More Than Clones

I'm not Andy Stanley.

That's probably obvious. I'm taller, younger, and weigh a lot more.

I'm not Craig Groeshel.

I don't have those muscles.

Nor am I like any other leader. I'm not as refined as some. I can't speak as well as others. My vision casting skills pale in comparison to the greats.
And that's okay.

Okay, I may be a lot like Rob Bell in writing these one sentence paragraphs, but please don't tell anyone that I'm like Rob Bell.
Here's the thing. We fly out to conferences. We go to workshops. We hear incredible messages. We get inspired. But then we make the mistake. The big mistake. We try to become like the one who has inspired us. We try to become clones of the popular national speaker.
This year at Exponential in Orlando, I heard one of the most fascinating stories from Choco de Jesus. You have to hear it yourself some day. He shares how he ran and biked 180 miles to raise money to buy a farm that would provide a safe place for recovering prostitutes. It was a story of hope, of disappointment, and of great inspiration. God touched me greatly in hearing it.

The great thing about Choco's story is that I wasn't inspired to duplicate him. Who would want to run or bike 180 miles? That's just crazy. And it made me realize how I strive to emulate these "rockstars" of the Christian faith.

But I only emulate the easier things.
I take on this trick or that program. I think this strategy or method will transform my church. But it doesn't.

And it's all wrong.

We can look at Andy Stanley's or Craig Groeshel's models of being the church in their communities and be amazed. We want those kingdom results. We want to impact our communities for God like that. So we come home, digest our notes, and try to duplicate their church in our communities. But I am really convinced that North Point and Lifechurch are the way they are, not because of the systems they have, rather, it is because of their giftedness and all the other great people they have surrounded themselves with.

Then we see someone like Hugh Halter doing something different in Denver. Ooh, I want that different church too. Community. Life. Bring it on! And so we jump tracks and try to emulate that church too. Yet have you heard Hugh Halter speak? Adullam can't be duplicated because Hugh Halter can't be duplicated.

We unwittingly play the role of the mad doctor Frankenstein and create the Frankenstein Church. A church that is a patchwork of all these other exciting churches who are relevant in their communities and local context. Yet they are often out of place in ours making our churches about as productive as Frankenstein's monster.

There is this fine line between being inspired and trying to duplicate. We are each individually and wonderfully made. God is working on us to become the pastors and leaders that He planned for and called us to be. Yet we will not get there trying to duplicate others.
We will only realize our true ministry potential when we mix the practical training with a genuine commitment to grow in Jesus. He is the one we are to try and duplicate. He is the one who knows what the church should look like lived out in our local contexts. He has the power to make it happen.
How would Jesus reach my community? What would Jesus do with the resources He has provided me with? Who would Jesus love and how would He love them?

Whether or not this is what we get from the Stanleys, Groeshels, or others, this is really what they have wrestled with and figured out. Likewise, this is what we need to wrestle with and figure out. Our communities need the church Jesus is calling us to shape.
How can I lead in my location like Jesus would? How can you lead in yours?

More Than Fine and Dandy

Don’t confuse “God being on our side” with “everything will work out fine and dandy” here on earth. If we are following Jesus, we are involved in something greater than just our temporal comfort and safety.

And a song. It's folk and punk but with a point.


To sit down and share a conversation with Lee was an experience. He was one of a kind. I always intended to sit down with him and have him tell his story in his own words, but I never got around to it. This is my recollection.

Disclaimer about oral history: I don't believe that Lee is one to exaggerate, but the story sure seems like he may have. I think it is more of Lee having been an incredible person combined with him having lived an interesting life. This is his story, as told by him and recollected by me. It may not be 100% accurate. That's the way it is with oral history. There are details I would love to have asked further questions on, but this is what it is. Due to the nature of the story, I do not share Lee's last name. Other parties don't need to be identified.


Lee was brought up in different times. A segregated south. He would go and play baseball with his friends down at the field. When time for a water break came, his friends would go across the street to the gas station to get a drink of water. Lee would have to go home because he wasn't allowed to drink with the white boys.

Then desegregation began. Some of the whites were not happy. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls. Lee and his sister escaped Montgomery with their family to go north. He remembered being curled up and hiding in the backseat of their car as they fled town to what his parents hoped would be a better and safer life. It was different times.

He then found himself at a nice Lutheran school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He became the star running back. Yet he tweaked his knee in the best game of his career.

He went on to the University of Miami in Florida (In Ohio, we clarify when we say Miami). There he had more knee problems and lost his scholarship due to his inability to play.

And the downward spiral began.

I would say there were three things that changed his life for the worst.

First, the knee injury. I didn't know knee problems until a few years back, but if you have never experienced a knee injury, they make you less mobile. Lee's knee injury was pretty serious in an age that didn't have the surgeries that we have. It led to him being less mobile than he should have been. This allowed the weight to be packed on easier.

Second, he married the woman of his dreams, who then died of cancer at a very young age. I can't imagine the heartbreak although I know people today who have experienced the same. She was his high school sweetheart. I think he spent the rest of his life trying to find another one of her.

Third, a drug dealer approached him after his injury. His dreams of playing football had been squashed by his knee injury. He didn't know what he would do, so he started trafficking drugs. Lee never justified the decision with me. It was just the choice he made. He started running drugs from the Miami area to the Midwest.

These drug days continued. He was in shootouts. He was in the car when two others were killed. He used his brilliant mind to master the trade. Money was easy. Living life was extravagant. Cars. Comics. Trips. Everything the world can offer was at Lee's fingertips.

The one strange thing about Lee is that he never used drugs despite selling them. He drank apple juice in a cup to have the appearance that he was drinking alcohol. To hear him tell it, it was a terrible, low sort of evil. He knew what he was doing was atrocious, yet he continued doing it anyway. He was selfish. During our last conversation, he told me that he wished he could go back and have more empathy for others. He was a changed man.

The change happened through a surreal Hollywood-esque drug dealing experience. He was making a run to pick up some drugs near the Mexican border. He had money. A lot of it. He had networked a bunch of drug dealers together to leverage purchasing power for a better deal. Using his incredible mind and skills to further his drug empire, he took off to the border with some friends.

They were pulled over by a cop. But this cop wasn't on the up and up. He was in cahoots with the drug lords down there. The cop confiscated the money and never arrested them. The money then went to Mexico. Lee and his friends desperately scoured Mexico, chasing lead after lead for two weeks trying to find the money. To no avail. Hundreds of thousands of dollars lost and no drugs to show for it.

Lee came back home and the other drug dealers understood. It's the risk of doing business. Except one. And that one was going to kill Lee if he didn't cough up the money. One thing led to another, and Lee's father mortgaged his house to give Lee the needed money. This led to a huge fight between Lee's father and mother, who then split up. She thought that Lee should face the consequences of his actions. Lee's father, understanding what the consequences really were, thought differently.

Lee used the money to pay back the threatening drug dealer. And he felt terrible. He didn't want to be in debt to anybody. He didn't want his dad to make that sort of sacrifice for him. So he put the drug business into overdrive. He started cutting corners. He wanted to raise that money back quickly. And he became addicted to the fast money.

Eventually, all of the corners cut caught up with him when the cops busted him in his mansion in Florida with hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money. He was done.  

He went to prison.

In prison, he beat up a guard and was stuck in solitary to rot. A janitor snuck him a Bible, and he started to read. He read and read. Having grown up Lutheran, he knew the stories. But in that cell, isolated and all alone, the stories intermingled with the Holy Spirit to transform Lee. He became a changed man. He gave his life over to Jesus. Having only known him during the years after this experience, I know that it stuck. It wasn't just a prison conversion that disappeared soon after getting back into society. It was life-changing for Lee.

So Lee started following Jesus while his lawyer found a loophole in the case that got him off. Despite thinking the rest of his life was going to be in prison, Lee became a free man once again. Although his true freedom really began in prison, yet it was never totally realized in this life. His past decisions and experiences always seemed to have ripples that impacted the present. His health problems kept increasing, as many of us will also experience. Yet he continued to push more and more into his new life in Jesus.

I met Lee after he had found a job as a crane operator, and he would buy comics from my father's store. We became great friends. He loved comic books and history. He was like my clone, except for the drug dealing, insane variety of experiences, and having a brain that could squash mine. He would come in and take more time than I should give to a customer. We would talk about everything.

He eventually found another woman to love. They had two wonderful little children. She got mixed up in abusing drugs, which forced Lee to raise the kids while she was in prison. It's a tough world in the inner city. Hard, destructive drugs are so prevalent and genuine help and hope is so scarce. The slope down, when you hop on it, seems to be so much slipperier and go down so much deeper than I have experienced growing up in white, rural America.

Then tragedy struck Lee. He was providing a place to live for some recently released drug addicts. He was trying to help them get clean. To a fault, Lee would always see the best of people. He could see who they should be rather than who they actually were. He reminded me so much of God and the way He views us. He doesn't see us in the sin we are wallowing in. He sees us for who we could be.

Anyway, Lee had these two guys living with him, but he had to kick them out of the house because they weren't staying clean. That's what he did. That night, his house burnt down. Without insurance. A few days after the fire, I received a phone call from Lee. He was homeless, living out of his vehicle. His two little daughters living mostly with their mom. I didn't know where to send them for help.

I said that he could come live with us. Yet Lee was huge. Five hundred pounds huge. He had to sleep in our living room. His girls would go to bed in our girls' rooms, yet they would always find their way out to sleep with their dad. He would watch movies. He never quite understood me not having as much time to watch movies with him as he wanted. My life was filled with great conversations while also helping my friend lift his legs onto the couch so he could sleep. My wife was a supertrooper during this time. Our living room became Lee's room, decked out with an oxygen machine and other medical equipment.

I will never forget him making me watch John Wayne's Angel and the Badman. It's a movie that teaches nonviolent principles coming from the hero of the violent cowboy movies of the time. It will always be deeply connected to Lee in my mind. A man who came from a violent past, yet in the midst of that violence and chaos, he found peace.

Eventually Lee went to the hospital and moved on. To be honest, I had to ask him to move on. Despite loving him, his staying was too trying on my family. I felt terrible doing it. But Lee was so gracious and understanding. I thought, as my experience has been with many that I have helped, that when the help would stop, he wouldn't like me anymore. I feared that he would hate me for stopping to help rather than remembering the help. Yet that wasn't Lee. He loved me still.

I would visit him when I made trips into Fort Wayne. He lived in a rough neighborhood when he wasn't in the hospital. We would catch up and have conversations. His house was robbed while he was still in it, but he couldn't do anything about it as he laid there watching, barely alive. His health was failing fast. In and out of the hospitals. His love for his two girls never wavered. His hope for them having a good life kept him going. And his unrealized hope for their mom straightening out remained unwavering.

My last visit was five days before he died. I told him that I would be moving to the Detroit area and wouldn't see him as much. I brought him some comic books because he loved reading them. He always wanted to meet Stan Lee. We were going to make that happen in the next year at a convention. I guess we won't now. He made me make a promise to him if he would die, which I will keep; the same promise he had me make the visit before. He expressed his love, which I share in a different way, for Martin Luther King Jr. We talked Ferguson. We talked ISIS. We talked America. We come from two different worlds. We talked about his hopes, dreams, and the unwritten story ideas that he had. It was always good to spend some time with Lee.

I would be remiss to not mention the St. Louis Cardinals or the Fantastic Four in a story about Lee. So this is their brief mention.

May God grant that Lee's dreams be realized. Not the little dreams like meeting Stan Lee, but the big ones that he had for his daughters and their mother. May they find the peace and purpose that Lee desired for them.

Where Do We Go To Shape Our Thoughts On Eternal Judgment?

When we talk about life after death, we encounter some of the worst examples of folk theology. Likewise, funerals are one of the worst places to hear good theology on the afterlife. Hopefully, not the funerals that I give, but I also dance around the subject a little at funerals because I don't feel that it is my place at a funeral to give a theological treatise attacking the false beliefs of those who are mourning the passing of a loved one. But I also attempt to avoid affirming the prominent false beliefs of our times.

You'll hear certain phrases if you listen to people talk about death in our society. And maybe you have uttered these. I mean no attack if you have. It's probably expected that you have because our society is inundated with wrong beliefs on this subject because we go to wrong places for our beliefs. But we have to allow the Bible to influence our beliefs more than we allow movies, popular books, or folk thinking. So you may have heard...

"He was a good person." As if that gives someone eternal life.
"She's got her angel wings now." Hearkening back to the great theological treatise of It's A Wonderful Life.
"He's in heaven now" or "She's in a better place."
"They're playing golf (or insert their favorite activity) right now."
"God needed them more than we do."

We are so quick to adopt these bad theologies, yet the things that the Bible teaches we disregard. Or maybe we haven't even opened our Bible in a while to see what it says. We wallow in biblical illiteracy.

The idea that we will be judged is frowned upon. The idea that not all are saved is even more frowned on. Nobody goes to hell in a funeral message (and rightfully so). Yet we have allowed these funeral messages where the pastor is just being nice and helping the family grieve while sharing the gospel message --where they don't preach someone into heaven or hell -- we have allowed these funeral messages to shape our views. Or maybe that is too generous. Maybe our views are shaped by pagan ideas, entertainment, and just casual conversations around campfires and watercoolers. The issue here is more serious than just the theological topic at hand. At the heart of this is where we go for our beliefs concerning God. I propose that we should go to the Scriptures for those beliefs.

So if there is an eternal judgment, what will we be judged on? Because when we talk about the idea of eternal judgment, that should be the question we ask. What is this judgment that will have eternal consequences based on?

The gist is this - If you say you follow Jesus, you claim it, yet your life doesn't show fruit, you should be scared of eternal judgment. It's not so much that we do works to earn salvation. We do works because of our salvation that has already taken place. Yet works are part of a saved life.

Here is just a glimpse of some of the passages:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice  and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29 ESV).

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 7:17-20 ESV).

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV).

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:26-27 ESV).

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Romans 2:5-8 ESV).

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV).

The writers of the New Testament go on and on regarding this subject. (See 2 Corinthians 5:10-11, Galatians 6:7, Ephesians 5:5-6, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, 1 John 2:1-6, Revelation 20:12-13, Revelation 22:12 for further examples.)

When I started writing this and studied for it, I thought I was going to write that we are just saved by grace. But then Scripture got in the way, which is a good thing, and changed this piece.

I wished I had it all figured out, but I don't. These verses, if I was going to be honest with them, threw a wrench into my original idea. Like with the issue of baptism where there are passages that link it to salvation while there are other passages that show the Spirit, which is the seal of salvation, coming down on people who aren't baptized or after their baptism, the issue of salvation seems to show works linked with our judgment day.

We have this strong desire for a consistent system, yet that isn't what God has provided. He didn't give us the Roman Road, a four spiritual laws pamphlet, or the plan of salvation that I had to memorize as a kid. He gave us a messy story filled with humans starting at all sorts of different places, facing a variety of struggles, trying to serve the Lord as best as they can.

I feel like a heretic even mentioning that our works play a role in our salvation. Something in Christian culture has shaped the conversation to be against that idea, yet Scripture links works to salvation at various places. I would have to discard all those verses that we just read and more to say that it doesn't. But proper Bible reading isn't about trying to cram the verses that are difficult into a system that we already hold prior to coming to Scripture. It isn't about having a system where we discard the difficult passages. Proper Bible study allows Scripture to transform the beliefs that we have.

So when we go to Scripture, we have these verses that link our judgment to our works, while we have, on the other hand, these verses. 

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him (John 12:23-26 ESV).

If we have given our life over to Jesus, we will have life. Even here though, this life is linked with the work of serving.

And my favorite verse that brings me comfort when I stumble.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2 ESV).

No condemnation. When you mess up, we are not condemned despite deserving condemnation. The mistakes that we make have already had their penalty paid for on the cross.

Now, to make the Bible say more than it says on the issue of eternal judgment, which is what gets people in a lot of trouble in Bible study on any subject, is dangerous. We need to just let the Bible say what it says and leave it at that. So the Bible says that some will be punished eternally. It also says that those in Jesus won't be. It states that God will look at our works when we are judged. It also says that we are saved by grace. That's it. We could then turn around and develop some crazy end times theology or afterlife experience, write a book and/or make a movie regarding the subject and make a lot of money. But that isn't the purpose of any of these the Bible teaching on the afterlife and end times. The Bible addresses those issues to encourage us to live the life that Jesus wants us to live, right here and right now.

When it comes to theses subjects, I don't want to learn a bunch of theology about end times and eternal judgment for the sake of learning theology, being educated, and feeling smart. The reason we, as followers of Jesus, learn is so that we have a solid foundation to love from. Learning is important but love is more important. We learn theology so that we can be firmly rooted when tough times come. And when those times come - because they most assuredly will - we can get right back up and continue living for and loving others for Jesus.

With that said, we should always judge an afterlife, end times, and eternal judgment views by how they make us live now.

This is honestly why I don't like the idea of the rapture, as popularized by Left Behind. You can hold to the view of the rapture and still be a great Christian. I won't make disbelief in the raputre a test of fellowship. We don't divide over nonessentials, and one's end times view is definitely not an essential. Although developed separately, the rapture fits nicely with the false teaching in American churches regarding the health and wealth gospel. The idea then morphs into a view that insinuates a Christian won't suffer. And this isn't true. The Bible actually teaches the opposite is true. Just because we are a Christian, we will suffer. The big difference should be how we react to suffering. With the Rapture, some Christians have developed this nice, comfortable pseudo-faith where followers of Jesus will be safe from the suffering of the world and be pulled into heaven before things get really bad. Yet we shouldn't let ourselves be controlled by fear. We must prepare ourselves to be faithful even when things are going bad. Because they will. We should expect suffering. We should work on nurturing a faith that will withstand suffering.

So instead of having an escapist end times view, we should believe that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are here to stop things from getting really bad. We're here to bring love into situations of hate. We're here to bring hope into despair.

We need an end times view that reflects that, not an escapist rapture view. We need an end times view that spurs us on toward bringing God's kingdom into the here and now as much as we possibly can. This doesn't have to be full-blown post-millenialism. It can just be an inconsistent non-system developed from the key Scriptures.

What we really matters is that we live in a way that we are prepared for judgment.

Live today with the end in mind.

That's the difference between the successful people and the unsuccessful people in life. Unsuccessful people live with only the immediate consequences and pleasures in mind. They gratify every desire. They seek after fleeting pleasures.

Successful people live with long-term thinking. They put off the pleasures of today for a better tomorrow. Being a long-term thinker is tough in America. But to be spiritually successful when life throws us curves and storms, we must live with the eternal perspective - a long-term view - in  mind.

The Apostle Paul shows us this. In his second letter to Timothy, he was facing dark times. He was in prison in Rome and appeared to have lost hope for his earthly prospects. He knows his days are numbered and that he is going to die. (And he was right.) He was being deserted by some of the people he converted (2 Timothy 1:15) because who wants to associate with one who the State is going to execute. At his first defense, nobody even stood by his side to support him (4:16). It's from that place of loneliness, of seeing his candle burning down and being abandoned, that he wrote this in his letter to his protege, Timothy.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8 ESV). 

This is the hope we have. When the world crumbles around us. When friends betray us. When earthly hope seems fleeting. This is the hope: We know that we have a reward stored up for us that is eternal. We keep faithful and endure to the end.

For those of us in Jesus - despite our faults - God sees Christ in us. And that is enough.

I don't want to write a piece that makes us want to follow Jesus because we are scared of hell. I want us to follow Jesus because we want to live for him.

So if we, followers of Jesus, aren't going to be judged with the possibility of going to hell, then why is eternal judgment one of the elementary teachings that the writer of Hebrews addresses in Hebrews chapter six?

When we see God face to face and face judgment, we need to discard the idea that it is about us going to heaven or hell. We're Christians. That's not what our judgment is about. Our judgment, as Christians, is about us facing the one we love. When we do that, we won't want to look back at a life that is disappointing to him. We want to run the race to completion. We want to live a life that is pleasing to Him. He loves us and we love Him. We want Him to say, "Well done. Good and faithful servant."

It's always dangerous when teaching grace that it will just be abused. But real grace, when it is experienced is never abused. Real grace is lifechanging. It transforms us into people who then reflect His grace toward others.

Despite the teachings of the pop self-esteem culture we live in, God does not think we're perfect. None of us are. We can't do enough works to be perfect. That wouldn't be that good of news. We would have to be scared of losing our perfection every moment of every day.

Instead, the good news is that while we were imperfect we were still loved. Jesus died for imperfect people like you and me. Our eternal judgment is given to us in grace that should spur us on toward good works.

We may not be perfect, but we are loved. And that is the good news. And because of that love, the idea that we are going to stand in front of the one who loves us and give an account for our life will change the way we live.

So let the idea of eternal judgment motivate us to be the church today, worship our great God with the fellow imperfect, and learn to live life together. The imperfect loved by the Perfect.