It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

(Today, I’m giving this space to Leah Hartman, who I met at New Room. Read on …)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
— Matthew 7:3-6

These words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount popped into my head the other day. I was driving down the road when a speck of something (likely sawdust, in fact, given the husband’s cabinet business) got stuck in my eye.

As I was trying to get it out, I got to thinking about holiness. Because that’s what I think Jesus is getting at here. That’s what paying attention to the plank in our own eye and then removing it means. Jesus pits hypocrisy and holiness against each other. The two are diabolically opposed. Unfortunately, we sometimes confuse “holiness” with “holier-than-thouness” which is to say hypocrisy. Jesus says they are antonyms.

Not hypocrisy, Jesus says. Holiness.

Like the parent of tattling children, Jesus reminds us to “worry about your own self.” I get this because it’s currently my life. I can’t tell you how many times a day I say this to Claire, who is five, as she bosses Wesley, who is two, to NOT do the very thing she herself IS doing. Jesus knows as well as I that we cannot be fully committed to our own holiness if even part of our energy is in making sure someone else is holy.

It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

As I was reflecting about all of this, I thought about the following process from hypocrisy to holiness:

  1. Humility— You can’t have holiness without humility. Humility is not self-deprecation; it’s honesty. It is to come into agreement with who God says we are. To think that we are anything less than a child of God or anything more than a sinner in need of grace is pride, which uproots holiness faster than anything else. Humility admits THAT we have at least a speck in our eye, and probably a plank.
  2. Awareness— It’s not enough to know THAT we are sinful. We must also come to know WHAT is our particular brand of sin. Each of us has disordered thinking, affections, and living. Awareness is paying attention to our patterns of behavior and manifestations of sin and asking the Spirit of God to reveal their root.
  3. Holiness— Armed with humility and awareness, we can get serious about holiness. Holiness is the process of partnering with the Spirit of God to obsessively remove the planks from our eyes.

As I was driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour, that speck in my eye felt more like a plank. And Jesus is right— it became very hard to see! There was a lot of blinking and watering and blurring. I was easily a danger, not only to myself, but to my three children who were counting on me to see clearly. (Not to mention anyone else one the road!) Perhaps this is Jesus’ whole point: other people are dependent upon OUR holiness. And ironically, removing our own planks just might be the very thing that motivates someone else to remove their speck.

Because there is nothing more compelling than a life transformed by the Gospel, a life of holiness.

Leah Hartman’s discipleship mantra is word, deed, repeat. And she practices it at home, with her husband and three children, and in community. She blogs at Leah-hartman.com.

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows (and without shame for the things we enjoy).

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We don’t earn a lot, but we’ve discovered great joy in giving generously from what we have. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day: As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.

Why?

Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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While you were getting your nails done (and other thoughts on world evangelism)

In this world we are like Jesus. – 1 John 4:17

I have posted this before but am thinking of it freshly this week as I travel in Thailand. As in the U.S., Thailand has no shortage of nail salons. In the U.S., I have a tolerate-hate relationship with those places. For many people, it is a treat to have someone else paint your fingernails and toenails, massage your feet and give you an hour in a gyrating chair. For me, that is an exercise in frustration. I just don’t enjoy the experience. Where I live, almost all the salons are staffed by folks who don’t speak much English and since I don’t go often enough to know how to ask for what I want, I find myself feeling at first tentative and then exasperated before we even get started. And at the cost of a tank of gas or a meal out.
nail-buddha2

Nonetheless — illogically — about once a year I give in and go. Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me. This time will be different. The last time I made this annual trek to a nail place, I decided to strike up a conversation with the technician. She was from Thailand. She was friendly and chatty, and talked in English to me while she spoke in Thai to her co-worker. At some point, I asked what they were talking about. The technician shared that they were planning their evening. There was a dinner at the local temple, a potluck, and they’d all be going together. They were laughing about meeting men there.

It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that women like these might be part of a sub-culture in my community designed to maintain a religious identity. These women interacted all day every day with Americans but in their personal life, they maintain Buddhist traditions, look for Buddhist husbands, keep to Buddhist communities.

I am ashamed to admit I’d never considered before the spiritual life of the person doing my nails, though my faith calls that person to trust in Christ for redemption from this fallen world. I left the salon that day knowing that until my heart breaks for the spiritual care of the people in that place, I had no right to use them for my own luxuries.

Those luxuries are delivered to us by a remarkably diverse community. Consider this:

  • According to the 2012-2013 industry statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48% of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion American nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism.
  • More than 50% of Dunkin Donuts are owned by Pakistani or Indian franchisees. Pakistan is a mostly Muslim country; India’s majority religion is Hinduism.
  • 40% of all motels in the United States are owned by Indians (see above).
  • 10% of American physicians are Muslim.
  • 50% of lawn care workers and16% of lawn care business owners are Latino. Their religious backgrounds are likely varied; many will practice a version of Catholicism mixed with animism, voodoo, or ancestor worship.

While we are getting our nails done, lawns manicured and to-go coffees poured, we are coming face to face with the world’s religious diversity. We may not even be aware enough of this reality to let our hearts become sensitized to the spiritual need.

This reality is both a blessing and a temptation. We are easily lulled into a comfortable numbness that lets us get our needs met while ignoring the spiritual care of a worldful of people. And yet, what potential! Industries full of religiously diverse folks provide us with a plethora of opportunities to open our hearts and care more lovingly for those who care for us. To treat them like people, not servants.

While you’re considering who lives among us, consider how the rest of the world is experiencing religious diversity. The global Christian landscape is shifting. The following statistics come from Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary:

  • When William Carey went to India in 1793, 90% of all Christians were white and lived in the western world. Today, by a vast majority, the face of Christianity is non-white.
    William Carey was a famous missionary in India. But the William Carey Memorial Church in Luster, England is now a Hindu temple.
  • The top two most receptive nations to Christianity are India and China.
  • At the turn of the twentieth century, nine of the ten countries with the highest rate of Christians were in Europe or North America. In 2009, only four of the top ten most Christian countries are in the west.
  • Meanwhile, this year the top ten most resistant nations to Christianity are all in Europe.
    A Christianity Today article says that 85% of Yale’s Campus Crusade for Christ are Asian while the Buddhist temple meetings on the Yale campus are exclusively attended by whites.
  • More Nigerians attend church every week than all the Episcopal and Anglican churches in the west combined.
  • China now boasts the fastest growing church in the world, producing 16,500 new Christians every day.
  • Africa, once called the missionary graveyard, is now the fastest growing church of any continent as a whole, producing 24,000 Christians every day since 1970.
  • The most representative Christian in 1909 was a 44-year old British male.
  • The most representative Christian in 2009 was a 24-year old Nigerian woman.

In this world we are like Jesus. In a world that’s rapidly changing, God has chosen to let us participate in the coming Kingdom. It is a glorious invitation that leaves us with a choice: we can be fearful, turn inward and become concerned only with “me, mine, and our ticket to heaven”; or we can be fearless in understanding and engaging the world around us, becoming active participants in what Christ is doing right here to bring the Kingdom in.

In light of that invitation, I’m inspired to breathe this prayer: God, put to death any unholy ambition in me. Any ambition that makes me more interested in my own comforts than the salvation of others.

Amen. Let it be so.

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How to lead people into an encounter with the Spirit

What are you doing, spiritual leaders, to lead those who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?*

By and large, I’m not sure most spiritual leaders (lay or pastor) have been conditioned to move people along on the spiritual spectrum. We know how to recruit volunteers but not so much how to walk people into deep spiritual waters. Our culture doesn’t prepare us for the long, hidden work of the spiritual process of sanctification. We have not been conditioned for the waiting that so often comes with spiritual growth, nor are we comfortable with the sometimes instantaneous work of Spirit-empowered healing.

If we were raised in a more conventional protestant setting, we don’t have built-in permission to be unafraid of the things of the Holy Spirit. We tend to shrink back because we don’t want to run the risk of becoming like “them” — the crazy, emotional, undisciplined ones. To protect ourselves against that (you probably have a mental picture of what that is), we over-intellectualize as a reaction against the anti-intellectualism of more fundamentalist cultures. As a reaction against manifestations we become the frozen chosen. Pentecostal vocabulary becomes a trigger for us. I wonder how much of my ministry has been wasted on trying to protect people who deeply, inwardly hunger for something more … but who were never given permission to test the spiritual waters of the Spirit-drenched life? How much of my ministry has been tentative, when what someone in my care really needs is an authentic, healing encounter?

What are we doing, spiritual leaders, to lead people who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?

Let me give you four ideas that might get you started.

1. Normalize the Holy Spirit. Help your people understand, my Methodist friends, that the Spirit-led life is a normal part of the process of sanctification. This is our spiritual heritage, and we must teach the doctrine of sanctification over and over and over. It is the process of giving more and more of ourselves to more and more of Him. Help your people shake loose the vocabulary and culture of spiritual growth that scares them, so they can see sanctification for what it is — biblical living. Help them shake loose the culture of other traditions so they can see what that kind of living can look like for this church, for these people. Give folks safe spaces to talk about the things of the Spirit. Education and experimentation should go hand in hand.

2. Passion follows posture. Give safe spaces for people to ask questions, share experiences and feel safe enough to experiment. Give your people permission to linger after a service if they’d like healing prayer. Or at the invitation, invite people to kneel right where they are. Learn to use language for the Holy Spirit that doesn’t set off defensive triggers. Shake Him loose from the culture in which He has been bound and simply invite your people to go someplace spiritually by changing the way they physically approach him. Changing posture is a biblical practice. Abraham fell on his face, Moses took his shoes off, Isaiah cried out. Changing posture often helps us to express something within in a more authentic way. It shakes us loose from passivity.

3. Worship culture follows worldview. When it comes to matters of the Spirit, it is more important to help people develop a worldview than it is to develop a worship culture. Both are important but in the church world, we tend to put all the emphasis on the worship culture when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what God is speaking in to the world and doing in the world. This is the worldview we are looking for.

So much of what we think and do springs from a wrong worldview. We come at life from the bottom up, thinking we have to fight to get “up there” where Jesus is. But Paul tells us in Ephesians that in some very mysterious but real way, we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realm. I’m convinced that if we can absorb that perspective shift it will change everything, including the power of worship.

4. Hunger follows hunger. If you want your people to go someplace spiritually, then lead them. Take responsibility for your own spiritual life and take authority over your ministry. Pursue the deep end for yourself. Hunger attracts hunger. The fact is, lots of people … lots of pastors … believe in Jesus, but not as many are willing to follow Jesus into the Spirit-filled life. Not many have that kind of spiritual courage, nor the integrity to match. Not as many are willing to die to who their own comforts so they can experience the whole gospel. Not many will hunger and thirst after regular encounters with the Spirit — which can happen when we are intentional about seeking the things of God.

Being baptized in the Holy Spirit is about getting immersed in the whole gospel, not just the part that gets us to heaven but the whole gospel. What are you doing to lead those who are open into that kind of encounter with the Holy Spirit?

 

*I’m grateful to Mike Barr, who helped me shape this question and process these thoughts for a talk delivered at New Room.

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Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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What I know about the enemy of your soul

It is easier to blame someone else than to deal with my own issues.

But if I’m going to blame someone, I ought to at least make sure I am blaming the right person. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that the real enemy of my soul is not flesh-and-blood but a power that seeks to keep me at a distance from the God of perfect love. Knowing the real enemy makes me more effective in the battle.

So what do I know about the enemy of your soul?

He is not creative. Creativity is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls. There is no genius about him; he only knows how to mimic God just enough to deceive us. Contrary to being creative, he tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. He entices us with fake power, fake love, fake progress. Spiritually disconnected people will take the bait every time.

He is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always creating, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again … predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, chaos.

He works within systems to generate chaos. The enemy of your soul is fond of the herd instinct. He abuses systems like racism, socialism and atheism, and even some forms of religion, but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. It isn’t so much that he has great forethought and strategy; he isn’t purposefully systematic. In the absence of a system, he will use whatever presents itself as most convenient but he gets big “wins” when people thoughtlessly follow the crowd.

His great lie is that there is no hope. Hopelessness is the enemy’s rearview mirror. He uses it to make us look backward while he whispers the lie that things will never get better. Hopelessness leads to fear and fear separates people from God’s love. When the enemy of your soul can get you to believe there is no hope, he gets a twofer. Hopelessness isolates in both directions. We feel isolated while others allow fear of our pain to create distance.

He breeds fear. This is the enemy’s ultimate goal — to create distance between us and God, between us and others. Fear breeds that distance. Fear kills love, so when Jesus tells us that our goal is to be made perfect in love, he is telling us that his intention is to make us stronger than our enemy. When Paul tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love but that perfect love casts out fear, he is showing us a path to spiritual victory.

He loves the fear of conflict. One of the things he most wants us to be afraid of is conflict. It isn’t conflict itself the enemy likes. In fact, he’d rather we never raise questions, think deeply, press into issues, get passionate enough to express a dissenting opinion. Why? Because conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

That is so important it is worth repeating: Conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

I’m thinking about Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair. Conflict reveals truth and exposes weakness and challenges us toward our destiny. A conflict well navigated breeds grace and deepens love and honor. Meanwhile, fear of conflict creates emotional distance and inhibits relational progress. Too many people who have blown up and walked away from conflict have missed great opportunities to encounter real growth. To walk through conflict maturely and with the mind of Christ is to walk through the valley of Psalm 23 to the feast on the other side.

Clearly, that is not a stroll the enemy of your soul wants you to take.

He feeds on denial. Denial holds us in a self-defensive posture. It creates an atmosphere of blame. If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to blame God, he’ll entice you to blame someone else for the things that are wrong in your life. Remember that it isn’t healthy conflict the enemy likes, but the lies that lead us to respond to conflict in unhealthy ways. Denial speaks the language of victims, the heart language of the enemy of our souls, who would rather we never learn anything from our circumstances.

He doesn’t care what you’re thinking about, as long as it isn’t Jesus. If you want to win a battle today, meditate on Jesus. Hear the wisdom of your spiritual fathers, who taught you to talk about him when you’re sitting at home or walking among others … even as you stand up to leave a room (Deuteronomy 6:8). if you want to defeat a defeating mental loop or an angry situation, refuse the voice of the enemy and allow yourself to glory in the One who loved you first and loves you most.

Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to have the last word. That privilege must always belong to Jesus.

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Which voice do you listen to?

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they stood with toes touching the border of the land God promised them. Two years after they’d walked out of Egypt, the silver of the Egyptians clinking in their backpacks, they stood on the brink of God’s best.  They’d seen waters part and enemies drown.  God was intimately involved with their lives.  They knew him.  They followed him.  And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the verge of greatness, Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border but they had smoke and fire blazing their trail.

Then it happened.  Human nature kicked in.  They became more cautious than optimistic.  There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent twelve spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out.   When the spies came back ten of them said, “Don’t do it!  It is great real estate, but the people are giants.  We will all die if we go over there.”  The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

Only two of those twelve spies — two young men named Joshua and Caleb – saw more possibility than problems.  “I think we should do this,” they challenged. “This is God’s land and God’s fight.  Let God defend us!”

The people did what people mostly do.  They heard the voice of fear over the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.  That day, God turned them back from the border of promise. He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly promised that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey. Fear would not be woven into the DNA in his chosen people, not if he had anything to do with it.

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the promised land.  They were destroyed by their own choice. For thirty-eight years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe to toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were? I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we’d listened to Joshua and Caleb? How do you suppose it would have turned out?” Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Or did they even think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was? Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making do, making a living?

I wonder, knowing I am an Israelite myself. I peek over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and I listen to those voices of fear or laziness and I miss out on so much good stuff that way. Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unconscious of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in me that reeks of fear?

Who knows what promises I’m toeing now as I poke my fires, count my money, check my phone and absent-mindedly get back to what I know?

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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The dog ate the communion bread (or, God is enough.)

I went to church on a Saturday morning to meet a group of folks who wanted me to offer communion to their group. The first person I saw was one of the leaders. She drove right up next to me in the parking lot, rolled down her window, and said, “The dog ate the communion bread.” I thought she was joking, but she looked at me with dead seriousness and said, “No, really. How can a miniature dachshund need that much communion bread?”

What a powerful analogy for what happens to so many people in this world. Good people, intelligent people who somewhere along the way got hurt by the church, or found such hypocrisy among Christians that they couldn’t see the point of it. It is as if the dog has eaten their communion bread. It is as if Satan or life or fallen human beings or something else in the world has stolen their right to be in communion with God. The terrible result for too many of us is that we no longer trust God. We are suspicious that maybe he does not have our best interests at heart. We secretly wonder if given an inch, God would try to make us walk a mile we don’t want to walk.

After all, if God is so good, why is life so hard?enough-pic

This question baits the enemy of our souls. If he can get us to suspect God’s motives, he can yank us right down into misery and anger. All the anger, fear and loneliness we feel has a single root cause. It grows out of a basic distrust in God — in his power to provide, in his sovereignty, in his desire to do for us.

The antidote is in the names of God. We discover in his names the character of the One worthy of our trust. Yahweh: “I Am.” Emmanuel: “God With Us.”

Figuring out who God is is fundamental to how we relate to him. Thomas Merton writes: “Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

Jeremiah Smith says there is nothing more important, no higher priority in your life, than for you to figure out who God is. Knowing God affects everything else in your life. It affects your choices, your relationships, your outlook, everything.

The name El Shaddai literally means, “God Almighty,” but the Hebrew sages often translated this name as a statement from God: “I said to the world, enough.” This name of God is a precious promise to his children: “In the face of your great need, I am enough.”

That truth ought to be life-changing. The same God who brought you out of slavery to sin, who defeated the enemy of your soul, who made hope bigger than death, is enough. The same God who broke into our world through a virgin’s birth has power enough to be in the midst of your greatest struggles, defeating your enemies, reframing and redeeming everything. Because God is enough, nothing is lost in his economy.

To know God is the great quest. I believe that quest begins with the name that assures us God is enough. Whatever our sin, brokenness, problems, whatever else in our lives vies for our attention, God is enough.

El Shaddai. Enough.

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