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Part of Something Bigger: God’s Plan for the Church

April 6, 2021

By God’s grace, we are once again gathering in our worship center at Stonebridge Church. For most of us, this comes after nearly eight months of displacement due to the damage caused by the derecho last August. For some of us, it will be just over a year, after being displaced by the COVID shutdown in March 2020. And for still some of us, it will be even longer, as we wait to reunite in person until the pandemic has receded further.

Any way you look at it, that’s a long season of disruption. It’s a long time to feel detached and displaced. For ministries to be sidelined. For relationships to feel distant. To feel stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for some semblance of “normal” to return.

And while there is much joy in reuniting in the space God has given us for making much of him, it’s also a good opportunity to step back and remember who we are, what we’re called to, and what it actually means to be the church.

After all, we all know that the church is not a building; it’s the people of God in Christ. And we know that God does not waste trials like the last twelve months, but uses them to form and refine his people. Getting “back to normal” isn’t really the goal—rather, it’s growing up in Christ. And through this season of disruption, the Lord has given us an opportunity to be reminded that being the church means being part of something bigger.

Bigger than me—my aims, my needs, my desires and ambitions. Bigger than this fallen world, with all its passions and promises. Bigger even than anything we can see, as God displays his manifold wisdom in the heavenly places through the church (cf. Eph. 3:10). Being the church means being part of God’s plan of redemption for this world. An extraordinary plan that our extraordinary God works out through very ordinary people sharing life through the regular rhythms and commitments of the local church.

Church is not just something we go to; it’s who we are. And it is how Christ is making himself known to us and to the world. So join us this spring as we learn and remember together the joyful and sacred privilege of being part of something bigger—God’s plan for the local church.

  • April 11: “What Is the Church?” (Eph. 5:22-32)
  • April 18: “What Is the Mission of the Church?” (Matt. 28:16-20)
  • April 25: “What Is Worship For?” (Col. 3:14-17)
  • May 2: “How Does the Church Share Life?” (Acts 2:42-47)
  • May 9: “How Does the Church Grow?” (2 Tim. 2:1-7)
  • May 16: “How Does the Church Grow? (Part Two)” (Eph. 4:15-16)
  • May 23: “Why Does Membership Matter?” (1 Cor. 12:12-26)
  • May 30: “How Is the Church Lead?” (1 Pet. 5:1-4)
  • June 6: “How Do We Guard Our Witness?” (Matt. 18:15-20)
  • June 13: “What Are the Sacraments For?” (1 Cor. 11:23-26; 12:12-13)
  • June 20: “How Do We Love Our Neighbors?” (Matt. 22:34-40)

God Is Bigger Than You Think: A Study in Malachi

February 4, 2021

The book of Malachi is all about what happens when we lose our awe of God.

Written sometime after they had returned from exile, ancient Israel had become rather disenchanted with God. The temple was rebuilt, and worship had recommenced. But many of the promises of the messianic new age that the prophets had spoken of had not yet become a reality. The new temple was rather pathetic compared to the old one. They were still oppressed by foreigners. And there was still no king on the throne. From their view, God had either let them down, or he was never that big a deal to begin with. A sentiment that’s frighteningly easy to resonate with today, as we consider the hardships and disappointments that so many of us have experienced over the last year.

So what happens when God’s people have a shallow and superficial view of God? When we lose sight of his holiness and majesty, and become unimpressed with our relationship with him? When we measure his greatness based on our personal satisfaction?

What happens is that we end up living unholy lives that profane God’s name and pollute all of life—our relationship with God, our worship, our ministries, our marriages, how we approach justice, how we handle our money, and how we approach obedience.

Malachi gives us a much needed wakeup call, reminding us that God is bigger than we think. He is worthy of our honor, his name will be great among the nations, and he will be faithful to renew his people through the purifying work of Christ.

So join us this winter at Stonebridge Church as we consider the prophet’s words and behold our truly awesome God.

  • Feb 7: “A God-Sized View of Love” (Mal. 1:1-5)
  • Feb 14: “A God-Sized View of Ministry” (Mal. 1:6–2:9)
  • Feb 21:  “A God-Sized View of Marriage” (Mal. 2:10-16)
  • Feb 28: “A God-Sized View of Justice” (Mal. 2:17–3:5)
  • Mar 14: “A God-Sized View of Money” (Mal. 3:6-12)
  • Mar 21: “A God-Sized View of Obedience” (Mal. 3:13–4:6)

Gospel Reset: A Three-Day Media Fast and Bible Study

January 18, 2021

It’s been a hard week for many of us since the storming of the Capitol last week. And that’s on top of an already hard year leading up to it. Our country is a hot mess. Our social media feeds are a dumpster fire of fear, anxiety, misinformation, rumors, and panic. A lot of us are hurting and on edge as we try to take it in. Many of us aren’t even sure what to believe, or who’s telling the truth. Maybe we don’t want to believe what our eyes clearly see. Many of us are sad, anxious, and afraid, even upset with one another. All of us are overwhelmed in some way.

The reaction for many of us has been to up our media consumption. Whether we’re fixated on cable news, hate-reading our social media feeds, scouring the blogosphere, or getting into fights in the comments sections, we find ourselves being drawn ever deeper into the existential crisis of it all, retweeting our favorite hot takes, and arguing as though the end of the world is at hand.

But I’m convinced that what many of us (myself included) truly need in this moment is a gospel reset. This is an invitation to take a three-day fast from social media, news, blogs, posts, and whatever opinion pages are floating around, and instead devote ourselves to the Word of God and prayer. Whatever time you would be spending watching the news for scrolling through your feeds, spend it with the Lord instead. This Bible study, which I put together for our Stonebridge family, is designed to guide you through that time.

Here’s how it works:

1. Get a partner. Whether it’s your small group, a friend, or a spouse, find someone to commit to doing this with you. Not only does this provide accountability for the fasting component, but an opportunity to encourage one another, process what you’re learning, and support each other moving forward.

2. Get off social media and the news. Fasting from media is a critical part of this process. Not because we shouldn’t be informed; being informed is a good thing. But how are we filtering the information we’re taking in? Whose voices are dominating the way we think about things? What’s our grid for discerning what is true? How is it affecting our hearts, our words, our behaviors, and our blood pressure? What many of us need is a spiritual detox, cleansing the garbage that clogs and clutters our souls, that the Word of God might take priority once more, and that the kingdom of God might reclaim our proper allegiance. For some of us this might require deleting certain apps from our phone for a time. Whatever it takes to get off the apps, push away from the keyboard, turn off the news, and open our Bibles.

3. Get in the Word. The point of a fast is not just going without something; it’s replacing it with something better. A hunger for God and the nourishment of his Word. The following Bible study is designed to guide you in reading, reflecting on, and applying God’s Word to our lives in this moment, specifically 1 Peter 1-2. Day one focuses on God’s kingdom and the object of our hope. Day two looks at our character and what ought to flow from our hearts. Day three helps us consider our conduct and how we carry ourselves as followers of Christ.

Because some of us may have more time on our hands than others, depending on our typical media consumption, we’ve also provided a “Going Deeper” section for each day, which takes you through an additional passage of Scripture for study, prayer, and reflection. 

So find a partner, pick your days, and let’s let gospel of Jesus reset our hearts, hope, and perspective.

Day One: Kingdom | 1 Peter 1:1-12

         Going Deeper: Romans 8:18-39

Day Two: Character | 1 Peter 1:13–2:10

         Going Deeper: Matthew 5:1-16

Day Three: Conduct | 1 Peter 2:11-25

         Going Deeper: Romans 12:9-21

DOWNLOAD THE GOSPEL RESET BIBLE STUDY

Prayer for a Nation in Shock

January 7, 2021
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Lord, as we awake after a day of shocking unrest in our nation’s capital, an assault on decency and democracy through the invasion of the Capitol, may our hearts find rest in you. May our nation find rest in you.

For your Word reminds us that you are in control. “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings . . .” (Dan 2:20-21).

And your word tells us that your kingdom will prevail. “And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:17).

Moreover, you invite us into your glorious kingdom by faith in your Son. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14)

As Americans, we grieve the loss of life as a result of yesterday’s events. We grieve the assault on an institution that holds our republic together. We grieve the condition of our country—the polarization, the vitriol, the rampant deception and distrust. We grieve the division that led to it and now flows in its aftermath. In our grief, we are reminded what a sweet gift our liberties here are, and yet how fragile they can be. We are reminded of how important it is to do our part as good citizens, working for the good of our neighbors and nations. But more than anything, as Christians, we are reminded that our hope is not in this world. While our nation shakes, we praise you that we belong to an unshakable kingdom in Christ. We are citizens of heaven, mere exiles on earth.

And so we pray for the peace of our nation. And we pray that your church would lead the way in love, humility, truth, and justice. And as the kingdoms of man are found wanting, may more and more people see Jesus for who he is, our unparalleled king, who alone offers hope to this broken world. And may your people, as sojourners and exiles, abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against our soul, and keep your conduct among the nations honorable, so that when they speak against us as evildoers, they may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (2 Pet. 1:10-11).

Amen.

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Secretly the “Mark of the Beast”?

November 23, 2020
Photo by L N on Unsplash

While many across the country are celebrating the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine being released in the months ahead, that joyful expectation is not always shared by Christians.

For some, there are bioethical questions about the nature of the drug and its development. For others, safety concerns arise from the speed at which it was developed. Still others worry about government overreach should the vaccine be mandated or used to limit certain activities.

Those are all legitimate questions, and I don’t intend to wade into any of them here. What I’d like to address is another concern that some Christians have expressed, and several have asked me about in recent months—whether this vaccine might secretly be the “mark of the beast.”

The Mark of the Beast in Revelation

The book of Revelation is notoriously tricky to understand. It’s filled with crazy imagery and obscure symbolism—angelic creatures covered in eyes, locusts like horses, a beast with ten horns and seven heads, demonic spirits, a prostitute riding a scarlet beast covered in blasphemous names, and epic end-of-the-world battles. Not exactly the kind of literature most of us are used to reading.

It’s what we call apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apocalypsis means “unveiling” or “revealing”—hence the book’s title, Revelation. This kind of book reveals a heavenly perspective on earthly realities. If you think of a curtain separating the hidden, heavenly realm from the earthly one we live in—God’s space from our space—apocalyptic literature peels back the curtain for a moment. It gives us a God’s-eye perspective on things that are currently happening on the earth, and also on what is to come. In doing so, it often uses highly symbolic, sometimes shocking imagery to get its point across. And these things are revealed to us not so that we know the nitty-gritty details of future events, but so that we can live faithfully in the present in light of what the future generally holds.

To that end, in ch. 13 presents us with two visions that reinforce the necessity of God’s coming judgment. Both visions describe a “beast.” The first beast is a parody of Jesus, a false messiah who persecutes the church (13:1-8). The second beast serves as a prophet for the first beast, deceiving the world into worshiping the first beast and stirring those worshipers to persecute the church (13:11-18).

In that context, we read this in 13:16-17: “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.”

That description—particularly the limitation on buying and selling—has caused some to wonder if a COVID-19 vaccine might be the fulfillment of this prophetic picture. Indeed, some have suggested that trade and travel should be limited based on receiving the vaccine. Others have speculated that efforts will be made to store vaccination records under people’s skin, making it easier to detect and trace those who receive it (a technology that is being developed, but unrelated to the COVID vaccine). What if the COVID-19 vaccine is secretly the mark of the beast?

Should Christians Fear that the COVID-19 Vaccine Is Secretly the Mark of the Beast?

One of the working assumptions that causes so much fear in this situation, is that if the vaccine is secretly the mark of the beast, but I don’t know that and I take it in order to protect my health and the health of others, I might accidentally receive the mark and find myself under God’s holy judgment. After all, according to Revelation 14:9-11, if you receive the mark, you will face God’s eternal judgment.

But here’s what people often miss: according to Revelation, it’s actually impossible for genuine Christians to receive the mark of the beast.

For starters, receiving the mark is inextricably bound up with worshiping the beast (i.e., the false-messiah). In fact, the mark is never mentioned by itself apart from the explicit worship of the beast (see Rev. 13:8, 12-17; 14:9-11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). So it’s not just an economic thing—something people will do because it has become hard to buy or sell without it (13:17). It’s a religious thing that involves rejecting Jesus. Moreover, according to the context, the mark is not a mechanism for luring, recruiting, or tricking people into following the beast, but a means of moving those who worship the beast to persecute those who don’t.

Second, throughout Revelation, those who worship the beast and receive the mark are contrasted against those who are saved by the Lamb. For instance:

  • Rev. 13:7-8: “Also [the beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
  • Rev. 17:8: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”

Similarly, the mark of the beast is also set in contrast to those who are sealed by God. In Revelation 14:1, in direct contrast to those who are marked with the beast’s name on their hand and their forehead (13:16-17), we see “the Lamb, and with him the 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (14:1; see also 7:3; 22:4). So one either has the name of Jesus on their forehead, or the mark of the beast. And if you are sealed by God through faith in Jesus, you have his name on you, not the beast’s. (Note: the 144,000 is almost certainly a metaphorical number to describe the full number of God’s people; cf. 7:1-17.)

So according to Revelation, the only people who receive the mark are those whose names are not in the book of life—that is, those who have not been saved by Jesus. If your name is in Christ’s book, if your faith is in him and you have been born again and sealed by his Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:3-14), you cannot and will not receive the mark. We are sealed by Jesus and marked with his name, protected from the deception of the enemy that will stir up the nations against God’s people at the end.

No, the COVID-19 Vaccine Is Not the Mark of the Beast

So how does all this connect to the vaccine? Whatever the mark of the beast is when it happens, it will be utterly incompatible with Christ. And a vaccine during a pandemic is not incompatible with Christ. Nor is it connected in any way to the worship of a false-messiah. Therefore, we can say with certainty that the COVID-19 vaccine has nothing to do with the mark of the beast

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that it did. What then? Revelation does not give us a glimpse of what’s coming so that we can try to stop it. We’re told these things in advance not so that we can rise up as a hero to prevent them, but so that we remain faithful under persecution and call people to faith in Jesus (Rev. 12:11; 13:10; 14:12). Convincing someone not to take a vaccine or receive whatever mark won’t save them; only faith in Jesus will save them. That’s where we need to put our focus and effort as Christians.

Should Christians Receive the Vaccine?

So should Christians receive the vaccine? Ultimately, that’s up to each person individually. And there are still plenty of questions to ponder. My goal here is simply to provide a little more clarity and freedom to process it on the merits of health, science, and public policy, without fear of end-time deception.

Personally, I’m quite thankful that researchers have been able to make so much progress on the vaccine in such a short period of time. Bioethical considerations notwithstanding, I consider modern medicine a gift of God’s common grace. And my prayer is that the vaccine is effective and helps us move out of this frustrating (and for some, dangerous) season. While I don’t think anyone should be forced to receive it, at this point I have no reservations about receiving it our encouraging others to do so once it’s proven safe and effective.

But again, each person has to decide on their own. And as Christians, much charity needs to be extended to those who decide differently. Let’s take care not to turn the vaccine into an anti-mark, allowing it to do to the church what the true mark will one day do to the unbelieving world—turn us against the people of God. Our union is in Jesus; it’s his name on our foreheads. Let’s take care not to replace it with something else.

Christ’s Glorious Return

October 13, 2020

The 2019 EFCA Statement of Faith Revision

In June 2019, our denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), adopted an amendment to Article 9 of the EFCA Statement of Faith, replacing the word “premillennial” with “glorious.” That article now reads as follows: 

“We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands our constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

During our upcoming congregational meeting in November, the elders of Stonebridge Church will be making a motion to adopt this revision for our own Statement of Faith at Stonebridge. To prepare us for that vote, we’ll be hosting an open forum via Facebook Live on Monday night, Oct. 19, at 7:30 pm on our Online Community, during which time we’ll walk through the proposed amendment and take questions. You’ll also be able to view the open forum at a later date if you miss the live version.

However, I thought it would be helpful to lay some groundwork for that upcoming conversation and vote by addressing four foundational questions about the proposed Statement of Faith revision:

  • What is this about? What do the different positions on the millennium even mean?
  • Why make this revision now?
  • What are the theological implications for us as a church?
  • What are the practical implications for us as a church?

What is this about? What do the different positions on the millennium even mean?

When Christians talk about the return of Christ and the millennium, we’re talking about the timing of Christ’s return relative to the events described in Revelation 20:1-10. The word millennium simply means “a thousand years,” a term that is used six times in this passage.

There are three historic Christian views on the timing of Christ’s return relative to the millennium:

  • Premillennial: Christ returns before (pre) the events described in Rev. 20. This is the historic position of the EFCA, and also common among Baptists and Pentecostals.
  • Postmillennial: Christ returns after (post) the events described in Rev. 20. This was the position held by most Puritans, and is much less common today, having largely died off post WWI.
  • Amillennial: the events described in Rev 20 are not exclusively future, but a symbolic portrait of the church age (from cross to new creation). This is the position historically held by Presbyterians, and increasingly common among Baptists and Free Church traditions.

Of these views, both premillennial and amillennial can be traced to the earliest recorded comments on Revelation 20 (ca. fourth century).

Within the premillennial view, there are also several camps:

  • Historic premillennial: the millennial kingdom pertains to martyred saints (ca. 4th century)
  • Dispensational premillennial: the millennial kingdom pertains to national Israel (popularized by John Nelson Darby in the 1850s)

On this issue, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, Christians have long held different opinions and convictions. It’s not an unimportant question, but neither is it an all-important one. Saving faith does not hang on one’s belief about the precise meaning of Revelation 20.

Why make this revision now?

Our denomination revised this point out of a desire to be true to the historic posture of the EFCA: to “major on the majors” and not let doctrines of secondary importance divide us. We enjoy diversity on all sorts of secondary issues: Calvinist or Arminian, charismatic or cessationist, covenantal or dispensational. Even within our historically premillennial view, we don’t require a particular position on Israel and the church, or specify how OT prophesies are fulfilled. So the growing sense over the last couple decades was that we were being inconsistent by enjoying diversity on all sorts of secondary issues, but demanding everyone in our fellowship be premillennial (which is also a secondary issue). And the overwhelming majority of delegates at the national conference in 2019 agreed with this and voted to amend article nine to replace the word “premillennial” with “glorious.”

At Stonebridge, we value our partnership with our denomination, and believe it is important to express that partnership and commitment through a common Statement of Faith, just as we have prior to the 2019 revision. We also agree with the national leadership that this revision better reflects the historic posture of the EFCA to major on the majors.

One of the greatest strengths of our movement in general and our local church in particular has been to build our unity around the essentials of the gospel. This revision better positions us to keep doing that.

What are the theological implications for us as a church?

The theological implications are honestly pretty minimal. No one is required to abandon their premillennial view. And already within the denomination, there is not one uniform view on the millennium. In many ways, historic premillennialism (which is already a widely-held view in our denomination) is much closer to amillennialism than to Dispensational premillennialism, in terms of how they understand the scope of Biblical history. An amillennialist is likely to put less emphasis on the modern-day nation state of Israel in how they understand biblical prophecy, but so is a historic premillennialist. So the main difference is that when we explain our views on the end, we’ll review a broader range of options.

What are the practical implications for us as a church?

Again, this revision will have little impact on our day-to-day operations. The most practical results are the ability to emphasize our commitment to gospel essentials in our Statement of Faith, and thus be able to be more invitational and inclusive of faithful, godly, Bible-loving Christians and leaders who share our vision and mission but have been excluded by this secondary position.

***

Again, plan to join us for our open forum on Monday, Oct. 19. If you would like to review additional resources in the meantime, we recommend this short article by Bill Kynes entitled, “A Rationale for Amending Your Church’s Statement of Faith,” and an FAQ created by the EFCA. 

Unyielding Faith: A Series in Galatians

September 10, 2020

Of all the challenges Christians face in the world today, there is perhaps none more tragic and potentially devastating than the temptation to move on from the gospel of Jesus.

It’s so easy. We know we start with Christ—salvation is by grace through faith. But it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated. Our faith begins to feel stale or rote, and we go looking for some spiritual breakthrough. We feel pressure to perform for God, as though his approval is based on our spiritual growth or maturity. We’re drawn by the ideas of those who claim to have a better way. We become wary of criticism or opposition from those around us, which means distancing ourselves from or even abandoning elements of our faith.

And so, we reason, while we’re grateful that the gospel got us on the road, we think we can take it from here. We view the gospel like training wheels, and we’re ready to ride the bike now, excited about the new horizons ahead. Without even realizing it, we slowly begin to yield our faith in the gospel of God’s grace.

This was the same temptation that the churches in ancient Galatia found before them in the middle of the first century. Having begun with the gospel, they thought they were ready to move on. And there were some influential voices encouraging them to do just that—move on from the gospel of grace and take up the Law of Moses. Add to your faith in Jesus circumcision and works of the law—then you’ll both please God and keep the Jews who persecuted the early church off your back.

What they didn’t realize was that moving on was actually moving backward—right back into the slavery of the law and the insufficiency of the flesh, as though Jesus had never arrived. What looked like moving forward was really yielding to a false gospel that not only disrupted the Christian community, but threatened to sever the Galatians from Christ.

And so at the heart of Paul’s letter is his passionate plea for an unyielding faith: never move on from the gospel of Jesus. The Christian faith is one of grace from beginning to end. And only the gospel of Jesus holds forth the grace necessary not only to get us started with God, but to sustain us, grow us, guide us, and bring us all the way home.

I invite you to join us this fall at Stonebridge Church (meeting at Calvary Baptist, Sundays @ 6pm) as we explore the book of Galatians and God’s call to an unyielding faith.

  • Sept 13: “Pressure to Yield” (Gal. 1:1-10)
  • Sept 20: “A Message from Heaven” (Gal. 1:11-24)
  • Sept 27: “Who Is the Gospel for?” (Gal. 2:1-10)
  • Oct 4: “In Step with Gospel” (Gal. 2:11-16)
  • Oct 11: “Not Guilty” (Gal. 2:15-21)
  • Oct 18: “Detours in Faith” (Gal. 3:1-6)
  • Oct 25: “Delivered from Debt” (Gal. 3:7-14)
  • Nov 1: “An Unbreakable Promise” (Gal. 3:15-22)
  • Nov 8: “Heirs of God” (Gal. 3:23–4:7)
  • Nov 13: Guest: Christopher Yuan
  • Nov 22 : “Your Path or God’s Path?” (Gal. 4:8-20)
  • Nov 29 : “A Tale of Two Cities” (Gal. 4:21-31)        

Advent Break

  • Jan 3:  “True Freedom” (Gal. 5:1-12)
  • Jan 10: “The Law of Love” (Gal. 5:13-15)
  • Jan 17: “Walk By the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16-26) 
  • Jan 24: “Open Your Eyes” (Gal. 6:1-10)
  • Jan 31: “Only One Boast” (Gal. 6:11-18)

Some Reflections on the Recent Mask Mandate in Cedar Rapids

September 4, 2020
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/@mbaumi

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in parts of Iowa, the mayor of Cedar Rapids recently instated a mask mandate for the city. Until further notice, facemasks will be mandatory throughout Cedar Rapids in public places whenever social distance cannot be maintained.  

As you might guess, this is proving to be a controversial move. Not only is this issue part of an ongoing power struggle between local mayors and the state governors, mask-wearing has become almost thoroughly politicized in our country, with opposing views being largely representative of partisan allegiances. If you’re for Candidate A you’ll take this position; if you’re for Candidate B, you’ll take that one.

At a more nuanced level, some question the effectiveness of masks, fueled in part by inconsistent messages from medical personnel and public health departments over the last several months. Some feel that mandating masks is an attack on our civil liberties, fueled in part by clear examples of government overreach in recent months. Or worse, a diabolical plot to lull us to sleep and secretly usher in a socialist or communist government, driven in large part by conspiracy theories.

At the same time, some see mandating masks as an urgent health concern that requires swift government action, compelled by the lingering grip of COVID in the U.S. Others simply feel it is the right thing to do to stem the pandemic, motivated by genuine concern for those with higher risk levels. Still others treat it as a defining test of one’s virtue and credibility, encouraged by mask-shaming trends and emboldened by cancel culture.

And local churches are not exempt from this clash of passionately held views. With the question so closely tied to the political polarization in our country, it’s not uncommon for it to spill over into relational conflict and foster division and factions. It’s no stretch of the imagination to anticipate that churches will lose people on both sides of issues like this in protest over the same response.

So what are we doing at Stonebridge, and what does it look like to navigate this issue with both the truth and grace of the gospel?

Allow me to share candidly for a moment.

First, here’s something I don’t love about pastoral ministry: knowing that some people are going to be unhappy no matter what we do with the city’s mandate. The old sentiment, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rings true in its theological sense here: we will receive condemnation regardless of how we land. Not just criticism, but condemnation. Accusations of spiritual and moral failure that make us at odds with God.

I share that not to try and shut down criticism or discourage feedback; that’s always welcome. But condemnation is something different. And about that I’ll simply say this: there’s already an Accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). That position is taken, and he doesn’t need any help heaping condemnation on God’s people, especially when it has nothing to do with our faithfulness to Christ.

Second, and on a more positive note, I think our recent look at 1 Corinthians 13 is applicable here: love as the pivot foot of the church. Regardless of where we land personally on this issue, is our interaction with one another marked by patience, kindness, contentment, humility, respect, selflessness, gentleness, forgiveness, truthfulness, tolerance, faith, hope, and enduring commitment (1 Cor. 13:4-7)? If our primary bond is Jesus, and not politics or positions on mask-mandates, then the answer should be a grateful yes. If it’s not, then why not? Is it because we love our position and its implications more than we love our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Third, that brings us to some reflections on the actual position we’re taking as a church right now: operating in compliance with the city-wide mandate. Here I’ll pivot to question-and-answer style, with the answers reflecting my own personal opinions or convictions. (Buckle up!)


Does the mayor really have the authority to make this mandate? He seems to think so, and made his case in relative detail in the full proclamation. The governor doesn’t think so, and so the issue will likely wind up in court. But even if there’s a legitimate debate to be had, for now I’m not convinced it’s our debate. Others may certainly disagree, but I personally don’t see this as a hill worth dying on right now. Our relational and public capital is better spent working with our civic leaders to serve our community after a derecho than working against them on what (in my opinion) amounts to a minor inconvenience for a season. 

Aren’t those in authority just trying to control us? I don’t think so. No doubt some nefarious personalities find their way into politics, bent on their private agenda to take over the world. And no question that power can go to people’s heads. But I’m pretty convinced that most civic leaders are genuinely trying to serve people, even if I don’t always agree with the way they’re trying to do it. And while there are varying opinions as to the true scope and severity of the pandemic, generally speaking, I believe the primary motive is wellbeing, not control.

Isn’t this an infringement on our civil liberties? Ultimately, the legal experts will have to sort that out. And again, there’s plenty of room for disagreement. But personally, no, I don’t believe this is an infringement on personal civil liberties. If it were unconnected to the current state of the pandemic in Cedar Rapids, or applied inconsistently across industries, then I might view it differently. But generally speaking, mandating certain practices in promotion of public health is not in and of itself an infringement (e.g., seatbelts). Moreover, for most of us, the impact is relatively minor: a temporary inconvenience for the sake of protecting the health and wellbeing of others. And where the impact is more significant, exceptions abound.

What about an infringement on our religious liberty? If churches or religious organizations were being singled out (as some states have done with certain COVID policies), then that would raise alarms. As it is, both our state and local leaders in Iowa have gone out of their way to avoid directly compelling religious organizations. Even the mandate itself includes an exemption for those whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a mask. In that light, Romans 13 remains strongly applicable to our situation: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1). If the governing authorities over us are not compelling us to sin against God, then we are called to obey them (whether or not we agree with them or trust them; see also Rom. 13:1-6; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; contrast with Acts 4:18-20; Dan. 3; 6). And within our particular government, we’re also invited to express our disagreement, challenge systems, and work toward change.

What about some of the conspiracy theories floating around on the internet? Shouldn’t we be worried? Allow me to be candid once more: the way that so many Christians blindly peddle conspiracy theories via social media today is not only embarrassing, it’s usually breaking the ninth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”), and it’s ultimately detrimental to our witness. If we’re bearing witness to demonstrably false information with such passion, why should they believe us when we bear witness to Christ? Of course conspiracies can be real, but most of the ones related to COVID are false, many of them born in the troll farms of foreign enemies, and God warns us not to be duped (Isa. 8:11-15). And while I’m at it: No, Bill Gates is not the antichrist, and no, the vaccine is not the mark of the beast. Let’s spend more time in the Word and less on YouTube.

Aren’t you worried about the slippery slope—masks today, something else tomorrow? The slippery slope is often real, and we do well to pay attention to it. If public policies become unreasonably disconnected to facts and reality, then there’s a more robust conversation to be had. Personally, I don’t think we’re there yet.

Why didn’t we require masks sooner? The short answer: because up until this point they have not be required by local health officials. Since reopening in June, we have sought to follow the guidance of public health officials in terms of social distancing, room capacity, cleaning, and with that, strongly encouraging masks during our services (at least coming and going and any interaction with people outside your immediate family). We even began requiring masks during the 10:45 service in July, in order to provide an environment for those in the congregation who were at higher risk or had less comfort going out in public. Our goal all along has been to promote health and safety while acknowledging and respecting diversity of opinion. And that remains our goal, even as we operate in compliance with the city mandate. Our practice might be changing, but hopefully our respect and honor toward one another doesn’t.

What if I don’t want to come to Stonebridge events because of the mask mandate? We recognize that this is a possibility, and again, want to emphasize patience and charity. We don’t believe this is an issue worth dividing over. But while we don’t ask everyone to agree, we do ask that everyone who comes complies (with the notable exceptions spelled out in the mandate). If that’s not something you feel you can do, let’s talk. We love you; we’ll figure something out. Beyond this, I would simply ask that we not let our allegiance to a particular position sideline our commitment to one another in Christ.


In all of this, what really stands before us is an opportunity to rally around the gospel. A chance to emphasize the bond of our commitment to one another in Christ. And a chance to display the character of Christ to the world, not only with regard to masks, but especially in how we treat each other. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A Prayer for a Nation on Fire

May 30, 2020

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Julio Cortez /AP

Gracious Father,

In this hour of darkness, we pray for our nation.

Our people are hurting, our cities are burning. For there is a fire that has plagued this nation since its inception, the smoldering hatred of racism.

How long will our headlines read: another unarmed black man killed by white people with no consequences?

How long must people of color fear for their lives while participating in the most ordinary of tasks—running, bird-watching, sitting in your own home, answering your own door?

How long will our systems, rhythms, and social expectations privilege some races and classes over others?

How long will those with power prefer order over justice?

We lament the violence and wanton recklessness of the riots destroying neighborhoods and cities, and pray for protection and safety for those so directly impacted. Evil cannot drive out evil; only good can do that (Rom. 12:21).

We denounce those who would take advantage of the searing wound of racism to stir up trouble or use this moment as an opportunity for selfish gain.

But let us not be deaf to the cries of our brothers and sisters of color. This has gone on too long. Enough is enough.

Would your Spirit move in this country to restore a baseline of decency and brotherly kindness that recognizes the intrinsic value of every person of every color and nationality at every stage of life, for all humanity is made in your image.

Would your Spirit bring a movement of repentance in our nation, such that we as a people can no longer tolerate racial bias and prejudice, not only in personal human hearts, but in our human systems and institutions that have long allowed this sin to smolder and offered shelter to those who feed it oxygen to renew its flames.

Would your church be a voice of justice and a place of safety, a people ready to stand against all expressions of sin, ready to comfort all those wounded by its flames, ready to lock arms with our communities to address these wrongs, and ready to offer the healing salve of the gospel of God’s salvation.

For in Jesus, we confess that there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:11). “For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16).

In Christ alone is there hope for lasting peace with God and neighbor, a peace that endures beyond this moment and this world and spans eternity. As our nation burns from the fires of racism and the fires of riots, may your Spirit bring that peace, and may your people be moved by your gospel.

With a heart of mercy, may we weep with those who weep and hear their cries for help.

With a heart of indignation, may we stand with the oppressed and say to the powers of evil, ‘No more!’

With a heart of repentance, may we own our part in the problem, plead for mercy and forgiveness, and be part of the solution.

With a heart of compassion, may we lay down our lives to serve our neighbors and come alongside the vulnerable.

With a heart of conviction, may we speak God’s word in truth and love, and may those words comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

With a heart of joy, may we hold forth Christ as the greatest treasure this world affords.

Hear these prayers in the righteous and compassionate name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Gospel Guardrails for Spiritual and Relational Health

May 4, 2020

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Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

When it comes to helping people understand how the good news of Jesus transforms us personally and guides our relationships, I often use the illustration of guardrails on a highway. The gospel provides two critical guardrails to keep us faithful and fruitful in life: the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15-16). In other words, sin really is sinful, because God really is holy. And grace really is sufficient, because Christ’s blood really is enough.

Emphasizing both of these realities in our lives and relationships helps us live faithfully before God. It frees us to deal honestly with sin (both our own sin and the sin committed against us) because we have an adequate solution in Christ. Lose sight of either guardrail, and your life and relationships are likely to end up in one ditch or another.

To illustrate what’s at stake here, think about what happens when we lose sight of these guardrails. In fact, there are at least eight painful and destructive ways to land in the spiritual or relational ditch when we miss or minimize just one of them—either the sinfulness of sin or the sufficiency of grace.

The first two come from losing sight of my own sinfulness:

1. Prideful self-sufficiency. The motto of prideful self-sufficiency is: I can do this on my own. “I don’t need the gospel, because I have the strength and strategies to make the Christian life work on my own. I’ve read the right books; I know the right methods. I’m certainly not as bad as those people—look at all the ways they compromise their faith. I’m sure glad I’m not like them.”

This is self-righteous pride. I minimize my sin and maximize the sin of others because my view of identity is still caught up in how well we all perform for God, rather than our union with Christ. I can’t acknowledge or even see my own sin, because then I won’t look as good to God or others. This is a prideful heart that, regardless of what the mouth says, doesn’t really believe it needs the gospel.

2. Shameless self-indulgence. The second way that minimizing my own sinfulness can lead to spiritual and relational carnage is by giving myself to shameless self-indulgence. Here the motto is: It’s not that sinful. “I don’t need the gospel, because my heart and my actions aren’t really that ugly. How sinful is it, really, to prioritize my job over my wife and kids?” “Everyone else looks at porn every now and then; isn’t God’s grace sufficient for that? After all, God made me with sexual desires, and at least I’m not sleeping with someone. It can’t be that bad, can it?”

And so we justify our sin. I tell myself it’s not that sinful, because I still like doing it. Or perhaps because I can’t bear the guilt and shame of admitting that I’m doing it. Either way, I disregard the holiness of God and take my eyes off the first guardrail, which will eventually destroy my relationships by making everything about me.

There are two other spiritual and relational dangers that come from losing sight of sin, this time the sinfulness of someone else, whether it’s my spouse, children, parents, colleagues, neighbors, or friends:

3. Naïve over-regard for someone. The motto here is: They can do no wrong. “They never do anything wrong, or at least nothing that I can’t handle.” “My friend would never say that.” “My children would never do something like that” (i.e., “because if they did, that means I’m not as good a parent as I think I am”).

These are the rose-colored glasses of love and admiration for a mentor, hero, or someone in whom we find our identity. We have some vested interest in protecting the pedestal we’ve placed them on, which of course only sets them up for failure down the road when they do in fact do something hurtful and come tumbling down. We hold onto false expectations, putting our hope in someone who can’t deliver what we want from them (since only God can). Moreover, we deprive them of the opportunity for transformation, which comes from having to deal with one’s sin, however painful or dislocating it may be.

4. Evasive disregard for someone’s sin. This is second tragic result of overlooking someone else’s sin, and the motto again is: It’s not that sinful. “Their sin isn’t so bad”—the pornography addiction, the alcohol abuse, the constant cutting words. “Everyone is just overreacting; it’s not that big a deal.” “My marriage isn’t that bad; so we have a couple problems, nothing we can’t handle.” “My children aren’t that bad; sure, they could be making some better choices, but they love God . . . I think.”

Here, instead of justifying our own sin, we justify the sin of someone else in effort to escape the reality and weight of it. Perhaps because we don’t know how to address it, or because we can’t imagine bearing the pain and shame of it. Perhaps because the results would be too damaging if word got out.

But as with every other attempt to downplay sin, in time it will be found out. Moreover, when we minimize sin, we necessarily marginalize grace. If we can’t be honest with how ugly our own sin is, or the sin of those we love, then we will withhold from both the very means of change God has given us—the grace of the gospel.

So what happens when we lose sight of this second guardrail—the sufficiency of grace? Again, we see two possible results of minimizing grace in our own lives:

5. Legalistic performance. Here the motto is: I’m a sinner, and I have to make it up. “I’m fully aware of my sin, but God’s love and favor for me are contingent on my being good enough,” whether it’s loving my spouse well enough, having my daily quiet time, obeying my parents, going to church, or telling others about Jesus. “If I can just stop doing certain bad things and start doing other good things, I’ll grow in my walk, and God will be happy with me.”

This is to miss the essence of the gospel, that Christ has done for us through his life and death what we couldn’t do under the law, and to turn our relationships and love into a cold duty, rather than a warm delight.

6. Hopeless despair. The second (and inevitable) result of overlooking God’s grace for oneself is hopeless despair. The motto: I’m a sinner, and I can never make it up. “I now realize that I will never be good enough. I will never measure up no matter what I do or how hard I try; and so why try any longer? I give up.”

So we turn inward in depression, or maybe outward to other things that we think could fill the void—the things I can conquer, like food, pornography, romance novels, internet relationships, adultery, entertainment, eating disorders, any variety of addiction or abuse which destroy us and those we love.

But just as deadly for our relationships is losing sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in someone else’s life. Here again we see two tragic results:

7. Vindictive manipulation. The motto here is: You have to make it up to me. “You hurt me and let me down, and now you have to make it up. You have to work your way back into my good graces. But I’m always going to hold the bar just an inch or two higher than you can reach, so that I can keep you in debt to me and make you feel the pain you’ve caused me to feel. Don’t worry about performing for God, I’m the one you have to worry about. And I will withhold forgiveness and peace until I’m convinced on my terms that you deserve it. And just in case you try to do the same thing to others, I plan to warn them and tell them what you did. To protect them, of course, and so they can pray for you. And (if we’re honest) so that you suffer.”

This is vindictive manipulation. Instead of extending to others the grace we have received from God, we set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner.

8. Unforgiving resentment. The other way to withhold grace toward others is to take the passive aggressive route of unforgiving resentment. The motto is: I won’t say anything, but I’ll never forget. “I may not make a big deal of your sin. I may not even tell you that you hurt me. But I will not forget it. I might smile and nod when people praise you to me, but I know the truth. I simply add each new offense to that secret list of grievances that I’m carrying around in my pocket, until one day, when you really blow it, the whole thing is coming out.”

This is cancer for human relationships. It slowly and secretly eats away at trust, affection, and devotion, often without symptoms, until it is (humanly speaking) too late. Moreover, these last two examples take us full circle, back up to downplaying my own sinfulness. I can only stand in judgment over someone who has sinned against me if I believe that I’m a far less sinner than he or she.

But what happens when the framework stays in place? How does a constant awareness of the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace guide and guard our spiritual health and relationships with each other?

It doesn’t mean we will see less trouble or conflict. In fact, we will likely be more aware of and sensitive to it, as our eyes are opened to our own sin and the sin of others. But it does supply us with the resource we need to deal with conflict and sin, rather than managing it or sweeping it under the rug. The only resource that can actually bring lasting humility, repentance, forgiveness, and health—the grace of God through the finished work of Christ.

Let the gospel be your guardrails for spiritual growth and relational health: sin really is sinful, and grace really is sufficient.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2:11-14 ESV)