“Idol” Thoughts…

I was in an odd mood the other day, and I started thinking about “Christian” Book Stores. There used to be several bookstores in the area that were “Christian” book stores. They sold Bibles, Bible study guides, devotional guides, prayer journals, hymnals and song books, contemporary Christian CDs, Christian DVDs, and all sorts of “Christian” gift items– tee shirts, wall hangings, jewelry, even candles! If it looked, sounded, felt, or even tasted “Christian” you could probably find it there.

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Many of these stores are now out of business. And it made me sad at first, but I think it’s worth a little analysis:

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  • Maybe the most obvious reason why any store or set of stores goes out of business is the law of supply and demand. As more and more Christian book stores popped up, they filled the market with more and more “stuff.” Every store had Bibles and books, but the demand was for “stuff.” Bracelets and CDs, Mother’s Day gifts, Christmas- and Easter-themes decorations…Bibles were relegated to the back of the store on a couple of shelves. And most of the stores ended up with the same “stuff” as the other stores– the same candles and t-shirts and throw-pillows and coffee mugs with the same “Christian” sayings. Other store chains caught on– you could buy the same coffee mug or DVD at Hobby Lobby, or Walmart– at half the price! And, of course, with e-publishing, streaming services and Spotify, etc., books, DVDs and CDs are almost a thing of the past, anyway. Years of buying “stuff” has resulted in families who can’t even give away all their “precious” used art and decorative items from 20 years ago. The demand just isn’t there.
  • More subtle is the psychology of the “Christian” Book store patron. Buying mugs and key chains and bracelets at a “Christian” book store is a form of virtue signaling. Buying a t-shirt with a provocative Christian message can make you feel like you’re witnessing for Christ– without actually having to engage in conversation or develop a relationship with anyone! That feels great for awhile, but the reality is that feelings and virtue signals change. It’s not trendy to wear WWJD bracelets anymore– it’s not even trendy to be a “Christian” anymore–much better to be an open-minded, accepting, and loving “Christ follower.” “Christian” has a bad connotation these days– judgmental, narrow-minded, and hateful. People who used to proudly stroll the aisles of Christian book stores are now full of disclaimers about their church affiliations.
  • More subtle still is the psychology of the “Christian” Book Store itself. There really is no such thing as a “Christian” book. There are books written by Christians, and about Christians, and for Christians, but a book is an inanimate object. It cannot be a “Christian” or a “Christ Follower,” or a “Believer.” The same is true about any of the other products sold at any store. There are no “Christian” pot holders or hand lotion sets or wall art. A store catering to a “Christian” audience must not expect to be wildly popular in a secular world. We don’t see a trending wave of Buddhist book stores or Muslim book stores, or book stores specializing in Wiccan coffee mugs– though we may see such trends come and go in the future.
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What makes me saddest about the disappearance of the “Christian” Book stores is not that there are fewer cool t-shirts to consider buying, or that I have to travel farther to find a bookstore with a great “Christian” Sci-fi section, or a larger selection of devotionals. It is that, on some level, my “Faith” became an idol. I filled my bookshelf with “good” books, while neglecting to read the most important book of all. I spent time browsing aisles of great music, but less time singing from my own heart. I spent money on items that proclaimed my Faith, but spent less time and energy living it out.

There is nothing “wrong” or sinful about “Christian” Book Stores. I am very grateful to live in a country where I can freely shop for Bibles, and even a couple of throw pillows that remind me how much God loves me. I love that I can wear cross necklaces, or listen to wonderful songs about Christ without facing imprisonment or torture. But I want to be careful not to take for granted a culture that makes following Christ easy. I don’t want to worship the “Christian” culture and not the Christ it claims to love.

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One of the first items I remember not being able to find in the “Christian” Book Stores was a prayer journal. Oh, they had several leather-bound journals where you could write notes, or ones that had “prayer prompts” written on gilt-edged pages. But I wanted one like the one I had found years before– it had pages with information on various people groups around the world as prayer prompts, and space to list names and even answers to prayer. I have since created my own notebook-style prayer journal that tries to replicate that older one.

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And perhaps that is a good thing. “Christian” books promise a lot–journals that prompt us to pray; devotionals that basically do the “worship” for us; even Bibles that speak to us in comfortable language, so we don’t struggle with unfamiliar words. But ease and comfort do not produce growth. “Christian” book stores do not necessarily produce strong Christians, either. Only Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, can do that. Christian Book Stores can be a valuable tool, or an idol.

Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

For Righteousness’ Sake

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV)
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Yesterday was Easter (in parts of the world)–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and victory over Sin and Death. We have much to celebrate. But we also have a mission. We have the assurance of eternity in Heaven, but in THIS world, Jesus warned us, “you will have trouble.” (John 16:33). We will be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted. We will have to face the temporary consequences of living in a fallen world– anger, greed, abuse, violence, betrayal–even bad weather and natural disasters!

In giving the Beatitudes, Jesus turned common expectations upside-down. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… We don’t consider poverty, powerlessness, suffering and persecution blessings to be desired. Yet Jesus, the One we follow, gladly endured all of these for our sake! Notice that the “blessing” is the same here as in the first of the Beatitudes– “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is not reserved for those who are victorious in their own power or through force of will or extraordinary effort. But it is reserved for those who persevere in the face of evil–those who lean, and those who rest, and those who stand IN THE POWER of God.

Notice, too, that we are blessed if we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” There is no blessing for suffering due to our own stubbornness or foolishness. There is no blessing for those who are persecuted for their own pride and judgmental nature and unforgiveness toward themselves or others. (see 1 Peter 3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A8-17&version=CEV

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We live in a culture that celebrates “victimhood.” Those who suffer injustice– even perceived of implied injustice–are considered to have a special status. Those who claim to have been offended or hurt by individuals or groups often demand recognition for their “bravery” or retribution for their suffering. This happens even among certain Christians, who claim to be “persecuted,” when they are merely suffering the consequences of their own hubris and self-righteous posturing. This is a monstrous injustice to fellow Christians who are truly suffering persecution “for righteousness’ sake.”

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My prayer today is that I will emulate the example of Christ– that I will serve, humbly, willingly, sacrificially, enduring any persecution that comes as a result, and lifting up fellow Christians who are suffering, as well as their persecutors! For righteousness’ sake– for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Got Jesus?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5; 10-14 (ESV)
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I memorized this passage as a child. And one part of this passage stands out to me today, because the wording of the verse has not changed, but our cultural reading of it has changed a bit. I remember churches, and evangelists, using the phrases like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior (or Lord, or Lord and Savior)?” “Are you ‘born again?'” “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”

I know in certain circles these phrases are considered “old fashioned”, “evangelical”, and even offensive. Some of us don’t identify as Christians anymore– many of us prefer the term, “Christ-followers.” “Born-again” Christians are seen as hypocritical, overbearing, judgmental, and intolerant– even violent! And there are individuals and groups who give evangelical Christianity a “bad name” by their behavior.

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Evangelicals have a reputation for putting people’s backs up, and putting people “on the spot.” They want to know, “have you GOT Jesus?” As though Jesus is a product and you either own Him or you’re missing Him. Can you get Jesus at the corner store? Do you “get” Him the same way someone “gets” a virus? Is He infectious? Can you sell Him? Lose Him? Trade Him away?

The Apostle and Gospel writer, John, was an evangelical. He was keenly concerned that His readers, friends, listeners– basically everyone he met, GOT Jesus. He wasn’t trying to sell a product, force a certain doctrine down others’ throats at the end of a sword, or offend those he met. But he DID want to make sure that people didn’t miss out on the GLORY, the incredible WONDER, the eternal GIFT of LIFE that had lived and walked and dwelt among us.

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Today, there are many who claim to “follow” Christ– they have great respect for His teachings; they want to live a “good” and even “righteous” life just as Jesus did; they believe He was a great role model. But they haven’t “received” Him. They believe what they have heard about Him; they believe “in” Him, but they don’t believe “in His Name.” Truly becoming a “follower” of Christ is to become a “Christian”– willing to be called by His name and identified with Him. Not just as a wise teacher or a gentle soul, but as a sacrifice–despised and rejected, misunderstood– and obedient even unto death. Not just the physical death of a martyr, but the social death of an outcast, the death of selfish dreams and worldly success through compromise, the loss of relationships, property, status, freedom… John knew all of this first-hand. He was standing by during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He watched as his brother and friends were beheaded, tortured, crucified upside-down, and driven into hiding. He spent the end of his life in exile for the privilege of being a “Christian.”

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Calling oneself a Christian, or a Christ-follower, or “born again,” doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. I can call myself a doctor, or an artist, or a prophet. I may have studied medicine, or created a painting, or made a prediction and be completely hypocritical. I may end up giving a bad name to myself, and causing people to be cautious about other doctors, artists, or prophets. That doesn’t make THEM hypocritical, and it shouldn’t cause them to stop doing what they do well. What matters is not what I say I am, or even what others say about me, but what and who I demonstrate that I am. I want to let my words and actions declare my relationship to Christ. At times, I would like to avoid the ridicule and misunderstandings. I’d like to be able to distance myself from the “bad examples,” but, like John, I long to testify to the GLORY of the one I follow and trust, more than I want to justify my own self at the expense of others. Yes, there are some “fake” Christians, and some who are sincerely wrong in how they attempt to live– and if someone were to catch me in a bad moment on a bad day, and show only that moment to the world, I would be counted among them– but my goal is not to ask if others have a perfect track record, or if they know all the right Bible verses or even if they have the “right” answers. My goal is to ask, ” Have you GOT Jesus?” “Do you KNOW Him– not just about Him?” When you pray, are you praying to an aloof idea or to a personal Savior? If He called you, would you answer, or let it go to voice mail? Would you scroll through and “like” His social media posts, or would you actually DO what He said?

Jesus came. He walked among ordinary people. Crowds “followed” Him, hanging on His parables, excited about His healings, and impressed by His miracles. But very few of them actually became His disciples and “received” Him. But to those who did, like John, He gave them the privilege to be called Children of God– not because they were smarter or wiser or more righteous in their own knowledge or efforts, but because they were made new, “born” again, and transformed by their relationship with Him. May that be so for all of us!

Christians, Christ-followers, and Jesus Freaks

I see a lot of articles, posts, and religious sites as I wander around the internet. And there has been a lot written and shared lately about the word Christian getting a “bad rap.” Many writers and church goers are no longer comfortable calling themselves Christians. They don’t want to be identified with “bad” Christians– hypocrites, political extremists, etc., who loudly and proudly use the label while treating others with contempt, and generally acting like bullies and/or clowns. The growing trend is to use the term “Christ-follower” to describe a lifestyle that seeks to mirror that of Jesus Christ during His life on earth.

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Proponents of this practice point out that Jesus never called His followers “Christians.” Instead, He consistently invited people to “Follow me.” The term “Christian” is associated with the earliest Gentile churches and with the scattering of the persecuted church across Judea, Samaria, and Asia Minor. The term originated in Antioch a few years after Jesus’ resurrection:

19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (emphasis added)

Acts 11:19-26 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)

For a more detailed look, check out this link: http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-acts-11-19-26.htm

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Christian was not a positive or honorable label for the early followers of Jesus Christ. There are still many places in the world where the label “Christian” invites arrests, beatings, and death threats. There are places where the name “Christian” invites scorn and derision. What has changed (or seems to have changed) in the intervening years is that we see and hear of more and more places in the world where the label “Christian” brings up images of sneering protesters condemning gays or smug white faces spouting self-righteous phrases to justify greed, racism, and/or injustice. “Christians” are not just unwanted or misunderstood by others–Christians are unwanted by their own; misunderstood and misrepresented, at odds and at war with one another.

So what can be gained by followers of Jesus Christ in re-branding themselves as “Christ-followers?” After all, it’s just a name. In the 1960s, many Christians were condescendingly labeled “Jesus Freaks.” Jesus Freaks were viewed much like Hippies. They spoke of Peace and Love and Acceptance. They taught about kindness and unity. They were often young, and generally disillusioned with the older generation and its way of life. They acted a lot like Hippies; they just didn’t do as much experimenting with drugs and free sex. Much like the early Christians, they were labeled by those who dismissed their message and their way of life. They rejected traditional or mainstream Christianity, and were dismissed by many who called themselves Christians. Some were openly critical of previous generations of Christians. Many of those who wish to be called “Christ-followers” now are the descendants (or remnants) of the Jesus Freaks of the 60s. The mind set is very similar– disillusionment with others who have misused or abused the name of Christ, and a desire to “rescue” the reputation of the church.

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There have been other groups across the centuries who have tried to re-brand and re-label their devotion to Jesus– God-fearers, Disciples, Reformers, Witnesses, Saints, Fellowships, etc.. And there is no command in Scripture that we must all call ourselves by a particular label.

But is seems odd to me that the very label, “Christian,” that came about because of persecution, that came about as a derisive, sneering, condescending term, was embraced by those it sought to shame and intimidate. Why didn’t the original “Christians” re-brand themselves to make their cause less offensive? Why has this term, “Christian,” endured over the centuries?

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I think there are a few very good reasons:

  1. “Christians” bear the name of Christ, whatever other name they give themselves. When I say I am a Christian, I know that there are people who will compare me to others who make this claim. But I am not just a member of a group that likes the idea of Christ; I’m not just a Facebook follower of Christ, or a fan of Christ, or a student of Christ. Christ is my Lord; my life; my identity. Christ– Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Not Joe Smith down the road who also attends my church, or a famous evangelist or Bible teacher, or even one of the Apostles, or Saints. Jesus– son of Mary and Joseph; Son of God and Son of Man. This same Christ was arrested, given a sham trial, condemned to be crucified like a common criminal, and hung, naked and tortured before a mocking crowd. He was humiliated, misunderstood, and abandoned by those who claimed to care the most. THAT is the name I willingly bear.
  2. “Christian” is a label. I can label myself in any number of different ways– “Woman,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “College graduate.” But there are many others who can use those same labels. They may define what I am, but they don’t define who I am. I may be appalled (and I am, sometimes) at things other women do, at things other Americans say, at the history of Caucasians and their interactions with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, at the snobbery of other college graduates…But I don’t say, “I’m no longer going be an American; I want to be known as a resident of the United States, but I have my own system of government and culture and language independent of those living in Missouri or Idaho or Chicago– they don’t represent who I am.” Of course they don’t represent who I am–they never did. We all, collectively, are Americans AND residents of the United States. I can’t decline to be a woman because I don’t like the way other women behave or speak. And I can’t choose to be “other than” a Christian…all I can do is give it another label.
  3. Finally, who I am is not found in a name or title or label. It is the sum total of my character and the way I live my life. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples that they would be known by any particular name, but He did say they would be known and identified by their love: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJV). That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything other “Christians” do– in fact, if they use the name Christian and do not have love for others, they prove they are liars– but it means that I must do everything in the name of Christ.
    I am a Christian first, before I am a woman or an American or any other label. That means that I am the co-heir and sister to a young man in India who has been rejected by his family and expelled from his school for being a Christian. I am an ambassador of Christ to the woman I meet in the grocery store whose children are taxing her patience and whose cart is blocking the aisle I want to enter. I am an example of Christ’s love to the young couple who have been victimized by other “Christians” because they are “different.” And I am a Christian in a world of “fake” Christians, and confused Christians, and faulty and very human Christians just like me, who need correction, mercy, justice, and wisdom to follow Christ, to die to self, and to bear the honor of His name. Ultimately, I can call myself a Christian, a Christ-follower, a Jesus Freak–any other label I want. Whether I AM a Christian or not will be determined by how I live, not what I call myself.
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If you are a Christian reading this– how are you bearing His name today?

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