Stay in it (part one)

Do you have books on your bookshelf just for the title? You haven’t even read the book and aren’t sure you need to; the title all by itself is enough. One of those books for me is Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That title was a revelation about sanctification. It is obedience over feeling. Just stay with it. This is not waiting for something to happen. This is staying power. A long obedience.

Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward basically defined my vocation. It taught me everything I needed to know about Wesleyan theology — personal holiness, social holiness — and what healthy community looks like. This is Wesleyan theology. It is a journey inward that feeds the journey outward.

Just this month I had another one of those moments, but it wasn’t a book title. It was a song title. Iris DeMent is the artist who sings it right; the composer is Sanford Massengill. The song is, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world. I will go ahead and warn you now (because you’ll want to look it up) that the theology breaks down in the song lyrics but the title by itself saves me all over again.

I don’t want to get adjusted to this world.

It puts into words that low-level uneasiness I have with so much that passes for acceptable in our culture. I’m not talking about the coarsening of society or what most middle-aged people think about social media. I’m talking about that thing that sits in my gut that says pastoring must be more art than technique, that my passion for it must run deeper than the anxiety generated by whoever’s blog pops up on my newsfeed with the title, “Five things you have to do now before your church implodes.”

Discipleship must be more organic than commercial farming. A relationship with Jesus is meant be fertilized with intrigue over all there is to know about God, not with a growing pile of shoulds and oughts.

(Can we just acknowledge that the word “should” sounds a lot like fertilizer? And I don’t need any more fertilizer in my life!)

Passions are not stoked with “shoulds” and “oughts” and I don’t want to get adjusted to that kind of world that runs on anxiety and shame instead of real adventure and bold, holy mistakes. So how do I stay in it without getting to adjusted to it?

The problem with the song, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, is that the lyrics wander off into a kind of escapism that masquerades as longing for Jesus when really, its just, “Get me out of this!” I know that kind of escapism. I’m prone to it.

I was talking to someone not too long ago who’d had a season of professional ministry in his past. It was a good season for him, but in the end he had to leave it. He’d gone through a divorce and needed a better-paying job and something more than youth ministry to keep the boat floating. But its been a few years now and he’s discouraged. He looks back on those youth ministry days with a kind of longing. He was trying to get me to sympathize so he said, “Imagine someone told you that you were doing great but you needed to step down from your ministry any way, and so for six months they told you that you needed to stay clear of that ministry, and that you couldn’t talk to anyone or make any decisions. How would that make you feel?”

I have to be real here. In that moment (maybe it had been a bad day), that sounded wonderful to me. All I could think was, Really? Are you kidding?! I’d kill for that.”

So yes … I understand escapism. But that is not what Paul was after when he told us not to get adjusted to this world. Paul said (Romans 12:2), “Don’t copy (conform to) the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Not by changing the circumstances, but by changing the way we process them. Not by getting us out of it (whatever ‘it” is), but by changing our perspective on what is. Thats the point — not escape but transformation. It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down rather than from the ground up. And the power to stay in it lies within the Holy Spirit. We seek his presence because he is the one with power to change our perspective. David Thomas says, “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

Let that sink in: “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

This is Wesleyan Holiness at its best: It is a call to live a holy life under the influence of a Holy Spirit who leads us into greater and deeper love.

I wonder what thing you’ve got right now that you’re hoping to escape? What situation seems so radioactive that what you’d really like is to run, even if the alternative probably isn’t life-giving? What thing seems too big, too hard, too much … toxic?

Can I encourage you to stay in it and allow the Holy Spirit to turn that toxic space into holy ground? Can I challenge you to stay in it until you’re able to see it as God sees it? That’s no guarantee that it isn’t hard or bad or not his best, but it is a challenge to stay open to the possibility that he can work all things together for good. Or that maybe this hard thing is exactly your next step if you’re going to sink into the deeper places where you can be loved and face your stuff.

Friends, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, because the world has met its quota of tired souls who’d rather just escape, but  the Kingdom Church is starving — and the fields are white — for Spirit-filled followers who are willing to stay in it … to have their minds transformed and their world views altered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Read More

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.

Read More

The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

Read More


God can redeem anything. Any wound, rejection, loss … anything.

Last week, the story of Harvey Weinstein’s gross perversion was published, resulting in a groundswell of testimony on social media in the form of two simple words: Me too. If I know anything about the spiritual realm, I’m guessing those two words are taking back territory the enemy thought he had long since conquered. After all, John 3 tells us that things that remain in the dark belong to the enemy of our souls, while things brought into the light belong to Jesus. Most women I know have felt unheard and their stories unvalidated for so long that they’ve learned to leave them tucked away in some dark recess — unvoiced, unvalidated, unexposed. Those stories remain unknown mostly because many women have learned by experience not to cast pearls, so there in the dark, their stories fester and breed shame.

But God … 

Now we have this story about a guy who over decades has used his power to manipulate and molest women. Out of this exposure of a professional predator, a platform has emerged allowing women to stand up and be counted without feeling as if they are on trial. There is a sisterhood in all those “me too’s.” They are two-word witnesses raising old wounds to the surface, allowing women to be heard and their stories validated.

I’m among those women. Molested as a child and raped in college, I have had a first-hand experience of how exposing my story to the healing light of Jesus has produced profound healing in my life. I discovered an undiagnosed anger and found healing from what seemed like an illogical need to please men. My husband received healing, too, when he confessed to Christ his own unforgiveness around those who had hurt me.

He didn’t yell at God or try to justify anything. He just said it like it was. “God, I can’t forgive them.” And in that moment of honesty. God answered so clearly. He said simply, “I was with her the whole time.” The simple truth of that statement was enough to allow Steve to let go of the anger and pain. God knew.

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” My husband, Steve, tells me – and scripture confirms it – that when I experienced a little piece of hell, God never left me alone.

I know firsthand the healing power of Jesus, and can now confidently assure anyone with a “me too” story that there is great joy in the healing power of Jesus Christ. If there is unresolved pain, anger, hurt, shame … Jesus can heal that. He knows you, knows your story, and stands ready to offer healing.

Some of the best news of all is this: There is no shame in Christ! Isn’t that a beautiful freedom? In the light of that truth, our stories become our gift and a pathway to healing, knowing that God has never once turned his face from us.

This is the strength of his grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so he can be there when we finally turn to him. Prevenient grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days and 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 that we feel even years or decades later. God is there through all of it. God has been there the whole time, watching, grieving the pain of it but in his strength, waiting. The Word assures us that he is always more ready to listen than we are to speak, always more ready to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit than we are to reach out for it. There is a reason we call him Emmanuel: God With Us. It is because he is … always.

Hear this: God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once left you alone or rejected you. Not even once. Not even you.

Read More

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

Read More

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.

Read More

You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

Read More

God knows.

God knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God knows I’m not there yet.

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

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

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


Read More

Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in.

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

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

Let your longings work for you.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

(Book of Hours, 159, translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows)*

I’ve been in a season.

The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.

Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.

The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.

A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”

She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).

Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.

But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?

Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.

How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?

Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Transcend. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Deep, with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.

Which is what you were made for.


*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner for passing this poem along. Ruth also deserves credit for asking life-giving questions.

Read More