Making Peace (and progress) With the Mess that is Us

Funny, how we humans think.

We assume we’re the only people in the world who have the kind of psychotic, illogical thoughts we have. We say, “If people could hear what is in my head, they’d run screaming from my presence.”

It is a kind of narcissism, really; and we all have it to some degree or another. Either we think of ourselves as better than the people around us, or we think of ourselves as worse than the worst. The common thread with either option is that we think of ourselvesAnd we assume everyone else is thinking of us, too. This is what we do. On this side of the fall line, the human tendency is to think of ourselves too much, in distorted ways. We think we’re unique in our sin, unique in our brokenness — unique in all the wrong ways.

This is biblical in the sense that we live on this side of Genesis 3. But our self-centered, self-promoting, self-hating thoughts … these are most certainly not biblical. The Bible tells me there is nothing I am going through that isn’t common to everyone. Which means those bizarre, insane thoughts you have are probably a lot like the bizarre, insane thoughts I have. Like you, I scream and cry in private. I melt down and wish God would just strike me dead. Or I rail against everyone else and wish God would strike them dead. Like you, I deal with envious thoughts and doubt-filled thoughts and fearful thoughts (those are my specialty). And I get so angry with God for not fixing everything like I want it. I feel sorry for myself way too much, wondering why I have it worse than all the other pastors in the world.

I’m not above crazy and I know myself well enough to know it will happen again, even if I pray earnestly for God to move me beyond those moments.

If what I’ve described here sounds familiar to you, too, then welcome to the human race.

Here’s the encouragement, for what it is worth: What separates us from the real crazies is our ability to see all those self-centered, unstable thoughts for what they are. They are moments of weakness but they are most likely very normal. They are our truest, most fallen self bleeding through, but they are not evil. They are a fact of the human condition.

When we see our weakness, our sheer humanity, as some degree of separation from God’s best, we understand more intimately why we need a Redeemer. We need someone who can speak for us in the presence of Perfect Love — someone who can say on our behalf, “This one is with me.” We need someone who counters all our distortions of self with knowledge of the created good by which he defines us. We need an Advocate with the Father (see Zechariah 3 for a profound picture of how this works in the Kingdom of God).

You see, while we think of ourselves as unique in all the wrong ways, Christ our Redeemer (the one who spoke us into being), thinks of us as unique in all the right ways. He sees us as we are, and he also sees what he made. More accurately, he sees the image of God. More accurately still, the Father sees us through the filter of Christ. In other words, it is not our behavior or our thoughts or our basest selves that matter. What matters is our proximity to the Redeemer who speaks for us.

In fact, that’s all that matters.

And what Jesus does for us, we are now challenged to do for others. We learn from Christ to be other-focused and to see the best in others … to see what they may not see in themselves. How can we practice seeing people in our path as Christ sees us?

1. Assume the best.
Do you tend to be trusting or suspicious of people? We tend to see in others what we see in ourselves. Do you see the best or worst?

2. Address the gaps.
They say that in the absence of information, we assume the worst. Rather than filling gaps with suspicion, we would all do well to learn to ask for help in understanding.  Where there is a gap, assume the best and lean in, as Christ has for us.

3. Learn to bend.
Isaiah writes, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Love does not default to defensiveness, does not self-protect at the expense of others. Love bends … and doesn’t break.

4. Build on their gifts.
Your mother said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. At the risk of disagreeing with your mom, I disagree. If you can’t say something nice about someone, why is that? What has you so jaded about the human race that you can’t find one nice thing to hang your hat on, can’t find one redeeming quality in another child of God? Instead, why not find at least one strength and build on it?

5. In your anger, do not sin.
This comes straight from Paul. I love how he words it. He tells me I am going to be angry sometimes. I appreciate that permission. But my anger never gives me permission to “break a bruised reed.” If I find myself dealing with too much impatience, too short a fuse, I may need to examine what has me living too close to the edge.

Chances are, it isn’t them; its me. 

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Abortion, choice and what makes a life

(This post first ran a little more than a year ago. I am reposting these blogs in recognition of   the 100th anniversary of the founding of Planned Parenthood in October.)

“As of today, I am responsible for 18,617 abortions.”

Those were the words on a note handed me by a young woman who walked into our church desperate for counsel. For three years, she said, she’d been working in an abortion clinic, rising in the ranks to the place of managing several clinics in Georgia for an owner in Tennessee.  The day she came to see me, she’d decided she was done and wanted help getting out. What she knew put her in a dangerous place; walking out wasn’t as easy as just walking out.

I’m remembering that conversation and all we did to help (we put her in touch with folks who helped her begin a new life) as I note the 100th birthday of Planned Parenthood earlier this year.

In light of that, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs discussing what I know about abortion and believe the Bible teaches.

For those who may not have a good sense of the history of abortion in America, let’s look at the highlights:

The early church – Some of the earliest writings of the Church fathers deal with the issue of abortion. They debated the question of when life begins, but never the question of the morality of abortion. It has always been considered morally wrong by the Church.

1869 – Pope Pius IX announced that abortion at any point in pregnancy was cause for excommunication. That’s when the Church began to say with authority that life begins at conception.

Around 1900 — Laws against abortion in the United States first appeared.

1916 — Margaret Sanger and her sister opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood.

1927 — Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

1942 — Planned Parenthood Federation became an official organization.

January 22, 1973 –– the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, recognizing the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Planned Parenthood is by far the most influential voice in the pro-choice movement. While most people today associate Planned Parenthood with women’s rights, most are not aware that Margaret Sanger, the founder, was actually a student of eugenics. That was a sort of popular movement back the 1920s. Eugenics is about breeding. It is the idea of controlling population by breeding out ( I’m actually quoting from someone Sanger followed) “the physically unfit, the materially poor, the spiritually diseased, the racially inferior and the mentally incompetent.” People involved in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, when Sanger was involved, believed these groups of “inferior” people should be controlled through segregation, sterilization, birth control and abortion. And that was at least partly Sanger’s motivation for supporting contraception and eventually abortion.

Today, Planned Parenthood clinics still reflect that bias. You will almost always find them (76% of all clinics) located in economically depressed areas of a community and particularly in areas where minorities live. The second largest abortion clinic in the world (like an abortion super center) is in Houston, Texas, in a neighborhood that is 85% Hispanic and African-American.  That should be a concern, especially given the soil in which this organization is rooted.

How do we understand these things in light of the Bible?  Let me give you a few starting points:

God creates life. God has allowed the killing of animals since the fall, but we’re not animals. We have God’s spiritual DNA. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Life is sacred because we bear a spiritual likeness to our Daddy. Every human being has life because God chose to give it.  Surely that’s worth more than $335 a person, or $20 for a part.

Human life is under God’s care and control. Psalm 139:13-16 says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God is involved in our lives from the moment he calls us into being, and is making plans for us even before we’re born. We are under his care.

Jesus came to give abundant life. God is always on the side of life. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Choose life. In Moses’ final instructions words to the Israelites, he pleaded with them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Surely this word was more deeply prophetic and more deeply eternal than the man who first uttered it could have imagined.

The woman who walked into my office looking for help and a way out discovered that as she participated in sucking the life out of thousands of children, the industry in which she was taking part was sucking the life out of her. When we take life, we lose our own.

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How to dampen a spiritual fire

The Wales revival broke out in 1903 and fizzled by 1905. During those two years, people came from all over the world to swim in those revival waters and that spirit went back with them when they went home. One of those people was a man named Frank Bartleman. He was a preacher and journalist in Los Angeles who began to write about revival and about what was happening in Wales. He had written Evan Roberts to ask for prayer. Roberts answered him; Bartleman believed the prayer in the return letter came with the gift of faith. It was for him part of the stirrings of a movement in California. He wrote that the spiritual movement he sensed in California was “rocked in the cradle of little Wales. … Los Angeles seems to be the place and this the time, in the mind of God, for the restoration of the Church.”

About that same time (1906), William Seymour was being raised up under the discipleship of Lucy Farrow in Houston, Texas. Both of them were taught by a guy named Charles Parham, known today as the father of the Pentecostal movement. Parham led a seminary and invited Seymour to become a student there. Seymour was black and in that day, having him in a white school was highly unusual. But Parham saw something in Seymour. Listening through the window of Parham’s classroom, Seymour fanned the flames of his calling and began to preach. Before long, he gained the attention of some folks in Los Angeles, who invited him to come and be their pastor.

Seymour went, and the short end of the story is that he started preaching in L.A. and people started coming. It was a small group at first, but as the Spirit moved the house where he was staying began to be packed nightly. Parham invited his old mentor, Lucy Farrow, to come and preach about the Holy Spirit and all Heaven broke loose

It is no small thing that the Pentecostal movement was born out of the ministries of a white man, a black man and a woman, all three preaching what Seymour called, “old-time repentance, old-time pardon, old-time sanctification, old-time power over devils and diseases, and the old-time ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire.”

Frank Bartleman, the L.A. journalist, followed Seymour and wrote this about his ministry: “Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings. They would not even allow an unkind word said against their opposers or the churches. The message was ‘the love of God.’ It was a sort of ‘first love’ of the early church returned. The ‘baptism,’ as we received it in the beginning, did not allow us to think, speak or hear evil of any man. The Spirit was very sensitive, tender as a dove.”

After outgrowing the house Seymour lived in, the church rented a building at 312 Azusa Street. That address is still famous today in Pentecostal circles. Millions of Pentecostals would say that their spiritual birthplace is Azusa Street and dozens of denominations trace their roots to that revival.

As with too many spiritual movements, it was human brokenness that stopped the flow of the Spirit on Azusa Street. The organization beneath the movement had its share of dysfunction. Too much enthusiasm and too little structure led to infighting and jealousies. Along the way, someone got mad with someone else and ended up leaving and taking the mailing list with them. Without a mailing list, there was no way to get the word out about meetings. When the crowds stopped coming, the revival waned.

As J.D. King has written in his article about this revival in Charisma Magazine, the real lesson from Azusa Street is that revivals rarely end because of conflicts outside the walls, and more often because of conflicts within.

That is a sobering thought. To think that the attitude we bring into the Body of Christ could actually stifle the flow of the Holy Spirit and the growth of a movement should cause all of us to examine our hearts.

As part of a spiritual community, I must ask myself: is my attitude stoking the fire, or is it “water in the wood”? Am I contributing to the health and spiritual awakening of my community, or am I dampening the spiritual fires because I’d rather have it my way or not at all?

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Please don’t feed your fears

“I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe …”

The story of the Bible from beginning to end is the story of God’s power over our weakness. God has power to kill shame. God has power to flatten sin. God has power to resurrect people and to resurrect what for all the world looks like death in my life. The cross is for those who are dying, for those who have been defeated, who feel powerless.

The good news about Jesus Christ is the power of God. Let that sink in: the gospel is its own power. It doesn’t tell us how to get power. It is power.

Faith, then, is about accepting that power into our lives. It isn’t about accepting a tick list of facts, nor is it a way for me to get what I want.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me.*

But here’s the sad thing about contemporary American faith. The very things Jesus sent his followers out to do are the very things we’ve lost faith in. In fact, our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience. Demon-possession is a foreign concept to most of us in the western world. When we pray for the healing of others, we tend to hedge our bets in the wording because we don’t really believe anything will happen.

But folks, when I read in my Bible what Jesus did and then read what he teaches followers to do, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the coming Kingdom and heal things that destroy people’s lives (Luke 9:1-2). This is the center of the gospel, and the power of it.

So do we have power over our fears? Yes! Greater is the one who is in us than the one who is in the world. John 3 teaches us everything that we leave in the dark is under the power and authority of the enemy of our souls, but everything we bring into the light belongs to Jesus and comes under his power and authority. Maybe that is why Jesus places such an emphasis on confession.

Jesus came into his ministry on this one word: Repent. Not to stir up our shame, but to stir up our healing.

I will never tire of writing this truth: There is no shame in Christ. Feelings to the contrary are not of God. Can we be guilty of things? Absolutely. Should we ever feel guilt. Of course. Guilt is an appropriate response to real sin, real mistakes, real failures.

But guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt says we’ve done something wrong, but shame says we are wrong. Shame isn’t usually associated with some specific thing we’ve done. That sick feeling of dis-grace that can’t quite land on a reason is very likely the voice of the enemy trying to derail us with shame-based feelings. Remember: he is the father of lies. He is incapable of telling the truth. If you feel shame, it is surely based on a lie. How do I know this? Because there is no shame in Christ.

I’ve learned this about shame-based living. People who react out of shame tend to get angry in ways that are disproportionate to the situation. They get defensive disproportionately. They get disproportionately fearful. In contrast, Jesus responds with grace (see the story of the woman caught in adultery) and teaches us through the Holy Spirit’s tutelage to grow past our sin and then live graciously toward others.

We’re talking about breaking through barriers, about waking up to all God has for us, about being renewed in the spirit of our minds so our circumstances don’t automatically cause the reaction of fear and shame but send us instead to faith and formation.

Maybe faith and shame are like two spiritual tapeworms inside of us, vying for survival.  The one we feed is the one that grows. Eventually, that’s the one that will take over.

Which one are you feeding?

 

*I have a feeling I heard this line someplace … maybe seedbed.com?  Whoever said it first, its a good one.

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Lord, bend us.

In 1903, Evan Roberts was 25 years old. He was a Christian, coal miner, and student who began to pray for God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of this season of prayer, Roberts found himself at an evangelistic event where a man named Seth Joshua was preaching. Roberts heard Joshua pray, “Lord, bend us,” and at the sound of those words the Holy Spirit grabbed him.

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

Roberts wrote: “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst … I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, ‘Bend me, bend me!!’ It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom … I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the savior.”

After that experience, Evan would wake up at one in the morning and pray for hours, invaded by an intense love of God and a deep desire to see others come to Christ. He began to pray together with a few others: “Bend us, Lord.”

A few weeks later, after seeing a vision of God touching Wales, he predicted a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He began preach across Wales and within about nine months, over 100,000 people had come to Christ. Five years later, reports say 80,000 of those people were still in church. The effect on the culture of the country was profound. Bars emptied out. People used the money to buy clothes and food for their families, pay back debts and give to the church. People became kinder; there was a wave of forgiveness.

Sadly, Evan, didn’t last. Like firewood that wasn’t ready for burning, his own personal fires fizzled quickly. Losing his mental health, he became arrogant and short-tempered; his sermons filled with condemnation. He moved in with a woman who distorted his message. He spent a year confined to bed, pretty close to insane. He lived to be 72 years old but preached his last sermon when he was in his twenties.

Lord, bend us.

David Thomas has studied great awakenings and revivals and has written: “There is this built-in self-correcting, reanimating capacity in the Christian movement due to the Spirit’s residence in the Church. Christian history is in many ways the story of successive seasons of awakening. We love it. We yearn for it. We need it, desperately, more every day — in our culture, in our churches, in our families, in ourselves. We want to be in on awakening, to be in on a work of God in our day. Again, we have a soft spot for this, a longing for this: we want to be about sowing for a great awakening. But what about that sowing piece? … Where does it come from? Where does awakening start? How do we sow for a great awakening? … I’ve come to believe that the true seedbed of awakening is the plowed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (as it says in Psalm 126). Prayer is the precursor to the work of God … always the anticipating act of awakening.”

Lord, bend us.

Thomas says that a call to travailing prayer isn’t a call to feel guilty about how little we actually pray. It is a call to become more open to awakening, and to let that desire make us less casual in our prayers. “I wonder what it would take for us to move in the direction of travailing prayer,” Thomas writes. “How bad it will have to get … if we’re not there already?”

I wonder, too. Who among us is ready to take God at his word? Who is ready to spend time in repentance, time in surrender, time in confession of faith? Who is willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be moved to their knees?Who is ready to cry out, not just for ourselves, but for the effectiveness of the Church, for the effectiveness of the gospel flowing through us, for the gospel’s power to renew the world?

Lord, bend us!

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Developing Givers in the Kingdom of God

Before I was a pastor, I was a development director for a local non-profit. I learned on the job how to develop funds for an agency with a very focused mission and tight budget. It was the best training I could have gotten for what lay ahead. Daily in my life as a pastor, I’ve pulled from my experiences in non-profit development. Maybe the most fundamental lesson I’ve learned is this: helping people means raising money. One who is not comfortable with that ought not get too close to pastoral ministry.

That’s not a bad thing. Helping people place their giving in the context of discipleship and in the context of a compelling story is a healthy and important part of building a sustainable Kingdom initiative.

Through my experience, I’ve discovered a few things about developing Kingdom-minded givers:

EDUCATE.

Contrary to what pretty much everyone who goes to church tells you, it is not wrong to talk about money in church. People are not put off by discussions of practical things; to the contrary, I believe they starve for it. Folks genuinely want to know what is expected not just from the church but from God. They yearn for the theological underpinnings that make things like giving make sense. In fact, I believe folks are generally starving for compelling reasons to follow Jesus more sincerely, and as spiritual leaders it is our responsibility to make that happen.

Giving, like any discipleship issue, requires education. Further, as priests our primary work is to facilitate the true worship of the Living God. Most folks assume churches ask for money because that is how we pay our bills. While it is true that we use donations to make ministry happen, that’s not our primary motivation. Actually, it has a lot more to do with God than with us.Worship is what people are designed to do and since the fourth chapter of Genesis, God has asked his children to make giving part of their worship. Of course, back then, offerings consisted of sacrificial lambs and bundles of wheat. Over the generations, our modes of giving have changed. We no longer sacrifice animals on the altar or offer up the first of our harvest. Nor do we drop silver coins in a box as the widow did (Mark 12:41-44). Only within the last few decades have people been giving by check. Now, it is an electronic world.

Making use of all the ways our culture allows us to give, churches should be committed to making worship accessible for anyone ready to move forward in following Jesus.

ASK.

Peter taught us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). I wonder if he was thinking about giving when he wrote that.

The fact is, it takes money to run a ministry. Non-believers know that. Believers know that. No one is surprised or offended to find out it takes money to run your ministry. And if your ministry is struggling financially, as Gordon Cosby says, that may be God’s way of motivating you to tell your story. Listen: people do not give to needs or deficits (especially people who have learned to manage money well); they give to compelling stories and visions. Well-resourced donors will not put their money into a sinking ship, but they will give to places where they see a move of God. Tell your story like you believe in it so others are privileged to become part of it.

DEVELOP FRIENDS.

Giving is relational. Surely this is why God made giving part of our relationship to him. It deepens our connection, and what happens on the vertical plane happens on the horizontal plane, too. When someone gives to your ministry, it deepens their relationship with the work and the community.

And that is a two-way street. Your donors deserve your care and concern even as they are sowing into your work. One of the biggest lies of the enemy is that you’re “bothering people” if you are in touch too often. You’re not bothering them; you’re keeping them in the loop. Folks who give money want to hear they are investing in something that is strategic and successful but for Heaven’s sake, please do so authentically. Love people not for their money but for the sake of their souls. Keep them in prayer. Sow into them as disciples.

DEVELOP DISCIPLES.

Here are a few hard facts:

  • Those who do not give have an issue in their relationship with God.
  • Those who give with strings attached have an issue in their relationship with God.
  • Those who are not reaching their potential as givers have an issue in their relationship with God.

At the end of the day, another person’s giving is not about funding your ministry (or helping you sleep at night). It is about following Jesus and inspiring others to do so. Our main work is not to develop givers but to develop disciples. And according to our scriptures, healthy, committed disciples will be compelled to give.

As we said already, people are designed to worship God. Giving is a means of doing that — a tangible, practical way of showing devotion. Our main work as spiritual leaders, then, is to help people worship God in the ways he has designed us to worship him. We want to help people shake loose old, dysfunctional, agenda-laden habits so they can experience true freedom.

Helping people develop a good theology and practice of giving is a wonderful gift and perhaps the very best way to help them become serious followers of Jesus.

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How to start a fire

Do you know how a log catches fire? There is more to it than meets the eye. To get the log to “catch,” it has to be heated to a temperature sufficient to evaporate the water within the wood. The bigger it is, the more heat the process takes. The wetter the wood, the longer it takes.

The wood won’t “catch” until the water within it burns off.

And what happens with wood happens with people. I notice that people tend to want spiritual fire to happen instantaneously. We pray for revival like it can sneak up and catch us without us noticing. Or we pray for personal renewal like God is going to zap us with it without warning. But that thing that happens with wood — that process of heating the log to burn away the water before the log will ignite — is probably a more accurate picture of how big revivals and personal renewals actually happen. Not overnight, but over time. Not by surprise but by design. There is a season of heating up. There is spiritual preparation.

The stuff that dampens our spirits has to burn off before there is enough heat to “catch.”

Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated. Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it and you will end up frustrated. You can also do a lot of damage.

I don’t agree with the whole message but I like the title of a sermon written by Gilbert Tennent, an evangelist who traveled with George Whitefield. Tennent talks about “the danger of unconverted ministry” — of leading a ministry when he or she is not spiritually prepared. Gilbert says, “an unconverted minister is like a man who would teach others to swim before he has learned himself, and so is drowned in the act, and dies like a fool.”

In my years as a pastor, I’ve witnessed it more than once. It is that pastor who fails to take his own soul seriously. The same year Mosaic started, our Annual Conference birthed ten new churches. Thirteen years later, only three remain. Not all were the pastor’s fault. Some churches never “ignited.” But some pastors also left the ministry and two of them had affairs.

Friends, there is nothing more dangerous than going after a spiritual fire when there is too much “water in the wood.” Perhaps this is why Jesus told his followers (Luke 24:49): “Stay here … until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.” We want to focus on the part where Jesus promises a filling of the Holy Spirit. But I would not be surprised to learn that Jesus himself emphasized the word, “Stay,” when he was talking to his followers. Because he knew better than anyone just how dangerous it is to get out beyond the covering of the Spirit.

This is what separates the crazy from the courageous in spiritual work. It is not the Holy Spirit (because let’s be real here: some of the most spirit-filled people also look the most crazy). What separates the crazy from the courageous is that ability to “stay here,” to wait for Jesus to prepare the wood before trying to start a fire.

This is why we preach spiritual disciplines over and over and over. These are the things that dry out the wood. Spiritual disciplines prepare our souls for fire. Scripture, prayer, group life, worship, confession, accountability — this is how we prepare the wood for the fire. Not preparing ourselves is how we build dysfunctional lives and dysfunctional communities.

And this is why repentance is so important. This is why Jesus began his own ministry on that word: “Repent.” Because he knew that you can’t start a fire with wet wood. Repentance is the heat that burns off the water and makes the conditions right for awakening.

The fire triangle is what they call the three conditions that must be in play for a fire to burn: heat, oxygen and fuel (some kind of combustible material). If our spirits are the fuel and the Holy Spirit is the oxygen, then repentance is the heat that creates the conditions necessary for the life of Jesus to live itself out in me.

Listen: Repentance is not about behavior management; it is about changing my spiritual condition so I can catch fire.

Repentance clears the way for the Holy Spirit to do his work so if you’re ready to start a fire … start there.

 

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The Opie Principle

When we were in Kentucky, we lived in a little townhouse that had boxwoods on either side of the front door. In our first spring there, we discovered that snakes love boxwoods. There was a mama snake who visited us every spring so she could have her babies in our shrubbery. Sometimes we’d come home in the afternoon and find as many as fifteen little snakes sunning on the tops of our boxwoods. Which were (have I mentioned this?) right next to our front door. Eventually, we got used to them and in fact, by the time our last spring in Kentucky rolled around, Steve would just pick them up barehanded and take them across the street to a big field.

One day, I was in the front yard when our daughter, Claire Marie (she was about five or six at the time) came tearing around the house in serious distress. She was screaming that she’d seen a snake in our back yard. Because one thinks sensibly about such things when one is in the front yard and the snake is in the back yard, I thought this might be a great opportunity to help my daughter get used to snakes. I took her by the hand and said, “Sweetie, let’s just go look at it. Snakes won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. In fact, they are usually more scared of us than we are of them.”

These are the sorts of things parents say that they don’t really believe.

We walked to the side of the house and sure enough, there was the snake. He was curled up directly beneath our dog, Opie, who was standing there staring at us, clueless about any snake in his world (Opie was never known for his intuition).  Since he was standing directly over the snake, I began calling for him to move. Seeing my concern, Claire Marie began yelling at him, too. And then Opie started barking — not at the snake, of course, but at us.

There we were, trying to get the dog off the snake while the dog barked at us and a snake sat idly beneath him.

Finally — it must have been the commotion — the snake shot out from under the dog and zipped across the yard.  It slithered right across my baby girl’s feet, at which time I was no longer a snake advocate. I grabbed my daughter. Claire Marie screeched. The snake slithered off.  And Opie remained clueless.

He never saw the snake.

And I think to myself: how many of us are sitting on top of our own snakes (think: sin, hang-ups, issues) while we bark at the people all around us and wreak havoc in our relationships as if it were everyone’s fault but ours?

The problem with this strategy is that most of the time (Jesus actually says this) the issues we have with other people are simply a reflection of our own.

So this is where holiness begins: It is not in being able to name all the sins, but in being able to name my sin.

In other words, don’t bark at others when the snake is beneath your feet.

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Six Ways to Communicate Like an Adult

I believe healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community. Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls. And good communication proves we are the adults in the room, and not just children with adult bodies.

As a leader, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding. If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will, but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here are six things I’d do to get started:

1. Say more. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it. Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Are your meetings under-attended? Do people in your church have a habit of saying, “I didn’t hear about that”? Even after you’ve said it more than once? It is possible they are dumb, but more likely they are just good people who haven’t heard.

Try this assumption: Assume people have a lot going on in their lives, a lot more than just the stuff you want them to pay attention to. And with that assumption in mind, give your folks the benefit of more information than you might think they need. I guarantee it will build good will. People will be grateful for your sensitivity to their over-crowded lives.

2. Affirm more. I learned this from Paul. You’ll notice that in most of Paul’s letters, even those where he’s obviously frustrated, he begins with encouragement. From that biblical pattern, I glean that I need to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say before I can say anything at all.

Start every conversation with affirmation. It helps right-size expectations, so the gap between what people are doing and what we think they ought to be doing is less noticeable.

3. Blast less. When I assume the worst and blast someone with a lot of negative words, I erode trust. Send enough email bombs and I’ll produce someone who cringes when they see my name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and I’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned: I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across.

(Note to self and anyone else who needs a reminder: I will also not allow myself to react out of my woundedness in meetings. When I feel defensive, I will let God take care of my reputation and allow only the adult in me to respond.)

4. Check yourself. If you’re prone to sending angry emails, make a rule about that. Decide that any negative email must wait 24 hours before it is sent (the angrier you are, the more time you should take). Or find someone who will agree to read anything you send before you send it — someone who won’t mind being honest. Or write out what you’d like to say, then mail it to yourself and see how it feels when you’re reading it as if written to you.

Then, delete your email, pick up the phone and make time for a face to face conversation (I can’t overemphasize the value of person-to-person communication), which leads to the next idea …

5. Ask more questions. This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

6. Assume the best. Maybe I don’t know all there is to know about the intentions even of those closest to me. Perhaps I would do better to assume the best in them, to assume their intentions are good and their hearts are for me, not against me, even if their approach to a situation is not what I’d have chosen. I can accomplish this attitude if I keep a “Kingdom of Heaven” perspective – big, hopeful and focused on God. If I’m willing to begin back where this piece begins — by saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions — I set myself up to assume the good intentions of those around me, believing they care as much as I do about what really matters.

The bottom line is that what Paul teaches is never more relevant than when we are talking about communication: take every thought captive, and grow up in every way into Him who is our Head. If I can get that right, then those around me will be more likely to get it right, and the ripples will extend to their circles of influence. And on it goes.

The Kingdom of Heaven works like that.

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Read this because it is Wednesday

On this Wednesday, may we be reminded that we who follow Jesus are part of something bigger than ourselves — something grandly sufficient that has come among us, that offers even to dwell within us.

The Kingdom of Heaven is big. Remember these things and be glad:

The Kingdom is more concerned with effectiveness than efficiency. I’m thinking of the story of the woman who came to Jesus when he was eating supper at the home of a leper (which you just have to love about him). This woman walked into the room and proceeded to pour very expensive oil over his head. Someone said, “She ought not be wasting that expensive perfume in that way. We could be feeding poor people with that money.” And Jesus said, “The poor are not going anywhere. You will always them have among you. What this woman is doing right now is beautiful and from here out wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be talked about, in memory of her.”

He was right. I’m blogging about her now, two thousand years later. Her story teaches me that resources are not the issue; in fact, our problem may be that we are not generous enough with our resources. We get stingy and try to hang on to what we have in the name of efficiency. The Kingdom is not about efficiency. It is about effectiveness.

The Kingdom is rich. I am not a fan of the prosperity gospel, but I know we don’t trust enough in God’s provision. God made everything and he has the power to shift resources into the path of Kingdom work when people are following Jesus. He does it over and over again. Resources are not the problem. Faithfulness is the problem.

The Kingdom is generous. Kingdom people understand hard soil and sow there any way. And we keep sowing because the results are not ultimately up to us. Growth is God’s job.

The Kingdom engages in the battle. This is the macro story of the Bible. The enemy hates what God loves and is intent on destroying it. There is a battle being waged on the spiritual plane over everything – over every person, all creation, all goodness, all love. It is a lot like the way a real war works. In a physical war, there are people who sit at desks in offices thousands of miles from the front line, saving the world one email at a time. And there are also snipers sitting on rooftops taking aim at enemies who are taking aim at them. Both the emailers and the snipers are in the war, but one of them feels it a lot more intensely.

It is the same with our spiritual lives. There are parts of our lives that are so comfortable that it is hard to make anything spiritual out of them, and then there are parts that feel the battle very intensely. But all of us are in it. The great news in this war (for those who trust Christ) is that the Kingdom of God wins.

The Kingdom goal is fruitfulness. The goal of the Kingdom is not just seed-tossing but fruitfulness. We are wired to have a purpose in this life that bears fruit, so hear this: The purpose of your life is not to provide a paycheck or make a bigger nest egg. It is not to have a bigger house or better phone or more impressive resume. The purpose of your life is not to feed the two inches that make up this life on your timeline, but to bear fruit for eternity.

C. S. Lewis once said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither.” On days when the small things seem big, when there are more questions than answers, it is healthy to step back and take better aim. Have you forgotten how big the Kingdom of Heaven is? I wonder how it might change the spiritual atmosphere of your home, your church, your ministry, your week, this moment, if you stopped where you are, right now, put your hands in the air and confessed, “God, I forgot how big!”*

 

*I borrow this image from a scene in Joe vs. The Volcano. It remains among my all-time favorite movie scenes.

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