Normalizing Jesus

9 12 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”  Luke 10:33-37

Christmas churchIn the Coffee household, we have been on our usual Christmas steady fare of Christmas movies.  Christmas, it seems, is such an enormous cultural event, Hollywood just cannot make enough “Christmas miracle” movies.  It’s a standard template: there is a hero (or a heroine) who is flawed and relatable in some fashion and who does not believe in the magic of Christmas.  Enter conflict (or an antagonist or dire circumstances or a hilarious parade of unforeseeable events) and there is an ensuing struggle.  Finally, there is a Christmas miracle and our hero is saved and now believes in the magic of Christmas.

This year, my attention has been grabbed by how the church is portrayed in these Hollywood versions of Christmas (if it is portrayed at all).  It seems to me that, more often than not, the church is portrayed as a bit silly and irrelevant and disconnected from anything, well… normal.  I don’t know, but I strongly suspect these portrayals betray the writers’ own stories about their church experiences growing up.  I watch these almost farcical portrayals of church and find myself asking, “Is that really what you think of church?”

I know you know this feeling.  Being made fun of and ostracized as “weird” or “abnormal” is painful.  Wouldn’t Christianity be much easier if everyone in our country, our state, our community a Christian?  If only Christianity were the norm…if a Christ-centered Christmas were the norm…then we would be so much happier.

There is one very large problem with that attitude.  Jesus, the founder of this revolution we call Christianity, was not normal.

It was Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.  It was Jesus who hung out with sinners and tax collectors and referred to the esteemed religious leaders of the time as a “den of vipers” and “children of the devil”.  And it was Jesus who told ground-breaking stories like the parable of the good Samaritan.  There is nothing normal about making a much-despised Samaritan the hero of your story and making a priest and a Levite the goats of the story, and then getting a Pharisee to admit to those very things.  And it was this same Jesus who said on numerous occasions that we who follow him would be hated by this world, just as he was hated.

Jesus, it seems, wanted to be seen as abnormal. He thrived on being strange and culturally odd.  Maybe we need to adjust our perspective on it as well.  Jesus, I suspect, would note Hollywood’s portrayal of the church and of Christmas today and say, “Yep. That’s about what we expected.”

There was nothing normal about Jesus.  There is nothing normal about his followers.  And there is nothing normal about Christmas.  It is all freakishly abnormal.  And I’m OK with that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Entitlement and the Church

30 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.  1 Peter 3:8-9

entitlementPeter offers these words as a brief summary of his “submit to the authorities in your life” lesson he gave to the persecuted Jews who comprised his audience.  Being submissive to the authorities in our lives is no small challenge for most of us.  The essence, I believe, of his counsel is that we must work hard to preserve our testimony with all the various authorities in our lives so that they may see God’s glory in us and be changed by it.

The question is, what does this mean for the church?  What does the local body of believers take from this counsel?

Maybe it is because of two centuries of the “separation of church and state” in America (the interplay between two critical religious freedom clauses in our First Amendment)…or maybe it is because the American culture has become much more concerned about our “rights” than about our “responsibilities”…or maybe it is because the American church has deluded itself into believing that, somehow, we are a part of the “persecuted church” because our culture doesn’t seem to like us much…or maybe it is because we just don’t really trust God to preserve his church, that maybe He needs us to save the church by political power instead…or maybe it is because we tend to forget how much damage the accumulation of political power has done historically to the church…

Whatever the cause(s), the American church seems to me to have developed a sense of “entitlement” much more than a sense of “submission” such as Peter advocates in his letter.  We are “outraged” by a Court ruling which takes away our right to pray over the intercom at a football game, while our own scheduled prayer meetings in our own facilities have tumbleweeds blowing through them.  We are ready to take up arms to defend our “right” to receive tax exemptions on people’s large financial gifts to us while our brothers and sisters in China are not even permitted to legally assemble in the first place.  We will mobilize an army of voters to preserve the sanctity of marriage against gay rights advocates, but sit back quietly while 50% of the marriages within the church fall to divorce.

Doesn’t it seem to you that the church has developed a bit of an entitlement issue…just a little?

We can do better than this.  We can heed Peter’s counsel and we can begin to take responsibility for our testimony before a watching world.  We can put on humility and sympathy and compassion and unconditional love…for everyone.  We can further this revolution we call Christianity, not by creating voting blocks and political action committees, but by loving people and each other when it makes no sense whatsoever to do so.  That attitude, after all, is what has most effectively spread the gospel around the world thus far…it has changed lives, and it will change the world. Trust that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Foreigners in Our Own Country

23 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

…live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.  1 Peter 1:17

Every year my ministry takes a team to South Africa. It is always a Spirit-filled time with old friends and new friends alike.

SA FlagOver my years of making this trip, I have come to know some things about that country…things about it’s people, it’s society, and its politics.  I’m still learning the right questions to ask and the ones not to ask…when to ask them and when not to ask them.  In so many ways, it is not unlike here in the U.S.  Like here, there is within the church a degree of discontent with the moral and political directions that country seems to be headed.

When our team finds ourselves in those conversations, there is always some “freedom” in being able to say, “We’re not from here.”  We can still have an opinion, even a Biblical perspective on the issue, but we are not in any position to impose those opinions on a country where we are only visitors.  We have now grasped what it feels like to be “ambassadors for Christ” in a foreign land.  We have the freedom (and the responsibility) to speak the truth, but no freedom (nor responsibility) to try to force it or to impose it on anyone.  That is not our business.

In the end, the distinction between those two postures can be a thin line. Somehow, being foreigners in that land, it is an easier distinction to grasp.  Speak the truth, in love, but do not seek political power to impose that truth on a country where we are mere visitors.

US FlagAs I meditate on Peter’s words above…live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fearI feel just a little more clarity about that same question here at home.  How should we as Christ-followers exercise our influence in our own culture? More specifically, what exactly is the role of the church in the political divide and the “culture wars” swirling around us?  For the church, what does “speaking the truth in love” look like?

First of all, I cannot help but think that just embracing the metaphor and bearing it in mind will help to some degree.  As a recognized leader in the church, or as a pastor or minister, it would behoove me to stop and check my focus on God’s kingdom–my true “home”–before posting that Facebook rant on the total depravity of my local or national government.  Just the gentle reminder to myself that I am a foreigner here might save both me and my church some embarrassment.

Second, I can get a grip on the fact that, while this country does indeed grant our church the “right” to free exercise of our religion, we have a much higher purpose than to merely exercise our rights.  First and foremost, we have a mission and a testimony before a watching community. This revolution we call Christianity has never been spread by claiming our “rights” or by political power.  To the contrary, that kind of thinking has always killed the most effective expressions of Christianity.  I might consider that on Sunday before I spit venom from the pulpit toward the “sinners” around me and their various agendas to bring down Christ’s church.

Further, “this is not our home” reminds us of our protection.  As a U.S. citizen in South Africa, I may well feel embarrassed occasionally at the state of our (U.S.) government, even ashamed from time to time, but I never feel threatened.  I never feel as though I need to protect the U.S. from South African forces (frankly, I would sooner feel just the opposite).  I am merely visiting.  I am an ambassador there.  I feel that same way as a Christian in our country.  I feel no responsibility to “protect” the kingdom of God from evil forces around us.  I am certain God does not need that from me.  He just requires that I love and love well.  That, I believe, is the fuel of His kingdom…a heart at peace, not a heart at war.

Finally, living my life as a “foreigner” here grants me the privilege of being able to speak into an issue, even a moral issue, without invoking fear of any political agenda at all.  We are living in a culture of agendas.  Everyone wears colors from their “tribe” and takes up the accompanying party line.  Those tribes and colors have made it nearly impossible for truth to be communicated.  It may be spoken, but it will not be heard in that culture.  Or, more likely, it will not be spoken at all, because the tribes and colors make it so difficult to discern in the first place.  Donald Miller recently said, “In today’s culture, truth-tellers don’t have a tribe”.  That, it seems to me, is the point of remembering we are foreigners here.  We may have a tribe, but it is not one of this world.  Remembering that, the church may just have a chance to actually speak truth into the world in which it lives.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Comfort of the Familar

16 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:24-25

dog in a kennelMy dog, Maile, sleeps in a kennel.  She actually prefers it.  I’ve had dogs my entire life, and she is the first one I’ve crate-trained.  I will admit I was skeptical at first.  It just looks so cruel!  How can anyone be happy, being in a cage?  But every night, when her eyes are heavy and it is time for bed, she voluntarily abandons the freedom of our bed and goes back to the limits and the restrictions of her tiny little bed in her little wire cage.  Do you know why? Because it is familiar to her…and, for dogs, there is great comfort in familiarity.

People are a bit like that too.  Church people are especially like that.  No matter how antiquated, no matter how ineffective, we all have a tendency to return to the familiar, to the “way it has always been”, because it is comfortable.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was fighting a battle which you as a present day church leader might recognize: the battle against the comfort of the familiar.  It was a daunting task, getting the Hebrew Christians to persevere in the face of the persecution they faced and to stick with the very different forms of worship from those  with which they had been reared.  Gathering together as a church body every week with no sacrifices, no holy places, no sacred implements, no fancy robes, and with “traditions” which were all of one generation in age…all of these new ways had to hold the commitment of a people who had otherwise been steeped in their former traditions for hundreds of years.  It is no surprise, then, when we discover there was a problem with Hebrew Christians  “falling away”…abandoning the new covenant for the old, ineffective one.

The call to follow Christ is a call forward.  It requires steady, constant, forward momentum in order to keep from falling.  It leaves no room for moving backwards and it leaves precious little room for standing still either.  Our role as leaders in the church is to be encouraging our brethren to keep moving forward and to persevere through difficult seasons.  Like the writer of Hebrews, we must find compelling truths to lovingly propel the church forward.  We must be ever reminding our friends of the failed systems they left behind, how far they have already come, and of the promises which lay ahead.  And this leadership task is always, always before us…because always, always against us is the comfort of the familiar.

Like dogs in our kennel, we do not want to lose the comfort of our familiar ways.  We are not interested in sacrificing in order to start new churches.  Please don’t ask us to try new forms of worship, nor press forward with new friendships.  We just want to stay here in the comfort of our tiny little cage.  It is familiar.

Isn’t it interesting that, after 2,000 years of doing church, we still fight this same battle?

But fight it we must.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




God is Not Fair

11 09 2014

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… Ephesians 2:4-6

gavelGod is not dead. It’s a message that is kind of going around recently. It’s a terrific message, too…one the world needs to hear…one the church needs to send. For a lost and broken world, for a world in need of a savior, it is very, very good news…UNLESS, he is also fair. You see, if God is very much alive and is also very much about fairness, then you and I (and everyone else) are very much doomed.

When scripture says, “…even when we were dead in our trespasses…” that is what it means: doomed. It means that you and I (and everyone else) have made choice after choice after choice to please ourselves with little or no regard to God. It means we have opted for short-term prizes with enormous long-term (eternal) consequences. It means we have chosen to live without God and that is exactly what we deserve…an eternity without God. “Fairness”, then, would only mean one thing: getting what we deserve. It would mean our utter and complete destruction. That would be “fair”. That’s what we each have earned, according to our creator’s standards.

We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course. We look at our poor choices and bad behavior and then we immediately look for justification for it. We look to blame others for it. We look to compare ourselves to others and, finding someone who is “worse” than we are, we can take some solace in it and convince ourselves that maybe we aren’t deserving of quite as much certain destruction as “they” are. But we are fooling ourselves. At the end of the day, fair is fair. And we deserve only death. That, my friends, is what it means to be “dead in our trespasses”.

So, the next critical message for the church (after “God is not dead”) is that God is not fair. God loves us and is willing to bring us back to life after being “dead in our trespasses”. God loves us and chooses to NOT give us what we deserve. We have not earned this favorable treatment. But he gives it to us anyway, as a free gift. There is nothing fair about it. Nothing at all. In fact, it is totally and outrageously unfair. We are dead, and God throws fairness to the wind and brings us back to life in Christ. We are saved through grace. That, it seems to me, is the rest of the message His church must be sending. God is not dead, and God is not fair.

So, the next time you catch yourself complaining about your circumstances and feeling like you have somehow been cheated or otherwise dealt a bad hand, remind yourself of this: God is not fair…and aren’t we glad for that?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Being the Orange

24 06 2014

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect… Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:2, 9-13

Apples and OrangePaul seems clear enough in his letters to the churches…the community of believers (Christ-followers) should look different from the other communities in our world. We should not conform to their ways. Rather, our community should stand out in several ways. The church should stand out in several ways. Here’s a partial list. See how we’re doing…

Our love should be genuine. I read that as real. Not fake. Not conditional in any respect. It is true agape. I do not love you because of what you do or don’t do…nor because of who you are or are not. My love for you does not depend in any way on you or on circumstances surrounding you. I love you for one very simple reason: because Christ lives in me. And as long as that is true, I will keep loving you. Period.

Abhor what is evil…cling to what is good. This is much more than just a moral compass. Morality, in fact, just scratches the surface of this calling. This is about recognizing the work and influence of our one and only spiritual enemy among us and standing against it. And it is about recognizing the work and influence of God’s Spirit among us and standing with it, no matter the cost. This requires a level of discernment, doesn’t it?

Love one another with brotherly affection. The thing about real brothers is that, no matter how annoying and irritating they might be, they’re still your brother. My South African friends would call this concept “ubuntu”…that deep most, fundamental, irreducible bond which cannot be broken. It is the bond which holds us together after all other bonds have broken. It is family. Maybe that metaphor works for you…maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your actual family is not nearly as unbroken as this implies, and the whole illustration falls a little short for you because of that. But you get the picture. Even if this calling is not what your actual family has, it is what you have always wished your actual family had. In that regard, it is a high standard.

Outdo one another in showing honor. Honoring others above myself, always. Jesus was a masterful example of this. Whether it was a Samaritan woman or a lame man…a high ranking city official or the lowest of street beggars…he always related to others as being more important than Himself. It is the “mind of Christ” of which Paul speaks in Philippians 2:5-8.

Be zealous and fervent in our service to the Lord. Zeal, I believe, is a character trait with which many of us struggle. After all, we do not want to be viewed as too radical, i.e., too “out there” in our faith…unless, of course, we want to actually become the person Christ calls us to become! This thing we call Christianity is a revolution, my friend. We are about changing the world. That is not something that can be done nonchalantly. We can be one of the cool kids, or we can be radical followers of Christ. But we cannot be both.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. In short, see the world through God’s eyes and respond accordingly. We can never, ever be without hope. Not in the church. We will always have trials and difficulties and we must show the world patience in the face of them. And we must be a people of prayer. Always.

Generous giving and hospitality. Giving in a way that makes no sense at all to the world. Giving beyond expectations. Giving unreasonably. Caring for each other’s needs without ever growing tired of doing it. This is a lifestyle which will totally separate us from the world, who gives strictly out of surplus, if it gives at all. Being outrageously generous is the calling. It makes us different.

I believe scripture is serious about the church looking different from the world’s communities in all of these respects (and more). The question is, how are we doing?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com