The Church Website Scorecard

Thankfully, God has provided for me to continue on with my education and start new things in life.  Sadly, it seems these opportunities are not within walking distance from my current home church, which is awesome and is family.  I've been a member for two years but have been attending and/ or listening to sermons for a total of four.  It's filled with people I love and people that love God and has basically been the place where I have been growing, been ministered to, and have been ministering.

I hope everyone can find a church like Shoreline, but sometimes God leads us down different paths.  When this happens, we live life with an open hand and follow where God leads.  While the Bible says what a good church should look like, but it is surprisingly silent on what a good church website should look like.  For that, I'd like to pay homage to the best Christian satirist out there and make a Church Website scorecard.

1) The website has photos of happy families +2
2) The website only has photos of happy families consisting of mom, dad, and 2-3 kids (at least one girl and one boy) -2
3) The happy family photos have a dog +1
4) The website has a picture of a dove +2
5) ...With an olive branch +2
6) ...Flying straight into your screen -1
7)...Backlit with some holy angelic light -3
8)  Actually, if anything is strangely backlit with holy angelic light -3 (but don't take off twice if you counted the doves)
9)  Has music in the background
...that would be equally fitting on a New Age palm reader tarot kind of website -5's not +1's a hymn played by an organ or piano +2
10) It has bad clipart -2
11) It has dropdown menus +3
12) It has multiple "under construction" pages that you suspect have been there for ages -4
13) It used a template, going with the generic-but-decent-looking route over the my-teenage-kid-made-this-in-computer-class-look +5
14) There are areas of the website that still clearly have the original template text -3
15) There are podcasted sermons +10
16) There is a statement of faith +5
17) There is contact information +3
18) There is information about different ministries +5
19) There is a paypal button...on the first page -15, + seriously?

Negatives: Keep in mind that a good church can have a bad website.  The people there can still have great theology, love the Lord, and love others.  However, a bad website may be indicative of people who 1) do not  care about making information about their church easily accessible to the public or 2) are really, really old (not a bad thing- just an observation!).  Depending on what contributed to the score, a negative score can also be indicative of a church that's trying to get money through its website

Positives:  Keep in mind that a bad church can have a good website.  The people there may have terrible theology, not follow the Lord, and not serve others.  However, since the website actually functions as an information-giving resource, use it.  Look at the statement of faith.  Listen to the sermons.  Try to get a feel for the church  (especially if you're in another city and can't just visit.)

I made this list based on my church hunt.  Sadly, I actually did see a website with a Paypal button on the first page.  (I didn't make up the backlit doves flying straight into your screen, either.)  What score does your church website get?  What do you think should be added to this list?

"Being meek does not mean being a doormat." - Why my Sunday School was wrong

"Meekness is not weakness.  Being meek does not mean being a doormat.  Look at Jesus at the temple.  He could be a pretty aggressive guy."

I think my Sunday School was wrong.

Up through high school, every time I've heard a message on meekness, I've heard the phrase "meekness is not weakness."  I'm not sure if it was something they decided on at a pastor's convention because it rhymed, if one guy said it and everyone followed suit, or if everyone came up with it on their own.  It was probably a mix of the latter two, but I'm personally cheering for #1.  Along with alliterating, all Christians love a good rhyme.

"But Jo," you might argue, "meekness isn'tweakness.  Are you going to go around calling Jesus weak, now?"  OK I agree.  I admit to saying my Sunday school was wrong just to be a bit ornery, but I still think their slant was wrong.

When I see Jesus, yeah, He could be an aggressive guy.  Exhibit A: moneychanger tables.  However, when I see Him on the cross (Exhibit B), from the appearances of things, yeah, He looks pretty weak.  The God of the Universe through which all things were made was beaten, tormented, hung on a cross, and willingly bore our sins.  I guess I take issue with the whole meekness isn't a doormat thing.

Jesus became our doormat.

 We wipe our dirty sinful feet on top of him and transfer our punishment onto Him...except that still doesn't paint the whole story.  Jesus orchestrates it.  He does the wiping.  It's not that He is weak, but He chooses "weakness."  He chooses to be that doormat.  He has strength that He doesn't use.  I think that's what it means to be meek.  Choosing to be a servant instead of asserting oneself.

"Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial."
Sometimes it's not a bad thing to assert oneself.  Sometimes it's necessary.  But it's also not always beneficial. Sometimes we want to stand up for ourselves.  We have our rights.  Sure, maybe we do have those rights.  But we don't always have to use them.  I think that's what it means when the Bible tells us to consider others better than ourselves.  To serve one another.  To imitate Christ's humility.  Here in America, we're all about our rights, but when I look at Christ, I see a man (God-man, really) who is all about what brings glory to God.  And a lot of time what brings glory to God is when we don't hold onto our "rights."

It took me a really long time to write this post, not because I don't believe in what I said, but because I'm not sure how to apply it.  Sometimes, things are clear.  Oftentimes, things are far from it.  I'm not good at picking my battles.  I'm bad at knowing when to be meek.  I'm even worse at actually being meek when the situation calls for it.  But I guess in this and all things, Christ is our example and our power.  We look to the cross for the right attitude - "Your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus, who in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" - and for the power to execute it - "Who shall save me from this body of sin and death?  Praise to Jesus Christ who gives us the victory."

Coffee and the Cross

Here's something I was pondering last week, but I was too sick to write about it. I've blogged about coffee before, and anyone who knows me knows I love my coffee - although my friend criticizes that I like my coffee too sugary.  It's true, I "doctor up" my coffee like I own huge amounts of stock in the sugar industry, but that doesn't mean I love coffee any less.  (And as an aside, please buy fair trade to ensure your coffee and sugar products aren't the result of trafficked labor.)   But back to business*:

Though humorous, I feel that this comic identifies how many of us feel about our coffee (tea lovers - you're not exempt!  Just substitute "tea" for "coffee."  I would have changed the title to "Coffee, tea, and the cross," but I'm a Christian and all Christians alliterate.)  Some mornings, I wake up groggy with a headache, and as I stumble toward the sink to wash up, my first thought is "I need a cup of coffee."  Sometimes the thought comes later in the day when I look at my schedule or when I calculate how late I will need to stay up to get stuff done.

But since when was this OK?  I'm not going to go the Mormon route and say that all psycho-active drugs are bad, but I think it's good to take a step away from things.  It's not OK to rely on a drink as a savior.  Coffee should not be the first thing I turn to when I wake up in the morning or when I have a lot on my plate.  I shouldn't even ever "need" coffee.  It's not exactly the same thing, but I am reminded of the verse that says, "Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit."  Though it's OK to drink coffee, and I would even go so far as to say that coffee can be a productivity tool to get things done (though the concept of productivity is for another post entirely), we shouldn't be turning to coffee to get us through the day.  Instead, we can learn from the way we treat coffee - our dependence on it, our turning to it as a "first solution" instead of a "last resort," the way we return for more and more of it - and learn to treat God this way instead.

At the end of the day, coffee makes a lousy functional savior.  Instead, we need the cross.  When I wake up in the morning, I am just as much of a sinner as when I went to sleep, and I need just as much grace.  When I have a lot to do, I need to remember that the life I live isn't a story about me, but rather I am a minor supporting character in the story of God; the things I need to get done aren't important because they're in my life but rather because God has given them to me to do.  When I need to stay up late to get work done, I need to do it for the glory of God, doing nothing out of grumbling and complaining, but giving thanks in all circumstances.  Of course, coffee might help with the process, but it's the motive that matters.

Why do you drink coffee (or tea)?
*comic from Exploding Dog Comics


We were talking about idols of the heart the other day (the concept, not the book), and I think one way to identify idols is to look at one's priorities.  Priorities are based on some sort of functional truth.  What do you believe to be true?  Examples of this are "If I don't ___________ then ___________" or "I have to ___________ in order to ___________."  Both of these statements reveal what is important to us and the lengths to which we will go to secure these idols.  Of course, not everything that fits this sentence construction will point to an idol.  For example "If I don't eat, then I will starve," is in fact an actual truth, however the statement, "I don't have time for church community because I have to work in order to feed my family," in some cases depending on the individual situation may point to the idols of control and security.  Sometimes these chains can get quite long: "I don't have the time for church community because I have to study in order to graduate in order to get a job in order to work in order to feed my family in the future."  Of course it's good to study to graduate to get a job to provide for future family, but when our priorities shift from the eternal to the material, we start accepting statements like these as absolute truth instead of looking to Scripture for guidance.

Something that struck me was Hebrews 13:5
"Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 
What I found interesting was that the "normal" way most Christians (and I realize I'm making a blanket statement here) would complete this would be "Be content with what you have, for God will provide."  In fact, there is much Biblical evidence for this.  Doesn't Jesus say that the Father provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and He will provide for us as well?  But the author of Hebrews goes in a different direction (at first).  He says, "Be content with what you have, for God will always be with you."  God will always be with me; this is the reason I can be content.  Instead of focusing on things I "need" - both legitimately and illegitimately - this verse focuses on what I really need - my relationship with God.  The priority is different.  Of course the next verse says that "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear."  Of course God will provide; it's what He does.  He provides security and provides for our needs.  However, our priorities should not be security and having our needs met.  Instead, our priority should be God and God alone.


You see, the secret of the gospel is that we become more spiritually mature when we focus less on what we need to do for God and focus more on all that God has already done for us. The irony of the gospel is that we actually perform better as we grow in our understanding that our relationship with God is based on Christ’s performance for us, not our performance for him.
I think he's right.  We need to focus on what God has already done for us, and He has done a lot for us (Ephesians 1, emphasis mine):
 3(E) Blessed be(F) the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing(G) in the heavenly places, 4(H) even as he(I) ,b>chose us in him(J) before the foundation of the world, that we should be(K) holy and blameless before him. In love 5(L) he predestined us[b] for(M) adoption as sons through Jesus Christ,(N) according to the purpose of his will, 6(O) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in(P) the Beloved. 7(Q) In him we have(R) redemption(S) through his blood,(T) the forgiveness of our trespasses,(U) according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9(V) making known[c] to us the mystery of his will,(W) according to his purpose, which he(X) set forth in Christ 10as a plan for(Y) the fullness of time,(Z) to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
 11In him we have obtained(AA) an inheritance,(AB) having been predestined(AC) according to the purpose of him who works all things according to(AD) the counsel of his will, 12so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be(AE) to the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you heard(AF) the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him,(AG) were sealed with the(AH) promised Holy Spirit, 14who is(AI) the guarantee[d] of our(AJ) inheritance until(AK) we acquire(AL) possession of it,[e](AM) to the praise of his glory.

However, in stressing what God has done, sometimes it is easy to miss the point.  Having grown up in the church, so often I hear the message again and think, "Yeah, I know that.  I know God has done all those things.  God has been really good to me," and continu with my day.  The danger is that we might think about the cross without meditating on it.  The cross does not simply have another list of facts for us to add to our mental bank of theological knowledge.  True meditation on the cross requires a true understanding of our need for the cross, not stopping at a mere acknowledgement of what occured at Calvary.

Going back to it is when we understand this need we can stop focusing on what we can do for God.  It is when we understand this need we can understand what God has already done for us.  You see, the secret of the gospel is that we become more spiritually mature when we become profoundly aware of our dire need for a Savior, allowing us to focus less on what we need to do for God and focus more on all that God has already done for us.

Fear and the Cross

My OT reading today was Deuteronomy 4-6.  This passage in particular from chapter 5 stuck out to me (emphasis mine):
    22"These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly(CQ) at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And(CR) he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23And(CS) as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24And you said, 'Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and(CT) greatness, and(CU) we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man(CV) still live. 25Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us.(CW) If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26(CX)For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say and(CY) speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.'
    28"And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, 'I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you.(CZ) They are right in all that they have spoken. 29(DA) Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments,(DB) that it might go well with them and with their descendants[i] forever! 30Go and say to them, "Return to your tents." 31But you, stand here by me, and(DC)I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.'

 God had spoken out of fire, cloud, and darkness, and the people of Israel were terrified.  They were so scared that they didn't want to hear from God anymore; they would listen to Moses relating what God said instead.  They would still listen and obey, but the Person of God simply terrified them.  They didn't understand how a holy God could talk to sinful men without the people becoming consumed, and they feared that if they spoke with God any longer, that they would die.

This jars our modern evangelical sensibilities.  Isn't Jesus your homeboy?  God's a loving God, isn't He?  I've heard that only in western society do we stress God as "friend."  While there is some truth in that, however, we forget that God is also frightening.  What stuck out to me about this passage was that God says the people of Israel spoke rightly.  They spoke rightly!  God actually affirms what the Israelites say.  This doesn't happen very often.  In fact, I can't think of any more instances of this happening off the top of my head.  Not only does God affirm their fear, He wishes that this attitude would continue.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and it is this knowledge that would have equipped the Israelites to have things "go well with them and their descendants."

Another point that sticks out to me is that God provides a mediator.  Moses stands between the people and God.  (I am also reminded of an earlier OT passage where Aaron stops a plague literally right in its tracks by standing between the dead and the living.)  The people listen to Moses as the mouthpiece of God.  To me, this points to the necessity of the cross.  During Christ's time on earth, He represented the Father who sent Him.  His words were not His own, but rather those of His father.  In fact, Christ and the Father were/ are one (which is where the analogy breaks down a bit.)  And just as Moses stood between the people and God, so much more did Christ stand between us and God's wrath.  He stands between us, shielding us from the cloud and fire and darkness.  He takes our sin and shame and gives us his righteousness.

God is still awesome (in the Biblical sense) and worthy to be feared.  Oh that we would fear Him more that things may go well with us!  But our fear does not drive us away from Him in the way that it drove the Israelites away.  Instead, our fear drives us into a greater appreciation of the cross and what exactly Christ did on Calvary.  It drives us to renew our love and dedication to Christ.  And as we abide in Him and He in us, and the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives, we also have fellowship with the Father.  The curtain has been torn, and we enter into communion with Him and one another.


Romans 8:31-39

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is very easy for me to drag myself through life.  What I mean is that I find myself living from day to day, midterm to midterm to final, deadline to deadline, quarter to quarter.  I look at my circumstances and are mastered by them.  I become stressed and I worry.   And then I remember that at the heart of these attitudes are lies.  My circumstances are not my Master; control over my circumstances (if at all possible) will not bring me happiness.

Returning to the Bible, I remember once again who I am.  In all "these things," I am more than a conqueror.  Not a victim.  Not a passive participant.  Not even a conqueror.  I am more than that.  And what are "these things"?   Backtracking starting from Romans 8:31 we find
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
In the original context of this passage, "these things" refers to intense persecution as a result of proclaiming Christ.  However in our own daily lives, I feel this passage speaks to the more mundane tribulations and distresses we face as well.  If the Christian is more than a conqueror in the face of death, how much more so in the face of finals week!

The key is that the power of the Christian does not lie in triumph over his circumstances.  In fact, the  were still being "killed all the day long."  Being more than a conqueror does not insure "success" in our endeavors.

But look at what makes us more than conquerors.  What makes us more than conquerors is that God is for us.  He gave us Christ, and He will graciously give us all things.  God justifies, and Christ has paid our penalty.  Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ.

It is when we look to the cross and the God who orchestrated such a scandalous and horrific event as an expression of his love, we can be more than conquerors.  When we focus on what matters, the rest melts away.  Instead of looking at my circumstances, the cross frees me to look at Christ and run the race before me.  I won't just finish, but I'll more than conquer it.

Sin in Seemingly Safe Statements

Sometimes even in times of "heightened spirituality", we will say the right things for the wrong reasons.  My experience today has taught me that we need to take every thought captive, even the good ones, and examine our motives.

"Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life"

This is the first thought I had coming out of the phy sci department office this morning.  While there is nothing sinful about this particular statement - in fact, it's a perfectly good and Biblical statement taken in isolation - the circumstances around under which I said it showed the underlying sin in my heart.

Lately, my responsibilities have been piling up, and I have not been able to keep on top of them all.  Plagued by expectations and deadlines, I went to sleep praying that I'd be able to get through it all.  I woke up with the same prayer.  After realizing I had to go to the department office to get my schedule worked out, I was reminded of yet another area of my life that I had little control over.  Needless to say, I worriedly prayed during the walk to campus.

After things worked out, though, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Once I knew that things were OK, my first thoughts was "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever."  Granted, my response was a tad melodramatic, but that's how I roll.

I thanked God that everything would be all right, but then I realized my sin.  Though I prayed and looked to God for help, my desires had nothing to do with God.  My desire had everything to do with my classes, my graduation, and my sense of control (or lack thereof) in my life.  I was serving myself and using God as a means to make my life more comfortable.  I wanted things to go my way.  And I didn't praise God until they did. 

"Give me more faith than you gave that man"

Sitting in the coffee shop after my meeting with the dept. chair and reflecting on this, I decided that one of the things my sin stemmed from was a lack of faith - a lack of faith in the goodness of God, the plan of God, the Sovereignty of God, etc - that allowed the idol of Self to take God's place.  I was reminded of the father who lacked faith.  When talking with Jesus, he realized his lack of faith and asked for more faith.  I've always found comfort in that story.  Maybe you don't have enough faith that God will take action in your life, but even if you have a tiny bit of faith, you can have faith that God will give you more faith.

My prayer was then, "Lord, give me more faith than you gave that man," which, in my opinion, is a perfectly good prayer.  We are told to hold onto the promises of God and petition in His name.  However, my next statement showed the state of my heart.  The next thing my heart said was, "If I just had enough faith, everything would turn out all right."  Right as I said that, my heart sank.  Foiled again!  And I was doing so well, too...My thoughts revealed yet another idol in my heart - the idol of religious performance.  Apparently somehow in my mind, I associated faith as "input" and the hand of God as "output."  I had given into the God-as-a-vending-machine view.

What to do?

If you're like me, maybe after examining your thought life, you will realize that you were much more of a sinner than you originally thought.   Maybe you will realize that you really have missed the mark after all.  It's important to make that first step. Sin must be identified before you can do anything about it.  However, identification of sin is not the only step.  We need to look at those areas of our lives that cause us to sin.  What are our attitudes?  What are our desires?  What is at the heart of the issue?  And then we pray.  A lot.  We can try to get rid of the sin on our own, but that just piles on the sin of self-sufficiency onto the list of sins we already have.  And it doesn't work very well (or at all.)  Instead, we pray for the grace to desire God more.  We pray for the grace that changes our hearts.  Our hearts used to be stone, but now they are flesh.  Our hearts our open to the prompting of the Spirit, and we pray that He will speak and we will listen.  We pray for the grace to turn from our sin and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  We pray that the God of grace will give us more grace.  And He will.