Faithfulness breeds blessings.

If you are someone’s child (any age) but not yet a parent, you should know that your life has messed with your parents’ heads. Assuming your parents are at least in some way functional people, you have incredible power over them — power you may not realize you have. Yes, your parent will come after you like a spider monkey when you do something wrong but have the school counselor say you have behavioral issues, and your mom will come after her like ten spider monkeys.

Your parents will take a bullet for you without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. They will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch you up and take you home without breaking a sweat. They’ll leave you in jail, even if it rips their heart out over and over to do so, because they want so much more for you than you want for yourself.

They will go without food if it means you will get a better education. Any ER nurse will tell you there is no wrath like the wrath of a mama whose baby is sick. You can make the worst possible mistake — forget to call on Mother’s Day, lie about the person you went on a date with, tell us you hate us — but the next time you cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us we’re the best mom/dad ever, parental amnesia sets in.

The slate wipes clean.

In a way, parental love is like being possessed. It is a fierce love. And while parental love isn’t always biologically bound, it is definitely not the same as the love we have for all children everywhere or even for the other people we love. A parent’s love is different. Fierce. Strong.

So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what faith requires of us when God asks us to have no other gods before him. Because Abraham is possessed. He has parental insanity. He is a one-hundred year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. There is no other story that more accurately and starkly paints what God means when he tells us to love him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.

Abraham’s love for that boy is surely a fierce love yet, knowing what he is asking of this man, God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into a great nation and you will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together, the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can you imagine what that offer must have felt like for a man who would take a bullet for his son, who would walk into the thick of a violent mob to pull him out, who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Isaac was probably not a child at this point. Some say he could have been as old as thirty, certainly old enough to know that wood for a sacrifice needs a lamb to go with it. Isaac says to his daddy, “I see the wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, with the full weight of mature faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and replies, “The Lord himself will provide the sacrifice.”

At the top of the mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together and Isaac allows Abraham to lay him up on it. Isaac didn’t have to do this. Surely he could have muscled his way out if he’d wanted to but Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God, not on personal tastes.

We wonder how a man can lay his child up on a pile of firewood but as it turns out, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To save our children’s lives, we have to be willing to put God above them at any cost. To save our families, our marriages, our reputations, our country, our you-name-it, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

This is what Abraham’s story shows us about the Kingdom of God: Faithfulness breeds blessings, the kind that pour out over your children and your children’s children. The kind that raise dead things, that redeem relationships, that restore purpose and health. The kind that change the world.

The blessings of God will always run through a fire fueled by faith. Make no mistake about this: anything else that looks like blessing is merely a cheap imitation.

Read More

When the brook dries up

I’ve not a fan of that old adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” Usually when people say that, they are blaming God for some bad thing they can’t explain any other way. They may not even realize they are doing it, but that’s the upshot. “I don’t get this and I don’t like it, but God let it happen so God must be behind it and so clearly, God wants to make me miserable for a reason.”

Really?

While it is true, technically, that everything does happen for some reason or another, some reasons stink. Some reasons are my own fault, the product of my own short-sightedness, ignorance, brokenness, neediness. Some reasons are the fault of other broken, needy people who are not thinking about my needs when they do the things they do.

True, some things happen for a reason. But some reasons stink. To believe otherwise — to say that everything that happens is the design (or fault) of God — is to deny human fallenness and the spiritual battle.

That said, I do realize God will sometimes make us miserable to move us on.  There is a story in the Old Testament of a time when Elijah experienced a change in circumstance that required interpretation. He was sitting in the middle of a famine, not a comfortable place to be. For a time, God provided miraculously for Elijah, even while others suffered all around.

Then one day, the brook dried up — literally. The brook that was keeping him alive. Elijah was forced by his own survival instincts leave the brook and to go in search of the river.

Sometimes, it is God at work.  Sometimes … but not always.

Sometimes the brook dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. In those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives. Holiness happens in times like these, when I’m forced to practice patience and forbearance while God works all things together for good.  Times like these are what make Psalm 23 so precious to me.  It promises that after every valley, there is a feast.

And then sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on. Because sometimes (not always) our misery is God at work.  Sometimes the brook dries up because God is trying to get me to move on to the river.  To move on. Let go.

Jesus once said that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it won’t bear fruit. I wonder how often I’ve hung on to things long past good sense for fear of change, when God has been trying desperately to move me on from the brook to the river.

Sometimes, but not always, it is God allowing our misery.  When it is, then we can trust that it is always for our good. Holiness will always challenge us to interpret our circumstances with the character of a loving, life-giving God in view.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

Read More

How would Jesus vote?

Jesus lived in a corrupt and perverse generation, and what he taught was subversive. Revolutionary.

The people of Rome had been taught Caesar was something like a savior. This had been the accepted truth for generations, since Julius Caesar was declared a deity by the Roman senate. Then Jesus showed up, ushered in an alternative Kingdom, set it down directly next to that mindset and dared the Roman Empire to choose. He publicly announced there was a government greater than Rome’s — a government blessed by God. He taught that poor people and those being held captive and those who were oppressed would find relief in this other Kingdom and that in fact, it was the hope of the world.

Jesus was a rebel.

He was arrested on a charge of treason and put to death. On the day he died the sky went dark and the earth shook. Ominous signs, these were the sound effects of a cosmic shift in power, a curtain falling on the old order. The Romans had just been played by the God of the universe, who used the moment to unleash a whole new religion. Christianity would spread throughout the Roman world, pull down the empire, and become the single most powerful voice of all time.

By the time Paul was converted, Jesus was the reigning eternal King of the Kingdom of Heaven, seated in all his glory in the presence of God the Father Almighty. Revelation tells us he holds the power of hell and death in his hands. When Paul tells the Philippians (3:20), “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ …” he is not talking about a feel-good religion. He’s talking about a cosmic government and a citizenship that transcends any human system. This is why Paul took the message beyond the Jews; this Kingdom — the Kingdom of Christ — wasn’t just for one nationality or one group of people. This was a new worldview.

Hear that: The Kingdom of Heaven is bigger than any one nationality.

Nero was Emperor in 64 A.D. when a huge fire broke out in Rome. It burned seventy percent of the city. Some people blamed Nero for this devastation; to divert attention he tortured Christians. He fed them to lions as entertainment and used them as human torches at his garden parties. The effect of the persecution was the spread of Christianity. Once again, the Romans had been played by the God of a greater Kingdom.

For the last 2000 years, this has been our pattern. Where Christians are persecuted, Christianity grows. Where Christians become comfortable, it stagnates. We have never flourished by giving our primary allegiance to a government. That isn’t how our faith works. Our citizenship is in Heaven.

So how should a citizen of Heaven vote in this election? 

Faithfully.

What drives your decisions, your conversations, your opinions? Are you making your choices under the Lordship of Christ? Friends, our vote should be powered by our faith. Our allegiance as citizens of Heaven is not to a political party or to a national strategy. Our allegiance is to the Lordship of Christ. We who follow Jesus are citizens of the Kingdom of God first of all … or not at all.

Prayerfully.

If I could wish one thing on the Christian culture in the U.S. right now, it would be this: That we would spend as much time in prayer as we spend online. Don’t just ask God who you ought to vote for; ask for his character to flow through you so that your words, actions and attitudes reflect his heart, especially when it comes to those with whom you disagree.

Friends, I suspect real Christian character is proven not by how we pray before the election, but by how we pray after the election. Commit now to wake up on November 9th and pray for whoever is elected. We want that person to be a great President — to be true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent, worthy of our gratitude. This is the heart of humble, patriotic, God-honoring prayer. It is that desire to see our country and its leaders and its people succeed, whoever is President.

Non-anxiously.

Governments rise and fall and God is still God. Countries come and go, and God is still God. November 8th will not stop the coming of Christ or the defeat of Satan. The purposes of God will be accomplished. When Jesus hung on the cross and said, “It is finished,” he meant that no enemy, no other kingdom, no other power would have ultimate control of the universe. The battle belongs to the Lord. We know how the story ends. We win.

Humbly.

Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey and not there yet.

Kingdom-mindedly

Jesus came to save the whole world, not just our corner of it. As followers of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom of God, we must live with a memory of the more than two billion people in the world who have never heard they have a citizenship in Heaven. Jesus loves those people. All of them. I’m convinced that the names on the November 8th ballot don’t matter nearly as much as the names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Those names ought to have our greatest attention. They ought to occupy the vast majority of our brain space and the greatest part of our prayers. As citizens of the Kingdom, our lives cannot matter more to us than their lives.

Because that’s who Jesus voted for. The cross is proof.

Read More

Abortion, Ethics and the Church

(This post was first published on this site a little more than a year ago. I am reposting today in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary earlier this month, and in recognition that many are weighing the ethics of abortion as they make voting choices on November 8th.)

I once listened and prayed as a woman whose father was pressuring her to have an abortion weighed her options. She was young, unmarried and dating a man of another race. I encouraged her to choose life. She went on, despite her father’s protests, to give birth to a child with severe deformities. That child died within months of birth. Was my opinion justified?

In other conversations, I have listened as women who have had abortions suffer, years later, with guilt and shame. I’ve listened as couples talk about how spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted by a past abortion affect every aspect of marriage. I’ve never been asked to counsel the women who had no post-traumatic stress from the effects of an abortion but I’ve counseled plenty who did.

Getting beyond the emotions beneath the issue of abortion is a challenge. But beyond the stories and beyond biblical arguments, what are the issues beneath the abortion debate?

Morality and the sanctity of human life: The fundamental issue has to do with the nature of life itself. Pro-life supporters believe life begins at conception, in which case abortion is murder. Pro-choice supporters see abortion as basically the same as any other form of birth control, with an emphasis on the right of women to make their own choices. While the core issue is often framed in the form of the question, “When does life begin?” those who support the right of a woman to choose don’t count that unborn life as having a vote while it is still part of a woman’s body.

Separation of Church and State:  Is abortion a religious issue or a legal issue?  The answer to this question determines whether or not the State can be involved in its legalization and funding.  The question has resurfaced in recent years as companies like Hobby Lobby and The Little Sisters of the Poor protest the federal mandate requiring that they provide birth control, abortion and sterilization services as part of their insurance packages.

Dangers of illegal abortions: Before abortion was made legal, there were countless stories of women who suffered and died from illegal abortions. That’s no longer the case, at least in the United States. Ironically, in countries like India where abortion is not only available but encouraged as a gender selection tool (this is the case in many countries that favor boys over girls), countless women are physically damaged by legal abortion procedures.

Effectiveness of restrictions: Because abortions have always happened whether they were legal or not, many acknowledge that even if it were made illegal, people will still do what people will do. That argument, however, largely rides on a culture of shame. For instance, being single and pregnant in America in 1950 is wildly different from being single and pregnant in 2016.

Tactics: This part of the debate has to do with how the two sides — especially the radical activists on each end of the spectrum — seek to make their points. When clinics are bombed and doctors are killed or when the rhetoric becomes hateful, threatening or bullying, no one is helped.

Women’s Rights: For pro-choice activists, this is about women having the right to do with their bodies as they see fit. For pro-lifers, the issue is about making the kinds of choices that are just and that help to build a stronger, more loving society.

What does the Church say about abortion?
Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists may well be the most outspoken opponents of abortion. Both groups believe and teach that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that a human being has all the rights of a person even before birth, whatever the circumstances of conception.

The United Methodist statement on abortion reads:  “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers … a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

I strongly disagree with the United Methodist statement on abortion. Abortion is not an ethical choice and I cannot conceive of a “tragic conflict of life with life” that would justify it. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose which children come into the world. That was never our charge.

The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens. It means throwing baby showers for single women far more often than I’d like, and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships.  It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams.

Moses had a habit of railing against God when he got frustrated with the children of Israel.  Once or twice, God offered to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over. Those offers always brought Moses back to hopefulness.  “Aren’t these your children?” he would plead with God. At the end of the day, no matter how much suffering was involved, Moses settled on the side of life. And maybe that’s why, in his final days, he pleaded with God’s children to weigh blessings against curses, death against life. Moses cry is surely from the heart of God: “Oh, that you would choose life!”

Oh, that those who support and even profit from the abortion industry would hear Moses’ cry to choose life and in so doing, recover their own.

Read More

Sanctification is hell (or, a lesson on the vocabulary of freedom).

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”

Amen to that.

This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.

She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.

Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.

Holiness is not for wimps.

The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.

Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.

We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.

“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.

And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.

Hallelujah.

Read More

What is your 5%? (or, learning the risk of relevance)

I learned this from Wayne Cordeiro: 80% of the stuff we do every day, anybody could do. Just about anyone could answer our phone calls, read our emails, hang out on our Facebook page.  Someone else could sit in our meetings or drive our car. These jobs, anyone could do. Another 15% of what we do could be done by anyone with a little coaching. Maybe they’d need a few pointers, but with a little help they could respond to our texts, fill out an excel sheet, run Adobe Photoshop, play an instrument. With some coaching, most anyone could handle at least 15% of what we do.

That leaves 5%.

That 5% is stuff only you can do. For instance, only I can be a wife to Steve. Only I can be a mom to Claire Marie. Only I can care for my physical health, and only I can take responsibility for my spiritual life. No one else can do that for me. Likewise, you also have 5% that no one else can do but you. And no one else can do it for you.

What is your 5%?

Cordeiro says the 5% is the part of our activity that will actually last. The rest of it, not so much. We will not have any sense of accomplishment when we reach the end of life and think back on the boxes of paperclips we purchased at Staples or the laundry we folded (Lord, no). But that last five percent? That’s that part we’ll remember. That’s the part they’ll remember. That’s likely the part we’ll be held accountable for. That’s the part that gives life, rather than sucking the life out of us.

That’s the part that will make a difference.

I’m convinced that the 5% happens only under the Lordship of Jesus. One of my Facebook friends wrote this line recently and it resonates: “Eventually, you have to risk and participate in the situations that call you to trusting obedience.” Yes. Eventually, we have to risk the trivial stuff and the things no one will remember and the busy work and the things we can control for the sake of the risk — the subversion — of trusting obedience.

The work we do at Mosaic of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced is glorious work. That is in our 5%. We are uniquely gifted for the work of loving those who live in the margins. There are a lot of other things we don’t have to do, but we do them because we are fallen people with distorted views of what success looks like. We do them because we are broken people who lean too heavily on ambition and not enough on trusting obedience. We are working on righting that wrong. We are trying to figure out our 5% because we want to be the kind of church that focuses on what will last.

So how does a person get out of the tyranny of the 80% to focus more on the 5%? Here are some things I’m learning as I adjust my life toward the risk of relevance:

Be intentional. This is about focus over form, which is especially relevant when we talk about spiritual formation. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of spiritual formation, focus on intentionality. In other words, don’t focus on what you do so much as that you do.

Brother Lawrence learned this lesson. He was a monk with a pretty simple approach to life. He spent his days practicing the presence of God — sitting in the chapel in God’s presence, peeling potatoes in God’s presence. He learned that even menial things could be an act of worship and  an opportunity for spiritual connection with the Father. The key is intention, not passivity. For those of us who prefer physical motion to stillness, the challenge is to choose activities like walking that free up the mind and spirit to be in conversation with God.

Prioritize. Given that no person has more than twenty-four hours in which to work, prioritizing is a key. Which things am I doing that no one else can do? Which things pour into the lives of other people?

The golden word in the work of prioritizing is the word, “no.” Marva Dawn says that “no is a freedom word.” I can’t say yes to the things that are in my 5% until I say no to some that are in my 80% (or worse yet, that belong to someone else altogether). Prioritizing is about listening for God and consciously obeying his voice.

Focus on character, not accomplishment. Character is like an iceberg. Some of it may be above the surface, but most of it is developed beneath the surface. We tend to like doing the things people can see and congratulate us for, but the things that last most likely live in the unseen realm.

Steve Seamands says this about David, the man after God’s heart in the Old Testament. Seamands notes that before he became a warrior, David learned to play a harp. Before he was lauded for his bravery he was a worshiper. “This is always the order in spiritual warfare,” Seamands says. “First, we ascend into worship, then we descend into battle.” Focus on character, not accomplishment, because character will lead us toward the 5% every time.

And that 5%? That’s on me. That’s my responsibility.

What part is yours? What part has God uniquely designed you for? The other 95% doesn’t carry much eternal weight if the 5% isn’t there.

Read More

The Fellowship of the Unashamed

The source is shaky, but the story is told of an African man who lived maybe a century ago. He was coerced either by his tribe or some outside group to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than giving in, he wrote what is now called the creed of the Fellowship of the Unashamed.

This is a kind of creed for those of us who have found our spiritual feet and have chosen to walk in the Spirit. I don’t normally gravitate to these kinds of quotes, but for some reason this one resonates in this season. It inspires a kind of boldness that seems to be lacking in our culture but sorely needed.

Read this, then print it, post it, and let it sink into your soul.

The Fellowship of the Unashamed

I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power.

The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away or be still.

My past is redeemed. My present makes sense. My future is secure. I’m finished with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, applause, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded or rewarded. I now live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, am uplifted by prayer and labor by power.

My pace is set. My gait is fast. My goal is heaven. My road is narrow. My way rough. My companions few.  My guide is reliable and my mission is clear.

I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, pander at the pool of popularity or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I’ve stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up for the cause of Christ.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give ’til I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me. And when He comes for His own, He’ll have no problem recognizing me. My banner will be clear.

Amen! May it be so in your life and mine.

Read More

Is there anything left to be done (or are we sunk)?

I am not a victim.

There are plenty of things in this world I can control. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can make all kinds of things happen that will improve my life. I can will myself to exercise, diet, save money, do Bible study. Heck, I can even make myself cook every day if I want it badly enough (clearly, I don’t).

There are things I can will into existence and things I can’t. There are character flaws, sinful inclinations, health issues and broken relationships I cannot control no matter how hard I try.

In fact, sometimes trying seems to make it worse.

Followers of Jesus discovered this principle in a marketplace one day when they were asked to heal a woman’s child. They tried all the techniques shown them by Jesus himself. They put their faith on the line and called on God to act.

Nothing happened.

Try as they might, they got only frustration. Then Jesus showed up and with a gesture, accomplished the healing. Later in a private conversation, they asked him why they couldn’t make this thing happen. Jesus said, “Some things only come out by prayer and fasting.”

But they had prayed. Clearly, calling on God to heal someone is prayer, right? What did fasting add that prayer didn’t?

Fasting is the deep water of the spiritual life. There is a mystery to it that defies definition. There is a discipline to it, also. Nothing will cut through our impure motives and unhealthy agendas quicker than this spiritual discipline.

What makes fasting so effective?

Bill Bright, the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says fasting is “a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21).” King David said, “I humble myself through fasting.” Not a prophet or king, Nehemiah was an average guy who loved the Lord and loved his people. When he heard that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was crushed. He sat down and wept and for days he mourned, fasted, and prayed to God. He repented on behalf of a nation. It was a wake-up call for him. His people had allowed their inheritance to slip through their fingers.

In that season of fasting and prayer, Nehemiah gained a vision for rebuilding the walls, a vision that rode in on the wind of humility.

Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God.

Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God.

Fasting will transform your prayer life. But let me state the obvious: fasting is tough.

No healthy person likes missing a meal (in fact, if you’re someone who misses a lot of meals due to unhealthy body image issues, you probably shouldn’t fast). Combine that with the fact that fasting will put you in touch with your truest motives and it is no wonder we avoid it so religiously (pun intended).

The fact is, nine out of ten of my motives stink and painful as it can be, fasting and prayer together help me face up to that fact in a way that opens me to a higher knowing. When my motives are more pure, my worship of God is more real and my prayers are more effective.

No wonder the enemy of our souls would rather we find a reason not to fast!

As a corporate discipline, fasting can have a mighty effect on a community. Some years ago, our church entered into 21 days of fasting to prepare for the purchase of our building. I am convinced that our spiritual preparation paved the way for the success of that campaign. Since then, we’ve made an annual habit of corporate fasting. We’ll fast again as a church in January.

I wonder, though, if now might be the time to call all Christians in our country to fast and pray for a renewal of spirit and for Kingdom vision. What if, as Maxie Dunnam says, there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray? Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors this kind of sacrifice. What if prayer is the best offense we have as we move into the final days of this election season? What if fasting is how our country moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening?

Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, our families, our churches, our leaders, our communities, our country, our world. It isn’t about forcing God’s hand but finding where he is at work so we can join him. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14). When a person sets aside something important to concentrate on the work of praying, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart.

Wondering if there is anything left to be done with this anxious season? Or are we sunk? Nope. We are not victims. We are people with access to the power that raised Lazarus from the dead. Some are tired of hearing Christians say, “All I know to do is pray.” But what if that is exactly what God is waiting for? What if a torrent of prayer is not our last hope, but our best hope?

Another thing Maxie has said: “Our country is a mess. Our (UMC) denomination is a mess. We are ripe for revival!” Yes. The question is, are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray?

Fast and pray. Seek God’s face. And may God richly bless all of us who seek to serve Him in the world.

Read More

A Wesleyan Take on Baptism and the Spirit-bathed Life

One summer, the women of our church hosted an in-town mission trip. Every day, we visited a different mission location and served in whatever way we could. The last day, we worked in the home of an elderly woman who lives in some of the worst oppression I’ve experienced. She lives alone. It was evident that she was dealing with some mental illness, but she had a beautiful, sweet spirit and a great strength that allowed her to keep pressing on. She didn’t walk, so spent most of her time in a wheelchair. That understandably limited what she could do around the house.

The house was condemnable. It needed more work than we could possibly have offered in a day. Piles and piles of clothes and junk. Piles and piles of trash. Roaches everywhere  … even inside the refrigerator. We went there, we thought, to wash her dishes and clean her stove and do what we could to fix up her kitchen. But by the end of the day, it was clear to all of us that we weren’t really there to clean a kitchen.

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

One of our team members, a nurse, decided to clean the bathtub and offer this woman a bath. The woman said it had been a long time since she’d had one, so she was thrilled by the offer. We lowered her gently down into the tub and gave her time for a long soak.

Clearly, it was medicine for her soul. I’ve never heard such beautiful singing as I did from that bathroom while she was in there. It had to be one of the most stunning images of the Kingdom of God: Here was a group of women in the kitchen, wiping dead bugs out of the stove while this woman in a bath sang, “Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever …”

And while we dragged trash out of the home of this forgotten woman we heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know …”

When the team helped her out of the tub and back into her chair, I have never heard such great laughter. It came from deep within her; it was glorious. It had been so long since she’d had a bath that she forgot how good it could be. She reveled in this experience. At the end of the day, we prayed together and when she prayed, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. We were bathed in it.

This is what Jesus does. He takes ordinary things and he makes them holy.

And this thing that Jesus does in the course of a day, he does with the waters of baptism. He makes it more than just water and words. Baptism is a clothing, an identity. We who are baptized — whether as infants or adults — are to live it, walk in it, claim it, wear it.

Here that again: We who are baptized are to live out our baptism, to walk in it, to wear it.

Kris Vallotton says, “Baptism isn’t done as a symbolic act of obedience to scripture. It’s a prophetic declaration of your death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.”

And baptism in the Holy Spirit is about everything that baptism with water is about. It is about cleansing and restoring and getting our lives in line with our created purpose. It is about walking in the blessing of God who says to us when he redeems us, “You are my son, my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to walk in the blessing of God, the Father. It is to claim our place in God’s Kingdom and to let the Holy Spirit make our ordinary lives holy.

Being baptized – immersed, washed, clothed – in the Holy Spirit is a glorious gift. Jesus himself said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom” (John 3:5-6, The Message)

I wonder: how long has it been, spiritually speaking, since you’ve had the kind of bath that declares your death and resurrection? How long has it been since you’ve been bathed in God’s blessing?

Maybe you’ve never let yourself go there. Maybe, like Adam and Eve, you’ve spent all your energy trying to cover for yourself instead of letting the Father cover for you. Maybe you’ve been sitting alone in your own shame for so long that you’ve forgotten there are options. Have you forgotten that the same Holy Spirit who poured out rivers of blessing over Jesus as he bathed in the Jordan stands ready to pour out rivers of blessing over you?

Be baptized in the Holy Spirit — bathed, clothed, marked, resurrected — and then walk in the Spirit so you can live your salvation story with power and authority … which is the only way it ought ever to be lived.

 

(the story of the in-town mission trip is excerpted from Encounter the Spirit, a video-based Bible study and workbook found at Seedbed.com)

Read More

If your heart is as my heart … (my video message at WCA)

The inaugural event of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was thick with the Spirit, by all accounts. I was there by video only, due to speaking commitments made long before the Chicago event was scheduled. I kept up throughout the day via Facebook and Twitter. It was stunning to see the crowd, feel the buzz and hear some of the speakers. A beautiful start to something we may not yet have vocabulary to define.

It was a pleasure to share a slice of our story as part of this event. The church I lead is not large or well-resourced by most standards, but we are doing our very best to be faithful to God’s call on our community. We are committed to keeping Jesus at the center, valuing all people and making community an essential part of the process of sanctification. These values have led us down eventful paths and into powerful stories of transformation. I share one such story here.

Read More