Lord, bend us.

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

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

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

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

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

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

Lord, bend us.

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

Lord, bend us.

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

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

Lord, bend us!

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Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, was a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response was a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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How to live like Jesus is alive

I am a servant of a holy God who has actually sapped the power out of death and sin. Easter helps me remember this supreme truth, and it calls me to give myself wholly to it. If I’m going to recommit to that truth today, how can I live like Jesus is alive?

1. Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Let’s be honest: some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable kind of religion. Folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! Toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never going to come back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die.

2. Learn to feast. Psalm 23 is a song of death and resurrection. It paints this picture of walking through a valley of shadows, on the verge of death, with a focus on the feast at the far side. On the next rise, just past the valley, there is a table set by God himself.  “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

This psalm is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality, rather than a spirit of scarcity.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago while I was sitting in the chapel of the church I was serving at the time. We offered Wednesday night communion and I was the pastor for that service. I’d sit in the chapel and as folks came I served them. In between people, I usually read the scriptures.

My husband Steve usually came to that service on Wednesdays, and I remember one week in particular when he showed up. It had been a hard week for him. He was teaching, and it seemed like he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough season.

As he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. And I thought to myself, “Here it is! Being lived out right in front of me … God is inviting Steve to a feast!”

In the face of so many enemies, Steve was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side. And on yours … and mine.

If the message of Christmas is that God is with us, then the message of Easter is that God is for us.

This is what it means to get a feast mentality. It is to set your face toward that table, believing in the goodness of the One who set it for you, while you’re still in the valley. It is to believe the story is true even when life is hard.

3. Get a resurrection mindset. That is, a mindset that is fearless in the face of change. It is a mindset that believes that God has a big, honkin’ plan for your life, something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking the small stuff.

Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof.

Learn to live as if this is so.

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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Stay in it (part two)

I’ve been thinking about how Luke used Elizabeth to change Mary’s perspective, so take five minutes and think about it with me.

When the angel visited Mary and told her she was going to have a baby, that had to be a lonely and confusing moment. She didn’t exactly have a decision to make but how she would receive this, and how she would live into it must’ve been baffling. She’d have to choose how she would live with what she was given, and this was a girl in her teen years without much experience to draw on.

So here’s what Luke does with this story. Before he ever gets to the story of Mary and the angel, he tells the story of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s with a little more life experience who also gets pregnant. Her pregnancy is also somewhat miraculous, coming years after she should be able to conceive. Elizabeth is surprised by her news, too, but excited. Relieved, even.

Luke tells Elizabeth’s story of getting pregnant, then drops in Mary’s conversation with the angel and in that part of the story Mary is obviously confused — “troubled” is how Luke describes her. She’s asking questions, trying to figure out how this works. And somewhere in the conversation, the angel brings up Elizabeth, that Elizabeth is pregnant, too, and that she’s going to have a child she didn’t expect to have, either. The next sentence has Mary relieved and the sentence after that has her going to visit Elizabeth. When she gets there, this thing happens between them. It is like deep calling to deep. Elizabeth’s baby — six months old inside the womb — leaps at the presence of Mary’s baby. And in the moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).

Now they are all standing there together steeping this profound knowing. If you count the Holy Spirit, there are five of them in this circle: the two little guys in the womb, the two women, and the Holy Spirit. And this is when Elizabeth draws on a prophetic knowing. She doesn’t soothe Mary’s emotional state or offer up a few hopeful platitudes. Instead, she speaks spiritually, deeply, prophetically over Mary, helping her reinterpret her experience. “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth speaks that word over a very confused young woman and the very next sentence has Mary singing praise, like it all makes sense to her now. Her song and this scene end with this: “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56).

Elizabeth’s prophetic voice, the profound knowing of John and Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit all combine to create an atmosphere ripe for transformation. So here’s my question: What if Luke wrapped Elizabeth’ story around Mary’s story to show us how spiritual conversation and close community brought Mary’s heart into the call of God? Think about it: The angel is the one who gave her the news, but it was another human with whom she could identify who made it good news. And it was the Holy Spirit who ignited that conversation and gave power and binding to all those relationships.

This is the bond that held together a woman’s call and gave Mary courage to birth into the world its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, with disciples who followed him in messy, faithful, passionate style. When Mary found the combination of circumstances that allowed her to step into God’s purposes with passion, she chose to stay in it, to steep in it. And what Mary did at the beginning of Luke is exactly what Jesus prescribed for his followers at the end of Luke. In Luke 24:49, his followers are told by the resurrected Christ to “stay in the city” until they’ve been clothed with power from on high. The word stay draws a straight line from chapter 1 to chapter 24.

Here’s the secret: It is the staying power of the Holy Spirit.

“Stay here,” the disciples are told, “until you receive power,” because without that power you will fall headlong into disappointment. And so they stayed. They stayed while Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, and then they were shot out into the world to prepare it for the second coming of Christ, not to help people escape from the world but to give them a transformed worldview rooted in the phenomenon of Jesus. Without the wind of the Spirit at their backs, those first followers of Jesus would not have had the momentum to share the good news with a waiting world.

The Holy Spirit makes the rest of the story of God make sense. He makes my story make sense. He reveals truth and makes it accessible to those who pursue it. He ignites the spiritual fires. He gives the process of spiritual formation its power. And I’m convinced that without the power of the Holy Spirit, any attempt at ministry is frustrating at best and possibly even detrimental to the cause of the Kingdom.

So be filled. Now. Here. Ask, Luke tells us, and believe when you stand up from this place that God has filled you with his Holy Spirit because God wants this for you. And then walk in that authority and do the work to which you’re called so we can all go home.

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Just As He Is (In Honor of World Down Syndrome Day)

Don’t tell the others, but maybe my favorite person at Mosaic is a young man named Matthew. He is this nineteen-year-old guy with the most beautiful spirit, deep faith and amazing sense of self-forgetfulness. Most Sunday mornings, Matthew finds me with his Bible and asks me to show him what passage we’ll be in during worship. We talk briefly about his day and he always hugs me before he goes to sit down. When worship starts, Matthew is all in. Sometimes he takes a couple of laps around the worship space, running with a huge grin on his face. During worship. While everyone is watching. He just runs. The energy that follows him is pure joy. It would be impossible to take offense; he has that way about him that disarms you. Sometimes we will pray over someone in worship — someone leaving or starting a ministry — and when I call for the congregation to join me in prayer, Matthew always comes down and lays hands on the person and prays over them. Long ago, he distinguished himself as a person of prayer. He regularly prays with folks at the end of the service. I love that guy. I love his faith. I love his passion for life. I love all the things that make him … Matthew.

And Matthew happens to have Down Syndrome. I know that makes his life a challenge, both for his parents and sometimes for him (though I’m not sure he really cares). He has physical issues connected with his condition, and he sometimes doesn’t understand why things have to be as they are. That can be frustrating. But on balance, Matthew’s life is way more positive than challenge. His parents and sister know Matthew is a blessing they’ve been given in this life, just as he is. 

Matthew’s father, Randy, shared the following testimony a couple of years ago. I’m posting it today in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, and in honor of Matthew whose faith inspires me. In the end, Mattie, I’ll be honored to be able to say I was your pastor and you were one of us. 

Randy writes:

I want to talk to you about the value of life. Our work here is not to judge another person’s life or choices. It is not to make anyone feel shame or guilt. I am too aware of my own short-comings to do anything other than share my own experience.

I do hope to affirm that there is no shame in Christ. There is only grace and love, and that holds true for all of us.

I want to talk about abortion — specifically the selective abortion of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. This is a fact: There is an epidemic among Down Syndrome children. I want to share some statistics about that but to do so, I have to begin with our family story.

We have a son with Down Syndrome. His name is Matthew and he is a gift from God. Laura and I did not know Matthew would be born with Down Syndrome before his birth. We weren’t one of those couples who wrestled with that decision of what to do with a prenatal diagnosis because Matthew wasn’t tested for Down Syndrome. That said, I am confident we would not have chosen to abort our child.

And that is what Matthew has always been for Randy3us. Our child.

Not a fetus. Not a specimen or a nondescript “unborn life.”

From the day we knew we were pregnant he has always been our child. Whatever else Matthew’s status was, he was and is first and foremost our child. Our son. Our gift from God.

Matthew has Down Syndrome. The clinical name for it is Trisomy 21. Simply put, that means that instead of having two “number twenty-one” chromosomes, Matthew has three. I think it is amazing that the thing that makes Matthew different is so small you have to use a microscope to see it. But that tiny difference is profound and for some families, it is devastating.

I understand. When we were first told Matthew’s situation, all we could see was the bad. We had the shock of the doctor telling us Matt had Down Syndrome as well as some other serious medical issues. We were also given some misinformation — for instance, that Matthew wouldn’t live past his twenties, and wouldn’t have sense enough to get out of a burning building.

Yes, a doctor actually told us that.

In fact, Matthew was nine days old before anyone even told us congratulations.

Matthew was born four weeks early with two heart defects, an enlarged spleen, and was jaundiced. When he was three days old, he went into congestive heart failure and had to be placed on a ventilator. It was touch-and-go for several days but he came through. At the time we were not active in our faith but we can look back and see God’s hand at work.

We came home on Matthew’s original due date.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking of all the normal things he wouldn’t be able to do. It felt like a black wall. What I didn’t know then was just how many normal things he would be able to do, and that the things he couldn’t do didn’t really matter.

What I can share all these years later is the story of a strong, loving family that has experienced more than its share of goodness, joy and love. We’ve had birthday parties and we celebrated the first day of school. We played at the park and went trick-or-treating. We opened presents at Christmas and hunted eggs at Easter. Matthew helped me in the yard and played sports.

In fact, Matthew has a gold medal in softball skills at the state Special Olympics, along with two golds in track and a silver in basketball. Dads, I promise you couldn’t be more proud than I am of my son’s accomplishments.

This is what the Bible teaches me about our son — and about both our children, in fact:

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
— Psalm 139:13-16

Do we believe this scripture? As Christians, we must. Without this truth, what gives value to life? Does life only have the value or lack of value we place on it? If so, then choosing abortion becomes an easier decision. If the quality of my life has more value than the life of a child, then I will make my choices based on that belief. If I make my decisions based on pure emotion — on how this life will affect me or on what loss I’ll feel when I’m told my child might have Down Syndrome or some other health issue — then a dark wall goes up and it is very hard to see through that wall.

The only thing I will see or feel is loss and hurt.Randy2

But if I believe all life has value and that value is given — thankfully! — by God and that we are all beautiful in his eyes and that every life is a precious gift from God, that changes everything.

Laura and I thank God for good medical care. We’ve all needed it over the years. But medical care can’t define for me what makes a life. And prenatal testing that is presented as medical care is creating an epidemic. The dictionary meaning of “epidemic” is “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time.”

A recent study by Gert Gegraff, Frank Bucklya nd Brian Skotco, published in the Journal of Modern Genetics, contains some startling facts from Europe. Between 2008 – 2012 (taking into account the 35% diagnosed after birth) there were 4288 live births, 231 natural fetal deaths, and 5215 terminations of children with Down Syndrome.

That means more than 65% of children with Down Syndrome in Europe were killed in a four-year stretch because of a chromosome disorder.

In the United States, abortion after prenatal testing has reduced the Down Syndrome population by 30%. That means there are at least 30% fewer children like Matthew in our country, just because they are like Matthew. And that number only reflects the population of living children. The abortion rate is likely higher than 30%. One study puts it closer to 67%.

Does this seem like an epidemic to you? If there were any other group of people who were being — quite frankly — killed off at that rate it would be called genocide. Countries have gone to war to stop genocide.

In a 2011 article by Brian Skotco, entitled, “Will America Cull People with Down Syndrome?” the author cites a study concluding that 99% of parents say they truly love their son or daughter with Down Syndrome. 88% of brothers and sisters say they are better people because of a sibling with Down Syndrome. People with Down Syndrome also spoke up, with 99% saying they are happy with their lives and 97% saying they like who they are.

How many of the rest of us can say that?

I have wanted to share our experience of raising a child with Down Syndrome, being open and honest and sharing the good along with the bad — although the good far outweighs the bad. But the most important thing to us is watching Matthew grow up in a church family. Watching his faith grow, hearing people say how much he has helped them … that has been priceless.

I do not know the extent to which Matthew understands his faith, but what I do know is that he has faith and that God uses him in ways I can not comprehend. His faith and how he uses it is obviously something pretty special between him and God.

Dr. Adrienne Asche, a disabilities rights activist who was herself blind from birth, once wrote, “The only thing prenatal diagnosis can provide is a first impression of who a child will be. Making such a radical decision as to end the life of a child based upon a first impression is a most horrible and violent form of discrimination. It has no place in an American society that is committed to ending discrimination in any form.”

When I think of MRandy1atthew’s life, the lives he has touched and how the world is a far better place with him in it, I can only imagine how much better the world would be if all the lives lost due to abortion were given the chance at life

— Randy Henning, Evans, GA.

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Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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This is a game-changer.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a challenge worth taking seriously.

Start with these three ideas from Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Church, Hawaii):

1. 80% of what you do every day could be done by anyone.
2. 15% of what you do every day could be done by someone else with a little coaching.
3. 5% of what you do is stuff only you can do. How you spend that 5% matters.

Then consider these four stats from a LifeWay study:

4. 1 in 5 Americans – 20% – has read through the Bible once.
5. 39% – a little more than a third – of church-going Christians read the Bible regularly.
6. The number one indicator of spiritual growth is a habit of daily Bible reading.
7. People who attend a small group are twice as likely to read their Bible daily.

Put those three ideas together with those four stats and consider your next move:

8. Bible reading is not in the 80% or even in the 15%. No one else can read the Bible for you and create spiritual growth in your life.
9. A choice to read your Bible daily will do more than just about anything else to create the conditions for spiritual growth in your life.
10. If enough Christians made that choice, and enough Americans made that choice, think about the impact that could have on the Church and our country. If you are concerned about the direction of our country, the spiritual atmosphere of your home or your personal spiritual health, then start with your own habit of Bible reading.

That’s the 5% you control, that no one else can. And this habit is a game-changer. If you want to get started with a Bible reading plan, download YouVersion (it may show up as a Life.Church app with a “Holy Bible” icon). Search for the Life Journal reading plan or the First Steps reading plan. I recommend either one. If you get stuck, send a comment and I’ll help.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a habit that could change the spiritual atmosphere.

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Six ways to breed sanity into your life

That strain we feel — like we’re walking against the tide — has an explanation. We are all trying to get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We are all straining toward our created design.

On the other side of the fall line, relationships are transparent, we serve one another well, and dysfunction is not even in the vocabulary. So we will recognize that glorious world when we get to it, what if we were to practice a little Genesis 2 living now?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop being polite.

If you want to release some sanity into your life (and into the lives of those around you), stop being polite and start speaking from a deeper place of love and prophetic imagination. As southern as I am, I’m pretty convinced that southern politeness is not a feature of holy living. I’m not talking about common courtesy, or even the kind of patience that endures rude people in a store. I’m talking about the difference between the kind of politeness that works against deep love. Deep love will always lead us toward truth; southern politeness will often lead us away from it.

When we learn to be both gracious and honest with one another, we stifle the enemy’s options for control. When we learn to speak prophetically into each other’s lives (honestly, hopefully, spiritually), we release the Holy Spirit to move and create both transformation and trust. Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you release on earth will be released in heaven …”

Don’t tolerate crazy.

Think about how it would impact your relationships if you refused to keep tolerating other people’s crazy. You’d stop letting people cancel on you at the last minute. You’d have no tolerance at all for passive aggression (which I believe is straight from the enemy of our soul). You’d expect people to honor your time as you honor theirs. You wouldn’t let folks chronically complain about situations without challenging them to move forward. And when others are letting “crazy” make their decisions, you wouldn’t let southern politeness rob them of your deep concern for them. Doesn’t that sound like a much more sane way to live?

Hear me on this: Care what happens to other people. Care deeply. Let your heart be broken for other people. But don’t tolerate crazy. Genuine, mature compassion will always cause us to care enough about a person’s sin that we’re motivated not to let them stay there. Love without accountability is a socially accepted form of abuse that malforms people spiritually.

Stop making excuses.

Paul the Apostle announced more than once that he was focused on the future. He’d say, “Forgetting what is behind (I strain) toward what is ahead …” That is a great mental posture to take toward life. “Forgetting what lies behind” is refusing regret a voice in our life. “Straining toward what is ahead” is putting processes in place that allow room for new habits. Straining toward what is ahead is deciding that what we thought was inconceivable is actually doable so we set goals, then we get accountability so we can stay with those goals.

Accountability is committing to transformation. After all, Jesus didn’t come into his ministry saying, “Talk about your junk and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” He said, “Repent and believe.” In other words, own your junk and move on.

Decide not to be lazy. 

I don’t know who said it first, but I like this: “Discipline is choosing between what I want now and what I want most.” The answer to that inner wrestling between what we want now and what we want most is best answered with discipline. As Kevin Watson says, “Some things need to be predictable.” If what I want most requires a change in my life and a commitment to daily discipline, then I have some choices to make and the first choice may be to stop being lazy.

Stop having good ideas.

Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions, so here’s my wisdom for myself and anyone else who fits this category: stop chasing good ideas and start pursuing disciplines. Disciplines keep us from distractions that aren’t meant for us, while chasing every good idea will only keep us in mental chaos and rob us of rest.

Get yourself an external hard drive.

If you want to breed more sanity into your life, find someone who will speak prophetically (which means, “honestly, hopefully, and spiritually”) into your life. To grow spiritually, you need someone external to yourself who will not be polite, who will not tolerate your crazy, who will not ignore your lazy, who will challenge your bottomless capacity for good ideas, and who will tell you what is sane and moral and biblical.

So here’s the real point to this whole post: To breed sanity is to be disciplined, and to be disciplined is to be in community. My friends, this is how we get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We learn to lean into each other in community and we get serious about serving one other from a loving, honest, holy place.

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Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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