity: Christ is allWhere the difference lies, however, is that Christian doctrine proclaims the need for internal change, and that this change is a person. It’s not what’s on the inside; it’s who’s on the inside. Christian identity is not wrapped up in what I believe myself to be, but rather in who has saved me from my sin. As Paul says in Colossians 3:11, “Christ is all, and is in all.”

This means that, before you are anything else, you are a Christian. Your identity in Christ is the spring from which all your self-understanding flows. You are not who you think or feel you are; you are who Christ says you are. By faith, you are in God’s family. If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you are, more than anything else, a child of God.

More than anything else, this is why Christians oppose the identity politics of our culture. It’s not because we are grossed out or think people are being ridiculous. It’s because we know there is a better way. There is a better identity. And his name is Jesus.

shadow
A good filmmaker knows how to terrify his audience with just a shadow. You never have to see the actual monster to be gripped with fear, just the long dark outline suggesting how horrible and mutilated the beast is. Of course, this same effect is used as comic relief when the strange shadow turns out to be a cuddly kitten.

We are frightened by shadows because we fear what might be casting them. Rarely, however, do we mistake the shadow for the real thing. But this is precisely what Paul warns us about in Colossians 2:16-17. He said that the food laws and holy days of Judaism were not the real thing that devout Jews thought them to be. The real thing, he said, is Jesus.

Jesus is the reality to which religion points. All the things that we might think are so important – obeying religious laws and customs, observing holy days – find their fullness in Christ. Religion is good and true as long as it is centered on Jesus. It is good to obey the rules, but only if we are acting from a heart that is devoted to Christ. Christless religion is like grasping at shadows. It’s not that religion, ritual, or rules are unimportant. Nor is it that they mislead us. It is that they are empty apart from Jesus.

If you feel that your religion has grown stale, that the rituals of what you do at church or in your daily devotions has become mere routine, it is time to lift up your eyes and see who is casting the shadow. Jesus is the real thing. It’s time for you to re-center your life and your religious activity around him. We drift so easily. We so quickly relapse into following shadows instead of worshiping the reality. Here is a prayer to help you re-center around Jesus.

shadowJesus, you are the reality;
You are the fullness;
You are the truth.
Center me around yourself.
Take your throne again
In the depths of my heart.
Cast your shadow across my life.
Fill my empty religion
With your holy presence.
Capture my imagination,
My devotion,
And my desire.
Be yourself in me
That I may find myself in you.
Amen.

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