The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. 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. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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How to live in Heaven now

Let’s say you have a great trip coming up. You’ve planned something you’ll really enjoy and you’re excited. The closer it gets the more pumped you get. If this trip is a vacation from a bad job, you’re even hungrier to see it hurry up and get here. This is your mindset every day when you go in to work: This daily grind is something I have to endure until I get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. This is now, but that thing I’m waiting for … that is great.

Somehow, we’ve allowed the salvation message to morph into that kind of message. This life is something we have to endure so we can get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. Almost like Heaven is a vacation from a bad job, or another way to check out of real life.

Let me be clear: standing in the presence of the most loving Being in the universe has got to trump standing in line at Kroger. Eternal life is a treasure. But practically speaking, we tend to treat it more as an escape. The bigger truth is that eternal life is God’s kind of life. It is this life the way it is supposed to be lived … now.

When we talk about eternal life, we’re talking about sharing in the life of God.* God makes life happen and God’s kind of life is designed to be eternal. It has a beginning (in God) but no end. This is what characterizes the life He gives.

If I choose to share in the life of Christ, then I’m sharing in that life now. I’m living my eternal life now. Eternal life begins now. I don’t know of any other truth that has power to bring more peace than this, nor any other truth we seem so remarkably incapable of embracing.

So here’s a question: If I fear death, how does that manifest in my choices about lesser things? Because if I believe this — if I really believe that my biggest questions are answered — that ought to make a difference in all the other choices in my life. In the same way, if I still fear death then that also will affect my choices about lesser things.

To say I am not afraid of death means I am also not afraid of anything less than that. This way of thinking is the path to peace, which means that peace is a choice I make every day. It is a choice to live as if my biggest questions are already answered.

Does my thought life prove my belief in eternity? Does yours?

 

*I got this idea from Billy Graham’s newest book, Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Life Beyond.

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The Tyranny of Tweaking

Funny, the things we can learn from friends who do drugs.

In the world of meth users, tweaking is a thing. That’s the term users use for the frantic and compulsive behaviors that tend to surface when you’re strung out on meth. Tweaking is obsession with an activity — any activity — like cleaning or searching through drawers or picking the skin off your face or cleaning tools in a toolbox. A user will become obsessed with making some thing perfect, which is kind of crazy since even if he gets it perfect he is still a meth addict.

I want to throw stones at addicts who do pointless things like this until I’m forced to admit I do it, too. I can spend a whole afternoon making the chairs into perfect rows at church while I ignore the message I am called to preach to the people who will sit in those chairs. Or I’ll spend hours working on a graphic or an agenda for a meeting (or writing a blog …), while things like hospital visits or time with a teen get set aside. Whatever it is that really needs to be done is often ignored in favor of whatever it is I’m obsessed about.

It makes me think of the Samaritan woman who tried to press Jesus into a discussion about where real worship happens. On this mountain or that one? Which is it, Jesus? And he replied, “I’m not sure it matters for you. Until you deal with the fact that you’ve been married five times and are living with a guy now, what’s it matter where worship happens?”

Or what about those religious leaders who came to Jesus upset because his friends didn’t properly wash their hands according to custom before eating? To them, Jesus responded, “Good point, actually. And here’s an even better one: why don’t you take care of your own parents, rather than obsessively letting the rules steal all your compassion and sense of responsibility?”

I can hear Jesus asking me that question when I get all tangled up in some detail or another, in some rule or another, in some judgment or another. “Until you deal with the fact that you use details to avoid the big dreams being dreamed over your life, what’s the rest of it matter?”

Much to my discomfort, my recovering meth addict friends are teaching me that small mindedness can have big consequences. I may not be addicted to a substance; to the contrary, I may very well be addicted to the absence of it.

What if God has a big honkin’ plan for your life? Something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking?

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Can you follow Jesus without believing in miracles?

Subtract miracles from Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism, and you have essentially the same religion left. Subtract miracles from Christianity, and you have nothing but the clichés and platitudes most American Christians get weekly (and weakly) from their pulpits. Nothing distinctive, no reason to be a Christian rather than something else.” – Peter Kreeft (Christianity for Modern Pagans)

Thomas Jefferson once took a pen knife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb, but cut out the resurrection. What was left (mostly the teachings of Jesus) Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a pen knife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God is to see the Kingdom break in through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth (Luke 9).

Christianity is not a faith with a few miracles sprinkled in for effect. Christianity is a miracle with some good stories thrown in. Miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. To extract them from the gospel of Jesus Christ would be to extract the heart of God for the people he created.

Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. We believe Jesus is worthy of worship, but he is only worthy if he has been proven to be God himself.

Without miracles, we lose hope. We have no assurance of an afterlife if Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Psalm 145 tells us that we are to pass the stories of God’s mighty acts from generation to generation, because it is the mighty acts of God — not the morality — that teach us about God’s character and purposes. Through his miracles (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we see God’s goodness — that he is for us.

Without miracles, our profession of faith is hollow. Jesus didn’t celebrate the power of miracles (he often warned people not to talk about their own supernatural healing), but he always encouraged folks to celebrate the restoration caused by them. The point of miracles to to draw us into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. All over the world right now, stories are surfacing of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus being drawn into the Kingdom through miracles and visions. They are being introduced to Jesus by Jesus himself in supernatural encounters. Why? Because Jesus wants to see these cultures restored to the Kingdom of God.

Without miracles, we have no insight into the Kingdom of God. Jesus resurrected a little girl whose daddy was heart-broken, healed a woman who was sick for years, restored the sight of two men who asked for mercy and cast out a demon that had a guy’s tongue. And that’s just one chapter (Matthew 9)! Every one of these miracles was a preview of the Kingdom and a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy — binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind and release to someone imprisoned by demons. This was a foretaste of coming attractions, Jesus demonstrating Kingdom values.

Without miracles, we are not pursuing the whole gospel. Richard Rohr, Catholic priest and spiritual director, has written, “As priests, we felt our job was to absolve sin rather than actually transform people. ‘Get rid of the contaminating element,’ as it were, rather than ‘Learn what you can about yourself and God because of this conflict.’ Those are two very different paths. In the four Gospels, Jesus did two things over and over again: he preached and he healed. We have done a lot of preaching, but not too much healing” (A Lever and a Place to Stand).

True miracles will always glorify God. And true believers will always lift up Jesus. In Richard Rohr’s confession, he goes on from the above quote to diagnose the “why” behind his assertion. He says that we’ve done more preaching than healing not because our hearts are hard (though undoubtedly that’s true for some) or because we don’t find it important, but because we don’t know how. We have forgotten (if we ever knew) how to call the people in our care into deeper spiritual waters.

With all due respect to President Jefferson, Christianity is not a philosophy. It is a declaration of the one, true God — the most powerful Being in the universe — and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ. And it is the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit transforming the natural with the invasion of the supernatural. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm.

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#metoo

God can redeem anything. Any wound, rejection, loss … anything.

Last week, the story of Harvey Weinstein’s gross perversion was published, resulting in a groundswell of testimony on social media in the form of two simple words: Me too. If I know anything about the spiritual realm, I’m guessing those two words are taking back territory the enemy thought he had long since conquered. After all, John 3 tells us that things that remain in the dark belong to the enemy of our souls, while things brought into the light belong to Jesus. Most women I know have felt unheard and their stories unvalidated for so long that they’ve learned to leave them tucked away in some dark recess — unvoiced, unvalidated, unexposed. Those stories remain unknown mostly because many women have learned by experience not to cast pearls, so there in the dark, their stories fester and breed shame.

But God … 

Now we have this story about a guy who over decades has used his power to manipulate and molest women. Out of this exposure of a professional predator, a platform has emerged allowing women to stand up and be counted without feeling as if they are on trial. There is a sisterhood in all those “me too’s.” They are two-word witnesses raising old wounds to the surface, allowing women to be heard and their stories validated.

I’m among those women. Molested as a child and raped in college, I have had a first-hand experience of how exposing my story to the healing light of Jesus has produced profound healing in my life. I discovered an undiagnosed anger and found healing from what seemed like an illogical need to please men. My husband received healing, too, when he confessed to Christ his own unforgiveness around those who had hurt me.

He didn’t yell at God or try to justify anything. He just said it like it was. “God, I can’t forgive them.” And in that moment of honesty. God answered so clearly. He said simply, “I was with her the whole time.” The simple truth of that statement was enough to allow Steve to let go of the anger and pain. God knew.

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” My husband, Steve, tells me – and scripture confirms it – that when I experienced a little piece of hell, God never left me alone.

I know firsthand the healing power of Jesus, and can now confidently assure anyone with a “me too” story that there is great joy in the healing power of Jesus Christ. If there is unresolved pain, anger, hurt, shame … Jesus can heal that. He knows you, knows your story, and stands ready to offer healing.

Some of the best news of all is this: There is no shame in Christ! Isn’t that a beautiful freedom? In the light of that truth, our stories become our gift and a pathway to healing, knowing that God has never once turned his face from us.

This is the strength of his grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so he can be there when we finally turn to him. Prevenient grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days and 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 that we feel even years or decades later. God is there through all of it. God has been there the whole time, watching, grieving the pain of it but in his strength, waiting. The Word assures us that he is always more ready to listen than we are to speak, always more ready to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit than we are to reach out for it. There is a reason we call him Emmanuel: God With Us. It is because he is … always.

Hear this: God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once left you alone or rejected you. Not even once. Not even you.

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It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

(Today, I’m giving this space to Leah Hartman, who I met at New Room. Read on …)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
— Matthew 7:3-6

These words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount popped into my head the other day. I was driving down the road when a speck of something (likely sawdust, in fact, given the husband’s cabinet business) got stuck in my eye.

As I was trying to get it out, I got to thinking about holiness. Because that’s what I think Jesus is getting at here. That’s what paying attention to the plank in our own eye and then removing it means. Jesus pits hypocrisy and holiness against each other. The two are diabolically opposed. Unfortunately, we sometimes confuse “holiness” with “holier-than-thouness” which is to say hypocrisy. Jesus says they are antonyms.

Not hypocrisy, Jesus says. Holiness.

Like the parent of tattling children, Jesus reminds us to “worry about your own self.” I get this because it’s currently my life. I can’t tell you how many times a day I say this to Claire, who is five, as she bosses Wesley, who is two, to NOT do the very thing she herself IS doing. Jesus knows as well as I that we cannot be fully committed to our own holiness if even part of our energy is in making sure someone else is holy.

It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

As I was reflecting about all of this, I thought about the following process from hypocrisy to holiness:

  1. Humility— You can’t have holiness without humility. Humility is not self-deprecation; it’s honesty. It is to come into agreement with who God says we are. To think that we are anything less than a child of God or anything more than a sinner in need of grace is pride, which uproots holiness faster than anything else. Humility admits THAT we have at least a speck in our eye, and probably a plank.
  2. Awareness— It’s not enough to know THAT we are sinful. We must also come to know WHAT is our particular brand of sin. Each of us has disordered thinking, affections, and living. Awareness is paying attention to our patterns of behavior and manifestations of sin and asking the Spirit of God to reveal their root.
  3. Holiness— Armed with humility and awareness, we can get serious about holiness. Holiness is the process of partnering with the Spirit of God to obsessively remove the planks from our eyes.

As I was driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour, that speck in my eye felt more like a plank. And Jesus is right— it became very hard to see! There was a lot of blinking and watering and blurring. I was easily a danger, not only to myself, but to my three children who were counting on me to see clearly. (Not to mention anyone else one the road!) Perhaps this is Jesus’ whole point: other people are dependent upon OUR holiness. And ironically, removing our own planks just might be the very thing that motivates someone else to remove their speck.

Because there is nothing more compelling than a life transformed by the Gospel, a life of holiness.

Leah Hartman’s discipleship mantra is word, deed, repeat. And she practices it at home, with her husband and three children, and in community. She blogs at Leah-hartman.com.

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows (and without shame for the things we enjoy).

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We don’t earn a lot, but we’ve discovered great joy in giving generously from what we have. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day: As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.

Why?

Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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While you were getting your nails done (and other thoughts on world evangelism)

In this world we are like Jesus. – 1 John 4:17

I have posted this before but am thinking of it freshly this week as I travel in Thailand. As in the U.S., Thailand has no shortage of nail salons. In the U.S., I have a tolerate-hate relationship with those places. For many people, it is a treat to have someone else paint your fingernails and toenails, massage your feet and give you an hour in a gyrating chair. For me, that is an exercise in frustration. I just don’t enjoy the experience. Where I live, almost all the salons are staffed by folks who don’t speak much English and since I don’t go often enough to know how to ask for what I want, I find myself feeling at first tentative and then exasperated before we even get started. And at the cost of a tank of gas or a meal out.
nail-buddha2

Nonetheless — illogically — about once a year I give in and go. Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me. This time will be different. The last time I made this annual trek to a nail place, I decided to strike up a conversation with the technician. She was from Thailand. She was friendly and chatty, and talked in English to me while she spoke in Thai to her co-worker. At some point, I asked what they were talking about. The technician shared that they were planning their evening. There was a dinner at the local temple, a potluck, and they’d all be going together. They were laughing about meeting men there.

It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that women like these might be part of a sub-culture in my community designed to maintain a religious identity. These women interacted all day every day with Americans but in their personal life, they maintain Buddhist traditions, look for Buddhist husbands, keep to Buddhist communities.

I am ashamed to admit I’d never considered before the spiritual life of the person doing my nails, though my faith calls that person to trust in Christ for redemption from this fallen world. I left the salon that day knowing that until my heart breaks for the spiritual care of the people in that place, I had no right to use them for my own luxuries.

Those luxuries are delivered to us by a remarkably diverse community. Consider this:

  • According to the 2012-2013 industry statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48% of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion American nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism.
  • More than 50% of Dunkin Donuts are owned by Pakistani or Indian franchisees. Pakistan is a mostly Muslim country; India’s majority religion is Hinduism.
  • 40% of all motels in the United States are owned by Indians (see above).
  • 10% of American physicians are Muslim.
  • 50% of lawn care workers and16% of lawn care business owners are Latino. Their religious backgrounds are likely varied; many will practice a version of Catholicism mixed with animism, voodoo, or ancestor worship.

While we are getting our nails done, lawns manicured and to-go coffees poured, we are coming face to face with the world’s religious diversity. We may not even be aware enough of this reality to let our hearts become sensitized to the spiritual need.

This reality is both a blessing and a temptation. We are easily lulled into a comfortable numbness that lets us get our needs met while ignoring the spiritual care of a worldful of people. And yet, what potential! Industries full of religiously diverse folks provide us with a plethora of opportunities to open our hearts and care more lovingly for those who care for us. To treat them like people, not servants.

While you’re considering who lives among us, consider how the rest of the world is experiencing religious diversity. The global Christian landscape is shifting. The following statistics come from Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary:

  • When William Carey went to India in 1793, 90% of all Christians were white and lived in the western world. Today, by a vast majority, the face of Christianity is non-white.
    William Carey was a famous missionary in India. But the William Carey Memorial Church in Luster, England is now a Hindu temple.
  • The top two most receptive nations to Christianity are India and China.
  • At the turn of the twentieth century, nine of the ten countries with the highest rate of Christians were in Europe or North America. In 2009, only four of the top ten most Christian countries are in the west.
  • Meanwhile, this year the top ten most resistant nations to Christianity are all in Europe.
    A Christianity Today article says that 85% of Yale’s Campus Crusade for Christ are Asian while the Buddhist temple meetings on the Yale campus are exclusively attended by whites.
  • More Nigerians attend church every week than all the Episcopal and Anglican churches in the west combined.
  • China now boasts the fastest growing church in the world, producing 16,500 new Christians every day.
  • Africa, once called the missionary graveyard, is now the fastest growing church of any continent as a whole, producing 24,000 Christians every day since 1970.
  • The most representative Christian in 1909 was a 44-year old British male.
  • The most representative Christian in 2009 was a 24-year old Nigerian woman.

In this world we are like Jesus. In a world that’s rapidly changing, God has chosen to let us participate in the coming Kingdom. It is a glorious invitation that leaves us with a choice: we can be fearful, turn inward and become concerned only with “me, mine, and our ticket to heaven”; or we can be fearless in understanding and engaging the world around us, becoming active participants in what Christ is doing right here to bring the Kingdom in.

In light of that invitation, I’m inspired to breathe this prayer: God, put to death any unholy ambition in me. Any ambition that makes me more interested in my own comforts than the salvation of others.

Amen. Let it be so.

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Evaluate your list and improve your discipling system.

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3:15-16

Funny that we humans tend to fear failure when “lukewarm” is the real danger, according to the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit brought this verse to mind recently, challenging me to survey my life and get honest about the places where I’m practicing lukewarm living. There are obvious places, of course. I’m never going to get that early morning devotional hour consistently “right” in the way I think “right” should look. I stink at fasting, though I have never sensed God releasing me from the need to press in to it.

Then there are the not-so-obvious places, like list-keeping. As I explore ways to “warm up” the way I relate to others as a pastor, I am discovering that the lists I keep are a way I can treasure people. In fact, I hear the Holy Spirit teaching me that lists are a key to both treasuring and mobilizing lay people.

Simply put, a good list sparked by the fuel of the Holy Spirit can start a fire. If our lists are not current, accurate and hopeful, how can we expect the people in our communities to know what we’re doing, what is needed and what is effectively drawing down the Kingdom into our midst?

With that in mind, here are a few questions to help you get started on the path toward building a better list of people:

Is your list current? Does your list include everyone who is involved at any level right now in your ministry? Is your leadership list up to date? Is your participant list up to date? Does it include the latest information on every person? Do you have a clear and easy system, so the information can be accessed quickly when the need arises?

And are you sensitive in the ways you communicate, both to those just joining and those who have asked to step away?

A few months ago, I found myself on one Board too many. I asked to be removed from a Board on which I was serving. I sent a nicely worded email explaining my decision to be removed. I heard nothing.  Meanwhile, group emails for this Board continued to include me so I had no idea whether or not they’d gotten my notice.  I emailed again. No response. I called. No return call … and still, the group emails kept coming. Finally, I got a response and not that I needed it, but I noticed that the last communication I received included no “thanks for serving” or even a word of understanding. They just dropped me.

Meanwhile, I noticed recently just how well another Board on which I have served honors those who step down. They held a dinner, gave a gift and said nice things about those people who were leaving. It was a great way to honor people who had given time and gifts to that organization.

Keeping a current list helps you honor people (see, hear and treasure them) as they come and go. I have learned, too, that when families move to other churches the kindest thing I can do is offer my blessing. I’ll admit: it is hard. I hate seeing people move on. But if I can’t trust God with their hearts and bless them on their way, I’ll have no opportunity to be there when they need someone down the road.

(Side note: If I could instill a four-word caution into every pastor who serves well, it would be these four words: Pick up the phone and call. When people are hurting, when life changes happen, when you know something is up … call. It makes a ton of difference, and I believe it proves emotional maturity.)

Is your list accurate? Does it include all contact info (phone, email, Facebook, street address, work number, birthdate … anything that might connect you meaningfully to others)? Does your list reflect life changes? People notice when they are still listed with a spouse after a divorce, for instance. You may not have made that mental shift yet, but they certainly have. Caring for that informational change shows respect and sensitivity.

Every Monday morning, our staff passes around a list of names of every person in our orbit. We put hundreds of names into the hands of every leader each week and ask them to mark off three with whom they will be in personal touch before the week is out. We tend to choose folks we haven’t talked to in a while. We send notes, make coffee appointments, text, email and call … whatever it takes to be intentionally in touch in a way that makes them know not just that they are remembered, but that we care about their spiritual progress.

(Side note: the most asked question at Mosaic is, “How is it with your soul?”)

Is your list hopeful? Does your list include not only current volunteers/leaders/participants, but also emerging volunteers/leaders/participants? I’m thinking about the person who might be on the verge of a new level of involvement, the person who isn’t stepping up now but could be. One leader on our staff team developed a list of current leaders, a list of potential leaders and another list of “potential-potential” leaders. This list was one of his discipleship tools. It was also a way to be intentional about speaking prophetically into people’s lives, calling out what we see that they don’t.

An active list helps us cultivate the potential in others, leading them from “lukewarm” to “on fire.” Who needs to be on your list, so they can begin to receive more regular communication from you, so they can begin to get acclimated to the next level of involvement? Lists that focus on emerging leaders are a great tool for intentionally mobilizing laity.

Most of all, is your list being used? Healthy, consistent communication requires a list and a list helps us to consistently, effectively communicate.

Are people on your teams and in your orbit hearing from you regularly, beyond the time they take to walk into the building? Are they receiving regular, constructive (and spiritual) communication from you mid-week? Back in my marketing days, we used to say, “If you want your list to work, then work your list.” Its true. If we want to flatten the power structure in our churches, if we want to involve more and more volunteers in ministry, if we want to see every member engaged and using their gifts, we have to immerse them in the culture of our community. And that happens with healthy, consistent communication — communicating the needs, inviting participation, building the relationships, strengthening the connections. And picking up the phone to have solid spiritual conversations.

Bottom line: A current, accurate and hopeful list is a way to treasure people. It keeps the fires of the Holy Spirit stoked. It communicates, “You are part of the family and your life matters.” It tends to souls and puts us in line with our mission, which is not primarily to build attendance but to make disciples. Tend to this, and everything else will be fall in line.

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Why porn doesn’t work (and what does)

In recognition of the passing of Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy Magazine, here is a repost on why porn doesn’t work.

You’ve heard the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? Whole papers have been written on that question; doctorates in philosophy earned. They set up recorders in the forest to answer the question. Turns out, the answer is yes. Both for trees, and for us.

What we do reverberates.

Now, you’d have to be pretty ingenious to invent a sin.  Paul, the writer of Romans, mentions “inventors of evil,” but the writer of Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. If there is any difference between his day and ours, it is that today many of our compulsions can be satiated almost immediately.  As close as the next click.

Since no one is around when we feed those temptations, does it really matter? Do private sins have public consequences?  As with trees in a forest, the answer is yes.

When we look at porn, we participate in an industry that is intimately connected with drugs, violence and illegal activity. When we look, we support an industry that keeps many women and men in spiritual prison. Every time we look, the body of the one we look at becomes just a little more valuable in the marketplace.

When we look, we hurt the ones we love. Not only is porn a form of adultery and idolatry (not to mention a form of disability, since it alters libido), but also a form of delusion. We set a mental standard for bodily perfection that can only be achieved with an airbrush.

Who can compete with that?

When we look, we hurt the community, because what we feed our spirits affects everything —  motivations, attitude, mental health, everything.

And when we look, we hurt ourselves. Porn is idolatry, and idolatry is always a roadblock to spiritual health. When we seek pleasure in things that are not eternal, it numbs the conscience. There is no love in those looks, nothing that lasts. That’s why we keep going back; the effect doesn’t last.

Porn doesn’t work. A choice to have it in our lives is a choice to remain stuck spiritually, emotionally and physically.

So how does a person who has become addicted to porn get free? I get that its complicated but I can think of three good starting points: decision, confession and accountability.

Decision: When Paul comes to the end of yet another list of sins in Colossians, he makes an interesting statement. He says, “You used to behave like that, once, when your life consisted of that sort of thing.” That line is full of hope and potential. Paul acknowledges reality, then casts a vision for what can be. You can decide now not to let your life consist of that any more. This echoes a recovery slogan: “Fake it till you make it.” Every sober life begins with a decision to live differently.

Confession:  Choices usually need to be heard to become real. This is why confession is a means of grace. John, chapter three, tells us that everything left in the dark belongs to the enemy; everything brought into the light belongs to Jesus. If the enemy has had control of your mind and emotions long enough, then tell someone and pull the rug out from under the enemy of your soul.

Accountability: Healing happens in community. Any group that values transparency, that knows how to celebrate sobriety milestones, that will hold you accountable for progress, that will challenge you toward honesty … is a great place to heal. One guy made a group out of his Facebook friends — all of them. He regularly reported the number of days he’d been porn-free, and we all rejoiced at his progress. Remember that there is no shame in Christ. The only shame is in not getting the accountability needed to get final freedom.

Private sins have public consequences. Freedom is a choice. That’s something I used to do, but not any more. Because after I came to Christ, I came to. What I couldn’t see then, I see now.

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