Growth is hard (and other things we know but don’t like)

“I want to bridle you,” God announced, to which I replied, “But God, won’t that destroy the person I am?”

And God said, “Yes.”

Which did not seem at all like good news to me.

I happen to like my unbridled life. I like being able to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. I don’t live in open rebellion; there are no big, obvious sins. I just like doing things the way I like doing them. I have yet to figure out what a full plate means (can’t you just get a bigger plate?). I might whine about my frenzied activity and run a few people over in the process but I happen to like my life.

What is so wrong with that, God?

To which God reiterated, “I want to bridle you.”

All I could think of was one of those horses at the fair attached by a chain to a metal pole, forced to walk in circles while scared children get their pictures taken on them. Please, God … not that.

But God didn’t seem phased by my concern, so now I’m having to learn what this means. It turns out that good bridle training isn’t about control at all. Good bridling doesn’t work against the horse but in partnership with him. A bridle is what creates the relationship between a horse and rider. Without a bridle, there is no relationship, no ability to guide the horse in the direction you want him to go.

A webpage about bridling sounds suspiciously more like discipleship than horse training: “The principle foundation in a true bridle horse is spirit, heart, and relationship. While nature takes care of building the spirit and heart in a horse, the horseman is responsible from birth for the relationship … A true bridle horse is a true partnership, where both the horse and the rider understand each other well enough to work as a single thought.”

Let that sink in: Good bridling is a true partnership, where both partners understand each other well enough to work as a single thought.

Is that what God is asking of me? To sync up our relationship such that I actually take on the mind of Christ? Learn to think his thoughts and then move by them?

If this is what God means, then this word is brilliant. And it gets better. There is a kind of bridle-training called relationship riding which uses a bitless bridle. That means the guidance is not pain-based or fear-based but a kind of communication between horse and rider built on trust and respect. “This is a process that builds relationships gradually—there are no shortcuts,” a website teaches. “The journey is as important as the destination … Constant feedback is a key requirement for success.”

“I want to bridle you,” God said, and that has launched me on a most remarkable season of spiritual exploration. In the process of figuring out what God means, I am discovering the strength and beauty of spiritual discipline. I’m discovering that if growth is hard, it is also fruit–bearing.

In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy. It is exactly what Jesus said: the secret is in the abiding, not in the accomplishments but in a relationship that is in rhythm with God’s ways and in sync with his commands.

It is a true partnership, where both partners understand each other well enough to work as a single thought. In this kind of partnership, the journey is no longer a fight against a rebellious spirit. It is something more like a dance. It is the best kind of intimate relationship.

Bridle me, Father, and make my life worthy of its Master.

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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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What I know about the enemy of your soul

It is easier to blame someone else than to deal with my own issues.

But if I’m going to blame someone, I ought to at least make sure I am blaming the right person. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that the real enemy of my soul is not flesh-and-blood but a power that seeks to keep me at a distance from the God of perfect love. Knowing the real enemy makes me more effective in the battle.

So what do I know about the enemy of your soul?

He is not creative. Creativity is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls. There is no genius about him; he only knows how to mimic God just enough to deceive us. Contrary to being creative, he tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. He entices us with fake power, fake love, fake progress. Spiritually disconnected people will take the bait every time.

He is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always creating, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again … predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, chaos.

He works within systems to generate chaos. The enemy of your soul is fond of the herd instinct. He abuses systems like racism, socialism and atheism, and even some forms of religion, but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. It isn’t so much that he has great forethought and strategy; he isn’t purposefully systematic. In the absence of a system, he will use whatever presents itself as most convenient but he gets big “wins” when people thoughtlessly follow the crowd.

His great lie is that there is no hope. Hopelessness is the enemy’s rearview mirror. He uses it to make us look backward while he whispers the lie that things will never get better. Hopelessness leads to fear and fear separates people from God’s love. When the enemy of your soul can get you to believe there is no hope, he gets a twofer. Hopelessness isolates in both directions. We feel isolated while others allow fear of our pain to create distance.

He breeds fear. This is the enemy’s ultimate goal — to create distance between us and God, between us and others. Fear breeds that distance. Fear kills love, so when Jesus tells us that our goal is to be made perfect in love, he is telling us that his intention is to make us stronger than our enemy. When Paul tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love but that perfect love casts out fear, he is showing us a path to spiritual victory.

He loves the fear of conflict. One of the things he most wants us to be afraid of is conflict. It isn’t conflict itself the enemy likes. In fact, he’d rather we never raise questions, think deeply, press into issues, get passionate enough to express a dissenting opinion. Why? Because conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

That is so important it is worth repeating: Conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

I’m thinking about Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair. Conflict reveals truth and exposes weakness and challenges us toward our destiny. A conflict well navigated breeds grace and deepens love and honor. Meanwhile, fear of conflict creates emotional distance and inhibits relational progress. Too many people who have blown up and walked away from conflict have missed great opportunities to encounter real growth. To walk through conflict maturely and with the mind of Christ is to walk through the valley of Psalm 23 to the feast on the other side.

Clearly, that is not a stroll the enemy of your soul wants you to take.

He feeds on denial. Denial holds us in a self-defensive posture. It creates an atmosphere of blame. If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to blame God, he’ll entice you to blame someone else for the things that are wrong in your life. Remember that it isn’t healthy conflict the enemy likes, but the lies that lead us to respond to conflict in unhealthy ways. Denial speaks the language of victims, the heart language of the enemy of our souls, who would rather we never learn anything from our circumstances.

He doesn’t care what you’re thinking about, as long as it isn’t Jesus. If you want to win a battle today, meditate on Jesus. Hear the wisdom of your spiritual fathers, who taught you to talk about him when you’re sitting at home or walking among others … even as you stand up to leave a room (Deuteronomy 6:8). if you want to defeat a defeating mental loop or an angry situation, refuse the voice of the enemy and allow yourself to glory in the One who loved you first and loves you most.

Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to have the last word. That privilege must always belong to Jesus.

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Which voice do you listen to?

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they stood with toes touching the border of the land God promised them. Two years after they’d walked out of Egypt, the silver of the Egyptians clinking in their backpacks, they stood on the brink of God’s best.  They’d seen waters part and enemies drown.  God was intimately involved with their lives.  They knew him.  They followed him.  And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the verge of greatness, Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border but they had smoke and fire blazing their trail.

Then it happened.  Human nature kicked in.  They became more cautious than optimistic.  There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent twelve spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out.   When the spies came back ten of them said, “Don’t do it!  It is great real estate, but the people are giants.  We will all die if we go over there.”  The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

Only two of those twelve spies — two young men named Joshua and Caleb – saw more possibility than problems.  “I think we should do this,” they challenged. “This is God’s land and God’s fight.  Let God defend us!”

The people did what people mostly do.  They heard the voice of fear over the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.  That day, God turned them back from the border of promise. He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly promised that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey. Fear would not be woven into the DNA in his chosen people, not if he had anything to do with it.

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the promised land.  They were destroyed by their own choice. For thirty-eight years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe to toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were? I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we’d listened to Joshua and Caleb? How do you suppose it would have turned out?” Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Or did they even think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was? Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making do, making a living?

I wonder, knowing I am an Israelite myself. I peek over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and I listen to those voices of fear or laziness and I miss out on so much good stuff that way. Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unconscious of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in me that reeks of fear?

Who knows what promises I’m toeing now as I poke my fires, count my money, check my phone and absent-mindedly get back to what I know?

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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The dog ate the communion bread (or, God is enough.)

I went to church on a Saturday morning to meet a group of folks who wanted me to offer communion to their group. The first person I saw was one of the leaders. She drove right up next to me in the parking lot, rolled down her window, and said, “The dog ate the communion bread.” I thought she was joking, but she looked at me with dead seriousness and said, “No, really. How can a miniature dachshund need that much communion bread?”

What a powerful analogy for what happens to so many people in this world. Good people, intelligent people who somewhere along the way got hurt by the church, or found such hypocrisy among Christians that they couldn’t see the point of it. It is as if the dog has eaten their communion bread. It is as if Satan or life or fallen human beings or something else in the world has stolen their right to be in communion with God. The terrible result for too many of us is that we no longer trust God. We are suspicious that maybe he does not have our best interests at heart. We secretly wonder if given an inch, God would try to make us walk a mile we don’t want to walk.

After all, if God is so good, why is life so hard?enough-pic

This question baits the enemy of our souls. If he can get us to suspect God’s motives, he can yank us right down into misery and anger. All the anger, fear and loneliness we feel has a single root cause. It grows out of a basic distrust in God — in his power to provide, in his sovereignty, in his desire to do for us.

The antidote is in the names of God. We discover in his names the character of the One worthy of our trust. Yahweh: “I Am.” Emmanuel: “God With Us.”

Figuring out who God is is fundamental to how we relate to him. Thomas Merton writes: “Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

Jeremiah Smith says there is nothing more important, no higher priority in your life, than for you to figure out who God is. Knowing God affects everything else in your life. It affects your choices, your relationships, your outlook, everything.

The name El Shaddai literally means, “God Almighty,” but the Hebrew sages often translated this name as a statement from God: “I said to the world, enough.” This name of God is a precious promise to his children: “In the face of your great need, I am enough.”

That truth ought to be life-changing. The same God who brought you out of slavery to sin, who defeated the enemy of your soul, who made hope bigger than death, is enough. The same God who broke into our world through a virgin’s birth has power enough to be in the midst of your greatest struggles, defeating your enemies, reframing and redeeming everything. Because God is enough, nothing is lost in his economy.

To know God is the great quest. I believe that quest begins with the name that assures us God is enough. Whatever our sin, brokenness, problems, whatever else in our lives vies for our attention, God is enough.

El Shaddai. Enough.

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Five things that make great leaders

What makes a faithful and fruitful ministry leader? Here are five things I believe characterize great Kingdom leaders*:

Jesus-loving. Faith in Jesus is the fuel that makes any of the rest of it run. This ought to go without saying … but it has to be said because some of us have forgotten why we’re in this. But listen: Unless you are completely sold out to Jesus and obsessed with seeing his Kingdom come and his will be done, none of the rest of this matters. There is no other reason to take up space in the world of ministry.

We do ministry because we are passionate about seeing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ manifested on earth, as it is in Heaven. We are not focused not on building our own church or building our own kingdom or proving ourselves so we can get past our inadequacy issues. We are focused on building the Kingdom of God because we so desperately love, honor and adore Jesus Christ and are driven to make his name famous.

Vision-centered. If faith is the fuel, then vision is the destination. Every project, ministry, group and movement needs a focus. What is it God has called you to? What specific people, what specific work? Not every good idea is God’s idea for you. Have you spent time slogging through all the possibilities to settle on the place where God’s call, your passion and the world’s need intersect?

Team-focused. After I’ve fueled up and set my GPS, then I have to figure out who is on this bus with me. My team is the people I want riding with me. What would be the point of driving an empty bus?

In the Kingdom of God, there are no lone rangers. It makes absolutely no sense that we should believe this about every other ministry except the one we’d rather do by ourselves (read, “except the one we’d rather control”). A true leader will see the team as the key to success, and will focus on building an exceptional, self-actualized, authority-claiming team that works. Every single ministry needs a team, and an authentic leader will pour into that team so the team can pour into others, so that the net for catching people is as wide and strong as possible.

People-crazy. Contrary to what we may sometimes be tempted to think, people are not the problem in ministry. People are the prize! God loves people. We know this because Jesus shows us the heart of God and Jesus loves people. He ate with sinners. He had patience for people who didn’t get it. He looked on the most desperate, difficult people with compassion.

Jesus loved people and more than anything, wanted to see them set free. And if that is what Jesus wants then that is what we want, too. That ought to be our driving passion. Everything we plan and implement and work toward ought to be with the goal in mind of seeing people set free to love and worship God. If no one gets set free, why would we bother?

Systems-minded. Effective ministry doesn’t “just happen.” Ministries that build the Kingdom require team-led systems that can bear the weight of growth. My biggest mistake as a church planter — hands down, no question about it — was not becoming a passionate student of systems from day one. I had no idea just how much this would hamper growth in the long run. If faith is the fuel and vision is the destination, then systems are the vehicle that get us from well-meaning intention to an effort-worthy destination. Systems matter and learning to build them and sustain them is the passion of any effective leader.

Do you have a system for recruiting gifted people into your team? Do you have a system for developing that team for more effective ministry? Do you have a training system, scheduling system, follow-up system? Do you have a system for taking people someplace spiritually?

Systems are the key to productivity. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Production-defined. Jesus said we’d be known by our fruit. This means that at the end of the day, a leader has to produce; otherwise, by definition they aren’t a leader. Good ideas are not the fruit of leadership; productivity is. In ministry, productivity is defined as people saved, people moving forward in faith, people connecting to community, people becoming confident enough in their faith to attract other people to Jesus …

Let’s be real here. Sabbath is a necessity. Taking time daily to sit in the presence of God and talk and listen is critical to spiritual growth. Those things are central to a growing faith, but those things are not the end product. Leaders begin there, but they don’t end there.

Faith is the fuel that feeds our productivity.

Think of it this way. What good would it do to spend money filling up your tank with gas if youleadership-bus don’t intend to go anywhere? Similarly, what good would it do to fill up your tank with gas, then drive around alone and aimlessly all day until the gas runs out? Why bother getting in the bus at all if you don’t plan to go anywhere?

Productivity matters. It defines fruitful ministry. It happens as we cast a God-honoring vision, focus on teams, get clear about the people we’re called to reach (and get our hearts broken for them), set priorities and put systems in place, and then stay disciplined in the work so God can begin to build something through us.

Jesus said it first: the fields are white for harvest, but the laborers are few. The Kingdom starves for Jesus-loving, vision-centered, team-focused, people-crazy, systems-minded, production-defined leaders who are ready to do the work of ministry.

* I want to credit Chris Hodges at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, AL for inspiring many of the thoughts in this blog. I attended their Grow Conference this week and was moved and inspired by great teaching on and modeling of what healthy churches can be.

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Assume nothing.

When my daughter was seven or eight years old, I asked, “Claire Marie, why do you believe in Jesus?” She said, “Because you and daddy do.” I said, “Do you think that one day you’ll believe in Jesus all by yourself?” She said, “Maybe. When I’m forty.”

I thought that was profound.*

How many forty, fifty, sixty year olds are sitting in our churches, still waiting to have a faith of their own, who don’t even know what they don’t know?

I visited once with an elderly man dealing with depression. He was living in an assisted living home and so the folks there called and asked if I’d come visit. They told me when I got there that he wasn’t really excited about the visit, that he was a self-professing atheist. And actually, he was depressed because he thought he might die any day and he didn’t know what to think about that.

I went into his room and began to listen. He had questions, he said. He took me all the way to the beginning of time and to the end of the universe. He talked physics and biology. He was quite an intelligent man and very sharp at 91 years old. An hour into his rant, he ended up in Genesis with some obscure question about the creation story that he felt disproved everything. He wanted to know what I thought about that but by then I was out of politeness and patience.  “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question,” I said. “I suppose I could give you an adequate answer, but it won’t solve anything for you. You are 91 years old. You are going to die sooner than later. What is it you really want to know?”

And at that, this old man who claimed to be an atheist, who was angry and depressed, who had answers for everything except his own life, who had very few days left on this earth, said to me, “What do I want to know? What do I want know?” With tears in his eyes, he answered his own question. “I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart.”

Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In all my years, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to know how to get Jesus into their heart. Maybe they don’t have the vocabulary or worldview to express it just that way, but beneath it all, that’s their hunger.

I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart. 

I want to know how to find joy and rest. I want an answer for my stress level and anxious spirit. I want the Jesus who answers the questions that keep me up at night. I want a better answer than the lies I’ve been living since childhood.

I know someone whose life has been dramatically altered by a childhood experience. She told me that more and more she’s realizing just how many of the decisions of her life have been filtered through that memory of a man whose sickness intersected with her life. Surely that guy was not following the Jesus? Maybe some of us have attached to ideas about Jesus that aren’t what Jesus himself said or believed or taught.

As preachers, the warning is well considered: assume nothing of those in your care. They may not have been given a fair account of the gospel.

As seekers of something better than what you have, this advice is sincerely offered: don’t assume the version of Jesus to which you’ve been exposed is the one Jesus himself would choose for you. Seek him for yourself.

 

*For the record, my daughter claimed her own faith far earlier than forty. Now in her twenties, she is an amazing woman of God whose faith inspires me.

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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