Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

The playwright Murray Watts tells the story of a young man who was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but was paralyzed with fear at the very thought of having to admit to being a Christian. The idea of telling anyone about his faith and being called a religious nutcase scared him to death.

For weeks he tried to run from these new thoughts of God, but it was no use. It was like once he got a taste of it, he saw it everywhere and heard it in every sound. It was Jesus repeating over and over again: “Follow me.”

Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer. He went to a very old man who had been a Christian for a very long time. He told him of this terrible burden of hearing the voice of Christ calling him to be a witness and how the very thought of having to talk about Jesus to someone else stopped him from becoming a Christian.

The old man just shook his head. “This is a matter between you and Christ,” he said, “Why bring all these other people into it? Go home,” said the old man. “Go into your bedroom alone. Forget the world. Forget your family. Forget these ideas of what you think it is going to do to you, how you think it will compromise your quality of life, and make it a secret between you and God.”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You mean, I don’t have to tell anyone?”

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

No one had ever given the young man that choice before. “Are you sure? Can this be right?”

And the old man said, “It is right for you.”

So the young man went home, knelt in prayer and completely surrendered himself to Christ, after which he immediately (filled with such joy) ran down the stairs, into the kitchen, and exclaimed to his wife, father and three friends, “Do you realize it is possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?”

And the moral of the story is: No, it is not possible. How can a person be hit with the transformational power of Jesus without wanting to talk about it? Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, our first response will be to witness to his power (Acts 1:8).

When Jews write out the first sentence of the shema (the most important verse of the Jewish scriptures, which begins, “Hear, O Israel ..”), they make two letters bigger than the rest: the first letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word. Put those two letters together and you get the Hebrew word for “witness.”

Let that sink in.

What do witnesses do? They tell the story. Embedded in the shema is the logical follow-through to hearing. What you’ve heard, what you embrace, you give witness to. And then we’re told how. We do it by absorbing this truth, making it part of us — so much a part of us that we naturally, normally talk about it. We teach it to our kids. We talk about God at home and on the road. God becomes so much a part of us that it is like he is tattooed on our foreheads and posted on our doors so that whether we’re talking or not, people around us hear it coming out of our lives.

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

The shema teaches us God’s story, the story that transforms us. Until we own our own stories of search-and-rescue, of rescue and redemption, it will sound fake and unnatural when we try to talk about it. When we own our own story, we won’t be able to restrain ourselves. It just comes out.

Does your life speak? Not just in the way you treat the waitress in a restaurant, but more obviously … in the ways your love for God naturally flows into your conversations? This is an important question because it has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person. That’s how the Kingdom comes.

Let me say that again: It has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person.

How do the people around you experience your faith in Christ? Do you care about what happens to them when they die? I know that sounds so … you know … Baptist … but what if Baptists are onto something here? What if authentic faith is supposed to manifest as a compulsion of caring for others’ eternity? Have you yet developed a natural habit of talking about God? Maybe these tips will get you started toward sharing your story, once you’ve owned it:

1. If you feel uncomfortable, you can say so. You just tell a person, “It isn’t always easy for me to put my faith into words, but I do it because nothing has changed me more.” And then just tell them how. Tell them who you were before you knew Jesus, what happened to make the change, and who you are now that you follow Jesus. It is that simple.

2. You can use your own words. You don’t have to know all the right biblical terms or have all the right answers. In fact, one of the most powerful things you can say to someone is “I don’t know.” It lets them know you’re real.

3. You can leave the results to God. My friend Bob Tuttle says it takes about 25 different witnesses before a real encounter with God takes place. If you are numbers 1 through 24, you are just as important as number 25 because until you give your witness, the next person can’t give theirs. Learn to see yourself as part of the bigger picture, and learn to do your part.

Brothers and sisters, learn to tell your story of following Jesus in a normal, honest way and let God be concerned with the results.

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From ego to awe

Developmentally, we are designed to move from ego to awe.

In our most immature state, our task is to figure out who we are as separate beings from our mothers. Our mental time is spent understanding our autonomy, which makes us highly self-conscious. As we develop, we move from self-consciousness to simple self-awareness — understanding our place within the context around us. From there we move to awareness, thinking less of self and more of our surroundings. At our most mature, we are self-forgetful as we practice the gift of awe — seeing the holy in and around every situation. From this place of awe — of worship — we have the most to offer the world.*

This is a map of spiritual maturity. This process of moving from self-consciousness to awareness of the world around us to a holy awareness of God’s presence is what Methodists might call sanctification. It is the process of “holy-fying” our thoughts and of becoming more intimately connected to God as we see him exposed in the world. He becomes our focus.

Of course, we don’t move in clean lines from immaturity to maturity. We all know adults who still relate to the world from a very self-conscious place — constantly self-referencing in conversations and tagging every moment with an internal question: “What’s in it for me?” This is the consumer’s question. “Where is God?” is the question of a giver — one who is other-focused. To advance from self-consciousness to worship requires to us to move from “What’s in it for me?” to “Where is God?” And this is a move many of us desperately need to make.

Our culture has trained us to be consumers. We tend to look at everything, even worship, as a “what’s in it for me?” proposition. The lie of this world is that we can consume our way to significance, but the truth is that material consumption only creates more emptiness. That question, “What’s in it for me?” only makes us want more.

Meanwhile, worship (or holy awe) leads to fulfillment. When we go vertical, we find life, even abundant life, according to Jesus (John 10:10). Tish Warren references the “abundant economy of worship.” It is the idea that worship is the one thing that never runs out. Start with everything else, and worship will get our leftovers. Start with worship and it will overflow and fill everything else with meaning and significance.

Worship asks one thing of us: It asks us to move from ego to awe. The pay-off for that shift is a life of abundance, a life overflowing in fullness and fruitfulness. When I make this shift from ego to awe — and only when I make this shift — I am rightly postured for the work of witnessing. David paints this poetically in Psalm 96. He begins this majestic hymn with worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, praise his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!”

David begins with worship before calling the reader in verse three to declare God’s glory — the same glory we’ve just personally experienced — to the nations. David teaches us that if we want to find God’s heart for the lost, we must begin by developing our own holy awe. We must see the glory for ourselves first. He calls us upward, inviting us to become so overwhelmed by the things of God that we can’t help but want to proclaim them among the nations.

When we cultivate a holy awe, our witness will flow out of our worship.

Steven Cole quotes John Piper, who begins one of his books on missions by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man … The goal of missions is the gladness of the people in the greatness of God.”

Cole says worship is not just the goal of missions, but the basis for it. He says, “If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.”

The rhythm of Psalm 96 moves us between worship and witness. Our worship propels us out “to the nations,” to places hungering to worship the one, true God. When we get there, we proclaim His glory and our witness inspires others to worship our God. And the rhythm continues. Worship leads to witness leads to worship. Holy rhythm.

All this is to say: Missions and evangelism are not a function of self-fulfillment or empathy. They don’t exist to satisfy our own deep longings (“What’s in it for me?”) or because we have connected with the suffering of others (“What is around me?”).

Missions and evangelism exist as the overflow of hearts engaged in the holy awe of a glorious God who is worthy to be praised.

What if you spent today practicing holy awe, forgetful of self and searching in every situation for the glory of God?

 

*I learned this from Dr. Marilyn Elliott, Vice-President of Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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The shoulders on which I stand

Some of history’s more interesting Christian movements have been initiated by women. Consider these ten women, some from within the Methodist movement and some from beyond it.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was the founder of the Four Square movement. Myrtle Dorthea Beall (1894-1979) started Bethesda Temple in Detroit. According to the Victoria United Methodist Church website, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York and a planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition. Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice. During her first incarceration, she wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17).”

Hannah More (1745-1833), far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls, was a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for the education of girls. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four-thousand sisters as her legacy upon death, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, Fathers, lay missionaries and volunteers.

Several husband-wife teams birthed significant movements. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Catherine Booth (1829-1890) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) all capitalized on exceptional partnerships with their husbands. Palmer and Booth were both Methodists who defected from that movement to start their own. Catherine Booth was the co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army. Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. Palmer was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission. Smith and her husband were prominent leaders in an interdenominational movement, though she was definitely the more well recognized and received of the two. Hannah Whitall Smith went on to become a writer, her most widely read book being The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, which sold two million copies initially and is still in publication today.

John Wesley found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and conduct evangelism. Raised by a strong and outspoken mother, Wesley was never able to embrace a complete ban of women from the pulpit. He would say they ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.’’ Nonetheless, Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. Long before the more recent vote in the Methodist Church to ordain women as pastors (According to the United Methodist Church website, the Methodist Church gave full clergy rights to women in 1956, when Maud Keister Jensen was ordained an elder), women were actively preaching the gospel and extending the movement called Methodism. In 1787, Wesley would bless Sarah Mallet (1764-1846) to preach as long as “she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept” (UMC website).

My favorite? This one: in 1866, Helenor Alter Davisson (1823-1876) became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church in America. Her journey toward ordination began in 1863 when she was recommended — over some objection — to the Indiana Conference as a candidate for ministry, at which time she was considered fit to preach the gospel “or at least a small work.” Ordained or not, Davisson had already proven herself capable of bearing fruit for the Kingdom. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove (Shoemaker 6). A second congregation was planted in the Barkley Township, making the first woman to be ordained in the American Methodist Church also the first woman to plant a church.

Be encouraged, my sisters. It is in the DNA of Methodist women to do a new thing.

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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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 a tolerate-hate relationship with nail 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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Why I Will Go To Church On Christmas

Watch for it: a plethora of opinions will be published this month both in support and in defiance of churches holding “church” on Christmas day. Because Christmas happens to be on a Sunday this year, many churches will choose not to have services that day. They will highlight the need to honor their volunteers and staff by not making them show up on this family-oriented holiday, or they may encourage their members to do something missional instead. Or they may just say unapologetically that when Christmas falls on a Sunday, church can’t happen. Its just too much.

I honor all those choices. I would even say that depending on the context, opting out is a valid choice.

I’m confident that those who choose to stay home on Christmas day have solid reasons for it. It can’t be easy to juggle traditions, church responsibilities and sheer tiredness from all that leads up to the big day. I get it.

Be that as it may, I’ll be in church on Christmas morning and while my reasons may not work for everyone, these are the reasons that work for me.

  1. Our whole message centers around the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We get two days a year to really bring home that message: Christmas and Easter. When Christmas and Sunday fall on the same day, I am not less likely but more likely to show up because I worship Jesus and I want to honor the day the honors him.
  2. Jesus has asked me in a hundred different ways in the Old and New Testaments to give my Sabbath to him. I actually think of it as a great gift to be able to go into the House of the Lord and worship him in a season when so much else points toward the secular. Even as a pastor, I count Sunday morning as part of my Sabbath. Yes, I “work,” but I do so willingly … enthusiastically even. I have learned to worship as I lead, so I count the worship of Christmas day as a high and holy privilege.
  3. Where I am physically on Sunday will say something to the people around me. Again, this isn’t for everyone; this is just me. But I don’t want my family to hear that Jesus matters … but not more than the gifts we bought or the “family feeling” of Christmas morning.
  4. I love my family a lot, but they didn’t rise from the dead for me. On Christmas morning, I’ll be sitting in the house of the One who loved me so much that He gave His only Son. And I will preach the good news about the Messiah as if it is the most important present any of us will ever receive.

It may well be that your family travels on Christmas day, or meets with a loved one who is not able to get out. What a blessing that you have that time to give. Don’t let my reasons get confused with your circumstances. My reasons may not even be good reasons but they are my reasons. I will be in church on Christmas Sunday, worshiping and adoring Jesus, the Christ. If your life allows, I hope you’ll be there, too. Then there will be at least two of us, and Jesus says where two or three are gathered …

O come, let us adore Him!

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Lord, bend us.

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

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

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

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

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

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

Lord, bend us.

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

Lord, bend us.

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

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

Lord, bend us!

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Jesus is a friend of sinners (and Jesus is a friend of mine).

I’m thinking about a first-century gathering. Jesus is at somebody’s house and he is laughing. It is a deep belly laugh. Someone has just said something (maybe about the irony of Levi the tax collector hanging out with a spiritual teacher) and Jesus thinks its funny.

And it is kind of funny how people end up at a table with Jesus. They come in all kinds of ways, as many ways as there are people. Sometimes they come broken, and sometimes — like Levi, who learned from the best of them how to cheat people out of money — they don’t realize what they’ve been missing until Jesus shows up.

This gathering at someone’s house is news. It is odd that it would be news that Jesus is eating at dinner with friends; nonetheless, the religious leaders have someone looking in on this little gathering to see who’s there. They count heads and take names and go back to their people to report what they see. “Jesus is at Levi’s house,” they say.

And eyes roll.

“The food is not kosher. These people are not ceremonially clean. I doubt any of them could quote from the holy scriptures.”

More eye rolling.

That’s how people with a religious spirit do it. They judge everything so it is almost impossible to be okay by their standards.

Jesus does not get their standards. He just doesn’t get it. And when they call him out on it — when they call him on these picky little charges, like meeting with sinners — he says, “It’s like you’re treating a hangnail when a person has cancer. Where is the grace for what is? Don’t you see that when I go into these gatherings, I’m not looking for students to grade. I’m looking for friends to walk with.”

And with friends (you can just hear Jesus say it) you start with what is.

Four times in three verses, Mark mentions that Jesus is at this gathering with sinners. When a word is repeated in the Bible, pay attention. When it is mentioned four times, it means something: Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Which means that Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners.

That is great news for us, but a problem for people with the wrong attitude toward sin. People with a religious spirit don’t just have a problem with sinners. They have a problem with saviors, too. Some people have a problem with how Jesus chooses to solve problems. He doesn’t do it by ignoring sin, nor does he do it by running from sin. He does it by leaning in.

In response to our sin, God leaned in. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him and Isaiah 61 tells us God did it this way for the sake of poor, bound-up captives. People imprisoned by all manner of brokenness. Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people and fed a lot of hungry people.

And Jesus ate with sinners.

The whole time he was showing the mercy and compassion of God, he preached this good news about how redemption works. It is God leaning in, being unafraid of our demons, our diseases, our sicknesses, our poor spiritual sight. Over all our sin, Jesus pronounced the Kingdom of God, inviting us to enter in and be forgiven of our sins and made holy by a sinless sacrifice.

Jesus was that sinless sacrifice. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the old system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus willingly gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for — who peeked in on his small groups and judged him for leaning in and letting people start where they are — to arrest him, because he called his brand of compassion the very holiness of God.

And that is the Jesus who invited a group of sinners to sit around in a circle with him to enjoy each other and to find their redemption not in who they were but in who he is. Which means we are forgiven of everything we’re not … because of everything Jesus is.

Hallelujah.

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What’s true in the world

Are these things true?

This was the question asked of Stephen, one of the followers of Jesus who served the first century church. Those who asked were antagonistic toward the movement and had seized Stephen because he was one of the more outspoken of the believers.

saint-stephen-the-martyrStephen, knowing the danger of the situation, answered by telling them everything he knew to be true about Jesus.

His answer was beautiful, a perfectly worded account of the gospel from Genesis to John.

And his answer got him stoned to death. Christians now commemorate his martyrdom in the days just after Christmas.

When we interview for staff positions at Mosaic –whether it is for a childcare worker or a ministry director — we ask candidates to share the good news with us in about three minutes. I am surprised at the number of people applying for work in a church who can’t do it. I think I know why.

It is because most folks have never had to. Most of us have never been required to articulate in our own words what it is we say we believe in.

Brothers and sisters, the gospel deserves our attention — first of all, because we claim to believe it, and second, because one day we may find ourselves having to answer the question, “Are these things true?” Lives hang in the answer to that question. Families in Nigeria are being displaced from their homes because of how they answered that question. Asia Bibi and Imran Ghafur have been in jail in Pakistan for seven years, awaiting trial for “crimes against Islam,” because of how they answer that question. Christians are leaving their homes in Iraq and Syria because of how they answer that question. Families are being torn in two because of how they answer that question. Surely we owe it if not to ourselves then to those people who stand their ground when asked how they answer that question to have a reasonable answer of our own.

Are these things true?

Do you remember the dramatic rescue of thirty-three men who were trapped in a mine in Chile a few years ago? For seventeen days, it was believed that all thirty-three were dead, until somehow they got word to the surface that they were all alive. Not just some, but all.

For the next fifty-two days, that little group of men became an international fixation as the world watched their survival and rescue. They were coached in the art of survival, taught how to discipline their days so they could maintain sanity while they waited for those on the surface to figure out a rescue plan.

Eventually, a plan was devised and the rescues commenced. Do you remember how it was for us on the watching end? Every miner pulled up from beneath was celebrated. All thirty-three. Many of them dropped to their knees upon reaching the surface to thank God for their life.Mario-the-miner

Mario was #9.

I can’t imagine Mario coming up out of that shaft feeling so good about his own rescue that he forgets to care about the twenty-four still down in the mine. I cannot imagine the people of Chile losing interest after the first few rescues, shrugging their shoulders and leaving the scene for the boredom of it. That’s not how great rescue stories work.

And in the same way, I cannot imagine a follower of Jesus coming up out of the darkness and shrugging his or her shoulders over those who are still down there, who will die down there if no one goes in after them. I cannot imagine a person with the spirit of Christ saying the others don’t matter.

I can’t imagine not having a reasonable answer to that question: Are these things true?

The gospel deserves our attention because there is a world full of people out there who haven’t been rescued yet, and no follower of Jesus should feel complacent or comfortable as long as there are people waiting for a fair account of the gospel.

Are these things true?

How you answer that question is critically important. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming and only those who see Jesus in the answer will participate in it.

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