Imagine a church. This is a conservative, well regarded Southern Baptist Church. We'll call it First Baptist Anywhere. The pastor of First Baptist Anywhere is a Bible teaching pastor who wants to see others come to know the Gospel. They have a student ministry that young people flock to on Wednesday nights. They have a student-led band, and even an air hockey table. The music minister has a nice blend of classic hymns and contemporary worship during services. How nice.
Now imagine another church. We'll call it The Living Well of the Spirit #Luminous. The Living Well of the Spirit #Luminous is a relatively new church. They started out at around 20 members and now boast a membership of over 800. The Living Well of the Spirit #Luminous's teaching pastor has spiky hair, and wears t-shirts with rhinestone crosses on it. The people at this church sing with their hands in the air and their eyes closed. They have really well made videos on a giant projector at the beginning of every service with lots of flashy lights and shiny things. They meet in small groups every week to promote fellowship and growth together. How cool.
Now imagine a third and final church. This is the Missionary Baptist Church of Anywhere Mountain. This church meets in a small building in the middle of nowhere. The pastor of this church has a combover and yells and sweats alot. People say "Amen" often during the service. They boast a congregation of around 25, because the Smith family left the church recently, which was around 1/3 of their members. They meet every Sunday morning and then have a potluck in the small fellowship hall afterward. How quaint.
Now imagine that each church decides it is going to have an outreach program to reach the people of Anywhere. First Baptist Anywhere decides they are going to have a block party for the families in the neighborhood, so they can come and see what the church is all about. They rent a bouncy house and have carnival games set up. Around 30 children and their parents show up. At the end of the block party, the children's pastor gathers everyone in and somewhat awkwardly tells them a Bible story, and everyone leaves with a First Baptist Anywhere book mark and tract entitled "Who Am I?"
The Living Well of the Spirit #Luminous also has an outreach. They decide that with the great sound system they have they will hold a concert with a Christian band, and before the beginning of the concert they will show a video about their church and why everyone at the concert should come to it. The concert is a great success. Over 1000 people show up, and each and every one of them sees that you can be a Christian and still like good music and watch cool videos.
As you would expect, The Missionary Baptist Church of Anywhere Mountain holds an outreach as well. They decide that they are going to make signs and go to the busiest intersection in their town and preach. They have signs that say "Repent!", "The End Is Near!", "John 3:16", and other things of that nature. They become the talk of the town, and basically everyone who lives on or near Anywhere Mountain has seen them and their message.
Which of these outreaches was most successful? Was it the First Baptist Church of Anywhere? They gave out information about their Church and told a Bible story to over 30 people. Was it The Living Well of the Spirit #Luminous? They held a concert for over 1000 people and showed people how cool it is to be a Christian. Was it the Missionary Baptist Church of Anywhere Mountain? Everyone in their town of around 200 people heard the scriptures that day.
You may have an answer in your mind. Most likely it is the church whose outreach method you most agree with. Or maybe you look at the numbers and see which outreach reached the most people. This is the problem we have with our programs, in my opinion. We, being Americans, assume Jesus and his followers should treat our faith as we treat our economy. We think that the church or outreach that boasts the most numbers and is bringing in the most members is successful. We think we need to "sell" Jesus when we evangelize. We think if we don't do a good enough job making Jesus appetizing, he won't be able to do it Himself, and therefore our return on investment won't be profitable. If we think our love won't be accepted by people, we get stingy with it and dole it out other places.
I don't think God works that way. I think God doesn't care about numbers, but rather hearts. I think God doesn't care about how appetizing He looks, but how hungry people are. I think God doesn't consider Love a currency, but rather a river. Whether or not I think any of these outreach methods are good ways of reaching people, God can use any of them. As followers of Christ we need to stop worrying so much about what others are doing, how they are doing it, and how they can do it better. We need to simply look to Christ and how He loved others. 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 & 13 sums it up when Paul says, " If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
So which outreach is the most successful? None of them. Or all of them. It all hinges on the hearts of the members of the church who were leading them. If we simply love God, really learn to love God, we realize He deals in a totally different economy. He deals in the the economy of Love. And when we deal in the economy of Love, we don't need to sell God, we realize all we need is to freely give out His love.
Over Christmas break I got to take a roadtrip across America with my good friend Ian. I firmly believe every young person needs to do this, to get out and see what is out there in the "other places." Ian and I had just graduated college earlier in the month, and when my grandfather told me he wanted to give me his truck, but that it was all the way in Southern California, we jumped at the chance.
While on the plane to California, we met a guy with whom we began to converse with and have the normal, "I'm sitting really close to you but have never met you" type of small talk. When he asked what we were doing in California, we told him about the trip and how we were going to try to hit as many National Parks on the way home as we could, and he told us he had previously lived in the Zion Canyon area of Utah. This was one of the parks we were planning on visiting, so he told us about a few good hikes. "You must hit Angel's landing, it is an absolutely beautiful hike.... although it may be closed in the winter. But definitely check it out," said our new friend.
We had new insider information, so we felt pretty good about our Zion portion of our trip. When we arrived at Zion we attained a trail map and located Angel's Landing. The map said it was "Very strenuous, not recommended for children or those that are scared of heights." However, the map said it was only four miles, so we decided that no matter how strenuous, a four mile hike can't be that bad. We were wrong.
When we got to the trailhead I immediately noticed two things: 1. The trail is paved & 2. There are ten year olds and 70 year olds hiking this trail. I'm not worried. We began to climb the fairly steep trail, taking plenty of pictures and stopping to inspect rock formations along the way. I scoffed at the people wearing cramp-ons to traverse the small ice patches on the paved trail. We didn't need cramp-ons, we didn't need hiking poles, heck, we didn't even need proper winter clothing or gloves!
However, soon after I climbed up in a rock formation to take this picture:
we came upon another young man, similarly dressed. He looked at us and said, "Are you guys gonna attempt it?" Now when someone asks you not if you are going to do something, but if you are going to attempt something, and you don't really know what that something you are about to do is like, that should be a red flag. But we are young, we have just graduated college, we're men, we're finding ourselves, so I gave a condescending chuckle and replied, "Yeah, of course." To which Ian followed, "Only a fool thinks he decides when he lives or dies." If only he knew how close we would come.
Soon after we got to a spot in the trail affectionately known as the "Wiggles." These Wiggles were a series of steep switchbacks, which at this point in the season were a solid sheet of ice. However, there was rock walls on the inside of the trail that you could hoist yourself up on. So, yes, the trail was not easy, but the worst thing that could happen in my mind was slipping on the ice and breaking your tailbone. We slowly but steadily climbed the Wiggles, and eventually made it to the top. When we got to the top, I was overwhelmed by the beauty that was all around me. I quickly got out the camera my mother was sure to give me for my trip, and began to attempt to capture some of the grandeur I was witnessing. I was in awe, I was happy, and I was safe. Attempt it. Ha! It was then that I saw the vulture. What is that vulture doing up here? Ian then uttered one of the worst and most beautiful string of words that have ever come out of his mouth: "Oh..... this isn't the top. That's the top."
To which I replied, "Yeah, we're not attempting that." To which he replied, "Only a fool thinks he decides when he lives or dies."
Let me try to put this situation in a more understandable form for you, because the pictures really don't do it justice. That is a giant rock, jutting out of the earth, and the only way to the top is a "trail" that is basically a sheer rock face covered in ice with a chain stapled into the rock to use as a climbing rope of sorts in most places. There are no second chances. If you fall once you will have 1500 feet of space between you and the ground to prepare to see the Lord. This "trail" should be on the "Only Hike if You are Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger" section of the trail guide. We "hiked" it anyway.
The entire time I was climbing, it was like someone had put a three second long song entitled "This is the Dumbest thing I've Ever Done" in my brain on repeat. I'm sure you can imagine what the lyrics were like. We went back and forth with, "Hey, maybe we should just go back" and then the other would reply, "We've made it this far, let's just keep going." I counted seven total "near death experiences" on the trail, no exaggeration, although I suppose the entire time I was around four inches and two really numb hands on a chain away from meeting my maker. In held out hope, however, that once I reached the top I would be safe to sit, decompress, and take in the beauty that was all around me that I had been desperately trying to avoid looking at as I was climbing. However, 1700 "This is the dumbest thing I've ever done's" and three near death experiences later, I was at the top, and just as terrified as ever. The whole thing was an ice sheet, and there were no chains to hold on to. However, it was there that I sensed God in a way that I never have before.
I finally stood up, looked around, remembered how out of my skull scared I was, and understood a small portion of how massive my God is.
You see, I've heard my entire life that I am supposed to fear God. I have trouble knowing what that means. Does it mean that I need to be scared that if I mess up one too many times God will strike me down? I don't think that's the answer. Does it mean that I am supposed to always bow my head, close my eyes, and say certain words when I come to God? I don't think that's the answer either. So what is the answer? I don't think there is one. And I believe that is why we don't know what it means to fear God. I hear so many people trying to explain God, prove His existence, chart out what God believes, what stance God has on politics, and I think we are scared to look at God as He really is: unexplainable. That day, on top of that rock, I saw God in one of His purest and natural forms. I saw Him the way Moses saw Him. I saw Him the way Paul saw Him. I saw Him the way he needs to be seen: wild, unpredictable, beautiful, and terrifying. God cannot be contained, He can't be formulated, He can't be proven. He is simply and complexly God. What kind of God could destroy the entire Earth and later come as a human to save it? It doesn't make sense. It can't be mapped. It can't be charted. It can't be explained.
When we try to put God on a chart, we make him manageable. Put yourself in a situation of terrifying beauty, and God will show you a small part of Himself, as He did with Moses in Exodus 33. God's glory is too much for us to see and understand, but ask God to show Himself to you and He will. Just make sure to bring a change of underwear.
The faces of two grown men who are about to cry in fear.
Tragedy is all around us. Every day there are seemingly new and more sickening acts of violence and hate for others. News broadcasters talk about "unimaginable" and "unspeakable" acts every day. However, mankind as a whole is better than this, aren't we? We will overcome this, won't we? The good people in this world outnumber the bad, don't we?
I don't think so.
You could never do anything like the crimes committed in the pictures above, could you? You couldn't purposefully cause an explosion just to hurt others, could you? You couldn't participate in mass genocide of a people group, just because they are from a different tribe than yourself, could you? You couldn't send people to concentration camps to rot, could you? You couldn't capture, enslave, and torture millions of African tribesmen, could you? You couldn't force entire tribes of people off of their land , knowing they would most likely die elsewhere just because you want their land, could you? Think about the people that commit these horrendous crimes. How are you innately any different from them?
I can't speak for you, so I will speak for myself. Could I murder, rape, or commit any of these awful crimes? Of course not! Right? The thought of doing that makes my skin crawl. Why is that? What makes me better than these other people? What stops the me that is only me and no one else from doing these things? Nothing. I have decided that there is nothing in me that makes me better than these other people.
So why haven't I committed mass genocide yet? If we take a look at the people who commit these atrocities, we find that most every time their parents or others around them didn't teach them to do right, instead of wrong. This makes sense. So if the parents would just do a better job teaching them, things like this wouldn't happen. Or if we could just get positive role models for young people, then this stuff would stop happening, right? Maybe. I definitely think that would help. However, the real question is, why do we need to be taught to do good instead of evil? A child, from the time they are born, only care about themselves. They will inconvenience and even hurt others just to get their way. A good parent or parents will eventually teach the child to act differently, and a bad parent or parents will just let the child go on thinking the world revolves around them.
Why is this something that needs to be taught? Why is good behavior a learned condition? I think we are all born with some wires crossed inside of us. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you follow, if you are trying to do good things, as opposed to bad things, you have learned to do that from someone else. It is not of your inner self. The Bible calls these self serving things we do our "sin nature." This means that it is within us, when we are born, to do evil. In Galatians 5:19-21a, Paul says, "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these." In order for good deeds to come from the inside, instead of what someone else says we should do, something inside of us needs to be fixed.
The only way I can see this happening is through Jesus. Yes, there are great people out there who do not know Jesus who do good things. (Actually I find many times that the most moral and socially aware people are not following Jesus. Shame on us.) However, all these great things that people do outside of Jesus have been learned. I want to do good things because that is what my nature tells me to do. I have come to find out this is impossible. The great news is, all is not lost. The Bible tells us precisely how we can overcome and cure this disability. Galatians 2:20 says, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." When you give yourself to Christ, and I don't mean just believe in Him, but but really give yourself to Him, you are a new creation. You are dead! Hooray! I know that doesn't actually sound all that great, but the incredible part of it is that all of the old you is gone (including the sin nature) and Jesus has replaced it with His nature. Not the power hungry political type of religion that alot of "Christians" claim, but a nature that cares deeply for the lost, the lonely, the sick, the hurt, the poor, and the hungry. This is corroborated in 2 Corinthians 5:17 when the scriptures say, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." Jesus has given us a new commandment. This commandment basically serves to put a sign on our chest, saying "I am a disciple of Jesus." And no, surprisingly it's not an "Abreadcrumb and Fish" t-shirt. In John 13:34-35 at the last supper, in one of the last commandments Jesus gives to His disciples, He says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Let us, as disciples of Jesus, make a point to forget our differences and simply love one another.
The only way this world can hope to stop doing evil is to die.
We must let ourselves die, and let Jesus live and love through us.
I'm going to share a story about myself that is pretty embarrassing. Ok, it's really embarrassing. Like so embarrassing I think I've only ever shared it once to another person, and now I'm deciding to share it to the entire internet.
When we're young (and even though we pretend we don't when we get older) we really care what others think about us. No matter who you are, at some point in your life, I am assured you have considered what others would think, and changed your actions accordingly. Some people try to act really tough to impress others, some people tell jokes and act crazy, and some people are really nice to people to gain their affections. I was kind of a chameleon of sorts, growing up. I could change the way I acted, the way I talked, even the way I carried myself seamlessly to fit the situation. At school I was the funny guy who picked on people. At home I was the weird kid in the family, who although didn't make the grades the other kids did, made up for it in other areas. At church I was the kid who cared more about having fun than learning about God and living like Jesus. At camp I was the talented young man who really cared about God, the Bible, and his deep and meaningful relationship with Christ. Makes me sick.
You see, many of these attributes make up a small part of me, but almost all of them were a sham in one way or another. I tell you all this to give a little bit of insight into what I am about to reveal. This story revolves around the Carter who was a counselor at Camp Ba Yo Ca and had a "great" relationship with God. The real Carter only acted like he had a great relationship with God because he was surrounded by guys who actually did, and wanted to be like them, or maybe more importantly, there were pretty girls who valued a guy's Christian walk. So as I was working at Camp, I started to notice that approximately 10% of people were praying with their eyes open. I don't remember specifically, but I would venture to guess that a pretty girl was in that 10%. After I noticed this, I realized how I could make people think I was really "holy." So during every prayer, whether it be during a prayer where someone was praying in front of everyone, or we were having silent prayer time, I began to move my lips alot and contort my face like I was really concentrating on meeting God. It gets worse. Not only would I openly move my lips with the words I was saying when I was "praying," but if I ran out of things to say to God I would keep moving my lips, not even actually mouthing real words. The Holy Spirit must have given me the gift of tongues. This is ridiculous.
Jesus must have known I would do this, because he talked about me in Matthew 6. Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites (Carter). For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles (Carter) do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:1 & 5-8)"
My afflictions however, could not simply be fixed by praying in secret. My real problem was how awesome I thought I was, and how lame I thought God was. Whether I was acting like I didn't care about Him, or like I was the holiest of all the holy, I was simply bragging about how awesome I was, instead of how awesome God is. In Galatians 6:14, Paul shows us that he has overcome this way of thinking when he says, "As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world's interest in me has also died." If anyone had reason to boast because of his "holiness" it was Paul, but he realized how insignificant he was in comparison to Christ.
I am here to tell you I am a ridiculous person. I have realized how insignificant I am in comparison to Christ. I still struggle with pride, but God has shown me that if I can learn to make myself smaller and Him bigger, there won't be a need for me to show off. Jesus will shine so bright through me that He will do all the "boasting" for Himself.
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)"
The best life you can live is nothing in comparison to the life Christ can live in you.
Do you ever feel like every time you try to follow God's will for your life, you are immediately tempted? I know I do. It seems that virtually every time I finally get back on track with what God wants for me, I am tempted immediately and almost inevitably fall into sin. This is a bit embarrassing for me to admit, but I normally don't even last one temptation before I fall back into the "sin that so easily entangles" me (Hebrews 12:1). After this happens I am normally so ashamed of my sin that I feel that I cannot even "face God" that day, so I skip my prayer and Bible study. The next day the sin is even easier to commit, so I do it. But then, of course, I can't look God in the eye yet again so I avoid Him at all costs. This then becomes a daily habit and then I am back to where I started. Has this ever happened to you?
Why does this happen? Why are we so easily drawn into sin? Why is it then, in turn, we feel as though God will be somehow angry with us and won't want to talk to us? How can we let this happen?
I don't have the answers to most of these questions. Actually, I really don't have the answers to any of these questions. What I do have is the Bible, which gives many answers to these questions, along with my own personal experiences. First, and most importantly, I believe following what Jesus told his disciples at Gethsemane is the best way God has given us to defeat sin. In Matthew 26:41, Jesus says, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Jesus pretty much hits the nail on the head there. My spirit wants to follow God and do His will, but my flesh is paper thin. Therefore, the way that Jesus tells us to overcome this problem is by watching Him (studying the life of Jesus) because He was sinless on this earth, and prayer. In Hebrews 2:18, the author speaks of Jesus' temptation when he writes, "For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." You see, Jesus was without sin, not without temptation. Because He was tempted and overcame it, he can help us to overcome it too. When temptation comes our way, if we do those two things, God will help us overcome it.
Other scriptures have great insights into temptation as well. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul writes, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." This passage is very encouraging to me, because I often forget that our enemy is not allowed to do anything without God allowing him to. This means that whatever Satan decides to throw at me, God sees that temptation and says, "Carter can make it through that unscathed." It seems as though God has a little more faith in me than I have in me. My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak.
Because I have seen the weakness of my flesh, I have found that God has given me a few weapons to battle against the enemy. The first is, as stated before, God. If I simply watch Him and pray, he will deliver me. The second is also vitally important, especially at a place like Camp Ba Yo Ca, and that is the people around us. God has placed people in our lives for specific purposes, and I believe he wants, and even expects us to lean on those around us for support. Remember earlier when I was speaking of that "sin that so easily entangles us?" Well this is what the Bible has to say about that: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2a)" This verse outlines both tools that I speak of, but I want to focus on the "cloud of witnesses." Hebrews 11 is what many Christians refer to as the Hall of Faith. This chapter outlines the life of many important people in the Bible who lived by faith. The cloud of witnesses are those who lived for God before us, and those who are living for Him around us. God has given us these people to help in our battle against sin.
If you need a log sawn in half, but you never pick up a saw, will the job get done? If you need a board nailed to another, but never pick up a hammer, will you be successful?
God has given us the tools to succeed. All we need to do is use them.