Pastor’s Pen

Am I “Receiving” God?

Sometimes I ponder how I would have reacted if I had lived while Jesus walked on this planet in the flesh.  Would I have reacted like the Pharisees who perceived Jesus as a lawbreaking hippie type cult leader?  Would I have reacted like the Sadduccees who saw Jesus as a threat to their comfortable materialistic lives and who had no room for his endless talk of spiritual realities outside of this present world?  Would I, in my cynicism, have viewed his miraculous healings as simply the psychosomatic reactions of his naïve followers (that’s hard to do when he raises someone from the dead but I’m sure I could have manufactured some naturalistic explanation!)?  To be honest, I’m not really sure how I would have reacted.  Yet, the Lord has given us an indication of how receptive we are of him and his Father – even today in 21st century America.  What in the world is it?  I am glad you asked!

Kids!  Yes, kids!  How we treat, value and respond to children is an indicator of our receptivity to Jesus and to the Father.  “And he (Jesus) sat down and called the twelve.  And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’  And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”

Most of us realize that God desires us to emulate the trusting nature and lack of hubris of young children (“…unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”) yet, he calls us to more than a mere imitation of childlike trust…he calls us to stoop down, to open our arms to lovingly embrace these little ones, and to teach them of Jesus’ incredible love.  We actually receive God when we see children as significant and valuable even though they can add very little to our resumes or personal net worth.

What is valuable in God’s economy is so often despised in our world’s economy.  We are all too often like the disciples instead of the little children – overly concerned with our own importance and jostling with one another to be the “greatest” in terms of position, power, possessions, and even ministries (Mark 9:33-41).  We, like the disciples, need to hear Jesus’ call to come and sit at his feet and watch him receive the children –  to see him take time to be “bothered” by children (Mark 10:14-16); to heal children (Matt 15:28; Mark 5:41-42; Matt 17:18); to use children in ministry (John 6:9-10); to receive praise from children (Matt 21:15); to warn adults about leading children astray (Matt 18:5);  and to see children as wonderful examples of citizens of God’s kingdom (Lk 18:16).

So, let us remember to “receive” Jesus by receiving the children in his name.  Teaching children’s Sunday School, volunteering in the nursery, helping out with VBS, being loving parents, grand parents, foster parents, or adoptive parents, helping ministries that care for orphans and disadvantaged children are all ways we actually fellowship with Jesus and receive the God of the Universe!   No, working with children is not a stepping stone to greater and more significant ministries with adults…it is greatness exemplified in God’s economy.  You may not get to see your name in lights when you work with kids.  Your love, concern and sacrifice may go unnoticed by a world overly impressed with impressions and “important” adults yet, to love and receive a child as Jesus would is a way of being “first” in Jesus’ eyes and almost certainly ensuring that one day you will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant!”

P.S.  Thanks to so many of you who loved and served our kids this past school year at GCC!  Your ministry is invaluable and your labor in the Lord is not in vain!  May the Lord refresh your spiritual batteries during the summer break and then continue to use you in lives of our children in the future!

Ready for a Ride?

Do remember the “spinner” in the playgrounds of your youth.  You know, that circular metal platform with hand rails on it that your friends would push from the outside while the group sitting at the center were attempting to battle the centrifugal force and hang on for dear life.   When your so called “friends” got the spinner up to about 1000 RPMs  you would beg for mercy, hope that you were able to keep the PBJ you ate for lunch in your stomach, and then find your body hurtling off the spinner into the next county.  Having been a “husky” child I lamented the fact that the lighter kids had an easier time staying on the spinner while my slightly rounder frame seemed to propel me off the spinner more rapidly.   You may be asking yourself what in the world recollections of the playgrounds of my youth have to do with what is going on in our church.  Well, I’m glad you asked!

In one sense, a healthy church should be like one of those playground spinners.  When we first climb on we are able to experience closeness with the other riders at the center of the spinner but as the rate of spin increases we are eventually spun out into the rough and tumble world.  Those who are “well fed” and have the largest spiritual girth should be the first to be launched off.  The church should be a place where believers experience close fellowship and are fed well from the Word but there is always the danger that we become too comfortable sitting together and simply soaking up spiritual truth without putting that truth into action.  When this happens the Lord can give the “spinner” a bit of a shove to increase the RPMs to launch us out where there are so many who are hurting and desperately need to know him.  We see this happening in the book of Acts where the church was called to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jersualem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It appears that the fledgling church would have been fairly content to stay in Jerusalem so in order to fulfill God’s plan the Holy Spirit gave the spinner a bit of a shove.  This sent the believers out farther and farther to share the love of Jesus.  God often used the force of persecution to move believers “off center” and beyond their comfort zones to where they were most needed.

As a pastor it has been encouraging and challenging to watch as God “spins” many from our body out into the world.  The second half of our vision statement says that we want to be about “Showing God to Our World” – or, in other words, well fed believers being spun out to build relationships with non-believers that will impact them with the truth of the gospel. .  In the last 6 months God has permanently “spun” about 60 people from our body out beyond the borders of Pensacola in moves to new locations. Though we will miss them greatly, we can rejoice in how God will use them around this globe and trust that their time here has fed and equipped them to be effective ambassadors for Jesus Christ in their new locations.

There is a second group of those who are being temporarily launched out from us.  This summer there are many from our body who have been propelled by the “centrifugal force” of the Holy Spirit out to places well beyond the next county.  I think of one of our own ministering to orphaned AIDS babies in Lesotho, Africa, or a group of teens spun up to North Carolina to make a difference for Jesus in the lives of others there.  I think of a doctor and a student athlete going to a place called Chisinau, Moldova that they didn’t even know existed a year ago.  I think of a group heading down to Honduras to build an orphanage to provide shelter, care and hope for some of the most needy of God’s children.  I think of another student joining a team to reach out to kids in Mexico.  Though they have been spun out they will return to encourage the body, be built up and hopefully spun out again at the right time.

Yet, the spinning of the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily launch us far beyond our political borders. Sometimes it compels us simply to move beyond borders of insecurity, fear of ridicule, even fear of being thought a bit “crazy”.  I know many of you feel that God is spinning you out into your neighborhoods, across the office to another work cubicle, to the other side of the dining commons at UWF, to talk with a woman with a crisis pregnancy, or to learn how to use mime and music to open doors to the gospel.  To this third group we can, and should, all belong.  Sensitive to the pull of God’s Spirit as he works in and through us to love the lost right where we are.   It’s exciting to anticipate what God will do as we respond to his centrifugal force and allow him to launch us into places unknown…like the kitchen of our neighbors house or the break room at work.

Yes, we need time at the center of the spinner.  Yes, sometimes we get bruised and hurt when we are launched out into the world.  Yet,  my prayer is that in the process of growing up in our relationship with Jesus we will also grow out in our relationships with those who have not yet embraced Jesus Christ in faith. If our hearts are truly growing more like Jesus’ heart then they will be softer and more responsive to the “spin” of God as He seeks to reach out with compassion to the lost and hurting of the world.  Always keeping in mind that the first one to get launched off the spinner was Jesus himself.

And keep your chin up if you don’t see immediate results.  I am reminded of a woman from the village of Susleni in Moldova who had been beaten up for following Jesus Christ nine years prior to our arrival there.  She had been praying for nine long years that God would allow the gospel to come to her village and now as a result of her prayers and believers being willing to be “spun” out there is a new evangelical church meeting in the elementary school of her village.  God is faithful!   I Corinthians 15:58

Better By Far Or Worse By Far?

It is a subject that seemed to occupy a large portion of our faithful forebears’ thinking.  In fact, we as believers are commanded to think much about it…a command we fail to obey regularly (Col. 3:1-2).  It is a subject that has provided many believers with the requisite courage needed to take a radical risk for Christ even in the face of daunting odds.  It is a subject that provided stamina and encouragement to those called to endure persistently challenging situations.  It’s a subject that has prompted believers to loosen their normally vice-like grip on the stuff of life and give generously.  Jesus indicated that the reality of this subject should keep his followers free from experiencing uptight and troubled hearts despite the trouble producing world we live in. It’s a subject that allowed believers to sing songs of praise prior to being burned at the stake and caused believers maintain their confession of faith when a simple denial would have spared their very lives.  The reality of this subject is seen as a major impetus in maintaining a close relationship with Jesus and to living lives of consistent integrity (II Pet. 3:11-14).

Yet, it is a subject that is rarely discussed today.  It is seen as rather unimportant and it is even viewed as a potential hindrance to being of any “earthly good” right now – contrary to Scripture and to the experience of believers through the ages.  The apostle Paul’s longing for it and thoughts about this subject would possibly have resulted in his being “Baker acted” or at least would have prompted a strong referral to a counselor were he to show up in a church today.

As I am sure you are aware by now, the subject I am referring to is heaven.  It’s been amazing to me as I have thought about this subject and it’s importance how little press heaven gets these days…even in the church and seminary.  We will spend endless hours and untold dollars attempting to figure out eschatology (what happens at the end of time).  Is the Bible amillenial, postmillennial, premillenial?  Will the church be called away prior to, at the midpoint or at the end of the tribulation?  Please do not misunderstand me, I believe it is important to wrestle through these issues yet how much time do we spend pondering what is coming after the end… when the millennium is over?  During my four years at seminary, there were no courses offered on a theology of heaven.  In fact, there was never even a single lecture on the topic of heaven that I am aware of.  We are told when we are saved that we will go to heaven yet for how many of us is that thought a genuine encouragement in our day to day lives.  If we have never thought biblically and deeply about heaven, and I dare say that is the majority of us (myself included), is it any wonder that heaven is rarely a blip that crosses our radar screens and certainly not a significant hope that impacts how we live our lives in the here and now.

John Eldridge in The Journey of Desire says this, “Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some idea that eternity is an unending church service…we have settled on an image of the never ending sing-a-long in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen.  And our heart sinks.  Forever and ever?  That’s it? That’s the good news?  And then we sigh and feel guilty that we are not more ‘spiritual.’  We lose heart and we turn once more to the present to find what life we can.”  The unbiblical picture of hanging out on a cloud strumming a harp forever does little to inspire hope in us and it shouldn’t because it is not a biblical view of heaven in the least.

Paul, the apostle who lived a life of adventure, excitement and danger, who had seen many come to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior and who had many significant and deep relationships said that to depart and be with the Lord is better BY FAR. (Phil. 1:23)  The only reason he was willing to stay around was so that he could help others experience the reality of heaven as well.  And Paul should know because his view of heaven was not merely theological or theoretical it was experiential.  He had been there.  He was caught up to the “third heaven” or “paradise” (II Cor. 12:2-4) but was not allowed to speak of it –  because if he had passed on a lot of details to us then heaven would likely become the only topic believers would want to talk about.  He could honestly say that for him to live is Christ and to die is GAIN! (Phil 1:21)

Most of our modern thinking about heaven doesn’t make it appear to be a place that is better “by far” but one that is significantly more dull, uninspiring, and, dare I say it as a pastor, “churchy”.  To leave behind the heartfelt belly busting laughter of a good joke between friends, to no longer experience the awesomeness of standing on a Rocky Mountain peak looking down at azure-turquoise lakes filled with gloriously colored rainbow trout waiting to be caught, to miss the rush of love, to leave behind the warmth of an embrace, to no longer hear the sound of an amazing symphony, to no longer experience the tang and savor of wasabi on a sesame seared tuna filet,  to pass up the joy of curling up with a good book in front of a fire,  to miss the blaze of oaks, birches, elms, poplars, and maples in the fall in the north woods, to lose the joy and satisfaction of seeing a project come to completion after a lot of hard work only to sing Amazing Grace for the 8 millionth time and then sit silently in our heavenly pews just doesn’t inspire too much excitement in many of us.  With our impoverished view of heaven, is it any wonder that increasingly Christians are adopting a “get it all while you’re here” mentality.  If what is coming is worse “by far” then I’m a fool if I don’t go for the gusto now.

I believe the “worse by far” view of heaven (e.g. sitting on a cloud with a harp and other assorted silly notions) is one of Satan’s clever ploys to discourage and render Christians ineffective.  It results in believers having a hard time actually living as “aliens and strangers” here.  It causes an inordinate love for the stuff and pleasures of this world because we mistakenly believe this is the only time we will be able to experience and enjoy them fully.  We attempt to make a “heaven” on earth and it always ends disastrously.   This satanically inspired view of heaven results in our being less willing to sacrifice and love others in a Christ-like manner.  The fallout of our diminished view of eternity is a life more adverse to taking risks because we are primarily seeking security and satisfaction in the present. It can drain our enthusiasm to share our faith.  Why should I share the good news of spending an eternity with the Lord if I’m not honestly looking forward to it myself?  It can cause believers to get overly discouraged when difficult times come because their hope of experiencing all they can in the here and now is diminished.   We grieve more deeply at the death of believers than we ought because we mistakenly think that the relationship we will have with them in heaven will be less satisfying than it was here.  And ultimately, it can cause the venom to return to death’s sting in our own lives because we fear that what lies ahead is somehow less than what we have now.  Death is certainly not assumed to be a “gain” in most of our thinking.   Randy Alcorn, in his book Heaven, shares a story of a man who came to faith asking an older saint if he will have fun in heaven to which she immediately replied, “Oh no!”  That type of misguided thinking is hazardous to our faith.

Satan is a liar (John 8:44) and in Revelation 13:6 we see that the beast that he inspires opens his mouth to blaspheme God, to slander his name, to slander his dwelling place (heaven), and those who abide there.   I believe Satan’s smear campaign against heaven does not only take place then but has already begun and has been rather effective so far!  How often have you heard, “I’d rather be in hell with my friends partying than be bored hanging out on a cloud in heaven!”?  That statement reflects both a satanic lie about the nature of hell (it’s not that bad) and a lie about the true nature of heaven (it’s boring and non-physical).  Hell is a place of relentless torment and anguish and there will be no possibility of great parties with friends. Heaven is a place of unspeakable joy and endless excitement that is very real and tangible.

We live on a “groaning” planet and we are “groaning” people (Rom 8:18-25).  We long for something more.  We often attempt to find it here but those attempts fall short and with U2’s Bono we echo the chorus, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”   Why not?  Because what we are looking for is heaven.  What we are longing for is a relationship with God that is no longer marred and scarred by our sin racked bodies.  What we are yearning for are relationships with others that are open and transparent and no longer burdened with the weight of our own selfishness and deceit.  What we crave is an environment no longer disfigured by pollution, earthquakes, famines, tornados, floods and yes, even hurricanes.  We almost ache in our desire for sustained happiness.  It’s written into the founding documents of our nation.  We experience moments of happiness here and there but a happiness that truly lasts…beyond the infatuation of a new relationship, after the new car smell departs, after the luster of the the new house, new job, new possession, new experience loses its shine…oh, we long for it!  And the great news is that we will experience it – FOREVER – in heaven.

The new heaven and new earth will be a place of beauty beyond description. Take the most awesome vista you have seen and multiply it endlessly.  We will have new bodies that will experience the joys of eating, discovering, and working on meaningful projects.  We will have bodies that will no longer be torn by inappropriate and sinful desires and no longer plagued with sickness and disease.  We will experience incredibly close relationships that bring only joy and laughter.  Certainly there will be worship but most certainly it will not be boring!  Every day there will be new facets of God’s character to discover and cause us to praise him even more.  Every day there will be new challenges to face without the frustrations of work that we experience now.  God will renew an entire universe of unfathomable dimensions to be explored throughout eternity.

Is your mental picture of heaven a place that is “better by far” or “worse by far” – be honest.  If we lean toward a view of heaven that is worse – a place from which we will look back longingly for the good ole days on earth –  then our minds need to be renewed by the truth of God’s Word.  We need to recognize that if we are in this state we are not obeying God’s clear command given twice in the first couple verses of Colossians 3.  “Set your hearts on things above,” and “set your minds on things above.”   This is so crucial for a healthy spiritual life that the Lord commands us to not only to ponder it deeply with our minds but he wants our hearts to be gripped by heaven’s realities as well.  Are your mind and heart engaged?

I’m trying to get them both involved in the process.  It’s not easy, but as I ponder I see how valuable it really is to staying encouraged in my daily life so I’m making the effort.  What made the “Hall of Faithers” in Hebrews 11 so amazing in both exploits of great victory and steadfastness in great trials?  “They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth…they were longing for a better country (better “by far” I would add)a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”  Hebrews 11:13-16  Were they “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good”?  Nonsense!  It is when we are most heavenly minded that we are prepared to be the most earthly good because we don’t need to be consumed with a frantic and selfish effort to make our own heaven here on earth.  We can give our love and our lives away because we have one who is preparing a place for us beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations!

How do we enrich our impoverished perspective on heaven?  How do we start obeying Col. 3:1&2?  The best place to start is always with the Word of God –  “Open our eyes that we may see wonderful things in your Law” Ps 119:18.  Begin to ponder just a few of the passages related to heaven and eternity:  Isa. 65:17: John 14:1-3; 17:24; Rom 8:18-25; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 3:18; 5:6-8; 6:16; 12:1-7;  Phil 1:21-23;  I Thes 4:13-18;  Heb. 11:13-16; 12:23; 13:14;  II Pet.3:9-18; Rev. 21&22.  I have had my thinking stimulated and have been greatly encouraged through reading Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Tyndale, 2004) as well.  I’m not going to tell you how you need to go about “setting” your mind and heart on heaven but I will remind you that in God’s curriculum it is not an optional elective, it is a required course!  Enjoy and be encouraged!

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there,” Martin Luther

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Paul the Apostle

The Gift of Dissatisfaction

I can’t remember now where I read it but it struck me…hard.  It was a psychologist musing that the primary emotion he sees in 21st century Americans – who have such abundance, such a variety of choices, such comfortable lives – is disappointment. Life, despite all the bounty we experience in the modern world, doesn’t seem to be living up to our expectations!

The new iPhone, the new job, the new house, the new car, the new kid, the new spouse, the new lover, even the new sexual identity, once experienced, leads, more often than not, to disappointment.  Whatever it was that we absolutely wanted and needed did not measure up to its original billing…and we are left disappointed.

Often I hear Christians commenting (myself included!) that the stuff of this life that unbelievers run after will leave them sorely disappointed.  I do believe that – I  have been there and have the t-shirts to prove it!  Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, even our Christian lives can leave us disappointed.  We long for more heartfelt worship.  We long for a faith that could move a mustard seed…let alone a mountain. Our ability to hear from Him seems to get lost in the static of living life on a broken planet. Our life with God can seem rather mundane far too often.  Our Christian marriage is quite challenging at times and our friendships don’t quite reach the level closeness that we desire.

The ever-present sense of disappointment is like the background muzak of our lives – even in our moments of greatest joy we still hear its minor chording resonating in our mind’s ear –“This is amazing, but you know it won’t last, don’t you?”  And it doesn’t!  It never has and it never will, this side of eternity.

You can hear the muzak in the words of wise old Solomon (who had collected more t-shirts than I ever could!):

“All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again”
Ecclesiastes 1:8-9

You can almost hear him groaning as he speaks…disappointment dripping from almost every word.  No, this dissatisfaction is not unique to 21st century Americans alone.

Yet, this disappointment is a gift when it produces in us a groaning and a longing for what Scripture calls the “renewal” of all things.  Think about it a minute.  We will never long unless we first groan. I believe C.S. Lewis was correct when he stated that if we find in ourselves longings that nothing in this world can satisfy then that is a strong clue that we were made for something more than this world.

When Bono of U2 (a confessing Christian) belts out that he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for!” he is merely echoing the words of Solomon and every other honest seeker throughout history.

For what we long for is not yet here.  As believers, we may catch a distant glimpse now and again.  Our taste buds, for a moment, may experience a tantalizing appetizer of the feast to come.  Our ears may hear, as from a distance, loving words of acceptance, forgiveness, grace, adoption, peace, joy, and delight – but we long for them to be enunciated more clearly and more loudly in the here and now!

Alas, not yet!  My spiritual vision is 20-400.  My grasp of truth is far from complete.  Many questions still remain.  My intimacy with my Savior is not yet consummated.  But, I do have my longing that has grown in the fertile soil of my disappointment watered by the tears of my groaning…and it is indeed a gracious gift!

So, like Paul, a fellow disappointed traveler, I press on to that which I know will ultimately not disappoint me.  Straining toward what is still ahead.  A bit less distracted by what shines and sparkles but will ultimately birth disappointment here. A bit more convinced with every step that I’m not made for here I’m made for Him!

Will you join me on the journey?

Meditation Scriptures:  Ecclesiastes; I Corinthians 13:12; Philippians 3:1-14

The Throne of Grace

As I have been studying through the book of Hebrews, one verse has really been rattling around in my mind… “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.”

Frankly, I don’t know many believers who approach Jesus in this manner.  We tend to approach rather tentatively.   Fully aware of our various failures and faults, missteps and mishaps, needs and greeds,  we attempt to enter the throne room through a side door hoping to be hardly noticed…often preferring to just stay in the corner…many times we are so rattled we don’t go in at all, preferring to wallow in our miserable neediness instead of “bothering” the Lord with our problems.

What causes us to hesitate and cower? Why do we fail to obey this verse?  For if we hesitate and approach cautiously with great trepidation…we are indeed disobeying a command of our God which is as much of a sin as whatever we did in the first place that is keeping us at arm’s length from Jesus!  Approaching Jesus boldly to find help is as much of a command as loving our neighbor as ourselves!

I think we fail to obey this command because we feel we have somehow disappointed Jesus because of our neediness and sin and, truth be told, many of us feel he would rather not spend the time with us.  So instead of approaching with boldness to ask Jesus for forgiveness and help, we languish and linger and attempt to cover it up and “deal with it” on our own.  This somehow seems more humble and self –effacing to us.  However, at its core, this type of thinking is really incredibly arrogant and self-aggrandizing!  At first hearing, this sounds strange to our ears because we feel we are being so penitent and humble.   Yet, when we hesitate to approach Jesus we are assuming that, in and of ourselves, we have the ability to clean up our act and restore ourselves to a state of spiritual acceptability.  “I’ll go to Jesus once I stop… drinking, cussing, gossiping, lying, visiting porn sites, holding grudges, worrying, spending more than I can afford, eating more than I should, seeking my worth and value in the eyes of others… ”  Yet, the very reason the Holy Spirit inspired this verse, the very reason Jesus called us to approach him in this way is that we desperately need his mercy, his grace, and his help!  Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” and one part of the “nothing” that we can’t do is clean up our act on our own.  Yet, we somehow feel more deserving of his mercy and grace when we cower and at least make an attempt to remedy our problems on our own at first…what arrogance!

Our Lord knows the stuff of which we are made (dirt is not all that impressive) and when he saved us he already knew in advance what all of our failures would be.  Even our own “righteousness” is like a filthy rag (I’ll let you do the research on that word!).  Therefore, it is impossible for us to disappoint him.  When he called us he committed himself to us for the long haul (Phil. 1:6) and, unlike marriage, his vow to us doesn’t even include a contingency dealing with the dissolution of the relationship upon death!  If we have genuinely trusted him, we are his forever! Period!  He already knows how much we will need his help as we stumble through this life.  James, the Lord’s brother, informs us that we all will stumble and do stumble in many ways. Yet, how true the saying is:  “He, who knows us best, loves us most!” …despite our missteps and mistakes.   Young children with trustworthy parents immediately call out for help when they get into something they can’t handle.  If they are approached by a large barking dog you can hear their cries for help from around the block!   Why can’t we cry out to the Lord with the same boldness?   Didn’t Jesus say something about having the faith of a child?  That’s why Steve Brown says, “Cheer up, you’re much worse than you think you are!”  It’s only as we embrace our complete inadequacy (we are worse than we think we are!) and His complete desire to help us with our inadequacies that we can truly be joyful…and experience the transformation that only God can produce in our lives.

I think the Accuser brings out his biggest guns and most potent weaponry for this battle.  If he can keep us away from our Lord through his accusations then he will effectively incapacitate us spiritually.  (“You messed up so badly, there is no way Jesus wants you anywhere near him.”  “You better get your act together before you dare talk to Him.  Who do you think you are anyway!”  “You really blew that opportunity to share your faith…why don’t you just shut up from now on!” “Jesus is so disappointed by your lack of love, patience, follow through, prayer, scripture memory… ad nauseum, ad infinitum…that you would do better just to stay away from Him for awhile.” )   The Evil One knows, much better than we do, that our sole hope of victory comes through the help that only Jesus can give us – and desires to give us – if we would simply ask him.

So next time you are deeply aware of your brokenness and sin don’t listen to the Liar and don’t commit yet another sin by failing to come near to Jesus’ throne of grace – simply and boldly cry, “HELP!”  He already knows you need it. He knew it before he created the earth and the stars.  He’s just been waiting for you to ask!

Following the Master into the World

Living Matthew 28:18-20

A long time ago in a city far, far away (1989 – in Chicago)…I read a short book on how to go about sharing one’s faith in Christ and helping new believers grow based on Jesus’ interactions with his disciples.  It was called, The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman.  As I’ve been pondering evangelism and looking at many of the “newest”, “best”, and “most effective” evangelistic strategies of our day, I was reminded of this book and its biblically based and straightforward approach.  It has been in print for over 50 years, but I hope some of the timeless principles that are summarized below will encourage you  to emulate Jesus as you seek to live out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20)

9 Principles…all drawn from the life of Jesus:

  1.  Incarnationbecome a servant! Be willing to shed your pride and stoop to love, be obedient even unto the death of self, give your life away for others’ benefit! Living in this way sounds like complete foolishness to a self-absorbed world but it is at the very heart of Jesus’ mission.  People experienced Jesus’ care for them in tangible and personal ways.  When people know they are loved, they’ll be much more likely to listen.  Look around and see how you can meet a need. There are a thousand things we can do.  Start with the  needs right around you.  Invest in those that God has placed in your path.  In a world that is increasingly cynical and tired of words, this is how our witness becomes credible.  When we are willing to “incarnate” love, we will never lack opportunities to share the reason we do what we are doing!
  2.  Selectionpray and ask the Lord to help you identify potential disciples! Out of the large crowds following Jesus he selected only a few. Pay attention to those in whom the Holy Spirit is already working – is there a growing awareness of sin and personal guilt? Is there a crisis that is bringing them to the end of themselves? When we look at the masses we can easily become overwhelmed, yet God delights to work through a few! In them, recognize the potential to turn the world upside down.  Remember it was a humble shoe salesman that let DL Moody to the Lord.  Start close to home with your family and then look for those God has placed in your natural sphere of influence.
  3.  Associationbuild a relationship! Jesus focused most of his attention on 12 while continuing to relate to others as well. Our ability to invest truth and our lives is much greater with a smaller group. The disciples and Jesus did nearly everything together – seldom did he act alone.  He involved these 12 in his life in a personal and intimate way.  The living of life together through close personal relationships is crucial in discipleship process.  The old adage, “More is caught than taught!” is very applicable here.  In our increasingly isolated and individualistic culture, this will take some work and rearranging of schedules but the dividends are well worth it!
  4.  Consecration...teach obedience! The concepts of growing in holiness and “dying to self” have come upon hard times in the modern church, yet we dare not forget that we are called to teach (and model) obedience to all of Jesus’ precepts! I very clearly recognize that I have not arrived and I also realize that not everything is caught right away but, am I challenging myself and others to live up to Jesus’ standard with the help of the Holy Spirit?  Jesus was very patient with his disciples’ lack of understanding because they were generally faithful in what they DID begin to understand.  We who are parents are usually overjoyed at the first wobbly steps of our children despite the fact that they cannot yet run with grace and endurance.  May we call people to the heights but rejoice over their first steps toward the mountain!
  5.  Demonstration...lead by example! In following Jesus, the disciples were always in “school.” Seeing his dynamic and effective prayer life they responded, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I don’t think we can plan and orchestrate this but we need to be sensitive to teaching opportunities as they present themselves in the course of life.  Remember, unlike Jesus, we can also use our failures to teach valuable lessons so there is no end to the truth we can impart if we are willing to be transparent!
  6.  Delegationinvolve them in ministry! Provide opportunities for them to get their hands dirty in serving and loving others. Try to match work assignments to their growing confidence in God and their spiritual gifts and skills.  Try not to micro-manage and leave room for the Holy Spirit to work. Remember, God has uniquely designed and gifted each of his children. As people grow in grace and knowledge, challenge them to invest their uniqueness in the the mission of fulfilling the Great Commission.
  7.  Supervisiongive them honest feedback! There should be a sense of accountability among believers. We all have been given much, so much is required! Problems, misunderstandings and failures will be part of the process! Lead with grace AND truth.    Remember Jesus believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves and he restores and forgives us even after some major failures (e.g. Peter’s denials). Above all, pray for your group of learners. Let them know they are loved and appreciated!
  8.  Multiplication...expect reproduction! There is no greater joy than to see a life in which you have invested, begin investing in someone else! This is a work that can extend until the Lord returns.  Don’t be discouraged by small numbers, over time, the Lord can multiply and turn the entire world upside down – it’s happened before!  Help people dream about their part in the kingdom.  Challenge them to invest in things that will matter fifty, one hundred, a thousand, and a million years from now.
  9. Impartation...trust the Holy Spirit! “I am with you always,” is Jesus’ promise to us in the Great Commission. The presence and the empowering of the Holy Spirit is the only way to fulfill our role as Jesus’ ambassadors! Wait and pray! Don’t begin without the Spirit for apart from the Spirit of Christ working in us we can do nothing! He will supervise and direct our growth in grace and our investment in others. He alone will bring in the harvest. This is ALL the mighty work of GOD! His Spirit possessing us as his representatives in a lost, dying and hopeless world!

We are ALL called to impact our world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The fleshing out of these principles will look different in each of our lives.  A mom with three children under 10 will necessarily apply these principles in a manner that looks very different than an unmarried 22 year old flight student.  This varied approach is how God designed it to work!  The lives you touch, the methods you use, the impact you have will be unique and custom designed by God. When we catch a vision for what God can do as each of us seek to really live out the Great Commission, there is no end to what He can do through us.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

Blooming in Babylon

In the midst of an election year, it seems like negative campaign ads are omnipresent telling us just how awful everything is and how close to total destruction our nation will be if a certain candidate is elected or re-elected.  The news media as well seems to thrive on reporting stories that are particularly gut-wrenching and awful.  The Christian media doesn’t seem to bring much hope into our lives either – constantly bombarding us with email news flashes and petitions requiring urgent and instant response and tales of moral decay that if not immediately arrested will bring down our nation, the church and the world!  God’s Word tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made…. the “fearfully” component of our nature seems to be very evident all around us and in us today!

Yet, as believers, we are called to live a life free from fear (II Tim. 1:7) in the hope, joy and peace of the Holy Spirit regardless of the seemingly cataclysmic news that pervades our culture. Is it possible?? How would you respond if you were one of the best and brightest students at a prestigious university, your family was well connected politically and socially, your future looked extremely bright and promising and suddenly you were kidnapped and taken to Tehran. The cross, pulpit and Bible of your favorite church were stolen and made into objects of ridicule in the mosque in Tehran.  Your Christian name was changed to one that honored Allah, you were told to forget your family and the U.S. and that for the next three years you would be required to learn Arabic fluently, do an intense study of the Koran and Islamic culture and practices which would prepare you for a place of service in the Iranian government.  How would you respond?  What would your attitude and outlook be?  Could you manifest love, joy, peace, or hope in these circumstances?

An analogous situation, actually even more difficult, happened to one of my biblical heroes – Daniel.  Taken forcefully from his family and country, his name changed to honor the demonic idol Baal, required to learn the pagan religious and intellectual traditions of a very foreign and evil culture, and likely castrated ( Daniel 1:8 tells us that Daniel was  under the authority of the “chief of the eunuchs” (literal translation). This was typical practice when a conquering king brought the best and brightest into his court and the scriptures never mention a wife or children in connection with Daniel.).  He was then called to serve and work for the success of a King who had ordered all this be done to him and, if that were not enough, he had to do it in a place that became the biblical symbol of evil on earth – Babylon!  I don’t know about you but my attitude likely wouldn’t have been too positive and sunny at this time!

Did Daniel did curl up into a fetal position, go on a hunger strike, protest learning this “godless” language and coursework, and refuse to serve this godless king in this godless place?   No, quite the opposite, he actually “bloomed” in Babylon.  He was a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Babylon U, maintained his integrity without being obnoxious about it, and ended up being the top advisor to the king – likely influencing Nebuchadnezzar and many of his subjects to become followers of the true God! (Dan. 4:34-37)  How in the world did he do it?  Let’s look briefly at a few of Daniel’s traits that may help us to bloom in our modern “Babylonian” culture:

He knew God had a handle on the big picture! Despite what may appear as evil getting the upper hand, Daniel was confident that even this was under the sovereign control of God.  “He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings.” (Dan 2:21)  God is in control of who is in control! Clearly what was done to Daniel was evil and Babylon was an evil and very pagan city but Daniel knew that his being there was somehow all part of God’s overall plan and purpose for his life.  We need to realize that sometimes God allows wickedness to seemingly succeed in the short run for his purposes. (see Habakkuk – God uses the more wicked Assyrians to discipline his people for a season)  Yet, like Daniel, we need to realize that God has a purpose for us even in the midst of what often seem like very negative and challenging circumstances.  We can ask, “God, how do you want me to be used here and now – in the midst of this mess?” or we can grumble, complain and curse the godless world and godless people around us withdrawing and licking our wounds.  Daniel was an optimist, not in the naïve sense of the word, but in the sense that he knew God was in control and his purposes would ultimately prevail.  He knew that evil plans and desires would not be able to stand against the God of this universe and his people. (See Mt 16:18; Rev 18-22)

He lived in the Babylonian world but he was not changed by it! Daniel was able, by God’s grace, to live and work with those who often were very godless without compromising his own character.  He realized there was a big difference between what he may not have liked and what God actually forbids.  When he was personally required to do something God had explicitly said was wrong (eat “unclean” food – Dan 1:8) or when he was personally forbidden to do something God had commanded (pray – Dan 6:10) he stood by his convictions and let the chips fall where they may.  Yet, Daniel did not separate from those who believed and acted in ways that were very inconsistent with what he knew to be truth.  He mastered the godless curriculum of his teachers even though he knew it was false.  I may not like the language of a co-worker or friend;  I may not agree with my professor’s point of view on a particular subject; I may not hold my neighbor’s view on abortion or some aspect of sexual ethics, but Daniel teaches us that treating these people with love and respect does not mean that I am being untrue to God or compromising my beliefs.  In fact, I am actually obeying Him and following his example as he loved and respectfully treated so many who were enslaved by sin and false beliefs.

He truly cared for those who were around him…even his enemies! He was genuinely concerned for Nebuchadnezzar when one of his dreams prophesied a coming period of humiliation for the king (Daniel 4:19b)  He seemed to go out of his way to ensure that the “chief of the eunuchs” would not get in trouble with the king if the Hebrews ate a kosher diet (Dan. 1:8-16)  He was concerned for his friends and even the pagan “wise men” of Babylon. (Dan. 2:24)  If we are going to “bloom” in our Babylon we need to ask the Lord to give us a love and concern for those around us that is real.  Far too often in the “culture wars” of our land, we look down with disdain and disrespect those who may be promoting an agenda that is unbiblical or differs from what we believe is true.  When we fail to respect and value those who hold opposing positions we lose an opportunity to share the only truth that can powerfully transform a life.  Paul told Timothy to be a gentle, humble and patient communicator of truth with those who opposed him, recognizing that they had been duped by the ultimate Deciever. (II Tim 2:24-26)  No one likes or is eager to listen to someone who doesn’t respect them.  Truth screamed from a distance is rarely, if ever, heard.

He was humbly dependent on God despite his considerable natural gifting. It is clear, Daniel was one of the best and brightest of Israel – no physical defects, good looking, sharp intellect and an extremely quick study (Dan. 1:4)  Yet, despite his many natural talents, Daniel lived in dependence on God and was quick to acknowledge that his abilities were the gift of God (Dan 2:18, 20-23; 27-30)  His boss, Nebuchadnezzar, obviously got this message because he regularly referred to Daniel as one connected with the “God of gods” (Dan 2:47) and as one in whom was the “Spirit of the Holy God” (Dan 4:9,18)  His personal devotional life was so famous that his enemies used it in an attempt to bring him down (Dan 6:5-10)  How convicting it is to see a man of Daniel’s stature and abilities recognize that it is “not by might, not by power but by my Spirit” says the Lord!

As believers, we know that “Babylon” will one day fall (Rev. 18) yet, as long as the Lord tarries, we are called to live in “Babylon”  We can descend into despair over the evils of the world;  we can head for the hills seeking to isolate ourselves from the world;  we can scream true messages that never will be truly heard or we can fall on our knees and thank God that he has called us and will equip us to love, respect and reach out to those who don’t yet know him but who God has placed in our lives in this very mixed up and messed up world – aka “Babylon”.

Slaying the Dragon of Self-Pity

We all have experienced them…lousy days, unexpected difficulties, a silver cloud with a black lining, times when life just seems to unfairly dump on us.  The road ahead may have seemed clear and smooth and then, BAM!, a blowout messes with all our best laid plans and hopeful expectations.  At those times, we can almost feel the hot breath on our neck and hear the whispers in our ear, “Life is unfair!”, “God can’t really be trusted!”, “You’re all alone with this!”, “Just throw in the towel because no one really cares!”  Eeyore’s thundercloud with its perpetual rain seems to have relocated itself over our head and wallowing in self-pity seems like the most attractive option before us.  How do we handle these times?  How does God respond to our descent into self-pity and how do we slay this Smaug-like enemy?  Fortunately, we are not alone in this struggle – some of God’s choicest servants have had to engage in the same struggle.  In I Kings 18&19, we find Israel’s most famous prophet wrestling with this very dragon!

Elijah was a Duck Dynasty type of guy…coming out of the backwoods of Israel, sporting an inside-out sheepskin coat, and mincing no words as he confronted the most morally depraved and wicked royal pair ever to sit on the throne in Israel.

Ahab, the monarch during Elijah’s era, sought to consolidate power through a political alliance with Phoenicia by marrying Jezebel.  When Jezebel moved into Jezreel, Israel’s capital city, she brought several moving vans full of her Phoenician gods and goddesses – the Baalim and the Ashteroth.  These deities were some of the most corrupt ever devised and their worship was so evil – involving sexual orgies and child sacrifice – that even the Romans, who were not known for their pure religious virtues, were repulsed by it and declared it evil when they encountered it in Carthage.

As you read the story in I Kings 17-22, there is no doubt about who wore the pants in the royal family.  Jezebel made Baalism the state religion of Israel and this culminated in a huge confrontation on Mount Carmel where, despite outrageous odds against him, Elijah singlehandedly brought down 450 prophets of Baal.

You can almost see the thrill of victory in Elijah’s gate as he ran ahead of the king’s chariot all the way to Jezreel, only about a mile short of a full marathon!  He may have imagined moving into a parsonage next to the palace! Finally, Baalism had been soundly defeated and surely now the leadership of the nation would return to the true God of Israel.  He may have anticipated the removal of Jezebel or even her conversion.  Who knows what wonderful changes lay ahead!

Then, all of a sudden, with the road ahead  looking clear and smooth, BAM! – unanticipated bad news hits.  Not only did Ahab fail to kick Jezebel out of the royal palace but when he reported to her what had happened she sent a short but not so sweet note to Elijah, “May the gods get me, if I don’t kill you by tomorrow!”  So, Elijah laced up his running shoes once again but this time he wasn’t running fueled by the adrenalin of victory but by life threatening fear.  After running the equivalent of an ultra-marathon, which led him past Beersheba (70 miles from Jezreel), he collapsed in the wilderness under a broom tree and prayed to die! “Enough is enough,” he said!

I think most of us can relate.  Life, which was going just wonderfully, all of a sudden turns in an unexpected and unwanted direction.  The doctor calls and the news isn’t good.  Our kids call and the news isn’t good.  Our wife or husband calls and the news isn’t good.  Our boss calls and the news isn’t good.  Our parents call and the news isn’t good.  Discouragement and depression are ubiquitous – drug companies wouldn’t invest millions searching for pharmacological solutions for depression if they didn’t think there was a huge market!  We understand Elijah’s blue mood but my prayer is that we will understand and learn even more from how our Great Physician helps his bummed out prophet battle this dragon.

The Lord begins with few words – just allowing his road-worn servant to sleep and eat.  There is wisdom here.  Fatigue can factor heavily into our bouts with discouragement.  Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is rest.  Our world runs at red-line most of the time and God never designed our bodies to function without regular times of rest and recuperation.  So if you are feeling like “enough is enough” then what you may need to do is cancel a few appointments on your calendar, skip Leno or Fallon, turn off Netflix, skip the 11th Christmas party of the season and get some R&R.  The Lord did this twice with Elijah – ministering to his physical needs before leading him to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai) to deal with some deeper issues of his soul and his relationship with God.

Fortified by cake fed to him by an angel (I Kings 19:6), Elijah began the 40 day journey to Mount Horeb – the place of God’s revelation.  Alone and walking for forty days gives a person plenty of time to think.  In Elijah’s case this just seemed to sink him deeper into self-pity and disillusionment because when the Lord finally spoke to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he responded with, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too!”  I Kings 19:10  His words just dripping with self-pity!

Discouragement is often the result of unrealistic expectations.  In Elijah’s case his expectation was likely that after the prophets of Baal were defeated God would continue to show his power over evil by nullifying Jezebel’s influence (maybe through a well-aimed lightning bolt!).  He expected God to work in Jezebel’s life in the same way he worked in the lives of the prophets of Baal – with an awesome display of his mighty power.  Yet, when God failed to work in the way he desired, Elijah’s brooded over his disappointment which led ultimately to a massive case of self-pity and the blues.

It’s easy to get down – focus on unmet expectations, disappointments, failures of others, failures of God to act in a way that you wanted.  The hard part is to dig your heels in and stop the descent down that slippery slope of self-pity.  Elijah didn’t seem to have the will to fight so God graciously led him out to the side of the mountain to reveal something about himself to Elijah (I Kings 19:11).  There the Lord gave Elijah a lesson in His ways.

What did Elijah expect when God told him He was going to pass by?  I don’t know about you, but I would expect something pretty impressive.  Indeed, it started in very dramatic way – tornado winds sending rocks tumbling down the mountainside, then a ground shaking earthquake making even more rocks tumble, then bolts of lightning striking all around – yet, God was conspicuously absent in these potent displays of wonder working power.  “The Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire.”  Then came a “gentle breeze” (NIV) or a “still, small voice” (NKJV) in which the Lord was present and speaking to Elijah.

It’s hard to predict what God will do.  When we finally think we have his ways figured out, He then goes and does something totally unexpected.  His ways are not our ways.  Vance Havner states, “Anyone who thinks he has the ways of God conveniently tabulated analyzed and correlated with convenient glib answers…(for) aching hearts has not gone far in this maze of mystery we call life and death…He has no stereotyped way of doing what he does.  I accept what he does, how he does it.”

God powerfully crushed the Baal worshippers on Carmel with a lightning bolt and thunder punctuated display of his awesome power.  Yet, he chose to deal with Jezebel in a different manner.  He delivered Peter from prison with an earthquake but allowed Stephen to be stoned to death.  He administered supernatural anti-venom when Paul was bit by a viper but allowed the nails of Calvary to kill his own Son in order to deliver us all.  God doesn’t always tip his hand.  His ways seem mysterious at times and if we think we can and we must find out what He is doing we are destined for disappointment and the blues.

There are no guarantees that life with God will be smooth and carefree.  At times we will look foolish and weak.  We will be opposed and evil will seem to have the upper hand.  Our best-made and best-laid plans will fizzle out and turn to a pile of ash.  We will want God to show up in power – to lay low the Jezebels in our lives with a dramatic display of his unmistakable power.  But He refuses to live life by our playbook.  Yet, there is a gentle wind blowing…a still, small voice speaking.  He is moving to accomplish his purposes and plans in his way – whether we perceive it or not.

Elijah still didn’t get the point, even after God vividly demonstrated his point and his ways on the mountainside. We know this because his discouraged prophet gave the same whiny answer as before. (I Kings 19:14)  So, God in his patient grace, firmly called Elijah back into the game.  “Go back the way you came…anoint Hazael…anoint Jehu…anoint Elisha.”  These actions would bring an end to the despicable reign of Ahab and Jezebel.  He also reminded Elijah he wasn’t alone in the fight – there were 7,000 in Israel who had not followed the ways of Jezebel in bowing to Baal.  God bluntly called Elijah to get back in the struggle and to recognize that he had a whole bunch of teammates on his side!

Elijah couldn’t choose to throw his blues away – feelings rarely respond to direct commands!  However, he could choose to obey his Lord.  He could choose to stop wallowing in self-pity.  He could choose to focus on the truth that God’s ways are not our ways, that he still had a purpose and calling, and that there are others around him who shared his heart for the Lord.  Elijah’s emotions may have been unresponsive to his commands but his will was still free!

Elijah did what God called him to do, “So Elijah went from there….”  His action and obedience was the beginning of his healing.  He chose to get up off the sidelines of self-pity and get back in the game.  He didn’t belong there.  That’s why God kept asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  I don’t know when his blues turned to yellows.  I don’t know when his emotions decided to come on board but I know they did eventually come around.

You may be disappointed and discouraged by the ways God is (and is not) working in your life.  You may feel like you have just had “enough” and, truth be told, the thought of just checking out of life sounds appealing.  Remember, you are not alone.  God’s most renowned and respected prophet went through the same thing.  If you are still here, God still has a purpose for you.  Choose to act by loving those around you.  Choose to stop wallowing in self-pity.  Choose to be encouraged by your brothers and sisters who are in the struggle with you.  Choose to remember that God does work in mysterious and unpredictable ways…and it will be that way until we are home with Him…or at least start by choosing to get a good night’s sleep!

I can just hear the laughter and see the smile on Elijah’s face when, after finally having figured out that God is “gentle breeze” type of God, he rides up to his eternal home in the midst of a tornado! II Kings 2:11

My thanks to Dave Roper, one of my mentors in Boise, whose teaching and insights on this passage have often helped me move from the blues to the yellows!

Running at Redline

“What you are about to do, do quickly!”  ~ Jesus

We tend to try and do a lot of things quickly.  The demanding pace of life at the beginning of the 21st century often leaves us haggard, panting, and longing for “good ole days” when people had the luxury of sipping iced tea while they relaxed on the front porch and chatted with neighbors.  Front porches have mostly disappeared (other than for aesthetic purposes), we are told sweet tea isn’t good for us, and the “chatting” we do now is often with “Siri” as we sit in our cars responding to the latest urgent texts and attempting to figure out how we are going to make it to the three places we have to be in the next 30 minutes.  Yet, despite all our activity, more and more of us are feeling a hollowness in our own souls that we just can’t seem to shake.

Jesus only asked one person to hurry – Judas! (John 13:27)  As you look at Jesus’ life, he doesn’t seem to be stressed, harried, or in a hurry.  His life was full and oftentimes busy, but somehow he seemed to live life well below redline.  He took time to get alone regularly. (Luke 5:16)  He didn’t allow the incessant demands and expectations of others to dictate his schedule. (Luke 4:42-44)  His rhythm and pace seem to be dictated by the peace of God that ruled in his heart and mind.  If anyone had reason to rush and to live life at maximum RPMs you would have thought it would have been Jesus.  Only 3 ½ years of public ministry to bring in the kingdom of God and to prepare his followers to assume leadership in this kingdom – no time to waste, no time for R&R, lots of overtime hours should be expected.  Yet, that wasn’t the Son of God’s approach.  In fact, he seemed to lobby against our tendency to push ourselves and focus on “results” rather than relationships.  He recognized the possibility of burnout in his followers and scheduled a retreat. (Mark 6:30&31)  He didn’t seem overly impressed with big “successes” in ministry (Luke 10:17-20).  He recognized that frantic activity, even when done for him, tends to distract us from what is most important. (Luke 10:38-42)  He, like Paul after him, realized that his relationship with the Father was his most significant “work”.  (Phil 3:7ff)

I say I want to live like Jesus, but when I look at my life I realize in many areas those are words ring a bit hollow!  I like speed and activity.  Ironically, I often feel best about myself emotionally when I am most busy and exhausted physically.  For some reason, a large portion of my self-esteem is determined by the “busyness” of my schedule.  That’s why it is hard for me to relax…even on vacation.  That’s why I often feel I have to do more – far more than God intended me to do, far more than others expect me to do, and far more than my aging body is designed to do.  Inwardly, I am still striving to “prove” myself to someone or to God…failing to grasp the wonderful implications of grace – that I am loved and accepted because of Jesus not because of how many items I was able to check off my To Do list today!  As I talk with people regularly, I highly suspect that I am not alone in this struggle!

We are not getting much help from the current crop of evangelical Christian authors in our attempts to be still and know our precious God. (Ps. 46:10)  Despite what I think are very good intentions, the message of a host of young, energetic, and evangelical Christian authors is that we can and must do more to change our lives and the world.   We need to be “radical”, “more than a fan”, and “crazy lovers” as shown by our crazy busy lives.   The Christian life should be “epic”, “revolutionary”, “impactful”, “ultimate”, “extreme”, “awesome”, “alternative”, “innovative”, and “edgy”.  I have to have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).  I must be part of the “Next Big Thing”! In one sense, some of this is very true but if we are not careful this intoxicating elixir may simply feed our own lust for endless and exhausting activity in an attempt to prove how “sold-out” and “authentic” we really are.  The key is our motivation.  Am I joyously responding out of a deep sense of His love and acceptance to a call from His Spirit to live more radically for him in a particular way or am I responding out of a sense of inadequacy, guilt, or even boredom in an attempt to demonstrate to myself and others that I’m not just an “ordinary” Christian.

Jesus, very unlike me, didn’t have to stay busy because he knew that God’s children don’t have to prove something through their performance.  He spent 90% of his life in relative obscurity being faithful and pleasing to the Father in what were likely very ordinary activities.  Our world tells us we have to be “epic” and “successful” to be of value yet the Word tells us that our value and significance comes from the worth God has given us.  I am created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27)  He valued me enough to send his Son to die for me (Romans 5:6-8).  He has chosen me, forgiven me, and adopted me into his family (Eph.1:3-8)  I will one day be a co-heir with Christ of every good thing (Romans 8:32) and the best part is that none of these benefits comes through my performance but is solely the result of his generous grace. (Eph. 2:8&9) The Father really does love us – right now! (I John 3:1)  We are fully loved and accepted children of God through Jesus Christ and it is His Spirit at work in us that will enable us to do what He has called us to do. (Eph. 2:10) We can and should rest securely in this wonderful reality.

Please don’t use this brief article as a justification for leading an apathetic or mediocre Christian life.  That is not my intent at all!  However, I write in order to comfort those of us who have callings that are less than “epic”, who have giftings that are not “exceptional”, and whose BHAG maybe is just staying faithful to Jesus and others in the midst of “ordinary” life.  We can (and should) celebrate those with “exceptional” gifts whom God has called to make an “epic” “impact” for the kingdom.  Yet, we can (and should) celebrate those who are growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ through “ordinary” obedience, “ordinary” service, and the “ordinary” loving of their family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.  The more I grow and the more I know people – the more I realize how living an “ordinary” life as a follower of Jesus is truly extraordinary!

I’ll close with an anecdote from the life of a truly “radical” and “innovative” follower of Christ – Martin Luther.  Once, Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther were deciding on the day’s agenda.  Young, enthusiastic and brilliant Philip proposed, “Martin, this day we will discuss the governance of the universe.”  To which Luther replied, “This day you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God!” I think a lot of us need to go fishing with a friend!!

Grow in Grace?

As humans we tend to be incurably religious…most often in the pharisaical sense of the word.  We gravitate toward man made rules and regulations that supposedly represent God’s standard for acceptance or rejection.  Some of these tend to make a lot of logical sense.  If I never take a drink of alcohol I will certainly never get drunk therefore, no good Christian should ever crack open a Bud with his pizza!  If I am never out with a woman or man I will certainly never fall into sexual sin therefore, no good Christian should ever date.  If I never watch TV, go to movies, go to an art exhibition, read secular literature I will certainly never see or hear anything sinful therefore, no good Christian should ever participate in any of these activities. If I never let my child interact with other children they will not be led astray by peer pressure therefore, good Christian parents should only homeschool their children.  The logic appears reasonable on the surface but the results can be disastrous!  Take for example this logical statement, “If I never eat food then I certainly won’t become a glutton therefore, no good Christian should ever eat!” The apostle Paul recognized that the Colossian believers were in danger of being duped by this logical, yet spiritually worthless, approach to Christianity and he confronts the issue directly in the second chapter of his letter to the Colossians.

“Why… do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ – human precepts and teachings?”  Why do we put ourselves under these unbiblical man made religious burdens?  That is a very good question to ponder because if we don’t answer it correctly then we may actually be more vulnerable to the very “sins of the flesh” that all of our extra-biblical religious rules and regulations are attempting to prevent.  Paul says very boldly, “they (these human rules and regulations) are of NO VALUE in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (emphasis mine)  We respond, “You’ve got to be kidding, Paul!  You can’t really mean that all my vigorous and demanding attempts to defeat my sinful nature are worthless.  I’m busting my tail end to make my self better!” If we are relying on our own system to improve, that is exactly what Paul is saying!  To be honest, most of us simply don’t believe the apostle on this point.  We really do think that our thoroughly planned and well designed rules will allow us to triumph over the darker side of our nature.

So, we slowly and sometimes imperceptibly drift toward a rules based system of living the Christian life…we become “religious”! It is subtle, but the creep of religion into Christianity is a problem that followers of Christ have needed to face since the very first century.  Why does this happen?  What causes us, the redeemed and liberated followers of Jesus Christ, to give up the glorious freedom that the Lord purchased for us with his very blood? (See Gal. 5:1)

Let’s look at a few possibilities to ponder in our quest to answer this riddle:

  1. We become “religious” because we don’t really believe we are all that sick. We tend to opt for a home made remedy instead of paying a visit to the Great Physician…after all, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit some of these things we still do as believers. We understand that we couldn’t handle our past sins but we think, now that God has already removed some of our really bad behavior, that we can finish the rest of the job of cleaning up our lives in our own strength.  Frankly, we’d rather handle it on our own. After all, we’re not that bad…at least not as bad as “those” people or as bad as we used to be!  Pride is fabulously fertile soil in which religion quickly germinates, grows and bears its disastrously bitter fruit.  After pastoring and hearing people’s confessions for close to twenty years (and knowing myself for 48!), not much that believers or non-believers do of a sinful nature shocks me anymore.  I’ve seen bad behavior emanate from very “religious” lives and from very “rebellious” lives…with almost equal frequency.  We simply cannot repair the brokenness of our lives on our own.  Our lustful hearts will not be tamed by an internet filter, “bouncing our eyes”, or accountability partner – they must be healed by Jesus!  The egos that so often drive our critical and cynical tongues will not be reformed in three easy steps – they must be healed by Jesus!  We need to admit our pride and cry out to the Lord to make us whole. I believe that we will either acknowledge the greatness of our ongoing need for the Lord or He will allow us to sin greatly…one way or another, we end up on our knees seeking his help!   Most of us began our Christian life with the realization that we desperately needed Jesus’ forgiveness and help but we rarely continue to live as Christians in this humble dependent faith (Gal. 3:1-3; Col. 2:6&7). We really bring nothing to the table except our need for Jesus…and fortunately, that is enough! (John 15:5)
  2. We become “religious” because we are captivated by fine sounding arguments that extol our abilities and our human potential. (Col. 2:8, 23) We want a plan that we can “work”…and we will pay hundreds of dollars and hour to someone who will give us a fine sounding plan!  I’m not against counseling that is Gospel based yet so much is simply, “YOU CAN DO IT!” covered with a veneer of fine sounding therapeutic vocabulary.  Our sense of guilt seems to drive us to make some sacrifice in order to atone for our past mistakes and make ourselves better in the future. So we adopt rigorous rules and regulations that “appear wise”. (Col. 2:23)   These “ascetic” practices that our bodies find difficult to practice somehow cause us to feel that we are making up for our sin and moving forward in our lives.  “I’ll get up every morning at 4:30 and pray for 2 hours!”  “I’ll fast for ….”  “I’ll never speak until spoken to.”  “I’ll never …”  These rules sound good.  They make sense.  We will be able to do it…until we don’t and then the whole miserable process starts over again.  We need to remember Jesus words on the cross, “It is finished!”  He did really pay our debt in full and he does not require any additional “sacrifice” to be satisfied with us!  When we mess up our first step should be back into his loving and accepting arms!
  3. We become religious because we succumb to the pressures of the religious crowd. No one wants to feel like an outsider. So when the religious crowd lets you know, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that you are not meeting their standard there is a strong human tendency to simply go along to get along.  This propensity is one we have to battle regularly.  “Let no one pass judgment on you..” is what Paul tells the Colossian believers while referring to a list of man made religious standards that the religious crowd was attempting to foist on the church (Col. 2:16).   In Colossae, those turning up the legalistic religious heat also claimed to have had wonderful “spiritual” experiences that validated their particular rules and regulations (visions and exotic experiences with angels – Col. 2:18)   There can be very strong and persuasive pressures in a church culture that seek to conform members of the body, not into the image of Christ, but into their image of a “good” Christian.  How quickly a new believer’s joy and freedom in Christ can be quenched by the religious rules and regulations of the crowd.  Our freedom needs to be cherished and fought for!  We are often too polite and simply don’t say, “Nonsense!” to those who are trying to push their man made religious agenda on us- no matter how super spiritual it sounds. “The only acceptable bible translation is the KJV of 1611.”  Nonsense! “Women can only wear dresses.” Nonsense!  “Homeschooling is the only acceptable option.” Nonsense!  “You need to be at every church function.” Nonsense!  “You must tithe 10% to the church” Nonsense!  “You should never dance.” Nonsense! “You must submit and stop questioning my authority”  Nonsense! “You can never drink a glass of Riesling.”  Nonsense!  Paul says that it is not a big deal to him if other believers judge him as long as he is seeking to please the Lord…may we be able to adopt that attitude as well and live in the freedom that Jesus has given to us! (I Cor. 4:3)
  4. We become “religious” because we lose our intimate connection with Christ through his Spirit. The religious crowd in Colossae, with all their supposedly “spiritual” standards, had actually lost their grip on Jesus Christ (Col. 2:19)  How easily we can be led away from a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (II Cor 11:3) towards a false piety of religious rule following which is simply pride camouflaged with external religious behavior.   It is scary to ponder Jesus words to the religious professionals of his day who were so smug, so “right” and so “righteous” in their own eyes (Matt. 23).  Our fallen human nature gravitates toward a “system” of religion that we can control.  Our initial joyous walk with Christ can quickly morph into all the religious stuff I have to do before I go to bed tonight.  I was struck once again by Jesus’ words in John 5 to the crowds following him who asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  That’s a good question…a very good question.  And what was Jesus’ response?  “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent!”  Jesus doesn’t lay out the top 45 things we have to do to satisfy the Father.  He says one thing, and one thing only is necessary – “Believe in me!”  Our call is to live in a trust filled relationship with Jesus.  If I am staying connected with Jesus then I will live in such a way that no amount of external rules and regulations could ever produce. I will have access to his power that alone can heal my brokenness and tame my sinful flesh.  I will walk under his easy yoke instead of being crushed under the burdensome yoke of legalism.  I will quickly and freely confess my sins – coming into his presence boldly because I know it’s not my performance that makes me acceptable to him.  I will delight in his unconditional love instead of being discouraged by the judgmental stares of the religious rule keepers.  I will seek from the heart to really follow what he says because I know he loves me and desires my best instead of grumbling my way through a long and difficult list of religious do’s and don’ts.

For a long time I wondered why the apostle Peter had to command God’s people to “grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”   Wouldn’t we, as broken fallen people, naturally gravitate toward a deeper and more intimate experience of the grace of Jesus?  After all, what is more needed and more wonderful than the grace of Jesus Christ?  Yet, our perversely proud nature continues to long to merit our own salvation or at least perform our own sanctification.  To combat this proud delusion we’ve got to stay close to Jesus…even if we are more uncomfortably aware of our own sinfulness in his presence.  Paul was keenly aware of his own sinful nature throughout his life. “I am (not “was”) the foremost of sinners!” he told his young protégé Timothy. (I Tim 1:15)  He details his ongoing battle with the flesh very honestly and clearly in Romans 7.  Yet, he constantly strove to know Jesus more intimately (Phil 3).  Why?  Because he knew that a life of religious rule keeping couldn’t change him and make him whole…only the person of Jesus Christ and the power of his Spirit could do that!

So, believers, fight for your freedom!  Don’t let yourself be judged by those who have an endless list of man made religious demands that lack any value in producing true change.  Hold fast to Jesus and may even your failures and falls grow in you a deeper understanding and appreciation of his undeserved grace.  Christ in us…our only hope of glory!

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh!”
The Apostle Paul