When Pastors Become Pharisees

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. James 3:1

James said teachers will be judged more strictly than others. Why? I think it’s because of the power they have. Teachers have authority because of their words, and words have power.

Have you ever been with a pastor who got on a power trip?

It’s a good thing to hear a pastor say, “Hey, through what I’ve seen and read, and through my prayers, I feel like the Spirit has given me peace by helping me see things this way. You could pray about this too.” It’s a good thing to hear a pastor say, “Pray about my message,” or, “Think about these things and see what’s good to you, in the Spirit.”

But you don’t always hear that. Sometimes pastors just insist, “I’m a pastor so you have to listen to me.” That sounds like a power thing.

This was the attitude of the Pharisees, too. We have a lot of stories about Jesus and the Pharisees. We know that Jesus ate with the Pharisees. We also know that He read their minds. Then He blasted them for the thoughts He found in there!

In our congregations today, we read the Gospels and talk about the Pharisees. We talk about how bad they made people feel. They really did, with their holier-than-thou approach, especially to outcasts and sinners. Then along came Jesus. “No, no,” He told them. “It’s not your place to judge.”

But shouldn’t we also take a look at how we make people feel? What if we are doing the same things as the Pharisees? If we are, then we need to take a time out, in order to reflect on that. If we treat people the way the Pharisees treated people, we need to rethink what we’re doing.

If you’re called to be a pastor, I believe this means that you are given wisdom, and that you are called to share it. And I genuinely believe that most pastors are very sincere about their calling. But I worry when I hear a pastor say, “I was praying the other day, and God told me to talk to you about this.” When he says that, he is basically telling people, “This is what God said.” Now he can say whatever he wants.

And most people in his congregation will say, “Amen! I guess I’ve got to do it then.”

That’s why teachers will be judged more strictly.

You’d think if anyone could tell people, “This is what God says you should do,” it would be the apostles. But they didn’t! Think about what happened in Acts, when the church was having a big fight over the question of circumcision. They gathered in council, and when they communicated their decision, they said, “It seems good to us, and it seems good to the Holy Spirit, that what matters is a circumcision of the heart, not of the flesh.”

The meaning here is very important. The apostles did not say, “Look, God came down and said to us, ‘This is what you need to do.’” They didn’t say, “We’re the apostles, so we know what God said about this.”

That’s not what they did at all. They simply said, “It seems like the Spirit was okay with our thought process on this.” For me, that’s a pure message. That’s the wisdom pastors are given, and then called to share.

We should all pay more attention to the words in red. You know, Jesus. We should focus on His words, because those are the actual words of God. Not the inspired words of God, but the actual words of the Almighty God. Jesus carried those words. He spoke them into the world. They are the most powerful words in the history of words, period. God’s words. You can read them over and over again, and feel good every time. I mean, the actual words of God!

Are we doing that as believers? Or are we saying, “My pastor says…?”

More on this next time. See you Tuesday.

Church With a Capital C

I don’t believe it’s wrong that the Christian church is split into so many denominations.

Think about it. Do you go to a church because you agree with its teachings? Or do you go because it’s where you were saved, or where you feel loved? I’m willing to bet it’s salvation and love, not doctrine, that draws you to a church.

The size of the church shouldn’t be an issue either. I know I’ve put a few criticisms of megachurches out there, but not because they’re megachurches. That doesn’t matter. It’s the ministry that matters.

Why? Because love is what it’s all about. Love saves people. Loving them.

I have been to megachurches with campuses so large that they’ve built gyms for their members. But they also have huge hearts for the least among us, and they have built huge humanitarian programs to show their love.

Pastor Matthew Barnett runs the Los Angeles Dream Center. Talk about mega! It has five hundred thousand square feet, right by Dodger Stadium. You should check out their website and read about their extensive community outreach programs in the areas of homelessness, human trafficking, hunger, poverty, and recovery.

These Christians feed the homeless and take care of the poor. They’ll even paint people’s houses for free! They just want to serve people. They distribute food and female products in communities that don’t have the money they need to make ends meet. They pour a lot of money and effort into the injustices they encounter, in the country and in the world.

Pastor Matthew’s father, Pastor Tommy Barnett, runs the Phoenix Dream Center out of the Phoenix First Assembly of God, same deal. This is why I know that denominations don’t matter. We can have as many denominations as we have Christians, and still unify as a Church with a capital C. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and been a part of it. Social justice efforts do not cause division or disunity. The opposite happens. Love creates community.

Think of a person who has a mental illness. The best thing you can do for their healing is just love on them. They still need other sources of help, but just to love on that person instead of shunning them is going to help them. It’s going to help them more than anything else.

What’s the response to a person that doesn’t have water? Love on them! Get them water! Show them that you love them. Help provide a resource they should have.

Sex slavery is a terrible thing. It’s evil. I was stunned when God showed me what’s going on in commercial sex trafficking. You know what sex slavery is? It’s the devil’s way of perverting love. Sexuality is showing love in a pure and beautiful way, and people have taken that and created evil with it.

God doesn’t stop at showing us the wounds of the world. He also shows us ways to help out, and the answer is obvious. How can I help a person trapped in sex slavery? By showing them that I love them. How do I do that? Rescue them!

God is showing us that He sees what’s wrong, and He’s showing us the answers. How does He show us? Through His people! Look at all the people willing to fight evil! Can you believe it? He’s raising an army that finds and fills the needs of their communities. He spoke about it in scripture, and He’s speaking to us about it now.

God opened my eyes to a whole new area of humanity, to all these people who are so unselfish. God has shown me how many of his faithful children know that love saves people.

That’s why I know that love will bring God’s Church together. If we work together to heal the wounds of the world, then we’ll love ourselves into communion. Catholic, Evangelical, Methodist, Non-Denominational, all of us, all with our own particular identities, will become God’s Church. Church with a capital C.

See you Friday.

World Poverty: We Can End This!

What if you took a Bible and a pair of scissors, and cut out all the verses where Jesus talked about justice, poverty, the poor, and helping really vulnerable people, like orphans?

What would be left?

A gigantic hole, that’s what. This is the basic point of The Hole in Our Gospel, a 2009 book by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S. According to Stearns, this is basically what Christians have done. They’ve left a huge hole in the Gospel.

How do we do it? Somehow, we skip over those parts. We’re big into our “best life now” scenarios. We’re big into asking how Jesus can help me in my life. We use the Bible to find out how we’re going to be better. We focus on how we’re going to excel in life because we have Jesus.

Somehow we convince ourselves that the Gospel is all about us.

So how does that relate to what Jesus said? When a scribe challenged Him to name the first commandment, Jesus replied:

“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

You shall love your neighbor as yourself! Jesus said that! But in our “best life now” scenarios, we lose it. We’re not loving our neighbors.

Part of the problem is that we think it’s too hard. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed when you read statistics on poverty. You don’t feel like you can help. When you read how bad these issues are, everywhere in the world, you wonder, “What can my one dollar really do? Or my fifty cents, or my five dollars? Or even my five hundred dollars?”

Stearns shows how the statistics can be overwhelming, and even depressing. They can make you do the opposite of what you are called to do, which is trying to figure out a way to make it better.

But Stearns also shows how statistics can be deceiving. You see, we can help. We can be effective. We can be very effective. We can end poverty! How? Easy! Don’t work alone. This is the calling of the Church. It’s the calling of the body of Christ.

Christian churches are supposed to be the pillars of their communities, and even the pillars of the world. Read about what Jesus did. Then read about the early church. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is the reason why Christians came together as churches in the first place.

We’ve lost that. We get into our own little bubbles. We create megachurches that offer yoga classes and Starbucks in the lobby. They focus on the comfort and nourishment of their own congregations.

I understand the importance of discipling. We all must become disciples. Some megachurches do radical, amazing things in this area, like the Los Angeles Dream Center. But all too often, megachurches give the impression that they are insular, turned within, and focused only on themselves. They make it look as though they are there for only one thing: seeing to the needs of their own congregations.

Christians are supposed to be the body of Christ in the world. Christians are supposed to be His hands and feet, His face, and His reflection. We are supposed to be a Church everywhere in the world. We’re supposed to connect to the communities of the world, so that we can figure out who needs help. And when we know who needs help, we’re supposed to get together and take care of them.

We’re supposed to help!

Jesus said, “I came to rescue.” He said, “I came to take people out of bondage.” He said, “I am here to bring joy to those who have none.” Based on how people responded to Him when He was here, he made good on those promises.

When He ascended to heaven, He left it up to us to continue His work. That’s what it means to be the Church. That’s our discipleship. That’s our fulfillment in Christ.

That’s our real “best life now” scenario!

Who is with me?

See you Tuesday.

Solus Christus Sums It Up

Solus Christus sums up everything for me. My lifestyle, my passion, my commitments, everything.

Do I believe that Christ is the only way to God? Yes. I believe it. I believe Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. No man sees the Father except through Him.

When I do something, I do it with the understanding that I do it in Christ. What drives me to be who I am? The answer is Christ. I don’t get to hang with the guy every day like his disciples got to do, but I have His Spirit inside of me. Solus Christus. It’s in Christ that I do the things I do.

I try to view things the way that Christ wants me to view things. I know I will stand before the throne of God one day and He will say, “Jeremy, sometimes you were wrong.” I’m willing to accept that. It’s not like we get to go through life depending on an audible voice from God on every single topic. We read in Luke that Peter, John, and James went up on the mountain with Jesus to pray. A cloud came down, and out of the cloud God spoke and said, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” We don’t all get that opportunity.

Solus Christus tattoo

But His Spirit is in me. Through His Spirit, I can ask for wisdom. In Christ, I do what seems right. I try to. I try to do things with an authority that says, “This is how Christ would do it.”

Suppose I fail? I know I will. Suppose I choose a route that I should not have chosen? Suppose I do something that involves sin? I’m still a man, made of flesh and bone, so I will fail. But when I realize my sin, I also realize that I’ve been redeemed. How have I been redeemed? Solus Christus. In whom have I been redeemed? Solus Christus. In Christ I am redeemed. In Christ I am made righteous.

It’s why I don’t have to live in guilt. I get to live in freedom! My freedom comes in Christ.

That’s also why I can live my life with such passion. I don’t look back. I don’t. When I mess up, I repent. Then I can heal and grow. When I recognize my sin, I also recognize that I have a way out of it. Repentance challenges me to go deeper in prayer. It challenges me to deepen my commitment to living more deeply in Christ.

So you see, this tattoo means so much to me. Everything for me happens in Christ. Solus Christus. I want my sons to grow in Christ. I want my marriage to grow in Christ. When my family does things, I want us to do them in Christ. Solus Christus is my family’s crest and shield.

I live in Christ, I make my decisions in Christ, I repent in Christ, I challenge myself in Christ, and I want my family to be a family in Christ. That’s why I put this tattoo on my forearm. That’s why I chose those two words. And that’s why I put it in a circle. A circle has no beginning, and it has no end. It just keeps going.

And that’s how I am in Christ.

I just want to continue to grow in Christ, and never stop.

A Tattoo to Talk About

I got my first tattoo in 2011. It’s on the inside of my right forearm, and it says, “Solus Christus.” Christ alone.

We were in San Francisco at the time, where I pitched for the Giants. The Bay Area occupies an important place in the history of tattooing, and a family friend from Seattle — a tattoo artist — visited us in order to learn more about it. When he flew down with his wife, he brought his tools with him, and my wife Larisa and I got our first tattoos.

He came to our house, so our oldest son’s nanny took him out to play. At three and a half, Walker was all over the place, and I was worried that he’d get in the middle of the work. I didn’t want to end up with some random line tattooed up my arm!

That little man blew my mind when he came home. He’s so observant. He ran in the house yelling, “Dad, I’m home!” I called out, “Hey, Buddy,” and he came running in the room. He was just about to give me a hug, when suddenly he came to a full stop. He was literally three feet away from me. He looked down at my arm and said, “What’s that? What’s on your arm?” I told him, “It’s my tattoo!” Right away he said, “I want one!”

“Well,” I told him, “you know, I’m not against that, but people might ask questions if my three year-old son shows up with a tattoo on his arm. Also, when you’re 16 and you have a tattoo of Go, Diego Go!, you’re probably going to be a little bit upset with me. So not right now, Buddy. Let’s wait on that.”

“Okay,” he said, “but can I get something fun too?” And I said “Sure!” Larisa, my wife, got online and ordered some of those sticker tattoos that they make for little kids. I was on a road trip with the team when they came, so she texted me a picture. She told me Walker wanted his sticker tattoo on the same exact part of his arm as I had mine. He was so proud of it! Since he could change his, he wanted to know why I didn’t change mine. He didn’t realize that my tattoo is permanent.

That was the first time that my oldest child said, “I want to be like my dad.” I was awed when I heard it, because that’s exactly how I view my relationship with my Father in heaven. I want to be just like Him. And I want to be like my brother Jesus, the Savior of the world. As a husband and father, I want to be like Jesus.

I also want to be like Jesus in the world. Like Him, I want to be a servant leader.

Getting a tattoo might make me seem more like a follower than a leader. They are pretty trendy! And I hadn’t always wanted one. What were they for? Rebellion? We look at people who have tattoos and think, “Oh, there’s a rebellious side to that one.” We just know it. Whether it be quiet or loud, you hear that rebellious voice. It says, “I have a statement to make.” Maybe that voice is saying, “Well, my mom and dad don’t like them, and they didn’t want me to get one, so I did.” Or maybe it’s saying, “You know what? I’ve been so good my whole life. I want to get something that’s really out there, just this one time.”

Of course, there are also the accidental tattoos. The mistakes, if you will. Sometimes I’ve asked people about their tattoos and they’ve said, “Oh, I was drunk when I got that. It really doesn’t mean anything.” It’s true! People have told me, “I really don’t know why I got this tattoo. I just woke up one morning and there it was!” Fortunately, I’m not the kind of man who would drink too much and then get tattooed.

In fact, I talked to a lot of people before I made my decision. I heard all kinds of different opinions about tattoos, but everybody agreed that a tattoo is permanent. When you tattoo your body, that picture or that message is going to be there for life. I know there are laser removal techniques, but that’s painful! I really didn’t want to do that! I had to be absolutely certain that when I put something permanent on my body, it would mean something truly significant.

That’s why I didn’t go for a standard tattoo. I didn’t want a Major League Baseball logo, or a baseball with flames on it. I didn’t want a cross, or a Bible verse. I didn’t want something obviously Christian, like John 3:16. I wanted a conversation piece. I wanted people to see my tattoo and ask me about it. People already know that I’m a man who lives by faith in the Almighty God, so John 3:16 wouldn’t advance the conversation in any meaningful way.

I had to ask, “What am I trying to say?” I needed a tattoo that would arouse people’s curiosity and prompt them to ask me about it. I wanted someone to look at my tattoo and say, “What does that mean to you? Why that tattoo?”

Well, I knew a tattoo in Latin would start a conversation. So that’s where I went. I had Latin words permanently inscribed on my body. My forearm reads, “Solus Christus.”

It’s worked out so well. I’ve had great conversations with a lot of different people because of this tattoo. It’s created all kinds of opportunities to talk to people about my faith. People see it and they ask, “What is that?” And I say, “It’s one of the Five Solas of church history.” Right away they ask, “What’s the big deal about that? What are you trying to say?”

The question itself points to the big deal. We’ve forgotten the Five Solas. We’ve gotten away from our history as God’s people. We’ve forgotten where things started. We’ve forgotten where things came from. We don’t remember who we are supposed to be.

I’ve done several studies of church history. I haven’t done an in-depth study, but I think I get the gist of it. God created the church. It was designed to be the mystery of God. And the Five Solas have always stood out for me. There’s Sola Gratia, by grace alone, Sola Fide, through faith alone, Soli Deo Gloria, for God’s glory alone, and Sola Scriptura, according to scripture alone. And then there’s Solus Christus, in Christ alone.

Solus means “solely,” or “alone,” so the Five Solas say something about our own individual journeys. My journey is different than the journey of the person next to me. My journey is different than your journey. When you look at the Five Solas, you can’t help but think, what is my journey?

They make you ask, right?

See how well this tattoo works?

United in Love

I do not lie in bed at night saying, “Man, I’m so awesome, I’ve won three world championships! Oh, I’m so cool!” I do not do that.

I don’t go home at the end of the day and say to my three boys, “Hey sons! Tell me what your dad did,” just to hear them say, “Dad! You won three World Series!” I would be so disappointed to hear my kids say that. I don’t want them to say that. I don’t want them to know me as some pro athlete that won a world championship. In five years, no one is going to even know I was on the team. Okay, Giants fans might remember, because they really love their team! But most people will not know who I am.

When I stand before my God and King, and He looks at me from the throne, what is He going to say? Not, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you won three World Series, congratulations!” That is not what He will say! And it’s not what I want to hear.

I want to hear Him say, “Jeremy, thank you. Thank you for promoting the Gospel. Thank you for taking the least of these and loving them. Thank you for using your talents to love other people, and for using your success to help other people succeed. Thank you, Jeremy, for joining the movement of people devoted to loving their neighbor as themselves.”

I want to hear that because that’s how I read the Gospel. I read in Matthew 25 about the separation of the sheep and goats, and I hear Jesus say that when you feed the hungry and give the thirsty something to drink, you will go into eternal life. You will be righteous if you do these things. If you do not do these things, you will miss the boat. I can’t read it any other way.

So think about that when you go to work. Students, when you’re in school, think about that. Take that passion you have for your neighbor and bring it to your job or your classroom, and join the movement. Because it’s stirring. It’s stirring in you, and it’s stirring in the world. This is our calling as a Church.

When I talk about Church, I’m not talking about the four walls of a building. I’m not talking about a Presbyterian church, or a Baptist church, or a Catholic, or Evangelical Free, or non-denominational church. I’m not talking about any of that. We need to unify, but I don’t see a need for everyone to unite in one denomination. That wouldn’t make any sense! We need diversity. Every believer needs to be able to go to the church where they were saved.

No, no. I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about uniting in our calling. I’m talking about uniting in our mission. I’m talking about unity of purpose, about bringing the Kingdom of righteousness and justice.

If we follow the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength by loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we will unify the church. It’s in this commandment that we experience ourselves as one church. We are the body of Christ, and we have one calling. We are called to love.

When I stand before God’s throne, I hope to hear Him thank me for joining His movement, because this movement of love will unify the church.

See you Monday.

Why Should Christians Fight Human Trafficking?

I mentioned last time that in my early experience, suburban churches were slow to respond to social justice issues like human trafficking. But I have seen that change. Churches are increasingly getting involved.

The Church is called to make Jesus visible in the world, and we do this by doing what He did. We are the sons and daughters of the King, so we do battle for the Kingdom. We bring righteousness and justice. We bring mercy and truth!

I think this is why churches are increasingly starting up trafficking missions, along with hunger initiatives, water initiatives, mental health initiatives, homelessness initiatives, help for orphans, and help for refugees.

Bay Area churches tend to be more aware of trafficking issues because the Bay Area really has a problem with it. Also, the Not For Sale Campaign has been very successful in getting the word out, and is able to use its influence to mobilize people. Bay Area churches and their youth groups have started taking the initiative, talking about trafficking and working on solutions.

Churches increasingly have human trafficking missions, and these missions are really, really good. I’ve been invited into a lot of different churches in California, and I have really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with them, seeing what they are doing. It’s inspiring!

I used to have to go around and ask churches to get involved, but now a lot California churches come to me and say, “Hey, we’re trying to start a justice mission in our church. We’d really like to hear your views on human trafficking, because we really want to encourage our congregation to fight harder.” Near the end of my baseball career, I had so many invitations to speak that I had to turn some down. Awareness is definitely spreading! And now that I’m retired, I can accept more invitations to speak. I get to continue being part of this awesome work that God is doing.

But we’re still at a stage where churches are trying to educate their congregations. Churches are still trying to help people understand how important it is to fight trafficking. Some churches are still trying to get their elders to see how important this is.

I’m happy to see churches making the effort to launch these missions and gain some momentum. I really am! But if you think about it, they shouldn’t have to try.

Churches shouldn’t have to convince their congregations, or their elders, that fighting trafficking is important. It’s important! It should be obvious that believers are going to be in on the fight. Period. Slavery is not Jesus. If you are part of a church, or you are a pastor, then you should be part of freeing the captives. No question, no debate. Freeing the captives is Jesus.

I’m telling you, when the Church unites to do Jesus, everything is going to click. When the Church unites to reflect Jesus into the world, then we will be able to see Him. And that is when He will return. Don’t you want that? I know I do!

If we continue to narrow our focus to our own programs, our own suburbs, our own communities, then we’ll never unite. All we’ll end up saying is, “Hey, this is my church. Stay away.”

The unification of the church does not mean giving up our denominational identities. It just means that we should all be on the same page on certain issues: issues of righteousness and justice. These are the foundation of the throne of God!

See you Thursday.