Chosen: Mike’s story

This week, we’re hearing stories of redemption rooted in the chosenness of God. Mike Barr’s story is a strong example of just how far God will go to prove his love for us. Mike is part of the Mosaic community and serves as chaplain of Augusta Rescue Mission.

As a man, the book of Esther fascinates me. The Father’s plan to find a bride for His Son is brilliantly unfolded for all us to see. In her story, King Xerxes’ only desire is to display his bride’s beauty before his entire kingdom.

Esther, being of poor descent and of an unlikely heritage, had no idea how much her life was about to change. She was completely unaware that a “no one” like herself would ever find her way to becoming the bride of the king.
But the king knew what he was doing. His search for his bride was diligent. His search for his bride was perfect.

And once Esther was chosen, the king’s very best attendant led her by the hand through a “Process of Beautification.” No expense was spared and the process wasn’t rushed. However, the end result was nothing short of stunning to the king.

It sometimes seems strange to me just how much I understand this story. But the revelation of what it truly means to be the Bride of Christ is in my heart. I live out the beauty of His plan every day.

However, looking back, it wasn’t always this way.

I wasn’t raised in church or with any type of belief in God. As a matter of fact, I spent most of my youth and adulthood in a very destructive lifestyle due to alcohol and drugs.

I have two very loving parents who are still in my life today. But alcohol was always a part of my formative years and watching everyone drink was a normal part of life.

So, as I started to grow up, a willingness to explore new things just seemed natural. I guess you could say high school was just…high school. Once I started down that road of addiction, everything was on the menu. Cocaine, meth, pills, LSD, even steroids were all for the taking.

After graduating from school, I very quickly found myself in a career and the money just seemed to come in. Life was really good. Or so I thought.
Through all of my dysfunction though, I was a very disciplined business man. I was good at what I did.

Which of course, didn’t actually help me. Money just fed my party lifestyle. Work hard, play hard, those were the rules. Vacations, clothes, cars…all it came so easy.

But brokenness was continually increasing inside of me. The more broken I felt, the more I tried to hide it. The more pain I was in, the more substances I took to mask it. A crazy snowball effect was happening and I had no idea how to stop it. Addiction was beginning to rule my life and at some point, it began to make all my decisions for me.

By now, I was married with two young children and I had no idea how to stop it. If I came clean to my wife and employer, I could lose everything. If I stayed on my path of destruction, I could still lose everything.

But addiction doesn’t care. Addiction doesn’t stop.

Eventually, my whole world came crashing down. And at the age of 39, it was either get sober or die. No other options.

It was at that moment that my heart finally cried out to God: “Please, if you’re real, save me and I’ll do whatever you want.”

What came next was far more surprising to me than I ever could have imagined. Almost immediately, His Presence (which was something I had no idea even existed) was inside of me guiding every step of my life. Several months later, a life-changing deliverance moment took place in my living room, leaving me no doubt it was truly Jesus who saved me. I began to see the hand of God restore my broken marriage piece by piece and from almost the first day I gave my heart to the Lord, I knew I was called to preach.

Since then, I’ve become a credentialed Reverend with the Assemblies of God and I serve as the Chaplain of Augusta Rescue Mission.

Eleven years later, I can say without hesitation that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and the only Savior of the world.

And like Esther, I’m a person who never could have dreamed of going from orphan to bride living. But that’s what God does…He makes all things beautiful.

Read More

Chosen: Shannon’s Story

This week, I’m posting some stories of people whose lives have been transformed as they’ve embraced the ways they’ve been chosen by God. This one is the story of Shannon Conforti, Executive Director of Christian Flights International, a mission in partnership with the people of Ranquitte, Haiti. CFI is a mission partner of Mosaic.

I almost lost everything to anxiety, so let me start there.

More than two years ago, anxiety unexpectedly entered my life. I had always lived with various degrees of stress, but this was altogether different. The therapists and doctors never gave me a satisfactory explanation for what happened. One day my brain just broke. Obviously that’s not the technical physiological answer, but it’s the best way I can summarize it. I suppose years of drama and stress finally took their toll, and my physiological systems simply stopped working properly. I was a highly functioning mom, wife, business owner, volunteer, church member. I traveled and participated in missions to Haiti. I was on church leadership committees. From the outside, I was proving that I could have it all. All the accolades. All the acclaim. All the success. I’ve heard from several women that my life at that time intimidated them, as it appeared I was running full steam on all cylinders.

Then one night, my body simply stopped. I had a severe migraine and anxiety attack that all mimicked a stroke. I ended up in the ER, somehow understanding that life as I knew it was coming to a stark and abrupt halt.

The days that followed were the beginning of my torment. I was unable to care for myself or my children, let alone get to work. Friends and family came in and cared for me, day and night, while I struggled to regain normalcy. My sleep was plagued with nightmares of the gates of hell and my days were spent praying for rescue from the torment raging through my body. Then came a barrage of doctors’ appointments, therapists’ appointments, meditation, oils, prayers, Bible memorization, this medication and then that medication followed by more medication. It was exhausting. And much to my protests, it became an integral part of my story.

In no way do I think God caused any of this. But I am absolutely convinced He used this circumstance to change me and the people in my life. Not the way I would have hoped. Not the way I would have planned.  Certainly not the way I wanted. He took the opportunity to lead me through the desert, the wilderness, and the broken mountain path, all to lead me to a greater redemption.

In the midst of this, I came to Mosaic to speak when the Executive Director of Christian Flights International was unable to attend. Friendships emerged from that visit and our relationships grew fast and deep. They nourished me with prayers while I was in the valley and provided me spiritual support to keep going. My anxiety morphed from a catastrophic plague to a daily annoyance. I assumed it was something I would just have to live with. Bothersome, but manageable.

Early on in my journey with anxiety, I was prophesied over. The message was clear: God would bring me to complete victory. Complete. Victory. Yet in the daily battle with anxiety this promise had taken a back seat. When I heard folks at Mosaic were praying for their mission partners, I reached out to ask for prayer for an almost forgotten promise. At the same time, God was stirring in my heart to apply for a staff position with the Haitian mission organization that connects Mosaic and me. At first I didn’t share this with anyone. Then I talked with my prayer partner, then my husband. From a practical standpoint I couldn’t figure out how a position with CFI could work. Between my qualifications and my anxiety and so many commitments, I just couldn’t figure it out. But the prayers continued. And the prompting in my heart was persistent.

I finally pulled a resume together and sent it to my friends on the CFI Board. My prayers for certainty went unanswered, and I waited to see the outcome of this trusted group. One Saturday night they called for a phone conference to discuss the possibility of hiring me. Concerns were raised. Questions were asked. Prayers were offered, and by the end of the call I had accepted the job. I hung up the phone. And without any warning I began to weep. Deep waves of tears that seemed to come from my very soul. My husband came into the room and I saw him register what he saw. “Oh no! What’s this? What’s happening? What’s going on?” His confusion was thick. I had just accepted a job and I was sobbing.

All I could say was, “It’s over. It’s over. I can feel God telling me it’s over. All of it.” And just like that. My anxiety was gone. Gone. We held each other and thanked God for walking us through an earthly hell.

And as sure as I’m standing here today, I have been completely anxiety-free since that instant. The chains that imprisoned me are just…gone.

I don’t know exactly how this will all play out over the long run. What I am sure of is that God gave me this beautiful gift to share, both here and in Haiti. My prayers for the weary are stronger today because I know what devastation feels like, and I know that God is mighty to save.

Maybe my story will remind you if you’re in a valley right not that God does hear our prayers and he still works in miraculous ways. For me, the real miracle in my story is the connections that happen in the Body of Christ. Somehow all the seemingly inconsequential details of our lives get woven together — our histories, our stories, our random lives — and they lead us to each other and bind us to a cause. Missions matter. Relationships matter. The Body of Christ matters. Surrender to a greater thing matters.

Even when anxiety threatened to sabotage the good plans God had for my life, praying people invested in me first through partnership with a Haitian mission, then through personal relationships. Because of our history, our relationships, and our shared knowledge that the miraculous is possible, lives are being saved and then transformed, both here and abroad.

Truly, a miracle.

Read More

Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife 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 penknife, 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’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. 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 also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. 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. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (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 are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

Read More

What a woman wants in a man

On this Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to run this one again as a gift to all the women who read artofholiness, with the hope that it will be read by all the men in this community of readers. This post was written in response to an online poll about what women are attracted to in the men they love. 

What a cheeky title for a blog post … like I know or have authority to speak for all women everywhere. In fact, I don’t. But I shared a few thoughts recently with my Facebook community about what I believe makes a good man and husband* and invited others to chime in. The women in my circles, as it turns out, have very strong opinions about men. They don’t speak from a place of desperation; to the contrary, their comments reveal a hunger for men with strong character, faith and commitment to family.

So, at least according to my limited circle of friends, what makes a good man?

1. A good sense of humor
The ability to laugh is so important to building health and trust into a relationship. To laugh at oneself and in loving ways with one another (not making fun, but sharing joy) is a mark of emotional maturity. Be clear on this: a good sense of humor is not limited by an ability to tell a good joke. It reflects a creative mind, a spirit of adventure, a willingness to play.

2. A mature spirit
Don’t mistake playfulness for immaturity; it is actually a mark of spiritual freedom. The real “playas” in this world are emotionally responsive — unbound by shame, fear or defensiveness. Mature men are compassionate, good listeners, gentle yet strong. Honorable and transparent. In biblical times, the mark of a good man was one who was respected in the marketplace. That hasn’t changed.

3. A man who knows who he is
Several women who responded to my Facebook post mentioned their desire for a husband who is confident without being arrogant. Godly women appreciate men with courage enough offer an opinion without anger, who lead when leadership matters, who listen without caving, who protect without controlling.

4. A biblical worldview
Over and over, the women in my circles mentioned the ability to prioritize as a key to strong character. “God first, family second, all else comes next.” In other words, women like men who think and live biblically. We like givers — men with a missional heart, who are concerned for the needs of others. Men like that tend to inspire the people around them. And connected to that spirit of generosity is an ability to say “thank you.” Often.


5. Unafraid to pray (and worship) in public or private
Women like a man who can stop, drop and pray. Hold her hand while you’re praying or better yet, let her find you praying on your knees. Why does praying matter? It reveals what’s really inside. Women in my circles love a man who loves the Lord.

6. Disciplined
As one woman put it, “laziness is not sexy.” Women like men who work hard, who know their responsibilities and fulfill them, who understand their role as providers. Discipline breeds integrity. Disciplined men know how to stand by their word. Their yes is yes and their no is no. You can trust their follow-through, and that breeds trust. Without trust, you’ve got nothing.

7. Able to see a big picture
A man with his priorities in order is free to dream. He isn’t so focused on immediate concerns that he can’t pitch a big vision for his life and family. He is ready and willing to make a difference in the world; he isn’t stymied by fear.

8. Wants more for his life than simply to be a provider
Good family men are so much more than guys who know how to make money and babies. They have a passion for raising up children with strong character, who want to model for their daughters what a good husband can be and for their sons what a good father acts like. And good men take initiative. Women aren’t generally drawn to men who still have to be told to help around the house. Real men change diapers. Real men clean.

9. Has a servant’s heart
To understand true humility we must first understand pride. Pride and self-hatred are related and often manifest as false humility. A person with inadequacy issues or a lack of self-respect will be overly focused on himself. He will be self-conscious and self-defensive. Humility, on the other hand, is related to self-acceptance. One who accepts himself no longer has to focus on himself. He is free to be fully present to others. What a great quality to find in a man! This is someone who listens well, who learns from every conversation, who isn’t waiting for you to finish talking so he can tell you what he knows. He is an encourager who loves mercy and seeks justice. He offers to open the door not because he is a chauvinist but because he prefers to serve others. Humble men are the opposite of weak; they are unafraid to take a stand but do so for all the right reasons.

10. A good lover
I need to note here that in the dozens of comments I received from my Facebook query, not one woman mentioned sex. At least, not directly. Not the way men tend to talk about it. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to women but that it is packaged differently. Women are intrigued by kindness and vulnerability and most notably, women want to be pursued. One of our core needs is to be treasured. This is reflected in the biblical narrative. Read Song of Solomon and watch the joy generated in that pursuit. Women who feel wanted — not needed, but wanted — are inspired toward passion by someone who understands how to pursue a relationship with intentionality.

Paul encouraged the Ephesian men to aspire to mature manhood (4:13). Of course, no human being can hit on all cylinders all the time, but men who pursue the deep things of God will end up connecting more successfully with the women in their lives.

*I am sharing, of course, only out of my own experience, having been joyfully married to a really great man for nearly thirty years.

Read More

How to act on the brink of brokenness (or, divorce and the mercy of God)

Roly-poly1We used to call them roly polies. When I was a kid, they were hands-down my favorite bugs. Finding a family of them under a brick in the dirt was like finding a whole other world.

When a roly poly is stretched out and moving forward, he is one of the most flexible animals on God’s green earth. But when he balls up to protect himself he becomes the opposite of flexible. Stretched out, he can maneuver through dirt and grass and under rocks. Rolled up, he is incapable of mobilizing at all. He is just a hard ball of crustacean trying to protect himself.

When Jesus talks about divorce in Matthew,* it makes me think of the roly poly. Jesus says, “When you ball up to protect yourself, you default to a hard heart. And in a marriage, a hard heart can be a killer.” That “rolling up’ we do can manifest as anger, emotional withdrawal, dishonesty, manipulation or even bitterness. It is us, backing off emotionally until we feel nothing and have lost all sense of possibility.

Stretched out and moving forward, we put ourselves in line with immense possibilities. In a self-protective crouch, we are incapable of seeing the options.

In Jesus’ word about marriage and divorce, he reveals what he knows about human nature. The one who spoke us into being knows how we are made —  our weaknesses, how we cope, how we tend to protect ourselves. He knows our tendency toward self-protection leads us in directions we don’t intend to go.

And in his great kindness he offers mercy even at the dying end of a marriage. Not because it is God’s best but because sometimes it is the best we can do.

Sometimes marriages will fail. I believe this is exactly the point Jesus was making in Matthew. In a fallen world, tough things happen, things that are not God’s best. Sometimes it will happen because of our own fallenness; sometimes it will happen in spite of our best efforts at restoration.

What then? We are limited but we serve a God of immense possibilities. In the middle of something that feels like a valley of dry bones, what is our right response?

Acknowledge what is. Recently I had a conversation with someone whose marriage is teetering on the brink of brokenness. The comment was made: “I have to decide whether I want to be married to this person or not.” To which I replied, “Too late. You already are.” Married is married. Vows are vows. At the very least, be honest about what is.

Remember: there are a million steps between your unhappiness and divorce. When things go wrong, we tend to default to “fight or flight” mode and neglect all the options available to us. Keep in mind that we serve the most creative Being in the Universe. Surely he can come up with a solution or a way through that we haven’t yet considered. Is counseling an option? A conversation with your pastor? What about a weekend away? Or a weekend apart (but in safe places)? Spend time listening to the Holy Spirit and writing down every option you hear. Don’t discount any of them; allow God to open up the possibilities for you. A crisis will often narrow our perspective. Allow God the chance to widen it again. Remember the roly poly and stretch yourself. You can’t move forward in a defensive crouch.

Let Jesus referee. When face-to-face communication stops working, try knee-to-knee communication. Bring Jesus into the conversation through prayer. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence. If praying aloud isn’t comfortable, sit together and pray quietly. Start somewhere.

Remember that your circumstances are not the foundation of your happiness; God is. By focusing on circumstances, we make others responsible for our joy. Others must behave in a certain way in order for us to be at peace. If, on the other hand, we’re able to focus on what Christ has done, we find ourselves rooted in something more stable. Root your emotions in your relationship with Christ, especially in times of uncertainty. This change in perspective may be the key to moving us from hard-heartedness to whole-heartedness.

Is there room for divorce within a Christian worldview? Yes. When infidelity happens, the trust that is broken may be irreparable. When there is abuse, it is both our right and responsibility to remove ourselves from the abuser (some boundaries are holy; this is one of them). When others are acting immorally or illegally it is an act of mercy and maturity to hold them responsible for that. To let a person persist unchallenged in their sin is not healthy for either of you.

We will also get divorced for reasons that aren’t so noble or clear-cut but even then, we must remember that divorce — while it is not God’s best for us — is not the unforgivable sin. We can rebuild, restore and become new people as we forgive and take responsibility. Even when we miss out on God’s best, we remember that we are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are people who sin in the hands of a merciful God.

Praise God for grace enough to cover all of it — the good, the bad and the painful.

 

* They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” — Matthew 19:7-9

Read More

The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century here, a logic that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

Liberalism also minimizes (or squelches) any evangelistic urgency. This shows up in our current UMC conversations as American UM Christians debate the importance of an African connection. Some would say that unless he is Christ for the whole world, he is Christ for none of it. Others would say that African theology is as “local” as African culture.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant. The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

Read More

Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, King David sends for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place in this Old Testament story where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

Welcomed, not as a servant but as a friend.

In that scene, Jesus says to us also, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are, loved as you are.”

Transformation will come in the nourishing, of course (we are Methodists, after all, who believe sanctification is the other half of salvation). But transformation begins with an invitation to the table. Come as you are.

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. Isn’t that exactly what he did for me? For you? After the resurrection, he showed up to this woman who would have been an outcast in her world, once crippled by demons. He showed up to her and her circle, and to those guys walking down a road toward their house in Emmaus. The story says, “He was known in the breaking of the bread.” He was known at the table, in the conversation, in the moment.

Jesus came bearing the inestimable power of friendship. He comes bearing a rare kindness, for the sake of the Father, saying things like, ““Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. ”“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.”

Friendship is the gift of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as friend, and invites us to befriend people in authentic ways. This is how the gospel gets rooted. It gets rooted in the soil of community and it bears the fruit of friendship.

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

Read More

Cheap Kings, Fake Lords and the Crucifixion

We were made for God. In our unfallen state, it is a perfect fit. Somewhere early on in the history of the world, however, we decided we’d rather be our own masters. We rebelled against, pushed against, rejected the plans of (design of) the God who loves us, and began making our own gods.

Humanity has had this propensity nearly as long as we’ve existed. By the time the Ten Commandments were delivered, idol worship was enough of a problem to deserve a prime spot in the list. Commandment #1: You shall have no other gods before me. You don’t have to say things like that to people who never choose other gods. By its presence and prominence, we can assume this was an issue, has always been an issue, is still an issue. Our preference given our fallen tendencies is to choose gods of our own making. Tim Keller writes some terrific stuff about this (look up Counterfeit Gods).

The very act of the crucifixion says so much about this conflicted relationship we have with God, how far God will go to prove his love and Lordship, and how far humans will go to avoid surrendering to that love and Lordship. We have a spiritual problem that we chronically attempt to fix with a physical solution. We think, “If I can just be my own master, then I can find my own fix.”

The great irony is that we put God on a cross but keep our sins to ourself. And yet, the cross is such a beautiful invitation to believe that God on the cross is God for us (Keller says until we believe that, we won’t have courage to deal with our idols). It is an invitation, as Oswald Chambers has said, to press into the crucified flesh of Jesus everything that breeds death with the assurance that Jesus will carry those things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss but freedom and life.

Write this question down and deal with it: What things in my life need to be pressed into the death of Jesus? What parts of me have more in common with death than life? What inferior gods and nagging demons, what things that need to die, am I dragging around when the best thing I could do for myself is press them into the crucifixion? Because “this Jesus whom we crucified” has power even while he is on the cross and this Jesus whom we crucified offers to take our place at the point of death. Because you see, while sin-carrying is death for us, it is victory in the flesh of Jesus.

Hear this: Christ alone has power over the things that breed death in us.

Resurrection invites us to stand up again (the Greek word literally means “to stand up again”). The principle of resurrection says that if I will press the things that breed death into the flesh of the crucified Jesus then when he is resurrected, when he stands up again, I can stand up again, too. I can be resurrected, too, even if I’ve found myself in a valley again, spiritually poor again, stuck again, idolizing again, going around that same tired mountain again, living that insanity of doing the same things again and again … looking for a physical fix for a spiritual problem. Even if I am there again, the crucifixion invites me to press my tired, dead “again” into the cross of Jesus, so I can stand up again inside the resurrection of Jesus.

Earlier this year, I broke through into another spiritual place. Before it happened, sensing a breakthrough but not there yet was a painful place to be. I hoped I was right. I trusted God. But man, that pressure when you’re right up against that moment of spiritual breakthrough can be pretty intense. You may have felt it before yourself, even if you didn’t know what to call it.

On a Monday morning, I got my breakthrough. I was on my knees, actually, and I heard the Lord ask me to stand up again, just like resurrection. I heard the Lord inviting me to place a part of myself under his care. I heard him invite me into healing. He showed me how I’d been protecting that broken piece of me, trying to accommodate it while I lived my life. And I could see how trying to run my life on two tracks at once, just how impossible that is. I needed to hand some broken part of me over to Jesus and let him be Lord. Such freedom!

In that moment, Jesus had just invited me to press into his crucified flesh something that was breeding death, with the assurance that Jesus will carry the things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss, but freedom and life.

My friend, you now have that same power to stand up again even if you’ve been knocked down. You now have the power to tell your idols, all those cheap kings and fake lords, to submit to the one Power who wants to bring you from death to life and can bring you from death to life. Because Jesus is Lord, you now have the power God has to break through barriers and begin again.

Read More

How to live like Jesus is Lord

So much of what we teach is all the don’t’s of Christianity. You know, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t dance with the girls who do.” But Jesus didn’t come for the don’t’s. Christ isn’t just a fast from sin; he is a feast of truth and grace.

The Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This longing we have for something more is a longing for a wedding feast, for new wine, for a new beginning. It is a longing for what we’re made for. It is a longing for truth … for life.

The story is true, my friends! Jesus is worthy! The cross is glorious! The good news is worth believing! The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof. Are you living as if all this is true? Are you living as if Jesus really is Lord?

How to live like Jesus is Lord:

Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable religion. Some of us actually crave dead religion. We want to be okay with sitting in a church building once a week and calling that Christian. But folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! He is moving in power all over the world right now. He is revealing himself to non-believers, and creating miracles in spiritually dry places. It is time to join him. It is time to toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never coming back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die so you can begin to live like Jesus is Lord.

Learn to feast. Psalm 22 and 23 are some of my favorite places in scripture. These two psalms contain the essence of the Good News of the New Testament. Psalm 22 contains the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. This is the scene of Jesus taking on our sin and dying our death. This is Good Friday.

Then Psalm 23 takes us through Saturday, that dark time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It walks us through the valley of shadows, the valley of death. But it points us toward a rise on the other side of that valley where there is a table set by God himself: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality. This is a song of death and resurrection.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago. It happened while I was sitting in the chapel of our church. Every Wednesday we offered communion there. I was the pastor who served communion for those services. Steve usually came and I specifically remember one week when he came to take communion. It had been a hard week for him. He is a teacher, and it seemed like that week he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough time.

So as he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing our table in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. I thought to myself, “Here it is, being lived out right in front of me!” God had invited Steve to a feast. In the face of so many enemies, he was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side, and on yours and mine.

This is the feast being set before us. It is a feast of truth and grace. And this is what it means to get a feast mentality: It is to set your face toward that table while you’re still in the valley and trust that the story is true even when life is hard.

Get a resurrection mindset. Resurrection is the center of the good news about Jesus Christ. And now, with that power firmly established in the Kingdom of God and with Jesus as our bridge God is able to confidently say to all humanity, “It is finished! He has done it! You now have the power I have to break through barriers and begin again.” And that message is not exclusively for Easter. That message is for us. This is our story now. Because the resurrection is true, we now have access to this same infinite power that is stronger than even death itself. When we talk about “begin again” religion, which is what Jesus preached, we’re talking about the kind of life that goes through death. We’re talking about transformation. We now have the power to bring everything out into the light and then put everything that isn’t eternal to death … so we can really live.

This is the good news! Those who are in Jesus never die. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It is to proclaim with Peter: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And to believe that by claiming that, I am tethering myself to a power greater than sin, greater than death, greater than darkness.

A resurrection mindset can change the world, and can certainly change your world. I’m praying for you as you enter this season beyond Easter Sunday, that you will embrace the resurrection of Jesus Christ as your permission to live wholeheartedly into the life he has designed just for you.

Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Hallelujah!

Read More

Jesus is Lord over death.

I’m inspired by this. I’m energized by this. Our hope is built on this: After the blood flowed and the body of Jesus was laid in that tomb…

…after the verdict was pronounced over his body — “Death!”…

…after the stone was rolled over the entrance and the guards were posted…

…Jesus — in his body — tore down the door of hell, walked through it to the other side. Jesus kicked down the ultimate barrier that stood between humanity and eternity. Death no longer has any sting.

Because of Jesus.

For us, this is an unfathomable gift. This changes everything. Because he was raised to life after death, I can have life after death. Jesus now holds that power. Because he has conquered the one thing all humans most fear, we can live fearlessly even in the face of death itself. What a profoundly relevant truth! If I have no fear of death, then what can I accomplish in this life? If I’m not afraid of death, then what has power over me?

Jesus has all the power!

This is the big message of the Bible. There is power in the name of Jesus and in no other name. When Peter, the disciple of Jesus, finally and fully internalizes this truth and preaches his first sermon, this is his bottom-line point: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Peter makes it plain that the one his enemies crucified not only lives but lives in power. Carries power. Jesus, having conquered his own crucifixion, now lives as both Messiah and Lord, both savior and sanctifier.

Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become human and lived a sinless human life. He was and is all God, all human, fulfilling hundreds of prophecies written hundreds of years before he came. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the Old Testament system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for to arrest him. They accused him of blasphemy because he claimed to be God.

This Jesus, whom you crucified …

This Jesus has become both savior and sanctifier. This Jesus now has power to conquer everything in us that breeds death. Sanctification is about allowing the Holy Spirit to lead as he flows through us, sending us toward life — toward perfect love, perfect joy, perfect peace. We believe Christian perfection (or entire sanctification) is the trajectory of authentic discipleship. John Wesley claimed full sanctification as the unique contribution of Methodism to the Body of Christ, that we were given to this call, to raise up a people dedicated to taking faith to the radical edge. Kevin Watson goes so far as to say that if we are not teaching and preaching the doctrine of entire sanctification, we are taking up a needless division in the Body of Christ.

Entire sanctification is our answer to a God who has entirely conquered death. If Jesus has power over death, then I by taking Jesus as Lord now have power over all my unholy desires, all my broken parts, all of my fallen nature. I have power to place all of it in submission to the Lordship of Jesus, expecting his perfection to reign in me. Perfection is a radical expectation and yet we are called to this by the very cravings of God. Be perfect, Jesus says, like your Father is (Mt. 5:48). And how is our Father perfect? In the ways he loves. In the ways he gives. In the ways he keeps his heart open.

This is where holiness begins. It begins in the heart. Whether you are in the midst of vocational ministry or just trying to follow Jesus in your work as a banker, I cannot stress enough the importance of setting the trajectory of your life and work toward Christian perfection. Whether you reach that high and lofty goal or not is not the point. I’m not even concerned with whether you think it is possible. What matters is where you are headed.

I can promise you this: Jesus is Lord over death. In your response to life, in the practice of your faith, in the framing of your hopes and plans, are you headed toward death, or toward life?

Read More