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What’s the darkest place you’ve been?

What’s the darkest place you’ve ever been? And I mean literally in the dark. For me, it was during fire department training. One day we were instructed to suit up—full coat, boots, helmet and Scott pack, the self-contained breathing apparatus. We were led to a house structure, they ushered us inside in teams of two with instructions to search the interior, and then shut the door behind us. There was no light. None. Windows had been sealed behind sheet metal. We were not allowed to have our helmet lights with us. We had to stumble and bang our way around furniture and an unknown layout in complete darkness. Not fun. Really not fun.

How about you? What’s the darkest time you’ve experienced?

Here’s why I ask: there are people who know you who are spiritually in the dark. And what they need most from you and me is not more heat, but light.

When Christians lose their minds, people lose their faith

Canadian pastor Cary Nieuwhof wrote an excellent article that went viral titled “When Christians Lose Their Minds, People Lose Their Faith.” I’m bringing some of that into this week’s message. When Christians Lose Their Minds, People Lose Their Faith. There’s a hard truth, but it’s truth. You rarely hear me voice fear. But a legitimate fear among Christian leaders in America right now is that Christians’ credibility as a witness to Jesus Christ is being badly damaged by the manner in which we discuss politics and people.

If your social feed is like mine, as Nieuwhof points out, a lot of people are losing their minds, losing their cool, and losing their empathy, Christians among them. People’s public opinions are getting more partisan, angry, reactionary, fearful, and weird. And there’s no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.

I wish I could tell you that Christians are the ones consistently holding out healing and encouragement and comfort to the hurting and confused and angry, but that’s often not the case. Many of us who claim to follow Jesus are not at all like Jesus in our public discourse. Many who say we love Jesus are listening to and sharing sources that have no agreement with Jesus and no credibility among deep thinkers, but have plenty to do with fomenting outrage and fear.

God has little patience for Christians who wreck the church’s witness

And that’s just not what we see in the gospels or the early church. When there was infighting and self-righteousness among the apostles, Jesus stopped it in a New York minute. When the church in Corinth was tearing itself to pieces due to hyper-spirituality and selfishness, the Holy Spirit led Paul to rebuke them severely. I guarantee you it was not a happy day that Sunday when 1 Corinthians was first read aloud in their worship gathering. It became a time to confess and repent, as second Corinthians commends and affirms them for. I believe it’s time for the same for us as followers of Jesus in our prickly time.

And I want you to know that I intentionally wrote and recorded this message ahead of this past week’s election so that you can be confident this is not a partisan message. My prayer is that it will equally challenge you whoever you voted for or whether you opted not to vote. All I want to bring this week—what is weighing on me—is the biblical plea that we who follow Jesus must be different from those who do not know Jesus Christ and are not indwelt with and filled with the Holy Spirit. Because those who know us need to see something in us that is different and better than the rancor that marks so much public discourse these days.

What does it look like for us to follow Jesus in a contentious time?

So now that the election day is past, let’s take one week, this week, to reassess what it looks like to be like Jesus in how we treat others and how we speak about others, especially those we disagree with. To put that in question form, what does Jesus-like Christianity (the only kind there should be!) look like during a contentious time? How are those of us who follow Jesus meant to stand out in a contentious era?

One of the clearest answers is found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. This was the first church ever planted in Europe, the first time the good news of Jesus reached Europeans. Philippi was a Roman colony settled by Roman military veterans. Why Paul went to Philippi has everything to do with bringing light into a dark place.

How Europe’s first church got started—with unity, not uniformity

Acts chapter 16 paints the picture for us. Paul and his church planting team strategically travel from city to city, so that the good news of Jesus can shine from those crossroads of transportation. But then there are a couple of mentions of God preventing them from going where they had planned. Instead, Acts chapter 16 and verse 9, one night the Lord gives a vision to Paul. In that vision, he sees and hears a man from Macedonia—a European—begging them to come that way. That church planting team immediately discerns the new direction they are to head. The first European city they come to…is Philippi.

After several days there, Paul knows to head out of the city on the Sabbath, to a spot out under the open sky next to a river, where, it says, “we expected to find a place of prayer.” That’s an ethnic clue. According to Jewish rabbinical tradition—and remember that Paul was a rabbi—if there were just ten male Jewish heads of household in a town or city, that was enough to start a synagogue. If there were less than that small number, any Jews along with non-Jews who believed in Yahweh (Jews called them ‘worshipers of God’) were to gather for Sabbath prayer under the open sky and preferably near water.

All that detail to tip you off that as the church in that city grew, as the good news of Jesus spread by word of mouth from family member to family member and through business friendships and neighbors, it became an unusual mix of people from very different backgrounds. They had non-Jews retired from Roman military careers, worshiping the Lord alongside some Jewish believers in Jesus, who in turn shared their weekly worship meal with non-Jews who were local business owners. And for Jews, who you ate with was the single most enforced expectation of what it meant to be pure. You just didn’t eat with Gentiles.

When I worked in construction on Long Island, which has a sizable Jewish population, one rainy day when we were renovating a home while the couple lived in it, at noon I went out to my car to grab my lunch bag. As I returned, the homeowner, who is Jewish, was standing in the open doorway, blocking it. He asked, “What’s for lunch?” It was a ham sandwich. I was not welcome to eat that in his home.

So for the first church in Europe as well, there was significant potential for conflict from the get-to. And that’s made obvious as Paul in this little letter appeals three times to unity, not uniformity. Most important is the basis for unity among us that he appeals to.

Thinking like Jesus about people

If you would, open your Bible or Bible app to Philippians chapter two. Chapter two is a clarion call for us to have the same mindset as Jesus in how we interact with people—starting in the church and extending out to how we think of others and act toward others. And it all revolves around the image we started with—the need for those who know us to see light, not heat, from us.

With your Bible open to Philippians chapter two, you see how it opens with a passionate plea that if you have received any benefit from being united to Christ—and there are so many benefits—then get along. Consider others’ interests, not just your own.

Paul anchors that in the humility that marked Jesus. That, Paul insists, is what must mark us as followers of Jesus: humility. This week’s Scripture picks up right after that, verses 14-16, with a picture of how we must move forward in this argumentative era. Hear what the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul says:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing,

so that you may become blameless and pure,

“children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”

Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.

Philippians 2:14-16

Here’s why Paul writes this: God places us in proximity to others who desperately need Jesus: family members, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and political enemies. And we—the Christians they know—are God’s plan for showing and telling them of Jesus. God’s plan—his only plan—has always been that his people shine like stars, showing an attractive alternative to the nastiness that often flies around.

This has always been God’s plan. It was his explicit plan for ancient Israel. But they failed. It is clearly modeled by Jesus. And it continued powerfully through the first 250 years of the church.

How did Jesus treat people? What did they see & feel?

Compare what Paul pleads—that we shine like stars among those who don’t share our faith—compare that to what we see in Jesus. When he comes onto the scene, who is on his radar? Everyone. Absolutely everyone. He shines alongside Pharisees and Sadducees, Samaritans and Roman centurions, tax collector traitors and violent anti-Roman zealots. Everyone who interacted with Jesus saw someone who was blameless and pure, without fault in a warped and crooked generation, and he shone among them like stars in the sky as he held firmly to the word of life. It’s time we actually follow Jesus’ example—and shine. Because people all around us are in the dark.

I learned this week that a friend from our NYC days lost hope and died by suicide. People are hurting. What they need most from the Christians God has near them is the word of life, the hope to be found from connection with Christ and his people. And the only way they will be willing to hear the word of life is when they see us treat people like Jesus did.

We need to step back from popular-but-terrible public discourse marked by bickering and fighting and insulting and fear. The Lord whom we follow calls us to shine like stars among those who don’t share our faith, so that they are willing to hear the word of life entrusted to us.

Stars in the light sky

One of my family’s best memories from Acadia National Park was a late-night ranger talk at Sand Beach. Miles and miles away from any electric lights, we lay down on blankets and were instructed to wait until long after dark. Little by little, the sky opened up greater than an IMAX screen to reveal the vast Milky Way and our tiny place in it, a massive cloud of constellations surrounding us. It wasn’t until it was dark that we were able to see the stars.

And so it is today. For many, this is a dark and troubled time. There’s stress upon stress. I got my tire pressures checked yesterday and while they were being checked, I asked the employee, “How’s your day going?” Without a hesitation he shot back, “Horrible!” I asked why, and he went on to explain how that morning, a customer was shouting at him in anger because they couldn’t get to his car right away. Why not? Because most of his crew is home sick with COVID. The day before, he explained, a customer twice his size backed him into a corner and he was afraid the guy was going to beat him up. People are wrestling with darkness. The last thing we need to do is pile it on in our public discourse, in how we speak of and act toward others both inside and outside our faith. They need us to shine like stars among them, so that opportunities will come to offer them the word of life that brings hope.

If we will do this, Paul says, instead of mirroring all the grumbling and arguing, outsiders will see the character of Christ in us and be drawn to want to hear of Christ. If we do not distance ourselves from the melee, those who know us won’t want to know Christ. And they won’t want to join us in following Christ today. That’s the heart of this New Testament command.

When Christians who lose our minds, people lose their faith. We don’t want that on us. It’s time we recommit to Christlike words, works, and attitudes toward others, especially those who disagree with us.

Three ways to shine like stars moving forward

Let’s pivot to three practical things you can do to shine like stars moving forward. I suggest you jot these down and then grab one of them to start today and this week. Here’s the first thing you can begin to shine like a star moving forward, instead of fighting and complaining:

Get curious with people who are different from you.

There’s a fascinating caution in Proverbs 18:17. Solomon thinks about the times he has observed court proceedings and notes…

“The first to speak in court sounds right—
    until the cross-examination begins.”

Proverbs 18:17

We always think we’re right, he says, until someone sharp challenges us. That’s human nature. We’ve talked about this before. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s very hard to overcome. The single best way I know of to break out of the present enemy-making environment is get curious with people who are different from you; people who think differently than you on any number of issues; people who were raised differently than you; people from a different culture or country than you. It’s a great experience! All it takes is a posture of humility and curiosity. That’s it. Pull back from defending your opinions, and ask others about theirs.

Spend less time on social media and more time with people who are near you, who see things differently than you. Get curious.

Celya talks about how in college, that FFA kid from Oklahoma got to rub shoulders and become friends with someone who is Jewish—something totally unfamiliar to her upbringing. She ate their food and learned their recipes. She was invited to participate in Jewish holiday celebrations, including the blast that is Purim.

For me, one of the greatest helps to stepping back from fighting is spending time with and listening to friends from other nations and different backgrounds. When Karen and I were living in Elmhurst, Queens in NYC, we got to know and spend time in the apartments of friends from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Malta, Greece, Nigeria, and the Philippines. They had different views on how to raise children, different views on adult children’s responsibility for parents, different views on how to approach politics, different views on the roles of men and women in marriage, and different views on how to share your faith: Colombians were fine with using a powered bullhorn to preach on street corners to tell passersby about Jesus, while Philippino nurses were good with offering free healthcare screenings in a local park to show immigrants the love of Jesus. On any number of issues dealing with everyday life, it was good and freeing to become friends with people who had convictions different from those I assumed were the right way.

“The first to speak in court sounds right—
    until the cross-examination begins.”

It’s true! And it’s valuable to listen to that cross-examination. Most of us right now are surrounded by people who tell you you’re right and others are wrong. The algorithm that runs social media fuels that. It automatically sends you more content that agrees with you, so that they can make obscene amounts of money from advertisers who know exactly what you agree with, what you oppose, and what you fear. It’s all about the Benjamins. That’s why the social media platforms are free. The real cost in fractured relationships in families and workplaces and churches is incalculable. The light we’re called to shine among those who don’t share our faith is being hidden by all the arguing.

So here’s what you can do: get around people who are different than you, and get curious. Not everything has to be a battle. Ask someone from the other party how they’re seeing things, and then just listen. Be a good friend, just like Jesus called Simon the zealot to do life with Matthew the tax collector. If they could do it, we can do it.

Here’s a second practical thing you can do to shine like a star moving forward:

Realize that God is not beholden to any political party.

There’s a fascinating supernatural moment in the life of the great Old Testament military and spiritual leader Joshua that reveals exactly this, that the Lord is not beholden to any political party. You can find it in Joshua chapter 5.

One day Joshua sees a man nearby with sword drawn, ready to fight. Joshua boldly strides up to him and confronted him with this question: “Are you for us or our enemies?” Joshua was ready to launch an all-out fight to the death with this stranger—just like so much of the hotheaded rhetoric flying around these days.

Do you know the answer?

“Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

Joshua 5:13-14

Joshua asks, “Are you for us or our enemies?” The answer that comes back is, “Neither. But as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” This is an angel sent from heaven, a heavenly warrior. And heaven’s message to a riled-up believer who’s ready to fight is essentially, “Hey buddy, correction time. I’m not on your side or their side. I am on My own side,” says the Lord. His kingdom is his concern. God has never been in the pocket of any political party.

Five minutes in the New Testament will show you that. Jesus didn’t get angry or fearful about politics. The apostles never showed any fear or anger over politics. The early church for the first 250 years of the Christian faith didn’t agonize over politics. As I mentioned last week, the short answer for why the book of Revelation is in the Bible is because of it’s overarching message to Christians, which is, “Do not fear! Jesus is Lord, not Rome or any other political party or Caesar or President or empire.”

God is not a Republican, a Democrat, a conservative, a liberal or a socialist. If we all happened to be born in Ireland instead of here, the wake-up call which the angel of the Lord gave Joshua would be translated this way: God is not beholden to the Irish political parties of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, Green, Labour, Social Democratic, Solidarity, Aontu, Right to Change, Independents 4 Change, Human Dignity Alliance, or any other political party. It’s so obvious when you apply this point to a different nation’s politics.

The LORD—Yahweh, the Great I Am—transcends, stands above, all political categories, however important they might feel to us in this moment. Remember that God is not beholden to any political party.

Finally, the third practical thing you can do to shine like a star moving forward is:

3. Remember that influence takes years to build and seconds to lose.

Influence takes years to build and seconds to lose. God has placed people in your life—at work, in the neighborhood, extended family members—who you’ve been praying for for years. You have asked the Lord to open doors to invite them to church—which is easier now than ever before, because everyone is online, and because anyone you invite can come to yChurch anytime, anywhere they are.

But here’s the caution: every passing comment, post, rant, video, text, or link you put out there either builds your influence or damages it. Right now, people are trusting you either more or less, based on how and what you speak, post, and act toward those who think differently than you.

So for those of us who follow Jesus, who truly believe he holds all authority over heaven and earth, let’s recognize that whatever influence you have built is a trust. And we have been entrusted with a cause far greater than who happens to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a brief while. That will constantly change. The mission Christ entrusts to us never does. So the influence you’re building, be sure that it is toward Christ, done in the manner of Christ. People loved to be around Jesus. Do they love to be around you? If not, it’s time to confess and repent.

The Christians who have done the most good in their day and thus left the most Christlike legacy, are not the hotheads, the knee jerk reactionaries, or those who get caught up in fear. Instead, they are those who speak and act in the manner of Christ, until they gain a hearing about Christ. This is our calling, to quietly, humbly be, as Philippians 2 pleads, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then we will shine like stars in the sky among our unbelieving friends, as we hold firmly to the word of life they so need.

With that vivid image in our hearts and minds, let’s have a little talk with Jesus. Lord, we lament how divided and divisive your people have become. We confess the ways we’ve mirrored the ways of the world instead of shining like stars among those who know us and hear us. Forgive us, please. Cleanse us of every unChristlike attitude, action, and opinion. Renew our minds according to your Word and by your Spirit. Unite your people supernaturally around you and your kingdom. Give us hearts like yours toward those who think differently. Fill us with Christlike compassion, we pray, and do a deep, deep work through us, for the exalting of your kingdom. Amen.