Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are … because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that actually are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t ultimately valued by its source. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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What faith is

The poster child for faith in the Bible is Abraham. Others had it, too, but Abraham’s faith isn’t momentary faith; this is monumental faith. This is world-changing faith. Abraham’s faith is centered not on people or preferences but on the person of God.

In other words, it is Person-centered, not people-centered. Abraham’s story has a lot to teach us about a kind of faith that is God-centered.

Faith is a kind of self-giving love. Ahahah is a Hebrew word for a kind of self-giving love. Literally, it means “I give.” The first time this word for love is used in the Old Testament is in this story of Abraham and Isaac, when the writer describes Abraham’s love for his son. Self-giving love is powerful when combined with God-honoring trust.

Faith binds us. Another Hebrew word in the story of Abraham and Isaac is akedah. The word means “binding” and it’s the word they use when they talk about binding Isaac to the altar. It teaches us that sometimes faith happens when we lay something on the altar and trust God with the questions.

Faith is not passive. It is not waiting for things to change without us having to do anything. To the contrary, God defines faith as movement. James taught that faith without works is dead.

Faith is a grace. God gives faith. It isn’t something we generate in order to get God’s attention. It is something God offers as a gift. Knowing that, faith ought to be something we pray for regularly. “Lord, give me more faith.”

Faith is a mature choice. It begins with my own decision to act like an adult so I can walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the valleys toward Jesus.

Faith exposes the great moves of God and links us to the promises of God. Abrahamic faith watches for the great moves of God and goes after them. If I want to see God’s promises before they happen, I’m going to need a faith that will hold me between the high points.

Faith invites us to “act as if.” This is a mark of faith that circumcision signaled in the story of Abraham. It was a sign that God’s people were welcome to go ahead and act as if they were a mighty nation even before the first child was born. “Act as if” faith is a display of confidence that even when we don’t see how the lines will be drawn, God is at work.

Faith is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. Which is to say that faith incorporates another dimension, making it a higher form of knowing.

Faith is the opposite of fear. Perfect love casts out fear, and faith connects us to that perfect love.

Faith teaches me who I am. But faith is not “I” centered. In fact, it helps us to get past the “I’s.” When we trust God, we are no longer tempted to defend ourselves. We let God have his job back.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me. Faith is about accepting the power of Jesus into our lives and walking that journey together with Jesus.

Faith has a “ram in the bush” mentality. It is the mentality that places all our hopes in the most creative being in the universe, who can take any circumstance we’re in and make good out of it.

Faith responds, “Here I am.” Three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac, we find the response: “Here I am.” It is the same response Moses gives when God calls to him from the burning bush. And it is the same response Isaiah gives when he comes into the unhindered presence of God. This is the response of greatness and it always leads us toward our created design, never away from it.

Faithfulness breeds blessings. Not necessarily blessing the way we’d define it, but blessing the way the Creator of the universe defines it, who wants to expose the greatness in us, who wants to see our influence ripple through generations, not just moments, who wants to raise dead things and redeem relationships and restore purpose and health.

Mature faith breeds blessings that change the world. Abraham is proof.

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How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

start-a-revolutionKnowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

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Grace is not for wimps.

C. S. Lewis said you’ll either love Jesus or you’ll hate him. There is no in-between. “… Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

That choice creates a tension that causes some to build crosses and draw swords and fire guns at people who fall at his feet in worship.

Christianity claims more followers — and more martyrs — than any other religion.  Consider these stats*:

  • More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.
  • Currently over 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
  • North Korea continues to be the worst country in the world for persecution.
  • Open Doors (a watchdog and advocacy organization for persecuted Christians) estimates that more than 12,500 Christians have been killed in religion related violence in northern Nigeria between 2006 and 2014, including one whole village that was massacred. Boko Haram violence has claimed most of those lives.
  • It is also estimated that Boko Haram related violence has displaced more than 500,000 Christians in northern Nigeria.
  • In 2015, Islamic State released a video showing what is believed to be the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Subtitles refer to the men as “worshippers of the cross belonging to the hostile Ethiopian church.”
  • Iran’s parliament believes Muslims who change their faith should be put to death.
  • In India, up to 70,000 Christians in Orissa have been forced to flee their homes in riots.
  • In Indonesia, in the two years between 2000-2002, Muslims slaughtered 10,000 Christians.
  • In Vietnam a new law restricts the growth of Christian churches and violence is on the rise.
  • Nepal has laws in place to restrict religion; a constitutional change last year bans all religious conversions.
  • Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka all have laws restricting religion.
  • Half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • Under Islamist pressure, Coptic Christians in Egypt are being forced from their homes.
  • A February video showed Islamic State killing 20 Coptic Christians from Egypt and one Ghanaian.
  • By 2012, most of the 80,000 Christians in Homs, Syria had been ‘cleansed’ from their homes.
  • In Europe, persecution is becoming a reality through “equality directives.” In 2011, France passed a law banning prayer in public streets — a reaction against the growing Muslim population.
  • Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously intolerant environment.
  • Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. An average of at least 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith.
  • Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ.
  • In 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists.

The moral of all these stories is simple: Grace is not for wimps. Grace forces us to choose. It isn’t weak or soft. It comes in truth, in power, in supernatural connections. It creates wonders and signs and it offends people who have no room for the supernatural in their lives.

You can’t kill it, though it is intent on destroying everything in you that won’t fit in the Kingdom of God. Be clear on that when you sign up, because grace has no intention of leaving you as you are. Grace is God giving us every option, opening every door, showing us every gate of Heaven. Grace is “God For Us” so completely that there is no room or tolerance for even a shred of our sin, unholy comforts or complacencies.

The goal of grace is the realized Kingdom of Heaven. It is bent completely toward seeing the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Whatever the cost.

Grace is not for wimps but worth the risk. To live a life so anchored in truth and power and prayer, so anchored in the truth that there is more to this life than simply staying alive at any cost, so anchored in grace that nothing rocks the boat — that is worth living for.

And worth dying for.

 

*Facts documented either by the U.S. Department of State, a reputable news organization or Open Doors, a watch-dog and support group for persecuted Christians.

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Redeeming the unsaved parts of me

A friend who counsels through healing prayer shared the story with me of working with a middle-aged woman who had a form of dissociation. We might call it multiple personality disorder; it is an effect of significant childhood trauma. In simple (and probably inadequate) terms, dissociation is when the part of the brain that is wounded sequesters itself, creating a separate personality and resulting in  something like another person inside your head.

This woman being treated by my friend had a six-year-old living in her head who had been hiding there for decades, ever since the trauma occurred in her life. My friend said that as he prayed with this woman, the six-year-old child would come in and out. It was as if he was talking to two different people. This wasn’t a demon; this was a dissociated or fractured part of this person’s personality.

In the course of the prayer, a problem surfaced. As it turns out, the adult had come to Christ in recent years, but because that happened after she was six, the child didn’t know Jesus. This was a point of contention. The adult would tell the child, “You need to find Jesus so we can get together.” That sounded reasonable enough to an adult mind, but not to a wounded child. The six-year-old was afraid; there had already been so much hurt and distrust. Even between the adult and child living in the same body there were hurt feelings and resentments.

What eventually broke the stalemate? The adult decided to act like an adult. Instead of telling the child, “You need to go meet Jesus,” the adult embraced the child and the two of them walked toward Jesus together. My friend says it was like watching a six year old girl get saved. When she accepted Jesus, he spontaneously integrated them. But to get there, the more mature side of this person had to go after the healing.

Good healing, good evangelism, good church, good faith, starts with a decision to go after it. It starts with a choice to act like an adult and walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the darkness and toward Jesus.

I wonder if there are some parts of you that need to challenge other parts of you to get up and go after God? Is there is a conversation inside of you waiting to happen so you can move through the broken places to the next rise?

A while back, I wrote the following in my journal on a day when I was challenging myself on the shallowness of my personal Bible reading. I wrote: “It is tempting to read the Bible only for what it might reveal to me today about myself or my circumstances. I begin looking for nuggets of hope or support. I read into the lives of the Israelites — harassed by the Babylonians — slivers of truth for my middle-class life today. I compare apples with automobiles, bowing to the tempting belief that some of the most profound moments in history are really just bits of advice for my day. The Word of God becomes a fortune cookie, and my part is to believe that whatever snappy phrase I can uncover is my destiny.

“But what if that isn’t God’s best for my relationship with him? What if, instead, I’m to be looking for the life of God rather than my own?

“Lord, forgive me for treating your Word like a fortune cookie and for allowing it to suffice only for how it can improve my immediate circumstances. And Lord, pour through me today your cleansing and renewing power. While I’m praying for folks and listening to stories, I need your power to cleanse me. Make me kinder, gentler, more loving, forgiving, pleasing to you. Bend my character toward your will. Kill all the unsaved parts of me. Jesus … circumcise my heart.”

This is what it means to seek after the life of God, and to bring it into my life so that my faith becomes an expression of Jesus being lived out in me. It means seeking out and embracing the unsaved parts of me, so I can walk them into the redemption of Jesus.

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How to sit with someone in their grave (or, How to surrender your sexuality to God)

A friend of a friend works with men who have gone through sexual trauma and in a conversation about how healing happens for them, he says, “These men cannot make resurrection happen. The only person who can do that is Jesus. They don’t know when—or even if—it will ever happen. And we (the church) don’t know how to sit with them in their grave [until it does].

Most of us know something about graves. The very, very difficult reality is that we do all kinds of things that lead to death. We struggle with porn, have affairs, deny we’ve had affairs, drink to excess. We are slaves to our emotions and say hateful things and explode in anger. We lie to protect ourselves. None of us is above the sin line and that very fact should be cause for a deep sense of humility as we talk with those who sit in graves of their own making.

We are all fighting against fallen human nature, all battling manifestations of selfish desire. We all struggle against things that “feel natural” and we all need the grace of God to conquer those cravings. That’s why we need to learn to sit with one another in our graves. Not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

Earlier this year, our church spent five weeks developing a biblical theology of the body.¹ We ended that series with a conversation about how those truths intersect with grace. In the course of preparing for those conversations, I consulted with Phyllis Kiser, a therapist who practices therapy in the area of sexual brokenness.

I asked Phyllis to think with me about the kind of pastoral counsel she would share with someone ready to come out of sexual brokenness. I share these thoughts here for those who may have made a few mistakes in life, some of them around the use of your body and your own sexuality:

1) Surrender your sexuality to God. All of it. Your desires, attractions, behaviors, hormonal surges, history, future. All of it. Have the humility to submit yourself to your Creator.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:12), he gives them this sage advice: Don’t allow yourself to be dominated by anything.

We should all write that on a post-it note and put it on our bathroom mirror. I will not be dominated by anything but Jesus.

After Paul hands this advice to the Corinthians he immediately shifts to the subject of Jesus being raised from the dead, as if to say, “Jesus is more powerful than whatever you have been dominated by.” This is begin-again language. There is no mistake so far out there that it can’t be made right, no wound so deep that it can’t be healed.

God specializes in resurrections.

2) Don’t buy the sexual message this culture is selling. Be intentional and learn about God’s sexual economy. Examine your thoughts and expectations about sex. Develop a biblically based theology of sex.

Satan’s big win in the Garden was his ability to make the first humans see sin differently. The enemy got them to believe that life was designed to fulfill their own needs when in fact, life is designed to glorify God. Consequently, so much of our teaching on our created design is dead wrong.

The morality message plays off fear and shame. The message is, “It is bad. Don’t do it.” This is what we teach our kids. We use morality to scare them away from treasuring their own bodies.

The biology message focuses on physical and emotional feelings and attractions. The message is, “If it feels good, do it.” For teens, the message is, “Protect yourself.” This separates body from soul.

The theological message, however, teaches us that there is no shame in Christ, that the goal of this physical life is to be fruitful, to experience biblical joy through a covenantal relationship, to learn true intimacy rooted in trust — all with the intended end of pointing our lives toward God.

3) Invite the Holy Spirit to empower you to live a life that pleases God. We need the Holy Spirit to tell us who we really are. Andy Stanley says it well: “Focus on becoming someone, not finding someone.”  Because we live under the shadow of the cross, we are not orphans. We are children of the King.

The cross is our rescue from slavery. Through the cross, Jesus used a body to prove the point that bodies can connect us back to God. Our creator used a body to remind us that we are more than plumbing and wiring. We are redeemed people with bodies and stories and spiritual gifts, all designed to be in partnership with God to build the Kingdom on earth.

 

¹I am grateful to Dr. Timothy Tennent and those who lead Asbury Seminary’s chapel services. The messages Dr. Tennent delivered on the theology of the body at Asbury’s chapel last year deeply inspired and informed our conversations.

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Four questions and a cup of coffee (a simple way to make spiritual progress)

What if a few Christians got together once a week to share in an intentionally spiritual conversation that challenged each of them to reflect on their growth and challenges as followers of Jesus?

This was the principle beneath Wesley’s Methodism. He believed sanctification happened in community, in conversation, and he and his Holy Club met regularly to challenge one another deeply.

With questions.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been having this experiment in Christian conversation on Thursday afternoons (Panera Bread, Evans GA, 4;30p). Our conversation is guided by four questions developed by Mosaic’s discipleship team and inspired by Wesley’s accountability questions. These questions introduce four main theological themes being taught throughout the life of our church in the coming year:

  • Love God.
  • Learn his story.
  • Live for him.
  • Build the Kingdom.

Here are our four questions. If they resonate, use them to change the spiritual atmosphere where you are.

1. How am I intentionally spending time with God and the Bible?

This is a question of spiritual connection with God and the quality of that relationship. In our Wesleyan tradition, we believe the touchpoint of an authentic relationship with God is grace. Wesley systematized grace to show that its effect is not just “fire insurance” (salvation) but sanctification. In fact, an emphasis on sanctification is the one of the greater contributions Wesleyan theology makes to the Body of Christ and sanctification is a partnership. God transforms us as we enter into the means of grace. As Kevin Watson says in The Class Meeting, “If you are serious about participating in God’s work of renewal in your life, you will commit to do the things that disciples of Jesus Christ do: read scripture regularly, spend time in prayer by yourself and with others, worship with others who are seeking to follow Christ, receive the Lord’s Supper (which Wesley referred to as the ‘grand channel’ of God’s grace), give generously of your time and money, and serve others.” The key word in our first question is “intentional.” Spiritual discipline doesn’t happen accidentally or coincidentally; it is sought after, like a hungry person looks for food.

2. What is Jesus teaching me and how is it changing my story? If the first question is about the externals (the means of grace, spiritual disciplines), this one is about the internals. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly into the influence of the Holy Spirit. This question then asks how that influence is transforming me. The questions asked of the members of Wesley’s “Holy Club” reflected that sincere desire to grow more deeply into holiness:

1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

Jesus says we are known by our fruit and this includes spiritual fruit. Am I going someplace spiritually? Am I further along today than I was six months ago, a year ago, five years ago? There are no stagnant ponds in the Kingdom of God

3. How is the Holy Spirit impacting the world through me? This question moves us from internal fruit-bearing to external fruit-bearing. This is about being on mission with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the comfort of his gifts. How are my decisions and relationships being impacted by the presence of God and the means of grace in my life? When I am being changed by Christ, the world around me is being changed, too.

4. How am I helping to make disciples who build the Kingdom? This is about getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to be concerned for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — but do I yet have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole world? “It is too light a thing,” God says in Isaiah 49, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God has planted us in this field that his salvation might be known among every tongue and tribe. He has called us to holy and global response. How are you participating in that Kingdom vision?

I wonder how it might change the spiritual atmosphere of your home, your church, your ministry if you began a regular practice of asking yourself a few solid, spiritual questions? How might it change your connection to the Body of Christ if you got together with a few others over coffee to ask those questions of each other? Could this practice move you more intentionally into the will of God?

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Do something in church to make a dent in the darkness.

After reading Russell Moore’s exceptional post on how best to be the Church this week as we gather for worship, here is how we at Mosaic will gather tomorrow:

1. We’ll open our service by joining hands to pray over the state of our country, to repent of our own blindness and denial, and to pray by name for those who have suffered loss. We won’t wait until the “pastoral prayer” in the order of worship. To do so seems somehow contrived. Instead, we’ll treat this the way you’d treat a first meeting with a loved one who has suffered loss. We’ll immediately embrace each other as families do, leaning on one another for comfort and hope.

2. We’ll pray by name for the families of all victims killed in the last week, as well as for the family of Micah Johnson (the shooter in Dallas). We’ll acknowledge the numbers — 136 African Americans killed so far in 2016 by officers of the law, and 26 policemen killed in the line of duty. We can no longer deny reality; these are not isolated incidents. The system is not healthy.

3. We will state the obvious. Racism is not dead. We will talk as if we are all in this together, because we are. Having talked with folks in my own church, I’ll speak not for myself but for them. They tell me people have had enough of having to explain to their children how to avoid violence at the hands of the police, even telling their boys they can’t play with toy guns because of what it might look like.

Mamas are tired of losing sleep every time their sons leave the house — sons who are suspect just because they show up, sons who in the wrong context become a threat because of the color of their skin. Just their color. These are sons doing no more than what any one of us has done … driving at night, hanging out, doing life like young adults do.

People have had enough of having to teach their children how to avoid the worst consequences of racial bias, and they’ve had enough of having to defend their need to do this among those who, because their lives are not affected, simply can’t relate or even believe.

People are tired of senseless killings. The guy in L.A. who said, “Can’t we all just get along?” spoke a prophetic word, profound in its difficulty.

We thought we could just get along, but evidently we can’t. Why?

Something deep within us is broken and the church must begin praying and acting as if there is a systemic evil that has lied to us and for which the only cure is Christ. It can’t be overstated: this isn’t a fight against flesh and blood but against a power or principality that is dark and persistent, that wants us to be okay with tolerable, so it can continue wreaking havoc in the margins, in the darkness, in the futility of our thinking.

It wants us to stop at tolerable , but tolerable isn’t enough. Racism — all forms of hatred, in fact — can’t be white-washed with southern politeness. The hatred and anger and bigotry just bleed through. We can’t claim to be followers of Jesus while privately agreeing with political rhetoric that breeds fear through division. Where we have been guilty, we must acknowledge this and repent of it. There is no spiritual loophole that allows us to be coarse and angry in political arenas while preaching love in church. Love — uncomfortable, inconvenient, self-sacrificing, fear-destroying love — is the only option Jesus gives us.

4. On Sunday, we’ll pray prayers of confession and repentance — both personally and corporately — because the pathway to God’s love runs through the valley of repentance. In other words, change begins with us. Where am I refusing to face what is real? Where am I even unintentionally adding to the problems we all face?

5. And only after we have prayed and repented, will we move into worship. Our opening songs tomorrow (I Will Follow, and Great Are You, Lord) will point toward our call to follow Jesus wholeheartedly as we point our lives toward his power and grace.

6. The message will reflect our need to let God change us all the way through, because until the old person is dead real change hasn’t yet happened. Not in the way Jesus calls for it to happen. When Jesus tells us he looks on the state of our hearts, he means it. In times like these, it is not our restraint or our rhetoric that matter. It is the state of our hearts.

What does it mean to live faithfully? What does it mean to stay open to change? To stay open to truth? What does it mean to repent — deeply, fully, openly, humbly?

7. Our worship will end with a call to personal exploration and confession. Where I personally have treated people as scenery or machinery rather than as beloved children of God, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Black lives matter. All lives matter. Am I minimizing the pain of other experiences by claiming that my own is the only one that matters?

8. Our closing song leads us toward hope. “Your love will never fail, you’re steadfast” (Rise, by Housefires). After all, we know how this story ends. We know this gospel is bigger than any one country and stronger than any enemy of our souls. This gospel works, not as a bandaid but as a transformation. We will be sent out to live as transformed, hope-fueled people of God.

The one thing we can’t do on Sunday, whatever our context, is go on with business as usual, pretending that the Church has no responsibility for responding to our national pain. When we do so, we damage the gospel by calling it irrelevant, which is the worst kind of heresy.

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Four principles for a healthier short-term mission experience

I am writing this while “on mission with Jesus in Ecuador,”* serving together with seventeen genuinely kind and faithful people from two churches in Georgia and the Wesleyan seminary of Venezuela. We are being hosted by Sharon and Graham Nichols, who serve Christ through The Mission Society.

Back in the day, church folk took suitcases of shoes, toys or food when we traveled to remote places. We planned big projects for communities that didn’t ask for them. We came home and showed pictures of children we held and houses we built. We felt great about ourselves. Well intentioned as we were, we were clueless about the long-term damage of this approach to short-term missions.

Americans have learned a lot in the last thirty years about what it means to be on mission with Jesus, how short-term experiences can help and hinder, and what is actually useful for building the Kingdom of God on earth. Churches genuinely driven to be both faithful and effective are changing the ways they do short-term international and even long-term local missions.

For those having that conversation, here are four things I believe any short-term mission team should consider:

1. Get a Kingdom perspective on poverty. One of the hardest things to learn for an American traveling in a third-world country (or among those who live in poverty in our own country) is that our stuff will not get anyone into the Kingdom. To the contrary, often the giving away of stuff or money fundamentally disrespects the person on the receiving end and changes the nature of a relationship. In the end, it may well stifle the message of the gospel.

To gain a more mature posture toward poverty, I highly recommend reading at least one of these books: When Helping Hurts, or Toxic Charity. The message of both books is the same: By giving to appease our own consciences we completely miss the chance to give something of infinitely more worth: genuine relationship, the kind that isn’t built overnight.

2. Get the posture of a learner. The most valuable gift of a mission experience is exposure to God’s heart. If we allow ourselves to travel under the illusion that we “know” and that in any equation we are the teachers (or saviors, or givers, or …) then we’ll completely miss God’s heart. What most respects the country to which we travel and the hosts who have us is to learn how God is working among them.

To get a better sense of what it means to “go as a learner,” I recommend these two books: Thriving in Cross-Cultural Missions, by Carissa Alma, and Journey to A Better Way, by John Bailey. The last chapter of “Thriving” is an excellent assessment of the current short-term missions culture written from the perspective of one who has been on the receiving end of teams for nearly two decades.

3. Think of it as discipleship.  Invest time in the team before going, while you’re there and after you return. Require every team member to write a testimony in 500 words. Study the great commission together. The team that invests time in meeting, praying, sharing testimonies and preparing to go as learners will receive so much more than the team that simply gathers supplies and heads off to complete a task. And they’ll do less damage.

4. Make sure it translates into action at home. The point of a mission experience is to gain God’s heart for the world and get our hearts broken for the things that break his heart. That shouldn’t leave us pining for the next “trip fix” when we return home (side note: to use mission trips to get one’s own emotional needs met is an abuse of the system. Don’t let yourself be guilty). A successful trip should create more effective disciples, more active leaders, more passionate servants … either in the field or in the community in which they live and worship.

What makes an effective short-term missionary? It is someone who goes as a learner  to discover God’s heart for the whole world and to encourage those who serve full-time in the field. It is one who is challenged to go deeper in devotion to God and to look for where she can more intentionally serve upon return. It is one who comes home and starts praying with a stronger understanding and passion for the Harvest.

 

*This is how our hosts, Sharon and Graham Nichols, prefer to describe short-term experiences. It emphasizes the leadership of Jesus and our partnership in the process. Short-term missions isn’t about what we do, but who we are. And even more importantly, who God is.

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Act as if … (how to start up a stalled life)

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.” 

This was a line in an email from a greatly loved one who feels her life has stalled. She is discovering that it really is true: being stuck is a painful place to be.

In the recovery community, we often hear people say, “Act as if.” It is a reminder that we are not limited by our present reality. We don’t have to stay stuck. We can act as if what we want in life can happen, especially if we are willing to be patient and let God do his work.

We “act as if” more often than we might admit. I do this every morning when I get out of bed to go to the gym. I am not naturally a morning person (in fact, I’m not naturally a vertical person). I am not that person who bounces out of bed full of energy at the crack of dawn, ready to get on with her day. Not naturally. I am definitely not that person who loves to exercise.

Who I am is someone who loves sleep, who loves a good cup of coffee, who loves to stay in her morning chair for two hours. That’s who I am. But who I want to be is someone who doesn’t have a ton of health issues in her later life. I want to be that person who is disciplined enough to care for this temple God has given her, and who is up and moving early enough to care for this temple and still have time for God (and a shower) before the day begins

So every morning, what gets me out of bed is not the person I am but the person I want to be. When it comes to my health and schedule, I have learned to “act as if.”

The same holds true with my personal time with God — the time I devote completely to hearing from and worshiping him. The discipline of personal worship and spiritual growth isn’t natural.   If it were, none of us would have a problem getting to it every day.

I don’t make time with God because it comes naturally and easily; I make time because I don’t want to get stuck in my spiritual life, because I want to my relationship with God to mature, because I want more than what comes naturally. I’m learning to act as if I am spiritually disciplined, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Discipline — especially spiritual discipline — is not intuitive. It is the daily work of being there even when I don’t feel like it. It is the practice of my gifts over time so that I begin to see results.

The fruit of a disciplined life doesn’t appear overnight. It happens over time. 

One of the things that helps me is remembering that everything is a process. There are very few “events” in the spiritual journey. Most people are not healed immediately. Most problems are not solved in a moment. Most of the time it is a process of healing, a process of walking through the valley, a discipline of trusting the rod and staff that guide us toward the feast on the other side.

We may have no ability to imagine that feast, but we trust the Guide so we act as if

Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if the deal is done, even if it is still under construction.

This is the very invitation given to Abraham, who was invited to act as if he was the father of a great nation long before his first child was born. Noah was invited to act as if there would be a flood before the first drop of rain fell. That moment when Jesus stood on Peter’s faith and proclaimed that this kind of faith would be the very thing on which the Church of Jesus Christ would stand happened long before Peter took authority over his own call and stood to preach the good news.

All of these men were invited to act as if … and at the time of the invitation none of them had yet achieved any great faith or great fruit. Their God-given identity came on the front end, based not on their potential but on God’s character …

Their stories are our encouragement. This is how our God tends to work. He invites us to display confidence in his promises even before we see how the lines will be drawn. He invites us into change, even when it is hard, because  long before we understand him God is at work.

God is making good on his promises. God is faithful. Act as if that is true.

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