Our sin and the glory of Christ's sacrifice

I have been a church kid all my life. I am never sure whether that is an  advantage or a handicap when it comes to actually being a Christian. By Christian, I mean a follower of Jesus Christ. What I don’t mean by Christian is a member of a church or a very religious person. My church experience (pre-Blueprint that is), while giving me some solid foundational truths from the pulpit, was most often an odd mix of a little doctrine, some moral pleas, and a lot of outright legalism. At times in my Christian walk, this made it difficult to find Jesus among the religious “stuff.” Like most Americans who grow up in church, I pretty easily gravitated to trying my best and hoping God was pleased with me. Of course I was always frustrated, because I never could “effort” my way out of sin or feel good enough to be loved by God.  I will leave it to others to say why so many of us fall into that trap. For now, I would like to talk about my journey to escape it.

When I read Caresse’s most recent blog, I was reminded of how much author Brennan Manning’s books have helped me in this area. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Manning was an ordained Franciscan Priest who became an alcoholic after his ordination. Due to his struggles with alcohol and other demons (he was a recovering alcoholic once he began writing), he had a unique perspective on the depravity and utter helplessness of all human beings. I first read his book Ragamuffin Gospel around 10 years ago, and I was floored by it. I had never heard anyone be so open about their struggles with sin and yet so in love with Jesus. I began to see my own sin in a new light. And I now see myself as more and more sinful the older I get. This is not because I believe that I sin more every year necessarily, but because I can now see my sin as who I am apart from God’s grace, i.e. the proof that I am as lost without Jesus as scripture says I am.

Being married for 28 years has also helped me recognize my own sinfulness. As Chad pointed out this past Sunday, marriage and fatherhood has brought my true nature out all too many times and convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that if God removes his hand from me I am capable of the worst sins man has ever imagined. But a strange thing has happened as I have begun to see myself as progressively more sinful. I have begun to see God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice as infinitely more valuable and glorious. To help illustrate my point, here is an excerpt from a book entitled Mortal Lessons, as quoted by Brennan Manning in Ragamuffin Gospel. A facial surgeon is recounting how he witnessed true sacrificial love after a surgery he performed left the patient damaged for life.

"I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twinge of facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. . . . to remove a tumor in her check, I had to cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks. "Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks. "Yes," I say, "it will because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. but the young man smiles.

"I like it," he says, "It’s kind of cute." All at once I know who he is. I understand and lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show that their kiss still works.

This story perfectly illustrates Christ’s sacrifice for us. Of course, we are the young lady. Our sin has left us broken and scarred and unable to help ourselves. Jesus, like the husband, has willingly chosen to sacrifice His perfection to cover for our imperfections.

That illustration had an incredible, lasting impact on me. Suddenly, my brokenness was so clear to me. While I am by no means glad when I sin, I am definitely not surprised by it. I have given up on the illusion that I ever had any goodness in me. Realizing this has freed me from the struggle of trying to be good enough to earn God’s love. Like the young lady, I can only be grateful for a Savior that is willing to come to me, because I can’t go to Him. I spent twenty years trying to measure up. I am hopeful that by reading this you may give up your own struggle and rest in what Christ has already done for you.

Between Slavery and Freedom

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23) Titles are usually helpful, but sometimes titles can be misleading. For example, Iceland is really quite green and Greenland is really quite icy.  The titles of these places mess with our expectations. Sometimes holiday titles can have the same effect, like “Independence Day.”  I’m as much a patriot as the next guy; however, on this Independence Day, I don’t want to reflect on our independence—at least in the way that we typically think of independence.  Independence Day is really meant to celebrate something more than our “liberty," because none of us have or will ever experience true independence. Instead, we live in the tension between slavery and freedom.

Understand, we all live in the tension of slavery and freedom.  What I mean is that regardless of the “freedoms” we enjoy, there is always someone in charge.  We always have a leader.  None of us are sovereign.  On July 4, 1776, the United States established its freedom from British rule, not its freedom from any rule. There’s another title that’s used to describe when people have absolute freedom or autonomy—anarchy!  Citizens of the US still have to answer to somebody.  The reason why we can celebrate this day is that now we get to answer to the authority that we feel like is looking after our best interests.  We get to answer to the powers that we want to—the authority that we know will take care of us.  If we have to answer to someone, at least let it be those who will work things out for our good.

We all had the same leader

The apostle Paul makes the same point about sin and righteousness.  At one point, it is clear that we were slaves to sin, and by virtue of being slaves of sin we were free from righteousness (Romans 6:20).  All that means was that we all marched to the beat of a different drum (as far as righteousness was concerned).  It had no power over us.  And what do we have to show for all the time of our slavery and “freedom?”  Guilt.  Shame.  Frustration.  Wishing we could go back and change the past.  Really take some time today and look back on the “freedoms” you used to enjoy.  Through the eyes of someone on this side of faith in Jesus, all I can do is cringe as I think about the things that I did.  The reality is, one day you’re going to outgrow the things that you were once proud of and you’ll have nothing left but regret.

More than that, those things bring death.  I talked with a good friend this past week that had gone through rehab for alcohol and drug abuse a few years back.  He shared with me how he attended the funeral of a friend that relapsed.  He had a firsthand encounter with the inevitable end of what our slavery to sin brings us.  Indulging in a “freedom” led his friend to the grave.

Russell Brand put it best when he reflected on the death of his good friend Amy Winehouse:

When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction, you await the phone call.  There will be a phone call.  The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves telling you they’ve had enough—that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new.  Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or a relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone. Frustratingly, it’s not a call you can ever make, it must be received.  It is impossible to intervene. 

This is the state that we all were in.  In following our “freedoms”, there was one inevitable end—death.

Independence day isn’t about our liberty; it’s about our new leader

The answer isn’t freedom as much it is ensuring that we are following the right person.  Paul doesn't celebrate liberty as much as he celebrates the fact that, as believers, we now have a new leader that's worthy of following.  We have been set free, but at the heart of our liberty isn’t autonomy (freedom from having a leader). At the heart of our freedom is freedom from the wrong leader to the right One.  We are free from sin.  However, this freedom is only a good thing so long as we use that freedom to link ourselves to another leader.  While our past “freedoms” earned us death (6:21), our new “slavery to God” provides us life (6:22).  No regret, but hope for a better future.

At the end of the day, we all want a leader who is more concerned with giving to us than taking from us.  Sin requires my life, but God gives me new life (6:23).  This is a no-brainer.  In celebrating my freedom, I’m forced to celebrate my new leader—the Lord Jesus. In doing so, I’m constantly reminded and overwhelmed by the fact that I serve a leader who has said, “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  He’s a leader who came, “not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Who doesn't want to celebrate a leader with this worldview?  Who wouldn’t want to follow someone like that?

As you reflect on the ideal of independence today, remind yourself that liberty means nothing if you’re following the wrong leader.  If you’re enjoying “freedoms” at the hand of the wrong leader, there are two choices: follow that path to death or embrace a new leader that’s ready and willing to lead you towards life.

If you are a follower of Jesus, the best way to celebrate this freedom is to imitate the way He led.  Spend your time today reflecting on your responsibility and invite someone else to experience a life led by someone who was willing to give His life for us.

Accidental Pharisee

That's me. Well, a pharisee is what I've been acting like for quite some time now. No sooner than me throwing in the towel, quitting my performance of Christianity, did this reality hit me. One day, visibly frustrated, my friend expressed her displeasure with our constant debates. Of course I defended myself, but I realized in doing so I was only digging a deeper hole. So, for a moment, I stopped thinking of how unfair her sentiments seemed to be, and considered the worst. What if I am prideful? What if I do always think I'm right, so my opinions are really facts I believe other people just haven't been exposed to yet? What if I've come up with my own rules of what holiness looks like? What if I really do look at people who don't have my "convictions" as less righteous than me? What if what I've thought was a pure desire to be holy and honor God has really been a drive to gain righteousness, because I didn't believe righteousness could truly be given to me without my works earning it for me? What if my view of God has been pretty low, especially in the unconditional love department? What if...I'm a pharisee?

As I began thinking through the implications of that discovery and shared it with a wise young woman at our church, who's helping me not go completely crazy lately, she directed me to Galatians 3: 2-3

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by[a] the flesh?

She basically used Scripture to call me a fool! (Yes, I caught that.) But first, I had to answer the initial question. Had my works or faith earned me the Spirit of God, which is evidence of my salvation? Well, of course I'd say I didn't earn salvation. I can't. But, would I say faith granted me salvation? I was suppose to say, "Yes!" Or "Duuuh." But since I'm on a no-pretending fast, I couldn't answer that confidently. Instead, I asked a question that opened up a world of discovery. "Well, I know believing in Jesus is my only hope for salvation, but what about all the commandments? God gave those for a reason, right?" To which my friend replied, "Well, what about before the commandments were given? How were Abram, Noah, Enoch and Job righteous in the eyes of God?" (Come on Caresse, you oughta know this, I thought. I realized in that moment how often I much rather appear knowledgeable than admit I'm not sure or don't understand something if it seems like I should understand it.) "Uhh...God must have given them a special pass as the children of Isr-wait...no...that's wrong because you're saying before Abram had offspring and before Moses was given the commandments. Well...I don't know," I reluctantly mumbled.

Oh the inadequacy to disciple others and be in a position to share Him over the past years I instantly felt. Yet, simultaneously, three words had freed me. I...don't....know. See, when you're performing, you gotta know everything. When you read or hear something, you have to instantly affirm belief in it. The show must go on. When you're pretending, you gotta fake it 'til you make it. But with God, as long as we pretend, we won't make it. He'll never actually know us. So, I admitted that I didn't know the answer.

 Genesis to Galatians and the love in between

Genesis 15:6 -"And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness," she read aloud.

Wait...what? What exactly did Abram believe to be counted as righteous? The previous verses in chapter 15 tell of a covenant God made with Abram to bless him and his offspring. And guess what? What Abram believed was what God said. He believed in God's promise, which stamped his righteousness. And here's what I'd somehow missed the weight of—it was an unconditional covenant. The blessing (which turns out to be ultimately fulfilled in salvation through Christ centuries later) was given to Abram by faith. He had no rules to keep in order to impress God; all He had was God's promise to believe, and that's what he did.

"Well then, why were all those commandments given?" I wondered.

"To govern, but it wasn't about looking at 600+ commandments and trying to figure out how to keep each one in order to be righteous. They were commandments to govern them. What they were and you are supposed to focus on is what God said to the Israelites before He gave the ten commandments," my friend responded.

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." -Exodus 20:2

"Focus on God being your God," she followed. Realize He has graciously, of no merit of my own, brought me from being a stranger to Him and a slave to sin and now calls me His own. Out of that recognition, let Him therefore be Lord over my life.

"Ok. But knowing just how perfect God is, by virtue of all the commandments, makes you feel like you have to obey a bunch of rules," I replied.

"And then you start adding rules on top of those rules to keep you from breaking the original ones," she joked.

"Exactly!" I confessed. "Because I read about Jesus, and He makes it even harder. I realize that I'm still a sinner even if I don't fornicate, because I lust in my heart. So, then, I have to come up with rules to keep me from lusting. And then, of course, I put those rules on other people," I admitted. "But wait- Jesus came to fulfill the law. As in, He came to live out all 600+ to perfection and within His heart remain completely pure as well. So, He was basically telling the Pharisees to keep calm and sit down, because they weren't as righteous as they presumed. He was exposing their hearts. He is exposing my heart. Not for me to go get a heart monitor that I constantly check, but to show me it's impossible to please God...without faith. Oh shoot."

"23Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slaveg nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise." Galatians 3:23-29

Oh. my. world.

So, I don't have to work for my righteousness? I don't have to think through every possible thing that could be sinful about everything and think through for other people too? Seems too easy, if God is as holy as His commandments make Him out to be.

And that's when it clicked.

Yes, God is holy, and His standard is perfection. We ought to tremble at His holiness and flee from sin. But why? Why should we look at the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and pray for the Spirit to empower us to reflect Christ? Why should we keep the commandments in our hearts and minds? For one, to have an accurate picture of God. And secondly, to have an accurate picture of ourselves. The law reveals a need for Jesus. Its goal was to govern an otherwise ungovernable people, but also to make them see just how jacked up they are and how holy God is. But not for us to wallow in our helplessness, and not for us (especially me) to overestimate my righteousness. It was to stir within us—within the children of Israel even—a hope, a craving, for a Savior. As Ray comfort wrote, "Nothing reveals calvary like Mount Sanai." And the Good News for us is that we got that Savior. We have the blessing Abraham believed God for.

But what did we really do to get it? That's what I don't get.

Simple. In case you missed it like I have been, or thought you already had it, or my words were not clear because I tend to ramble, this blog is "for all of us who have a hard time getting it through our brains that all we did was nothing, BUT the love still came," as the song says.

All you and I actually did, as in earned, was NOTHING.

Thank God for giving us faith to believe and receive unearned promise.

Sometimes, we don't have to understand.

"Life becomes utterly free and daring when [you realize] the strongest being is for you."

Just accept His crazy love.

Expansion & Excavation

My name is John, and I’m a pendulum swinger.  I don’t mean to be, it kind of just happens.  I live in a constant state of FOMO or fear of missing out. Maybe you’re like me.  Maybe you are perfectly content doing something and then you see someone else talk about an activity (that couldn’t be more unlike what you’re currently doing) and you feel like you’re missing out on something.  So you, like me, drop everything that you’re doing because you don’t want to miss out.  There’s so many arenas that this takes place in life, from workout plans to diets to hobbies—you name it.  Somebody always has advice on what we “should” be doing that makes us feel like we’ve been wasting our time.  So, we scrap what we’re currently doing and start from scratch. Lately, as we’ve been going through the book of Acts as a church, uncovering the history of the church, I’ve felt this pressure in evangelism.

Lately, it feels like this term missionality has been exclusively defined as “meeting new people.”  Missionality, then, is really all about expansion.  I feel this internal pressure to spend all of my free time meeting strangers, or people who I don’t yet have a close relationship with. But I’ve seen a huge problem with this. As a pastor, I have a full-time job and other obligations when I get off work.  Simply put, I don’t have the relational bandwidth to make new friends every week.  More than that, even if I do make new friends every week, they won’t be my friends for long if they are constantly replaced with newer friends with whom I’m trying to be missional.

Even though I know this truth on the inside, I still feel “guilty” when I’m not meeting new people, because I feel like I’m not doing what I “should be doing.”  I feel like I’m missing out on something, and I hate that feeling.  You probably hate that feeling too.  So, you do what I do—you swing the pendulum and become fully immersed in building “new relationships”.  That is, until you realize that there comes a point where expansion by itself becomes counterproductive.   Sooner or later you’re going to realize that you’re missing out on helping these new friends grow deep in their faith.  When this time comes, my prayer is that you learn from your mistakes like I have.  Here’s the truth, when you always live in a state of fearing what you’re missing, you’re never able to be fully invested in what’s right in front of you.  If you spend all of your time feeling guilty about the stuff that you’re not doing that you “could” be doing, you’ll never fully give yourself to what you “should” be doing right now.

Pendulum swinging affects our perspectives as well as our practices

If missionality is only about meeting new people and expanding God’s kingdom numerically, then you’re perspective on the book of Acts is going to be extremely one-dimensional.  You’ll focus on the expansion of the message to the neglect of the excavation of the same message in the lives of the people that come on board.  In Acts, the church grows both deep and wide.  There’s both expansion and excavation (digging deep).  We usually leave off the larter part and disregard that aspect of God’s mission.  A quick survey of the book will show you that as often as God’s people meet new people, they remain with them for many days, weeks, even years to make sure that they’ve got it (Acts 9:43; 10:48; 14:3, 28; 15:35; 17:14; 18:3, 11, 18; 19:22; 20:6; 21:4; 25:6, 14).

What that means is that we’re constantly going to exist in a tension between the two.  A good friend always says, “This tension isn’t meant to be solved it’s meant to be managed.”  We don’t need to feel guilty because we’re giving more attention to one at a particular season of our lives.  If God has granted you favor and you have many significant relationships with people who are open to learning about who God is, it may be a good season for you to spend some time with them unpacking who God is.  You may have to “stay with them a great many days.”  Don’t be concerned with what you’re “missing out on”; rather be fully invested where you are. Take full advantage of the season that God has placed you in.  It’s impossible for you to do two things at once, so we’re always going to be “missing out” on something.

Corporate Mission – We can do two things at once

The great comfort that we have in remaining fully invested in the season that we’re in is the fact that this is a collective effort. The beautiful thing about really being “missional” (accomplishing God’s mission) is that God intends for his mission to be carried out by a collective group.  While individually we can’t expand and excavate at the same time, we can do it collectively.  In Acts 17:14, as Paul was getting ready to move on and meet new people, he urged Timothy to stay behind.  He understood that priority needed to be given to introducing people to Jesus and ensuring that people that met him have a right view of Him.  I doubt Paul or Timothy felt guilty about where they were investing their time because they were confident that the other side was being taken care of.

Hear me, this is not an attempt to absolve you of responsibility or justify the lazy.  This is not an attempt to pigeonhole anyone into a role.  We are commanded to do both—regardless of if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.  My hope is that as you find yourself moving in and out of the worlds of expansion or excavation that you would do it with all of your strength and unnecessary guilt wouldn’t make you ineffective.

Now, time to get to work.

Doctrine without faith

Picture this: Somewhere on the other side of town, God is working on someone's heart that you have yet to meet. He leads that person to our church to speak to a pastor or leader (or even you) to hear what either has to say. That's kind of what happened in Acts 10. Can you imagine?

Or maybe one day your non-believing co-worker walks up to you and asks you to tell them about your faith...

Or God  removes a harmful boyfriend out of relative's life and draws her to Himself for her now to be encouraging you in the Lord...

Or you asked God to heal you or prayed for someone else's healing and received it...

Do you really think it could happen?

While the miracles of Jesus' ministry and those performed by the apostles are not necessarily prescriptive of what must come as a result of our prayers and efforts today, I wonder do we even believe God can still do the miraculous? The Word of Faith movement has certainly misconstrued God's word into seeds for prosperity and dreams come true, but what have we done with our emphasis on correcting this harmful doctrine? In our unlearning of the false doctrine that may have informed our own Christianity in years past, have we lost our childlike faith that also characterized those times of misunderstanding God's character and intentions?

Sure, there were plenty of times that we were really speaking to ourselves and misquoting God and making up signs, but perhaps we also relied less on flesh and blood to reveal things to us. Maybe back then we prayed more for God to speak to us rather than performing a quick search on DesiringGod.org for solutions. Why? Because we believed God could do it like it did before. We thought He could speak to us. Yes, in accordance with His word, but through reading, praying, meditating, and maybe even fasting rather than only vigorous study, sermon hunting, and commentary surfing.

We even learned about sovereignty and election, which made us stop naming and claiming and thinking God was our puppet or that we had the power to save souls. But, once we've prayed for something or someone for a week and see no change, how quickly do we throw in the sovereignty card? How often do we stop believing Him for change?

We don't even feel comfortable praying for healing without prefacing it with, "If it's in Your will, God" — as if God is going to do anything against His will. It's one thing to want to line our hearts up with God's, but it's another to typecast Him as a God that has retired from performing miracles. It is important that we have solid doctrine to guide us in an understanding of God, so that our intimacy with Him is not counterfeit. But doctrine without faith is dead. It brings life to nothing and no one.

While He may not need to prove Himself through signs and wonders as before, acts of God are still all around us, and I believe seeing them may help increase our faith. The insurance companies may only single out tornadoes and other damaging weather conditions, but God's hand can be seen beyond destruction. Just last week, right here in Atlanta, it was reported that after stealing a car and realizing a child was in the backseat, a thief decided to take the purse that was inside and jump out of the car, leaving the child untouched. We could say that family was fortunate, or we can say that was an act of a loving, protective God.

I believe doing the latter, and doing so more often, takes God out of the serious, sovereign, doctrine-loving box He is in. Instead, it puts Him in a new space that also includes His redemptive power, healing hands and gracious love. It allows us to see what He has been doing, is doing and can do in the future.

So, knowing that God wants His name to be known amongst the nations, His glory to be made much of, and that He has the same power as He did in Scripture, what will you believe Him for today?

Just Do it.

I once heard a quote from a pretty famous atheist that has forever changed the way that I viewed the idea of talking to other people about my experience with Jesus.  He writes:

...I've always said, you know, that I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward...HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE TO HATE SOMEBODY to not proselytize? HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE TO HATE SOMEBODY to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn't believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that...

I’ve been a Christian for quite a while now and I can literally count on one hand the amount of time I’ve had a stranger try to capture my attention with the purpose of talking about Jesus.  If you’re a Christian, your experience has probably been the same.  Why is that?  It’s not rocket science.  You’ve probably never had that happen to you, because people actually doing that type of stuff (cold-call evangelism) is awkward.

Evangelism:Christian::Boogeyman:kids

To be honest, as we cast this vision as a church staff to spend a few hours each work day this week trying to create opportunities with strangers to talk about Jesus, I got nervous.  (If not for the peer pressure—or the people coming to the church expecting me to lead out because I’m a pastor—I probably would have come up with tons of excuses not to participate.) Tons of thoughts began running through my head.  The idea of actually talking to a stranger is something that is very unnatural.  People don’t want to be bothered.  They have more important things to do. And frankly, we don’t want to be seen as Jehovah’s Witnesses—they’re the only ones that talk to strangers about religion, we’re more savvy than that.  That’s a private matter that is better addressed when...

And that’s when I realized that I couldn’t complete that thought.  When is the right time to talk about Jesus?  How much relational capital needs to be built before we make a segue into what is the most important decision anyone will ever make?  That’s when it hit me: my fear of being awkward in striking up a conversation about Jesus with strangers occupied the same space in my heart where, years ago, I had a fear of monsters under my bed.  The thought of looking under my bed was terrifying; however, when I actually looked under my bed and saw there were no monsters, it was liberating and I saw just how unwarranted my fears were.  This past week, I had the same epiphany with the fear of striking up conversation and quickly shifting to Jesus.

Evangelism to strangers is only awkward….in theory

G.K. Chesterson says, “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found difficult, it has been found difficult and left untried.”  This week, I re-learned that evangelism to strangers is more awkward in theory than it actually is in practice.  I was amazed how easy and naturally conversation started when I just asked people to tell me their story and then camped out on a point where they highlighted something spiritual.

Here’s the truth: we live in a world where people look more busy than they actually are.  You’ve seen it in meetings (or you’ve been guilty of it in meetings).  Someone looking so intensely at their phone or their computer screens with beads of sweat dripping down their face.  As you navigate around them to see what they’re doing, you see that they’re not agonizing over spreadsheets or balance statements, they’re agonizing over where they are going to play their “V” in Words with Friends.  We live in a world where people are filling up their time with things to keep them distracted from the loneliness they’ll undoubtedbly feel if they don’t do anything else.  They are longing for meaningful interactions.  This past week, I had the opportunity to have conversations about people’s hopes, dreams, aspirations, hang-ups, backstories, frustrations, etc.  And every last one of the conversations was a welcomed breath of fresh air.

Clarity and comfort for the obedient

There are two types of people. Those who make excuses and those who actually have experiences.  What I’ve come to realize is that both of these groups become a self-fulfilling prophecy to themselves.  In evangelism, there are plenty of excuses that you can use to justify your disobedience to 2 Timothy 4:5 (…do the work of an evangelist).  Quite frankly, this past week, I heard just about all of them (many of them I said to myself and many of them I heard from other people). What’s funny is that people who make excuses and never get over their initial fear of awkwardness soon start to believe that their fears are realities.  Those that never look under their bed will forever be afraid of the boogey man.  Those that never proactively share their faith or direct conversations towards the hope of Jesus will forever be afraid of awkwardness.

Here’s the blessing though: those that actually have the experience of talking to someone else about Jesus finally understand that there was nothing to be afraid of.  The only way that you’ll ever really know if fear is warranted is to embrace that fear head on.  The only way to get over your fear of monsters under your bed is to look under your bed.  The only way to get over your fear of evangelism is to evangelize.  No sermon is going to do it for you.  Clarity and comfort to God’s will comes through obedience.  Nothing less than obedience will reaffirm the things God has called you to do.

The funny thing is, you can agree or disagree with my philosophy as you sit here and read this blog.  You may or may not be right.  However, there is one way to know for certain if I’m right or wrong, and that’s to actually have this experience for yourself.

So, go ahead.  Prove me wrong.

 

 

Forgive me for asking

For the past few weeks, hmm maybe months, I’ve been wrestling with something inside. My friends can attest to it, because just about once every week I’m venting to one of them about it. I even read some articles that communicated much of what I was dealing with (Anthony Bradley and Jasmine Baucham), but not exactly.  I do feel like an emphasis on discipleship and exposing our comfortable Christianity were necessary books and speeches written and given by David Platt and others, but I don't think we've heard enough of the perhaps less radical messages to give us a healthy tension. So, I feel trapped in the thinking that I have to share Jesus everywhere in everything. I wanted to come to some amazing, John Piper-inspired conclusion about it, but I can’t. I didn’t want to keep questioning God or other people, but I know that God (at least) can handle my questions—even if it means He’ll just respond with even better ones like he did to Job (was that not the finest sarcasm ever?). So, please God, forgive me for asking… But can I just live a normal life?

I love you, I do, but that’s not enough it seems.

Do I have to tell everyone I meet about You, otherwise I’m failing at the mission?

I used to share the truth of Your word freely, but now it feels like a responsibility.

I used to spend time with other believers regularly, because I wanted to and knew I experienced You more fully around them than by myself. But now I feel like I have to.

I can't even genuinely talk and listen to an unbeliever without thinking that I've got to share my faith with them. Soon and very soon. But I can't even remember where they said they were from. Is that okay? Is that loving them?

If I don’t knock on my neighbors’ doors and tell them about Your love, do I not love them either?

If I don’t tell the girl I just met not too long ago that she’s not actually a Christian, am I avoiding conflict?

If I write a blog for a secular site and don’t find a way to mention You in it, am I selling out?

But then again, if nothing is more important than people having a relationship with You, should that be my focus all the time?

Or does that require a calling to ministry?

Is it possible that I could actually be doing what You want me to do despite hearing message after message and reading blog after blog about people not being missional enough?

Where is the encouragement?

But, hmm, is there a way to encourage the congregation and still prevent us from getting comfortable?

Can I read the book of Acts and applaud those brave men, but not think I have to go to Little Five Points and stage a Day of Pentecost?

Then again, why won’t I go? Why don’t we plan to do that one Sunday instead of gathering in a building? (Minus the flaming tongues part.)

Why don’t we just take a day to go evangelize?

Oh, yeah. That’s not discipleship. We have to build relationships first, right?

Have we dissected Your word too much?

What did the disciples daily lives, post-ascension, look like?

Were they always sharing with everybody?

Were you honored the same by the early Christians going to work and working hard?

They didn’t have tv, so did they have less distractions?

Do you give us grace for all the distractions around us?

Then again, where does eat, drink, and be merry fall into the call to make disciples?

Am I the only one that’s only been eating and drinking (peach tea), but not experiencing the merry in the mission?

Sometimes, I wish I could just do what I love and talk about who I love the most as I go and know that I’m on the right path without having to think about it so much. Is that possible?

I know that’s what some of my friends do, but why don’t I feel the freedom to do that?

Why do I even question whether they’re doing enough?

Am I trying to earn a few missionary patches on my heavenly robe that’s up there waiting on me?

Am I confusing Christianity with competition?

Do you actually want more from me, and I can't tell if it's conviction from the Spirit or from man?

Do I love you the way Scripture says I should?

Yes. Some days more than others.

Is Jesus my treasure?

Yes.

Do I love people?

Yes, but sometimes I do love myself more.

Does your Spirit live in me?

Yes. Sorry for acting like it didn’t last week. (And a billion other times.)

Am I surrounded by other people who love Jesus and are wiser than me and can challenge me?

Yes.

Do I talk about You and want to make disciples?

Yes.

Is the spreading of the Gospel solely dependent on me?

No.

Do You expect me to be Paul?

No. You expect me to be me and do what You want me to do. I think.

Does that mean that two believers’ missional lives can look different and one isn’t wrong or better?

Can I just rest in knowing that?

I think You’re screaming, “Yes!”

Will you finish the work you started in me regardless of my confusion?

Yep.

If I'm supposed to go to Nineveh, will you make sure I end up there?

Ha. I bet.

Have I been trying to be the perfect Christian and earn your grace?

Yes.

Does that sound noble but actually dumb since grace is something I don’t deserve?

I think you just laughed.

So, you’re telling me that I’ve been overthinking all of this?

Have I read too many books, articles, and sermon transcripts and not lived enough years to process them all?

Did you just smirk?

Ok, last question.

Did You see that Warriors’ game last night?

Woo! Wait- but you knew they would lose, so could you even enjoy it?

Oh snap! What’s it like to know…

Just kidding.

“Love God. Love people. And do whatever else you want.”- Dhati Lewis

I’m going to try that approach...again.

So, help me God.

Homosexuality and other loaded words

It’s hard to have a fruitful conversation about faith & homosexuality these days unless you’re having them with people that already think like you on the topic.  Hopefully, what follows will lead all of us (whatever side you’re on) to having conversations about these topics that actually lead somewhere.

Homosexuality is such a loaded word.  Because it’s so loaded, it really makes it tough to have a conversation about it.  Two people can use the word 'homosexuality' and have two completely different things in mind.  (It’s kind of like using the word “trunk". It could refer to a part of an elephant, a storage container, the base of a tree, the rear of a car, etc.  There are so many uses of that word that it has to be defined further before any intelligent conversation can be had.)  So, it’s no surprise that when Chris Broussard was baited into a question about homosexuality and Christianity, and he answered with grace and precision, an entire community of people were enraged.

Homosexuality – a word that needs one definition

Homosexuality, in one sense, can refer exclusively to sexual attraction.  Homosexuality literally means that someone is sexually attracted to the same gender.  That’s how the word was intended to be used.  In another sense, (the sense in which our society uses the word) it is a statement of sexual practice.  In our culture, homosexuality also means someone who actually acts out sexually with a member of the same gender.  Here is where the real problem lies.  It’s not about sexuality; it’s really a problem with someone limiting another person's freedom or telling them what they're doing is wrong.  It’s inconceivable for us to think (in our age of freedom) that restrictions should be placed on our sexuality.  If I have an attraction, I should be free to act on that attraction.  If I’m not free to do this without scrutiny (or if it’s not celebrated), then I feel like I’m wronged.  However, with a term that is as loaded as sexuality, it’s hard for us to ever see definition as our real problem.  I should be free to do what I feel, and anyone that tells me that I can’t (or shouldn’t) do what I feel is wrong.

Adultery & Fornication—words that have one definition

There are other terms that relate to sexuality that aren’t as loaded: adultery and fornication. Those who commit these weren’t as upset at Chris Broussard (even though he spent more time addressing them), because these terms aren't as loaded.  Adultery is a word that’s used exclusively of practice and not as a desire.  If adultery was a sexual orientation (the desire to have sex with people you are not married to), then every married man I know would be guilty of it!  But it’s not, it’s a term specifically used to talk about practice.  Fornication/pre-marital sex is the same way.  It’s not an orientation; it’s not about desires. It’s about how those desires are acted out.

Christianity— another word that needs one definition

Here’s another loaded term that I want to unpack: Christian.  This is probably the most loaded term of all.  Let me explain this as best as I can, using sexuality as the backdrop.

 

  1. A Christian is someone that has sexual desires. (They can be heterosexual desires or homosexual desires. I don’t think sexual desires disqualify anyone.)

  2. A Christian is someone who, at some point in their life ,has acted on those desires (or at least has wanted to act on those desires) in a way that (1) they thought was appropriate but (2) the Bible said otherwise.

  3. A Christian is someone who (for whatever reason) has come to the conclusion that their life is a mess (primarily because they’ve called the shots on how to run their own life).  They’ve lived with the guilt, the shame, and the frustration of trying to find meaning by directing their lives the way they thought best.

  4. A Christian is someone who, at one point during their journey, heard about a man named Jesus who was willing to forgive their sins.  The way that this Jesus was able to forgive sins was by taking the punishment that they earned.  He died a death for those of us that were guilty (according to God’s standard). He took our punishment, and He was free to give us the love that He was entitled from God.

  5. A Christian is someone who, now, is so grateful for the work that God has done in their lives that they have decided to submit how they act out sexually to him.  Being a Christian doesn't necessarily mean that we lose all of our sexual desires (heterosexual or homosexual desires), what it means is that we trust God enough to let Him dictate what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in how we act out sexually.  So, for those of us that are married men, we reserve the acting out of our sexual desires for our wives alone because those are the parameters that God lays out for us.

Conclusion

Please understand, you are free to disagree with the Bible.  That’s your call.  Part of God’s great gift to us is that He has given us the ability to choose. He is not forcing everyone to agree with Him. But understand this is as well, while you’re free to disagree with the Bible, you’re not free to rewrite it. The term Christian is clear, and can’t be debated.  Christian = someone who trusts Jesus enough to let Him set the course for how they act out sexually, financially, morally, etc. regardless of how much they don’t quite understand it or desire to comply.  A Christian is someone who understands that when their desires don’t line up with God’s desires, they ask Him to help change them…not vice versa.

If you disagree and don’t trust God to set the course, you’re free to do that.  However, by disagreeing you now have to really take an assessment of what your definition of Christian is.  If you define Christian as someone that follows Jesus but deviates from the pathway in areas when you feel like Jesus has made a mistake in what He’s commanded, then please understand that isn’t following.  You’re going to end up in a very different place than Jesus.  And if you land in different places, then is that really following?  I don’t think so.  But then again you’re free to disagree.

Primed for Mission

As a church, for the past couple of months, we have been going through the Tangible Kingdom Primer. This eight-week primer is a shorter and intentionally more practical version of a larger book that encourages “incarnational living,” “gospel intentionality,” and inviting “sojourners” into our lives. If you’re anything like me, the quoted terms I just used may sound familiar but moreso really strange. When I picked up this book for the first time, I had big expectations for something about my life to change drastically. Now, I was definitely not putting all my stock in any book, other than the Bible, transforming my life, but I did have big hopes that going through it would challenge me in some new ways. So, as I started going through it, I found I did enjoy it a lot. The weekly challenges through scriptures about living a life influenced by the gospel were heart-provoking, and I was able to see my own sin in how I wasn’t allowing the gospel to be preeminent in my own life. With that said, a couple weeks in, I was still waiting for that drastic, life-changing charge that the primer would give. But it didn’t come. All the primer seemed to talk about was ordinary life events like eating, cooking meals, hanging out, working, praying, etc. and how God could use them.

Then it hit me.

My Life and God’s Mission

After about three weeks, I realized that this book was changing my life, and I had barely noticed it! The primer gave action steps throughout the weeks for us to apply the principles that were taught throughout in order to practice “missional living,” but what I began to understand is that living this way wasn’t about the actions. It was more about my identity. This book wasn’t trying to provide an eight-step plan to being more like a missionary, but it was actually affirming that as believers we are missionaries. The things I was doing, such as buying random people lunch, or walking a friend home, and giving clothes away came naturally out of my normal day-by-day living, and I didn’t need the primer to tell me to do those things. My life has been changing going through the primer, because my heart has been changing. And my heart has been changing, because I’ve been able to see my life through the lens of God’s mission.  I’m a firm believer that only when we acknowledge God in all His glory and majesty can we have an accurate and humble view of how small we are. Yet, along with that, I can now say that only when we have acknowledge God’s mission in all its glory can we have an accurate view of our own lives and what they are really about.

EXTRA-Ordinary

It’s been an amazing experience to realize that God wasn’t calling me to move to Cambodia and live in a tree for the gospel in order to be on mission. This journey through the primer has shed light on the reality that God knows that I’m a regular college kid just trying to graduate. And in spite of me, He can and will do great things through me if I’m willing to submit to His ways right where I am.  All throughout scripture, God never needed a certain type of person with all the prerequisites in the right location to use them for His mission, but what we do see  is God calling individuals to be a part. So, in the ordinary seemingly mundane lives we all seem to live, God has called me and all believers to join Him in a supernatural task of reconciling this broken, fallen world to the Creator. And we all must feel the weight of how extraordinary a task this is. God is sovereign and His reign is over all of our lives— from the grocery store to our bedrooms—but for the Christian, we must recognize that this means that there is nothing in our lives off limits to the mission we have been given. It has been great to see myself and others in my community embrace this. Yet, I pray for the day when the eight weeks of the primer are far gone, and we still are compelled to see God’s kingdom tangibly manifested in our daily living as a local church.

Talking to Strangers

How do I say hi? To answer, I posed the question to MizChatty, an experienced conversationalist (and fictitious persona).

This is what MizChatty says: "Start with Goodbye." "Yes, That's what I said. You heard me. Let me explain."

"When I was a teen I noticed most of the other teens looked like this:"

"Then again, I probably looked like them too."

"I like fun; so, what do I do? I had to say 'Goodbye' to: Do they like me? Do they think I'm pretty? Am I funny? Can I impress them?"

to get them to look like this:

"And then the fun started!"                                                                                                                          

"By asking questions about THEM that couldn't be answered with YES or NO. Questions like: Where do you live? What is your dog's name? Why? What kinda music do you like? What is your favorite subject? Why? How's your day so far?"

So that's what  MizChatty says.

How do you say hi?

By saying Goodbye to

YOU.

Ready.Set.Wait.

Go. We go to work. We go to class. We go to the movies (if we can still afford to). We’re always going somewhere it seems. If we’re not, then the assumption is that we’re lazy. Motion equals purpose in most of our minds. Or, in the Christian context, it means we’re on mission. Jesus told us to “go and make disciples” and Francis Chan warns us not to “make excuses.” Everything seems to fall on us going.

But what about waiting? When’s the last time you were encouraged or had that often prayed for, yet (just as often) rarely attainable peace in waiting? Most encouragement to wait usually surrounds talks about purity and singleness.  Beyond that, who really waits anymore? You have a dream; make it a reality! You want to try something new; do it today! Tomorrow isn’t promised; so, get going!

While waiting can be counterproductive, in Acts 1 we find that everything seemed to fall on the apostles not going (just yet), but instead waiting.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5 ESV)

They were eager. They’d witnessed the resurrection of the dead. They’d seen more than enough to keep sharing! Why wait?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)

Waiting meant not going and relying on their own abilities now that Christ was physically leaving, but gaining the power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit. They needed to wait on something better. But let the record show, their waiting was not to be a static, do nothing at all in the meantime kind of waiting.

And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)

Imagine watching someone disappear before your very eyes. Or maybe more realistic to us, consider when the unexpected happens in your life. The abruptness leaves you stagnant. For the apostles, while it wasn’t time to go anywhere physically, the time was ripe for them to do something:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:14 ESV)

While they waited, with undoubtedly tons of questions in their hearts, the apostles gathered with others to pray. And their waiting was not in vain. It turned out to be the difference between the 120 brothers in the faith at the opening of Acts 1 and the 3,000 at the close of Acts 2 only days later. Waiting, in this case, was the most productive thing they could have done.

God, grant us the wisdom to discern the best course of action in our own lives. May your Holy Spirit direct us when to go and when to actively wait.

 

Parking to the glory of God

Yesterday, we had an issue on Lampkin street (it’s a street right behind Blueprint Church that has become the unofficial parking lot of those “in the know”).  On Sunday, during one of our services, one of our neighbors came out and was irate because someone from Blueprint, allegedly, blocked them in their driveway by the way their car was parked.   I’ve included an excerpt from the angry neighbor below, it reads as follows: Folks and hopefully Blueprint Church,

  • I would like to put this on the record if it exists.  This is probably the 4th time in a year that we have encountered a situation like you see in the attached picture.  Did anyone know that it is church policy that members not use the parking lot at the church?  I am not sure this is good policy.  It seems that we see the same folks showing great disrespect to immediate neighbors.  My neighbor in the Lampkin apartments had to work this morning.  I would hate to see an instance where there was an emergency.  We have made this issue aware to the church before, and was told that "they cannot control their members".  This has now become unacceptable.   I have found members of the church parked in my neighbors driveway.  I asked them if they thought that was ok?  They just shrugged.  Now, I do not know the answer, but I think it is somewhere between respect and common sense. 

Ouch!

What if I told you that the glory of God is at stake each Sunday depending on how and where we park our cars?  The statement may, at first, seem like an exaggeration, but according to 1 Corinthians 10:31, I think it’s quite accurate. In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul ends a section on the freedoms we have as Christians with the following words, “so, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  Simply put, Paul is saying that the glory of God is at stake in the mundane things, just as much as it is in the major things.  In everything we do we are communicating something about God’s glory.  Even in parking.

Let me show you how this works out. Now, I don’t claim that the following was the exact thought process of any individual that parked on Lampkin, or Corley, or Randolph or any other surrounding streets.  Below is just an example of what might be a typical or logical flow of thought that would lead someone to park in a way that could be an inconvenience to a neighbor.

I’m late for church.  Man, daylight savings is affecting me more than I thought, and I really don’t want to have to walk all the way from the other lot just to sit in a hot building.  What is most convenient for me?  I’ll park on this street in front of someone’s house I don’t know.  I don’t think they’ll mind. I don’t think they’ll need to get out, and if they do have to leave, I’m sure they can navigate around me.

Basically, what we are saying by invading someone else’s driveway or house is, if someone has to be inconvenienced this Sunday morning, I just want to ensure that it’s not me.  We paint a picture that we, as a church, are a group of people that are more concerned with getting a good seat (or not having to walk a few blocks) than we are about ensuring that our neighbors are comfortable.  This only serves to reaffirm negative stereotypes of Christians.

Do you know how the Bible characterizes a true missionary?  Someone who is willing to inconvenience himself or herself so that the person they are trying to reach doesn’t have to.  A missionary welcomes inconvenience so that their surrounding neighbors will understand that we serve a God that has done the same—willingly embracing discomfort to illustrate how much the other person is loved.  This is the model Christ left for us to follow; this is what Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ” in Philippians 2.

We, as a church, desire to be a beacon of light to the O4W and we’ve gone through great lengths to ensure that the scenario that took place on Sunday would never happen.  There is a parking lot less than a quarter of a mile down the road with over 100 spaces for our members to park, so that our smaller lot can be reserved for our visitors.  There is a shuttle that runs back and forth between all three services, so that you don’t have to walk.  Sure, the shuttle isn’t as reliable as we would like it to be, and a quarter of a mile isn’t necessarily a stroll in the park.  If Blueprint was a business, and our members were customers, it would be a ridiculous request.  However, if Blueprint was a church (which it is), and our members were partners and servants (which they are), it would be a “walk in the park” (pun intended).

So, if there’s anything that we want to be known for as a church in the Old 4th Ward, it is this: We want to be known by the community as a group of people that will endure much hardship and inconvenience, if it will mean the comfort of our neighbors.  We want to be known by the community as people who love them enough to endure inconvenience on their behalf.  We want to be a community that goes out of our way to apologize and show grace when we have offended anyone.

With that being said, this week and every week, park your car for the glory of God.  Romans 12:18 tells us that “as much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”  With that being said, we’ve decided it is best as a church if we use the extension lot we have on the corner of Boulevard and Highland and don’t park on Lampkin.  We want to let our neighbors know that we live for something greater than convenience and our comfort.  Otherwise, we’ll never convince them to do the same.

New Year||New Desires

So, we’re one week into the new year.  If you do any type of writing, you’re kind of locked in to having to write something about the new year before you’re allowed to write about anything else.  Consider it an unwritten rule. It’s kind of like the whole concept of placing money under the free parking space in Monopoly. Somewhere along the line, someone came up with that rule, and it gained wide acceptance.  But look in the actual rule book—it’s nowhere to be found. Although I usually don’t abide by unwritten rules, I found a good reason to position my colorful dollars under the board in hopes of giving you a new perspective on resolutions.

Everyone (almost everyone anyway) has a new set of resolutions.  This newfound resolve stems from a desire for something different.  People, for these first few short weeks, are keenly aware of the destructive nature of their eating habits, relational tendencies, lack of discipline, etc. and they desperately want to change those things.  People just want to get rid of bad habits, and we believe the way to do that is to rid ourselves of bad desires.

Here’s the thing about desires though: desires are never discarded. Rather, they are always displaced. It’s impossible to empty out your heart of desire.  No one at any point in time is void of desire.  To do so would be impossible.  Our hearts were made for desire. They are always longing for something, always reaching, always wanting.  If we realize this truth, it completely changes the way that we deal with wrong desires.

If you’re anything like me, when you realize that you’ve been desiring something that you shouldn’t, the first response is to tell yourself, “I shouldn’t desire that.”  I don’t need that cake, I don’t need to look at that, I don’t need to be with this person, and the list goes on and on.  Identifying bad desires is the easy part; ridding ourselves of those bad desires is what’s hard.

For most of us, we think the the solution is just forcing ourselves to discard the desires. We believe that if we can just get rid of those feelings, those lusts, those inclinations, then all will be well.  Again, if you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced very little success in actually putting away (or discarding desires).  It’s because desires can never be discarded; they have to be displaced.  You can’t just get rid of desires; you have to replace them.

Our desires are never just thrown away; they are always traded for what we feel like is something better.  Our hearts are always full to the brim with a longing for something.  The only way to be successful in changing our desires is to exchange our desires.  The only way to really deal with lust is to be so desirous of something else that the previous desire is crowded out in favor of a newer, better desire.

Stop trying to deal with bad habits by trying to rid yourself of them.  Deal with bad habits by replacing the older desire with a new one.  This year, rather than spending your time trying to muster up the willpower to STOP, focus your energy on STARTING.

"Taste and see that the Lord is good."  Psalms 34:8

I’ve made one commitment this year and that is that I want to be so consumed with Jesus that he displaces my desire for evil.  This is what trying looks like.  Trying isn’t mustering up the correct amount of willpower at the moment that I’m tempted to want what’s bad for me.  I’ve tried that, and I’ve failed every time.  What trying looks like is waking up each morning with a renewed sense of desperation to be satisfied by what I find in Jesus.  The more that I read and meditate on what he says, the more I find myself in awe of how the things that once gripped my heart pale in comparison to what I now see.

Desires are meant to be displaced, not just discarded.

So High

The holiday season: that hate it or love it time of the year. You think about all there is to gain or you remember what you've lost.

I went into this Christmas excited as always. Getting to see whether my family's Secret Santa gifts would wind up in the closet or the returned items bin at Macy's or Marshalls is always fun, but being reminded of the miracle that found its way to a manger in Bethlehem is honestly what I love about that time of year.  Quite frankly, the whole thing still amazes me. Eternity stepping into time to save the undeserving? Yeah, I am compelled to celebrate—whether presents fill the living room or not. But then, there's family. The presence or lack of family members around can seemingly make or break one's holiday season.

I didn't realize that until this Christmas.

My family spent Christmas morning reflecting on the birth of Jesus, then laughing (most often at my mom who decided to wrap gifts from and to herself and actually place them under the tree) as we exchanged gifts; but by nightfall, the laughter had turned into prayers for a miracle to take place in my uncle's hospital bed. He'd been taken to the emergency room that morning and was now never expected to walk, talk, or comprehend again. That is, if he made it through the night.

Woah.

Another kind of amazement found its way into my mind and heart.

How is it that someone can be full of joy one night, and breathing their last breaths the next?

Why so sudden?

And God, why on Christmas?

Questions seem fair when the unexpected arrives as God doesn't seem so loving when a loved-one dies.

But what if I told you that the man who was lying in that hospital bed was in a prison cell just months ago? And he'd spent almost a quarter of a century there. While that makes his new life in the real world seem all too short, him being in that hospital bed surrounded by family meant that not only had he gotten to live beyond prison walls and enjoy time with his wife, but he was free to die at this point. Freed from dying as an inmate. But even more, he'd already been freed from dying as an enemy of God. While he entered the system guilty before his maker and his criminal record was certainly stained upon his release, while bound in prison, he'd testified to having a clean slate before the Lord. His death would mean a trip home.

Eternally.

So, what if that's the story?

Well then, all the questions prior seem quite silly. Natural for us and even accepted by God, but silly because we can't handle the myriad of scenarios that could begin to answer our questions.

Yet, our perplexity and confusion over life and death persist. While we may know, we don't understand. I know that God has the whole word in His hands, but I don't understand how exactly. He gives and takes away, all while being holy and loving. A duality I can't fully comprehend.

But as I looked out an airplane window on New Year's Eve at the clouds and all the Earth below, I was reminded of a simple truth:

God is not asking to be understood, just trusted.

I can't even explain how an airplane is able to remain above ground, so what makes me think I could understand the doings of the God who simply spoke that ground into existence?

 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)

A popular verse, yet unpopular belief. God's height is not an invitation for us to attempt a climb. Instead, it offers a humble position for us to accept. And not only can that acceptance save us some sleepless nights and extended headaches, but our holidays and new years can still be filled with joy. While not everyone has a happy ending to their story or exit from this life, most have had the opportunity to live and breathe and thereby experience God's grace. And those of us still able to do so get to fight this good fight of faith and enjoy more of God in our mortal bodies while looking forward to one day having all new ones in a place where there is no more pain, crying, questioning or confusion.

That very day we get to spend Christmas and New Year's absent from our fragile bodies, but present with the Lord.

Wow.

Amazing.

Waiting By the Phone

“I don’t want to be that girl,” my friend Fiona says, “who waits by the phone.”

And suddenly it all becomes clear. “But Fiona,” I say, “you are that girl. I am that girl. My mother is that girl and her mother before her. We’re all waiting by the phone.

“You think there is a cure for waiting by the phone, but there’s not. The phone call doesn’t cure it. Dating the guy who calls doesn’t cure it. Marriage doesn’t fix that ache to be remembered and singled out and loved. Lovesick is just how we are. It’s an illness. Even when you are married, you have times when you wait by the phone.”

I feel for Fiona. I forget the colossal risk a single girl takes when she goes so far as to be slightly interested in a guy. I know being interested is a gamble. What if he’s not remotely interested back? Which makes love like playing a crooked slot machine in a corrupt casino. What if I’m not loved back? Or what if he loves me, then changes his mind and leaves? Or (and this is plausible to the point of actual) he loves me but he doesn’t say it the way I need to hear it? Or when I need to hear it. What if I’m trapped in a marriage where waiting by the phone is a more accurate euphemism for marriage than for dating?  What if he waits till I’ve invested everything and then he makes the ultimate exit of dying? What will my heart do with that insult of all insults? That first spark of interest is a painful risk—an omen of the deeper risk of involvement—and I forgot about that.

Waiting in Antiquity

Every one of us is waiting for someone who will be there, who will pay attention to our words, the petty ones and the precious ones, someone who won’t leave or opt out or lose focus. Someone who will call just when we need for them to. And our lovesickness has symptoms that emerge when we’re waiting. Disappointment, discouragement, sorrow, fear, impatience, irritability, anger, bitterness. The darker side of lovesickness is our inability to fully do for others what we crave for ourselves. We try, we really do, but we’re not always good at it. Someone is waiting on us to deliver and we fail…a lot.

It’s been this way since the fall. When our ancestors loved, they rolled the same dice. Waiting has never been safe. Somewhere around 1000 B.C., Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, met and married men who turned out to be colossal risks. Naomi returned to her homeland and told her friends the unvarnished truth: “I left full and I have returned empty.” She and Ruth arrived in Israel not just heartsick, but as heartbroken widows.

Which makes what happened next pretty darn amazing. Naomi orchestrated another courtship for Ruth. And Ruth cooperated. The older woman effectively said, “Ruth, dear, take your broken heart and offer it to a stranger. Wait by the phone. You may end up looking like a fool, but, who knows, you might get a husband in the end.”

And Ruth did it. At least these days if you wait by the phone you can do it in the privacy of your own home. He doesn’t have to know you’re waiting. But Ruth had to do something I’m not sure many of us would do. Naomi instructed (easy for her to say):

"Take a bath. Put on some perfume. Get all dressed up and go to the threshing floor. But don't let him know you're there until the party is well under way and he's had plenty of food and drink. When you see him slipping off to sleep, watch where he lies down and then go there. Lie at his feet to let him know that you are available to him for marriage. Then wait and see what he says. He'll tell you what to do."(Ruth 3:3-4)

Here’s where I might have shrieked at my mother-in-law, “Wait and see what he says? Are you crazy? Lie at his feet?”

But it worked. You know why I think it worked? (Aside from the culture at the time and the fact that Ruth may have been prime marriage material, whatever that means.) I’m guessing here, but one small observation says something significant to me. Boaz—the potential husband—woke to find Ruth under his blanket…asleep. Asleep! Ruth took a monumental risk and waited for the outcome. While she was waiting she slept. I don’t know about you, but when I am impatient or anxious, especially about a relationship, I do just about anything but sleep. Ruth slept without the benefit of an Ambien or a white-noise machine or a glass of Merlot.

A woman who sleeps in these circumstances is a woman at peace. The DNA of peace is trust. Ruth had lived through enough to know she could never fully trust husbands, or any other mortal for that matter. They might up and die on you. Ruth was waiting on Someone else, the God of Israel Naomi called “The Strong One.” How do I know that? After both of their husbands died, Ruth begged to go with Naomi to Israel, saying, “Your God will be my god.” Naomi was her only connection to the God she had already embraced. Sure, she loved Naomi, but it looks like she loved her God even more.

Ruth could wait on Boaz because she knew how to wait on The Strong One. Waiting on others is an exercise in disappointment. It makes for one-dimensional living. Waiting on the Strong One is a sure bet every time. It makes for a life that lives and breathes and grows beyond us.

One time my sister said, “I don’t have road rage, I cause it.” Well, we all have disappointment and we cause it. We’re mortal and lovesick and infected with sin. That’s why waiting on others is such a gamble. It doesn’t mean we don’t do it—just think what we would miss—but it does mean we don’t expect an immediate return on our risk. We know how often others have not “shown up” for us and how often we have not “shown up” for them.

But God doesn’t have our disease. He can be waited on with utter confidence. Look for the word “wait” in the Psalms and Proverbs and you’ll see proof. The writers typically used the word one of two ways. First, connected to a direct object: God who is a Rescuer and a Friend on whom the writer waits. Second, connected to a subject: the enemy waiting in the bushes to pounce. Make two lists of both usages of “wait” and you’ll find the ratio is about two to one. For what it’s worth, those ancient lovers of the Strong One cried out in devotion to God twice as much as they cried out in fear about their enemies.

Ruth was able to wait by the phone (or under the blanket) for Boaz because she waited for his God first. She could take the risk, not because she knew Boaz would be all she hoped he would be, but because her true Kinsman Redeemer was her all and all. She became David’s great-grandmother and, one day a thousand years later, one of only three women mentioned in Jesus’ ancestry. Waiting gave her life a meaning it would never have had otherwise.

So here’s what I want to say to my friend Fiona:

“Fiona, be that girl. Just wait on someone else. Be that girl with all your heart.”

 

Becoming Strong by Following

Life offers us, if we’ll let it, many opportunities to become expert followers. . . Just so you know, I wrote this several years ago. It is not in response to any of the current leaders in my life, either at home, at church or in our government.

Psalm 77:19

“Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.”

The context of these verses is the incredible story of God’s leadership of his people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land. As I began to picture the men and women of Israel standing on the banks of the Red Sea – roiling waters before them, raging enemy closing in behind them – I could only imagine that they were anxious and afraid, but also that they were angry with Moses for leading them to what was surely imminent death. Knowing my own nature and the tendency of most of us when we aren’t in charge but want to be, I can picture that the Israelites were disgruntled with Moses for what appeared to be botched leadership. And because they were effectively trapped between two dangers, unable to fix or change the situation themselves, they grumbled and complained. What else could they do?

Sometimes, like the Israelites, I cannot see God’s footprints at all. The only feet I see, other than my own, are the dirty, smelly, ugly feet of the regular human being in charge. It may be my husband’s feet, or an employer’s, a pastor’s or leader’s, or even the imagined feet of “them,” the government, the college, the system. These are the people who make decisions that I would certainly have made differently had I been in charge, the path I would have taken had my dirty, stinky, filthy feet led the way. I’m not bitter, but I do suspect I have issues with authority, especially when all I can see are the feet that seem to be misleading me up ahead. And I can’t see God’s footprints until much later when there is dancing on the far banks of the sea.

Here’s what I typically do in these situations: I look at the feet of the person in charge, and I notice how unclean and corrupt they are. Then, maybe, I’ll look at my own restless feet, feet that are tapping out a waiting-room fidget. Both perspectives frustrate the heck out of me and don’t really help matters.

But . . . hopefully . . . finally I look at Jesus’ feet.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus was led by our dirty feet to a death on a cross that scarred his feet forever. He chose to experience a life and death that pressed on him inexorably and he complained only once that I can see, in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked to be relieved of his duties if there was any way around the tragically passive stance he was about to take towards his own life. These are the feet I cannot always see, but I know are always there. These are the feet that are spotless and clean and perfect. These are the feet worth following, even if it means swallowing my pride and following the human feet of someone whose feet are as unworthy as mine to lead.

So, I was thinking...

"Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think." (MLK Jr.) Well, Martin, here are my thoughts...Take 1

So, I was thinking about codependency. Maybe you've heard that word used before; maybe you haven't. One of my pastors dropped that word (bomb) on me some months ago, and it has since become more common in my speech. It has been my struggle—once unknowingly—for some time now: the need for another.

As I was feeling the pains of that struggle one night, I began researching the meaning behind a song that sovereignly found me. In the process, I came across these words from Jon Foreman: As consumers in a commercial driven culture, we can begin to view other souls as objects or potential cures for our deepest fears and insecurities. "Perhaps if I found the right lover I would no longer feel this deep existential despair." But, of course, no human soul could be the Constant Other—the face that will never go away. Only the infinite can fill that role.

As he sees it, so often in relationships (friendships included) there's a despair that surrounds leaving the presence of a significant other or a fear of them someday not being around . We hear it in the "love" songs on the radio—"I can't live without you."

That got me thinking about my struggle, my need for a constant other, but also how our "love" seems to vary. So many of us say we love God, but that looks different than the all-consuming, R&B, romantic drama love we seem to have for whatever or whoever has our heart. We say we love being with God; yet, our lives are set up in such a way that says we can manage without Him quite often. When our devo time is over, we go on with life as though we don't want or need the Godhead throughout the day.

But what if we saw God like that person [or insert whatever grips your heart strings] we can't live without? We'd long for His presence and never want to leave it (Psalm 27:4). We'd wake up in the morning and run to Him. And once our alarms or mental schedules alerted us that we have to head to work or school, we wouldn't just walk out the door feeling like the 30 minutes (or more for some) was enough til the next morning. Instead, we'd say like a desperate lover, "Lord, please stay with me throughout the day. Just keep me near your heart. The fullness of joy lies in you and apart from you I can do nothing. So, come with me to work. To school. To the store. Everywhere I go, I want you with me. I need you with me. Lord, you have the words of eternal life. To whom else would I go?"

Codependency...somehow the word doesn't sting as it did then. Instead, I can hold it up as my trophy.

I can unashamedly say that I am needy...

I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord; No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.

I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby; Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.

I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain; Come quickly and abide, or life is vain.

I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will; And Thy rich promises in me fulfill.

I need Thee every hour, most Holy One; Oh, make me Thine indeed, Thou blessed Son.

SLOW DOWN

Here’s the problem

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine this past week as we were on the back porch grilling. Having just celebrated a birthday, we were talking about the “good ole days” and what’s wrong with these “young bucks” nowadays. My good friend shared with me a story about a guy he had a conversation with. He asked the younger guy what he was learning, and the younger dude responded by recounting all the books he was reading—restating all the quotes that he tweeted from the books that he read. When he got done, my friend repeated the question, “So what are you learning? Out of all the life-changing quotes that you just restated, what are you applying? How is your life being changed?” Surprisingly (or not surprisingly depending on your view of "this generation"), the guy was silent. His silence answered the question with a resounding NOTHING. I’m reading, I’m studying, I’m processing—but I’m not learning anything.

We need experts, not enthusiasts

Here’s my fear for our community: our overemphasis on “rightness” is producing a lot of enthusiasts and very few experts. Picture this...you’re sitting in a room, and the topic of cars comes up (something I know very little about). In walks a 12-year old who is a car enthusiast and a professional Nascar driver. As they start to talk about cars and argue the finer points of the sport (if you would be so bold as to call it that), you become impressed because the 12- year old is holding his own. He can go toe-to-toe with the Nascar driver about the finer points of cars, how to make high speed turns, etc. At points in the conversation, he even seems to be “winning” and making better points than the Nascar driver, which is even more impressive. Here’s my question for you: If you had to ride in the car with one of them while sitting in the passenger seat with no seatbelt, who would you choose? If the room was filled with 100 other people, who would they choose?

The 12-year old can argue all day and by doing so think that he and the Nascar driver are peers; however, one by one, as people choose the driver they are going to follow, it becomes painfully obvious that what people need are experts, not enthusiasts. These are the people that lead. This is what our community desperately needs.

We have a lot of enthusiasts as it relates to holiness; we have a lot of enthusiasts as it relates to stewardship; we have a lot of enthusiasts as it relates to Bible knowledge and theology, but what I’ve found is that we have very few experts, very few practitioners. If you’re only an enthusiast as it relates to holiness, there’s a word for that—hypocrite.

If that’s you, I have some advice.

Slow Down

Don’t feel the pressure to memorize Systematic Theology by next week to impress your friends, leaders, or the people that follow you. Don’t feel the pressure to read a whole lot of books this year just to reach a certain status in the eyes of people that are around you. Don’t feel the pressure to insert yourself into Twitter conversations with your heroes to prove that you know a lot.

Slow Down.

This isn’t a race.

Take some time and soak up the things that you’re reading. Surround yourself with people that will ask you the "so what" question.

Start practicing the things you talk about.

After you study, get in the car and take a few laps around the track.

You might actually learn something.

(Ordinary)Gospel.(Automatic)Family.(Latent)Mission.

Last night, our college ministry had the semester’s first large-scale gathering of students and others in the college-age range at what we call The Brook. I had the opportunity to co-host the event with a dear friend of mine, and we’d spent the past weeks planning, creating and losing sleep. [Pause] Think about the arrangement of that sentence. I said I had the opportunity to co-host. But what about the planning, creating and losing sleep? Were those opportunities too? Considering that when we think about an opportunity, we usually follow it up with some noteworthy action, a platform, some dream come true or some profitable endeavor, I’d say no. The fact that God would let me stand on a stage was the opportunity. Isn’t that what we all want in some arena or another? To be seen and heard.

 Ordinary Gospel

Over the course of the night, I shared God’s story of redemption manifested in my life, as did the other host, and our student pastor had an open dialogue with those in attendance to probe into their hearts and minds.  One student made a confession that was met with many agreeing nods: the Christian life can become predictable and ordinary, mundane even. He was right. We’ve read this, heard that and already told everyone about it via social media. We talk about Jesus and scripture with bullet points and breakdowns to the point that actually falling on our knees, God forbid our face, in awe of Him is beneath us. My friend admitted yesterday that she couldn’t remember the last time the majesty of God moved her to the point of tears, so heavy she couldn’t stand, until just recently. Personally, I didn’t have to go before God to prepare to share my testimony last night. I’ve already been coached on how to communicate it quick enough to someone who I might not have an opportunity to speak with at-length. No, this is not an attack on doctrine, methods and models; we must be students of the one we worship.  But if all our learning and planning makes us forget who we were when God exchanged our death for life and somehow overshadows the filthy-ragged Christians we still are, then I’d agree with the wise woman who told me, “I never want to know that much.”

Salvation is a miracle.  The fact that God sent His son to take my place in death and now I get to walk free is no point made in passing.  We’d be outraged if the prisons just started releasing criminals to roam free, with the hope that they’d make different choices with their newfound freedom.  What have they done to earn such a pardon? They don’t deserve to live freely! They (we) sure don’t.  But it’s been quite a few mornings since “the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.” So, that thought doesn’t wake us up or provide fuel for our days.

Automatic Family.Latent Mission.

 As if the supernatural exchange of redemption isn’t enough, the fact that we are not left wandering this planet alone in our freedom should give us pause. Not only do we have the spirit of our emancipator living inside us, but we also get to journey through this life with other freed souls.  “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies.” There are countless Christians who don’t know this common unity customary to some of us today. There are people struggling to stay on the narrow road, because there is no one around to remind them of whose they are.  Not to mention those brave souls risking their lives in hostile environments only finding fellowship in the Holy Spirit.  Yet, for those of us who have a contact list full of other believers, the Body is no monumental piece of art. The idea that God arranged for us to “randomly” encounter one another or choose to live in the same state or end up at the same church when we come from totally different worlds is not a phenomenon to ponder. Oh but it is. And if we did, we’d be brought to our knees. God is sovereign. Don’t just say it, sit with it; better yet, go with it.

 He hasn’t privileged us with family merely for comfort in common hues or delight in shared preferences. “Only because the message concerning Christ Jesus must still go forth and find believers, and because our task is not yet perfected, does God in His patience continue to sustain us with His good gifts.” We are united by Him and for Him alone. Growing in the Gospel alongside family while on mission should mean we’re around other people whose lives have been transformed by the Gospel, which compels us to share with those lost souls whose present lives remind us where God stepped in and changed our own. Being on mission not only takes what’s in you and pours it out to others, but it should serve as a constant reminder of how and why you even have anything in you worth sharing.

 That God would let me…

 As I came across an old friend’s profile this morning, the reality of last night showed itself.  Who my friend is now versus who I am by the grace of God struck me. I could still be like them! Living “free” yet so bound. But the power of God unto salvation changed the course of my life; actually, it introduced me to life.  How could that reality not leave me ravished every day? With that in mind, God letting me do ANYTHING should produce gratefulness. For my life to be seen or my voice heard by anyone for His namesake should be humbling, because I know where I was and where I still am—not tall enough to reach His glory. It’s not about being on a stage or leading a group or discipling some person.  Often times, that’s just us wanting to be seen or feel important for our pride’s sake. It is an opportunity just to get to offer my gifts, my time, my thoughts, and myself to the God who gave them to me and redeemed them all from my own tainting. To get to pray for strength and energy for the day that followed a long night of planning and preparation is in fact an opportunity. To get to do anything with and for God is an opportunity I do not deserve.

May I never forget that. May the thought of it be what wakes me up time and time again.

 *All quotes taken from Life Together by Deitrich Bonhoeffer