If I asked you to join me for lunch with a successful Chinese businessman…

  • A major chicken producer, including all the KFC’s in northern China.
  • An exporter of medical gloves, shipping over 7 billion units his last year in the business.
  • A man who oversaw nearly 10,000 employees and multiple factories and production facilities in his 20 years of leadership.

…what kind of man would you expect to meet?

Probably not the child-like guy listening intently as my 9 year old son taught him to hit a baseball in the empty lot across from our suburban Indiana home. Not the guy high-fiving and chest bumping the neighborhood kids as he pounded his first “home run” into the outfield shrubs. Not the guy laughing uncontrollably at his first exposure to America’s Funniest Home Videos (our family’s Sunday night ritual) before retiring to sleep on an Kohl’s clearance futon in my basement.

But Joseph is different. After tasting almost all the success the extremely focused and highly competitive Chinese culture has to offer, he sold it all and walked away at age 42. “The first half of my life was focused on my business,” he told me. “Now God gets the second half to help reach the children and youth of China.

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Get Joseph talking about Chinese teenagers and he’ll likely start crying. The demands of the Eastern culture swallow so many of them. They go to school 6 days a week. Then after a normal day of classes, almost all of them head straight to tutoring (school after school), and some even attend additional study sessions after tutoring that last late into the evening (school after school after school). All this learning drives toward one cumulative exam that effectively decides their entire future.

Depression is high, suicide is rampant, and church is an afterthought (even in christian families). Education is god.

“We’re losing the next generation,” he says with great urgency. “I want to do something about that.”

So he’s seeking to cast vision, unite churches, create programs, and even build youth camps, leveraging the very same skills that helped him develop two massively successful businesses for a whole new cause: the children and youth of China.

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Joseph inspires me. Not because of his innate business sense, his big vision, or his willingness to sacrifice. Sure, those are all impressive. But the thing that inspires me most about Joseph is that somehow, amidst all the self-confidence that is born from great success, and all the admiration and privilege that come from fulfilling such highly-valued cultural expectations…

Joseph never lost his identity.

We see how identity is swallowed by our failures and personal struggles. Bankruptcy. Rebellious kids. Job termination. Weight problems. Career stagnation. Divorce. Life’s difficulties, social hierarchies, and the ongoing commentary of a hypercritical culture (as well as those relentless voices in our heads) chip away at our identity with unending persistence. We begin to see ourselves as less than who we really are, God’s beautiful creation made in His image. The ball rolls easily downhill.

But identity isn’t just lost in our shortcomings. In fact, it may be even easier to misplace amongst our successes.

When you find your groove and begin to make your way in the world, a healthy dose of self-confidence can quickly turn into a false foundation of self-reliance. We clothe ourselves in the accolades of others, and “successful” is who we become. The same voices that condemn us when we fall transform into a choir of passionate worshippers ushering us into the throne room of our accomplishments.

Success can steal our identity, too.

But not for Joseph.

How can a man who had it all walk away from it all? What he does was never who he was. His identity is in Jesus.

We are all looking for ourselves somewhere – work, pleasure, family, success, wealth, appearances, religious piousness or secular enlightenment. And the truth is, most of us are exhausted. You see, Jesus didn’t just come to teach us morality, He came to solve our identity crisis. His finished work – in history – replaces all the things we do and all the places we go to “find ourselves.” It is finished. There are no failures to earn our way out of, and no successes that can keep up our image. Exhale. In Christ, our identity is secured.

Joseph knows who he is, whether he is commanding 10,000 employees or sleeping on a fold-out mattress in his American friend’s basement. And because of that, I believe that countless Chinese youth are going to find the same freedom, too.

So can you.

There are two tensions, two stressors at work in my life at any given time. One is driven by authentic things, good things:

The pressure to hit a deadline at work.

The pressure to save money for retirement.

The pressure to spend quality time with my son.

The pressure to pay my bills by the due date.

The pressure to be at a meeting before the designated start time.

The pressure to remember my wife’s birthday.

This type of tension can be a good thing – an inner drive that makes me a responsible and healthy human being, that helps me meet the needs of my family and others who place their trust in me. I need this kind of tension.

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And then there’s the tension created by my idolatries.

The pressure to attain power and influence.

The pressure to be known as a perfect father.

The pressure to look like I always have my stuff together.

The pressure to gain accolades and praise from those around me.

The pressure to satisfy that insatiable need for wealth and accomplishment.

The pressure of earning God’s blessing and approval.

This type of tension is dangerous – an inner drive to find my own identity, to fulfill my own destiny, and to become my own savior. I need to repent of this kind of tension. 

Which tension is driving you today? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the difference, to discern between the two. One is healthy, the other is hindering. One is suitable, the other is sinful.

Which tension tale are you telling?

The Car Thief In Me

Erik Cooper —  March 18, 2015 — Leave a comment

It didn’t take long to realize that my morning was ruined.

“Do you drive a gray Honda Pilot? Was it parked down on the end, next to the alley?”

Yes.

and…

Aw, for real? Are you kidding me? Yes.

I was still a good 30 yards away, but I could already see the shattered shards of what little remained of my passenger side window. In a matter of seconds someone had ducked in between the parked cars, and, keeping their head below the roofline of the vehicle (and therefore off the video surveillance footage), smashed the glass and slipped quietly into the nearby alleyway, my briefcase in tow. I had even laid it flat on the floorboard and tucked it partially under the seat. So much for partial precautions.

Brand new briefcase.

iPad.

(and the worst by far)

My personal journal and reflections from 2013, perhaps the most difficult and profound year of my life.

All gone. Probably spread between various pawn shops and dumpsters in and across the near north side of Indianapolis by the time I snapped this picture.

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Less than two weeks later the briefcase and iPad have been replaced, and I’ve (almost) come to grips with losing the journal. Maybe those words found their way into the hands of someone who desperately needed to read them. I don’t know, but I can hope.

But there’s another nagging feeling I can’t shake. One I haven’t like facing as I prayed for some kind of redemption from this unfortunate situation.

Why did this guy steal my stuff?

Sympathizers might say, “maybe he needed food for his newborn infant,” and cynics will undoubtedly chime in,” it was probably to buy drugs.” But regardless of the tangible why, the simple truth is this: he wanted something that didn’t belong to him. At the root of this theft was envy.

“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”

–Exodus 20:17

Now here’s where things get really messy.

Jesus upped the ante when it came to the 10 Commandments. He said it’s not just wrong to engage in an adulterous relationship, it’s a sin to lust after that person in your mind. It’s as if you committed adultery with her in your heart. He said it’s not just wrong to murder someone, it’s a sin to be angry with another person. It’s as if you murdered him in your heart (Matthew 5).

(Jesus was strangely concerned with washing the dirt from the inside of the cup, not just the outside).

Well, nuts then! How many times have I envied someone (this week)? Their house? Their job? Their family? Their lifestyle? Their financial situation? Their vacation pictures? By Jesus standard, even though I never acted on it, that still makes me…well…a car thief.

I’m not suggesting there aren’t different horizontal consequences between lust and adultery, anger and murder, envy and stealing. This isn’t about dumbing down the severity of our actions or not holding people accountable for the ugly, damaging, and evil things that they do. This isn’t about trying to justify excuses or create some kind of moral equivalency.

But it is sobering to realize the level of perfection God’s holiness demands from our lives. It’s not just what we do, it’s why we do it. It’s what’s inside. And if that’s the litmus test for holiness, I’m just another car thief.

The Law crushes.

The Gospel raises up.

The Spirit empowers.

My only hope is not in my goodness (at my core I have none), but in the righteousness Jesus offers to me as a gift. His righteousness, and the promised work of His Spirit in and through me. I hope the guy who stole my briefcase finds that life someday, too. He won’t have to break a window to steal it. The door is wide open and everything he could ever long for is just laying right there on the front seat, free for the taking.

From one car thief to another, I might suggest you consider taking it, too.

I had the honor of putting my “preacher” hat back on this week, filling in for my friend Steve Greene at The Point Church in Seymour, Indiana. I got to share a little about our missions-based nonprofit, Community Reinvestment Foundation, and dig a bit deeper into my favorite topic: The Gospel of Jesus Christ…

The Law crushes.

The Gospel raises up.

The Spirit empowers.

…all within the context of The Point’s most recent message series: Love Does.

If you live in or around Seymour, or are ever driving through southern Indiana on a Sunday morning, I can’t encourage you enough to stop and visit this great church. Steve, Joel, and the entire team have led this century old church to be a continued expression of hope in this beautiful community.

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Parenting Into Grace

Erik Cooper —  February 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

My 9 year old son asked me a tough question as I walked out of his bedroom last night.

We had just finished our pre-bed routine, and after a new story from the Bible App for Kids, a couple of sibling pot-shots at his older sister, and a short bedtime prayer, I was reaching for the light switch when his pensive, little brain conjured up this inquiry:

“Dad, sometimes I have bad thoughts run through my head. I can’t make them stop. I try to make them stop, but they just keep coming. How do I make them go away?”

Whoa.

In one short interrogative, my 4th grader stumbled squarely into the greatest issue we face as human beings. Sin isn’t just a list of the bad things that we do, it’s a disease rooted deep inside us.

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Last year, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder. The antibodies that normally fight off infection issued a unilateral executive order that the platelets in my blood were now foreign objects that needed to be destroyed. This screwed up reaction causes my blood to clot when it isn’t supposed to. Scabs around a wound stop dangerous bleeding, but scabs floating freely through in the veins and arteries in your head stops….well…life.

I use this analogy to explain sin to my kids. It’s like a blood disease. It’s inside of us. We were born into it. And it isn’t something we can cure by ourselves.

So how do we step into a question like this with our kids? We parent them into grace.

  • The Law (God’s holiness) is meant to crush us.
  • The Gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection) raises us up.
  • The Holy Spirit (God’s promised gift to the redeemed) empowers us for righteousness.

This is the Good News!

But in our desire to be both perfect and loving parents, we sometimes respond with two unfortunate mistakes. In my son’s case those might look something like this:

It’s okay buddy, God’s love is big. Don’t worry about it.

Or…

What?! (Schwartz!) You can’t do that! Exercise some self-control! No television or video games for a month!

Problem #1: Our sin is not okay. Let me say that again. Our. Sin. Is. Not. O. K. Brokenness is part of the human condition, no doubt. And surrendering to the fact that you’re broken is the beginning of hope and healing. But no matter what this culture of tolerance and acceptance is telling you, your sin, my sin, our sin, is not something God overlooks. And it won’t stand up under the weight of God’s holiness. Don’t tell your kids that it will. The solution to our sin is not the removal of God’s standard. Let the Law crush them.

Problem #2: We can’t fix ourselves. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. It doesn’t originate in us, it originates in the work of Christ on our behalf. Sharing Jesus with our kids solely as an example to emulate will do them in. Showing them Jesus as a Savior will bring them life! As Tim Keller so poignantly says it, “The key question in order to change you is not ‘What would Jesus do? but What has Jesus done for you?

My son stumbled quietly toward a beautiful truth last night. His “blood disorder” was producing bad things in his heart and mind and he knew it was wrong (the Law was beginning to crush him). Where we parent our kids from that point becomes the key question.

The Law crushes. The Gospel raises up. The Spirit empowers.

Let’s parent them into that grace. I wish I always got this right, but I guess that’s why I desperately need this message, too.