Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting your ministry or organization 501c3 tax exempt status on the cheap.

I want to depart from the normal content briefly and give some tips on achieving tax exempt status for your organization. When I first realized that I was going to have to go through this process I was terrified. There was no way I wanted to deal with the IRS or the NC Secretary of State. To be sure, there is a certain intimidation factor to government applications, especially when they are asking for a tax break! What I want to give you here are some good resources that will make the process easier and cheaper. Cheaper is the key word. By far the easiest way to get your organization up and running is by hiring a lawyer skilled in tax code and law. However, if you are like me, and perhaps many non-profit organizations, you don't have mountains of money to sink into the process. My goal was to spend as little as possible and do whatever I could on my own. Yes, this led to many stressful moments and perhaps some mistakes but, at the end of the day Number 156 Ministries was granted 501c3 status with only minor speed bumps. Without any further adieu, let me walk you through the basic steps and give some resources and comments along the way.

* Step 1 assumes you have an idea of what your organization is going to be and what it is going to be called.  

Before you begin you may want to purchase a copy of Nonprofit Kit for Dummies. It is clear and gives you some very basic guidance in the process.

1. Set up a board of directors for your organization. I actually skipped this step initially and ended up having to set one up anyway. The IRS really likes to see that YOU are not the only one running the show. If you are it looks suspiciously like you are setting up a non-profit for personal gain and that is a sure-fire way to be denied 501c3 status. Our board consists of 7 members including myself as the "President" of the organization. Legally, I am just another member of the board. That is, I am not the Chairman of the board or any other officer. As scary as it may seem, that means I could be removed and the ministry could exist without me. That is why it is crucial that you select an initial board that is made up of people who share your vision and passion for the cause your are addressing.

2. Create, ratify and file Articles of Incorporation and Organizational By-Laws. In our state, NC, filing articles of incorporation is as simple as filling out a two page application and sending the Secretary of State $60. No further by-laws are required but they will be essential when filing with the IRS so it would be wise to go ahead and get them in place. Here is a link to some clear and helpful sample bylaws. There are also some samples and guidelines in the resource I will share later on. This is one place where I had an unfair advantage. Both my father and step-mother are law professors and so when I got the bylaws ready I sent them to them to look over and give feedback. Here is my recommendation if you don't have familial access to legal professionals, look for friends or acquaintances who have experience in this area and see if they would look things over for you. It is cheaper than hiring a lawyer and just as good. There are some things that the IRS is going to look for but this is YOUR organization!

3.Have your first board meeting and keep minutes. You probably have already done this if you've completed point #2 but make sure you keep a record of the meeting: who was there, what you voted on, etc. You will need to send this with your application to the IRS. This is also a good time to have some kind of estimated budget for the organization. It will be required for Form 1023. It doesn't have to be actual or exact at this point but the IRS is going to want to see some kind of estimate.

4. Fill out IRS Form 1023. This can be found here. This is where the rubber meets the road and the stress level can increase exponentially. It is 30 pages of good times. At this point I highly recommend purchasing a copy of this ebook:

It will take you through the entire process, step by step. The authors also take you through form 1023 line by line and tell you what to put and give you guidelines for writing the attachments that the IRS requires. If I could recommend one thing it would be this book because it will allow you to become tax exempt without hiring a lawyer (assuming your case does not become overly complicated). There are even times in the book when they give a scenario and if you fit into it they will recommend seeking legal council. My policy with this form was pure honesty and simplicity. I believe it is better to be upfront about some things to ward off any problems in the future.

5. Answer the IRS' follow-up questions. About a month after sending the application I received a letter asking for some clarification about certain things in the bylaws. The funny part was, the questions were all on portions of the bylaws where I diverged from the recommendations in the above ebook! I was able to resolve the issues in a matter of days through email correspondence with my board members and then send the revisions back to the IRS. Then, 6 weeks later we had our determination letter!!

6. File appropriate documents with the Secretary of State. This is going to differ from state to state but makes sure and find out what steps must be taken in your state. We were required to file for a Charitable Solicitation License and exemption from state unemployment taxes. With the IRS your determination letter is evidence that you do not have to pay FUTA up to a certain threshold.

The total cost for this entire process for our ministry was about $1000 which included the $800 filing fee with the IRS. If you want to start of non-profit organization my guess is you have a mission, vision or cause that is important to you. Don't let the process scare you away from taking the steps to see your vision become a reality. If I can do it, then anyone can and you can do it on a shoe-string budget. It will take some time and effort and you will have to learn more about tax code than you ever wanted to but it will be worth it. Finally, please feel free to ask me any questions about our process of becoming tax-exempt and I will do my very best to help you out.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Palm Sunday: A Time for Contrasts

As I'm sure most everyone is aware, yesterday was the day we celebrate as "Palm Sunday" in the Christian Church. This is the day we take time to remember the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the final time before His crucifixion. Each of the four Gospel accounts includes a narrative of this event. This alone should alert us to the fact that this was an important occasion for us to remember. For our discussion this morning I would like us to focus primarily on Luke's account of the events of Palm Sunday. In looking at it there are three major contrasts that I would like to point out that lead to very important lessons for us as believers.

1. The first and most obvious contrast is that between the Triumphal Entry and the events of Good Friday. In Luke 19:38 we find that the crowd that had gathered to welcome the Messiah into the Holy City was shouting, Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! While the same people are certainly not responsible for Good Friday, the shouts and sentiments could still not be any more different. Of course, we know that the cries of the city went from "Blessed is the King" to "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" When I think about that I can't help but wonder how often we do the same thing. Do we find ourselves praising God with one breath and then cursing Him with the next? Do we bless God one day and then ask Him to get out of our lives the following? Look at our nation and how great a change there has been between 9/11 and 2011.

2. The second contrast that I see comes from the same portion of the passage but we do need to read just a little further. In verse 39 it says, Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, "Teacher, rebuke Your disciples." The contrast may not be immediately evident so let me put it this way, Blessed is the King...vs. Teacher, rebuke Your disciples. One group is calling Jesus "King" and the other group is calling Him "teacher." There is a vast difference between calling Christ our King or calling Him our teacher. I believe that we, even good, church going, Christians, often only allow Jesus to be our teacher. We read the Bible to see what God can teach us about living a "good life," etc., etc. and never see that He wants to teach us somethings but the most important lesson is that He wants to be our Lord and King. You see there is a different relationship between teacher and student and Lord and servant. When we have a teacher we get things from them. We receive instruction and knowledge and the overall relationship is that we take from them. In contrast, with a Lord or a King it becomes what we give to them. We give a king our allegiance and service and with the King of Kings, we give Him our lives. It seems to me that our view of Christ in the Western Church is, "what can I get from God." We believe that if we accept Christ then we will get all kinds of blessings like prosperity and health and well-being and this becomes the basis for our theology. There is no doubt that when we accept Christ we do get salvation for eternity and a new life now. However, the Biblical relationship is that we give our lives over to God and become slaves to His righteousness (see Ephesians 6). We see this contrast played out just one chapter earlier in Luke between the rich young ruler and then Bartimaeus. The rich ruler came to Jesus calling Him "teacher" and wondering how he could receive eternal life. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, identified Jesus as "Son of David" which is a clear claim that He is the King. Both got the answers they were looking for but only Bartimaeus continued to follow Jesus as a servant. The important question for us today is this, "what are we calling Christ? King or teacher?"

3. The final contrast that I want to point out in this passage is found in verse 42 where Jesus says, If you had only known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! Jesus knows something that the crowd does not know at this point, that the peace that He has come to give will come through the violence of the cross. Indeed, our eternal and spiritual peace with God comes through the horrific violence and bloodshed of Calvary. Colossians 1:19-20 has this to say on the subject, For it was the Father's good pleasure for all fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. You may be thinking, "Hey, I don't need peace. I'm not at war with God. We get along just fine." Well, according to the next verse this is not so, And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds. If you are in Christ then there was a time when you were hostile to God. If you are not in Christ then you are at war with God, you are an enemy with Him. Ephesians 2:3 tells us that before we come to Christ we are "children of wrath" by nature. If we are to have eternal life then peace had to be made between sinful humanity and a holy God. This peace could only come through the bloodshed of a perfect sacrifice. That perfect sacrifice was made in the person of Jesus Christ on the cross. There is the contrast and the paradox, our peace comes through violence. The truly mind-blowing part is that the violence took place at our own hands. Whatever you think about the movie The Passion of the Christ there is profound truth in the fact that Mel Gibson's hands were the ones that are seen nailing Jesus to the cross. Why? It is said that he wanted to do it because we all had a part in the crucifixion on the Savior. Our sins are what demanded His death and even though we tried to kill the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, He gives us new life through that death. Peace comes from violence and life comes from death. This is the beauty and the gruesomeness of the cross.

I hope and pray that today's post has given you some serious questions to answer in your own life. Do you call Jesus King or teacher? Are you at peace with God or are you still hostile towards Him? These are ultimate questions of ultimate importance. There will come a day when, the Bible tells us, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Will you take the opportunity that is offered to you and confess now, or will you wait until it is too late? Jesus closes this passage with these words to Jerusalem, they will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation. I plead with you today, recognize the time of your visitation. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to you now then confess that Jesus is your Lord and accept the salvation of life that He offers today, a life that came through death and a peace that came through violence.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Epicenter of Revival: The Word of God.

It is no secret that I am a "revivalist." If that sounds a little old fashioned then that is just fine because I'm a little old fashioned. However, I believe with all my heart that we are not beyond revival in our land and, in fact, are in desperate need of it. In light of that, I want to take this opportunity to share what I believe to be one of the keys to revival. You may have rightly ascertained from the title of the post that it is the Word of God so I will not waste valuable time be sneaky about it.

In the most uncanny way the evidence that I want to share to support this theory of mine come from the Bible, though the location may seem odd. If we look in 2 Chronicles 34 and 35 we find an account from the time of King Josiah of Judah. The passage in question actually begins in 34:14 and carries on through 35:19. Here we find that Hilkiah the priest has stumbled upon the "book of the law of the Lord given to Moses." As a side note, I can only imagine the state the Temple must have been in for the Law to have been lost! At any rate, Hilkiah sends Shaphan to tell the king what had been found. After hearing what the Law said we are told, "when the king heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes."

This is the first point I would like to make, the Word of God brings conviction of sin and wrongdoing. All too often we, as Christian, think we need to add some extra mustard to the Word to make it more convicting. At the risk of offending some of the readers I want to say this, God doesn't need our help. He uses us for His kingdom purposes but He doesn't need us, not one bit. If we truly believe what we say we believe about the Word then we know it is, living and active sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Why then do we insist on trying to bring conviction to people by the power of our own words? This is precisely why it is crucial for us, as teachers, preaching and followers of Christ, to faithfully proclaim His Word and not our own. If repentance is a necessary part of revival and the Word causes conviction that leads to repentance then the Word must be central to revival. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 helps shed further light on this biblical fact. It says, for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. When we share the Word it goes out with the power of the Holy Spirit behind it to speak to people's hearts in a way that they will respond to. This isn't magic or some foolish incantation, it is the mysterious power of God to use His Word to bring people to Himself.

The result of Josiah's conviction was major reforms in Judah. He immediately had the law read to the rest of the people. For the first time since the time of Joshua the Jews would celebrate the Passover. This is revival to the greatest degree, the spiritual life of the people was being renewed and their covenant with God was being renewed (34:31). It all started with the reading of God' Word.

There are plenty of examples of "revivals" in which the Word is not central. One of the more recent of these comes from the "ministry" of Todd Bentley who has held many, what I will call, events in which people were allegedly healed. His modus operandi was to physically assault people who were in need of healing. One of the infamous YouTube videos shows him telling how God commanded him to kick a woman in the face and punch a poor gentlemen in the aisle. I have two questions. 1)Where is the Word in all of this? 2)Where is all of this in the Word? If we do not have the Bible as our anchor for revival then we are bound to drift from God's plan for it. This is not to say that we don't have times of testimony and perhaps even times of healing but it all must be centered on what God has revealed to us in the Word. We know that if a revelation comes to us and it does not line up with the Bible then it is false, false, false!

Let me close with this equally as important point. I am not suggesting that we become worshipers of the Bible. A friend of mine asked how I felt about the pastor in Florida who was burning piles of the Koran. I told him that I thought it was a bad idea all the way around. Politically it isn't going to do anything and spiritually it is just going to drive a wedge and harm our chances of reaching Muslims. Initially, the thought was brought up that we would be equally as angry is people burned piles of the Bible. Then I thought about it for a moment and had this thought. Yes, I would be none to happy if people started burning the Bible. However, we don't worship the Bible. We worship the God that the Bible tells us of. Any time we begin to elevate something to the level of God we are treading on very thin ice. The Word points us to the God that gave it to us. It is not the end all, be all. God is. It is God who sends revival among His people and He has given us His Word to guide our live and our revivals.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Christianese 101: "Seeking God's face."

It should be no surprise that we, as Christians, have our own special language. I've often heard it referred to as "Christianese." Just think about it for a moment, we talk about things like "being washed in the blood," or being "saved." What about this one, "How is your walk with the Lord? Have you been in the Word?" From the outside looking in this could be strange, at the very least, and downright revolting at the most extreme. There is one phrase in Christianese that I want to take a closer look at today because we use it very often and it can not only be cryptic from the outside but I think it can be difficult to understand from the inside as well. The phrase is "seeking God's face." Raise your hand if you have ever used that phrase or heard it used by your Christian brethren. Very good. I believe that we Christians tend to have a sort of innate sense of what that means but the real question is not whether or not we know what it means, but rather, do we know how to do it?

We all have heard that David was a man after God's own heart. We know that Moses is said to have talked with God face to face. We know that Jesus told us to seek first His Kingdom. So how do we, as New Covenant believers, seek God's holy and perfect face? First let me address the obvious tools that we can use for this seeking of the divine.

1. God's Word, the Bible. In His perfect plan and will God has given us a written document that explains what we need to know about Him and His work in the world for salvation. Does the Bible tell us all there is to know about God? Heavens no! God is the infinite One who is beyond description and truly beyond our comprehension and no amount of books or megabytes could even come close to fully containing Him. In 1917 Fredrick Lehmen put together a beautiful song that explains this point so well. The lyrics are as follows:

  1. The love of God is greater far
    Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
    It goes beyond the highest star,
    And reaches to the lowest hell;
    The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
    God gave His Son to win;
    His erring child He reconciled,
    And pardoned from his sin.
    • Refrain:
      Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
      How measureless and strong!
      It shall forevermore endure—
      The saints’ and angels’ song.
  2. When hoary time shall pass away,
    And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
    When men who here refuse to pray,
    On rocks and hills and mountains call,
    God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
    All measureless and strong;
    Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
    The saints’ and angels’ song.
  3. Could we with ink the ocean fill,
    And were the skies of parchment made,
    Were every stalk on earth a quill,
    And every man a scribe by trade;
    To write the love of God above
    Would drain the ocean dry;

    Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
    Though stretched from sky to sky.
Though God cannot be contained in a book, what we do not know about God will not be contrary to what His Word tells us. This is the grave mistake of people who condemn Christians with words like "God is bigger than one book or one religion." Fair enough, but the truth that we do not know will not contradict the truth we do know. The point is, the place to start in our search for the face of God is in what He has given us in His Word, the Bible. There we can find His actions in the history of the world as well as principles for how we are to live as His children. If we want to get to know our pen pal from a distant land then we must read the letters that they have written to us. It would be fruitless for us to simply imagine what they may be like and concoct our own version of a person without consulting their own words on the matter. The same goes for God. The beginning of our knowledge of Him must come from what He has told us about Himself.
2. Prayer. I don't know whether or not prayer or the Bible is the most obvious tool we can use to seek God's face. If the Bible is God's letter to us then prayer is our cell phone with which we can communicate directly with Him. The beauty of prayer is that the minutes are unlimited and the plan is free for us, He picked up the tab through Christ on the cross. The same thing can be said about prayer as reading the Word, trying to know God without it is going to be pointless. If we attempt to know God without either of these tools we are creating an imaginary friend for ourselves. The biblical term for that would "idol." 
With those two tools in place the most important thing to understand about seeking God's face is that it is about a relationship. In John 15:15 Jesus tells us this, No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. A little further along Romans 8:15-17 says, For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba, Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. We also know that Abraham was counted as a "friend of God." This tells me that God cares more about me than anyone on this earth. He wants to know me and He wants me to get to know Him. The issue is not obeying His commandments to the letter, that is a byproduct of my relationship with Him. Think of it this way, I can obey the laws of my country and city to perfection but never have a relationship with the people who put those laws into force. The unique opportunity that we have as children of God is to be in a real relationship with the legislator, the judge, the president, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If our earthly father were a judge there is no doubt the he would want us to obey the law and because of our love for our father we would want to obey out of respect for him. This is where there is a chasm of separation between Christianity and false religions and bad Christian teaching. The relationship is not built through adherence to the law. The relationship comes first and the obedience flows from it. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that we cannot adhere to the Law that God has put in place. Therefore we will never be able to please Him outside of our relationship with Christ. It is through that relationship that we are made to be perfect and holy. 
Let me illustrate this point with a verse, 1 John 5:3, For this is the love of God, that we keep Him commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. At the outset this may look like evidence against what I have already said but look at that verse in light of Matthew 22:37-38, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" And He said to them, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and will all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment." Do you see it now? The greatest commandment, the one by which we show evidence of our love for God, is that we be in a love relationship with Him. The beauty of all of this is that because God is omnipresent we can build a relationship with Him the same way we build one with people. That is, we spend time with Him, we read the things He has written to us, we talk to Him, we praise Him, we do things for Him and do the things He asks of us.
I will close with this point. When Jesus, God incarnate, was on this earth He did not operate alone or in a vacuum. Instead He chose people to accompany Him on His journey. He made friends and invested in the lives of His disciples and the people He came in contact with. He wept over the death of His friend Lazarus. He build relationships with and cared for the people around Him. Colossians 1:15 tells us that this Christ was the image of the invisible God. Every characteristic that we can see in Christ is shared by the Father. Therefore, we can say with absolute certainty that God wants to be in a relationship with us and returning that desire is how we seek God's face.


Friday, April 8, 2011

An Urgent Lesson from Uzza.

In all honesty I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon or a lesson come from the book of 1 Chronicles. In general I think it is one of the books that gets "lost in the shuffle" sometimes in favor of, what we see as the, more meaningful portions of the Scripture. However, there are some important truths that can be drawn from books like 1 Chronicles. The incident that I would like to expand on today comes from 1 Chronicles 13:9-10. At this point in the narrative David is having the Ark of the Covenant moved to Jerusalem because it was largely ignored during the reign of King Saul. What happens is tragic and shocking to say the least and it brings up some very interesting questions about the character of God. Here is Uzza, a man who is accompanying the Ark, and he sees that the oxen are about to upset the cart upon which it is riding. He reaches out to steady the Ark and God strikes him down. The Scriptures tell us that "he died there before God." This not only upsets David but it also may upset many of us. Why would God strike down poor Uzza who was just trying to help? His intentions were good, were they not? Yes, his intentions were good but, as the saying goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." I am not suggesting that Uzza ended up in Hell because of his mistake, that is something that only God knows and it is not addressed in the passage. What we can draw from this incident is a very important lesson for us today and that is, God's holiness makes no exceptions.

Our instinct in these modern times is to weight God's attributes differently. If we were to make a list of His attributes they may include things such as: just, loving, compassionate, holy, perfect, unchanging, etc. What we tend to do is say that certain ones outweigh the others. For instance, we might say that God's love overrides His justice. I would submit that this is the most popular example. We are probably all aware of Rob Bell's new book entitled Love Wins. It is not my intention to refute or even discuss this book, primarily because I have not read it. However, from what I've been able to gather from things I've heard and seen the idea is that God's love outweighs His holiness and justice in the end. This is inappropriate on many levels and I will try to explain why in what follows.

The starting point for this discussion has to be the percentages that we give each of God's attributes. What I mean is that we may think that God's love takes up a higher proportion of His character than justice, or holiness. Let me give a worldly example to illustrate this point. If the Congress in the United States is made up of 60% conservatives and 40% liberals then we would describe it as a conservative congress. That doesn't mean that it is completely conservative but that the overall ideology would be such. When we translate this onto God we would say that He is 60% loving, 20% holy, 10% just and 10% unchanging. This, of course, is far from the orthodox way of viewing God and His character. The more accurate description would be that God is 100% loving, 100% just, 100% holy and 100% unchanging. Naturally, this looks like a mathematical impossibility. Thankfully, God is not limited by our earthly concepts of math. We see this in other places as well. For instance, the orthodox and biblical position is that Jesus was 100% man and 100% God. This would make Him 200% which is impossible. Also, when we look at the Trinity we have this strange equation, 1+1+1=1. Ultimately, this is a divine mystery that we will never completely comprehend or understand until all is revealed in glory. 

Let me apply this to the discussion at hand. God's love and compassion do not work against or override His justice and holiness. What they do is work in concert with each other. We see the most beautiful and grizzly (another paradox perhaps) evidence of this on the Cross. It was here that God's love met with His justice and holiness working together to provide a means of salvation for the world. By nature unholy beings cannot enter into God's perfect, holy presence. The solution was to apply His loving character to the situation and provide a way for humanity to be holy and thereby gain entrance into Heaven. His holiness would not budge... nay, could not budge, on the issue just as His holiness could not be withheld from Uzza.

Now let me take this a step further towards practical application. It was Uzza's sin that lead to his instant and tragic demise. Sin is that which we do that is contrary to God's commandments and standard. Uzza's intentions had no bearing on His personal holiness. Likewise, our good deeds, done with the best of intentions have no bearing on our personal holiness. A person can no more become holy through his or her deeds than a horse can become a human by walking on two legs. Isaiah makes this point clear in 64:6, For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. It is not God's justice that sends one to Hell, it is their iniquities and sin. It was Uzza's trespass that lead to God striking him down because he, and we, live in a world that is subject to the framework of God's justice and holiness. In an athletic competition we would be appalled if people who broke the rules were allowed to continue the competition and far more so if they were rewarded for their rule breaking. The problem is, we don't apply those same feelings of outrage to God. If we repeatedly break the rules that He has put in place we are shocked when we must bear the consequences. Our belief is that God's love would not allow such a thing, but we fail to see that His love has provided an escape hatch, His Son. Through our faith and trust in Jesus Christ we are made holy so that we may enter into God's holy presence. What more loving thing could ever have been done?!

Here is the bottom line, and it comes from the words of Christ in Matthew 7:22-23, Many will say to Me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?" And then I will declare to them,"I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness." Our good deeds will be beyond meaningless when we stand before God Almighty. Uzza's good deed was helpless to divert the holiness and justice of God. God's infinite love and compassion have been seen in the Cross of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. His love is further evidenced in the fact that He allows all who call on Him and trust in His Son to be saved from the wrath to come. That is not to mention the countless opportunities we are given to embrace the sacrifice of Christ while we are on this earth. God's holiness will not allow uncleanliness into His presence, God's justice demands payment for the sins we've committed and God's love made that payment. The only possible course of action for us is to believe and trust in Christ.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Not useful does not equal not true.

I just finished reading a short article on Fox News titled "Is Religion Really Dying?" by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. The motivation behind the story was a study conducted by the University of Arizona and Northwestern University on the religious sensibilities of the world. Interestingly, they found that there are nine countries in the world where religion is effectively dead. Thankfully, the United States was not one of them but if the trend continues it could easily make the list in the future. What was, perhaps most intriguing to me was Hirschfield's comments about how our traditional religions may die out and that is some sense they should. This comment is found at the conclusion of the article:  

No faith can succeed if it does not work in the lives of the faithful. This study just reminds us, particularly those of us connected to organized faith traditions, that we must never lose sight of that fact, and if we do, we probably deserve to go extinct anyway.

This statement in and of itself is not particularly incendiary. Even as Christians we would admit that people must see the fruit of our faith in Christ in order for them to believe there is a life-transforming power in it. The old adage of, "actions speak louder than words" fits nicely in this scenario. However, there is a more intriguing underlying idea that one must have read the entire article to see. Previously Hirschfield quoted the authors of this study as saying, "The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.” Followed by his own comment; Isn’t that how it ought to be? Let me boil this down for you if your having trouble understanding what is said here (it took me a few passes to get it straight in my own head). These authors are saying that in order for a religion to survive it must provide a higher return on investment than not following the religion. Let me put this into real life terms. For a person in a given environment or culture they must see more benefits from being a Hindu than from not being a Hindu. That is, if they can be just as successful in life and be non-religious then they will. Am I the only one who is disturbed by the idea that "religion" must now offer a higher rate of return in order for it to remain viable?

May I pose this question to, what is certainly, a meager audience: "What happened to the truth?" It seems that we are now running the religious climate the same way we run the stock market or an IRA. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to put all religions on the same level here but when ideology and philosophy and theology become tickers on a marquee we have reached a terrible point in our world. The follow-up question I have for Hirschfield and those who conducted this study is this: "How do we tell if a religion is 'working' in people's lives?" If we apply this to Christianity we must then determine if people are actually "getting saved" to see if it is working. This is preposterous (I'm so glad I got to use that word)! Perhaps that is the wrong thing to look for. Perhaps what we really need to examine is if people are "living Christian lives." This just lends credence to the idea that we live in a time when humans have before them the Giant Super Religious Buffet. "Hey, if you don't like the taste of Hinduism try some of the Buddhism. If Christianity makes your stomach upset, try some of the New Age. If none of it suits your religious inclinations and none of it meets you needs then don't eat here again." Here is the bottom line. Children, many times, do not like green vegetables but that doesn't change the fact that they are essential for a healthy diet. I don't like oil and vinegar on my salad as much as Thousand Island dressing but the fact is Thousand Island isn't that good for me. Truth is not up for discussion.

This may seem like a crude image but I was watching an old episode of "24" yesterday and Jack Bauer was talking to Nina Myers. She said she did not believe what Jack was telling her. Jack's response was, "I don't care if you believe me or not." What we want to believe and what we find comfortable or useful does not change what the truth is. It doesn't matter if a religion is useful or not. What matters is if it is true and matches with reality. That alone should be the measure of a faith. Yes, a religion should die if it does not meet the test of truth but the truth should not die because we, fallible humans, find it uncomfortable. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 says this: For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. Paul was right 2000 years ago and his words are more correct than ever in 2011. Why? Because he spoke the truth and the truth is timeless and unchanging. Try as we may, we cannot kill the truth and the consequences will be eternal and terrible. Stand for the truth and stand firm on Christ, the ultimate truth.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Leadership lessons from Naaman.

In the first few chapters of 2 Kings we have the account of the life of the prophet Elisha. One thing that I have noticed about the stories of Elisha is that if you didn't know you were reading 2 Kings you could easily think these were stories about Jesus in the one of the Gospels. In Talk Through the Bible Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa point out that Elisha's life was marked by many of the same characteristics as Jesus' such as; grace, life, and love. That is not to mention all of the miracles that Elisha performed during his ministry in the Northern kingdom. One of those miracles was the healing of Naaman, the captain of the army of Aram. While the story of Naaman only last for 14 verses in chapter 5 I believe there are a few important lessons that we can draw from it as we seek to be godly leaders.

1. Naaman was not to good to listen to his subordinates. If there was ever a lesson to learn in "Leadership 101" this would probably be it. One of the marks of a great leader in the military is that they don't just blow off their troops. One of the marks of a great leader in business is that they are willing to take note of what their employees are saying to them. In this particular situation, Naaman had, what some versions call, a skin disease and others call leprosy. Either way, this great warrior for king Aram had a serious issue that, if left unattended, would surely kill him. Fortunately for Naaman, during this period of history God was known for working through His children even though they were captive. Lo and behold, Naaman had captured an Israelite girl who was serving he and his wife. She noticed his condition and mentioned that if he went to the prophet in Samaria (Elisha) he could be healed. Perhaps he was just desperate, or perhaps he saw something special in the girl from Israel but either way Naaman decided to investigate the possibility. There is no doubt in my mind that no matter how hard we have worked or how much we have learned, we do not know everything. In short this is a lesson in humility. It takes a big man to do everything on his own, but it takes a bigger man to humble himself, first before the Lord, and secondly before those under his care and command.

2. This is perhaps the greater lesson I've found in the story of Naaman. Once he goes to Elisha he is told that all he must do is go to the Jordan River and wash 7 times. In verse 11 it says, But Naaman was furious and went away and said, "Behold, I thought, 'He will surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper."  Then in a very bold act his servants came to him and said, My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, "Wash and be clean'?" I must confess that when I read that verse I was immediately under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and God's perfect Word. I pray that in a similar manner you are cut to the quick by the question of these servants. Let me express to you why this is such a strong lesson to me. There are some of us who say to God, "If you call me to be a missionary in some foreign land I will go without a moment's hesitation." Or we say, "Lord, if you call me to do some great and dramatic thing for your Kingdom I will." Then the Lord replies, "My child, go across the street, go across the county, go to the soup kitchen, go to the back of the sanctuary, and minister there." When the Lord says thus, we are offended that He would so rudely turn down our offers for grander things and more sacrificial actions. Yet all along, He is not asking us to sacrifice great things in our own eyes but the great thing of our pride so that we may humble ourselves before Him and submit to His perfect will.

The words of the servants seemed to have struck Naaman between the eyes because we have no record of a verbal response. The next verse simple states, So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and was clean. I get the feeling (and I have no scripture to back this up so know that it is my own opinion and speculation) that Naaman was very quiet after the servants told him this for his subordinates had spoken the truth and he was humbled. That his actions do tell us. In our efforts to be godly leaders we must, above all else, be willing to accept God's plan however great or small it may seem to us.

I would be greatly remiss if I did not take this opportunity to share one other lesson that I see in this passage, and it does not relate to leadership. Many times people expect that coming to Christ and His salvation involves many things. We must do thus and so, we must "get our lives straightened out" before we go to God. We think, "There must be more to it than just faith and trusting in Christ. That is too simple." No my friends, it IS that simple. Forgiveness of sins is being bathed in the Fountain of Living Water, and not even seven times as Naaman had to do, but just once and we are clean. Salvation does not require a complicated intellectual assent to the knowledge of God. It comes through a child-like faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. Yes, there is much more to the Christian life than that but there is where it begins. It is that simple and the offer is there for each of us to accept it.


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