I Respect Your Choice

A few weeks ago, I sent a message to many of my Facebook friends asking them, to share one question they would like a pastor to answer about faith or Jesus. I received several great responses. Over the next several weeks I’m going to attempt to answer those questions. I will be as honest and thorough as I can. Due the fact, however, that this is a blog, I’m going to be brief. I want this to be as readable as possible. I will have to leave a lot out. The advantage to this being a blog, though, is that you can interact with us right here. If you want to engage more regarding any of these questions, please jump in. We’d love to talk to you. Also if you have a question you’d like us to address, post it here or contact us through this website. With that said let’s dive in.

One of the most intriguing questions I was asked had to do with why Christians don’t seem to respect the faith choices of others. It made me very sad to read the stories of rejection experienced from people calling themselves Christ-followers. That is completely antithetical to the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Choice is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. It’s central to the story of the Bible and God’s relationship with us. At the very beginning God created humans. God provided everything they needed. He put them in a lush garden that provided all the food they needed. He created two people so that they would have companionship. He gave them meaningful work so that they would have a sense of purpose in life. At that time, in that environment, people had an amazing connection with God. The Bible describes it as that they walked with God in the cool of the day.

I love that imagery. It reminds me of the walks my wife and I used to take in the evening when our daughter was a baby; or walking with my daughter to and from school through the woods, now that she’s older. At those times we have the most amazing conversations. That’s what it was like for the first humans with God.

Now back to choice. Those first humans were given the amazing gift of choice. Most importantly, they had the choice to maintain that relationship with God or to go their own way. Essentially the choice was to let God be their god or choose to make themselves god.

This choice was symbolized by a tree in the center of the garden. It was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (different, by the way, from a Tree of Knowledge which is not found anywhere in the Bible; all due respect to Steve Jobs). The only prohibition God placed on the first humans was not to eat the fruit from that tree.

They chose to disobey God. There’s a lot more to the story. But, the result is the same. They used the gift God gave them to choose and they chose themselves over God. One of the lessons of this story is that while the gift of choice is good, not all choices are good. And let’s face it, ever since then the human race has had a propensity to make bad choices haven’t we?

The result of that first bad choice was disconnection. The Bible says that the choice to disobey God caused us to be disconnected from God, from the earth, and each other. The results of that choice were devastating. I don’t think we fully appreciate the effects of that choice because we never experienced the world before that choice.

Anyway, here’s where the Christian perspective on choice comes in. Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God was distraught about the position in which we found ourselves. God loves us and wants a relationship with us like he had with the first people. But ever since then, we’ve rejected him in favor of ourselves.

This is where Jesus comes in. God sent Jesus to restore the relationships that were broken because of that first choice. Jesus came to teach us how to live lives where our relationships with God, the earth, and each other are restored. Then he willingly died on our behalf restoring those relationships and his resurrection is the evidence that he accomplished what he came to do.

Now for a moment, suppose the biblical story is true. Suppose that God really created people. Suppose God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Suppose that the bad choices we make prevent that and all of our relationships. Suppose that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to restore those relationships. Suppose that following Jesus with your whole life would allow you to experience those restored relationships. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool? If that were true, wouldn’t you want to experience that? If that were true, wouldn’t you want everyone you know and love to experience that?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus-freaks, or whatever other Facebook moniker is in vogue today believe that this whole story is true. Speaking for myself; I’ve experienced it. I believe with all that I am that this story is true. Because I’ve experienced this, I want everyone to experience it. I think following Jesus (or choosing not to) is the most important choice in life.

Now back to the misguided judgmental Christians that prompted these questions and indirectly this blog post. It is wrong to look down on other people because they don’t choose to follow Jesus. It is wrong to look down on other people because the choose to follow Jesus differently. It is wrong to look down on people because of the choices they make. It’s even wrong to look down on people because they choose to be Buckeye fans. (That joke makes more sense if you live in Ann Arbor.) At the same time, it’s a very human act to look down on people who choose differently from us. We look down on people who choose different political parties than us. We look down on people who choose to drive different cars than us. We look down on people who support different sports teams than us. We look down on people who make different faith choices than us. It’s not OK. It’s not right. But it is true.

It is also very human to overcome our human limitations. I think that’s why I like the Olympics so much. I get to see people overcoming human limitations to do something extraordinary. Oscar Pistroius from South Africa is a perfect example of this. A double amputee overcame not just physical limitations but cultural limitations of bigotry and mistrust and ran in the Olympics. He is one of my heroes.

In a less spectacular way there are Christians overcoming our human limitations and learning not to look down on people who choose differently than us. Agape Ann Arbor is a community of people trying to do that. We are a group of people that are trying to truly live the way that Jesus lives and love the way that Jesus loves.

As I close this incredibly long-winded post, I’d like to say one more thing. Remember, Christians believe that choosing to follow Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. While many people do a poor job communicating this out, encouraging someone to follow Jesus is truly an act of love. If you believed Christianity were true, wouldn’t you want other people to experience it too?

I believe the story of Jesus is true. I believe that following Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. I would love for you to choose to follow Jesus. But ultimately, I respect your choice.

Like that Only Better

I’m a big fan of C. S. Lewis. There’s nothing of his that I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy. My six year old daughter is developing a love for him as well. About six months ago I started reading her The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She was absolutely enchanted with the story. Since I’ve been reading her a chapter of Chronicles of Narnia almost every night before bed.

As you may or may not know, Lewis wrote the Narnia stories as an allegory for the Christian faith. The other night my daughter and I were reading a chapter from The Silver Chair (Narnia). At a key moment in the book the lead characters, Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole (from our world), Puddleglum the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle, and Prince Rilian of Narnia have been captured by an evil witch in underworld. They’ve been enchanted by her music. The witch is trying to convince them that the land on the surface, where they’re from, is only a dream.

In their enchanted stupor the try to convince her of the truth of the overworld. They try to describe the sun to her. In so doing they use a lamp as an illustration. It’s like the lamp, only better. Then they try to describe the great Aslan to her. He’s like a cat, only better.

Often, I feel like Eustace, Jill, Puddleglum, and Rilian when I try to explain to people about my life with Jesus. It’s like ordinary life, only better. But like the witch, why should someone believe me if the only way I can describe following Jesus is by saying it’s like that only better. Who can blame people for reacting like the witch and saying what a lovely dream that must have been.

Ultimately, Eustace, Jill, Puddleglum, and Rilian would rather hold on to their dream than submit to the dull “reality” of the witch. Once they’ve committed to this they are able to defeat the witch and are vindicated when they return to the surface.

It reminds me of Pascal’s wager. Pascal, the French philosopher, mathematician, and Christ-follower, argued that following Christ is a simple choice. In Pensees he argued that it only makes logical sense to follow Jesus whether it’s true or not. He said if you follow Jesus, you have the potential to gain everything but no matter what you lose nothing. If you don’t follow Jesus, you have the potential to lose everything but no matter what you gain nothing. How about you? How would you respond to Pascal’s wager?

Easter Makes Friday Good

It seemed to be in vogue this year to challenge the title “Good” in Good Friday. I saw blog posts like; “Good News for Bad Friday” or “Bad Friday” and the like. It makes sense. Something horrible happened that we commemorate on the day we call Good Friday. A man, who by all historical counts had done nothing illegal, was brutally executed. It seems that this man was tortured and killed because he challenged the religious and political system of his time. He challenged the prevailing view of right and wrong. He challenged a system that created a religious hierarchy that determined who was “in” and who was “out.” For challenging their authority, the religious and political leaders had him killed in the most horrible, painful way humankind has ever devised. It was a horrible, sad day.

But, Good Friday is a good day. Something amazingly spectacular happened that day. The man, Jesus, who was brutally executed on a Roman cross was more than a good man who challenged the status quo. Jesus was/is God. Jesus wasn’t just challenging the status quo of first century Roman ruled Palestine. Jesus challenged a metaphysical system that kept humanity trapped in sin and separate from God.

In place, before Jesus, was a system that kept people trapped in their sin and away from God. The only way to approach God was with a sacrifice to cover over the sins we had committed. This is the system that Jesus came to challenge. Jesus came to overcome the evil, the sin, the kept humanity separate from God.

He did it by living a live without any evil. He committed no sin. Then he willingly went to the cross and died. Jesus wasn’t executed by some power greater than himself. He sacrificed himself for your good; for my good; for the good of all humanity. He covered our sin with his sacrifice and made a way to reunite us with God.

Easter is the proof that he was successful. On Easter Jesus rose from the dead. It is evidence that he defeated sin and death. He now lives, and lives forever because he is God and was the perfect sacrifice to overcome the power of sin in the world.

Something amazingly, awesomely good happened 2000 years ago on the day we commemorate on Good Friday. Jesus overcame the system of sin and death and set us free. Free from sin. Free from death. Free to be with God. And Easter proves he was successful.

Easter makes Friday good.

Prayers for the City

If you truly believe there is an all-powerful God, one of the most natural actions of all actions is to talk to Him. Essentially, that’s what prayer is; talking to and listening to God. Today during our Agape Community Gathering we had the opportunity to talk to God about this city that we love. We went on a prayer walk around the our neighborhood.

A prayer walk is basically taking a walk with God and talking to Him, just like you would if you were taking a walk with any other friend. You talk to God about what’s on your mind and the things you see around you. You also listen to what God might be saying to You about what’s going on around You.

It was a great experience. We prayed for the families in the houses around us, asking God to bless them. We prayed for a family that is selling their house asking God to help them sell it quickly for a good price. We prayed for the family that will move into that house asking God to bless them. Our group even came across Brenda’s (my daughter) fifth-grade-buddy. Brenda prayed for her to do well in school this year and to have a great time on Spring Break.

There are three essential element to an Agape Community Gathering. These elements provide a framework to help ensure that we are experiencing and expressing God’s love. The first is connecting with each other. We usually do this around a meal. The second is connecting with God. This is done by opening up the Bible and talking about what we read in it. The third is connecting with our community. Today we did that through the prayer walk. Other times it may be through service projects or just hanging out in the community. All three, however, are essential to what it means to be Agape Ann Arbor.

We’d love for you to join us at our next Agape Community Gathering. Contact us for more information.

Relational Necessity

Humanity is a social species. We need contact with other people. We are relational beings. Whether you think it’s because we’re created in the image of a relational God or you think there are evolutionary advantages to gathering together in family or tribal groups the fact remains it’s in our dna to build social connections.

In fact relationships can be the source of our greatest joy. Romantic love. Team accomplishment. Children. Yet, relationships are also the source of our greatest pain. Rejection. Isolation. Abuse.

One of the roles of a Christ-following community is to create an environment where those joys can be celebrated and the wounds from those painful experiences can be healed. At Agape Ann Arbor we describe this as experiencing and expressing God’s love.

That’s why our focus isn’t on buying a building and creating a cool church experience. Our focus is on building relationships and providing spaces where together we can experience and express God’s love. If you’d like to learn more, join us for brunch one Sunday or hang out with us at a party that one of us is hosting. Check out our calendar for more details. Or you can contact us and we can grab a beer or a cup of coffee together and talk.

What’s In a Name?

I’ve been asked several times why we chose Agape Ann Arbor for the name of our new community. The short answer is that the name communicates what we want this community to be. Agape (pronounced a-gah-pay) is a Greek word for love. Greek is the language in which the New Testament of the Bible was written. I say a Greek word for love and not the Greek word for love because Greek actually has three different words that we translate in English as love. First there is eros (pronounced eh-rohs), from which we get our word erotic. Eros is the word used for romantic or sexual love. Second is philos (pronounced fee-lohs). Philos is the word used for brotherly love, hence Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love. Agape doesn’t have any English cognates of which I’m aware. Agape’s basic meaning is benevolent love or goodwill. Plato used it to describe the love between people of the same city.

The Christian and Jewish writers of the first century used agape to translate the Hebrew word chesed (pronounced khe-sed), which is the word used to describe God’s loyal unconditional love for his people. In the New Testament, therefore, agape means unconditional, irrevocable love. It is the word Jesus used to describe the love he has for us. The love he demonstrated for us by dying on the cross for us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV).

Agape is God’s love. We are community experiencing and expressing God’s love. We are a community experiencing and expressing agape.

But that’s just the first word in our name. We were very intentional about including Ann Arbor in our name. It’s not just because we like cute alliterations or because it flows off the tongue well (although both of those are true). We included Ann Arbor in the name of our community because God loves Ann Arbor. Some people have forgotten that. Some people don’t believe it. We are in Ann Arbor intentionally. We came to Ann Arbor because God loves Ann Arbor and we love Ann Arbor. We exist as a community to experience and express God’s love with the people of Ann Arbor.

We Agape Ann Arbor.

Loving Interruptions

Kindergarteners just don’t seem to understand how conversations work. I’m constantly explaining to my daughter that it’s not OK to interrupt people. She has yet to master the delicate art of gracefully entering into a conversation.

Apparently this isn’t just a kindergartener thing though. The people living in Israel in the first century seem to have wrestled with the same problem. This was pointed out to me when I was reading The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. As you read the stories of Jesus’ life in the Bible, you’ll notice that he was constantly interrupted. A lot of the great things that Jesus did happened during interruptions: he healed a paralytic that had been lowered through the roof of the building while He was teaching (Mark 2), he healed the servant of a Roman military officer when the officer stopped him as he was walking through town (Matthew 8), ande another time when he was walking through town a woman grabbed his clothes and was healed (Luke 8).

Jesus’ love was unplanned. He was available to help people in the midst of interruptions. Living the Jesus-life means loving interruptions. If we’re going to live the Jesus-life, we need to be able to love people when they interrupt our lives.

This means we need to plan for interruptions. We have a tendency to fill every moment of our lives. When we do this interruptions get in the way of the good things that we have planned to do. The problem with that is the interruption may be the better thing. We, however, aren’t available to do the good that God has put in front of us because we’ve decided the good we’ve planned is better than the good that God has given us to do.

This also means we need to be looking for interruptions. If you’re anything like me, you have a tendency to walk through life with blinders on. The only thing you see is where you’re going and what you’re going to do. We’re blind to the things happening around us. We will never experience or express God’s love if we don’t see the opportunity to do it. We need to take the blinders off and look for the interruptions that God is putting all around us. Then we will be able to experience and express God’s love just like Jesus did.

How are you doing with this? Is there room in your schedule for God to interrupt you? Are you looking for God’s interruptions?

What is Love?

The vision of Agape Ann Arbor is to be a community experiencing and expressing God’s love. Unfortunately most people in our culture don’t really know what love is. We seem to have connected love inseparably to romance. We define love as that feeling we get in our chest when we’re near to whom we’re sexually attracted. For the record, that’s not love. That’s a hormonal response to physical attraction.

So, what is love? Oftentimes, it’s easier to describe something by describing its opposite. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s selfishness. Love is looking at others and sacrificing of yourself for them. The purest example of love is Jesus. Paul describes Jesus’ love in his letter to the church in Phillipi:

Though he was in the form of God,
He chose not to cling to equality with God.
But poured himself out to fill a vessel brand new;
a servant in form
a man indeed.
The very likeness of humanity,
He humbled Himself,
obedient to death –
a merciless death on the cross!
Philippians 2:6-8 (The Voice)

Jesus gave up everything including His life for us. That is the ultimate expression of love. “There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends” (John 15:13 The Voice).

That is what Agape Ann Arbor is all about. We’re about giving our lives for the City of Ann Arbor. We’re here to make Ann Arbor a better city through our investment here. We’re here to give of ourselves, our time, our resources, and our abilities to the people around us so to make their lives better. We will do this in such a way as to draw them to the One who sacrificed everything so that we could have life and “have it to the full” (John 10:10 NIV).

How about you? Do you love the people around you? Are you ready to sacrifice yourself for the 98,000 people in Ann Arbor, MI who don’t know Jesus? Join the movement. Follow us on Twitter. Like us on Facebook. Join our prayer team. Or just come visit us at our next gathering.

Jesus said that the world would know we were his disciples by our love (John 13:35)

What is Agape Ann Arbor?

Have you ever spent time thinking about what you’re known for? Joe Montana is know for being an amazing quarterback. Oprah Winfrey is know for being a media mogul. Snooki and the Situation are known for taking themselves way too seriously.

As we launch Agape Ann Arbor it’s important to establish what we want to be known for.  It’s important to establish our identity.  Agape Ann Arbor is a community experiencing and expressing God’s love.  The night before Jesus was crucified he gathered with his closest friends to share one last meal.  During that meal he gave that community their identity.  He told them that they were to be people who loved and loved well.  He said that the most distinguishing characteristic of their community would be the love they had for each other.

Unfortunately, many who call themselves Christ-followers, or Christians, have forgotten what our identity should be.  We’ve gotten caught up in making sure we look the right way, or say the right things, or vote the right way, or protest the right issues.  We’ve forgotten that our job is to love.

Agape Ann Arbor is all about cutting through the crap and getting down to what Jesus said his followers should be about.  Yes, there are things that we believe.  But those beliefs fuel our purpose to love each other and the city of Ann Arbor.  We will be known for how we love.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about Jesus, or Agape Ann Arbor.  We’d love to get to know you.