Four (and a half) thoughts on hearing from God

What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to?  And if you’re hearing it, how do you know its God (and not just last night’s Mexican food)?

We don’t all hear God with equal accuracy. I’ve had folks tell me they’ve heard God tell them to do things that have no basis in what I know of the Bible. I’ve also learned from my own mistakes a few lessons about how to know when it is God speaking and when it probably isn’t.

1. Test everything by the Word of God. If I can’t find what I’ve heard in the Bible then I ought to be very slow to move forward. The wise men who first sought the Messiah didn’t actually begin with a star. They began with Jewish prophecies written in the scriptures about the Messiah. In Herod’s office, they quoted scripture as their motivator.  Test everything by the word of God. If you can’t find it there, wait.

2. Listen with a heart for obedience.  Because God is usually not just doing it to hear the sound of his voice. He speaks when he is either ready for us to respond or when he is ready for us to prepare for a response down the road. Either way, when God speaks he is doing more than just making small talk. He is bringing in the Kingdom and plans to do so through us. That ought to provide a point of great humility, and also a point of readiness.

3. Be ready for glory (God’s, not yours). God does not usually (or maybe ever) call us to things or places or works that glorify us. He usually calls us to things that glorify him. When we are following well, either the work itself or our testimony of God at work in us will point back to God.

Side note: One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on the subject of hearing from God comes from my friend, Dr. Bob Tuttle, who says he knows it is God’s voice when what he hears is smarter than what he could have thought of himself.

4. Be ready to surrender your reputation. God will often call us to do things that don’t seem logical and may even make us look foolish. If so, we’re in good company. Read Hosea’s story. Imagine what it was like to be Noah — building a huge boat on a sunny day. Consider the change of reputation that happened in Paul’s life the day he accepted Christ as Lord.  This may well be why Paul said (1 Corinthians 3:18), “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

How profound it can be when people get up and do things for and in cooperation with the Kingdom of Heaven! And how incredibly important it is to learn the voice of the Father so we don’t end up on the wrong road in our enthusiasm to get there.

So I come back to my opening question: What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to? What friend is he asking you to make of an enemy, what marriage is he asking you to repair, what humility is he asking you to reach for, what job is he calling you to do, what story is he asking you to tell?

In what way is God calling you to be obedient, to point back to him, to proclaim him by taking up a cross and carrying it?  And what if that move ends up wrecking you for this world while it prepares you for Kingdom greatness?

In other words, if God decides to make a spectacle of you, are you ready to provide?

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God knows.

God knows.

Do you get how profound that is? God knows everything.  Your worst moment, your weakest decision, your blackest thought. God knows, and he still loves you.

To say that God knows is not the same as saying he dictates your every decision or causes your every moment. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus keeping a list and holding every grievance against you. It is simply to say that God — author and creator of our world, who lives outside of time — knows.

And what does God expect of us for all that knowing?  Shame?  Fear?  Regret?  Hiding?

Nope.  Faith.  Enough of it to believe in a deeper reality than what we’ve done.  Enough to believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.”

Meaning? Faith is a code that unlocks the acceptance of Jesus’ acceptance of me. It is my admission that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past, and he accepts me in that light.

God knows what I did in college and what I do on depressed days. He knows my excuses and all the ways I externalize my foolishness so I don’t have to own it and get better.

God knows I’m not there yet.

Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, “I dare you to trust. I dare you to believe that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be.”

Because frankly, you’re never going to be as you should be. Not on your own steam. It just won’t happen, and that fact is true whether you believe in Jesus or accept his acceptance of you or not.

But somehow, knowing that God knows is its own comfort. God knows and God cares, and that’s enough.

Hallelujah.

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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The number one sin of the Church in America

Followers are funny.

When the first followers of Jesus were sent out into the surrounding villages and towns to practice what they’d been modeled by Jesus himself, they were full of enthusiasm, not to mention a little unrighteous judgment. While they were out there, they saw a guy driving out demons and they asked Jesus to put a stop to it. When they got a little pushback from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, they had the nerve to actually ask Jesus if they could rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided it was time to revisit the vision.

You find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between verses 55 and 56 of Luke 9. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles.

Nonetheless, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his followers when they return from their missionary work. The usual version you’ll get in Luke 9:55-56 is this: “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version, but some manuscripts include another sentence so that the passage reads:

But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” Then he and his disciples went to another village.

What a powerful commentary. Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often. We don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. We don’t even know what we’re made of. We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, while it turns out that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption. And we have been invited to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom of God is multiplied to overflowing.

What Jesus was after in sending out those first twelve (and then 72), and what Jesus is still after today, is people who understand what it means to harvest souls. Jesus is looking for people whose hearts are in the harvest, whose energy is for giving people the good news that the half-life they have isn’t the last word over their lives.

The Son of Man didn’t come to destroy lives but to save them.

Mark Buchanan talks about visiting the famous Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. Thousands of people have been gathering there every Tuesday night for years. Buchanan calls it “3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.” On the Tuesday he went, he had dinner with Jim Cymbala, the pastor. “In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is? … It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large. … The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’”

Mark Buchanan said that in the face of such a statement he had no response because he’d never prayed like that. So that night, he went home, repented, and began to cry out for those nobody wants.

There is no shortage of those people; the fields are full of them, Jesus says. There are fields full of people who desperately need someone who will claim the power of Christ over their broken lives, fields full of people whose salvation story has not yet been told. There are people still out there — in our own country — who haven’t been reached, who more than anything need a fair account of the gospel and a generous dose of grace. And we have lost touch with our heart for them because we have forgotten who we are.

It is time for American Christians to remember the Spirit we have and our call to the Harvest. It is time to cry out, to get on our knees and cry out for a neighbor or co-worker, for a brother or son-in-law … or I don’t know … maybe for your own soul. It is time to cry out for the people we tend to judge most and to seek God’s heart for them. It is time for us to set down our unrighteous judgment and begin crying out for the ones Jesus came to save.

Who is God asking you to cry out for? The poor? The broken-hearted? The prisoners? Whose salvation story has not yet been told? Here’s the thing: if you are a Christian you are made for the work of the harvest. That’s who you are. In this coming season of ministry, I’m casting my lot for the ones Jesus came to save and I am asking you to join me and to remember whose Spirit you are of.

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Jesus is the case.

I’m thinking about what it must have been like to be a friend of Jesus, traveling with him from town to town.

What was it like on those evenings after a whole group of his followers descended on a new town, talked and argued all day with both religious and by-standers, only to find themselves at nightfall worn out and without a plan? What happened when Judas announced to the group that there wasn’t money enough — again — for a room? What was it like to wander out beyond the edge of town, find a level place under the stars, set a fire going, pass the bread, and do battle with doubts brought on by tiredness?

What was it like?

Did Matthew and Judas talk economics? Were Peter and John chronically competitive? Did they compare notes at the end of the day? How did they discuss the miracles? Did they ask Jesus to explain how it works when a blind man suddenly sees, or how Jesus knows when to call out their sins as he heals their bodies?

What about the ones we never hear much about — Bartholomew and Thaddeus and Philip? What place did they take in Jesus’ orbit? What was their contribution to the group? What did he know about their mothers, their aptitudes, their failures? Was the flesh-and-blood Jesus the kind of guy you’d want to sit near on a long night when there was nothing to do but shoot the breeze?

I’m thinking about how his friends must have stretched to understand most of what he said, how the paradigm shift had to wear them out some days. Most of a conversation with Jesus must have been like Jesus lassoing the moon and bringing it down to their level. Here, among simple men and women was Truth itself, changing every word and thought by his mere presence.

What was that like, to talk to Jesus?

You know how it is, when sometimes it is just easier to agree or say nothing than to get into it with someone? Jesus wasn’t that guy. He was not the kind to back off. Matthew Kelly, a Catholic theologian, says Jesus “didn’t have a casual relationship with the truth.” What surely marked a conversation with Jesus was his distinct lack of defensiveness. He was a person so completely self-aware and yet self-forgetful that he had no need to argue as one trying to prove his worth. He knew who he was.

Jesus never had to build a case, because Jesus was the case.

As I write that, it stops me in my spiritual tracks: Jesus was the case. Jesus, the radical expression of the image and nature of God, sat among mortal men talking about the weather or how miracles worked or about some guy in the square whose life got shaken alive that day … and all the while in his skin, in his being, he was proving God.

And those poor souls who didn’t have funds enough for a proper room, who sat by a fire outside of town and shot the breeze late into the night … they got it. And because they got it, I can.

Praise be to God.

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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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Relapse and recovery (or, how to get back up when you fall)

Recovery is characterized by relapse.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.

It happens.

Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.

What it means is that we are sunk without grace.

Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and allrecovery-and-relapse2 twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.

Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.

Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …

Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.

So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?

For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).

Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.

And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:

  • The practice of it makes a habit.
  • The habit of it ruins your influence.
  • The persistence of it destroys trust.

And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.

So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?

If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.

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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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Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. 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.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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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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