Lessons from Stan.

The guy next to me on the stationary bike could have made a career out of competitive sweating.  I’m not too shabby when it comes to perspiration, but this guy made it an art form.  I had turned to him and made small talk, trying to distract myself from the intense pain in my legs.  At some point in the conversation I mentioned how I’d been watching what I eat lately.

Stan (we’ll call him that because I’ve forgotten his actual name) immediately started helping me think through diets, and some good things to eat for high triglycerides.  He suggested I hand-grind some oats at the beginning of each week, and cook them with a little bit of honey and eat off of them all week long for breakfast.  He went on to describe his regular lunch that included (but was limited to) the words arugula, whole-grain, free range, and unsalted.

I nodded a lot.

After a while, he said a line that rang in my ears.  He said “one more thing, and then I’m done preaching at you about your diet…”

What an interesting way to phrase it.  It’s OK, and perfectly natural for a guy who is passionate about eating healthy (and organic, in Stan’s case) to call others—even perfect strangers beside him on a bike at the YMCA—to do it.  Especially if there’s a window in the conversation that gives him the opportunity.  He simply can’t keep quiet about it.

Initiative evangelism has gotten a bad rap in recent years.  Students regularly tell me that it feels forced and unnatural to approach a stranger with the goal of talking to them about Jesus.  And while some of the bad rap is deserved (loveless “Christians” holding hateful signs at funerals or leaving fake $20 bill tracts on the street), most of the aversion to initiating a conversations with a stranger is based on a faulty view of the message being shared.

Tim Keller rightly says “the gospel is news as opposed to instruction.”  When we share the gospel with a stranger, we ought not be telling them how to change, or how to repent, or how to pray a prayer or walk an aisle.  We ought to be telling them that God became a man to rescue sinful men and women from themselves.  It’s the most amazing truth ever told!  And it affects EVERYTHING!  Why in the world would I not share it with someone, especially if they indicate they are willing to listen?

We should look for opportunities in conversations to share with people, in a natural, respectful way (much like how Stan shared the benefits of organic nutrition).  If we really believe the gospel, and are being changed by the gospel, it is something that we will share with others.  And while it’s true that sharing with a close friend is natural, it shouldn’t be forced or awkward to share the gospel with a sweaty stranger beside you on the cardio machine.

"Negative, Depressing, and Discouraging" Verse of the Day.

One of the reasons I can’t get wholly behind Christian radio is that they often whitewash the troubling doctrines and the tough-to-swallow parts about Christianity, when they could be contextualizing those difficult doctrines and glorifying God for them.

By taking verses like Philippians 4:13 out of their horrific context (the reason you can do all things through Christ is because he was beaten half to death by religious people like me in the worst hate-crime ever perpetrated) they rob them of the gospel, and turn them into pithy truisms. And I’d argue that’s not very “safe for the whole family.”

With that in mind, periodically over the next few days and weeks I’ll be posting some verses I’ve found that will likely never be featured on your local “positive, upbeat, and encouraging” affiliate, along with reasons I think they should.

Today’s “upbeat verse” (mouse over to read the text)

Nahum 3:5-6

The fact that the Lord is against the Ninevites ought to give us great encouragement. In fact, anybody who doesn’t publicly speak out against a city like Nineveh, one “completely full of lies and pillage” ought not ever claim even partial righteousness, much less perfect holiness.

God, perfect in holiness, promises in this seemingly horrific verse to someday completely rid the world of places like Nineveh.

Then He does it in the most surprising way. God sets Christ up as a spectacle, and throws filth on him. God lifts Jesus’ “skirt” over his face, and shows to the nations his nakedness. Jesus pays the penalty for people as wicked as the Ninevites. People like me.

And by his stripes we are healed.

Negative, Downbeat, Discouraging Verse of the day.

I started yesterday with Nahum 3:5-6

Today we’ll keep it in the Old Testament with another seemingly non-uplifting verse:

Exodus 22:22-24

There are tons of these types of verses in the books of the law that are never going to see time in a top ten list of encouraging verses.  But they should.  The encouraging thing about a provision in the law specifically calling for the protection of orphans and widows?  Those are the most marginalized segments of society.  Nobody can read that kind of provision and then turn around and say “God doesn’t care about me.”  In fact, God cares so deeply for his people that he will kill with the sword anyone who doesn’t care for even the least of them.

But the real encouragement in this verse is again that it points to Christ.  All of us, at some point in our lives, have failed to care for (and have thereby afflicted) widows and orphans.  This verse would be crushing, apart from Christ, because we find ourselves on the receiving end of God’s death penalty.  But God’s wrath was kindled against Christ, and he killed him.

And we get credited Christ’s righteousness.

The Terrifying thought of Christ-centered Laborers.

Thanks to the power of Twitter, and my ever-running search for “campus crusade” I saw this tweet yesterday:

A terrifying description of the Campus Crusade for Christ Club: “We are here to help turn lost students into Christ-centered laborers.” —@gogocosmonaut

To which I responded:

you and I must have a different view of Christ. It’s terrifying that anyone would not want to be a Christ-centered laborer.

To which he responded:

If your life is centered on labor for someone you’ve never met and that has a chance of not being real… That’s terrifying.

At which point, I felt the 140 character-at-a-time limit on our perspectives needed lifting.  Hence, this post. (to which I welcome a response either in the comments or on some other platform—even email)

I don’t know anything more about Nick Wood (@gogocosmonaut) than is revealed online, but from what I can tell about him through a brief perusal of his tweets, He and I share a lot of the same interests.  This isn’t a blog post where I slam the guy.  From his perspective, I’ve never met Jesus, and Jesus has a “chance of not being real.”

I could write a long defense of why I believe in God, but he’s heard it before, and probably has convincing arguments against even my best philosophical positions.  Ontological proofs are not what he wants or needs.  What he needs is to meet a Christian who actually finds their ultimate purpose, identity, and joy in Christ.

Because Nick is absolutely right.  If I’ve never met someone, and don’t know anything about that person, and then proceed to devote my life to them, and call that devotion “labor,” I’ve either lost my mind, or worse.  But, if I were to devote my life to someone like President Obama, or Billy Graham, or my pastor, or even my wife or child, and call that devotion “labor” it would lead to disastrous results as well.

Why? Because, at the end of the day, and at their most basic level, those men and women are flawed, as well. Ever met a parent who hinges all their hopes in life on the success/fame/competence of their child?  More often than not those are crushing expectations for flawed people to live up to.

That’s what’s different about Jesus.  The Jesus I meet in the Bible is perfect. Not swayed by human opinion, not selfish, not greedy, full of integrity, perfect. The type of guy that finds 100 bucks on the subway and gives it to lost and found.  Whether or not the Bible is true (different topic for a different day), the picture you get from the Bible is of a Jesus who never stopped giving himself away.  Devoting my life to a completely (and perfectly) selfless person would lead to me becoming the type of person who increasingly gives myself away.

There are countless examples in the history of Christianity of this principle coming true, from Mother Teresa to Jim Elliot to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther (King and otherwise).  People who saw it as a small thing to stand up against the Nazis, the bigotry of early 20th century America or 15th century Europe, and the horrors of poverty and disease.

If we have this view of Christ—selfless, sacrificial giver—there is nothing terrifying about an army of people walking behind Him and modeling their lives after him.  This world could stand to have a few more Martin Luther Kings who stand up against tyranny, even when there’s nothing but death in it for them.  Even if Jesus weren’t real, as Nick posits, to have a big group of people live like that imaginary man would actually benefit the world.

My fear is that many Christians in general and Campus Crusade staff and students in particular are not living in light of this Jesus, giving guys like Nick every reason to dismiss Christ without a second look.

I would beg folks like Nick to consider Christ.  You’ll always find more than enough Christians to ridicule, and find fault with.  After all, being a Christian means surrendering in the fight to be perfect, and admitting we can’t save ourselves.  But look at Christ long enough, and you’ll find an amazing truth worth devoting your life to.  In light of Christ’s perfect, selfless love, grace, and ultimate control over all the earth, it would be far more terrifying to center your life on fleeting counterfeits like self-actualization, money, sex, fame, power, or control.

If You have Nothing to Hide, Hide Nothing: a look at the financial transparency of Christian organizations.

Does transparency matter?  Not according to the likes of Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and TD Jakes.

I spent some time recently on a the website of a ministry called MinstryWatch.com (the  online database component of Wall Watchers) to see, among other things, how Campus Crusade for Christ (the ministry my wife and I work for) is doing when it comes to honesty, openness, and transparency regarding financial issues.  I was thrilled, though not surprised, to see that we rank among the elite in terms of “putting our money where our mouth is.”  That’s one big reason why I work for this organization, and will for as long as the Lord continues to provide.

Where I was shocked was as I perused other ministries, and specifically those ministries associated with what’s been called the “prosperity gospel.”  Teachers who say that God intends for us to be materially wealthy are not being honest about their material wealth, when asked.

TD Jakes, for example, according the the site, was noncompliant when asked about his ministry’s use of funds.  That means that if you have ever given money to TD Jakes and his ministry, you have no idea how that money was spent.  Legally they may not be required to tell you how they are spending your money, but you can bet I’m not giving a dollar until I know how they will use that dollar.  And you shouldn’t either.

Plus, when Joyce Meyer, who clearly correlates financial prosperity and God’s blessing, is asked about how much she is compensated for her ministry efforts, why wouldn’t she jump at the chance to be totally honest and share how God is blessing her?  But according to the site, she’s released info about her ministry, but nowhere in it does she mention how much money her family makes off of the donations of others.  That is shady, at best.  It’s like she’s ashamed of the income she makes.  Again, that’s not an accusation, so much as a point of fact.  She has not been transparent.  Christians should be transparent.  Especially ones with massive budgets.

That brings me to Creflo Dollar.  His ministry is literally worldwide, with offices in South Africa, the UK, Nigeria, America, and Australia.  He and his wife Taffi co-pastor a megachurch that has spawned multiple corporations and ministries.  Then, when being asked to be transparent and tell folks who give how that money is being used, (and even being asked to do so by the federal government) they still refuse to give any information out regarding their financials.  While I don’t think it is the government’s place to investigate churches and their financial records, I do feel like the folks who give money to his ministry have every right to know how that money is being used.

Dr. Dollar, in the response to the government posted on his website, justifies their financial secrecy with the verse from Matthew 6:1-4 that references individuals giving in secrecy, NOT corporations stewarding in secrecy.  Again, I think the federal government is overstepping its bounds (and please don’t get me started on that as a topic in general), but I think Dr. Dollar’s justifications for corporate and organizational secrecy are absurdly unbiblical.  Nobody is asking him to disclose what particular individuals gave, just that he disclose a dollar amount of total giving, and how those funds were used.  To use the very verse he quotes, he’s on the “openly” side of the equation.  The members and others gave in secret.  It’s time for God to bless openly.  So openly that anyone who wants to see it can see it.  His own (half-biblical) theology says that God will openly bless his church financially if they are faithful.

God doesn’t do back-alley accounting.  He honors integrity and honesty.  If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

The list doesn’t end with those.  Go see for yourself which ministries refuse to give account of how they use funds.

What do you think?  Should churches and other ministries strive for openness and transparency?  Why or why not?  Comment below.