A portrait of world-changing faith

The poster child for faith in the Bible is Abraham. Others had it, too, but Abraham’s faith isn’t momentary faith; this is monumental faith. This is world-changing faith. Abraham’s faith is centered not on people or preferences but on the person of God.

In other words, it is Person-centered, not people-centered. Abraham’s story has a lot to teach us about a kind of faith that is God-centered.

Faith is a kind of self-giving love. Ahahah is a Hebrew word for a kind of self-giving love. Literally, it means “I give.” The first time this word for love is used in the Old Testament is in this story of Abraham and Isaac, when the writer describes Abraham’s love for his son. Self-giving love is powerful when combined with God-honoring trust.

Faith binds us. Another Hebrew word in the story of Abraham and Isaac is akedah. The word means “binding” and it’s the word they use when they talk about binding Isaac to the altar. It teaches us that sometimes faith happens when we lay something on the altar and trust God with the questions.

Faith is not passive. It is not waiting for things to change without us having to do anything. To the contrary, God defines faith as movement. James taught that faith without works is dead.

Faith is a grace. God gives faith. It isn’t something we generate in order to get God’s attention. It is something God offers as a gift. Knowing that, faith ought to be something we pray for regularly. “Lord, give me more faith.”

Faith is a mature choice. It begins with my own decision to act like an adult so I can walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the valleys toward Jesus.

Faith exposes the great moves of God and links us to the promises of God. Abrahamic faith watches for the great moves of God and goes after them. If I want to see God’s promises before they happen, I’m going to need a faith that will hold me between the high points.

Faith invites us to “act as if.” This is a mark of faith that circumcision signaled in the story of Abraham. It was a sign that God’s people were welcome to go ahead and act as if they were a mighty nation even before the first child was born. “Act as if” faith is a display of confidence that even when we don’t see how the lines will be drawn, God is at work.

Faith is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. Which is to say that faith incorporates another dimension, making it a higher form of knowing.

Faith is the opposite of fear. Perfect love casts out fear, and faith connects us to that perfect love.

Faith teaches me who I am. But faith is not “I” centered. In fact, it helps us to get past the “I’s.” When we trust God, we are no longer tempted to defend ourselves. We let God have his job back.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me. Faith is about accepting the power of Jesus into our lives and walking that journey together with Jesus.

Faith has a “ram in the bush” mentality. It is the mentality that places all our hopes in the most creative being in the universe, who can take any circumstance we’re in and make good out of it.

Faith responds, “Here I am.” Three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac, we find the response: “Here I am.” It is the same response Moses gives when God calls to him from the burning bush. And it is the same response Isaiah gives when he comes into the unhindered presence of God. This is the response of greatness and it always leads us toward our created design, never away from it.

Faithfulness breeds blessings. Not necessarily blessing the way we’d define it, but blessing the way the Creator of the universe defines it, who wants to expose the greatness in us, who wants to see our influence ripple through generations, not just moments, who wants to raise dead things and redeem relationships and restore purpose and health.

Mature faith breeds blessings that change the world. Abraham is proof.

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Abrahamic faith and the UMC

This message was delivered this week at the organizational meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group poised to advocate for a strong, orthodox, Spirit-led, global movement of United Methodists. I post this here as an invitation for you to join us in Chicago on October 7th.

Abraham and Isaac stun me. Because I’m a parent.

I have one daughter, and I am fairly convinced she is the one who hung the moon. If you’re a parent, you get this. Parents have a kind of insanity when it comes to our kids. We will take a bullet for them without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. We will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch our child up and take him home without breaking a sweat. We’ll go without food if it means she will get a better education.

Our children can make the worst possible mistake, but the next time they cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us they’d rather spend an evening with us than their friends, parental amnesia sets in. The slate wipes clean. In a way, it is like being possessed. A parent’s love is different. It is fierce. So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him … well, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what real faith looks like.

No other story more vividly paints what God is asking of us when he asks us to have no other gods before him. No other story makes so plain what God means when he tells us to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. Because Abraham is possessed. He is a hundred-year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. He has parental insanity. And knowing that … knowing what he is asking of this man … God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into something great. You will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together and to you it may feel like the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

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

Can I say that again? Faith is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it. 

This is the brand of faith God is asking of Abraham when he tells him to kill his son and burn the boy’s body. And after you’re given those kinds of instructions, there isn’t a whole lot left to be said. Abraham takes his son and a couple of servants and begins climbing that mountain. For three days they walk together.

Can you imagine what that walk must have felt like for a man who waited decades for a boy of his own? Who would take a bullet for his son? Who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to make an affirmation of faith. This is a far, far cry from, “Please stand and turn in your hymnals to #881…” This is different. This faith has the quality of gold in fire. This is the quality of faith on which God wants to build a people. Isaac wonders just where the sacrifice is coming from and Abraham, with the full weight of mature, history-shaping faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and proclaims: “The Lord himself will provide.”

The Lord will provide.

With that line, Abraham shows us the difference between a people-centered faith and a Person-centered faith. Abraham walks with his son, but he trusts in God.

Brothers and sisters, I have to confess that it has taken me a while to be able to stand among my peers and say to you that I want to walk with you while I trust in God. And I have to confess this because a few of you know where my heart has been. Somewhere along the way (I am pretty sure it was the Tampa General Conference) I misplaced my heart for the United Methodist Church. That General Conference was the first time I’d heard the proposal that maybe American Methodists ought to separate from the rest of the world for the sake of better accommodating the culture. I could not fathom not being part of a global church, so I decided that the day the U.S. broke off from the global church I would cease to be a United Methodist. That was my line in the sand.

Isn’t it ironic that the enemy of the global church is universalism? Which I suspect is the root of all our other issues.

The global church was my line and so for four years I have been looking for an exit door. I was pretty sure I’d find it at this year’s General Conference but then that thing happened that no one expected.

God showed up at General Conference, and it was the global church that exposed Him.

On the Sunday after General Conference was over — as I began to synthesize the pieces of that historic gathering — it dawned me with a heavy contrition that God might actually care about the global Body of Christ and God might even care about the place of the United Methodist Church within the Body of Christ. And most humbling of all, it dawned on me that God might have done a new thing in that Body and I didn’t see it coming.

I am confessing that I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert. It never occurred to me that there might be a ram in the bush. I had to repent and I had to lay my exit door up on the altar. Instead of looking for a door out, I had to look for where the gap is in my own faith that has kept me from being able to see the great moves of God.

Now, I am not blind to the things that have happened since General Conference but I have come to suspect that maybe God’s heart breaks for things I’m not even praying about yet. And maybe this is why God has me walking up that mountain with Abraham. It is to remind me that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. I won’t get to the mind of Christ with people-centered faith.

Those of us who work for renewal within our denomination do so because we believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Hear me: we love people! We are passionate about the things that break God’s heart and people in need of mercy break God’s heart. But to have anything at all of value to offer to people — any people — we have to go through the heart of God. Otherwise, we’ll land short of the Kingdom.

This is the brilliance of Abraham’s brand of faith. He is unwilling, even for the suffering required, to stop short of the call of God. He isn’t willing to make choices rooted in emotion, comfort or convenience. There is no “spare sheep” in his backpack, no “contingency ram” in the trunk of his car. If he wants to get to the ram in the bush, he has to walk all the way up that mountain with his boy.

At the top of that mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together. We all know Isaac is a young man at this point (not a little boy) and his father is at least 120. Isaac could have muscled his way out of this if he’d wanted to. But Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God and not on personal tastes.

Isaac is not about to let go. He is in this until God shows up, walking with his father but trusting God.

That’s the sacrifice. What Abraham and Isaac lay up on that altar is their glorious faith. It is their faith they are about to set on fire! And I don’t know what would have happened if it had gone up in flames, but it didn’t. In the last moment, just as Abraham raises his knife against his own child, God calls to him. “Abraham, I see your faith,” God cries out. “I see your faith! I see that you fear God, that you’ve withheld nothing from me. All I ask is that you worship me with all your heart!”

And so they do. Abraham and Isaac together pull a ram from its place in a thicket and they offer it to the Lord, calling upon his name: Jehovah Jireh. The Lord Provides. And Abraham declares: “On the mount of the Lord, it shall be provided.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is how it goes in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To love people we have to love God more. To save anything, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

And this summer, since General Conference and living in community with my people, this is where God has had me. He has had me steeping in questions inspired by the father of our faith. These questions seem like a good place to begin as we consider the future — where God is taking us as a church, as pastors, as followers of Jesus, as the people of God:

Is your faith Person-centered or people-centered? Do you need to repent at any level for practicing people-centered faith?

What about the quality of your faith? Do you have ram-in-the-bush faith? Do you have faith enough to see the great moves of God?

What are the deepest earthly concerns you need to lay down so there is nothing left between you and Jesus?

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Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are … because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that actually are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t ultimately valued by its source. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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Act as if … (how to start up a stalled life)

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.” 

This was a line in an email from a greatly loved one who feels her life has stalled. She is discovering that it really is true: being stuck is a painful place to be.

In the recovery community, we often hear people say, “Act as if.” It is a reminder that we are not limited by our present reality. We don’t have to stay stuck. We can act as if what we want in life can happen, especially if we are willing to be patient and let God do his work.

We “act as if” more often than we might admit. I do this every morning when I get out of bed to go to the gym. I am not naturally a morning person (in fact, I’m not naturally a vertical person). I am not that person who bounces out of bed full of energy at the crack of dawn, ready to get on with her day. Not naturally. I am definitely not that person who loves to exercise.

Who I am is someone who loves sleep, who loves a good cup of coffee, who loves to stay in her morning chair for two hours. That’s who I am. But who I want to be is someone who doesn’t have a ton of health issues in her later life. I want to be that person who is disciplined enough to care for this temple God has given her, and who is up and moving early enough to care for this temple and still have time for God (and a shower) before the day begins

So every morning, what gets me out of bed is not the person I am but the person I want to be. When it comes to my health and schedule, I have learned to “act as if.”

The same holds true with my personal time with God — the time I devote completely to hearing from and worshiping him. The discipline of personal worship and spiritual growth isn’t natural.   If it were, none of us would have a problem getting to it every day.

I don’t make time with God because it comes naturally and easily; I make time because I don’t want to get stuck in my spiritual life, because I want to my relationship with God to mature, because I want more than what comes naturally. I’m learning to act as if I am spiritually disciplined, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Discipline — especially spiritual discipline — is not intuitive. It is the daily work of being there even when I don’t feel like it. It is the practice of my gifts over time so that I begin to see results.

The fruit of a disciplined life doesn’t appear overnight. It happens over time. 

One of the things that helps me is remembering that everything is a process. There are very few “events” in the spiritual journey. Most people are not healed immediately. Most problems are not solved in a moment. Most of the time it is a process of healing, a process of walking through the valley, a discipline of trusting the rod and staff that guide us toward the feast on the other side.

We may have no ability to imagine that feast, but we trust the Guide so we act as if

Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if the deal is done, even if it is still under construction.

This is the very invitation given to Abraham, who was invited to act as if he was the father of a great nation long before his first child was born. Noah was invited to act as if there would be a flood before the first drop of rain fell. That moment when Jesus stood on Peter’s faith and proclaimed that this kind of faith would be the very thing on which the Church of Jesus Christ would stand happened long before Peter took authority over his own call and stood to preach the good news.

All of these men were invited to act as if … and at the time of the invitation none of them had yet achieved any great faith or great fruit. Their God-given identity came on the front end, based not on their potential but on God’s character …

Their stories are our encouragement. This is how our God tends to work. He invites us to display confidence in his promises even before we see how the lines will be drawn. He invites us into change, even when it is hard, because  long before we understand him God is at work.

God is making good on his promises. God is faithful. Act as if that is true.

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