Thoughts on Life

Friday, August 7, 2009

This May Sting a Little

Some stories still amaze me. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear them, tell them, or read them. They are just simply amazing. I was looking recently at the book of Exodus. God accomplished some miraculous things. The people of Israel observed and experienced some miraculous things. But that was not enough.

In chapter 19, some really interesting things happen. The people of Israel have been out of Egypt for a mere two months. That means it had been two months since the parting of the Red Sea which clearly was a testament to the power of God. Now they find themselves at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God meets with Moses on the top of the mountain and says, “Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my special treasure in all the earth, for the whole earth belongs to me.” The Israelites quickly agreed. God had already proven his might.

Then things get more interesting. God appears in mighty ways and gives them instructions and boundaries. “Do not touch or come close to my boundaries,” God says.“For if you do, you will surely die.” Then God gives the Ten Commandments and meets with Moses to give him ceremonial and cultural laws.

The Israelites get impatient with the amount of time that it is taking Moses to return. They have Aaron, Moses’ brother, make for them an idol of gold shaped like a calf, an image worshiped in Egypt. They are so anxious to worship something that they fall down before an image created from their own possessions and past experiences.

The modern application and relevance of this story is astounding. The more I study God’s word, the more I see that many of our failures (my failures) are a result of seeing Jesus as we want Him to be and not as He is. Too often, the Jesus that we worship is the one that we create. We take various attributes of the real Jesus (the ones that we like) and shape them into an image that we can safely worship. He is an image that we have shaped out of our possessions and past experiences. If the Israelites had named their image “Jesus” would it have made their worship any less idolatrous? Is that really any different in principle and practice from what we do?

I have some dear friends in Mississippi that own a home d├ęcor store. They offer great accoutrements for homes at fantastic prices. One of their better selling items is a picture of Jesus… as a black man. It should be noted that it is not just our brothers and sisters who have a darker epidermis layer who are comforted by an image of Jesus that closely resembles them. The fact is that this is a very visual demonstration of a multi-cultural reality. We all have a tendency to transform Jesus into our image as opposed to letting Him transform us into His.

The more I look at my life, the more I appreciate my Jesus. My Jesus understands me. My Jesus gives grace and mercy for my sins. My Jesus forgets all my indiscretions. My Jesus loves me exactly as I am. However, my Jesus is a lie. My Jesus is a lie because the reality is that my Jesus is my creation.

If I’m honest, then the above statements actually read as follows: My Jesus understands me but demands nothing from me. My Jesus gives grace and mercy for my sins but stands in righteous judgment of all others (the ones I don’t struggle with). My Jesus forgets all my indiscretions but remembers those who fail me. My Jesus loves me exactly as I am and does not expect me to change. For too long, we all have lived our lives by these bottom set of statements. We haven’t been truly transformed by his working in our lives because we haven’t really allowed him to work.

We haven’t allowed Him to work because we don’t really know who He is. We, generally speaking, would not allow an actual stranger into our lives to shape our character. Jesus, the real one, is a stranger to us, and we all learned at a young age not to talk to strangers. Of course the NAME is familiar. But what about the man…the Messiah, the Holy ONE of God…are we familiar with Him? I submit to you that we are not familiar with Him because we are not completely surrendered to Him nor do we really expect to be. And our lack of real accountability tells us that this is okay, that this is typical. And it is typical. That is the saddest thing of all.

But it is not okay. One of the traps of our “sinner saved by grace” identity is that we still give ourselves permission to sin. When sin is permissible, it is tolerable. When sin is tolerable, it is normal. The real Jesus’ expectations and standards were higher than that. Shouldn’t ours be?

One thing is clear. Jesus’ ministry was with the sinners. He made it habit of being with thieves and prostitutes. He was criticized and chastised for it. But when these people were in his presence they were changed. They surrendered their old identities, and He gave them new ones. When they departed, he usually gave the same command to each of them: “Go and sin no more!” He never once said, “Keep doing what you were doing!” But we allow that. It is normal.

The problem with most of us (me included) is that we want the best of both worlds. We want some of the things that Jesus esteems as virtuous and moral. We desperately want the heavenly reward after life is over. But we don’t really want to give up the things that matter most to us. The result is a hybrid Jesus that rewards us but doesn’t demand too much. We surrender to THAT one. It doesn’t cost us anything.

In Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus tells two parables about the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that a man found hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he had in order to buy the field and get the treasure. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it!”

I recently did work at an equestrian center. The owner of this facility told me of a horse recently purchased by one of his borders for $400,000.00. “Do you want to see it,” he asked. I have rarely seen anything worth that much so I readily accepted his offer. The horse was beautiful. But it wasn’t that much bigger or prettier than other horses at the facility. “What makes a horse worth that much,” I asked, expecting a brief lesson on horse husbandry. “Two things,” he answered, “The idiot who sets the price, and the idiot who pays the price.”

The transaction that Jesus wants to make with us is incomparable to this. He is offering something priceless for something worthless. We are the idiots if we don’t take the transaction. But until we become convinced that what he offers is worth much more than what we currently value, we will never make the trade. We will just come up with more reasons why we really don’t have too. We want our crown of gold without accepting our crown of thorns.

The truth of Jesus’ parable in Matthew is hidden from our Sunday school books and bumper stickers. In those, salvation is free. And that is true enough as it relates to our hybrid Jesus. But the real Jesus says that in order to experience salvation we must trade our old life for a new one. That means that we DO NOT get to keep any part of it. Truthfully, it means that we don’t even want to. The extent to which your new life looks exactly like your old one determines your degree of surrender…sort of. In actuality, if you are 90% surrendered then you are really not surrendered at all. It just means that you didn’t value the 90% you gave to Him. The real value of your life is in the 10% that you hold so tightly to.

In Philippians 1:20, Paul writes that he lives “in eager expectation and hope that I will never do anything that causes me shame…” Is that your expectation? We have lowered our standards so much that we have made the word of God impotent in our lives. Falling at the feet of our hybrid Jesus doesn’t cause us to change. It only causes us to make concessions that the real Jesus would never permit us to make.

Thankfully, the real Jesus still has a ministry with sinners. The bible makes it clear that “when we sin we have an advocate.” (1 John 2:1) Please understand, surrender does not mean perfection. Surrender means taking up our cross daily. We have unintentionally sanitized the gruesome reality of the cross. The cross was an instrument of death and torture. To take our cross up daily means that we choose to place our “selves” (pride, preferences, and pretenses) on that cruel instrument. In other words, we die to self. We truly surrender. It is not easy. In fact, it is torture. But it is worth it. We only need convince ourselves of this.

P.S. If the skin color of Jesus really matters to any brothers and sisters with a white epidermis layer (or any other color), then you aren’t in love with the real Jesus…just your version of Him. It doesn’t really matter how you mentally picture Jesus, as long as you allow Him to change your mentality.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

THAT Was Never the Intention!

In a previous post, I stated that we would look more closely at how we view the church. But first, we need to look at how God views the church. Ephesians 5 speaks in great detail about Christ’s love for the church. He loved it so much that He gave his life for it. He presents it to himself without it having a spot or wrinkle. It is holy and without blemish. God took steps to insure that His church would prevail eternally. He will defend it vehemently. I will not be one whom He must defend it against.

But let me be clear, the church is NOT a building, a program, an agenda (political or otherwise), or a concept. Somewhere along the way we have lost track of who we are. I remember as a child putting my hands together in such a way as to be able to say: “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” The church does not exist because of a building or its steeple. It is the people. And sometimes people stray.

I am constantly finding myself challenged to define what I think church should be. I think I am pretty clear on what it is…what it has become, but what should it really be? The inappropriate wording of that question is driving me bonkers. Let me correct it. What should “we” be?

Like many who are or have been in professional ministry, I have studied every new paradigm within the church for the past 20+ years. We (the American church) are absolutely fantastic at replicating whatever formula we deem most applicable. The result is that we either change our identities at a fervent pace, or we stay exactly who we’ve been since 1946.

But the church was originally an unstoppable force. In its current form, it is very stoppable. It can be stopped by something as insignificant as a change in musical styles or as trivial as improper placement of memorial flowers in the sanctuary. (Some of you actually think I’m kidding.)

At the end of Acts 2, we discover the original recipe for church growth:
“Everyone around was in awe- all those wonders and signs done by the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each persons need was met.” Acts 2 The Message

Can you imagine that? I’m not sure which part is more amazing: that the believers had wonderful harmony or that they forsook personal wealth for the benefit of the whole. They were able to do both because they took seriously (and obeyed) the Lord’s teachings about loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself. They were able to pool their resources because they knew that everyone else cared as much about their family as they did. That is our first departure.

We have become selfish and untrusting, perhaps with valid reasoning. We have learned that “church people” (which is a bit like saying “chicken poultry”) are hypocrites who cannot be trusted. We would gladly consider giving more, though certainly not all, if the people were more worthy. The truth of the matter is that your issue is not with the people but with you…and mine is with me. Our discontentment is neither with the building where we “go to church” nor the people who go there with us. Our discontentment is internal. The church is hypocritical because you are hypocritical. (In my case, I am both hypocritical and hyper-critical.) Our departure causes us to distance ourselves from the bride that Jesus finds unblemished.

Another departure from the original church is the way in which we divide ourselves. We are not living in wonderful harmony because we do not hold all things in common. It used to be that we divided ourselves into Catholics and Protestants. Then we further sub-divided into denominations. Now, we split denominations because of our political leanings (liberal/ conservative) or our worship style (traditional/ contemporary). We do these things because we want our churches to “fit” us. We create or join whatever is most comfortable to us. When it becomes uncomfortable, we shop for another.

Never once do we count the cost of our “religious” consumerism. Never once do we realize that we do not grow past a certain point spiritually because when we get uncomfortable, we change churches. We don’t question our discomfort. We don’t stop to consider if our discomfort is from God so that we might change our character, not our church. God’s purpose for the church was NOT to “fit” any person or group of people. His plan and design called for people to find an undeniable, unquenchable love that provoked them to sacrifice everything in order to “fit.”

In Ezekiel 34, God tells Ezekiel:
“I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep push and butt and crowd my sick and hungry flock until they are scattered to distant lands. So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused and destroyed. And I will judge between one sheep and another.” (NLT)

This is a great picture of what churches can look like. We go to church expecting to be “fed.” We sit and soak. We rarely act on the knowledge we gain; we just accumulate more and more knowledge. We end up fat and arrogant with our knowledge and self-righteousness. We battle each other for prime positions on committees or other service positions. It’s like we are building church service resumes with which we intend to circulate to whoever will listen. We have reduced church service to a line item on a resume or worse. Now no one is listening. We have the greatest message in all of history. It is disregarded largely because we deserve to ignored…not the message, but the messenger.

Our answer to this is to create churches that are cutting edge and relevant. However, the more I study current church methodologies, the more I realize that we are changing the exterior (the practices, methods, and programs) without addressing the problem. Practices, methods, and programs NEVER reach people. People reach people, and if we are unchanged internally, then no amount of cutting edge, relevant “window dressing” is going to make an impact. The problem with contemporary church is that nothing is sacred. The problem with traditional church is that everything is. And when everything is sacred, then nothing is. We have to realize that God himself is sacred…period! Everything else is preference.

The design of the church was not to create relevancy and edginess nor was it to remember our history and preserve our heritage. It was designed to create community and facilitate change. But the change that it facilitated was not in political or social arenas but in people, more precisely, it was in individual persons. We fail to realize how great our departure is from the original model. We have damaged the world’s image of Christ because we’ve departed from His unblemished bride.

In fact, after reading Malachi 1, I am left wondering how God feels about our unworthy sacrifices. God says that He wishes someone would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered. I wonder, for some of us, if our ultimate act of worship would be to “shut the doors to the temple (church building)” because we (the local church) have so dishonored our God by our worthless sacrifices. I say this because we have lost focus. We spend so much time and effort on trivial things. We debate theology and hermeneutics while the world, that we are supposed to provide light to, darkens.

In Matthew 25, Jesus is telling of the final judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats. “Depart from me, I never knew you,” he says to the goats who never fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, sheltered strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, or visited the prisoners. “Lord, when did we not do these things,” they asked. They didn’t even notice. I’m sure they weren’t all negligent. Some were just too busy offering worthless sacrifices.

The sheep, on the other hand, when confronted didn’t realize that they had met needs either. “When did we do these things, Lord,” they asked. Funny thing! They didn’t notice either. They simply did. It was second nature. It was character reformation. When commanded to love, they obeyed. When a need arose, they met it because they had met the Master. They willingly sacrificed, not to build a service resume, but to build a kingdom.

The church is truly an unstoppable revolutionary force. It was designed that way. It accomplishes through love what military men can’t accomplish with armaments. It betters societies and destroys social barriers. If your “church” doesn’t do these things, then it’s time to change…yourself, not your “church!”

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pardon the Interruption

Please allow me a brief departure from talking about life in general to talking about my life specifically. Thirteen years ago at this very hour, my life changed in the most blessed of ways. She said “I do.” Words can not describe, even now, the ways those little words transformed my life.

I can remember like it was yesterday being a lonely misplaced freshman at Georgia Southern University who was looking for something, anything to keep his sanity. For three weeks, I had only ventured out of my one bedroom apartment to go to class. I decided to visit a campus student organization that was hosting a meeting that evening. I’m not sure you can appreciate the stretch that was for me. There is nothing more intimidating for me than a room full of people that I don’t know. I can teach them, just don’t expect me to interact with them.

She was the first person that I saw. I don’t think she was the first to speak to me or to greet me. She was just the first person that I SAW. When she smiled, it lit the room. (It still does.) As my eyes gazed in her direction, I think the whole earth stopped spinning while angels sang and rays of sunlight illuminated her. I was mesmerized. She, I think, was probably underwhelmed. Just doing what she does. She was excited by a room full of people that she really didn’t know, but would make certain that she did before the evening was done. I was just another guy in the room.

Weeks went by before a video camera and a broken rib would solidify our unique attachment. I stopped being just another guy in the room. I started being the guy in the room…that she would go to for “guy” advice. Such is my luck. I already knew that she was way out of my league though, so I was content simply be near her… for her beauty to radiate my life, for her smile to suddenly erupt and ruin a perfectly good pity party! (I can throw world class pity parties!)

Weeks went by, and our relationship grew. Our friendship grew more intimate (in the nonsexual way) and my attachment to her grew. I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life without her. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I am awkward. You know the dork who can never figure out what to do or say as it relates to the opposite sex? I am that dork!

Eventually, with lots of encouragement from my brother, (Thanks Kev!) I kissed her. I can’t imagine heaven itself holding a sweeter event. My heart pounded! My spine tingled! I was way past smitten.

A couple of years later, I asked her to marry me. She said yes. I kept waiting for her to change her mind. What did a girl like that see in a guy like me? I still ask myself that. And I still don’t know the answer.

On August 3rd, 1996, we wed in a small church in Bostwick, Ga. We had no idea what life would have in store for us. We had no idea that medical conditions with our first child would try us beyond what we could imagine. We had no idea that those same medical conditions would take the life of our second child or that our third child would be a running tornado. We only knew that we were committed to each other. I only knew that my life would forever be better because she said “I do.”

We still don’t know exactly what will happen. We don’t know the curves life will throw, or what plans will fail. But we still dream together. We still plan together. We still raise our two beautiful boys together. Through it all we are committed, to God first and then to each other. I don’t deserve her, but I thank God for her.

I Love You, Dawn! Thank you for the best thirteen years of my life.

And thank you to those of you who have shared this journey with us. May god bless each of you greatly!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Role of Obedience

What role does obedience play in living the “Christian” life? This is the point in the lesson where the answers usually begin with: “we should.” I am no longer at all interested in what “we should” be doing. As a matter of fact, I’m becoming less interested in what you are doing. I am finding it hard enough to concentrate on what I am doing.

Please know that I do not think I am accomplishing anything for the Kingdom of God simply because I have a keyboard at my disposal. Writing this post is not “doing” anything. If we can read or hear God’s words and walk away unchanged, then I have no illusions of making a difference with my words. It’s not like I can phrase it better than He did, nor do I have better understanding of language than the inventor of it!

Yet I know that the words for life are contained within the holy word of God. “They wouldn’t obey my instructions even though obedience would have given them life.” (Ezekiel 20:13) Based on that and that alone, the role obedience plays in life is to give us life itself. However, we needlessly complicate obedience with our excuses and rationale. It’s ironic really. If my children give me excuses as to why they don’t obey, I punish them. There is no logical reason for disobedience. However, if I disobey my Father, I expect, and if I’m completely honest, I think I deserve, mercy and grace. I do, after all, have some very good reasons for my indiscretions.

But what about God? What are His thoughts on the obedience issue? If we go back to the beginning, (literally, in the beginning…) we find that the first sin issue in history wasn’t a sexual issue, inappropriate language, or a lack of a consistent devotional life. It was simply not following God’s instructions. It was disobedience. That one little misfortune led to serious consequences. How can we think that our misfortunes will not have lingering ramifications on our lives? Adam and Eve would surely differ with us on that prevailing notion.

So how did we get to the point in our spiritual lives where we minimalize obedience? We would never vocalize that it’s not important. In fact, we would defend the necessity of obedience with vicious rhetoric. Therein lies the problem. We verbally consent to the necessity of obedience without ever practically being obedient.

“Your people are whispering behind your back. They talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun! Let’s go listen to the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying.’ So they come pretending to be sincere and sit before you listening. But they have no intention of doing what I tell them. They express love with their mouths, but their hearts seek only after personal gain. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t do it!” (Ezekiel 33:30-32 NLT)

What a perfect picture of our time! This passage describes both you and me. Much like the New Testament passage in which the apostle’s ask for more faith and Jesus responds that they should simply use what they have (Luke 17), the last thing we need is more knowledge or rules. We only need use what we already know. We need to stop using our rationale and start using our prudence. To continue in the same vein (disobedience) only exacerbates our issues.

So what are our issues? I think the passage sums most of them up perfectly. It begins with our insincerity. For many of us, our Sunday routines are very insincere. It’s not that we don’t want to be in church, we very much do, but the “real” us is the one left at home. We fear people knowing who we really are. We fear that if we really tell someone that we are struggling in our marriages, our finances, our parenting, or our habits, then they will judge us harshly. We would rather put on our Sunday mask with our Sunday clothes and pretend that everything is fine. The effect that has is to make everything about our worship insincere. The only biblical instructions for worship are that it be done “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23) In order for us to be obedient to that command, we must bring the “real” us regardless of the humiliation we might endure.

The second issue is our intentions. Do we express love with our mouths but only seek after personal gain? Of course we would deny this. The kind of honesty that it would take to admit this though is the same kind that will cause our worship to be sincere. I am a great example of this.

Years ago, I was in a difficult ministry situation. I felt led to fast for a period of 30 days. It was a very trying but beneficial time spiritually. After the fast, I expected God to give me the freedom to resign. He didn’t! In fact, it was clearly revealed that He wanted me to stay in the difficult situation. I was furious with Him. I expected Him to honor and reward my efforts by giving me what I so desperately wanted. My whole fast was revealed to be a sham because of the insincerity of it. My intentions were for personal gain not for Godliness. I am sure that you have a similar story. (Feel free to share it in the comments section.)

The third issue is actually the way we view church. I will write in more depth on this in my next post, but many of us to treat the worship service as entertainment. We like the gossip. We like to check out who is wearing what. We do this in such a way that we insure that neither worship nor service occur while we are occupied on Sunday mornings. So we, like the Israelites, hear what is said but don’t do it.

So what’s the big deal about obedience? Obedience is the only way to connect with our Father. But we misuse scripture as justification for our indiscretions. We rationalize our disobedience because we actually intended to obey. But our best of intentions is negated by our lack of actually obeying. No amount of piety can make restitution for disobedience. God is not interested in what “we should” be doing. He is very interested in what we are doing.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Poor Loser In the Room

How does one get from a point of knowing you need to change to actually wanting to. The cycles and seasons written about in an earlier post are evidence of times when I knew I needed to make a change. But they failed because I clearly didn’t want the change. I didn’t desire it. The biblical life is very much a journey of desire. Admittedly, I am no expert on this subject. My simple musings are no road map. They are simply diary entries of a pilgrim in progress, but for the first time in my spiritual life I find myself at a point where I REALLY want change.

In the last post, we talked about the woman at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. We addressed in sufficient detail that she understood Jesus’ grace. Her sinful past enabled her to. We discussed the fact that Simon the Pharisee did not at all understand. His right standing within the religious institution of his day created a barrier to his heart. The question that was not asked in the earlier post is: why did he, Simon, not understand?

There are probably a plethora of reasons why. But chief among them is his own self-deception. If you take the story at face value, the lesson that you could glean from this passage is that the more sinful that we have been, the better we understand Christ’s grace and mercy. Perhaps even life experience has seemed to solidify that concept, but that is NOT Jesus’ point. It’s not even the truth!

The truth of the matter is that Simon, being confident in his “goodness,” glanced at the other person in the room and began to safely evaluate his own righteousness. The problem was that he was looking at the wrong person. His righteousness was self-righteousness. His contentment is negated by a false standard of evaluation. Simon has equal sin, different in practice, but equal in substance and quantity. He doesn’t see it because the social, political, and religious norms of his day condemned obvious public sins while allowing “smaller” private sins...perhaps even celebrating them. By that measure, he is justified while she is condemned.

But the measure is wrong. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. We still, however, measure it in the same way. It is easy for us to glance around the room and justify ourselves. To be sure, there are some in the room that we don’t quite measure up to, but we are pretty certain that they have sin that just hasn’t revealed itself yet. There is sure to be something pretty ugly in their closet. It makes us feel better. There are also some in the room that make us feel really good about ourselves because we aren’t them. They are an obvious wreck! Thank God we are not like them!

The standard of measure is not the other mere mortals gathered in the room with us but the glorious, all- powerful, risen King. By that measure, we are sunk. Understanding grace and mercy is not made possible by realizing that another’s sin accumulation smells worse than ours. It is made possible by realizing that we all have a stinky sin accumulation that makes us desperate for a Savior. We are ALL in equal need of a Savior. Until we get to that point, we will never experience grace and mercy. We will never get past knowing that we need to change. We’ll just be content to know that we are better off in our spirituality than the poor loser over there whose life is an obvious wreck. But we are all somebody else’s poor loser!

What we find is that the longer a person follows the Savior, the less aware they become that they need a Savior. We become inoculated to the truth contained in God’s word. “Son of man, you live among rebels who could see the truth if they wanted to, but they don’t want to. They could hear me if they would listen, but they wont listen because they are rebellious.” (Ezekiel 12:1-2) Our rebellion is self-deception. We hear many (ok, some) truth filled messages and hope the poor loser in the room is listening. We, like Simon, look around the room and pray that Jesus helps the poor loser because they sure do need it. Truthfully, though, I am the poor loser. So are you!

As I read today in Ezekiel 11, I was impacted by God’s words. “When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their vile images and detestable idols. And I will give them a singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people and I will be their God. But as for those who long for vile images and detestable idols, I will repay them fully for their sins. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken.” (Ezekiel 11:18-21)

This IS a road map for the biblical life. You should not trust in my words, nor any mere mortal for that matter, but you can be assured that God’s words are true. After nearly 10 years, I have returned to my “homeland.” Some has changed, but much is the same. The challenge here isn’t a struggle with “bad” things. Of course bad things are present. They always are! But the challenge, the idols if you will, that impinge our worship are good things. But good simply isn’t good enough. God desires more than we currently give, and he is certainly worthy of it. Do we want to give Him what He richly deserves or are we content to just know that we need to?

Sacrificing our desires is difficult. Obedience is required to do it. If we respond to Gods call, which means we have to shut up long enough to hear Him, then He promises us that our hearts will be changed. We have become so accustomed to ignoring God’s rule and voice in our lives that our heart, like Simon the Pharisee’s, inadvertently becomes hardened. But it only takes us surrendering our good things for God’s better things to reverse this trend in our lives. But we have to want to!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Grass Is Greener...?

The concept of growing where I am planted has never resonated well with me. I am constantly looking for something bigger and more grandiose. I am, quite simply, addicted to encouragement. I love being appreciated. In fact, it motivates me more than I care to admit. But God’s design and plan calls for us to be faithful. That means being faithful where we are. It means being faithful with what we have. I usually fall into the trap of thinking that if only I had then I could do something really special. But the fault of that logic merits chastening. I do not need to do something special because I define what special is. I need to remember that God IS special. I am small.

For some reason, I like, some of you, fall into the “grass is greener” trap. I want to accomplish something for God so much that I am constantly running out in front of His guidance in order to accomplish it. If it succeeds, I try to share His glory. If it fails…well that’s all on Him. It’s His will and plan.

Most of the time I feel like a spiritual Forrest Gump except that my stumbling and bumbling turn into…well, stumbling and bumbling. I try to take solace in the fact that God can take whatever I have and use it for His glory. He uses my good and redeems my bad. But when I study God’s word and see the power and majesty contained there, I’m more convinced than ever that everything that I have to give is insignificant. But our great God uses the insignificant.

For example, Jesus went to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While there, he was approached by “a woman of ill repute.” She was a prostitute. She had a past. She had shame. She had guilt. But she was moved by the compassion of the Savior. She knelt and washed his feet with her tears. She dried them with her hair. She anointed them with expensive perfume. The Pharisee was indignant. Jesus, seeing through their exteriors, told the story of a man loaning money to two people. The sums owed were vastly different. The debt could not be repaid. The terms were renegotiated and the debt was forgiven. “Who do you suppose loved him (the man who forgave the debt) more,” Jesus asked Simon. “I suppose the one who had the larger debt,” he answered. And he was correct. But he still didn’t get it.

By the world’s standards, only one person in the room that night was insignificant. She was the one God used. “I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible,” she might have said. But now she understands feeling redeemed!

Unfortunately, I am usually more like Simon the Pharisee. He was a good man. Religious! Probably great at following rules! He would be the current equivalent to the regular church attender, very faithful in his attendance, and able to follow well the religious expectations of the day! But he still doesn’t get it.

“Speaking in the language of today, we would say that she (the unnamed woman) went ‘nuts’ about Jesus. Her behavior obviously was the behavior of a ‘nutty’ person. (We really do have to use colloquial language to capture responses to Jesus. More formal, literary, or theological language cannot do it.) When we see Jesus as he is, we must turn away or else shamelessly adore him. That must be kept in mind for any authentic understanding of the power of Christian faith. This woman, unlike Simon, was not about to turn away.” (The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard, pg. 19)

When was the last time you found yourself “nuts”… absolutely, totally, completely, and irrationally nuts. What was it about or in response to? Usually when we go “nuts” it is because something has angered us or our team has scored. In matters of faith, we have sufficiently trained ourselves to be restrained. We still don’t get it!

The first time I heard a dirty joke, I was in sixth grade at NASA space camp in Huntsville, AL. It was a school fieldtrip. That night when the lights went out, a student who was new to the school (at least I had not seen him much) told a joke so vile that to this day I remember every word. And then a funny thing happened when we were in eighth grade. This same student had a love encounter with Jesus. And he went absolutely nuts. He started praying for students. He started speaking to others about the change Jesus made. It was uncomfortable, but we knew it would soon pass. He soon would become “normal” just like us. We were thrilled that he got “saved.” Now, would he please just SHUT UP! Who did he think he was anyway? Most of the rest of us had been “saved” for years. His excitement was ruining our “Christian” reputation. Unlike us, he wasn’t even a member of the campus Christian club. Somebody had to teach him how to live the “Christian” life just like us. I mean, from our perspective, he just didn’t get it! But unlike us, he just couldn’t turn away.

Several mornings ago, we shared coffee and a couple of hours of fellowship. He still will not shut up! He is still “nuts!” I could not be more thrilled. He credited his behavior, in a self depreciating manner, to ignorance. “When I read my bible everyday it never occurred to me that I should be any different,” he said. He lived what he read. That is a key to the biblical life. The measure of our faithfulness is not found in our knowledge. It is found in our obedience. (I’d love to take credit for that little nugget of truth, but I’m simply quoting my friend.)

Many times we are absolutely, positively “correct” in our theology. We are even correct in our behavior. We say the right things. We do the right things. We teach the right things. But we still don’t get it!

I was recently at a church when an announcement was made about kids no longer being allowed to run in church. I understand there could be safety issues. Someone could get hurt. But these kids were excited about going to their place to learn more about Jesus. (We can’t have excitement in church so let’s nip that in the bud right now.) The statement made was teaching kids to respect “God’s house.” (I will not begin to address the faulty theology there.) What is more disrespectful to God? Children being children and running in church, or adults who sit in church with hearts darkened by sin that we have absolutely no intention of dealing with? Please understand, I am not expecting anyone in church to be sinless. But when we grow accustomed to our sin, to the point where we have no disdain for it, then we are living a lie!

The biblical life is not about right theology. It’s not about right teaching. It’s not even about right behavior. It’s about getting it! It’s about understanding that our lives are not meant to be lived in order to check the right boxes on our religious to do list. It’s about being so in love with Jesus that we can not turn away. It’s about deciding to make a difference on this terrestrial ball that we call home. It’s about buying one less thing, that we don’t need anyway, in order to give to someone who does have a need. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about doing without so we can do more. Not because we are obligated, nor because it is necessary, but because we get it.

We have everything we need to make a difference now. The question remains…do we really want to make a difference? The biblical life is about choosing to forget your interests in order to be interested in others. There is no room for self. The prostitute poured her “self” out at Jesus’ feet. We have to as well in order to truly experience Him. The Pharisee just judged Jesus’ seeming lack of understanding and discernment. In that moment, the creation judged himself to be more experienced and wise than the Creator! It is far too easy for you and I to do the same.

My younger cousin has a tattoo on her back the reads, “Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.” She probably gets judged harshly for the ink on her body, but the message is one that deserves to be screamed, both with ink and with voices, from the highest hilltop. My friend understands that message. The woman at Jesus’ feet understands that message. Do we?

We still fall into the “grass is greener” trap. We get to a point in life where we trade sinful habits for religious ones, but often, we haven’t exchanged our hearts and minds. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. In fact, being from a rural area, I can tell you that the grass usually grows greener over a septic tank. When we exchange habits without exchanging hearts, we are only changing how we use two hours of our time on Sunday. Jesus did not die so we can punch our clocks on Sunday mornings (we often expect overtime credit for a Sunday night or a Wednesday night) and then go right back to being the same again. If we truly believe, then we are foundationally different. We need to make sure that our spiritual lives are not simply stagnant cesspools of religious activity filled with rules with no personal meaning, action with no individualized purpose, or theology with no practical life change. Making sure of that means that we get it!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Denying Safety and Comfort

Why is it that every time we experience a break- thru there are inevitable set backs? Seriously! I know after my last introductory statement this one is very anticlimactic, but I promise to write what is on my heart. At this very moment, I’m wondering why the world seems so insistent on stealing my break-thru. Why I am I so cowardly as to let it? And can you really call it a break -thru if you’ve only been on the journey for like a week?

I am still committed to living a biblical life. I am still no longer content to live just a Christian one. I do not care if my life matters. I don’t! I care very much that my Lord matters. But I am terrified of the “for now” that has wrecked my spiritual life. Every commitment (regular quiet time, consistent prayer life, treating my family as a priority, etc.) that I have made has ended at some point. So much so, that I am now cynical of myself. But that’s how I feel … “for now!”

The thing that has always bothered me most about me is how cyclical and seasonal my life is. Jesus’ life and ministry were not like that. Let me stop you before you make excuses about that being an unfair comparison and that I am only human. I am perfectly capable of making my own excuses. I’m quite good at it. I do not need your help with that. Seriously though, how much of my life can I realistically expect to look like Jesus’? Whatever your answer is, I’m sure you have short changed His expectations.

Our interest in a Godly life is limited by our definition and concept of what that is. To be sure, what it looks like to us is not what it looks like to God. Furthermore, our rationalization and reasoning for the discrepancy that exists only proves our selfishness. For example, most of us have heard and claimed Psalm 37:4 which says: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desire of your heart.”

Almost without fail, our hearts desire is safety and comfort. But how safety and comfort are defined is subjective. It’s up to me to decide what those things mean for me. However, because we are all, in comparison to the majority of the world, safe and comfortable, we assume that God is fulfilling that promise. He is giving us the desires of our heart. But safety and comfort are NOT God’s desire for us. They are our desire for us! In fact, most of the time those things are diabolically opposite of His plan for us.

How can that possibly be? We, after all, are children of God. He will never leave us or forsake us! Our concerns are His concerns! Really? Those things are all true, but they all have nothing to do with safety and comfort, and everything to do with the biblical life. If Jesus himself did not have a place to lay his head (Luke 9:58) then how can we think God is concerned with our comfort. We don’t like hearing that. I don’t like knowing that. But if I want God more than I want anything else, then I have to look at what He actually says. As children of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17) then shouldn’t our inheritance be the same as our Brother's.

What did Jesus say about His future siblings? He said His brothers (and sisters) were those who have heard the word of God and obeyed. (Luke 8:21) Frankly, our safety and comfort usually keep us from obeying the Lord. For example, I have heard many people while questioning the goodness of God, ask why there are starving children in the world. I think God’s answer is: “Great question! Why are there starving children? I provided the resources to feed them, but new cars and bigger houses seemed more important!” God enunciates this in 1 John 3:17. “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” Stop! Don’t read any further until you read that again!

Can you honestly still be content thinking that God values your safety and comfort? His Old Testament prophets were never safe! Or comfortable! His New Testament apostles were never safe! Or comfortable! So what do we do?

It goes back to biblical living! We all know that whatever we have is on loan from God for us to use. But is it on loan for us to use for His kingdom or ours? As we “delight ourselves in the Lord,” our perspective changes. And so do the desires of our hearts.

Today, I read Ezekiel 1-5 as part of my devotion. Pretty amazing! But what hit me the hardest was that as part of Ezekiel’s preparation, before he was given any message from the Lord, he was asked to “eat the scroll.” He took it and devoured it with the help of the Lord. It tasted sweet like honey! That has to be part of our preparation as well. We must, with the help of the Lord, devour the word of God. The last thing most of us need is more bible knowledge or more lessons that we won’t apply. What we do need is a fresh perspective. God’s perspective! I can assure you that whatever that involves, it will not include safety or comfort!

I have not intended at all to be profound. I simply want to live and write the truth. Not truth as I see it nor as I wish it were, but simply as it is written by God. Regardless of my season or cycle, His word remains true. His word remains difficult. His word remains a healer to the broken and an affliction to the comfortable. I have been comfortable for far to long. I deserve to be afflicted, and I hope it lasts longer than “for now!”