Saturday, November 5, 2022

California Voting: a pastoral guide


It's mid-term election season in California. Every time elections roll around, whether state-wide or national, I am asked by someone in our church why we aren't telling people what and who to vote for. My response usually goes something like this. "My job as a pastor is not to tell you how to vote. It is to teach you to think Biblically about everything and then to vote accordingly." 

I stand by this statement. Over the last 12 years our church has by-and-large managed to avoid partisan politics by focussing on the gospel, teaching the whole counsel of God and celebrating diversity around disputable matters.  

But I also realize that this may be a cop out; a refusal to step in to the land-mine infested field that is partisan politics. You see, we live in a moment of fierce political polarization. Politics has become a religion for so many Americans.  Our political convictions are our creed and our political party is our tribe. We often feel more identified with our tribe than with other Christians who may vote differently from us. Therefore people are more willing to leave a church based on perceived political differences than they used to. All this means that there is a temptation for pastors to stay further away from politics than they should out of fear.

So, with that in mind, I offer some simple pastoral guidance around election time.

1. Vote faithfully

Vote faithfully, recognizing that living in a democracy is a privilege, citizenship is a responsibility and your vote does make a difference. Even if you feel like you are in the minority, your vote still has value. Voting can change history for good. Glenn Scrivener writes about the powerful combination of preaching and voting in Christian History in his book, The Air we Breathe.

 "Consider three social transformations in Christian history: the end of infanticide, gladiatorial games, and the slave trade. They’ve come through preaching and politics. It’s both—but in a particular way. On infanticide, Christians saved babies from exposure and raised them long before Valentinian I made laws that parents must raise their offspring and forbade the killing of an infant. Preaching and politics. On gladiatorial games, Christians didn’t only preach against blood sports. What reportedly moved Emperor Honorius was the martyrdom of Telemachus. The monk entered the arena to stop a duel, was stoned to death but his witness changed Honorius’s mind and Rome’s laws.On the slave trade, abolitionism was a religious movement first and last. Preaching won hearts but without the Imperial power to change the laws, and diplomatically spread abolitionism to Catholic and Muslim lands, the evil would have remained."

Preaching and voting are a powerful combination. 

2. VoteThoughtfully 

Voting Biblically does not mean we check our brains at the door. We need to discern between clear Biblical imperatives, more complex Biblical ethics, conscience and preference as we vote. The propositions facing us this week include abortion, gambling, arts in education, climate control and the selling of flavored tobacco. Not all propositions are created equal. They require thoughtfulness. For instance, there is really no clear Biblical text that can help us to decide whether schools should, or should not, have an arts program. As a musician who taught the arts, I am for it, but this is simply a preference of mine. While I believe it is socially and culturally beneficial for schools to have an arts program, it has no clear connection to the Biblical text. (Although you can find a Bible verse for anything if you try hard enough!) It's a matter of preference.

Then there are propositions that have a Biblical ethic but are more complex. For instance, the proposition about electric vehicles. Clearly, care for the environment is in God's commission to us in Genesis. I find it sad when Christians deny that the Bible speaks to creation care. However, one may accept this and dispute the degree to which climate change is taking place. Or one may not see electric cars as the best solution to our environmental issues. To say that to be Christian is to ignore the environment because it is a liberal agenda, is absurd. Equally, to say that to be Christian is to drive an electric car, is simply first world naïveté. (Sorry ElonCreation care is clearly a Biblical ethic while its solution is disputable. It requires thoughtfulness.

Then there are those propositions that cut right to the heart of what the Bible says about God's image and morality. The Scriptures' clear and repeated teaching about the sanctity of life in the womb means we should do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable image bearers of God on the earth.  Even as we hold the tension of honoring the image of God in women, particularly mothers who were victims of abandonment or sexual abuse in their pregnancies,  we are not free to sanction violence against the most vulnerable image bearers - the unborn. Instead we are to give ourselves to the dignity of mothers who feel overwhelmed with their pregnancy through adoption, foster care and support of those who choose to raise their children. While this issue is politically volatile, it is not Biblically disputable.

3. Vote Unpredictably

If we are to vote both Biblically and thoughtfully we may find ourselves voting less predictably. Less tribally. Less on brand. These propositions in particular, allow us to vote in a way that may depart at times from one party line. So for instance, a Republican who would vote against late term abortion might feel compelled to vote for electric cars because of a biblical conviction about care for the environment. Unpredictable. Or, a Democrat who would typically vote to care for the environment, might also decide to vote against late term abortion because of Biblical conviction. Unpredictable. Perhaps both would vote against the selling of flavored tobacco to teens. How marvelously unpredictable. 

4. Vote Worshipfully 

Finally, Jesus words should ring in our ears as we vote. "Render to Ceasar what is Caesar's. Render to God what is God's." Remembering that only Jesus is King will help us to avoid deifying those politicians we vote for and demonizing those politicians we vote against. It will help us remember that no politician, party or policy is perfect, and sometimes we have to vote holding our noses, for the lesser of two evils. Refuse to give politicians or their parties the kind of allegiance that belong only to Jesus and His kingdom. Politicians are of some consequence, but they are not Sovereign. While some politicians and their policies are better than others, they and their policies are all flawed. As we vote worshipfully, we are able to treat those with whom we differ with dignity, instead of demonizing them. Our King told us to love our neighbors and our enemies, after all. 

John Wesley gave some wise advice to his congregation about how they should view those who vote differently from them on October 6th, 1774.

"I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them

a. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy

b. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and

c. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side."

250 years later this is still good wisdom for us.  

By God's grace, voting faithfully, thoughtfully, unpredictably and worshipfully, it's possible!

Friday, July 22, 2022

The Overhanging Fruit of the Gospel : remembering the unforeseen benefits of the Good News.

I have a generous neighbor with a prolific orange tree, as one does in Orange County. Its branches hang over our fence, heavy with fruit in season. He has told us that they have more oranges than they can eat themselves and that we are welcome to pick as many as we can reach from our side of the fence. So, we enjoy the abundance of the overhanging fruit from a tree we did not plant or water. 

A kind neighbor, an irresistible metaphor. 

It's made me think about the unforeseen benefits of the gospel that we have enjoyed over the last twelve years leading at Southlands. 

Believe it or not, we've been at Southlands almost fifteen years, but three of those years as members of a leadership team led by Chris and Meryl Wienand. In their last couple of years of leading, God began a gospel re-awakening among our team. It's not that the gospel had been absent. It was that it had drifted out to the margins of our life together, displaced by other centers. We visited it every now and then when we gave an altar call or took sporadic communion, but the gospel was not where most of our traffic was found. A theologian from Kenya named Michael Eaton admonished us around this time about what had become central in our church. "You guys are experts at preaching your model of church, but you're novices at preaching the message of Christ," he said. We felt gut-punched. But the gut-punch became a gift. 

Convicted by the Holy Spirit that our model had become more central than our message, we resolved to make Jesus and his gospel the blazing center of our church. From then on, we began to say,  "If Southlands was a town, Main Street would be the gospel." Thankfully, this resolve was not just a catch phrase or a passing phase. I still believe we are called to preach the gospel as of first importance, and let everything else be shaped by that center. (1 Corinthians 15:1) We would not only preach the gospel to the lost. We would beat the good news into our own heads every day until it became the best news again, to paraphrase Martin Luther. As we did we began to experience new life again at the foot of the blood-stained cross and at the mouth of the empty tomb. We felt like we had been born again, again.

"But surely Jesus should be the center?" you may protest. Absolutely. I think most churches would say that Jesus is their center, but that can mean many different things to different people. It could mean Jesus and politics, Jesus and social justice, Jesus and miracles, even Jesus and morality.  I mean, all these were part of Jesus' ministry in some way, weren't they? But the apostle Paul told the church in Corinth that when he came to visit them  he resolved to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians  2:2) In other words, nothing else really matters if we don't know Christ and Him crucified. This is the essence of gospel centrality. It seems almost too simple, doesn't it? But there is powerful beauty in its simplicity. Since then, the term Gospel-centered has risen to popularity and then began to go out of vogue, carrying some cultural and political baggage. But it's not a passing phase for us. 

 By God's grace these past twelve years, we have grown steadily and multiplied fairly rapidly because of the gospel. We've also baptized hundreds of new believers and are so thankful to God for every person who has come to find and follow Jesus. The ways in which we have seen the gospel transform people, marriages and families is breathtaking. The gospel is still the power of God to those who believe!  Still, gospel sowing and reaping can be painstaking work at times. Some seasons have felt like slim pickings. 

But in retrospect, keeping Jesus and His gospel central has produced some unforeseen fruit. By this, I mean it has produced some unexpected benefits there for the picking where we did not plant. A bit like plucking overhanging fruit from your neighbor's tree. 

Here are eight benefits that I never saw coming.

1. It's kept us from developing a Savior complex 

 I believe the finished work of the cross propels us towards the unfinished work of the kingdom. There will always be unfinished work to be done until our Savior returns. Sometimes longing for the Kingdom to come in a broken world can be heart-breaking because it often comes more slowly than we would like. The gospel has given us reason to rest in the midst of what is unfinished. We can rejoice  that Jesus' saving work, which is the most important work, is already finished! We've been redeemed and our names are written in heaven! We are not the saviors of the world. Jesus is.  This has given us buoyancy as we long for the Kingdom to come that has kept us from despair and striving.

2. It's protected us from the tyranny of novelty.  

The gospel has set us free from what C.S. Lewis called a horror of the same old thing. We live, work and play in California, a hive of creativity and new ideas, and while I enjoy many aspects of this innovative spirit, it comes with its own pressure to always be about the new thing.  I call this the tyranny of novelty. Essentially, the gospel has helped us to keep the gospel the main thing amidst a tyranny of novelty. Whether it's Hollywood-styled celebrity church, or Disney-styled theme park church, the temptation to build around novelty crouches at our door here. More subtly,  the novelty of faith deconstruction, fixation with politics and social justice, charismatic sensationalism  - all have their own allure.  While we have tried to learn from new ideas and movements that seem to have God's fingerprint on them,  keeping the gospel central has kept our people from getting whiplash because we haven't taken sharp turns down novel side roads that become cul-de-sacs. By-and-large, we've stayed on the Main Street of the gospel, learning to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints' (Jude 3). We've become less concerned with novelty than we are with fidelity, and that's produced good fruit.

3. It's given us a category for suffering as we've pursued the power of the Spirit

 The gospel is the good news that God has justified us through Jesus' death and resurrection. This is stunning.  It is also the good news that God has reconciled us to Himself through His Son. Once exiled enemies, we are now welcomed into His presence as friends. Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to help us live in the reality of God's presence. His gifts are a manifestation of God's desire to dwell among His people in power.  We are not cautiously charismatic. We've tried to obey God's command to pursue love and eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit. (1 Cor 14:1) We've seen God do many miraculous things as we've pursued the Spirit's presence and power.  But the gospel has also given us a category for a sovereign God who sometimes mysteriously allows us to go through disappointment and even suffering.  The gospel teaches us that if such great good came to us through Christ's suffering, then God can also do great good in and through us when we suffer. We have found, to our delight, that one of the ways in which God has answered prayer is by giving us sufficient grace to suffer well for His glory rather than sulk because our supposed miracle was denied. It's been remarkable to see people persevere through trial and suffering with grace while trusting for the Spirit of God to break in with power at any moment. 

 4.  It's given us grounds for unity in a divisive age

This last decade has been the most divisive I've ever lived or led through.  I've watched heart-broken as disputes about race, politics, sexual ethics, viruses, masks, vaccines, end-time theology and conspiracy theories have divided the Church. I've watched believers become so zealous about their political ideology of choice that it becomes their new gospel and their preferred politician of choice becomes their pseudo-Savior. Thankfully, I've also had a front row seat to the gospel of reconciliation that has empowered people of different views on all of these disputable matters to engage with humility and civility, love one another in their differences and stand on the higher ground of gospel unity. I've watched our own leadership team apply the gospel to their differences with great relief, joy and a pinch of fatherly pride. The gospel has become our holy ground of agreement amidst disagreement. And this has provided a space for people of different cultures and convictions to feel at home with us. 

5. It's taught us a different way to lead. 

It's relatively easy to lead people with a carrot or a stick. The first way motivates through the promise of reward, while the second motivates through the fear of punishment. Each one of us has tendency to use either carrot or stick because it produces quick results, but doesn't produce healthy disciples. Of course, the Bible does talk about rewards for obedience and consequences for disobedience, but the gospel calls us to a deeper core motivation. Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me you will obey my commands."(John 15: 1) The apostle Paul wrote to Philemon and said, "I could command you but I prefer to make my appeal out of love." When we motivate  people with the gospel we are saying that Christ's obedience has already given us a great reward and rescued us from punishment.  So when we obey, we do it out of love and gratitude towards Him.  "I urge you, in view  of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice." (Romans 12:1) This motivation has sometimes produced slower results but it has also produced far more secure disciples. 

6. It's shown us a better way to preach the Bible. 

The Gospel has given us a more cohesive way of preaching the Bible. Instead of preaching it as a book of morals and heroes to be emulated, we have found that Jesus is the Bible's One True Hero, to be trusted, emulated and adored.  In the words of Sally Lloyd-Jones, "Every page whispers His name." The storyline of the Bible is that God's good creation, corrupted by the sin of Adam, is being redeemed and restored by the Second Adam's saving work. All of the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus, the Great Redeemer. We have learned to search, uncover and magnify Christ and His gospel story in all of Scripture and our people have developed an appetite for Christ-exalting preaching through Books of the Bible. Topical preaching is tolerated from time to time, but there is an appetite now for walking slowly through books of the Bible. I think we've become better preachers because of this, and our people have grown in their love for God's Word. Seeing them liberated from moralism and self-help theology as they learn to trust the Jesus of Scripture, has been thrilling.  

7. It's given us language to fight for family 

Amidst a cultural drift towards individualism, the gospel of adoption has given us language to express the communal essence of Christian faith and to fight for church as family.  Through Jesus being forsaken on the cross, Christians have been adopted by God the Father into a forever family of brothers and sisters. As we've continued to emphasize the priority of this diverse family purchased by Jesus' blood from every nation tribe and tongue, we've begun to see many who walked in isolation and independence, find the warmth and sanity of a local church family. The gospel has empowered us to repent when we have hurt a family member, forgive when we've been hurt and aim for reconciliation. It's given us tools to cut down offense and dig out roots of bitterness. 

8. It's helped us to become better local missionaries 

Finally, gospel centrality has protected our church from being an inward-looking family that exists for its own benefit. It has shaped us as a people living on mission.  In the midst of Californians generally disenchanted with their own State, we have asked what it means to live as sent ones here, like Jesus, becoming flesh and dwelling among the people where God has placed us. This has shaped a church that serves its city faithfully. It has meant that our global church planting vision has been better earthed in local  faithfulness. We are learning to make disciples of Jesus on our own zip code.

No, we are not in revival. Not yet. We still long to see a great harvest of souls in our day. We are laboring and praying with other churches in our region to that end. But by God's grace, we have harvested where we have not sown. This is not a humble brag about how faithful we've been. Our faith has been feeble at times. But God has been faithful where we have been feeble.  I am writing this as a reminder to avoid being forgetful about His gospel. God forbid that we boast in anything save in the Cross of Christ. 

Let's resolve to keep boasting in the Cross!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A Legacy and a Liturgy in a Land of Famine.

Oasis in Ein-Gedi, Hadorom, Israel.


It was the summer of 2010 and I'd been asked to take the role of leading our team of elders.  I was full of hopes and dreams about the future but daunted by the financial situation I'd inherited. We were still emerging from a national recession, had an eight hundred thousand dollar lawyers' debt from a law suit we'd had to defend, plus we were down about twenty thousand dollars a month. The whole situation weighed on me heavily.  Out of the blue I received a phone call from a man called Mike Hanchett who was a friend of the church with a proven prophetic gift, asking if we could meet. Over coffee he said he felt God had given him a word for our church. It was profound in its simplicity. He quoted from Genesis 26:12.  "Isaac sowed in a land of famine and reaped a hundred fold." He reminded me that God enabled Isaac to open wells in a drought so that he could plant a crop and yield a harvest, and proceeded to tell me that God wanted us to sow our way out of financial famine through teaching and modeling generosity. 

At this stage we had been doing a good job of cost cutting. I thought we could save our way out of financial famine, but the idea of increasing our giving as a church seemed counter-intuitive. Still, Mike's prophetic word brought faith to me and consequently to our team, and that was exactly what we did, looking for ways to give beyond ourselves to the poor and to other churches. I figured that even if we didn't reap a hundred-fold, his counsel lined up with the words of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:19) We continued to be thrifty, but rejected being stingy. I did a few weeks teaching through Genesis 26 on Biblical principles of generosity. Quite quickly, things began to change. 

 Within months we began meeting our monthly budget as a church. Within three years we had paid off our lawyers debt. Our elder team decided around this time to start putting our personal tithes into a church planting war chest instead of using them for the running of the church. Soon after that we were given a second church property and school which we now use to house Southlands Chino. God is faithful. Mike Hanchett's prophetic legacy lives on in our church. Sadly, Mike passed away recently after battling illness, but I wanted to let those who knew and loved him know that his faithful obedience was pivotal for our church. He also never asked me for a cent when his prophetic word came to pass. He was a not-for-profit prophet! A rare breed indeed. I honor both his prophetic accuracy and his prophetic integrity. 

Twelve years later recession threatens us again. Inflation is at a 40 year high, interest rates keep creeping up and it costs me $150 to fill up my truck. Crazy days! Many fear the threat of financial famine. Of course, we are all looking for ways to cut our spending,  and this is wise. But I want to exhort us again to consider God's counter-intuitive ways. He calls us to keep sowing in famine as we remember His faithfulness. He is the one who opened up wells in the desert for Isaac, so that he could sow and reap a hundredfold in famine. I don't buy into the prosperity gospel. But I do buy into the Biblical truth of sowing and reaping as we live in the abounding grace of God no matter the season.

The apostle Paul reminds us of this same principle : "The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work." 

God is able to make financial grace abound to us, not so that we can get rich,  but so that having sufficiently what we need, we may abound in every good work.  Good can make financial grace abound to us so that it can abound through us. In all things and at all times. Even in famine. Even when it takes $150 to fill up my truck!

 Of course, I write this as a pastor who lives on what my flock gives to the church, so I may be easily accused of having mixed motives for writing at this time. So be it. I do want our church to keep being able to meet budget. But hear me out, I also write this as a husband and a father, and owner of an Airbnb business, who is looking with you towards an uncertain future. I feel the anxieties that many of you feel. Still,  Jesus' teaching that our Father, who clothes the lillies and feeds the sparrows is able to feed and clothe us, because we are worth more to Him than sparrows, ring louder than my anxieties.  These truths anchor my soul in peace and in generosity and I want them to anchor your soul too.

Every time I send off our monthly tithe or give to some kingdom cause,  it is a faith declaration of three truths that Rynelle and I have lived out over almost 30 years. First, that God is our Provider. Second, that money is not our God. Third, that sowing into eternal things, even in the midst of our material needs, will reap an eternal reward that we will never regret in heaven. Tithing and giving makes no sense apart from the reality of these truths. But when done in faith, it is a sacred liturgy, one that we have seen God confirm abundantly even in this life.

So, to our dear Southlands family, thank you for your faithful generosity. You have been extraordinary. Let's keep it up. For some of us, let's step it up. And let us trust God together for a harvest as we sow in famine.