Drawing and blurring the lines

"How far is too far in a relationship?" That is a question that has been asked countless times by students and young adults who want to pursue what is God's best for them in a premarital relationship but aren't sure exactly how to define those parameters physically.

I've met people who have committed to share that first kiss only on their wedding day, a commendable act of self-control and diligence. Then there are others who found themselves involved in relationships that progressed way too fast, costing them their innocence along the way. Regardless of one's relational history or hopes for the future, we still want to know where to draw the line when it comes to purity in our relationships.

Many pastors and church leaders have tried to define where God's line is drawn, with answers ranging from the puritanical to "follow your heart" type gibberish. Just the other day a young man sought my counsel regarding how he should handle the physical aspect of his relationship with his girlfriend, and I found myself thumbing through a whole Rolodex of possible answers to give him. But what does God say? Where does He draw the line.

To answer that question, we can read a portion of what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 (NLT) to find some pretty clear cut answers:
God's will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor -- not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways...God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives.
Boom! That's pretty clear, isn't it? God is not in the business of drawing and redrawing lines for us to follow. His line for us is clearly marked with the words holiness and purity. God has a standard that has always existed and He is not One to redefine what He has already established as His truth.

Once we know where the line exists - with God's command for purity and holiness - we so often begin to want to blur those lines so that we can exist on them without having technically crossing them (which really isn't possible but we try anyway). "But," you may ask, "Aren't there different levels of purity and holiness for each person? Some can't handle more than holding hands while others are okay with a deeper degree of physical interaction." 

The very fact that you or I would even make the attempt to redefine what God's line is or blur it to fit our own desires is evidence that we are thumbing our noses at God's standard for holiness. Indeed we live in a culture where the concept of sexual sin is ambiguous at best. Few are the television shows or movies where couples wait until marriage to have sex or the married person remains faithful to his or spouse. Regardless of whether or not our society is even aware of where God's line is drawn, if you are in Christ then you most certainly are. God's line does not fade and it will not blur.

Uphill trusting

When I was in grade school my parents bought me and my brothers some thick plastic skateboards that we all called "banana boards" because that's pretty much what they were shaped like. These boards were indestructible and me and my brothers would ride them down our inclined street over and over again. Sometimes we would stand while riding them but I would usually sit on mine like I was driving a fast car. The feeling of cruising to the bottom was exhilarating, even a bit scary. It was so easy to just pull of my feet and let gravity speed me down that hill.

Of course, once the ride was over I found that it was a bit of a drag having to walk all the way back up the hill to the starting point. While the ride itself was awesome, it didn't last very long. The walk back up the hill felt like an eternity. But I knew that if I wanted to enjoy another ride, I needed to put in the work to make it happen.

Sometimes life feels much more like work than anything else. And let's face it, money is always an issue. You work really hard for what often seems like just a short-term benefit. There is great excitement to get that paycheck, yet when it's gone a few days later because you've had bills to pay and groceries to buy and debts to settle, the thrill is pretty much over. 

What do we do when we face those lean times, when what's coming in just isn't enough to balance out what we know needs to go out? Perhaps you've already been through financial courses and have a budget to keep you on target, yet life inevitably decides to throw a wrench in your plans and you find yourself wondering how you will pay next month's mortgage or car payment or how you will feed and clothe the kids. How will you make it?

You've got options. You can worry and scheme and plan and fret or you can trust God. Sounds like an incredibly Sunday school-ish type of plan, doesn't it. Yet this is exactly the prescription for our financial worries that Jesus Himself has given to us:
"This is why I tell you: Don't worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn't life more than clothing?... So don't worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?"... But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you." (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33)
Jesus tells us, "Don't worry!" Why? Because worry accomplishes absolutely nothing. Instead, seek God with all your heart. Trust Him first, not as a last resort. Yes, work hard and do your best, but come to the understanding that it's not all about you nor is it up to you. Your provision is God's deal and He's pretty stinkin' good at it.

It's so easy to forget this when we are coasting downhill and life is good and the bank account is healthy. Yet we know that life usually tilts in the direction of the uphill walk, the grind that can wear you out and draw you into despair. In the good times and the tough, God is your provider. He isn't hands on only when you need Him. He's all the time. So seek after God - first and in all things - because His promises are always true. "And all these things - your basic needs - will be provided for you."

Redefining what wasn't really ours to define in the first place

Over the years I've had the privilege of leading hundreds of middle school and high school-age students in the arena of youth ministry. Of those whose lives I have been a part of, there have been several who have sensed a unique call from God on their lives, one that has led them to church work, seminary, or missions. It's been awesome keeping up with them over the years as they experience the joys and frustrations of leading in church ministry. Yet out of all of those students who I've walked alongside of, hardly any have expressed the need to pursue ministry beyond the walls of the church or para church contexts.

Is there such a thing as ministry beyond what has been organized by religious and faith-based institutions? In other words, can you really pursue ministry if it doesn't look like ministry?

When I was younger, I knew that God was calling me into the ministry. You know, full-time vocational Christian ministry. I knew that I was called to serve and the options before me looked pretty much like a one-item buffet -- church work. Don't misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with that. I was blessed to grow up in a very healthy church environment with a host of pastors who poured themselves into my life. Beyond that option there was the possibility of serving with a para church group like Intervarsity or Young Life, but to be honest those organizations were kind of frowned upon because of the perception that they did very little to plug the students they served into the local church (translation = it was a territorial issue).

So I did what every motivated and passionate young minister-to-be would do and that is attend seminary and attempt to find church work. From my 20's into my 30's I served in various churches as either a volunteer, intern, part-timer, or full-time staff member, all of which centered on student ministry. I experienced many highs and lows during those years, but I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.

However, during all of that time, I knew that there was much more to ministry that existed beyond just church ministry. Whenever I would share this with my fellow ministry peers, they would immediately ask if I felt called to missions. That's pretty much the standard backup for those who consider what other options are available for them if they aren't convinced it's church work. Be a foreign missionary! But I didn't want to be a foreign missionary. True, missions is more than just living in hut and eating grub worms in Africa, yet that is often the image that is seared into our brains. This was not what God had called me to do.

After 2 decades of serving in some sort of church context, I was able to step away for a couple of years and use that time to ask myself some pretty gut wrenching questions about my call. Did God still want to use me? If so, how? I knew and still know that God has called me to serve Him. That has never been in doubt and the local church is where I serve. But what God began to show me was that there is a big difference between the actual fact of being called and how that call is to be lived out.

From way back in the beginning of my spiritual formation, I pretty much understood that "the call" to ministry was reserved for a select few, those who would be pastors. Anyone else who was serving experienced a different kind of call to the ministry that was put on a lower level than those who served vocationally in churches. "We are all ministers," the church sign says, "But our pastor is THE minister." Do you see how flawed that viewpoint is?

What do we do with the 23-year-old medical student who is passionate about Jesus and is convinced he's called to ministry, yet has no desire to pursue church work or missions? How about the young professional whose heart has caught fire with the gospel and can't contain her excitement to be on mission, yet is convinced that her 8-to-5 job is where God has called her to be? Can these actually be called to ministry without actually entering what we've defined for years as ministry?

The answering is resounding yes. And the truth is, what we've defined as "ministry" really isn't close to what Jesus would define as ministry. We have no evidence that Zacchaeus abandoned his business to don a preacher's robe. When Jesus changed his life, Zacchaeus repented and changed his ways, but that doesn't mean he changed his career. The same is true of so many that we read about in the New Testament. Their call to abandon all and follow Christ meant that they were to abandon their own selfish desires and habits to follow Jesus, but didn't always mean that they abandoned their chosen professions.

Why is that? Because Jesus still desires that His truth and gospel saturate all aspects of culture. In order to do that, He needs lawyers and nurses and teachers and construction workers and CPA's and retail clerks to serve as ministers in their workplaces. He needs students to be ministers in their schools. He needs moms and dads to be ministers in their communities. 

In setting parameters around what is and isn't considered to be ministry, we've defined what isn't ours to define. We joke about the pastor being the "professional Christians" but there are still many who expect him to do the bulk of the spiritual work because it's his "job." That, my friends, is a bunch of rubbish (or crap for the younger crowd).

I'm seeing, and maybe you are too, many in this younger generation who have a passion to serve with all of the zeal of snake-handling pentecostal seminary student but without the desire to do so in a church or faith-based context. And that's awesome! Honestly, more people are walking into restaurants and attorney's offices and retail stores than will ever step foot inside of our churches. Since that is true, we need to equip more and more men and women to be ministers in their chosen field of work. We don't need to focus in training them so that they can serve in our churches. No, we need to pour ourselves and our resources into them so that they can serve where they live and work everyday. And as we are doing this, we need to affirm the calling that God has put on their lives to serve as ministers in the work place. It's time to strike a blow to the caste system that is Christian ministry.

Underwear is meant to be comfortable. Life, not so much.

I am serving as camp pastor at a placed called Laurel Ridge in the NC moutains this week, so today I decided to go hiking on some trails in ...