Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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I am small and God is big.

I am Adam’s child.

I am always stopped by the line in Genesis spoken by Adam when he is caught in his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.”  This is the creation-story equivalent of a child pointing to a sibling when a vase is broken.  Adam chooses, surely against better judgment, to deflect his own weakness by blaming his wife.  Like God wouldn’t notice the discrepancy here.  Like God won’t hold Adam accountable.  “Oh, well then … never mind.” 

Really, it is a profound line. It shows me, because I am Adam’s child, just how small I can be. How limited. How little I see of God’s presence and power. His plan.

And then there is that line in 1 Kings 15: 5. It is actually the second time mention is made in this book about David being a faithful man. But this time, the writer takes it to a level of laughability. He says, “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Did you see that?

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.  It is said almost as an aside, a footnote, a detail. The rest of that story, of course, is that David killed Uriah the Hittite.  To hide the fact that he slept with Uriah’s wife.

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

What?

I’m stunned by this sentence. If Adam’s foolishness makes me realize how small I am, David’s foolishness makes me realize how big God is. Because David’s sin is real. It is big. The deal with Uriah the Hittite is at least twenty percent of the Big Ten, and that’s if we’re being generous. There is no doubt about David’s offense to the holiness of God.

And yet, buried deep in the history of God’s people is this revelation that causes me to come face to face with God’s perspective. God’s purposes will not be compromised; God’s grace is more profound still. God is big.

I am small and God is big.

And yet God cares what I do with my life.

Hallelujah.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

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When the Church Hurts (part one)

“Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result?” said Abner to Joab, as the sun went down. (from the battlefield at Gibeon, 2 Samuel 2:26)

We are people. And people, by definition, are broken. If we are followers of Jesus, we are saved by grace but we are broken, just the same.

The church, then, is nothing more than a collection of broken-but-redeemed people. Many of us come through the door of the church hurting, not yet sanctified. We bump into one another and create friction. It seems almost inevitable that in the church, just as in the world, there is conflict. As they say, hurt people hurt people.

Since the very beginning, conflict in the church has been part of the Christian experience. Surely God would prefer if it wasn’t that way, but that fact doesn’t erase reality. The early church understood this fact all too well. The letter Paul wrote to the people of Corinth was sent to one of the most divided, dysfunctional churches of the first century. Even Paul himself was not immune. When Paul and Barnabas made plans to go out on a second missionary journey (Acts 15), Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along. Paul was bitterly opposed. John Mark was the one who deserted them in Pamphylia on the first trip; if he was not able to withstand the pressures of real ministry, why rely on him again? Barnabas wanted to extend grace, but Paul dug his feet in. By the time their conflict reached its peak, they’d split. Barnabas and Mark set off in one direction, while Paul and his team went off in another.

How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

Later on in another letter Paul would speak in defense of Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6) and he would work again with John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11). As a result (Acts 16:5), “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”

Because they were willing to handle conflict creatively and gracefully, God was able to continue to work through them. It is likely that if Paul and Barnabas had separated bitterly and continued to backbite and harbor anger toward one another, neither of them would have been much use for God’s kingdom. But as it was, they were able to double their effectiveness while presenting a positive and mature approach to conflict within community.

What about us? Many of us have moved from one community of faith to another. For some, this was an easy move and healing came quickly. For others of us, though, hurts from the past will take time (even years) to heal. And it might be easy to believe there is nothing to be done about that.

Yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose. Maybe conflict in church is inevitable (remember – we are all broken), but healing can happen when we react creatively and graciously. In fact, as we saw with Paul and Barnabas, God can use both conflict and healing to further the Kingdom.

There are Christ-centered ways to deal with brokenness in all its forms. We can participate with Christ in healing after conflict. What practical steps can we take to find peace with the church we’ve left so we can bring a healthy spirit to the church we are ready to serve? A few ideas taken from my own experience as a pastor will follow in the next two posts.

Meanwhile, maybe these questions will help you process your own experience. Learning to process conflict is ultimately about building a healthy church culture. How are you participating in that process?

  • Have you ever had a negative church experience? Are there any unresolved hurts from that experience that need to be acknowledged?
  • Are you at peace with everyone in your church? How about with everyone in the church you left? Do you need to extend a gesture of grace to anyone?
  • What are you doing in your current church or small group to promote mature, loving relationships?

This post is one of three in a series about how to navigate church relationships in the midst of conflict and change. Find part two here.

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Introversion in the Kingdom of God

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. – Psalm 139:13-14

A couple of caution signs:

  • Introversion and extroversion are too easily over-simplified. Lumping people exclusively into one or the other camp is to miss all the nuances that make us … us. Chances are, all of us have a little of both worlds in our being.
  • The terms “introversion” and “extroversion” are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. They are not — strictly speaking — biblical concepts. Which is not to say that I am not more extroverted or that my husband is not more introverted. Those things are true. It is simply to say that since these distinctions are not in the Bible, we will need to look more deeply for the enduring truths.

When we look, here’s what we find. We discover that we humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14) and that we are endowed with certain spiritual gifts to serve God and strengthen the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). From these biblically-based foundations, we can explore more deeply the ways our personalities have been designed, in order to best employ their advantages and best compensate for their disadvantages; and in order to help us appreciate why — for the Church to best spread the Good News — extroverted Christians need introverted Christians. And vice versa.

In a previous post I discussed extroversion in the Kingdom of God. For this post on introversion, I have the help of my husband, Steve, who is without doubt my favorite introvert in the world. Most of the words in this post are his.


Why did God make introverts? At least one reason God made introverts is to model spiritual intimacy. In the Kingdom of God, introversion is not primarily about “being alone” but “being with” God. God loves us and He wants us to get closer to him. Healthy solitude is getting away from distractions (that can mean others) in order to get closer to God, and introverts are naturally wired to be more comfortable seeking solitude where they can experience spiritual intimacy. Solitude fuels their walk with Christ and their service to the Church. Kingdom solitude is not inward-focused or an end in itself; it is a God-focused state that empowers introverts ultimately to be more lovingly outward-focused at the appropriate times.

Was Jesus an introvert? Absolutely! The fact is that Jesus was probably the perfect balance of introvert and extrovert (and in another post, I defend his extroversion), but he never allowed his own desires to get in the way of serving others. To feed intimacy with the Father, Jesus got up early and separated himself from the company of others in order to be closer to the Father. He bent down and drew on the ground when a crowd pressed him for a judgment on a woman caught in sin — unwilling to act or respond without taking time to think. As with most introverts, Jesus was able to focus on the goal and didn’t let distractions get him off track. He listened well; he was a deep thinker.

In his book, Evangelism for the Rest of Us, Mike Bechtle says introverts are sensitive, listening evangelizers — quiet, deep thinkers who can reach other quiet, deep thinkers. The world could use more “listening evangelizers.”

How do introverts sometimes trip up? It may be tempting for those who like “alone time” to forget that according to Psalm 139 we are never truly alone. Healthy, Kingdom-oriented introversion is not an escape hatch. It is designed for the purpose of developing intimacy with the Lord, then using that deep well to draw from in serving others. As my husband Steve says, “If I allow my introversion to cross over into self-absorption, I am surely passing by a world of people who need me to open the door for them.”

Unhealthy introversion may be the product of insecurity or fear. It becomes an “out” for those who simply don’t want to grow in their love for others. But the responsibility to share the good news of Jesus Christ belongs to all of us, not just those who like a party or an audience. It would be easy to use introversion as an excuse to check out on the uncomfortable parts of the Christian life, like evangelism or community. But the healthy choice is to develop the gifts God has given so we can stay checked in, in ways we not only tolerate but enjoy.

What do introverts wish extroverts to knew about them? Well, first … that we need each other. The world is complicated, and sometimes the extroverted “act/ think/ act” way of approaching life is the right thing. There are definitely times, though, when a “think/ act/ think” approach is the wiser choice. Extroverts need introverts to keep a balance between thinking and acting, but introverts also need extroverts for that same balance.

Even if an introvert doesn’t get energy from a roomful of people, they can still have a heart for loving others and can particularly enjoy being with a few people who appreciate their approach to life. They want to contribute to the Kingdom, but need the patience of the extroverts around them when they don’t jump on the big party wagon every time.

The closing lines are from my Steve, and are wisdom for all of us.

Extroverts, just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say.

And introverts, as Susan Cain says, it is okay to speak softly. But you must speak.

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Trust God (and other things I learned from a penny).

Maybe you have heard me tell the story of my pennies. About six years ago I started finding them everywhere. The first time it happened was just about the time we found out that the cost of our first warehouse renovation would be more than we could afford. One morning I was out walking and talking to God about the situation. I remember saying, “Lord, I don’t see how this is going to happen. I don’t see how we’ll ever get the funds together to get into this building.” And just as I said that, I looked down and saw a penny in the road.

Now, I’m never one to see coins on the ground. I’m a big picture person; I don’t see details. But there it was — a penny shining in the early-morning dark — so I picked it up and laughed to myself. “Okay, God, so is this your contribution to the project?” Then it hit me that maybe this was God’s way of reminding me that he will provide. Not in the ways I expect and not on my timeline, but he will provide.

Be skeptical if you must, but I decided to take that penny as that kind of message from God.

After that, I started seeing pennies everywhere. It got to be a joke almost, like someone was planting them in my path. And almost like the punchline, one day just I pulled into a parking place a woman on the sidewalk stepped toward my car and started picking up change by the driver’s-side door. She looked up at me and said, “Look at all these pennies!” I had to laugh! I let her pick them up but I was thinking, “Lady, those are my pennies.”

Years have passed since that moment, and the penny phenomenon waned … until recently. We’re in the middle of another building renovation and campaign and again I found myself wondering if God will provide. These seasons can be complicated — keeping all hearts and minds moving in the same direction, helping the late adopters get there. One day in my office, I heard myself whining about something building-related. The person I was unloading on had the wisdom to suggest we pray and when I bowed my head there it was.

Right there on the floor staring back up at me was a penny.

I don’t believe God is walking before me tossing pennies in my path like some kind of cosmic flower girl. Not at all. But I do have to wonder if he uses the occasion of a penny on the ground to remind me not that He will provide all the funds we need but that He can be trusted.  After all, God wants us to trust him and every single penny carries that message: “In God we trust.”

Whether with pennies or unsure moments or invitations to jump, what if God is constantly trying to start a conversation with us about trust? Maybe pennies or critical moments or small decisions we make every day are a way Jesus is training us to trust him in the small things so we can trust him with more. Maybe this is why the “micro” matters. If we’re going to accomplish the macro, we have to be able to see where he is working right now … to accept the gift being held before us now.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. In this word, Jesus is hoping to convince us to lean on God for our needs because Jesus gets it that we don’t lean on God for our needs. When we choose anxiety and whining over trust, we expose our deepest fear — that God is not a giver, that God will not provide, that God can not be trusted. We won’t ever say this out loud but in the ways we over-protect, over-plan, over-defend, in the ways we guard our hearts and control our circumstances, we expose what we really believe.

Our actions betray us. They expose to the world our deep fear that God will take us only so far, that God can be trusted but not completely. That if we want something, we’d better go get it ourselves.

So what is that thing you don’t want to trust God for? Maybe you will trust him for a lot of things, but not for that thing. What is that thing? And how will you practice trusting him today in the small things, so you can build up strength to trust him for that thing?

Listen: God is the ultimate Giver and self-giving is at his very heart. Trust him … and then live for him.

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I’m not bad (I’m just drawn that way).

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The movie is animated, but with some real people sprinkled in. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is the animated character, telling Valiant how hard it is to be her and how misunderstood she is. As she exits the room, she says, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” It is a brilliant line (because she is animated, after all), but it is also interesting theologically.

Are we bad? Or are we just drawn that way?

The answer is yes. We are born broken. We are born with the mark of Adam – the stain of fallen humanity. Except for God’s continual pursuit of us, we would be lost in that sin. Permanently scarred. We find the same idea in one of the best hymn lines of all time: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. We are prone to wander. It is in our DNA to rebel.

The movie writer and the hymn writer are saying the same thing: we are drawn that way. We are caught up in this spiritual battle for control of our souls. It is like a spiritual under-tow. We are trying to get to the shore but there is this constant force pulling us away from the direction we know we should be moving in. We are drawn toward sin … prone to wander. This is what Paul means when he tells us (Ephesians 6:12) our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and powers of the dark world and against the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.

In his lesson about prayer, Jesus teaches us to fight this battle not with behavior management but with Jesus himself. Begin in the presence of God and seek the power of God to overcome the temptations and evils that bend our will.

Temptation  in the Greek can mean an enticement to sin but it can also mean a “trial or testing.” Not all temptation is created equal.

1. There are bad temptations. A temptation is a nudge toward the darkness. It is the snake in the garden pointing Eve toward the apple. Her sin was in eating the apple. The nudge and conversation were not the problem but with each step in that direction, she increased the danger.

Hear that: It isn’t the thought that comes into our head that is the problem. The problem is what we do with it once it gets there.

2. There are “good” temptations (with bad timing). There are those temptations that come from outside of us, but there are also temptations designed to throw us off track that may seem like good ideas. Brothers and sisters in Christ, the most dangerous belief you can hold as a follower of Jesus is the belief that you are past the point of temptation. You can destroy a marriage by believing that. Or a ministry. Victory happens not when we get cocky, but when we cling to Jesus like desperate people hanging from the side of a cliff. Because sometimes the enemy will strike while we’re in the middle of doing good things. Even on our good days, we are “prone to wander.”

3. And then there are legitimate tests. Bill Johnson says, “God never sets us up to fail.” God tests. The enemy tempts. What is the difference? The enemy tempts us in order to destroy us. The enemy only has one plan. It is the plan of a desperate, defensive, defeated person: Steal, kill and destroy everything in his path — everything he can get his hands on — before Jesus comes back. When God tests, however, it is so he can refine us. The tests of God are designed not to push us over the edge but to both shape our character and prove it.

The trick, then, is learning which trails to follow and which to avoid. Paul says it this way when he writes to the Galatians (Galatians 5:13): “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.: In other words, “Take my thoughts captive, God, so I’m not constantly having to battle every choice. Give me some holy boundaries out of which I can operate so I’m not always having to choose between what I want and what I can give … so I’m not always having to wrestle between my shallowness and Your depth …”

This is a prayer for holiness to invade us. This is a prayer for Christ himself to invade us, in all his redemptive power. 

Jesus came to fight our battles for us. Which means that even if we are “drawn that way,” that doesn’t have to be the last word over our lives. We can legitimately, effectively fight the urges that come our way. We can claim victory over darkness. Jesus invites us to bring our battles into his presence where his power can draw us out of darkness and into his glorious light.

(Portions of this post are reprinted from Encounter Jesus, a seven-week study about the nature and work of Jesus that you can find at seedbed.com.)

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Ghosting and the Prince of Peace

Ghosting is a thing. ghosting2

Though the term wasn’t around in my dating days, the concept certainly was. Ghosting is the word for what happens when the person you’ve been seeing simply disappears. One day, you’re enjoying dinner together, hopeful this relationship is going someplace; the next day it is as if the person has fallen off the face of the earth. They have entered some other zone you can’t crack. You text to say you enjoyed time with them and you get crickets in return. You call and get voice mail. You check in on Facebook and discover you’ve been unfriended.

No conversation, no closing arguments, no “Dear John/Jessica” text. It is as if they have disappeared, leaving you without closure. The lack of “why” is maddening. Peace-sapping.

In Adele’s hit song, “Hello,” this is the storyline. It is a heartbroken woman having a conversation with a man who won’t answer the phone. The resonance of that song with this culture is startling. It won the distinction in 2016 of being number one on Billboard’s chart for longer than any other song by a female vocalist.

That ghosting is now an actual word says a lot about how relationships are evolving in a hyper-connected world. Because so much of our communication now happens in snippets and emojis rather than real conversations, there is a certain tacit permission to distance ourselves emotionally. It has long been a fact that folks are bolder when they are two steps removed from personal contact. We say things by email we’d never say face to face. We drop hints on Facebook rather than picking up the phone to have an honest conversation.

Once-removed communication is fanning the flames of passive aggression in our culture. It is passe to say that we’ve never been more connected and less authentically relational. I find in my own work as a pastor that I have to almost beg folks to pick up the phone and call. We seem to have lost the art of conversation. Or the heart for it.

I’ve also discovered that ghosting is a thing in the one place where it ought not exist at all. The Church is supposed to be a model for what real community looks like — real, honest, messy, vulnerable community. Walking away without a word is absolutely antithetical to the notion of grace; it shows a disastrous lack of understanding of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

Can you imagine Jesus giving someone the silent treatment? I’ll admit there are times when I feel like God is not present or audible but I can guarantee you that those times are more my fault than God’s. If anyone is ghosting anyone, I’m the one who is likely to ghost him.

The whole point of his promise to be with us always is to prove his love for us. No matter how wrong we’ve been, no matter how far from him we go, he will not leave us. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). That’s the mirror opposite of ghosting. It is the promise of eternal presence, no matter how badly I behave.

ghosting1When I check out of relationships without maturely resolving issues, with no concern for offering the ministry of reconciliation, I commit a grave sin — the sin of denying the work of Christ in my own life.

Claiming Christ is a self-limiting act. It is a conscious decision to no longer allow my wounds to take the lead in my decision-making.

Hear that: My wounds don’t get to make my decisions.

When I claim Christ, I submit myself to the leading of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who has called me to the ministry of reconciliation.

Paul and Barnabas are a great example. The story of their conflict in the book of Acts is a testament to how grace works. How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

I am concerned for how we who follow Jesus function in our relationships with one another. We have allowed the culture to inform our responses; yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose.

It is right, just and gracious to offer peace in every circumstance. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

We who claim Christ do not have the option of ghosting, not in our personal relationships nor in our relationship to the Body of Christ.

Why? Because shutting off our emotions will shut down our hearts. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt so that our hearts remain open to the love of God.

Yes, ghosting is a thing, but it is also a sin. It may be culturally acceptable, but it is not the way of the Cross nor the language of the Prince of Peace.

Are there unresolved relationships in your life waiting for the ministry of reconciliation? Who do you need to call so you can offer the gift of peace?

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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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